266: Shades Of Gray

on August 11, 2008 in Book 10

In Which Steff Makes Things Steamy On Reflection

Room service paged me again shortly after Mercy left. I ran to answer the chime, thinking it would be Steff. In the process of reaching out to the orb, I got a good look at the bloody mess that was my hand. I fought against the urge to lick the drying streaks off and told the guy to please just leave the food in the living room, then hurried around the corner before they got there.

Of course, my path of retreat took me back to the dining area, the “scene of the crime”. The tile was stained pretty vividly over a fairly large area… after staring at it and wishing it would go away didn’t accomplish anything, I started poking around the kitchen cupboards and found some powder that looked like the stuff Puddy had used to clean up the mess in the bathroom after my last “episode”.

To my profound relief, the stain vanished without a trace. I didn’t want to think about what the housekeeping staff would have thought when they saw it… I couldn’t imagine that anybody who worked in the hospitality industry long enough wouldn’t know what dried blood looked like.

Part of me thought they’d just clean it up and file it away with all their other stories about how crazy the people who rent the big suites were… but just as I couldn’t look at the stain without picturing myself down on all fours like a rooting hog, part of me believed that anybody who saw it would think the same thing.

Anyway, it was gone, and running the sink and garbage disposal for a few minutes took care of the rest of the mess. The copious amounts of physical destruction I’d managed to wreak on the penthouse’s furnishings… and whatever other damage I had yet to inflict… would no doubt inspire their own stories, but whatever. As long as I stayed away from the major appliances, nothing I did would take more than five minutes to set right.

Of course, some things couldn’t be repaired as easily as furniture and vases… relationships, for instance. Trust. Every minute that Steff didn’t come back was like a spike of ice driven into my heart, via my stomach.

She’d finally seen the real me. I’d warned her about what I was really like, and she’d laughed… laughed, and taken the opportunity to show me how helpless and harmless I was.

When she finally came back, she didn’t have her key so she had to use the orb. That was probably a good thing, anyway… even in my right mind, it took me a minute to figure out how to let her come up. If I’d still been all bestial, it would have been impossible.

She came into the living room wrapped in a couple towels. I could see her hesitating as she stepped off the lift. Her eyes were puffy and red… she looked haunted, spellshocked.

“Uh… sorry,” I said. It was the least adequate word ever.

“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “We’re… we’re kind of stupid, aren’t we?”

“Kind of,” I agreed.

She sighed, then came over and joined me by the fire.

“I’m not going to lie, Mack… you scared me.”

“I noticed,” I said.

“I guess some things are better left to fantasy,” she said.

“Do you really… fantasize… about that kind of stuff?” I asked her.

“Yeah, I do,” she said. “I always have… before I even met Viktor, which I guess is why I was so excited about visiting his homeland. Maybe it’s just because it’s how I learned to relate to my own body, but… violence turns me on. The idea of it… the imagery, you know? Because of course, in your head or on paper, you can do what you want over and over again… then I ended up rooming with a half-ogre within easy walking distance of a free healing center… I guess I kind of lost sight of the difference between… well…”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I mean, we can’t pretend that nobody was hurt, but… that wasn’t because of you.”

“I think this was a mistake,” she said. “The whole thing… well, not the whole thing meaning you and me, but this whole… we didn’t need a great big gigantic penthouse suite or a special dinner…”

“Especially not that special dinner,” I said.

“I mean, the sex was… well, it was good, but while I was downstairs hiding in the supply closet, I just kept thinking back to the other times,” she said. “Like when we went walking in the trees and I held you down… remember?” I shivered. Yes, yes I did remember that. “Even without penetration, it was… you got me so hot.”

“You did, too,” I said. “I mean, you got me hot.”

We sat there in silence and just looked at each other for a long time, and then she started to lean forward. I threw my arms around her, and we sank into each other gratefully… it was the first time we’d touched since she left and came back, and I think we both needed a touch of reassurance.

“Well… if nothing else,” Steff said when we separated “I’m going to call this another piece of evidence in favor of the possession theory.

“Steff… that was all me,” I said. “And just me. I understand why you might want to pretend that it wasn’t… I would, too, if I could, but…”

“I believe you,” she said. “So believe me, Mack, when I tell you that you were acting way different than what I saw during your little blackout. The person who took on Callahan and arranged our date had a plan… an agenda… even if they weren’t the best at carrying it out. Just-you-you, on the other hand, was only thinking of one thing.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t remember what I was thinking the other time, so I couldn’t tell you…”

“And nothing says ‘totally not possessed’ like memory loss,” Steff said. “I can’t believe that isn’t a bigger deal to you.”

I shrugged.

“It freaks me out a little, but not as much as some of the stuff I do remember,” I said. “I’d love to be able to repress my memory of the look on your face when you left, or of me down on my hands and knees in front of Mercy.”

“Mercy?” Steff echoed. “Mercy was here?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think she was hiding on the room service cart… she upgraded our room and comped the food herself, apparently.”

“Seriously? What did she want?”

“A new pet, apparently,” I said.

“You seem to get that a lot.”

“Yeah,” I said. “She was taking it to a whole new level, though… she’s talking breeding farm. I got the feeling that she wanted me for a lapdog, but her plans are bigger than that.”

“An assassin with an endless supply of half-demon slaves?” Steff asked. “Yeesh… that could get scary, fast. Anyway, is it true what they say about her?”

“What, that she’s creepy? That she’s crazy?”

“That she’s got… gray… skin.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, she does.”

“Ew,” Steff said. She shuddered visibly. “What’s it look like?”

“Like somebody took Ariadne’s skin color and crossed it with Dee’s,” I said.

“Huh,” Steff said. “Wonder what it means.”

I stared at her, waiting for the punch line… but then I realized she wasn’t joking.

“Uh… she’s half surface elf and half subterranean elf,” I said.

“Yeah, right,” Steff said. “Seriously, though, I wonder if it’s a glamour or a curse?”

“I asked her and she said her dad was a subterranean elf and her mom was a surface one,” I said.

“You’d think she’d have a better story than that,” Steff said.

“I don’t think that was a story,” I said. “I’m not sure why you don’t believe it… it seems like the obvious answer.”

“Except for the little fact that it’s not possible,” Steff said.

“Why? Just because two peoples are at war doesn’t mean that individuals can’t…”

“They wouldn’t,” Steff said. “And even if they did, it wouldn’t work. Deep elves and elves can’t interbreed.”

“Um, every intelligent race can interbreed,” I said. “It’s what makes us distinct from animals.”

“Yeah, except for elves and dark elves,” Steff said. “When the dark elves were split off, the split was total… the two races can’t be rejoined. They say it’s the will of the gods.”

“Oh, please,” I said. “You don’t even believe in the elven gods.”

“Yeah, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be some truth behind the story,” Steff said. “They made up the myth about the elven gods’ decree to explain why elves and deep elves can’t mate.”

“Why are you so sure they can’t?”

“Have you ever seen a crossbreed?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Like, twenty minutes ago.”

“I mean, around?” Steff said. “If it were possible, it would have happened at some time, and with both parents being immortal you’d think you’d see some evidence of it.”

“I did,” I said. “Twenty minutes ago.”

“Well, there should be more than one… I mean, elves and dwarves aren’t famous for getting along, but there’s still a whole colony of dwelves in the northlands, isn’t there?”

“Look, all I know is I saw a gray elf… and last I checked, you get gray by mixing black and white,” I said.

“Yeah, okay… one of us has elven blood and spent half her childhood among elves, but whatever,” Steff said. “I suggest you don’t go mentioning this theory to Dee.”

“Why not?”

“She does believe in the elven gods, and you’re the one who’s always going on about not insulting her religion,” Steff said.

“Her version of the schism is a bit different from yours, I think,” I said.

“Yeah, but I bet it still involves the same amount of never-meeting from the twains,” Steff said.

“Respecting somebody’s religious beliefs doesn’t have to include indulging something that’s just ridiculously untrue,” I said, though I remembered the argument with Amaranth over “Anankha”.

Steff did, too, apparently.

“Well, just ask yourself what Amaranth would do,” she said. “Unless you’ve got some kind of incontrovertible proof that the two elven races can interbreed…”

“Like meeting their offspring?”

“…you’re probably better off keeping it to yourself,” she said.

“Yeah, probably,” I said. I couldn’t see what it mattered, anyway… as Steff had said, such mixes weren’t that common to begin with. “Um… you know, we’ve got some kind of stuffed chicken, courtesy of Mercy.”

“I’m not really that hungry,” she said.

“Me, neither.”

“I’d kind of like to go to bed,” she said. “We can put the stuff away for brunch tomorrow?”

“Yeah, totally,” I said.

“Um, you might want to get cleaned up a little first, though,” Steff said. “You look… pretty ghoulish, actually.”

I wasn’t a dainty eater under the best of circumstances… I didn’t want to think about what I looked like now. Without thinking, I reached up and touched my face around my mouth and felt my stomach turn when some powdery red bits flaked off at my touch. At least the blood giver is probably still alive, I reminded myself… but that just drove home the point that whoever had furnished the meat wasn’t.

“Hey,” Steff said, reaching out and touching my chin. “You couldn’t help yourself.”

“I shouldn’t have put myself in the position in the first place,” I said.

“You need to work on your self-control,” she said. “I think it’s the same thing as your weakness to sanctity… maybe with a little practice, you won’t give in so easily?”

“I don’t want to practice opposing the will of the gods,” I said. “And how am I supposed to work on resisting this kind of temptation? I’m not going to place another order.”

“Well, hon… something has got to change,” Steff said.

“I agree… I just don’t know what or how,” I said. The attention to the gore on my face was making it impossible for me to ignore the condition inside my mouth. I scraped my tongue on the bottom of my teeth, trying to get the sour, vomity taste off of it. “I hope Amaranth packed my toothbrush, too… I threw up after you left.”

“I’m glad,” Steff said. She looked stricken as soon as she realized what she’d said. “Oh! I didn’t… I mean, I’m kind of relieved… well, I think I would have thrown up, too, to be honest.”

“Yeah, it’s okay,” I said. “I know what you mean. I’d be worried if I hadn’t thrown up, too.”

“So… do you want to take another bath before we get back into the bed?” Steff asked.

“There was a shower there, too, wasn’t there?” I asked. “I don’t really want to sit there in bloody water…”

“Yeah, hold on,” Steff said. “Let me go turn it on.”

“No, let’s both go,” I said.

“Oh, but it’ll be cold in there,” she said. “You sit by the fire and let me get it warmed up for you.”

“Oh, um, okay,” I said. I watched her go, feeling uneasy… I couldn’t help but think that she was trying to put space between us.

But then, bathing together had been her idea. If she was trying to ditch me, the easiest thing in the world would have been for her to point me towards the shower, grab her clothes and stuff, and bolt. She had Viktor’s money. She could afford a cab.

It turned out I didn’t have anything to worry about… if anything, she didn’t want to leave me alone. She was back almost as soon as I heard the water running.

“Let’s give it a few minutes to warm up,” she said, draping an arm over me.

“I’d kind of like to get clean,” I said.

With each moment, I was becoming more aware of the totality of my condition. This wasn’t just run-of-the-mill grossness… I had blood streaked on my face and arms and bits of somebody between my teeth.

I realized that I couldn’t do anything to undo what had been done to them… a fate in which I may have been complicit even if I wasn’t personally responsible.

Of course, this was the horror of slavery put in the starkest terms possible. Even without an amoral restaurant like Tender Mercy’s willing to stretch the letter of the law to the breaking point, slaves lived and died according to the whims of their owners. That most of them had it better than Mercy’s “stock” didn’t change the fact that they were slaves.

Shiel had said something similar about the plight of women in the kobold warrens: the fact that her relatives chose to treat her better than average didn’t change the fact that it was their choice.

“Mack, hon… you still with me?”

“Sorry,” I said. I shuddered. “I really don’t like slavers… why do we still have them? It isn’t like they’re driving the economy any more.”

“It’s about the balance of power,” Steff said. “The people most likely to own slaves are the ones who have most of it, and the people most likely to be slaves don’t. Even if slavery were illegal, people would still be being oppressed and exploited by the wagonload. Ask Dee what she thinks about slavery, and then ask her for a detailed explanation of her people’s social organization.”

“Yeah, but there’d be some kind of limits to it,” I said. “There’d have to be.”

Steff kissed me on the forehead.

“Hon, I love you, but you’re terribly naive,” she said.

“You don’t think there would be?”

“I think they’d hide it a little better, but whether that made things better or worse…”

“There couldn’t be any such place as Tender Mercy’s if it wasn’t legal to treat people as chattel,” I said.

“Hon, whatever was pulling your strings… it would have found something truly awful to do, no matter what the laws of the land allowed,” Steff said. “I think, in this case, you personally should be glad there was a legal alternative available.”

“So I’m profiting by misery,” I said. “Nice to know.”

“Come on,” Steff said, grabbing my hand. “I think the shower should be hot enough by now.”

When we got to the bathroom, I saw what she had really been up to… yes, the whole room was toasty warm with the heat from the shower, but every reflective surface was completely obscured by steam, sparing me the sight of myself in the grisly state.

She helped me clean myself up, and then once the worst of the gore had been dealt with, we engaged in the tender act of washing each other. It was a cleansing experience in every sense of the word… cathartic, even.

There was no more sex that night, but there was love… so much love. The day had been an almost unmitigated disaster. I would have taken the whole thing back if I could. Once we’d put the real food away for the morning and I was lying in bed beside her, though, I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she murmured before drifting off to sleep, “but… if I had to choose one or the other… I’d rather be your friend than your lover.”

I don’t know which way she thought I’d take it, but I felt the same way about her, and it was wonderful.

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6 Responses to “266: Shades Of Gray”

  1. pedestrian says:

    How is it the agrarian goddess Holo the Wise Wolf puts it:

    “Men hunt wolves, wolves hunt men.”

    Men have no qualms about acquiring a wolf pelt or a necklace of canines.

    EurAsian Wolves have no qualms about eating manflesh.

    I have no qualms about either, as long as it is a reasonably fair fight.

    Current score: 3
    • Arakano says:

      Actually, there is not really that much evidence for wolves hunting men…

      Current score: 3
      • zeel says:

        Hunting specifically? Not really. But if they feel threatened they will neither hesitate to kill a man nor too eat him.

        Current score: 0
  2. pedestrian says:

    These last couple of chapters help shed light on the reality of the “peculiar institution” of slavery in America. Human beings lose their autonomy and are considered only as “units of value”, to be treated as cattle by their masters.

    As a historian, I surprised myself by my blaise attitude towards the modern secessionist “Lost Cause”/Teapotty noisemakers. From a semi-interested long view, their predecessors were traitors a 150 years ago, they are traitors today, their successors will be traitors a 150 years from today. I thought I would have been more emotional about this revanchist reaction.

    To my astonishment, what has triggered violent emotional outbursts from me, is their blasphemy. Here I had deluded myself that I was your Classical Humanist, Reason and Rational and a Materialist Atheist. Quell Surprise!

    You can take the boy out of the church but deep down festering in my subconscious, are to be found my ancestors; Presbyterian-Lutheran-Dutch Reformed Church, Orange Banner waving, Ironside fanatics. I find myself channeling Oliver Cromwell, Gustavus Adolphus, John Brown and William Tecumseh Sherman.

    Wow, the inside of my head is feeling rather crowded these days.

    Current score: 1
    • MackSffrs says:

      Certainly America played up and institutionalized to a nearly unheard of degree a complete racially based slavery system. However, while in nearly any economic system a human can be treated as cattle, as micro income workers for instance, there is something completely different to be said about the statistical and scientific treatment of the economics of human “units of value.” It is an important concept in the modern era where most influential organizations, businesses and agencies and others, are too large for any one person to exert anything resembling direct control over all members. It is said a human can manage and be responsible for upwards of 2000 others in the same organization. There reaches a point where certain things are plainly seen, such as the following: 6,000,000,000/2000 = 3,000,000
      At best there are only three million Harvard level leaders in the world leading the human race forward, realistically though it is much nearer 6 billion spread over a hundred semi decent leaders. A few too many? Nope.

      Indentured servitude existed as a form of financial restitution since before recorded history in some fashion or another, often taking periods of five, seven, or ten years to forgive all debt. Maybe the institution needs reviving in an era where much of the economy relies on phantom credit guaranteed against the lies of governments and other large organizations?

      While I can imagine some form of indentured servitude to exist in the MU world, I’d have to imagine that the extremely complex and far reaching economy that is described, which manages to operate despite the more constant diverse dangers posed by magic, would have course to make much more permanent solutions to overreaching debts necessary.

      Current score: 0
      • Ryzndmon says:

        I am sorry, but I find it immensely disturbing how casually you endorse legalized indentured servitude, basically a form of debt sponsored slavery. Adding to it that you acknowledge the “need” for it be be based from “phantom credit guaranteed against the lies of governments and other large organizations” makes it a sad statement of the modern Americans need to maintain the status quo no matter what the price. It’s a sick system, rotting from the inside out, top to the bottom. I do not think the answer lies in giving the corrupted powers that be ability to turn the already decreasing and disenfranchised middle and lower classes into an easy pool of “human units”. That’s just me, though, and YMMV.

        I am for the nation my family, and I, have served for generations. Which means that when push comes to shove, I will proudly stand up against the corporate owned Government, to protect the freedoms and rights of my loved ones.

        Current score: 3