Chapter 117: Morning Becomes AmaranthAlexandraErin on October 12, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Has It Tough
Amaranth spent the night with me. We were too close and not dressed enough to call it a chaste night, even though we failed to fulfill most definitions of sex… though honestly, we could have slept in separate beds and there would still be something innately sexual about waking up and seeing her first thing in the morning.
Some people could make anything dirty… Amaranth could make anything sexual.
She’d slept in the room as a matter of practicality, and we’d refrained from anything serious for similar reasons. Thursday was a school day, obviously, and that meant if we wanted a crack at the Emily Center before things got busy then we had to get up at a time that Steff described as “early as very early balls”.
“Would you like me to carry the tiara?” Amaranth asked me, putting her hands near the case holding Teddi’s circlet of shielding but not quite touching it.
I had to think about that. Things that Amaranth put away couldn’t be lost or damaged, so the thing would actually be safer in her “hands” than it would be in mine before you even got into the question of our relative gracefulness. But on the other hand I’d taken personal responsibility for it. If Amaranth shunted it off into nymph-space and then something happened to her… well, the fate of Teddi’s circlet would probably be pretty low on the list of my priorities if something happened to Amaranth, but I felt that I’d be violating the principle of my agreement with Teddi by entrusting the circlet to someone else.
Then I remembered Eloise’s guiding principle: do what works. I’d be taking better responsibility by letting Amaranth take care of it. Anyway, it wasn’t like letting her carry it now meant was taking custody of the thing for the whole duration. I was just eliminating one opportunity for me to break it.
“Sure,” I said. I opened the case for her. “Better safe than sorry.”
She took the circlet out and I averted my eyes as she did her thing. I’d once spent a lot of time trying to get a better look at what happened when she put things away or took them out again, but nothing good ever came of it.
The best case scenario was I didn’t see anything.
The worst case scenario was I saw nothing.
There were reasons that people usually put their extradimensional spaces inside a box or bag or pocket… sure, if you had to enchant it into something, a container was the ideal object. But it was also very nice for tucking the actual transit comfortably out of sight.
Once we were in the lift, I opened my mirror compact and reviewed my hastily inscribed notes for the ritual.
“I’m surprised you don’t use the memo function more often,” Amaranth said. “I mean, with your memory.”
“I forget it’s there,” I said. “Anyway, it’s not so much a bad memory as a poorly organized one… I’m just bad at prioritizing things. Really, I think the calendar function would probably be better for me, but I never really managed to make a long-term habit of using the physical dayplanner last year.”
“Well, maybe that’s something to work on,” she said. “I know your life is not exactly in shambles or anything, baby, and you’ve done a much better job of keeping on top of things… but there are going to be more things you need to keep on top of, the further you get into your school career.”
“How do you manage?” I asked. As a field nymph, she’d had social duties but I didn’t think she had many obligations to keep.
“Oh, I actually have a pretty good head for the passage of time,” she said. “Days, months, seasons… it’s all pretty innate for me. Well, moon cycles more than calendar months, but that still gives me a handle on weeks, you know?”
It was kind of weird to have Amaranth say something about “pretty good head” without someone picking it up for a double entendre, but we were alone in the lift and my mind didn’t move quickly enough in that direction for me to act on it.
The sun was already up but it hadn’t had a chance to dispel the chill of night. It seemed like we were heading into cool weather faster this year, but I was also better prepared for it. I’d brought my denim jacket of extremely useful pockets without even thinking about its main function. The campus seemed silent except for scattered birdsong and the rustling of wind in leaves.
“I think you should probably suit up before we go over, since we don’t know exactly where she’d start picking you up,” Amaranth said when we reached the pent. “It’s probably overdoing it a little on the ‘better safe than sorry’ front, but… better safe than sorry?”
“You’re right,” I said, and not just because I knew that they were two of her favorite words. Though, the smile they got me was definitely nice.
“Stand up straight,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, and tried to square my shoulders a bit.
“Well… straighter, anyway,” she said. “You know, you’re slouching a lot less lately… anyway, here you go.”
She produced the circlet and slipped it onto my head, then adjusted it a bit. I couldn’t say that there was any immediately noticeable effect, at least nothing so strong that it couldn’t have been my imagination searching for proof that it was doing something. My own thoughts seemed a little on the sharp side, but how do you quantify that?
“There,” she said. “We’ll go carefully from here, okay, baby?”
“Okay,” I said.
I didn’t know if she was worried about me tripping or if she was concerned about stumbling into Emily’s field of awareness sooner than we expected. They both seemed like valid concerns.
The metal band had been warm from Amaranth’s touch, but it quickly decided it would be more fun to channel the coolness around it directly into my skull. As uncomfortable as it was, I was kind of glad to have the constant reminder of its presence on my head… it made it easier to be conscious of how I was moving. I would need to fall just right… or just wrong… to hit it against something enchanted like the sidewalks in order to damage it, but that wasn’t the same as saying I couldn’t possibly break it.
Still, it was safer on my head than in my hands. An ordinary mortal… even an immensely strong one like an ogre… would not be able to bend the metal beyond its normal tolerance. Demon strength was legitimately supernatural, though. Just like a magic weapon could damage my invulnerable skin, my magic hands could damage a protected item.
The design building came into view.
“You should probably let me walk ahead a little bit,” Amaranth said. “I’ll keep my ears open… well, not my ears, but you know… and stop when I can start to hear her. That’s not the same thing as conversational range, but I think for best results you should probably start out completely outside her awareness.”
“That makes sense,” I said.
“Make a note of where I stop,” she said. “If things go well and she gives you permission to approach, that would be a good place to start your ritual from. If you see me beckon you forward, that’ll be the sign that it’s okay to do that. If things go poorly or really extremely well and the ritual’s not necessary, or something completely unexpected comes up and I need to tell you about it, I’ll make a sign for you to stay put and then come back and tell you the specifics. Or should we have specific signs for specific cases, so you’re not worrying about what’s happened? I don’t want to affect your state of mind in a negative way…”
“How about, no matter what happens you come back and tell me?” I said. “Clear communication, no room for mixed signals. Unless there’s some reason you’d need to stay in close to her the whole time.”
“Oh… that’s a good idea. I really can’t imagine why I couldn’t come back, actually,” she said. “I might go back up to try to help keep her calm if she seems agitated or wary, but I can manage an ‘I’ll be right back’.”
I knew she meant she couldn’t imagine a situation where she would need or want to stick close to Emily the whole time, but the way she worded it put an instant lump in my throat: why I couldn’t come back. Professor Stone had seemed pretty confident that Emily couldn’t do any real harm if she wanted to… but to stand back and watch as Amaranth went and put that theory to the test? That was more difficult than I’d imagined. It wasn’t more angst over other people doing things for me… well, it wasn’t just more angst over that, anyway. The risk of something awful made it more.
I couldn’t articulate what the risk was, or how risky it would be, but not being able to say exactly what I was afraid of didn’t make it any better.
“Ready?” Amaranth said.
“Wait!” I said.
“What’s wrong, baby?” she asked.
“I just… be careful,” I said. “Don’t jump right in to mentioning me. Make sure everything’s okay with her first, okay? And when you bring me up, watch her mood… make sure she’s not going to lash out, like just in fear or anything…”
Amaranth laughed, the clear and beautiful way that she did. I didn’t feel like she was laughing at my concerns. I did worry slightly that she was not taking them seriously, but I did decide to wait to hear what she had to say before I said so.
“Baby, I wasn’t planning on just… I don’t know, running up and throwing you in her face,” she said. “Of course I’m going to see how she’s doing. It doesn’t make any sense to be rude.”
“I’m just worried about you,” I said. “If things go wrong… I mean, badly wrong… how can I help you if I can’t come close?”
“Well, I don’t want you looking for an opening to come running to my rescue… but if things go badly wrong there’s probably not any point in keeping a diplomatic distance,” she said. “I mean, we’re exercising a lot of careful restraint as it is. It’s possible that with the tiara on you could just walk right up without her noticing you at all… we shouldn’t try that because we don’t know if that’s true, and anyway the goal here is peaceful coexistence, not sneaking past her one time.”
“True,” I said. “Could you do me one favor, though?”
“What?” she asked.
“Don’t call it a tiara,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said with an impish smile. “Does it conflict with your new tough-girl image?”
“Do I look tough? I wasn’t really going for a look, just… me.”
“Well, that makes sense,” she said. “Because you are one of the toughest people I know.”
I had to laugh at that, though it was kind of a bitter laugh.
“It’s true, though,” Amaranth said.
“Yeah, I’m pretty tough for a wallflower,” I said. “I’ve come a long way, but let’s be honest: I still have a tendency to wilt under pressure.”
“When that is true, it’s only because you’ve already been worn down by bearing up under pressure that would have crushed most people,” she said. “You’re tough because you’ve survived it… and I want you to know that whatever happens next, I’m already proud of you.”
I realized I didn’t have anything I could say to that… I didn’t exactly agree but I didn’t have any argument to offer against it, nor would I want to make one. And right or not, hearing her say this… hearing the intense sincerity of emotion behind the words… it hit me like a very soft and very warm fist right in a particularly cuddly part of my gut.
I took a deep breath, and said the only thing I could say under the circumstances.
“Let’s do this,” I said.