234: Stray Thoughts

on June 9, 2008 in Book 9

In Which Amaranth Suggests New Positions To Two

Amaranth was waiting for me on the upper level of the union as I came stomping up the stairs. She hurried down through the throng of people heading up. Her face was full of worry, which only intensified when she met me halfway down and got a closer look at me.

“Hey, baby, I told everybody else to go ahead and head in,” she said. “I was starting to get a little concerned… where were you?”

“Just downstairs, in the ballroom,” I said, trying to keep my voice neutral. I wasn’t angry at her. “I do have that mirror now, you know. You could always hop in front of a public one and give me a shout.”

“Oh, I didn’t even think… well, I suppose I’ll get used to that right when it’s time for you to give it back,” she said, as we got to the top of the stairs and moved out of the flow of people. “Is everything okay, baby? You look a little… tense.”

“I’m fine, I guess,” I said. “Just… pissed off. Have you read the student paper for the last few days?”

“Well, no, I… hmm, that’s funny,” she said. “I usually find time to read it when I’m working the other dorms, but I can’t think if I’ve ever seen one around Harlowe.”

“If you think that’s funny, you’re going to think this is a laugh riot,” I said.

“What’s wrong, baby?”

“While we were out shopping, that Angstrom guy was over at Harlowe talking to everybody about me,” I said. “He got quotes from just about everybody who hates me. Even Dee got in on the act.”

“Oh, baby,” Amaranth said. “You shouldn’t let a stupid little article upset you.”

“Stupid, yes,” I said. “Little, no. It was huge. Apparently, anything having to do with the demonstration on Friday is still front page news, even if it’s just an excuse for the Leightons to make up shit about me.”

“Oh, Mack, you just need to ignore them,” Amaranth said. “I’m sure life can’t be easy for them, being stuck together like that. They’re just lashing out.”

“And hitting me,” I said. “I can’t believe you’re so calm about this. Before I met you, I would have thought I deserved it…”

“And now you know that you don’t,” Amaranth said, putting her arms around me. “So, you don’t have to give them any power over you. You don’t have to let one word from them ruin your whole day.”

I sighed and leaned against her for a moment, breathing her in. She was right. The Leightons’ comments had been the nastiest thing in the article, but they were far from the worst. They just made a nice focal point for my anger, helping me not to think about what was really upsetting me.

Apart from the whole thing, I mean… apart from the fact that the article had even been written.

“He… he talked to Puddy, too,” I said.

Amaranth went stiff. The sun seemed to go beneath the clouds.

“What did she have to say?” Amaranth asked.

I closed my eyes.

“Just a load of shit,” I said, trying to let my feelings drain away so the loving warmth of Amaranth would find more room inside me. “Nothing that matters.”

“I’m glad you realize that,” Amaranth said. She kissed me on the forehead. “You have a right to be upset, but I’m proud of how you’re handling it.”

She was proud. Those words made me almost glad that the article had been written that way. It gave me something to rise above, and make my owner… my lover… my loving owner… proud of me.

“Is that a copy of the article there?” Amaranth asked, when we broke apart.

“This? Oh, no,” I said. “It’s another one… about Sooni.”

Amaranth had taken the sheets out of my hand. Her face lit up when she got a look at them.

“Oh, doesn’t she just look gorgeous?” Amaranth said, holding up the top one with the picture. “Will you just look at that dress. She clearly knows how to show her breasts off. Maybe being at college for a few weeks, she’s becoming more sexually aware? I’d have to get closer to her to tell… but that could be good news for you.”

“I didn’t actually scribe it for the picture,” I said, choosing not to fight with her over the idea of my sexual attraction to Sooni. “I actually wanted to read the article.”

“Maybe not, but you should probably keep it, anyway,” Amaranth said. “I know you don’t consciously masturbate, but you should probably start, and this would be a great source of visual inspiration.”

In her enthusiasm, she was talking way too loud, especially as we were in a wide open space that was full of people.

“Can we please talk about this some other time?” I asked.

“Okay,” Amaranth said. “But, I just think it would be good for you.”

“Later, though,” I said.


With everything else swirling around in my head, I’d forgotten about Steff’s gorgeous dress until we came into the lunchroom and I saw her, sitting there like a vision.

The lunchroom was pretty crowded, as it was starting to get too cold to use the outdoor seating area—I made a note that the “crunch” caused by our presence was likely to get worse—and so our group was seated close to the windows. Steff sat on the end nearest to them, and the cool Calendula sunlight caught her platinum-gold hair in a very flattering way. She had a distant, dreamy expression on her face.

“Now aren’t you glad you didn’t walk in here all mad?” Amaranth asked

I nodded. My mouth had gone very dry, and my hands felt an overwhelming urge to fidget.

I’d totally missed out on the prom experience in high school, but I was starting to get some idea what it must have felt like.

It was just lunch with friends. We still had our date to look forward to. If the sight of Steff, looking contentedly beautiful and beautifully content with sunlight streaming through her hair could make my stomach do flip-flops, what would the actual date be like?

Two spotted us before Steff did.

“Hi, Mack! Hi, Amaranth!” she called across the room, waving.

“Hi, Two!” we called back in chorus, automatically.

I caught a little bit of snickering from around us, but I didn’t dwell on it. They thought it was funny. I didn’t care. The same jerks had probably snickered at Two and Steff’s hug-kiss-kiss routine. If somebody thought something so pure and innocent and beautiful as that was something to be laughed at, their opinion clearly wasn’t worth getting riled up over, any more than Sara and Tara…

“Baby, are you getting yourself worked up again?” Amaranth asked.

“Sorry,” I said. “Just… sorry. I’m trying not to dwell. I just… I can’t believe the article ever saw the light of day. Even Dee got in on it,” I said quietly, not knowing how well my voice would carry to her pointed ears. “I mean, it wasn’t as bad as the others… and I think he thought she was complimenting me… but it still caught me off guard.”

“I’m sure she thought she meant well,” Amaranth said. “Anyway, maybe you should take the time to talk to this reporter… or a reporter, anyway… and get your side of things out?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I’ll try to talk to Lee Jenkins tonight, see what he thinks about all this.”

“That’s a good idea,” Amaranth said. “Oh, don’t forget to take your mirror out of your pocket before you go to your fighting class.”

“I won’t,” I said.

We got our food, and Amaranth steered me into the chair across from Steff, taking the middle one, the one across from Two for herself.

“Hey,” Two protested. “I would like to sit across from Mack.”

“Two, hon, this is kind of a special day for Steff and Mack,” Amaranth said. “You sit across from Mack all the time.”

“I do sit across from Mack all the time,” Two agreed, clearly not choosing to grasp the point.

“Well, here,” Amaranth said, scooting over. “Mack, you can sit here in the middle. Two, you can come over and sit yourself right next to her, and then Steff can still sit across from her. How would you like that?”

“I would like that very much,” Two said.

We all shuffled around as Amaranth had directed. On previous occasions, when we’d been sitting on the bench in the corner and there hadn’t been any rules targeting touch-feely displays of affection, my preferred position had been between Amaranth and Steff, which was how Two had got into the habit of sitting across from me.

Today, though, I wanted to be able to look at Steff… to raise my head and see her across from me, with no barriers between us.

“It is refreshing to see such a healthy expression of love on display,” Dee said.

“Who put you in charge of deciding what’s healthy and not?” Steff asked her.

I think her prickliness came from the implication that her previous expressions of love had been unhealthy. I couldn’t say if Dee really meant to imply that or not.

“I apologize,” Dee said. “It is indeed not my place to judge, and I should not have assumed that it is healthy without knowing.”

She had her ghost of a smile on, and it was actually reflected somewhat in her voice. She really did like seeing people in love, it seemed. Perhaps because of that, Steff smiled, too, though she hid it behind her hand, and ended up chewing on the end of her thumb.

“I’m sorry I snapped, Dee,” she said after a bit, folding her hands in her lap. “Really.”

“It is quite alright,” Dee said.

“You look pretty,” I told Steff. “Still.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I’m just… I’m not used to things going so well. I wanted to laugh about what you said about fate and targets, but… with you and Viktor both being so wonderful to me, it’s making me jumpy. I don’t know if one person is supposed to have all this happiness.”

“The gods entitle us to whatever happiness we may find for ourselves,” Dee said.

Steff snorted.

“On that one, you and me are agreed,” she said.

“You know,” I said, not wanting them to start bickering over religion again. “I suppose maybe that whole thing, waiting for the other shoe to drop or whatever, could be why I reacted so badly to the article.”

“Oh? How’s that, baby?” Amaranth asked, in a tone of exaggerated interest that told me she knew what I was doing and approved. There was that warm, flushed-with-pride feeling again.

I hoped I had a chance to get used to it.

“What article?” Steff asked, leaning forward. I noticed Dee dropped her head a bit. Was she feeling a little regret?

“I got dragged through the mud a bit by some of the more scholarly minds on the fifth floor,” I said.

“I… I apologize if my remarks caused you discomfort,” Dee said. “I was merely trying to be charitable and truthful at the same time.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I wouldn’t want you to lie… but you could have just said nothing, you know?”

“In the future, I will do so,” Dee said. “Again, my apologies.”

“It wasn’t even that bad,” I said. “I mean, your comment wasn’t terrible, and the rest was just stupid people doing what they do best… but really, after being so happy this morning, it’s like I was just waiting for something bad to happen, and so I took it worse than it probably actually was.

“It is good that you realize this,” Dee said. “If you are interested in continuing morning meditations with me, perhaps we can work on this further then.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” Amaranth said. “I’m so proud of Mack, controlling her anger. She looked like she was about to start spitting nails when she came upstairs, and now she’s letting it go.”

“I’m doing my best, anyway,” I said.

I still got a little twinge when I thought about the Leightons, giggling like idiots as they made up outrageous stories, or Kent Angstrom with his face all but buried in Sooni’s cleavage, or Puddy impugning the relationship between Amaranth and me like she had any room to talk, but… well, it was probably best not to dwell on the things that were still giving me little twinges, wasn’t it?

I picked up my spoon and had a bit of chicken soup, and then a sip of my soda. Let the newspaper say what it wanted. Nobody in Harlowe read it anyway. If we were so irrelevant to it, it was irrelevant to us.

The funny thing, I thought after I’d had a bit more of my food, was that Dee would have far more reason to be angry with the newspaper than I did, and she was barely in it.

“Forgive me, but why is that, exactly?” Dee asked.

I froze, then looked around the table. Everybody else had been tucking in to their meals as well. Nobody else had said anything that she could be responding to.

“You… ‘heard’ that?” I asked.

“Not intentionally,” she said. “You know it would not be safe for me to enter your mind, nor would I do so intentionally, but in your heightened emotional state of vacillating between extremes, you are projecting a good deal more clearly than usual. It is slightly uncomfortable to be around you in fact, but not intolerably so. Certainly not to the point that I would even see fit to mention it, but, please… my curiosity quite overwhelms me. Why do you imagine that I would be angry? Did Mr. Angstrom use a pejorative term to describe me?”

“He… um… he got your name wrong,” I said. “Misspelled.”

Dee looked skeptical. She probably didn’t need to be a mindreader to know I was omitting something. I could certainly feel the deception in my stomach, so I’m sure it showed on my face.

“Oh, well… that is not a great matter,” Dee said. She made a big show of smiling, as if to show that she, too, was rising above. “The spelling which I affect upon the surface is only a transliteration from the elvish script to the local alphabet. As long as it conveyed the sense of the sounds accurately and he included my full proper name…

She’d been looking around the table as she spoke, and she wasn’t even looking directly at me as she said this last bit, but I assume my mind must have shown what she would have seen on my face. She turned ashy gray, her face stricken with alarm.

“Dee, it was just some dumb thing in the paper,” I said. “But, he didn’t even get your name right in the first place, so it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“Oh!” Amaranth said, catching on. “Dee, I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it. He probably just didn’t realize the significance.”

“Wait, what?” Steff asked. “What am I missing here?”

Dee had gone dangerously pale and was trembling. The weird thing is, she didn’t look angry… she looked scared.

“Dee,” Amaranth said, in her gentlest voice. “You aren’t a child.”

“I… I am aware of this,” Dee said. She stood up. “Please excuse me. I have to go pray, right now.”

She walked quickly away from the table, leaving her meal mostly untouched. Her soft booted feet actually made noise on the tiled floor.

“Wait, Dee,” Two said. She started to rise.

“Let her go, sweetie,” Amaranth said. “I think she needs to be alone for a while.”

“She didn’t bus her tray,” Two said.

Under another circumstance, it might have sounded fussy or petulant, but given the crushed look on Two’s face, I think that was just her way of parsing how deeply wrong things were with her friend Dee.

“You can bus it for her, honey,” Amaranth said. “And next time you see her, tell her that you would like a hug.”

“Okay,” Two said, and she settled back down into her chair.

“What the hell just happened?” Steff asked.

“I thought she was going to be angry,” I said, almost as confused as Steff was, in spite of at least knowing what we were talking about.

“I’m going to be angry if you guys don’t let me in on the secret,” Steff said.

“I’m only making inferences here, myself,” Amaranth said. “But, I gather that somebody referred to Dee with her given name and not her mother’s name… and Mack, baby, she probably would be furious, if she had seen her mother recently or could go check on her.”

“Okay, I know that’s like saying ‘fuck your mother’, or whatever, but she was turning paler than I am,” Steff said.

“Well, the insult in dropping the name is that it’s considered to be a curse… they call it ‘cutting your mother dead’,” Amaranth explained. “But there’s no real magic behind it. The outrage comes because of the sentiment it expresses.”

“Oh. Well, I’d say I’m surprised that she took it,” Steff said. “But, honestly, if she believes her getting down on her knees and thinking happy thoughts to a goddess nobody’s ever even seen is going to make a difference, then it’s not a huge stretch for her to…”

“Oh, stop it, Steff,” Amaranth said. “This is her mother we’re talking about. Even leaving her culture aside, can’t you see why this would be important to her?”

“My mom’s going to die sooner or later no matter who says her name backwards how many times,” Steff said. “Okay, I love Dee… I mean, the girl’s just a laugh a week, you know? But don’t let all her doom-and-gloom talk about the harshness of the underlands fool you. That shit’s been drilled into her head forever, but she’s a noble… a noblewoman. She’s never been in much danger of starving to death and there’s a whole army, the town militia, and her own house guard between her and any savage predators. Her mother’s safer than any of us are here. The wards on the paths can’t compare to the ones around her house, I’d bet you anything.”

“My friend Dee told me she worries about her mother because she always stands in for the matriarch in public, because of the assassination attempts,” Two said.

Steff looked mortified. I felt slightly sick.

“She’ll probably feel better if she gets a letter back from home,” Amaranth said, with forced cheer.

“That could take months,” I said. “And whatever news it has will be old by the time she gets it.”

“I think we should all tell my friend Dee that we would like hugs when we see her,” Two said.

The rest of lunch was pretty glum. It was just turning out to be an emotional whiplashy kind of day.

Tales of MU is now on Patreon! Help keep the story going!

Or if you particularly enjoyed this chapter, leave a tip!

Characters: , , , ,

7 Responses to “234: Stray Thoughts”

  1. pedestrian says:

    When, in general, people live centuries, millennium, the only way to clear a path to promotion would be assassination.

    If we have the misfortune for our medical science to successfully extend human lifespans such violent internecine will take on a desperate urgency to prevent genetic and social stagnation.

    Fortuitously the odds are stacked against resolving the personality/memory conundrum. The original body may be revitalized over and over again indefinitely. But information signals such as memory cannot without regular parsing. Every century the same body but differing personalities.

    If ME cannot be reproduced again, what would be the point of it?

    Current score: 0
    • MackSffrs says:

      Is ME the way I think?
      What I think?
      What I think of?
      What I think on?
      Small changes in a sentence and it changes so much.

      Current score: 0
    • Athena says:

      Makes me think of the Unseen University 😛

      Current score: 0
    • Mugasofer says:

      I’m pretty sure the focus is on continuation of existence, rather than some sort of “reset button”.

      In any case, I’m fairly sure modern medicine ensured “genetic stagnation” long ago.

      Current score: 0
    • Ryzndmon says:

      Undefined variables there. Is the “ME” that wrote this post the same “ME” that reads my reply? Is it the same “ME” that went to elementary school? The same “ME” who went on a first date, had a first kiss, broke up with a love, learned to walk, learned to read? Is it even the same “ME” it was when “ME” first found this web-story?
      “ME” is always changing. My personality can and does differ just from the environments of work, home, and friends within the same day.
      In the end, there can be only one!

      Current score: 1
  2. Daniel says:

    Of course there are paths to promotion even without death. There are elections and term limits for politicians, people leaving to start their own companies, people being fired, etc. I highly doubt that the majority of job changes today are caused by death, and by necessity even fewer are caused by old age. Naturally, this is different in the society of undergound elves, but I think their assassinations are not exactly career-motivated.

    Fortunately, age-related research is finding amazing results, and it seems quite likely that we could stop senescence and find ways around memory capacity problems within the lifetimes of some people alive today

    Current score: 0
    • Wolff says:

      U.S. Supreme Court justices serve until they die or retire. There is currently a Representative in Congress who has been there long enough to have personally signed Alaska and Hawaii into statehood. Historically, term limits are flexible for people with enough power. Death may not be the only equalizing force, but it is certainly the most inviolate.

      Current score: 0