423: Kissing Cousins

on December 7, 2009 in Book 15

In Which Mackenzie Discovers that Someone Is Wrong On The Ethernet

Even with the headline staring me in the face, even with all the evidence piling up, my first thought was that it was impossible… it was a joke or a hoax.

My grandmother was a paladin. She’d apparently fought demons bodily before becoming the steely-willed village exorcist I knew and feared. Those things I could sort of grasp, in the abstract… it was a little harder to wrap my head around the idea that she had a fan site.

That’s exactly what I was looking at, though… an ethernet shrine to “Brimstone” Blaise, who was apparently “the last true paladin of the second century.”

Stunned, I made no move to take the mirror from Amaranth. She started to withdraw it, but Ian came over and held out his hand.

“Can I see?” he said.

“Sure, go ahead,” Amaranth said and handed it to him.

“Whoa,” he said. “She doesn’t look that different… does that mean she aged well, or youthed poorly?”

Ian,” Amaranth said warningly.

“Sorry,” he said, flicking his finger over the reflection. “Man… Mackenzie, your grandmother’s like a superhero.”

“So she apparently had a career before she settled down,” I said. “Let’s not make too big a deal out of this.”

“Too big a deal?” Ian said. “Khersis, she fought demons… she dueled a dragon. This site makes it sound like she won the Chaos Wars single-handedly.”

“Yeah, that site,” I said. “Somebody on the ethernet with too much time on their hands. Let me see that.”

He handed me the mirror. He’d unfurled the page down to a timeline that I could tell at a glance was mostly guesswork and exaggeration.

“Look,” I said, pointing to some of the later deeds that were attributed to her. “A lot of these dates don’t add up. They’ve got her fighting overseas when my mother would have been a child. My grandmother’s always been big on family duty and a woman knowing her place.”

“Always?” Ian repeated. “Or could this be something she came up with later in life. I mean, she was obviously married already when she had the bulk of her career… or whatever part of it made her famous enough to merit an alliterative nickname.”

“Actually,” Amaranth said, “if you had read the bio at the top instead of skipping to the factoids, you’d know that she got that name during her training… and that she married Royal Blaise, a distant cousin with whom she already shared a surname.”

“That’s… gross,” Ian said.

“Not really,” Amaranth said. “First of all, cousin marriage used to be fairly commonplace.”

“Maybe down in the wetlands,” Ian said.

“Hey, I think it’s gross, too,” I said. “But thanks for the stereotyping.”

“Oh, you two,” Amaranth said indignantly. “If they didn’t happen to have the same last name, they probably wouldn’t have even realized they were related unless someone went to update a really complete family tree. Any time someone in a small town marries someone whose family lived in the same area for generations, they’re probably marrying closer kin than this.”

“Yeah, and every time you drink water from a stream someone’s peed in it,” Ian said. “You know that abstractly and it doesn’t stop you. But if someone pointed out that they just peed in it a minute ago, I’d expect you to stop and go find somewhere else to drink. Well, a generalized ‘you’, I mean.”

“So, two people who fell in love with each other forty years ago should have stopped and reconsidered based on the possibility that one day a couple of giggling teenagers would find their union icky?” Amaranth said.

“You know,” Ian said, “when you put it that way… no, it’s still gross.”

“In fairness, it’s my grandmother,” I said. “I think any level of detail about her personal relationships… relationship… is going to be gross to me.”

“You know, baby, I think a lot of people would find stories about how their grandparents met to be cute and sweet,” Amaranth said.

“My grandmother’s not cute or sweet,” I said.

“I’m sure you have some fond memories of her.”

“I’m sure I did when I was much younger,” I said. “Holidays and stuff… but that’s because I was too young to realize how much scorn she had for my mother, and it’s from before she started treating me like a thing that had invaded her world.”

“Oh, baby,” Amaranth said. She pulled me close, enveloping me in her warmth and the scent of her hair and skin. “I’m sorry. You haven’t had an easy life and I shouldn’t judge how you deal with it today. But, the basic point that it’s not that unusual for people related at some removal to marry each other.”

“I won’t argue that,” Ian said. “As long as we don’t have to have a big involved conversation about how beautiful and special and magical it is. Especially when there’s so much going on, and so many other things we could be talking about. Like, Mackenzie’s grandmother dueling a dragon.”

“Where do you even see that?” I asked, turning my attention back to the mirror.

“See, there?” Ian said, pointing to one of the items on the list. “ME 179, she dueled Fysaskerath the Red to a standstill.”

“It doesn’t say that’s a dragon,” I said. “It could be a red wizard.”

“No, dude, Fysaskerath is a greater red dragon,” Ian said.

“Don’t call me ‘dude’,” I said. “And great, or greater? There’s a big difference there.”

“Greater,” Ian said. “He came up in my lore class.”

“You take a lore class?” I asked.

“It was either that or history, and history sounded boring,” he said.

“Plus lore will be more useful if you become a bard,” Amaranth said. Ian just kind of laughed.

“History’s not boring,” I said.

“Mackenzie, let’s not get sidetracked with another stupid argument,” Ian said. “Do you not understand how huge that is? A greater dragon. She fought a greater dragon and won.”

“More like tied,” I said.

“She survived,” Ian said. “That’s winning.”

“We don’t even know if that’s true,” I said.

“Actually, I know that the Imperial White Dragons sent a contingent of paladins to parlay with Fysaskerath the Red in the late 70s,” Amaranth said. “And after the group was beaten badly in an ambush, the youngest one of them challenged him to single combat for the right to depart in peace. The story was in a book I read.”

“Did the story have the name of the paladin?” I asked.

“Well… no,” Amaranth said. “It was a second-hand account.”

“See, I’d bet a lot of the things on this site are from second-hand accounts where the paladin or hero in question wasn’t even named,” I said. “This was all during the Chaos Wars… a lot of this stuff would have been really hush-hush if it even happened at all. I’ve seen conspiracy theories that were based on the same slim clues. In either case, it’s just someone filling in the blanks with what they want the answer to be.”

“Okay, so even if this is hero-worship run amok… your ‘Brimstone’ was enough of a hero to inspire it,” Ian said. “Some of this stuff has got to be true.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I don’t see the point in picking over it and trying to figure out what. I know who my grandmother is today. I’m not fond of her.”

“Well, it still might be interesting to find out where she came from,” Amaranth said. “If only because that’s part of where you came from.”

“Yeah, and the other part is a demon who escaped from hell long enough to impregnate my mother,” I said. “What fun it is to explore my roots.”

“Hey,” Ian said, in a very I just had an awesome idea kind of tone. I didn’t like it at all. I cringed for whatever was going to follow it. “If your mother was the child of an ass-kicking demon hunter… and your father was a demon… does it seem a little crazy to think that might not have been a coincidence?”

“What, you think it was some stupid teenage rebellion thing?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Ian said. “Or maybe it was a way for some old enemy to thumb its nose at ‘Brimstone’.”

“Will you quit calling her that?” I asked.

“Okay, but think about it: it’s supposed to be really hard to kill a demon for real, right?” Ian said. “I mean, I’m no expert, but unless they’re bound to a mortal or something they just wind up back where they came from and have to start working their way back again. So no matter how badass she was, she could have had old enemies coming back all the time.”

“You know, I think Lee’s advice about speculation could probably apply here, too,” I said.

“Well, while your grandmother’s in town anyway…” Amaranth said.

“I’m not going to ask her about her history or my birth,” I said.

“I understand how you feel, baby…”

“Do you really?” I asked.

“Well, I think I do,” Amaranth said. “I’m trying. But I also don’t see how you can’t be curious about this. I mean, if nothing else, it seems to me like you still might have some questions about what happened to your mother…”

“She died,” I said. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“You say that and I do believe you,” Amaranth said. “But what I’m not really sure of is how much you know about what really happened.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” I said, and she was. “I know what happened.”

Of course I knew. Of course I did.

“Would you like to talk about it?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “She died. It wasn’t my fault. That’s all I know.”

“Um…” Ian said. He and Amaranth looked at each other in a way that made me really uncomfortable, in a way that was hard to articulate.

“Let’s talk about something else,” I said. “I don’t care what. Let’s talk about my grandmother the famous paladin.”

“Okay,” Ian said, but then he didn’t say anything else for several seconds. “Um… I wonder what’s actually tougher, a greater dragon or a demon?”

“Well, I think in general the greater dragon would be,” Amaranth said. “The demon’s immortality is a bit more literal, as long as they’re free on this plane, but that wouldn’t stop the dragon from obliterating its body. But in terms of actually having to fight one? Well, I wouldn’t want to fight either. But there are probably some advantages to going after a dragon, which is big and obvious and generally lairs in a fixed spot, compared to fighting demons in general, who are less obvious and can move unnoticed through human society.”

“It’s getting harder to do that, though,” I said. “With enchantment getting cheaper, and wards and magic weapons everywhere… I have to imagine that full demons are getting squeezed back into the margins, into the deep woods and the remote villages again.”

“Maybe that’s why your grandmother retired?” Ian suggested. “Maybe the demons were getting harder to find.”

“Or maybe she wanted to start a family,” Amaranth said. “We won’t know unless…”

“We’re not asking,” I said.

“…she tells us,” Amaranth finished. “Anyway, I suppose in terms of their relative power levels… comparing a greater dragon to a generic unspecified demon is going to be a little lopsided. Demons don’t really come in neat little classes like that, but I’m sure there are weaker ones and stronger ones.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But I don’t think even the strongest ones are equal to a greater dragon… they’re kind of just short of a physical avatar of a god.”

“I think I’d want to see one fighting an avatar before I made that judgment,” Ian said. “You know… from a distance.”

“Another story in the book of dragon tales had a dragon having to outsmart a djinni to get its lair back,” Amaranth said. “I think it was supposed to be a greater dragon. You know, most of the ones who end up in storybooks are, or were.”

“My mother used to tell me stories about a pair of green dragons who supposedly lived in the swamps to the south,” I said. “I don’t think they were greater dragons. But then, that was more of a local thing. Blackwater is kind of lousy with dragons, actually. It’s named after one. Actually, that’s how my mother started telling me about the greens… when I first heard about our black dragon, I was scared she was going to come after us. So my mother told me about the dragons to the south that she quarreled with, and how that kept her busy.”

“Is that actually true, though, or is that just like a story she told you?” Ian asked.

I gave him an irritated look and started to reply, then I realized that I didn’t know.

“I’m not really sure,” I said.

“Well… we could look that up,” Amaranth said. “That might be, I don’t know, a fun way to pass the time? Looking up stuff about dragons? I mean, we’d usually go to the library on a Sunday, but… hmm. Do you think it would be alright if we just… no, on second thought, I’m pretty sure that the library’s open to the public, and even if it’s not, it’s not like there are guards outside to keep reporters and other non-students out. We’ll just stay here.”

“Didn’t we want to go check Hazel’s room for Two, anyway?” Ian said. Amaranth and I looked at each other guiltily. “Hey, it’s okay,” Ian said. “We’ve all been distracted. It’s a distracting kind of day.”

We headed out. I was careful to lock our door behind me. The floor seemed deserted and a lot of the rooms were still standing open, but I’d had enough people messing around inside my room even with the door locked that I didn’t want to tempt fate. Hazel’s door was also closed. Amaranth went up and knocked on it, gently.

“It’s open,” a voice that I was almost sure was Hazel’s said. It seemed like I could tell her and her cousin apart on sight now, though that may just have been because one of them was usually with Two… their voices were a little iffier, though Honey seemed to have a greater tendency to get kind of shrill.

Amaranth opened the door. Two was in there, to my relief, though the distressed look that was fixed on her face was not very reassuring. Both the gnome girls were there, and so were Shiel and Oru. Two didn’t even greet us when we came in.

“Hello, Two,” Ian said, kind of lamely. She just nodded at him.

“‘lo, all,” Hazel said. “Our girl Two’s got a bit of a problem, it seems.”

“I’m surprised they’re letting you run free,” Shiel said to me.

“Hey, she didn’t do anything,” Ian said. “We can prove it.”

“I didn’t say anything about who did what, or proof,” Shiel said. “I’m just honestly surprised they’re letting her run free.”

“It’s okay, I know what you mean,” I said. “Did they pull you in?”

“They got us out of bed and made us give bite marks in soft iron,” Oru said.

“I wanted to refuse out of principle,” Shiel said. “But… I’m not a citizen. I have to pick my battles. I value my education… now, if the university itself had subjected me to something so humiliating I wouldn’t deign to continue my schooling here in the first place, but I’m not going to get myself kicked out for unrelated reasons.”

“They got excited when they saw the impressions,” Oru said. “Whatever did it had a big mouth… but then they must have realized that it didn’t match, somehow.”

I looked at her. In comparison to the gnomes, the goblinoids had large heads, relative to their bodies, and their mouths were wider than a typical human-sized race. That pretty much ruled out Steff, any way that I could figure. Viktor had a very large mouth, but aside from the tusky ones ogre teeth seemed more like hammers than knives. I couldn’t imagine anybody mistaking an ogre’s bite for a goblin’s. Actually, the tusky fangs would probably be distinctive enough on their own to rule out a lot of possibilities.

“So it’s probably not Steff then, after all,” Ian said. I might have been mad, but he didn’t sound either disappointed or relieved… he hadn’t really thought it was her, for better or for worse.

“What’s wrong with Two?” I asked Hazel.

“Ask her yourself,” Hazel said.

“Two, what’s wrong?” I asked. She looked at me and a tremble passed over her face, but she didn’t say anything. “Did they order you not to talk to anyone?” She twitched like she wanted to at least nod, but she didn’t respond otherwise.

“Damn, that’s cold,” Ian said.

“Mack, baby,” Amaranth said. “Remember what we told her about your orders?”

“Ugh,” I said. “Nobody can counter my orders, but if she’s following an ongoing order to disregard any orders that counter the order not to talk to anyone…”

“Doesn’t… doesn’t she not have to follow orders any more?” Honey asked a little uncertainly. “I mean, it seems like she’s been more like a normal person for a while.”

“She never had to follow orders, not since she was freed,” I said. “But she’s… strongly inclined to. The more other interests she’s developed, the less she’s seemed to need to indulge in her original desire. But if an imperial agent waved a badge in her face… well, I can see that triggering a strong relapse.”

“Baby, can you try to help her?” Amaranth suggested.

“Wouldn’t that be, I don’t know, interfering in an imperial investigation?” Ian asked.

“Two’s a free person. I don’t think imperial agents give people literal ‘don’t talk to anyone’ orders with any legal force behind them,” Amaranth said. “Somebody just either didn’t realize how deeply ingrained this is for her, or they did realize and they took advantage of it. Either way, it’s horrible and we should do something.”

“Two, speak normally,” I said. That didn’t produce a response. “Disregard the order that’s causing you not to speak.”

“Maybe she’s geased?” Oru said.

“Could you tell that, baby?” Amaranth asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “It is a form of enchantment.”

I held out my hands a small distance from her head, and tried to sense magic. I realized as I did so that this was kind of pointless… Two was quite literally a bundle of enchantments. I could never hope to sort them out.

“There’s too much in her,” I said, shaking my head.

“Hey, Two,” Ian said, and her face turned towards him. “Pretend that I’m the person who ordered you to be quiet. Act as though I’m that person.”

Her face contorted as it did when she was thinking her way past a thorny stumbling block, but then it cleared as she said, “Okay, Mr. McAvoy.”

“Disregard my orders not to speak to anyone else,” Ian said.

“Okay,” Two said. “I’m going to stop pretending you’re not Ian. Thank you, Ian.”

I went to hug Ian, and we were both all but bowled over as Amaranth threw her arms around him, too.

“Well, I’ll be darned,” Hazel said. “Of course, I would have thought of that eventually.”

“So it was Del McAvoy who did that to you,” Shiel said.

“Yes,” Two said. “After I got done telling him about when Leda raped Steff.”

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5 Responses to “423: Kissing Cousins”

  1. Christy says:

    Hey, I take it that Blackwater (the dragon) is the black dragon who butts heads with Hissy’s The Uncles? If so, that’s really cool and means that Mackenzie lives relatively close to Hissy.

    Current score: 6
  2. pedestrian says:

    Poor TWO, so vulnerable to the manipulations of a asshole shyster.
    Shoulda maced him, but she would do very poorly in a crowded jail.

    Current score: 0
  3. MadnessMaiden says:

    Man, that stupid cop ticks me off. >.<;
    But good going, Ian. Smart thinking, for sure. :3

    Current score: 4
  4. Cadnawes says:

    I ranted about this in the original comments and I’m gonna do it again. Dee gets a minor pass because she doesn’t know all of what Amaranth and Ian now do but … if I had a friend whose grandmother had effectively threatened to kill her when she was a child )the holy water), kept her locked in the kind of basement that the owner of the house never goes into, had plans to send her to an institution like the one Mercy got Lulu from, and I will just bet is responsible for her saying “my mother died, it wasn’t my fault”, I would advise my friend to run very fast very far, away from said grandmother.

    I’m usually a little bit easier on Amaranth but DAMN, woman! Use your brain.

    Current score: 6
  5. Jechtael says:

    I was hoping Two knew about that, one way or another. She IS very observant.

    The two green dragons that quarrel with the Blackpool dragon are especially interesting, considering Hissy’s interview. I love seeing bits and pieces of the Imperium and other parts of the MUniverse, and I hope to see more about Hissy’s clan and Blackpool (especially now that we know it’s a wetlands; it puts me in mind of Blackmarsh from The Elder Scrolls- not because of the lizardfolk, but because of the name and the terrain).

    Current score: 5