Chapter 116: Still Life With KoboldAlexandraErin on October 9, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Does For Herself
It didn’t hit me until I was mostly done changing back into my street clothes that I’d had no self-consciousness about changing in class.
Sure, shucking my jeans and pulling on a pair of sweats wasn’t exactly doing a striptease and it wasn’t even like I had an audience, but it was still the sort of thing that would have left me feeling awkward and fumbly for some time after, in the past. Changing for physical classes in high school had always been a special ordeal, even when it was clear that no one in the locker room was looking at me.
Despite my occasional misadventures in the area of clothing, it wasn’t that I was so used to public nudity that the thought of stripping down to my skivvies.. or nearly so, since I hadn’t changed my bottoms out until my top was sorted… didn’t do anything to me. It was more that my brain recognized a wider range of acceptable contexts now, or maybe I’d just become that much better at compartmentalizing. Changing for a class wasn’t the same as an accidental exposure and thus wasn’t embarrassing, and it wasn’t the same as someone just deciding to drop their pants, and therefore it was acceptable…
“Those go up to your waist and then you snap the button,” Pala said
“What?” I said, jumping. She was looking over the top of the screen.
“You look like you forgot what to do with your trousers,” she said with the kind of perfect sincerity that only a few people I knew could have brought to the situation. “Or that you’re over-thinking it? That happens, too.”
“I actually kind of was, I guess,” I said. “Thanks for bringing me back down to earth.”
“I try to stay grounded,” she said. “Sometimes, I need help.”
She shrugged. I realized that I was the last one out of the room, not counting the other gladiators. I figured that she wanted me out so they could talk about whatever they needed to talk about for the next class, so I finished getting dressed, gathered up my things, and headed out.
“Are you going back to Gilcrease?”
The voice seemed to come out of nowhere, but only because I wasn’t looking down for once. Still, Nae’s soft, flinty tones were pretty hard to mistake, and my long experience with voices actually coming out of nowhere stopped me from jerking more than a little in surprise.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Not for long, though… I’m going to dinner with my friends after that.”
“Do you mind if I walk near you?” she asked. “I prefer to stick close to someone I know.”
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t ask why she didn’t want to be alone… I could think of plenty of reasons, and it really didn’t matter if any or all or none of them were true.
“Thank you,” she said.
The thought that this might be related to our current forced rivalry in class did prickle at the back of my mind, but I couldn’t think of any advantage she could glean by just hanging out with me for a few minutes. If she wanted to study how I moved, she could have just walked behind me.
“Does anybody ever give you trouble?” I asked. It was maybe shading over into prying into her business, but it seemed like a harmless enough question.
“Trouble?” she asked.
“I mean, waving a sword at you or acting afraid of you,” I said. I knew that Shiel and Oru, the goblinoids who’d started at MU during my freshman year, refrained from going out after dark to avoid the fate of “monsters” who encounter an overzealous would-be hero… but I also knew from my own experience going back years how that sort of thing could play out by the light of day.
We were monsters, therefore we were dangerous and feared, therefore we were hated, therefore we could be mocked and cruelly provoked… and if we responded? That just proved we were dangerous.
“Mostly, I get left alone,” she said. “I’m good at not being noticed. I learned something from Hazel.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Hold up a second,” she said, and I stopped.
Then she stopped, too.
“…does Hazel know you can do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know if Hazel knows that she can do it,” she said, the effect dissolving as soon as she opened her mouth to speak. It was a good point. Gnomes were known for their stealth, but it was less a skill than a way of being… there was something like an aura of oblivion around them, and they always seemed to be oblivious about it themselves, no matter how canny or swift on the uptake they could be on any other subject. “I just watch her when she goes still, and then I… do what she does. I mean, I’ve never exactly been very forward, you know, but this is different.”
“Could you do it again?” I asked. I wanted to get a good look at what was happening… I didn’t think it would be possible to just imitate a gnome’s secret stillness any more than a talented but human voice impersonator could weave an elf’s natural magic into their voice. There was such a thing as metaphor magic… one could learn to call upon ogre strength or elven swiftness… but I wasn’t sure that was what was happening.
“Sure, let me just get in a good breath,” she said. I noticed that her chest didn’t rise so much as bulge outward like there were a bunch of bubbles growing under her skin, though it ended up in the same place, but I didn’t let that distract me from heightening my sight and opening my magic senses as wide as I could.
There was no magic to detect when Hazel faded away… or at least no magic that wasn’t better hidden than she was… but something faded in as Nae faded out. It was hard to process what I was looking at exactly, because I wasn’t used to seeing it in bright sunlight… or seeing it at all, really. Not as itself. It was only when I let go of the enhancements on my vision and let things snap back to normal that I got a brief glimpse of what it would have looked like if it had been visible to ordinary vision.
Nae was veiling herself in twilight.
“Did you know that you’re a shadowmancer?” I asked.
“Am I?” she said. “Neat! Can I use that for armoury?”
“Uh, I think so,” I said. “I mean, there are shadow enchantments, and I think it’s possible to forge things from pure shadow, but I think you’d need a lot of training for that. I don’t know what kind of instruction you can get here… it’s not a very common discipline for human wizards.”
“Oh,” she said. “That’s interesting, because it pretty much just sounds like regular magic to me… well, except women aren’t supposed to be able to do it.”
“That might mean that you wouldn’t have been screened or trained for it, not that it’s impossible,” I said.
“Well, yes,” she said. “I mean, I guess I can, so… do you have any idea how I’d learn how to do it better?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe find a dark place and do what you do when you’re hiding… it might be easier to sort of… feel the edges of things, and find something to hold onto? But maybe do some research first. Shadow magic doesn’t have a great reputation, exactly.”
“Is that because it’s dangerous or because it’s not a human thing?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But even the magic we’re… they’re… humans are good at it can be dangerous to stumble into.”
“Good point,” she said.
“Illusionists do some work with shadows,” I said. “So that might be a place you could start.”
“Thanks!” she said.
I could feel the genuine interest in the topic and knew that she wasn’t feigning ignorance… she’d really had no idea what she was doing and seemed excited by the chance to learn more about it. But she wasn’t saying anything else on the subject and I’d run out of advice to give her, so we just trailed off into silence for the rest of the way back.
As limited as my practical knowledge had been, I felt glad that I’d been able to help her at all, after a day that had been long on the kindness of strangers, friends, and passing acquaintances.
I didn’t mention Nae’s new-found talent at dinner. I’d stopped keeping secrets from my friends and lovers, but this one wasn’t mine. Hazel was her suitemate and would probably be one of the first people to hear about it if she chose to confide in others, but I’d leave it up to her to make that decision.
Besides, there were plenty of other things that needed talking about… like, what I had learned about Emily and what I’d figured out for myself.
“So the plan is still basically the same?” Amaranth asked.
“Yeah, except I have some idea what to do when you’re done with your part of it,” I said. “Assuming you can get me permission to approach. You’ll be able to tell if that’s okay, right?”
“I should be able to, yes,” Amaranth said. “I mean, if she’s deadset against you coming near her, I’ll be able to tell you. I can definitely tell you if there’s a firm no.”
“I’m not sure I want to go forward without a clear yes,” I said.
“What I think is probably most likely is a kind of polite wariness… sort of the equivalent of a mortal person saying ‘Okay, you’ve got two minutes, so make it good,’ you know?” Amaranth said. “It’s a little hard to explain, since we’re translating concepts from a language without words into one with words. What I’m saying is that Emily might be okay with you coming forward to sort of see what happens, but that doesn’t mean she won’t swat you back.”
“I can live with that,” I said. “Hopefully the swatting won’t be as bad when I’m prepared to move in the direction she prods me.”
“Seems a lot like Consent 101,” Steff said. “‘Yes’ now doesn’t mean there won’t be a ‘no’ later… I mean, it might not be a perfect translation, but the model seems basically the same.”
“That seems to be accurate enough,” Dee said.
“Assuming it works, how long are you going to be able to keep wearing the crown?” Ian asked.
“A couple of weeks,” I said. “It’s still a stopgap, but it will help me figure out if I’m even right about the problem, and if I know that I’ll be able to work on a solution… if it is leaky demon-thoughts, it seems like something we should be able to fix.”
I looked at Dee, and she nodded.
“Shielding to prevent one’s own thoughts from reaching outwards is a slightly different matter than shielding to prevent others from reaching in,” she said. “Which is not to say that it is a more difficult matter. They are actually complementary skills.”
“And here you were worried that she’d have taken our loose talk too much to heart,” Hazel said to Amaranth.
“I was concerned that she might,” Amaranth said, her cheeks coloring slightly. “But I didn’t think that she would… you know there’s nothing wrong with asking for or accepting help, right, baby?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, I did feel a bit… bothered by it at the time, but it was more the idea of being the last one to realize something that everyone else had already come to terms with. And yeah, today I went to three different people for help, but it was all for things that I couldn’t have done on my own… I don’t know. I think maybe in the grand scheme of things, knowing who to go to for help and how to ask it is probably a big part of taking care of things on your own… if ‘doing things on your own’ is even a real thing and not just a bragging point for people with selective memories.”
“I don’t know about that, baby,” Amaranth said, cuddling up beside me. There was a touch of pride in her voice that filled me with warmth. “It seem like you’re figuring things out on your own… if you keep growing like this, I’m not going to be able to come up with any tasks for you to earn your collar. If you can resolve your problem with Emily, maybe I’ll count that as one. That seems fair, right?”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” I said. “I want it to be things you came up.”
“In fairness, you’re not sitting here saying ‘I did this thing, please please count it’,” Ian said. “The decision is still coming from her.”
“True… but still, it will mean more if the whole thing is coming from her,” I said. “I mean, the first one is something I should be trying to do anyway… two tasks that boil down to ‘don’t screw up my sophomore year’ just seems… I don’t know. It seems like it should be something special… something for you, not just something I do because you told me to. If that makes any sense at all.”
“It makes perfect sense,” Amaranth said. “And believe me, I will be keeping it in mind…”