In Which Inappropriate Topics Are Discussed At The Table

Amaranth didn’t see anything wrong with the owl-turtle thing’s offer, and in fact she seemed surprised that I’d been so resistant to it. In retrospect, I was a little bit, too. The owl-turtle thing’s condition wasn’t all that unreasonable. I supposed that the misadventure with the moss, as much as it had ended well, had left me a little miffed at the thought of running errands at other people’s beck and call.

It was still raining Sunday night. There had been a break overnight, and then it alternated drizzle and downpour throughout the day. By the time we went to dinner, the sky was back to spitting hard, cold droplets that could have been hail if they’d had any ambition.

I voted that we stick to the much closer dining hall inside the Student Union for dinner, but since nobody else was even interested in voting I lost. Everybody else wanted to go to the Archimedes Center, just because the food was better.

Well, everybody except for Dee, who wanted to spend the evening lying naked in the pent, staring up at the clouds.

The human-dominated imperium’s way of handling the existence of races with other needs and mores was to lump them all together into one group. The exact application of the concept could quickly get into the kind of complicated inconsistencies that let you know real people came up with it, but for general purposes the human definition of decency only applied to humans. Dee was an elf, and elves typically wore clothes, but legally she had the same right to public nudity that a nymph like Amaranth did.

She didn’t usually. She had a very strong sense of modesty, but it was also situational. There were some situations where she considered it more decent to disrobe, in particular when she was stepping out of her role as a priestess.

I wasn’t sure if that was why she went out naked into the rain, or if she simply wanted to feel it on her body. Either way, the idea gave me the creeps… not because there was anything creepy about Dee’s body, but because a year before, a mermaid student who had been hunting other students had a similar storm for cover at least once.

She was gone… all the way gone. But it still sent shivers down my spine to think about Dee zoning out so close to the former site of the fountain where she’d killed her most famous victim.

Though if there was anyone in our group who could take care of themselves, it was Dee. On top of her mental powers and divine magic, she was also a skilled fighter. Even if she left her robes behind, she’d brought along a pair of maces studded with black jewels. The subterranean elves had a penchant for paired weapons. It was as much a style thing as it was a practical advantage, but she still knew how to use them.

We left her, with a promise to stop back and rouse her from her reverie on the way back. I didn’t begrudge seeing her safely to her destination, but it also meant that instead of walking right past the union we were going around to the front of it. It seemed to me like we might as well have just gone in, at that point, especially since we had to come back to get Dee.

The good thing about the situation was that I was getting a lot of practice at running my umbrella spell and running the water off my jacket. The bad thing about it was everything else..

I wasn’t complaining… at least not after the matter was settled, and even before that I was more just trying to state my case. Apparently, though, something about my face registered my displeasure about having to trek all the way to the Arch in the downpour.

“Kheez, you’re in a mood and a half today,” Steff said to me when as far as I knew, I was just eating my hamburger. “Is it because Nicki didn’t come?”

“No, and I don’t blame her for skipping out,” I said. “It just means she had more sense than we did. Her secret admirer probably did, too.”

“Is that any way to talk about your friend?” Amaranth asked.

“…what, suggesting that she has more sense than me?” I said, confused.

“Any other day, you’d be worried that she stayed in her room because she felt insecure,” Amaranth said, which I had to admit was true, though I didn’t have to admit it out loud. “Which is probably more likely, even if she used the weather as an excuse. And Steff, Mack is still just cranky because yesterday she had to go into the woods for her class.”

“If I’m… put off… by anything, it’s because I had to go out in the rain,” I said. “I.e., cold water… it’s kind of like the exact elemental opposite of hot fire.”

“Oh, I know you didn’t care for that, but it’s more the implication that you had to do something adventurous that really sticks with you,” Amaranth said. “The rain today is just reminding you of that. Honestly, you don’t normally get like this until it starts snowing.”

“Hey, I’m plenty adventurous,” I said. “I love the whole idea of adventures. I just… don’t like that I’m being forced to do needlessly risky things for a grade in a class that I didn’t want to take. If I didn’t like adventures in general, why would I spend my time reading about them?”

“Because that’s something you can do sitting comfortably in a chair at home, unlike actually going out and having, you know… a series of exploits,” Hazel said, displaying the characteristic aversion even to the word “adventure” of the burrow gnomes. “Them that… excuse me, those who are rich enough can even pay a bloke to go out and do exciting things and write it all down for them to read about.”

“There are people who have adventures for other people?” Ian said.

Hazel winced, but still answered.

“Oh, yeah… not a great many of them these days, as the whole thing’s getting to be a bit passé, but there’s money in it,” she said. “The polite word for them is ‘uncles’. I had an uncle… that is, an actual uncle… well, an older first cousin, once removed… who did a spot of uncling when he was younger. We always tried to sneak a peek at his little red book, but he kept it under lock and key. Not a fit thing for youngsters, he’d say.”

“I wonder if…” I began to say.

“Paying someone to do your schoolwork for you is always going to be wrong, even if there is a whole cottage industry devoted to it,” Amaranth said.

“More like a cottage hole industry,” Hazel said. “To be strictly accurate about it.”

“I wasn’t going to suggest hiring an ‘uncle’ to do my Local Hazards homework,” I said. “I was just wondering if Professor Swain was ever an… uncle? Or is it aunt, when they’re female?”

“I’d probably call her an uncler, but only from a safe distance,” Hazel said. “It’s not a thing to say about decent folks. Anyway, I doubt it. I think she was probably the real deal, as in, she did it on her own behalf, as it were. Though you wouldn’t think she’d ever done anything out of turn, the way she looks down her nose at some people.”

“Why would she be touchy about the subject of adventuring if she’s been an adventurer herself?” Ian said. “I’d think that would mean she’d gotten over the whole cultural prejudice against them.”

“Defying a cultural norm doesn’t mean you haven’t internalized it,” Amaranth said. “She may have felt that her adventuring was different, that it was justified in some way, without considering that everybody else who has an adventure has their own reasons as well. Or she might have felt that it was wrong even if it seemed necessary at the time, so now she overcompensates by being even more hardline about it than most shirelings.”

“I don’t know, she still seems pretty adventurous,” I said. “Even if she doesn’t care for the word.”

“Well, who does?” Hazel said, a bit angrily. “I know this is a pretty come-as-you-are bunch, but I ask you, is this any kind of topic to discuss at the table? All this throwing the a-word around is putting me right off my supper.”

“Sorry,” the three of us said at more or less the same time.

“Well, it’s a bit late for that,” Hazel said. “I’ve no choice now except to get started on dessert. At least I’ll have plenty of room for it.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works, Hazel,” Two called after her, though Hazel didn’t appear to hear, as she was wandering off having a conversation with herself about whether to start with pastries or ice cream. “I’ll tell her when she gets back.”

“Well, while she’s gone… I think what we need to do is build up your tolerance,” Amaranth said.

“I don’t think anyone needs to do that,” I said. “I mean, it’s already in the cards… I had to sign up for ‘nature walks’ in Professor Swain’s class, and when the first real homework assignment in a class involves going into the woods in search of potential danger, it’s pretty much a sure bet that it won’t be the last one like that. That, and I’m going out with Jamie Bowman later this week… isn’t that adventure enough for anybody?”

“That’s why we need to get you some practice,” Amaranth said. “Little steps, where no one’s grading you on anything. It’ll be good for you.”

“Where is all this insistence on turning me into an adventurer coming from?” I asked.

“I want to know where this aversion came from,” Ian said. “I mean, you weren’t exactly like ‘Hey, let’s go traipsing through the woods’ last year or a a anything…”

“Mostly because nobody says ‘traipsing’,” Steff said.

“…but I don’t remember you ever saying anything about not traipsing around the woods.”

“See above,” Steff said.

“Well, the thing about things you don’t like to do is that the don’t come up until someone’s forcing you,” I said. “And, okay… this is going to sound a little bad, maybe… but… in a lot of ways, my best semester here was the summer one.”

“What sounds bad about that?” Two asked.

“Because it’s the one where she was here alone,” Steff explained.

“It’s not because I was alone,” I said. “It’s because nothing happened. I didn’t go out much, at all. I just stayed in the dorm most of the time. I kept my head down. Part of it was not having as much reason to go out and do things when I didn’t have anyone to do them with, and part of it was knowing that I didn’t have anyone to bail me out if I got into trouble. The point is I played it safe, and as a result I killed in all my classes, figured out how to manage both my money and my feeding supply.”

“Basically, you kicked ass by wimping out,” Steff said.

“I wouldn’t put it that way… but yeah, you could say that,” I said.

“I see your point, baby, but you can take that too far,” Amaranth said. “I mean, your second semester was better than the first one… have you considered that maybe your summer session was better still because you had that much more experience? You had more confidence, you knew what you were doing… and you needed to come up with a source of income and a steady supply of blood, whether you had a semester to yourself or not, so that probably would have happened anyway.”

“Okay, that all makes sense,” I said. “But at the same time, there’s no risk in playing it safe. I mean, that’s what playing safe means… avoiding risk. I’ve never had to go looking for trouble, so it just makes sense to avoid it.”

“But since you don’t have to go looking for it, isn’t it better to know how to handle it when it arrives?” Amaranth said. “Here’s what I’m thinking: the three of us… and Dee, if she wants to… will each take you on a little adventure. Nothing really dangerous, just something… a little exciting. It could be fun, and it would help you be better prepared for the rest of Professor Swain’s class. We could make it a contest, or something… who can throw the best mini-adventure?”

“I’m not sure I really see the point of this exercise,” Ian said, and I could have kissed him for that. Well, I would have kissed him anyway, but I could have kissed him extra for that.

“I know I don’t see the point of it,” Steff said. “But it sounds like a blast anyway, so I’m in.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. I thought the whole thing was one of the stupidest ideas I’d ever heard, but it would kill Amaranth for me to say it so I wasn’t going to. Though maybe I actually was crankier than I thought, because then I totally did. “This is one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard.”

Amaranth crumpled. The look on her face was like a plastic bottle that got smashed and then someone immediately tried to smooth it out.

“Oh, well… then you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” she said.

“I didn’t say that I don’t want to,” I said.

“No, you said it was the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard of,” she said. “That doesn’t exactly sound like something you’d be in a hurry to do.”

“Are we forgetting how much she loves to do stupid things?” Steff said.

“I said one of the stupidest things,” I said. “I wasn’t being… absolute… or anything. I think the rain’s got everyone a little on edge.”

“I think it’s got you on edge,” Amaranth said.

“Yeah… I kind of have to agree,” Ian said. “This isn’t you, Mackenzie… or at least, it hasn’t been you lately.”

“Everyone has bad days, though,” Amaranth said.

“Okay, you’re right,” I said. “Look, I’m… resistant to the idea. But is that surprising? The whole point of the exercise is that I don’t like to do this kind of thing. So when you propose that I do a whole bunch of it, I’m not going to be crazy about it.”

“I’m not thinking ‘a whole bunch’,” she said. “Just three little things.”

“Four,” Two said. “If we do this, then I would like a turn.”

“Maybe three,” Ian said. “I’m still not convinced.”

“How little?” I said.

“Well, obviously I don’t have an exact plan yet,” Amaranth said. “But we’re not talking about epic quests or even overnight trips… just the sort of thing that can be done in an afternoon or evening, probably.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m not saying that I’m in, but I’m open to the idea.”

“Same,” Ian said. “I don’t trust anything that seems too much like teaching someone a valuable lesson. That shit never works.”

“How much are you paying for tuition here?” Steff asked.

“And how many of the students that Swain drags off into the woods are going to finish the semester knowing how to tell a bugbear from a bearbug?” Ian asked. “You can’t make someone learn. You can teach them, but the learning has to come from them.”

“Wait, are you saying I can’t learn a lesson?” I asked.

“No,” Ian said. “I just don’t think it’s likely, under the circumstances…”

“I’ve changed my mind,” I said. “I’m definitely in. When do we start this?”

“I don’t know, I guess as soon as someone has an idea?” Amaranth said.

“How about tonight?” Steff said. “We can go into the woods and… oh, I’m just kidding! I want to come up with something really good.”

“I think Hazel’s coming back this way,” Ian reported, craning his neck towards the serving area. “So we should probably table this for now.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Just don’t forget, I’ve still got to actually finish the whole mind-shielding thing… and I’m going to have homework in other classes. There’s something to be said for taking things on one at a time, as a very wise imaginary abomination said to me recently.”

“Well, we’ll do your… excursions… one at a time,” Amaranth said, censoring herself since Hazel was getting closer, although she was moving very slowly so as not to upset her tray of food. “If they end up spaced out a little, that will probably help you enjoy them a bit more. Or at least hate them a bit less.”

“Hate what?” Hazel said, setting a fully-loaded tray down on the table.

“Hazel, I don’t think it works that way,” Two said.

“What doesn’t work what way?” Hazel said. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing you’d care to hear,” Amaranth said.

“Good thing I missed it, then,” Hazel said. “I’m going to have a big enough job trying to settle my stomach with this stuff as it is. If it gets any more upset, I’ll have to go back for more.”

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23 Responses to “Chapter 137: Mood and Misadventure”

  1. zeel says:

    The last remark is priceless.

    I am very much liking this new idea, some more adve. . . er, excursions could be fun.

    First 😉

    Current score: 1
    • JN says:

      But the mind boggles at the idea of what Stef would consider a ‘mild excursion.’

      Current score: 1
  2. Krey says:

    There’s a good point about Mack not exactly being the ideal ‘center of adventure’ or whatever which squeaks of irony since she is in fact the main character. I love it!

    Current score: 1
  3. Jane says:

    An uncle, who writes down his adventures in a red book – love it! Was the title “There and back again” by any chance?

    Current score: 1
  4. Readaholic says:

    They’re discussing pleasant, unstructured walks as an aid to appetite.
    They’re planning an informal survey of local flora and fauna.
    They’re … any other suggestions for definitely not having a-words?

    I have to admit, contrasting Mack with Samuel’s much more – explorational – nature is very funny.

    Current score: 1
    • Anvildude says:

      They’re planning a walk out of the park?

      Current score: 1
  5. Angnor says:

    I would love a peek at the little red book myself…

    Love those references when they pop up. 🙂 Great chapter!

    Current score: 1
  6. Xicree says:

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE how Two just Chips in now like its no big deal making an offhand and completely arbitrary decision. It just says how far she’s come since we first met her.

    Current score: 1
  7. pedestrian says:

    I recognize myself in Hazel.
    Gluttony being the last vice i can stomach.

    Current score: 1
  8. Burnsidhe says:

    I’m with Mack on this one. ‘Adventures’ are little more than opportunities to get hurt.

    Current score: 1
    • P says:

      … and Alexandra Erin pretty much spelled out for us that Mackenzie is “on edge” because of being reminded of Embries. The fact is that she is handling stuff pretty well considering and it’s her friends who aren’t picking up on it or trying to figure out what’s wrong.

      Current score: 1
      • Brenda A. says:

        Thank you for spelling that out again, since it didn’t really register with me. I mean, once Mack stopped referring to it directly.

        Current score: 1
      • tomclark says:

        Well, it’s not like she could tell them if they did ask…

        Current score: 1
  9. hyrax says:

    Hee, love the glimpses into Shireling culture here. While a lot of different fantasy settings have drawn from Tolkein’s hobbits, I love that AE has zeroed in on the aversion to “adventure” as an important aspect of their culture. That’s not something I’ve ever seen explored and expanded on like this. Really cool!

    Also, I had TOTALLY forgot that Mackenzie is going on a date with Jamie! Now I’m excited about it anew. ^_^

    Current score: 1
  10. Zathras IX says:

    The food’s better at
    The Archimedes Center
    If you’re not the food

    Current score: 2
  11. Brenda A. says:

    If I might suggest – a walk in the woods on a bright, clear, sunny day?

    Current score: 1
  12. Hammurabi says:

    things you don’t like to do is that [they] don’t come up

    Current score: 0
  13. anon y mouse says:

    “I mean, you weren’t exactly like ‘Hey, let’s go traipsing through the woods’ last year or a a anything…” – or anything?

    Current score: 0
  14. Amelia says:

    “My adventure is different”
    Oh bravo.

    Current score: 1
  15. roma says:

    Not sure if Ian is an idiot or brilliant. Accidental revers physiology or accidentally-on-purpose?

    Current score: 1
  16. Aelfgar says:

    Error, Syntax error line 36…”But it still sent shivers down my spine to think about Dee zoning out so close to the former site of the fountain where she’d killed her most famous victim.”

    Makes it sound like Dee is the one who did the killing.

    Yeah, yeah, I know, but it reads a bit confusingly

    Anyway… as usual, I absolutely loved this installment!

    Current score: 1
  17. Joshua says:

    “the don’t” should be “they don’t”
    “everything else..” should have only one “.” at the end.

    Great chapter! I love the little details like the sarcasm around the word “traipsing” just as much as the overarching plot and the idea that someone’s going to get some good excursion experience.

    Current score: 0
  18. JerK says:

    Heh… An adventure Steff would come up with would be truly frightening. Think I’d rather dine with Embries.

    Current score: 0