Chapter 111: Mixed MotivationsAlexandraErin on September 13, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Rule 34 Is Alluded To
I found Hazel without too much difficulty, leaning against the wall just outside Professor Stone’s outer office. By the way the professor lingered in the hall until we were up the stairs, I wondered if he knew about Ariadne’s problem with me. It was also possible he had picked up on my desire to not be alone in the hallway from Hazel’s transparent excuse for accompanying me. A bit of a gallant streak would suit him.
The door to Ariadne’s office was closed, though I could still hear voices from inside it. Maybe she’d decided to shut out as much of my existence as she could, if she couldn’t do anything about it at the moment. The sight of the closed door made me wish I could catch another glimpse of my unexpected support crew… I wanted to know what they were about, exactly, and the most direct way to learn that seemed like it would be finding one of them and asking them about it later.
I tried to conjure up an image of them, but I had only seen them for a moment to begin with and I hadn’t formed a really solid impression of any of them. I could picture a group of elves around Ariadne’s desk but I couldn’t be sure I was actually putting the ones I’d seen in there or just a bunch of generic elves cobbled together from the ones I’d seen around the Arch.
Not noticing the people around me was too deeply ingrained a habit to break all at once.
Well, I couldn’t have gone peeking in the little window pane even if Professor Stone hadn’t been standing there, so I just said bye to the professor and started for the stairs.
“Things go off okay in there?” Hazel asked me as we moved away.
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, the problem’s not fixed but I’m not in trouble, so…”
I let things trail off there, because there was no sense repeating the whole story twice, once for Hazel and anyone with elven hearing and then again for everybody else.
It occurred to me that elves living in or interacting with the society of other mortal races probably spent a lot of time pretending that they were privy to far less than they actually were. Elves weren’t exactly a hive mind because that suggested they were unified in some fashion, but among themselves it probably could be expected that everyone knew everyone else’s business outside of areas where precautions against eavesdropping were taken. I wondered how they managed.
My hearing at its best wasn’t elven-good, and I didn’t think anything in my makeup would let me process distant conversations the way that Dee could. Still, if I was going to go around my ears perked up I’d probably have to be prepared to hear things I didn’t particularly want or need to know. If somebody was actively plotting out loud to attack me in the next few minutes that would be a good thing to know, but would it actually help anyone if I started hearing every muttered remark about me again?
Everyone was looking at me expectantly when we got back upstairs. They’d already left the dining area and were just hanging around.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said, since I could practically feel Professor Ariadne’s awareness of me. It was kind of like the opposite of when your ears are burning because somebody’s talking about you… my tongue felt heavy, knowing her ears were downstairs.
“Good idea, it’s a nice afternoon,” Amaranth said.
“Nice” for Amaranth always meant sunny, which meant that Dee hiked the cowl of her hood up and pulled it down low over her face before we went out.
She didn’t complain, though… the custom among her people was to wear the cowl in public regardless of lighting. She’d gone through a gradual transition during our freshman year from pretty much always having it on outside of her room to the more relaxed standard she used now, which seemed to be about how she felt as much as anything else.
Her ideas about modesty weren’t necessarily stricter than human ones, just different. Depending on the context, she could have absolutely no problem with appearing naked in front of a crowd. But in normal day-to-day… or shift-to-shift, as the sunless elves would say… life, it was considered vulgar to reveal what one was thinking through face or body language.
In pushing back the cloak and cowl more often, I don’t think she was actually rejecting her cultural idea of privacy… it was more that she’d realized that the average surface-dweller would never be able to read anything in her face that she didn’t want them to anyway.
That was my best guess. She’d never explained her choice and I’d never asked, even when she left the cloak in her room one day and wrapped herself up in it like a shroud the next. It was just her choice, like how Steff sometimes wore shapeless clothes that kind of hung off her body without suggesting one gender or another, and sometimes wore very feminine things that clung to and emphasized her curves.
“So, Professor Stone was pretty understanding about the whole deal,” I said when we’d put some distance between ourselves and the Archimedes Center. “He had some interesting background on living buildings, but nothing really solidly useful… he has offered to help if I need it, but he’s not sure what he could do specifically and I got the feeling he’d be more impressed if I at least try to solve this myself first.”
“Did you get that feeling from him, or did you get it because you’re smarting from yesterday?” Hazel asked.
“I might have been a bit more sensitive to the subtext after yesterday, but even if I had imagined it entirely this would still be the right move,” I said. “It’s not like he has a wand of building control tucked away… that’s more or less his own words… and we have a plan that’s more solid than what he was offering. And on the subject of that plan, it’s not like I’m stomping off to confront her alone. I’ll be going with Amaranth.”
“Actually, wasn’t the idea that I go first and try to smooth things over without you?” Amaranth said.
“Yeah, but I want to be present,” I said. “Not within her mental space or aura or whatever, but close enough to see and hear what’s happening.”
“I’m not going to be talking out loud, baby,” Amaranth said.
“I meant more if something goes wrong,” I said. “Like… if you need help.”
Nobody said anything about this, but I had an inescapable feeling that everyone was thinking about Hazel’s question.
Or maybe I was just overly sensitive to subtext.
“I’m not sure what’s the more important question here,” Steff said. “‘What can you do against a building?’ is oil-wrestling with ‘What can a building do to her?’ and there’s no clear winner except for the audience.”
“I want your imagination,” Ian said.
“No, you really don’t,” Steff said.
“…no, I probably don’t,” Ian agreed.
“I’m not really expecting anything worse than possibly having to drag Amaranth out of range,” I said. “Which I know I can do, and since I’ve experienced Emily’s… wrath… before I think I’d be okay at dealing with a brief exposure to it, if necessary.”
“What if you have to get rough with… her?” Ian said. “Think about how that would look.”
“Yeah, I don’t think anybody wants to see a building get spanked,” Steff said.
“Actually… well, I mean, there are people who like spanking, and there are people who like buildings,” Amaranth said. “I haven’t met anyone who has those interests combined in exactly that fashion, but it is a big world.”
“What I mean is… a half-demon knocking a hole in a beloved edifice wouldn’t, uh, play very well,” Ian said.
“I can’t really imagine any circumstance where I’d have to get physical, since we’re pretty sure that Emily can’t get physical,” I said. “As long as Amaranth is outside, getting her away will always be the easier option. But you know, if I had to choose between saving Amaranth’s life and worrying about my public image, I’d save her and hire a PR consultant afterwards.”
“I don’t expect things to get rough, either, but if it seems like they are… remember I’m not actually very mortal,” Amaranth said. “I mean, you’ve seen some of the things my body can heal from, and you know this body is ultimately disposable.”
“I know,” I said.
I didn’t actually expect that Amaranth would need me to ride in to her rescue. Professor Stone had more or less established that Emily wouldn’t be able to lash out physically, and the amount of harm she could do with mental tricks to somebody who was standing outside her walls was probably pretty limited. But this was my problem, and even if I was delegating the solution to someone with the right abilities
A worrying thought had wriggled its way into my brain, though… if anyone could hurt Amaranth in a real way without having access to her field, they’d probably have to do it by attacking her spirit. She’d never mentioned it as a possibility, but it probably had never come up. If she did wind up in a fight with a more ethereal genius… well, that could be just the opportunity to learn.
“So, what did you make of the unexpected honor guard?” Hazel asked.
“Right, and how about letting those of us with human-y hearing in on the secret?” Amaranth said.
“A group of elves had Ariadne corralled in her office while we went past,” I said. “Professor Stone said they were a poetry club, but I don’t know if that’s an actual thing he recognized them as or if he was guessing. You didn’t happen to overhear them talking about what they were doing or anything like that, did you, Dee?”
“I did not,” she said. “When I first became aware of multiple voices in the vicinity of the downstairs hall, I did not count it as a positive sign, especially as they were all elven voices and seemed to be known to Professor Ariadne… but when I heard her try to move them on and they all pretended to miss the hint, I began to suspect they had an agenda that aligned with yours.”
“Why would that be, though?” I asked. “I wouldn’t think being friends with you or Steff would exactly endear me to the elven student body at large.”
“Well, I wouldn’t take this as a sign to count on the friendly support of any elf you run across,” Steff said. “All you know is that this one small group was on your side, in this case, against Professor Ariadne… which might mean that they’re more interested in messing with her than helping you. Or they might be making mischief on principle. If they see a chance to intervene again they could just turn around and fuck with you. Could you tell if they were all boys or girls, or if it seemed like a mixture?”
“All girls,” I said.
“Did they have masks or scarves in front of their lower faces?” she asked.
“Some of them did,” I said.
“Okay, in the highly sophisticated and evolved elven society, that’s code for ‘this is not a cockhole’,” Steff said. “Some younger elves can be really hardcore about the whole ‘team’ thing… if they were all girls, then it might be that your reputation as a lesbian or Ariadne’s known hetero tendencies brought them around to your side.”
“Some of them were dressed… kind of woodsman chic, though,” I said. “Isn’t that usually to attract boys?”
“The other kind of mixed company, huh?” Steff said. “Okay. That’s kind of good news, because if they were all hanging out together then they are probably less bugbear insane than some, and if you have to have an elf in your corner you really don’t want it to be one of the crazy ones.”
“Yeah, I think we all remember the Semele incident,” Ian said.
“I don’t remember the second half of it,” Hazel said.
“I don’t remember any of it,” Two said.
“You weren’t there, love,” Hazel said.
“Ruling out sexual partisanship or emotional imbalance does leave us no less bedazzled as to a motivation,” Dee said. “Though it still may be nothing more complicated than a dislike of Professor Ariadne. We have a saying about the surface elves… though I would hesitate to repeat it on the surface.”
“Go ahead and say it,” Steff said. “We probably say worse things about you.”
“Very well,” Dee said. “It would be translated more or less thusly: eight individuals, nine agendas.”
“Yeah… we do actually have a really similar saying,” Steff said. “Ours is also about us, but we say ‘two elves, three factions’… so I’m not sure if you’re giving us more credit or less, but the basic idea is the same.”
“Did you recognize any of their voices?” I asked Steff.
“I could maybe point them out to you if I see one of them around and they’re talking, but I only ever got to know a very small number of the female elves in Treehome,” she said. “And most of them were of the variety you would not want on your side.”
“Okay, well, I think this is going to be a ‘one thing at a time’ thing,” I said. “I really don’t want to risk being pulled into some plot or adolescent elven intrigue… so for now, unless one of them says something to me I think I’m going to ignore it and just kind of move on.”
“But don’t you want to know what’s going on?” Ian asked.
“Well… yeah,” I said. “But unless it’s going to help me figure out how to beat a disarmingly polite tiny kobold with a stick or talk to a building that hates and fears me, I don’t need to figure it out now… I have real problems to deal with.”