In Which Broccoli Is Disdained
The student union was a building the size of a small shopping mall, and like a shopping mall, it had its own food court. I found it odd that most of the fast food stands on campus would be located in a nook right off of the main dining hall, but what did I know?
“I don’t understand why they need both a Burger President and a White House,” Barley said as we walked past the food court. “Don’t they both sell hamburgers?”
“I don’t know, I think they’re different kinds,” Amaranth said. She looked at the rest of us, but we just shrugged.
Puddy said, “Fuck if I know.”
I guess none of us were the burger type.
“You know, I should probably go get this taken care of,” I said, holding up the ticket I’d been given. “I don’t know how late the bursar’s office will be open on Saturday, and it’ll probably be closed tomorrow, and it’s got to be done before classes on Monday. I don’t really have the money, but maybe they can put me on some sort of plan…”
“Hold on, I’ve got this,” Puddy said, grabbing the ticket away from me. She fished a gold coin… she was actually carrying a gold coin around with her… out of her pocket and handed it to Two, along with my ticket. “Exact change, even. Take this down to the bursar’s office, and get it taken care of,” she said. “Then come back up here and find us inside the dining hall.”
“Okay,” Two said dully, heading away.
“Puddy!” I said. “She’s not a servant… and that’s a lot of money to just throw around.”
“Yeah, and now it’s a lot of money that you owe me,” she said. “Besides, if I let you go wandering off now, you’d just dawdle so you could hang out alone somewhere until it was too late for lunch. Now, come on… we’re doing this.”
There was a clerk at the entrance to the dining hall. His eyes widened a bit at the naked nymphs… then narrowed at Celia… but he waved a wand over our cards as we passed without comment.
“Too bad we couldn’t find Shiel,” Puddy said. “The rest of us look too human to make an effective point.”
“Speak for yourself,” Celia said, flicking her tongue out at her.
The main dining hall was a big room. There were a series of food counters with hot dishes under glass along one side of the room, each counter set at a different angle so that each one could form its own line. There were also a pair of identical salad bars, and a dessert island. I looked at the soft serve box longingly… I was still slowly getting hungrier, but maybe it was too soon after the experiment with the doughnut to try eating again.
The tables were laid out in an organic, or haphazard, fashion. Some were round and some were rectangular, and they seemed designed to fit any size of group… though not any size of person. The chairs and tables were all proportioned for humans. There were a stack of booster seats on a shelf by the door, but I couldn’t really picture a goblin or kobold deigning to use one. A shireling, maybe. They didn’t seem as easily affronted.
If it hadn’t been for Amaranth’s talk about subtle discrimination, I might not have attached any significance to the fact that while the booster seats were set out where anybody could take one, the shelf they were on was too high for any of the shorter races to reach them. Any small folk who wanted to eat in the dining room would have to ask for help.
“I’ll go get a table,” I said, heading for the furthest corner back from the entrance. Since I wasn’t going to be eating, I could at least pick where we’d sit.
“Hold on, let’s make sure we’re somewhere that everybody can see,” Puddy said, grabbing my arm and steering me towards a big round table in the dead center of the room. Fuck. I’d forgotten that she wouldn’t have any food to get, either.
“Hey, I’m not sitting anywhere that doesn’t have a wall behind me,” Celia said. She pointed, right in the direction I’d been headed. “Go get that table over there.”
“Aw, fuck!” Puddy said. She swore a lot, but there was more emphatic feeling behind it this time. I think it really irked her to be overruled by anybody. “And she’s the most inhuman of us… if she doesn’t sit with us, it ruins the whole effect.” She was almost whining, but she trudged towards the table Celia had insisted on. It was in a row of tables located right up next to the rear wall. They had three chairs on the one side, and a long bench running the length of the wall on the other. I slid onto the bench. Puddy took the seat across from me.
“Anyway, you can’t expect much effect to begin with,” I said. I gestured vaguely around the room. The hall was mostly empty. “There’s like almost nobody in here. You and I aren’t even going to eat anything, so can’t we just say we made our point by coming here and then just go?”
“And leave poor Two standing around, looking for us forever?” Puddy asked in a badly exaggerated sympathetic tone. “We couldn’t be so cruel… anyway, it’s Saturday… the last Saturday before classes… so a lot of people are probably sleeping in. It’ll be busier when we come back tonight at dinner, and of course, things’ll really pick up during the week. Hopefully, we’ll have a bigger crowd coming with us from Harlowe, too.”
“Hold on, how often are you planning on doing this?” I asked.
“Every meal,” Puddy said.
“I only have five punches a week in my meal plan!” I said. That was the smallest package they offered.
“Well, you’ll have to get more,” Puddy said. “Remember, Halverson said you can change your plan during the first two weeks.”
“I am not made out of money,” I said.
“Figure out a way to earn some,” Puddy said. “And those fucking toys you’ve got have got to be worth something.”
“No,” I said.
“No, they’re not?” Puddy asked, looking at me fixedly.
“No, I’m not selling them,” I clarified. “And what money I do have has got to go towards fulfilling my… actual dietary requirements, which aren’t exactly cheap.” That was the damned truth, and one of the reasons I was glad I didn’t get hungry that often.
“Well, then, you’ll just have to owe me a little bit more,” Puddy said.
Celia came back. Her tray had a cereal bowl that she’d filled with boiled eggs, and a big glass of milk. She kept as much empty bench between me and her as she could and still be sitting at our table.
“So there is something we mammals can do for you,” Puddy said, eyeing the milk.
“Calcium,” Celia said. She shrugged. “It’s easier than swallowing bones.” She picked up one of the eggs and popped it, shell and all, into her mouth. “And it saves time I’d use regurgitating later… got that from a book of tips for the college bound. Haven’t actually tried the shit myself, yet.” She picked up the glass and took an experimental mouthful. It was interesting to watch her eat and drink. She was obviously, no matter what she said, at least part mammal herself… but when she opened her mouth any wider than she did to speak, her lower face became decidedly inhuman. “Not bad,” she said. She looked from the milk to the exposed breasts of the nymphs, who’d just arrived. “This stuff really comes out of you?”
“Well, not us personally,” Amaranth said. They both looked slightly amused as they set down their trays of wild rice and steamed vegetables. “Ours are more of a symbolic representation than functioning hardware.”
“Ugh, frozen veggies from a factory farm…” Barley said, looking at a piece of broccoli she’d speared with her fork. “I’m never going to get used to this.” She ate it anyway, though.
“So, what exactly are you carrying that you were worried about the guard finding?” I asked Celia.
“Oh, fuck, man… what am I not carrying?” She hauled her bag up onto the bench, looked around to make sure nobody was close, and started pulling little vials out, laying them out on the table. “Check it out, mammals: better living through alchemy. Mostly, I do haste, but I’ve got all kinds of shit… sleeping draughts, waking draughts, wondrous visions… don’t remember what this one is… oh, and here’s some animal communication. Try talking to squirrels for half an hour. That shit’ll mess you up.”
“You got any posh?” Puddy asked, sounding very interested. She stood up came around the table to see better.
“Fuck, you think if I did, I’d be carrying it around?” Celia replied. I decided not to display my ignorance by asking what they were talking about. “I got some pish, though… and here’s a little ecstasy, if anybody’s interested later…”
“Ooh, do you have any agony?” Amaranth asked in an excited whisper. Until that moment, both nymphs had successfully acted as though they couldn’t hear the apothecarial-related conversation.
“Nah, man, but I totally know where you can get it,” Celia said.
“Hey, what’s that?” Puddy asked, pointing inside the sack, at a fat, short jar with a screw-top lid, which Celia had not proffered.
“Huh? Oh, that’s nothing,” Celia said.
“Great, ’cause I’ve been wondering where I could get some nothing,” Puddy said, lunging suddenly and grabbing the bag off the bench. She reached in, pulled out the squat little jar, and let the empty bag drop. She read aloud. “Unguent of depilation… get rid of unsightly problem hair quickly and painless… problem hair?” She looked at Celia. “Oh, my. And here I thought you were a natural.”
“I got a condition,” she said, snatching at the jar while Puddy fended her off. “Runs in my family, all right? I’ve got to rub that stuff on my head twice a week or I fuzz up a little. Don’t make a big deal out of it.”
Puddy turned away from her so she could use both hands to open the jar while still keeping Celia away from it. Celia stood up and danced around behind her, grabbing and clawing at empty air as Puddy moved to keep the jar away.
“Please give it back to her,” I said uncomfortably, feeling bad for Celia and knowing that people would be watching the spectacle. For once, I had good reason… with Celia’s collection of tiny bottles laid out on the table, we faced expulsion or worse if somebody got curious enough to come over.
“Settle down, I just want to see… oh, fuck, this shit smells caustic,” Puddy said, abruptly turning and shoving the open jar directly in my face. “Smell this, Mack.”
I was instantly overwhelmed by a strongly medicinal, acidic smell. I pushed the jar away, knocking it to the table where it landed upside-down. Celia grabbed it, got the lid back from Puddy, and quickly put it away, then scooped up the rest of her bottles back into the bag as well. The stuff in the jar was so thick that none had even spilled on the table.
“Ha ha, everybody have a good laugh at Celia,” the nagakin said. “See if I share my stash with you.”
“But, about the agony…” Amaranth said.
“Amaranth,” Barley said, in a warning tone.
“I’m just curious,” Amaranth said. “So…?”
“So, yeah,” Celia said. “I was hanging out in the downstairs lounge last night, and this guy, Finbar, came down, and he was so obviously wasted, so we started talking, and he’s a third year alchem major. He’s got like a complete lab set up in his room, and he can make all kinds of shit.”
“Doesn’t his roommate complain about the smells?” I asked.
“Doesn’t have one,” Celia said. “Third and fourth year don’t have enough bodies to fill the floor, so they let some of them pay for singles.”
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t say how disappointed I’d been to hear that single rooms weren’t available for us, being that my roommate was right there.
“Anyway, he showed me his set-up,” Celia said. “And he was showing off all the stuff he’s got, including a big ass bottle of agony. He told me he tried it once, just to see what it was like, and hasn’t touched it since, but he’s still got the rest of the batch. He’d probably sell it cheap.” Celia shrugged. “Don’t know why you’d want it. Somebody piss you off that bad?”
“We are nymphs,” Barley said. “We don’t get pissed off.”
“Well, I just wanted… I mean, no real reason,” Amaranth said.
Two showed up then. I scooted in, making room for her… but she just stood there, staring blankly.
“You can sit down,” I said gently.
“Fuckin’ sit,” Puddy said, and she did. Well, she sat, anyway. She didn’t try to interpret the idiomatic portion of the phrase literally, as the funny golem character on a TV show would have. Those shows didn’t seem so funny to me anymore, though.
“Are you hungry?” I asked. She hadn’t got any food.
“Yes,” Two said. Her voice reminded me of a small child who’d cried all the emotion out of her. Not sad, but wanting to be sad… needing to be sad… and unable to do so.
“Go get some food, honey,” Amaranth said. Two started to stand, but I put a hand on her shoulder. Of course, she ignored it and rose anyway.
“Two, stop,” I said, and she did.
I closed my eyes, thinking hard. I knew what I wanted to say, but how to word it? I remembered what I’d read about giving instructions to intelligent enchantments… they might be able to do almost anything, but they had to be told every step explicitly. Two wasn’t an intelligent enchantment, but the same principle could apply. I wanted to help her, but I didn’t want to accidentally give her a command that would get her in trouble later on. She was, technically, a free-willed being. If she took something that didn’t belong to her, or hurt somebody, she’d pay the penalty for it.
“If you are hungry… and food is made legally available to you… and you have no reason to believe the food is not safe… then take as much food as you need, and then eat it,” I said.
“Okay,” Two said, and she turned and went away towards the food counters. It might have been my imagination, but she sounded slightly less resigned when she said it.
“How exactly does a golem become emancipated?” I asked.
“The easiest way to free a golem is for its maker to tell it that it’s free,” Amaranth said. “Essentially, ordering it to do what it wants. Golems that haven’t been given intelligence and a personality just turn inert… the magic that made them is still there, but they can never really be used again because they’ve been effectively ordered to do nothing. Golems with personalities follow whatever the dictates of that personality are. Where somebody else’s personality will inform their actions and decisions, with a freed golem, it pretty much sets the limits of it. Without knowing Two’s history, I’d say her maker had some need for a golem with intelligence, but wanted to avoid the common problem of intelligent servitors subverting or twisting their masters’ orders by making her compulsively servile.”
“So, somebody made a golem… gave her awareness… but then made her actually like following orders… and then set her free?” I asked. I suddenly hated golem makers.
“That’s messed up,” Puddy said.
“That’s fucking demonic,” Celia said. I froze, completely forgetting Two’s plight. Everybody else glared at her. “What? What’d I say?” Celia asked.
“How would you feel if we called her maker a low-down snake?” Amaranth asked.
“I’d fucking bite you,” Celia said. “What’s your point?”
“Tell her, Mack,” Amaranth said gently. I just looked down at my lap and mumbled something that I’m not even sure of. “Well, go on… tell her!” she said, her voice almost fierce. I heard the sound of her palm hitting the table. “Oh, come on, just say it. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“She’s right,” I said quietly. I looked up. “It is demonic.”
Amaranth was looking at me like I’d torched her field.
“It’s a completely, disgustingly evil thing for a person to do,” I said, getting up so quickly I banged my knees on the table and made the plates and glasses clatter and slop their contents onto the table.
“It’s evil, and it’s sick… and it’s wrong… and it’s demonic,” I said, and I ran towards the side door that lead out of the hall into the bright sunlight of the grounds, leaving stunned silence behind me.