Chapter 286: Fishy Things

on February 24, 2015 in Volume 2 Book 8: Elven Holiday, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Steff Is Out In The Cold

It… or things very much like it in terms of emotion and physical proximity… did happen again during the trip. I didn’t quite manage to reciprocate in kind, though I was getting a lot less reflexively freaked out by thoughts of or contact with that anatomical region.

I don’t think Nicki minded. I know the popular phrasing is stuff like “returned the favor”, but she didn’t do it as a favor to me… she did it because she wanted to. If there was one thing I had learned about sex in the year and a half or so I’d been having it, it wasn’t just that sex was more than just one single act or even set of acts… it was that those acts aren’t exactly fungible.

An equal sexual exchange isn’t one where both parties… or all parties, maybe I should say… get exactly the same thing. It’s where all parties get what they want.

Nicki sometimes seemed painfully happy to get anything, so I did my best to give her everything… though I had to walk a bit of a tightrope there because I didn’t want to neglect Glory. Managing that without falling into a transactional model of thinking made things a little more difficult, but not too much.

We all spent a lot of our social time together, and nobody else seemed to be counting the minutes where I snuck off with one or the other of them, so I wasn’t about to do so, either.

Though, it wasn’t entirely a conscious decision… I’ve never had a great sense of time to begin with. The holiday breaks had always been long, undifferentiated blurs of nothing broken up whatever. This trip was anything but that, but the effect was much the same. Once we got into the swing of things, we skated by each night on a minimum of sleep as only college students can, which meant the days bled into each other at a dizzying pace. If Glory hadn’t acceded to my breakfast preferences, there would have been very little to distinguish the end of one day and the start of another.

My framework for measuring time at college had been the passage not of hours and days, but classes and weeks. Take away the regular alternation of Monday-Wednesday-Friday with Tuesday-Thursday and the significance of the weekend, and the days just became days, one line any any other. The fact that we were doing different things each day of the trip didn’t help, because there was no cycle to it. Everything was new. If we went to a spa one day and a concert the next, it was because that’s how things went, not because that’s how they go.

The port calls didn’t help. If I had felt completely disconnected from the outside world while on board a ship thousands of feet up in the air, hopping from one strange place to another for fractions of day did nothing to anchor me.

Enwich was the biggest city I’d ever been in before the cruise. It might have been bigger than some of the places the ship touched down in terms of size and population, but not in terms of space or importance. A walled midlands city can’t compare to the sprawling air-and-sea ports of the Crescent Coast. The roads I saw were wider, but often more winding. The biggest buildings were just as tall, but spaced farther apart. There was more light, more space, more room to breathe.

After a dizzying approach from the air, we only saw small parts of each one for small amounts of time… not nearly enough to form a real impression. As far as I knew, they might all just be larger and airier versions of the strip mall that ran down the spine of the ship on the promenade deck: just a bunch of high end stores and restaurants, strung together for tourists.

My favorite part of the port calls was definitely the climate: sunny and warm in the middle of winter. I still didn’t have much in the way of a solid plan for my future, but coming from snowy Prax to the southern coast gave me a strong inclination to secure it somewhere tropical… though I couldn’t think about this without feeling a pang. Amaranth was bound to her field, which meant that any future that included her would be far more limited in scope.

The flowering plant with which she shared her life and her everyday use name were from somewhere even farther south, but Paradise Valley was farther north than I’d ever lived. Sure, they used weather magic for their more sensitive crops, but my understanding was that they believed in letting nature take its course when not absolutely necessary.

I tried to just forget the future and enjoy the sunshine, but it kept intruding. I wound up taking most of my above-deck time at night, when the climate difference was less obvious.

Glory’s daily routine included at least one reflection back to the homefront. I had made a point of talking to Amaranth every day at the same time about what I’d been up to, but almost right away she told me that she’d rather know I was out enjoying myself than have me checking in.

Other than breakfast, the closest thing to a constant in my lack of a routine was how often I ended up eating seafood.

One night near the end of the trip, I had dinner with Glory, Grace, and Nicki at a seafood restaurant enclosed inside a dome-shaped aquarium nestled near the front of the ship. The walls, ceiling, and columns were all transparent, showing schools of tropical fish, sharks, and gracefully undulating rays.

“Is it weird that they assume everyone who comes on a flying ship is going to want to constantly be reminded of the ocean?” Nicki asked.

“Well, in fairness to the brand directors and menu planners, sky-based cuisine is quite a bit more limited,” Glory said. “Birds? The fleshiest fowl tend to stay close to the ground. If there are any edible creatures of elemental air, I doubt they’d provide much sustenance.”

“Not to us,” I said. “Probably a different story to each other. I suppose it’s possible that the relentless nautical theming serves a similar purpose to keeping everything generally ship-shape, enchantment-wise.”

“You mean it’s easier to keep the ship sailing if everyone on it’s thinking ‘ocean’?” Grace asked.

“It doesn’t matter what we think,” I said. A lot of laypeople got this wrong. It was the kind of thing that could awaken my inner pedant, but I thought I was doing a good job of keeping things more conversational than corrective. Maybe the spa treatment had helped relax me… that, or the intense orgasms. “A lot of things about magic use are subjective, but they’re not subject to us. Things are what they are, so the cruise ship is what it is. It apparently helps them keep it in the air by making what it is a bit like a floating island, and I have to imagine it helps them keep it moving by making it a bit like an actual ship.”

“Hold on,” Glory said. “Something’s happening.”

Moments after, the maitre d’ appeared. He had enough elven blood to have the silent gliding stride, but not enough that Glory didn’t hear him coming, apparently.

“Pardon, madame,” he said to Glory. “There is a reflection waiting for you.”

“This could be it,” she said, dabbing her lips with a napkin and then falling silently in line behind him as he retreated to a curtained alcove.

“She’s so calm,” Nicki said. “I don’t know how she can do it.”

“You think so?” Grace said. “She’s been worried sick about things back home.”

“I can never tell,” Nicki said. “She always seems so… poised. I mean, elves always do, but her more than everyone else.”

“Do I seem poised?” Grace asked.

“Compared to me?” Nicki said. “Hell yeah.”

“Glory is older than the other elves you know,” I said to Nicki. “So it stands to reason she’d have a bit more of the calm control even when she’s not feeling it.”

I didn’t say that I was starting to understand how little she often felt it. Once I’d started thinking of Glory as concealing an anxious demeanor behind her gauzy veils and marble mask, I couldn’t stop seeing it.

I wasn’t about to mention it to her, though, or anyone else. It would be a pretty big liability if it became the general impression of her, and for that reason alone she might take it as an insult.

I didn’t know what I could do about it, except what I’d always done for her: whatever needed doing. Just knowing about it made her more relatable, and made me feel about a thousand times more protective towards her.

“Here she comes,” Grace said, her voice dripping with worry. “She looks… confused.”

I didn’t want to turn to look over my shoulder before she had a chance to compose herself, but she still looked confused when she slipped into her chair.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I… don’t know,” she said. “It was Amaranth, and she said ‘something weird’ was happening outside, but while she was waiting for the mirrors to find me, it ‘stopped’.”

“You c… didn’t press her for details?” I asked. I’d almost said couldn’t, but if strange things were happening at Oberrad, Glory might have to reclaim her mantle of authority, and that would have been the wrong word to say to a queen.

“She didn’t have any more,” Glory said. “She was apparently going by what Dee and Steff had told her… something was apparently happening out on the grounds. They were checking it out.”

“…I really hope they didn’t both go out into the open to investigate a funny noise,” I said. “That’s like the most obvious of obvious traps.”

“That was my question. Steff’s making a foray. She was scouting the perimeter… Amaranth’s words… when whatever happened, happened. Dee is still inside… or was, anyway… I think maybe scanning the area somehow. I’m not really very clear on how the stuff she does works?”

“Very few people are, at least on the surface,” I said. “I hope Steff’s okay.”

“I think Dee would have known if she wasn’t, and thus Amaranth would have,” Glory said. “I mean, I’d assume that if something suddenly cut Steff off from both mental and auditory contact with Dee, she’d sound the alarm in a hurry. And if there’s someone in Treehome with the ability to baffle one of those senses in a way that’s not obvious, I doubt anyone can manage both of them.”

“Yeah, the telepathy’s going to be a real wild card,” I said. “But that just makes it more frustrating that they can’t tell us what’s happening.”

“Best case scenario? Unrelated ruckus, like a wandering monster encroached near the edge of their perimeter,” Glory said. “Close enough to be noticed, not close enough to be identified. Worst case scenario? Someone moved their stuff into position for a later attack… loud enough for our defenders to hear them, but quickly enough that they were done before they could be pinpointed. If that’s the case, though, at least we’re on high alert.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’d feel better if I knew which case it was.”

“Well, this is the information we have,” she said, and I knew that she felt the same.

I joined Glory when she checked in again after dinner. This time Pala answered. The full-length mirror was anything but on her… the reflection cut off at about her navel before she ducked down.

“Oh, hello!” she said, smiling and waving. “Amaranth is healing the wounded. I do not want to stay on long in case something happens, but everything is fine.”

“It doesn’t sound fine if we have wounded,” Glory said. “Did they attack?”

“Is Steff okay?” I asked. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the others, but I’d just been told Amaranth’s status… plus Amaranth was immortal… and Steff was the one that I knew had been out and about in the open.

“Well, she still talks to Teddi every two weeks but she’s certainly doing better than she was last year,” Pala said. “She still acts like she has something to prove, though… which usually ends up being something horrible, maybe because she doesn’t want to feel like she owes anyone anything? I do not know, it’s a complicated thing, you know? But are any of us ‘okay’? We all of us have troubles, but I like to think you can have troubles and be okay still.”

“…she’s not hurt, then,” I said.

“No!” Pala said, confused. “Who would hurt her? All of the enemy are defeated. If they are enemy.”

“What happened?” Glory asked flatly.

“I have no idea!” Pala said, and she sounded genuinely excited by the prospect. “But I am manning the fort, and I should not be hanging around in case it’s a trick.”

“Who defeated ‘the enemy’?” Glory asked.

“Maybe they defeated themselves!” Pala said. “That would be a trick. We’d never see it coming. Bye!”

She waved the reflection away with an almost indecent amount of enthusiasm. Glory looked at me.

“…if there are enemies around, defeated or not, then the strongest and least perceptive fighter really shouldn’t be held up in front of a mirror,” I said. “She’d be a sitting duck in case of an ambush.”

“I agree,” Glory said. “Tell me that the people you put in charge of defending my hall wouldn’t bring mysteriously wounded enemies inside for treatment.”

“…I’d like to say no, but I don’t know what the weather is like in Prax right now,” I said. “If there’s a big blowing snowstorm then the chain of thought could be like: well, obviously, we have to heal them… but it’s dangerous and inconvenient to do so in a white-out… so we have to bring them in.

“…damn it all, a blizzard would explain our elven ears not being able to get a fix on things,” Glory said. “I wish Pala had told us as much about anything else as she did Steff’s psychological well-being.”

“Oh, wait,” I said. “I just remembered… the weather’s on our side.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Pala is a storm giant,” I said. “If the weather were inconvenient for a rescue mission, she could just… ask it to go away for a bit.”

“Would she think of that?”

“Well, as much of an airhead as she can be, I think the weather stuff is second nature to her,” I said. “And if she didn’t think of it, someone else would.”

“So what’s their play, then?” Glory asked. “Because I don’t believe a bunch of ‘enemies’ showed up on our doorstep, mysteriously wounded by no apparent attacker and badly in need of aid.”

A thought had started to form in my head on the word play, and it crystallized as Glory mentioned being wounded by no one.

“…mockboxes,” I said.

“What?”

“They could have wounded themselves with phantasmal weapons,” I said. “The wounds would behave exactly like real ones. They would be actually incapacitated… illusionarily incapacitated, anyway, but for all intents and purposes the same, right up until the spell is lifted. Some of them could even be dead or dismembered, to all appearances… and there are a ton of mockboxes on campus that no one is using during the break.”

“Wouldn’t a trained healer know the difference?” Glory asked.

“…I’m not one hundred percent sure but I think they would respond to actual healing magic as if they were real wounds,” I said. “And neither of our healers are arcanists… I think Dee might well have the perspicacity to see through an illusion if she examined it up close, but she’s not the one healing them.”

“Could Amaranth dispel them?”

“Dee could,” I said. I was guessing, but I’d be surprised if a priestess with her training couldn’t undo a wizard’s illusion. “Amaranth, I don’t know… she has a lot of raw divine power, but she doesn’t throw it around much.”

“I’m going to get them back, then,” Glory said. “I’ll let Dee know they need to dispel illusions on the wounded.”

We couldn’t get anyone to answer, though. Glory kept trying, but nothing came through.

“Shit,” Glory said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I really hope you’re wrong.”


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24 Responses to “Chapter 286: Fishy Things”

  1. Dani says:

    > one line any any other

    One like any other?

    > Amaranth was bound to her field, which meant
    > that any future that included her

    I predict that Amaranth will come to a grim end before this becomes an issue. We’ve already been given a heads-up that she is legally considered property – and that’s not a safe thing to be.

    > ‘something weird’ was happening outside

    This emergency call could have waited until Amaranth (or someone else) decided what to say.

    Current score: 2
  2. undertheteacup says:

    Oh shiiiiiiit!

    😀

    *wonders which, if any, of the main characters will end up dead*

    Current score: 2
  3. Maahes0 says:

    I’m almost afraid Mack will call on Embries for help out of desperation. We already know about his tolerance of bullshit on his grounds.

    Current score: 1
    • Headphones and Whispers says:

      That’s got about as much of a chance of happening as Mac making a snow-angel buck naked.

      Current score: 1
    • Seriously, why can't I just be anonymous says:

      Actually, that’s a good point. They should call campus security and tell them, “We were talking with our friends, they informed us that attacks were going on, we just lost connection, we think students might be dying.”

      Current score: 1
  4. MistyCat says:

    I didn’t say that I was starting to understand how little she often felt it.

    Re-word?

    Current score: 1
  5. Nocker says:

    Ok so someone is wounded. We can discount wandering monsters almost immediately. Treehome handles a good hunk of those and student patrols handle another hunk. Even if they don’t the grounds have wards that are only relaxed during active class terms and are likely on full blast now, and heck even fifty years ago were strong enough to stop individual snowflakes dead in the air.

    This is 100% a result of foul play. We don’t know EXACTLY who or why or how, but it’s not even a question of what.

    The obvious next course of action is to check somebody else’s mirror and try to get an update from them. Ian if possible, if not then whoever is on and can handle themselves in a fight.

    Current score: 1
    • zeel says:

      Fifty years ago was a completely different campus with a full wall and completely different kinds of protective magic.

      The modern MU campus is mainly defended by the network of paths, and campus security/student patrols. Security that is normally quite lax – and only increased at the start of the year, midterms, and finals.

      Wandering monster attack during the relatively low security winter break? Totally plausible – which is why it’s a good cover.

      As to other mirrors: Most people she knows aren’t even on campus, those who are would be no more able to reach Oberad than she is without physically showing up, which could be dangerous for them. Glory should have given all the defenders hand mirrors!

      Current score: 2
      • Nocker says:

        Fair enough. I’d forgotten how radically different old MU was to new MU.

        But still, elves being on campus still, security and wards increased. You have fewer student patrols but that should more than make up the difference. The only reason they’d get through is if an intentional hole was left in the first line of defense from the elves, or just as likely forced through it.

        Current score: 1
      • Lyssa says:

        We couldn’t get anyone to answer, though. Glory kept trying, but nothing came through.

        The “anyone” in that makes me think they do all have mirrors which Glory tried to reach. That nobody is answering their mirror is worrying. :/

        Current score: 2
      • Seriously, why can't I just be anonymous says:

        Woah, woah, that’s just crazy talk. Security guards should have some sort of radios to communicate at a distance or cell phones or something to call for backup? Psh, next you’ll be saying that all of the defenders should keep their weapons near at hand while they’re healing a bunch of people who were mysteriously injured.

        Current score: 0
  6. Peter Granzeau says:

    “I can never tell,” Nicki said. “She always seems so… poised. I mean, elves always do, but her more than everyone else.”

    Shouldn’t this be:

    “I can never tell,” Nicki said. “She always seems so… poised. I mean, elves always do, but she more than everyone else.”

    Current score: 2
    • zeel says:

      The her/she (took me forever to see any difference, try emphasis)? Maybe, but it’s in dialogue so we are assuming Nicki just doesn’t know/care if she got her pronouns perfect.

      Current score: 1
  7. Zathras IX says:

    Equal sexual
    Exchange is where all parties
    Get all that they need

    Current score: 2
  8. Readaholic says:

    Uh oh.
    Although, if they did use the mockboxes, that may well get Callahan on their case. She’d love an excuse to kill some immortals. Although she might have to get to them before Embries. I get the impression that while Embries wouldn’t mind disposing of the remains, so to speak, he prefers to kill his own.

    Current score: 1
    • zeel says:

      I highly doubt Callahan gives a crap about any boxes beside her special ones.

      Current score: 0
      • Lucy says:

        it’s better to be safe than sorry, ‘elfs pulling stunts with mockboxes’ sounds a bit to close to Acantha and the cloneboxes

        Current score: 4
      • Seriously, why can't I just be anonymous says:

        Those are *her* mockboxes. No elven douchebags that are already setting off her “they’re immortal enough, I must kill them” internal sense are going to be using *her* stuff and getting away with it.

        Current score: 1
    • Nocker says:

      Another option is that they just bought their own Mockbox. Elves have plenty of money and they could just turn it to splinters and burn it to destroy evidence if that’s what it came to.

      Current score: 0
      • zeel says:

        I wonder how common it is to own such a thing? Is a mockbox insanely expensive like a high end 3D printer or old school mainframe? Or is something you can pick up at the local Walledmart?

        Current score: 0
  9. Arancaytar says:

    did happen again during the trip.

    Aw, that phrase kind of sounds like the airship plot is wrapping up…

    “Pardon, madame,” he said to Glory. “There is a reflection waiting for you.”

    “This could be it,” she said, dabbing her lips with a napkin and then falling silently in line behind him as he retreated to a curtained alcove.

    Adrenaline rush. The regular check-in is initiated by her.

    Current score: 0
  10. Arancaytar says:

    We couldn’t get anyone to answer, though. Glory kept trying, but nothing came through.

    ohshitohshitohshit

    Current score: 0
  11. Another Greg says:

    …had to look up ‘fungible’ (interchangeable)…great chapter 😀

    Current score: 0