Chapter 221: The Cost of a KissAlexandra Erin on June 26, 2014 in Volume 2 Book 7: Courtly Manners, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Loses Her Cool
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I ended up putting Glory in touch with the rugged craftsdwarves of Clan Steinmetz, who had a reputation for efficiency.
They were a male clan, of course. Glory was a bit disappointed by that, though she admitted she hadn’t thought to mention gender as a criteria before. There was no way around it, anyway, since Magisterius University was male dwarf territory… dwarves didn’t do coed.
She was satisfied enough by my performance to invite me to come to Oberrad House, ostensibly to pick up my payment, but also to see the place.
She surprised me by meeting me at the door herself. It was a side door, what on a college campus can be best described as a smoker’s door. My understanding was that the big double doors in the front didn’t open yet.
“Normally I’d have an attendant do this,” she said, holding open the door. “But things are such a mess right now that I would feel like a joke if we all stood on ceremony… so as long as no one takes undue liberties or gets ideas above their station, we’re being a bit informal for the moment.”
“Well, thanks,” I said as I stepped in.
It was kind of surreal, looking around the inside of Oberrad. The “house” had literally been formed by cutting off what had been a wing of Harlowe Hall, and so the section of hallway just inside the door looked like a continuation of Harlowe’s first floor, only darker and dingier. It had also never been converted from dorm space to work rooms, although at some point in the past it had put to use as store rooms for old bed frames and desks. The rooms seemed to be filled with them, some of which spilled out into the hallway.
“We’re looking at getting this cleared out,” she said. “It’s one of the first obstacles for renovating… the dwarves can’t actually start until we’ve resolved it. Technically it all belongs to the university so we can’t just throw it away. If they had any real use for it, though, they would be in use. But the fact that they were stashed away means that someone thought they might be worth hanging onto. If you ask me, someone in the university’s administration is a bit of a hoarder.”
The usual jolt of horror I got when something made me think of Embries was mitigated this time, as my brain was taken over by the image of an immense silver dragon sleeping on a pile of old dorm furniture. I snorted. Glory looked pleased, and I was just fine with her thinking I’d been amused by her observation.
“I’d… tread carefully around that subject,” I said. “It might be a sore spot. Maybe… maybe instead of asking if you can get rid of them, send a query asking to clarify if the cost of disposal of the old furniture falls under your responsibility as part of the renovations.”
“Is that good business sense?” she asked. “Just outright offering to pay?”
“It’s good… people sense,” I said, as I worked my way through why I thought it was a good idea. “If someone doesn’t want to throw them away, it’s because of money. The money that was invested in them, the money it would cost to get rid of them. Making it clear that the school has an opportunity to get rid of stuff at no further cost would lessen the blow, and maybe make it easier to take the loss of the furniture’s perceived value. But the key is, you’re not offering… you make it sound like you’ve figured out you’re stuck with this burden, but you’re hoping it’s not the case.”
“So, if the person who makes the decision feels like being a… big shot… they’ll still be inclined to say yes,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re good at this,” she said. “That last part never would have occurred to me.”
“You’re used to figuring out ways to appear strong,” I said. “I’ve spent most of my life trying to appear weak and harmless. I wouldn’t say that it’s left me with certain skills, because ‘skills’ implies some kind of conscious knowledge… but it has honed my instincts. And now that I’m learning a few tricks about negotiating… well…”
I shrugged, not really comfortable with exploring the topic any further. The truth was, I knew I was becoming more manipulative… or at least, more consciously so, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
“Anyway… past this mess, we get to the mess that we can do something about,” she said.
The short hallway ended at a stairwell, which led to four other floors with similar hallways… much like Harlowe. On the next one up, Grace was picking up accumulated trash and putting it in a bag that Wisdom held open for her. We passed some of the others of Glory’s entourage on the other floors, but nobody was doing much.
When we came to the top floor… which was eerily similar to my own first year dorm… I realized I’d been expecting a moment that never really came, where I stepped into a big open room and had a sudden, sweeping view of the once-great Oberrad House in all its decaying glory, possibly with balconies and bannisters and broken busts.
That wasn’t going to happen, though… Most of the residence halls had lobbies of a sort, but few of them could be described as “sweeping”. The main lobby of Harlowe Hall was the downstairs lounge, and while it spanned about the length of the building, the general sweeping majesty levels were kept in check by a low ceiling made of acoustic tiles. Given the state of the first floor, I had to assume that the actual basement was impassably packed with the detritus of the decades, but even empty, it couldn’t have been much to look at.
“I know, it’s pretty bad,” Glory said when we’d finished the grand tour of five identically trashed levels. The problems were many: doors missing or hanging on a single hinge, bare or badly peeling cinder block walls, water-spotted ceilings and shriveled linoleum floors.
“From the way you were describing it, I would have pictured something much worse,” I said.
I hadn’t actually had any particular image in mind for the interior of Oberrad House, but Glory’s descriptions of it as unlivable had made me picture something a little less structurally sound. I’d been thinking maybe things like sagging floors, if not actual holes in them, or buckling walls.
“In my defense, it actually was declared to not meet the minimum standards for the housing program,” she said.
“It’s not up to my standards, either, but I was thinking something more like actually condemned,” I said. “I suppose they couldn’t have let it go that far, though… I mean, a building actually in the process of collapsing in on itself would be a safety hazard anywhere, but right off the nexus? Physically connected to another dorm? Though, it is Harlowe…”
“Actually, though, it is worse than it looks in some ways,” she said. “From what I was told, some of the repairs were made by the fraternities that resided here, and they weren’t all done properly. That’s part of why straightforward magical repair isn’t going to cut it: we’d just be shoring up shoddy work. And even some of the things that were done properly will need to be taken out, in order to bring it back to the proper historical character.”
“How proper or historical could it be?” I asked. “This place is on the same floorplan as Harlowe.”
“You’ve got me on the historical part,” she said. “But when it was first partitioned off and made into its house, it was apparently given quite the, uh, makeover. I understand there was walnut paneling, which I’ll be very excited to bring back. That was a selling point for me and my girls, given that we can’t enlarge the windows or make the rooms less blocky.”
“I didn’t think you were consulting with your court before things were settled,” I said.
“Oh, not directly,” she said. “But I tried to take their tastes and needs into account, and made some vague hypothetical inquiries. It’s all very well and good for a queen to say ‘march’, but it helps to scout out the destination if she wants to be able to look around and see her troops when she says ‘halt’. Anyway, I wish we could take out some walls and make some bigger spaces in here, but we’ve got to stick to the floor plan.”
We’d come to the end of the hall, which was a big, open space unlike any that existed in Harlowe. It was about where the lounge would have been, but it took up about half the top floor.
“This is going to be the saving grace, I think,” she said. “Lounges weren’t part of the original floor plan, because it was just part of Harlowe, so when they needed more space, they just started knocking out the dorm room walls. This will be my throne room. The one below us is almost as big, but more enclosed… that’s my private chamber. And the other three floors still each have a room that I think is bigger than the lounges in Harlowe.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said. “I’ve never been in a frat house, but fewer bedrooms and more social space sounds about right for a dorm conversion… and you’re kind of lucky. I mean, I know Harlowe isn’t the prettiest building on campus, but the style of building means wide hallways and big rooms… you know, even if you can’t do permanent alterations to the floorplan, what about extradimensional spaces?”
“If I had magnificent mansion money, I wouldn’t need to overhaul this dump,” she said.
“I’m not even talking about whole extradimensional rooms,” I said. “But… can you afford portable holes? You stick one on the wall between two rooms, and you’ve got a two-room suite. It’s as easy to take down as a poster and with less damage to the wall, so I can’t imagine anyone objecting to it.”
“Interesting,” she said. “Could we do something like that for more windows?”
“…not really,” I said. “You could do that, but your building would be full of holes. You can do things with illusionary vistas, but I’m sure you’ve already thought of that.”
“Yes, obviously,” she said. “If you think of something else, let me know.”
“I will,” I said.
“Would you like to see my bedroom?” she asked. “It’s on the way back down.”
“It was on the way back up, too,” I said.
“Yes, but I thought it would be better to end the tour there,” she said. “Your eyes! Don’t worry, it’s not really a bedroom yet. For one thing, there isn’t a bed. But it does have a door that locks, which is why I keep my money there.”
Oh, right. She had been going to pay me.
“Honestly, Mackenzie… I’d be having another conversation with your owner before doing anything like that,” she said. “What you must think of me.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I said.
“No harm done!”
She led me back down the stairs and to the back of the fourth floor… which I realized now was actually the front of it. The stairs we were using were back against the wall that separated us from Harlowe. The lounges had been carved out from the end of the house that the front doors opened… or didn’t open, at the moment… out of, which meant that once the boards were taken off the windows, they would have the most light and airflow.
“I can see some promise here,” I said, looking around. Glory didn’t have a bed, but she had a hammock suspended between two small but strangely sturdy potted trees. Well, she had said she’d rather be camping.
“Can you?” she said.
“Well, I’m sure it won’t come close to what you had in Treehome,” I said, not sure how to take that. “Did they have oak paneling in here?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Close your eyes.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but my basic security is at an all-time low and it’s making me nervous,” she said. “So please don’t read too much into this. I’ll just feel better if you’re not looking when I get my money out.”
“Oh,” I said, and I obeyed… wondering what Ian would think about me closing my eyes around an elf. I saw nothing, and of course I heard nothing.
“Open,” Glory said.
Her voice sounded very close… but then, it usually did. The voice of an elf taking a conversational tone often sounds like it’s coming from right in front of you, and I was so used to this that I was surprised when I opened my eyes and found that she was there, though I managed to keep from shrieking or falling over backwards, which I think was a victory. I felt like I’d been managing to play cool a lot better than I used to.
Chalk it up to some combination of my slightly improved wardrobe improving my confidence, my lessons from Acantha… both the obvious and subtle ones… and just generally being older and wiser, but I was definitely getting cooler.
“Now, then… you reported two hours. Is that really all it took?” she asked.
“Close enough,” I said. I’d specified full hours in my deal. If it had been closer to three than two I might have been tempted to round up.
“If you say so,” she said. She held up a small pouch, and then moved her hand as if to make it jingle… and then scowled and moved her hand again, this time remembering to make it jingle. “That would put us at twenty silver.”
“Yes,” I said.
“So, the question is… would you rather have the silver, or a kiss from me?”
So, it turned out that there was only so much that new boots, a nice jacket, and a slightly better class of t-shirt can do to turn a sputtering geek girl into a cool young woman. I blushed and stammered out a confused mash of syllables before I managed to tamp that back down and say, “Twenty silver was the price we agreed on, I think.”
The damage was done… but Glory didn’t look like she’d registered any damage. She quirked an eyebrow.
“Alright,” she said. “What do you think about forty silver, in exchange for your previous services and a kiss from you?”
If I hadn’t already been in the act of exercising self-control, I don’t know what I would have said… or how intelligible it might have been… but because she asked me in that moment, I was able to take a step back and consider what I did think about it… and my thoughts weren’t exactly the most coherent things, but mostly centered around the inadvisability of starting a precedent that involved kisses bought in either direction.
“I think you should pay me, and then see if I’d like a kiss,” I said.
Maybe it would be a deadly insult to her, I thought… but better to find out that sort of thing now…
“You’re a harder nut to crack than I thought, Mackenzie Blaise,” she said. It had never occurred to me how elven an idiom that was, to think about toughness in terms of a tree’s seed.
I held out my hand and she put the sack of coins in it.
“So…?” she asked as I tucked it into my pocket, and I surprised myself by continuing my self-control and pushing on to something that might have been unwisely cheeky, but I thought was probably still pretty cool.
“You were right,” I told her.
“I frequently am,” she said, confused. “But to what in particular are you referring?”
“You really should talk to Amaranth,” I said, and I smiled what I hoped was recognizably a sly smile. “Have a nice day, your majesty.”