Chapter 242: Laughing In The Dark

on August 27, 2014 in Volume 2 Book 7: Courtly Manners, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Steff Glances Nervously At The Future

Probably nobody would be surprised to know that we didn’t resolve anything more that night or the next morning, though Ian seemed to be in a better mood. Despite his exertions, he seemed much more better rested the next day, although he was more than a bit sore… just as I was.

It wasn’t a great resolution… it wasn’t any kind of a resolution… but I felt like we’d averted disaster, and that was something.

Before I could officially move ahead with Glory, there was still one more person I needed to talk to… one more person with a stake in things.

It had never really occurred to me that Steff might have a problem with things until Amaranth brought up her complicated history with her elven heritage… if she hadn’t, I might have just casually mentioned the whole thing to her to make sure she knew about it.

After all, it wasn’t exactly out of the blue.

That was why, when I had her alone after lunch the next day, I started with, “I guess you probably know what this is about.”

“Do I ever,” she said. “You know, I’m starting to feel like Two here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, this is my turn, isn’t it?” she said. “You talked to everyone else, and now you’re giving me the same talk so it’ll be fair.”

I understood what she meant. Two had gone through a phase back when she was learning to assert herself where she’d been able to understand that she was entitled to the same treatment as everyone else, but hadn’t understood any of the nuance that went along with that. So if I’d wanted to talk to someone else alone for a few minutes, she’d only go if she got the same amount of time alone with me afterwards. It had been sometimes frustrating and sometimes amusing, but always unmistakably Two.

I felt like the fact that she no longer did this had more to do with the fact that she was more in touch with what she wanted for herself… apart from and on top of to do what she was told, the desire that was intrinsic to her creation… than it did with any real mastery of nuance. She no longer demanded something only because someone else got it, but only if she had a reason for wanting it.

“I wanted to talk to you because I thought you deserved it, and that it was necessary for our relationship,” I said. “Not because everyone else got it… and anyway, it’s not going to be the same talk I had with anyone else, because you’re not the same person.”

“And our relationship’s not the same, which is why you didn’t exactly rush out and find me… and that’s okay,” Steff said. “We’ve never exactly been serious, have we?”

“I’m pretty serious about liking you,” I said.

“I seriously like you, too,” Steff said. “But… that’s not the same as us being serious. We’re not a serious thing. You know that.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I just… I feel like it’s hurtful to say it.”

“Sorry, hon… I didn’t say it to hurt you,” Steff said.

“I’m not exactly hurt,” I said. “I just… I think it’s a hurtful thing.”

“To who? To you? To me?”

“To… us, I guess,” I said.

“But that’s my point,” Steff said. “There’s not really an us to be hurt, not the way that there’s an us with you and Amy, or even you and Ian. I mean, you might have stayed with Ian if co-ed rooms were an option, especially since that wouldn’t put Amy out that much, given how often she sleeps out and how well the three of you can pile into a bed together. But me? Even if I were to register as a girl, legally, I mean… I don’t think you’d consider that.”

“That’s… well, it’s true, but… I mean, you keep a lot of stuff in your room that could set me off,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to be around all those body parts, for a variety of reasons.”

“Right, but it’s not the fact that I’m a necromancer,” Steff said. “I mean, it’s not just that, it’s… there’s stuff about me that you’re not okay with, not on a deep enough level to commit to anything serious. While I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about getting you past all that somehow… I think about that a lot… I don’t know, I think maybe the reason I like those fantasies so much is that they’re fantasies. In reality, I’m not sure… I’m not sure I have ‘serious’ in me.”

“You and Viktor are pretty serious,” I said.

“Yeah? You mean because we room together?” Steff asked. “Our sophomore year, we were roommates because we were in a serious relationship… but our first year, we ended up in a serious relationship because we roomed together. Is that commitment, or is that clinging?”

“But you have plans,” I said.

“We have fantasies,” she said. “They give us something to hold out for in the future, in lieu of actually, you know, planning anything… you know, you’re talking about figuring out what you actually want with everyone, but you’ve still got at least two more years after this one. Things are getting pretty close to the end of the line for us, and we’ve got to start facing up to the realities of our situation.”

“Realities like?”

“No matter how straightforward the ogre customs of inheritance may be, Viktor’s probably never going to actually rule Kilrest,” Steff said. “If he tries to claim it, he’ll… probably die. It’s not just that he’s physically weaker, it’s that… in ogre terms, he’s more of a sissy than I was in human terms when I was trying to be a boy. I mean, I hate that word, but you know what I mean.”

“I guess I do,” I said. It was hard to think of Viktor… sullen, brooding, immensely powerful Viktor… in those terms, but I’d never met a full-blooded ogre to compare him to.

“We had this plan… well, this dream… that we could make it work with me to back him up with necromantic magic and sheer scary sadistic glee, but I’m too close to true neutral on the sadomasochism scale to really be an effective assistant evil overlord, and it’s going to take more than an undergraduate degree in necromancy to pull off more than a few shambling servitors and some special effects.”

“Is there any reason you couldn’t wait until you have your master’s?” I asked. I wasn’t really sure why I was offering suggestions, except that Steff had voiced a problem and it was my inclination to solve it. Realistically, not only were her concerns valid, but pretty much any career course would be better for her and everyone else in her life than being one half of the overlord-and-lady of Kilrest.

“Well, apart from the fact that Viktor’s claim falls apart if his mother dies while he’s not there to step up… the truth is, I’ll be lucky to get my bachelor’s in four years, and this school even has a four year guarantee,” Steff said. “And a graduate degree… that takes a lot more than just showing up most of the time and doing a lot of the work. Let’s face it, Mack: the only kind of rigor I know anything about isn’t academic.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You didn’t do it, and I know you don’t actually sympathize with me not being able to rule a kingdom of torture and pain, so there’s not really any point in apologizing. Anyway, we’ve been circling around it for a long time now.”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding. This wasn’t the first time Steff had voiced concerns along these lines. “But still… I do feel bad that you’re disappointed.”

“Eh, better to be disappointed to realize that something won’t work out than to try to go through with it and be disappointed when it comes crashing down around me,” Steff said. “Anyway, this whole thing… it’s a process. In a day or two I’ll be convinced that I can buckle down a little harder on the whole army of the darkness thing and practice my scary voice and we can make it work.”

“…but you’ve pretty much said that will end with you and Viktor dying,” I said.

“Only if we actually go through with it,” Steff said. “As our last school years progress, we’ll have more and more things that serve as wake up calls, and it will be harder and harder to fool ourselves. It’s like waking up. It doesn’t matter how many alarms you sleep through, as long as you wake up in enough time to make it to class.”

“Weren’t you just obliquely mentioning that you don’t always make it to class?”

“Yeah, but not because I sleep through alarms,” she said. She tapped her ears. “I can’t even sleep through other people‘s alarms… the whole dragging out of bed problem is more Viktor’s thing than mine. That’s another reason he’s probably not cut out for Kilrest: I don’t think the ogre in charge lasts long if they’re not a very light sleeper.”

“If you know… if you hope… that you end up waking up and giving up the Kilrest thing completely before you graduate, then what’s the point of pretending?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be safer to just give it up now? Better? Smarter?”

“Smarter and safer, probably,” Steff said. “But… it’s what I have. It’s all I have. It’s the only thing that’s keeping me going. I may be a shitty student, but I’m still in school and I’m still passing a lot of my classes. So let me cling to the dream as much as I can without breaking it, okay? At least until I have something better.”

“Okay,” I said, if only because I knew I couldn’t offer her anything better.

“Anyway, I thought you were coming here to talk about our relationship, not mine with Viktor’s,” Steff said.

“I was,” I said.”ButI kind of got the feeling you didn’t want to talk about that.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I guess I was a little snide and dismissive… but, that’s me. That’s what I do. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you, just…”

“Just not seriously,” I said.

“Shit,” she said. “I was trying to make the point that you haven’t done anything to hurt me, but I’ve hurt you.”

“Not seriously,” I said. “Just… you have a way of being both blunt and sharp at the same time.”

“Like a dull knife,” Steff said, with a grin. “That’s me to a sharply blunted T.”

“I guess what I wanted to ask you is how you feel about me dating Glory,” I said.

“Mack, I don’t run who I fuck by you,” she said. “I know you know that I had a thing with Jamie Fucking Bowman, but you didn’t hear about it from me. Why? Because I don’t run who I fuck by you.”

“I’m not just talking about sex, I’m talking about… dating,” I said.

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t run who I date by you, either,” she said. “Honestly? I would fuck Glory if I could, and while I’m not above jealousy, I’m not really into her enough to be jealous, and I’m also definitely above making my jealousy someone else’s problem. So… fuck her. Be fucked by her. Whatever. Same for dating, or any other verb that pops into your head. As long as it’s not like obnoxiously schmaltzy, I’ll want to hear about it if you want to tell me about it, but only because I’m your friend and also because I will probably jerk off to it later, not because I think I have some kind of say in it.”

“…well, no one can say you’re not honest,” I said.

“Sure they could,” Steff said. “Even if I were honest, the other person could be lying.”

“Okay, so… honest or not, I believe you about not minding me doing whatever with Glory,” I said. “But still… she’s been a huge claim on my time, and that’s not going to get any better. Even just as my friend, I want to make sure you don’t feel… you know… neglected.”

“You know, I have other stuff going on, too,” she said.

“I know!” I said. “I’m not like, suggesting I’m your only friend… but the fact that we both have stuff going on just makes it harder for us to match up and see each other.”

“Yeah, but it kind of makes it matter less?” Steff said. “I’m not saying that I won’t miss you when we get to the point where we’re not seeing each other at all, like after whichever one of us graduates first is gone… but when I’m off doing something else, I’m not thinking about you. And when I’m not doing anything… well, I don’t feel like seeing anyone would really be an improvement.”

“That’s kind of blunt, but I guess that’s… I mean, part of my ongoing problem is that when I’m really involved in something, I’m not thinking of other people,” I said.

“Who says that’s a problem, though?” Steff said. “I’m not telling you how to run your relationships, but… fuck, when I’m with you, Mack, you have my undivided attention. How would I give you that if I’m all mopey about the fact that I’m not right that minute with Viktor? And if he even wanted that, how would he like it if I was that way with him, about you?”

“That’s… not a bad point,” I said. “But, I really do feel like when I’m in a committed relationship, I do owe the other people in it some consideration.”

“That’s your choice,” Steff said. “Or that’s how you are, or whatever… look, Mack, the bottom line is that I don’t give a shit what you do with Glory, or how much of your time it takes up. But if you’re worried about seeing me less, I can give you one suggestion… it’s kind of a long shot, but if it works, it might fix your problem.”

“What’s that?”

“Sound out her royal gloriousness about how she would feel about a half-human… retainer, or whatever,” Steff said.

“What?”

“Hey, she likes humans, doesn’t she?” Steff asked. “I don’t really feel human any more than I feel elven, but… if I’m elf enough to get in and human enough to intrigue her, that’s something, isn’t it? Anyway, I doubt she’ll go for it, but on the off chance that she does… well, maybe that will give me something else to cling to for a while, you know? Something new to keep me going.”

“I can talk to her,” I said. “I… can’t make any promises. I mean, I’ve got literally no idea what her feelings about you are, behind her general interest in our group as a whole.”

“Well… try it, if you feel like it,” she said. “Don’t like, feel the need to run out and spring it on her or something, but just… if a moment comes up that feels right, maybe mention it. I mean, it can’t hurt… right? If she says yes, the whole thing might be good for a laugh a couple of years down the line, if nothing else.”

I thought about what Amaranth had said about Steff laughing in the dark, and I realized that the more Steff played this off as an afterthought or something she could go either way on, the more likely it was that it was something she seriously wanted… because while Steff had way more bluster, she had the same basic problem that Nicki did when it came to wanting things: she could never quite make herself believe that she deserved them.

“Okay,” I said. “Like you said, it can’t hurt.”


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25 Responses to “Chapter 242: Laughing In The Dark”

  1. jay says:

    hm, the last line makes me suspect that it will hurt.

    Current score: 3
  2. Potatohead says:

    I think this is the first chapter in a long time that’s made me really like Steff. She’s never really bothered me like other characters (coughIasonandJaimiecough), but she was a trailing third in the Mack-paramour department.

    Here, though…it makes you feel sorry for her. She’s fully aware that pursuing her dream/fantasy to its conclusion is effectively a slow, difficult, and inevitable form of suicide. But it’s all she has for motivation to not give up on life (a bigger concern for someone carrying half-elven blood), aside from the hope that something better will eventually come along. Rather tragic.

    Current score: 10
    • Nocker says:

      Hey, a whole lot of things count as eventual suicide. Sadly, that doesn’t stop people most of the time. It’s just that when your lifespan is measured in centuries a few years on top means a whole lot less. Though on the flip side when you’ve got centuries the odds of something better coming *eventually* go up by the same logic.

      Current score: 4
    • Arancaytar says:

      Really, the Kilrest thing made it hard for me to relate to Steff as a character. At the end of the day, the most messed-up fantasies of any of the characters have remained fantasies; the few times people have been genuinely harmed (eg. Mercy’s dinner, Iona’s murders) it was the result of possession or someone genuine evil.
      And here one of the protagonists was planning a future that would almost inevitably involve killing and torturing people on a regular basis. It’s a bit of a relief that that future is gradually sliding back into the realm of fantasy.

      Current score: 0
  3. Dani says:

    I think many of Viktor’s problems would be solved if he switched from harpsichord to pianoforte, which has a much better dynamic range. (Well, not the problem of survival in Kilrest, but that’s really too much to ask of a piano.)

    Current score: 14
    • Glenn says:

      I think you’re right, but unfortunately Mack and her friends have not yet realized that the gnomes possess strange, almost ‘scientific’ secrets like mechanical clocks and pianos.

      Current score: 6
  4. Order of Chaos says:

    OK, I was hoping for a talk with Ian but more Steff is good.

    Current score: 0
  5. P says:

    This is nice for another perspective besides Ian’s (and Amaranth’s, which is basically “I know you want to stay with Ian so here’s what I know that will help with that”). Ian is feeling neglected; Steff says that that if you want to prioritize something over spending time with another person then that person has no innate claim on your time. Mackenzie probably -wants- to preserve her relationship with Ian even if it means reorienting how she spends her time, but via Steff logic we can realize that doesn’t mean Mackenzie has necessarily done something wrong by not reorienting it sooner.

    I think Steff’s perspective is interesting because it really runs counter to the culture of just about everywhere. We’re expected to owe time to our siblings, parents, and romantic relationships and women are generally expected to owe time to men, so asserting otherwise can be pretty hard. If you do pull it off then it’s a fast ticket towards being seen as selfish. At the same time I know what it’s like to have the sense that you’ve generally been de-prioritized over other people, maybe even over time -you’ve- put in, and I think that’s where Ian is now. Ian’s and Mackenzie’s relationship is dysfunctional, so something has to change in it.

    Current score: 10
    • spess imvader says:

      The difference between Steff and Ian is that she acknowledges Mackenzie’s superiority, while he tries to pretend to be in the same league. Steff lets herself have relationships with who she can, that Mack would never for being too low for her (Jamie, Viktor), and doesn’t deny fantasizing having Mack’s level (jerking off to Mack’s encounters, wishing she could have something with Glory too). Ian, on the other hand, has already stated that he finds Nicky attractive, so he probably masturbates thinking about her, Glory and all of Mack’s partners, while being self-conscious, or realistic, about his incapacity to actually have anything with them himself. And when he does manage to? Then he has a brief delirium of superiority showing his true self, as when he learned he could have sex with Amaranth and decided to do so instead of with Mack, forcing her to a brief period of feeling as cuckold as he usually does. And now that it didn’t work as he expected, he flipped and needed her to make him think he is still in charge, which is obviously not true.

      Current score: 0
  6. pedestrian says:

    …“Like you said, it can’t hurt.”…

    Let the pain commence!

    I’ve thought a terrific t-shirt slogan for a young woman would be:

    Harpsichord
    I’ll bet you were thinking
    Virginal!

    Current score: 4
  7. Cadnawes says:

    Oh wow this would solve so many problems. Also yay more Steff. (What? SOMEONE has to feel that way.)

    It’s been clear for a while now that she and Viktor were not doing well; and whereas I don’t dislike Viktor as much as I probably SHOULD; I really dislike them together. You’re not obligated to improve your lovers, but I kind of feel like they make eachother worse.

    Current score: 7
  8. D. D. Webb says:

    Ohhh, this is going to be trouble.

    Gorgeous, glorious trouble.

    Current score: 3
  9. Trent Baker aka Zergonapal says:

    I dunno why, but as I was reading this Steff took on a Boston accent.

    Current score: 0
  10. Nocker says:

    Thinking about it, I wonder if Steff won’t get dragged into this whole Army Of Darkness deal weather she wants to or not. Kilrest seems small and unstable, and the Imperium is large and with a tenuous relation that likely dies the moment the moderate leadership does. Given how far everyone was willing to go to appease Leda’s parents, who were a single kingdom among many, I could see Victor and Steff conveniently stumbling onto a set of gear that lets them pull it off and enough gold to seal the deal.

    After all, a puppet ruler is always a good thing to have in politics. One used to your nations way of doing things that knows he’s dead without your help is a chance nobody in their right minds would pass up.

    Current score: 1
    • Glenn says:

      If The Law does want Victor to remain in control of Kilrest, then Kilrest may be the first place where they test the redesigned mock boxes that produce duplicates which can actually kill people. Callahan would probably want to be involved in such a field test, though The Law might not want her to participate. Steph could probably invite some friends like Mack along, if the Empire wants her in power in Kilrest after it’s all over.

      Current score: 2
      • Nocker says:

        IF they can get everything working right. Callahan’s plans don’t list an extra recording device and who knows what else. It’s a complex piece of equipment and mass production within the next few years seems unlikely.

        If they get a prototype working and out in the field in the next year or two then I could see it happening though. But you’d need something a bit more impressive than Steff or Viktor to clone in order to intimidate a bunch of ogres.

        Current score: 1
        • Yumi says:

          Maybe they’ll clone Callahan. If they’re not intimidated upon seeing her, give her five minutes.

          Current score: 2
          • Nocker says:

            Right. Because cloning a god-murderer many times over can’t go wrong in any possible way.

            Current score: 5
            • taulsn says:

              She would stop long enough to kill her clone, so it might be a good distraction to get away.

              Current score: 1
  11. Zathras IX says:

    We’re coming Ogre
    And we won’t come back ’til it’s
    Ogre, Ogre there

    Current score: 4
  12. Fiona says:

    Refreshingly straightforward Steff! Sort of!

    Current score: 1
  13. Lunaroki says:

    Typo Report

    Despite his exertions, he seemed much more better rested the next day,

    -.- “Much more better”? Seriously?

    “I can’t even sleep through other people‘s alarms…

    The italics close before the “s”, causing the word to look odd even before the effect that has on the direction of the apostrophe.

    “I was,” I said.”ButI kind of got the feeling

    Missing a couple of spaces in there, like between “said.” and the opening quotes, as well as between “But” and “I”.

    Current score: 0
  14. Dzen says:

    I love this story and the universe it’s set in, but I gotta be honest; I’m getting really tired of hearing about Mack And Her *Friends. When are we going to get back to the storylines about Acantha, Callahan, Mercy and Embries? When was the last time we heard anything from her father? These are all people with a greater interest in her than they’re letting on, so why have they all dropped off the face of the earth?

    Current score: 2
    • Mack says:

      This. Though I do enjoy the nuggets of wisdom in these pedestrian conversations, I have enough of this in regular life. I like malicious dragons, god killer gym teachers, demon masterminds, and two.

      Current score: 1