In Which Syrup Is Ill-Used
I felt an odd sensation pass through me when our black horseless carriage passed through the market gate of Enwich.
Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. I felt like great knobby hands reached in through all my orifices, grabbed hold of something, and then pulled me inside out. When I say all my orifices, I mean all of them… and not just the ones you’re thinking I mean when I say “when I say all my orifices.” Can you imagine the sensation of something brushing past your eyes like a broad-shouldered warrior type jostling you aside in a narrow hall?
“Oh… sorry!” Steff said, when I cried out. “I totally didn’t think… well, I mean, you look so… um… I wasn’t thinking.”
“What’s wrong?” Amaranth asked. “What happened?”
“Mack just tripped the–no offense–monster detector,” Steff said. “Viktor gets it every time, too. The town walls are warded to keep out the rampaging beasties. Races that aren’t on the town’s green list get held at the border until they get verified… the school’s coaches get a pass through as long as the security enchantments haven’t been broken, but ‘suspect’ race still get hit with a bunch of probe spells.”
“Nice of you to warn me,” I said, still shuddering with the sensation.
“Well, I might have remembered if you were a monster to me,” Steff said, sounding hurt.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I’m sorry, too,” she said, and she leaned across the aisle to give me a quick hug.
It felt weird, being hugged in comfort.
But I thought I could get used to it.
The coach stopped in a little turnaround off a small square, and we disembarked, blinking in the early morning sun. I didn’t know about Amaranth or Two, but this was my first taste of urban life.
The buildings close to the outer edge… or at least, the ones in the area around the market gate… were mostly two and three story town buildings of the old style, crowded close and with the upper floors overhanging the streets to make the best use of the limited space within the walls. We were in a fairly open area and could see modern brick and glass high rises were visible… six, seven, and even eight stories tall… clustered around the center of the burg.
“Do you want to browse around the open bazaar first, or go straight into the Walled Market?” Steff asked. “Or do you guys want to just hang around a bit, maybe see the sights? Such sights as there are, I mean.” She shrugged. “We’re not really on a schedule, you know, so it all depends on what you want to do.”
“I want to do what I’m told,” Two said, in a small, careful voice. “But… I have been instructed that if I’m hungry and there is food available… then I should have a meal.”
“That’s a vote for breakfast,” Steff said. Two made a quiet noise of protest at the characterization. “All in favor?”
Steff raised her own hand, and Amaranth said “Aye!”
“Motion to break fast carries three to zero, with one abstention,” Steff said. She winked at me and said, “You should be taking notes here, Senator Blaise.”
“I’m not a senator yet,” I said. “I mean… am I even still running?”
This seemed like a valid question to me. After all, I’d been manipulated, goaded, and just plain bullied by Puddy into running to represent the girls’ side of Harlowe Hall’s fifth floor in the student senate… if I wasn’t going to let her push me around any more, didn’t that mean I should withdraw from the race she’d forced me into?
“That’s up to you, sweetie,” Amaranth said, bending to give me a kiss on the cheek.
Well, that was seventeen distinct kinds of helpful. I wondered why it couldn’t be up to her, but I wasn’t about to say that. Amaranth and Steff were both kind of looking at me expectantly, though, so I figured I should say something.
I could say I’d think it over.
Yes, in fact… I would say that.
“Why can’t it be up to you?” I asked Amaranth, to the surprise of nobody who might be reading this. Why did my voice always sound so whiny, so petulant when I was saying things I hadn’t meant to?
“Oh, honey!” Amaranth said, in a combination of her “how cute” and “how sad” voices. That’s me, I thought. Cutely sad, or maybe sadly cute. “Just because you’re mine doesn’t mean I can live your life. Your decision to run or not could set the course of the rest of the school year.”
“But hey, no pressure,” Steff said, giggling.
Steff led the way from the arrival plaza to a little cafe she knew. The hostess’s eyes widened at the sight of Amaranth. She composed herself quickly, but then gave me a funny look. At least, I thought she did… she might have been looking at something just behind me, or just over my head. I was probably being paranoid. Even if the entire school probably knew me as the freaky lesbian demon girl by now, there was no reason to think I had a reputation outside its grounds.
Our server was male, and I expected him to goggle at Amaranth… or at least at one of the other pretty blondes… but instead, his eyes seemed to fix on me, even after I told him I just wanted water. I wasn’t going to drink it, but I would have felt even weirder ordering nothing. Amaranth requested orange juice and a whole grain waffle (hold the butter), Steff got tea and a cheese omelet, and Two had banana nut waffles with butter pecan syrup, which she also poured into her hot chocolate when it arrived.
When I expressed surprise at this, she quickly said, “I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood its purpose,” and pushed the cup away, making me feel bad. Amaranth told her to drink it anyway. Though she very clearly enjoyed it, I didn’t feel any better. Since I hadn’t got any food, I didn’t really have anything to take my mind off my gaffe. I looked around for a topic of conversation.
“You know, I’m kind of half surprised we didn’t have to argue our way in,” I said, indicating Amaranth’s naked form… which, in deference to the public setting, I wasn’t sitting on. “I mean, I know the law’s on your side, but restaurants usually look for shirts and shoes, and I don’t imagine they get a lot of nymphs.”
“This place is kind of a hang out for uni students,” Steff said, shrugging. “They don’t bat an eye, mostly.”
“Oh,” I said. Topic exhausted. I wasn’t much of a conversationalist. Hopefully, somebody else would think of something to talk about.
“So, have you given any more thought to running?” Steff said. Hopefully, I’d learn to be more specific in my hopes. “I’d vote for you, if I could.”
“I think I might like to vote for you, even if I didn’t have to,” Two said, then immediately winced as if in physical pain. I winced, too. Another unsolicited opinion was a positive sign… but if it caused her that much distress, was it really worth it? I wondered if we weren’t pushing her towards independence too far, too fast.
“I’ll love you no matter what you do,” Amaranth said.
“You love every…” I started to say, but she shushed me with her finger on my lips.
“I love you,” she said. There was a flash of fierceness behind her glasses when she said this. “And everybody, but I don’t love everybody like I love you, and you know that… don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said meekly when she removed her finger. “Um… I guess it would help if I knew for sure who was running. I know Sooni was… but if there was somebody else I could get behind, I’d feel better about dropping out.”
“You know, I don’t really know,” Amaranth said. “I guess it probably came up at the floor meeting, but I had a pretty full work load since I knew I’d be going out today.”
“Hee,” Steff said. “‘Load.'”
“Oh, be quiet,” Amaranth said, though she giggled.
“Um, did you go to the meeting, Two?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m instructed to go every week.”
“Do you know if anybody is running besides Sooni and me?” I asked.
“Nobody,” she said.
“Wonderful,” I said. “So I either have to run, or hand the election to Sooni.”
“I think she’d probably do alright,” Amaranth said. “For one thing, she’s always so polite… and her friends all seem to really look up to her.”
“They’re terrified of her,” I said. “She beats them and treats them like slaves.”
“Oh, stop,” Amaranth said. “Honey, sometimes when people have a hard time admitting their own issues, they try to deal with them by projecting…”
“I’m not projecting!” I said. “I’ve seen her. She calls them…”
“Do not interrupt people when they are talking to you!” Amaranth said severely. It wasn’t her voice of command. It wasn’t her tone of dominance. She was pissed. I shrank away… not afraid of her, but afraid of what I might say and whether it would drive another wedge between us. The fire died in her eyes. “Oh, honey!” she exclaimed, pulling me towards her and up into her lap.
It was a tighter fit than in the dining hall, since the benches and the table were bolted to the floor, but I didn’t mind.
That was the last we said about Sooni, and by extension, the election, for a while. Steff filled the gap by talking about her exploits around town the previous year. I didn’t object when the topic drifted occasionally to sex… as seemed necessary, given the speaker.
The talk continued as we left the cafe, and it seemed to me like Amaranth and Steff were capable of keeping up a stream of interested and interesting babble without much concern for an actual topic. It kind of mystified me, how one remark of Steff’s about a particular little shop she loved could remind Amaranth of something she read about Gnomish pottery which would remind Steff of a story involving her great-grandmother’s porcelain cookie jar, and neither of them seemed to notice or care that the other was never talking about the same thing as they were.
The town of Enwich was both less human than the university in its racial makeup but somehow more human in character. I’d got used to seeing reptile folk and various wildmen and half-ogres and such in the dining hall and around Harlowe, but there was no such shocking diversity on the Enwich streets. Humanity’s closest allies, the elves and dwarves, were present in some abundance… not full-blooded elves, like Professor Ariadne… but with less immediate human ancestry than Steff evinced. She’d always struck me as being willowy, but she was noticeably broader shouldered and thicker-limbed than any of the elf maids we passed.
We also passed a couple big burly golems, unloading crates from a cart. Unlike Two, they were of untransmuted clay, and had only a single symbol on their forehead… the tree of life. They were simple creations, with no will, no personality, and no chance of any existence other than servitude. I felt a chill in my spine when I looked at them. I glanced at Two, but if she felt anything towards the dumb things, she didn’t show it.
Steff, who was leading, quickened her pace anyway, and we left the constructs behind us.
As our party included a beautiful, well-endowed, nude figure of a woman with hair of shining gold, I wasn’t that surprised that we attracted attention from even the cosmopolitan town dwellers. I was surprised at how many people seemed oddly fixated on me, rather than her. I kept wanting to smooth down my borrowed skirt, to make sure that my lack of underwear wasn’t showing… but it seemed to be my face, or maybe my hair, that was so interesting. I turned to ask Two if something was wrong with my hair, and the sight of the three signs of power on her forehead reminded me what was written on my own.
That’s why people aren’t staring at the nymph, I thought. They’re too busy staring at the nymph’s toy.
The thought made me simultaneously proud and embarrassed. As the town continued to wake up, the streets became busier and the stares continued to come. I felt the strange stirring and shifting down below, like my… like parts of me were being rearranged, somehow… or waking from a long nap, yawning and stretching. The feeling was becoming familiar, yet remained unfamiliar.
I also more keenly felt my nakedness beneath the skirt, and my footsteps started to sound in my head like, “dir-ty, dir-ty, dir-ty.” Or maybe it was “nymph’s-toy, nymph’s-toy, nymph’s-toy.” The two sounds kept just threatening to drown each other out.
My whole body was bright red and my eyes were to the ground… the only thing that kept me from bending almost all way over was the thought that this might make my skirt rise. Finally, after what must have been a lot less time than it seemed, we stopped walking, and I looked up and got my first look at the bazaar of Enwich.