(247) The Devil is in the Details

I stumbled from square to square on the sidewalk, trying to think of what they were called. Pavers, maybe? Flagstones? The smell of rotten milk, the pushing through oily air, the occasional breeze that brought despair, loneliness, like being the sole soul anywhere, desperate for human contact, these things drew me closer as much as a smart man, heck, a reasonable, rational man would turn away.

It was, of all of them, Rayya, who centered me. Who kept me from drifting with the occasional touch on my back, guiding me and anchoring me to what was real. The spriggan sibs didn’t touch me, didn’t touch anyone that often. They had talked about it, once, but we were (or at least I was) drunk on blue wine at the time. I didn’t remember much about it, other than that were some kind of repercussions to it.  It sounded lonely to me, but they weren’t human. I had to remember that. They weren’t human.

Streets passed by, alleyways filled with fluttering plastic bags, dancing circles of leaves and the detritus of what we call civilization. Heavy summer scents of proto-sewage, spoiled foods that had no life left in them, cracked concrete and asphalt made more of pieces than whole, and the sun dipped degrees behind the mountains, a twilight with a distant glow, like fire on the horizon. I love where I live, and the sunsets on the eastern plains are incredible, but this night it was a nuclear glow, a warning, a doom on the threshold of night.

I staggered, drunkenly, nauseated between occasional brief contact with Rayya. Sometimes when she extended a hand I felt a cold, icy breeze. It was kind of refreshing before it stole your breath. Rayya, the icicle. Sprigginsicle. I’d workshop it. I thought ironically warm thoughts about her for a moment, before my brain scrambled to remember she wasn’t human. She was here for her own reasons. All of them were here for their own reasons.

He stood at the corner, leaning against a free newspaper stand.  I could not have placed him as remarkable in any fashion. He looked like a guy, just another average white guy. Average height, average weight, bit of scruff, clothing matched just about anything anyone else was wearing.  His hair was a little grown out, and that was one of the first things that started to make me see him.  There was a little more. A little more length in his fingers, a little more length in his teeth. His eyes were closed as we came up to him, but when he opened them, I didn’t need to ask. I knew. Eyes do tell you a lot. I don’t know if anyone can actually see a soul in them, but this time, I could see the lack of one.

Don’t ask me what colour they were. It wasn’t television — they weren’t black through and through, they weren’t unnatural, they weren’t even just empty… they were hungry. They were wrong. What looked back at me had something that didn’t fit here. It was bigger and angrier than the shell of skin around it. It was horrible.

It was terrible. It was lonely. It missed its brothers. It had no conscience, and while it had been content to seduce and entice it was becoming impatient to find something, anyone that could open a door.  So what if a door opened both ways? It wanted to go home.

For a moment, I felt pity.  Sympathy for the Devil is a trope, isn’t it?

“And yet, the Númenórean would have it that the greatest triumph of the great Deceiver was making mankind think he did not exist. Sorry, Numancian, was it? Numantine.” It chuckled. It was a sound that could curdle milk, and caused pain in my stomach, turning it inside out, a twisting pain in my gut.  I held onto my pastrami, darn it. That was a good sandwich and I had already sacrificed my Dairy Queen to a dragon.

“And what are you?  Ah yes, it’s the dragon slayer, is it?” I hadn’t said anything, but I looked back at its eyes. Now there was something. Peredur’s eyes showed the slow burning of his internal (I would have said infernal, but it no longer seemed appropriate) engine. This creature, its eyes were a pit, and inside the nothing was hunger, and despair, and a craving so sharp I could almost feel the sides of my mouth bleed as if its needs were a knife.

I lurched, and realised I was alone. My friends had abandoned me. Not my friends, my… what did I really have that bound us together? Shared circumstance was no friendship.  Even Ed just put up with me because we’d known each other so long. What was it called? Sunk cost fallacy? Ed was just being nice. He and Zack were just pitying me. His mom fed me out of obligation. And Eve? She would have been happy being an only child. Who was I, even?

I keyed in to what he said. Dragon slayer.

“I didn’t kill her,” I said. “Hurt, yeah. She ate my… she ate someone I was fond of.” Doloise. I didn’t want the name in his mouth. “I closed off some of her power. In time, she’ll grow it again, and open things up, and be the nasty scourge of the Western world she might want to be.  I didn’t kill her. I am not a dragon slayer.  Whoever says that is wrong. You’ve got bad information, Vasil, probably from enemies who want to make me a player on the stage. I might occasionally help move a prop, but most of the time I’m happy being in the audience.”  I was rambling, but that made me feel a little better.

“Oh, but do you know what Peredur did after you left? The Great Peredur, Dragon amongst Dragons, but you’ve felt the weight of his will. Do you think leaving a crippled Dragon on the field meant no one took the bait?  You practically fed her to him, a present to increase his power.  No wonder they’re fond of you.  The witch that left you – what was her name? You were becoming immune to her power. That’s when they leave you, you know. As soon as you get strong. As soon as you pretend to have a spine.”

Was it true? I didn’t care about the witches. I mean, I cared for the witches just fine, since it seemed like every woman I was interested was one, but I wasn’t going to let some… demon, yes, that’s what he was… not human. Inhuman.  Inhumane.  I wasn’t going to let it try to diagnose my relationships.  But the thing about Peredur and Naul? Could I have done that? Who took on the moral toll of death in that case?  Just bad luck? Nature?  Was I just justifying the situation?

“And the one time you did have a spine, the one time you took what you needed, you assaulted someone. Sexual assault, you know. Akin to rape. Is that how you think of yourself? Is that what you are? Is it what you really want?  Do you even remember who it was? Someone’s little sister.”

I knew. I didn’t want to, and I felt horrible about it. Both pieces — that I tried to push it from my mind, and that I had done it.  I had.  I knew it was wrong. Did Misko know? Did she judge me? Was she slowly plotting my demise, the way wizards were slow and terrible to anger?  Wizards summoned demons. It was a thing in fiction, so why not in reality? Maybe this was some kind of set-up.

“Oh, yes, little sisters.”  I was on my knees, and I hadn’t realised I had fallen. “You do know the hakawati, the so-called Spriggan, the younger one is in love with you. You ignore her, and are cruel to her, because you have that one silly rule, one that denies that love is a decent bridge between peoples.  Really, leaving dragons to be eaten, girls to be abused… I ask again.  What are you?  And,” he stared down, directly into my eyes.  “What gives you the right to judge me?”

(246) Delicatessens and Demons

“What is so delicate about a sandwich place?” Rayya asked me as we entered the deli.

“Is this a riddle or the set-up for a joke?” I asked.

“Neither.  The word delicatessen has delicates in it, and the ‘sen’ would indicate ‘son of,’ meaning there is some discernment in the subject. Perhaps they were places frequented by assassins or courtesans or spies?”

“I’m betting it actually comes from ‘delicacies,’ or something of the sort. I know, I’ve got the internet in my pocket and could look it up, but hey, there’s my sister!” I waved an arm in response to her waving hers from where she and Roberto sat, sharing a large pastrami sandwich.  Okay, I would give him the pastrami appreciation point.

Rayya and Nen had both elected to join me. There was some kind of conversation I wasn’t privy to prior to the decision, but apparently my protection detail was still a consideration.  Spriggan Secret Service.  If they got tired of the building of a library dimension (shades of Wizard Pratchett there) maybe they could source out as bodyguards. Diminutive Detail.  Significant Sibling Security. Fey FBI.  Fey-BI?

“You’re thinking instead of walking again,” Nen noted, passing me. He slid into the booth across from Eve and her squeeze.  “I’d like a pastrami, on rye, toasted, swiss cheese, no lettuce, no tomato, mayonnaise and vinegar.  Side of chips.”

“Sounds delicious,” I said, catching up.

After we got our sandwiches piled with meat and fixings, and some of the delightful (another potential source of the term ‘deli’) bites had been chewed, swallowed, and well on their way to providing necessary sustenance, I looked around. For a busy place, we’d come somewhere between lunch and early dinner. It was still fairly light out, although starting to turn that golden orange that suggested the cool blue shadow of the mountains would soon extinguish the afternoon.

“The plan is?” Eve asked.

I finished my bite and shrugged. “Go to where he was, try to find out where he went.  Unless you have a better one.”

“Because finding one human in a city of 750,000 or so is so easy you could have done it at any time,” she suggested, her sarcasm as thick as the steak fries.

“I feel like I would know if I were around him.  If I’m wrong, we’re no worse for it. In fact, we’re better because we had a great meal.”

Eve considered the crumbs Roberto was currently eyeing with an indulgent smile. “I guess there’s that.  You took the bus?”

“Still haven’t bought a new car,” I admitted.

“Yeah. You and the kids can ride in back. Where are we going?”

Rayya frowned at being called one of “the kids,” but didn’t argue it.  Nen just grinned.  I guess if they were used to me, they were fine with my sister.

“Find somewhere around the mall to park, and we’ll take the shuttle.”

I couldn’t remember offhand where Janet had said she was besides “the mall.”  And Rivendell, which I would always think of Imladris first, and never Karningul. But despite Rohana having Rohan in her name, I never thought of horses with her. I never actually really thought of horses.  I wasn’t a horse girl, after all. Or a brony.

I knew it as we got near, and not just because of the way Rayya and Nen reacted. It was like a cramp in my stomach. It was like smelling something incredibly foul that had been left in the sun, and then hearing someone pounding on piano keys randomly and while scraping the bench across a metal stage.  I reeled, grabbing onto a railing while the bus came to a stop. “Here,” I managed to breathe.  I caught a nod between Eve and Roberto that mirrored one between the Spriggan Sibs before I stumbled off the shuttle and over a trash can, holding on to the delicious delicacy of the delicatessen through manly gulps of air and a reminder that it was magic, not reality.

Well, when magic is your reality, well, it didn’t matter. One’s brain worked the details, with probably lots of input from visual and chemical cues.  There was some amount of disagreement with my gut and my conscious, but I maintained the equilibrium.  My party of adventurers spread out, looking for clues.

“I don’t see anything,” Eve complained.

“This would not be something you see with your eyes, but with the heart.  It is like you explaining how we used to find planets, with the flickering of shadow between the candle flame of a star. You are feeling the cold chill of lack of light, the absence of a loving God, and the presence of evil. It fills your breath with the miasma of abandonment, the disappointment of a child to an absent parent,” Roberto spoke poetically and with a soft religious fervor. Or so I heard it, but I had to admit I felt the capital letter in the invocation of deity, so I might have considered it a little more zealous than he expected.

“Or like a wind through an open door,” Nen said.

I felt Rayya’s hand on my back. “Come, let us follow the wind, then, secret caller.”

“Huh. You haven’t called me that in a while,” I said, swallowing for a moment.  The wind actually picked up for a moment, bringing a cool breeze that refreshed slightly. “It’s ahead of us,” I said. “If it’s this strong when he’s far away, how will I handle it when he’s close?”

“You won’t,” Eve said. “We will.”

“That sounds so final,” I said. “It’s my quest. I’m not the kind of person who steps back and does all the strategy stuff. I generally play tanks.”

Eve rolled her eyes. “Don’t give yourself airs. You’re a support.  Roberto will tank. I’ll do DPS, and your weird friends will do whatever your weird friends do.”

“Protec,” Nen said. “And also Attac.”

“Oh goodness, that’s an old meme,” Eve chuckled. “But I guess it comes back around.”

Roberto and I shared a Look that basically agreed that maybe ignorance would be bliss.

(245) Which Mon? De Mon!

“We’ve got one!” I said before my sister could even start her greeting.

“You know, there were films besides Ghostbusters, Aliens, and Mystery Men,” she said, discouragingly.

“Perish the thought. I also quote from GalaxyQuest and occasionally modern shows. You have your squeeze?”

She sighed. “If you mean Roberto, yes, he’s here. We have demon-sign?”

“Now who’s doing it? If you stack a bunch of demons you could have a demon-striation, right?” I mused.

“Possibly. What does… oh.  Yeah, I don’t think the pun quite hit it.”

“I was hoping it rocked.” I waited for the mental bah-dump-dump-ching sound, and continued. “Seriously, though, yeah. Sixteenth street mall, Denver, maybe an hour ago.”

“In this traffic?” she asked. “That might as well have been last Tuesday.”

“Last Tuesday we hadn’t gotten confirmation that it was my ex-‘s friend’s ex-boyfriend.”

“That’s a tenuous connection, I’d say. Like you know a dude who knows a dude.” She punched the open channel key, also known as speakerphone.

“Yes, but can’t we use that?” I asked. I got a half-shrug from Nen. “Isn’t it a wart on the first law?”

“Thou shalt not rile up a woman because she’ll go have sex with djinn and angels and you’ll be like uncle to a billion deadly sins?  Or Newton, an object at rest rarely gets motivated to do anything else but slouch around? ”

“Is that the first law?  I was thinking similarity.  Contagion.  That sort of thing.”

“Oh, THAT first law.” I heard Roberto say something, but they must have been outside, because traffic overwhelmed whatever he had to say.  “Fine,” my sister responded. “There are lots of first laws. It’s like primo uno in spades. Or something like that.  Let’s not number the laws, okay?  Or rules.  I think Gibbs had two number ones, too.  And don’t go there. Toilet humour is so 3rd grade it’s poopy.”

I tried to restrain a snort.

“The first law is of that of naming,” Rayya said, late to the conversation.  Or maybe she was just trying to be helpful and remind me.

“I’m more surprised no one argued my wart comment, and explained that it was a polyp or a strange cyst-like growth. That isn’t an invitation, by the way.  Magda had a way of tracking people, and it’s a staple of magical fiction. Can you do that, only tracking the tracker?”

“I think you meant a corollary, and got caught up in the net of capillary instead. Um. Isn’t the law of similarity an artistic conceit of gestalt psychology?”

I rolled my eyes. Sometimes I forgot my sister was, well, my sister. “Point taken. Can you do it?”

“I don’t think so. It’s too tenuous. That’s wizard territory, really. If it were my own bloodline, then it’s a real maybe.”  She sounded disappointed.

I tried cheering her up. “So I should never try and hide from you?”

She laughed. “You never could. Remember trick or treating that year you were dressed in a thrift store tux?”

I groaned. “Oh please, don’t remind me.”

She chortled and then sighed. “I will remind you whenever I need to threaten you.  What’s plan B?”

“An option when Plan A fails,” I fired off, trying to give myself a second to formulate one. “Find something that can sniff out a demon and run the hounds on it?”

“That’s kind of just Plan A with three little letter ‘I’s after it.  Know a pious skinshifter?” she asked, off-handedly.

“Not to my knowledge, but then again, why would I?”  I meant it both ways.  Why would I know one, and why would I know they were one.

“You have weird friends,” was all she said.

I couldn’t deny that. “A wizard, you say?” Was I in debt to one, did one owe me a favour? I tried to add up the balance sheet real quick, but found myself probably even with the Questor’s wife. Misko. I finally had a use name for her, and I should use it.

“You know one?” she asked, suddenly interested.

“A weird friend,” I said, vaguely.

“Oh,” she said.

I couldn’t interpret that one, so I left it. “I don’t know if she’d be willing to get involved, or what I would have to pay her, though. She’s the kind who might get involved if she were interested, but I have a feeling this is maybe a bit more dangerous now that I am thinking about it and she has kids.”  I was half-thinking aloud, so I wasn’t going to worry about my sister’s grammatical sensitivities.  “The feeling I’ve had around the guy is like he’s a maw of infinite space.”

“Bound by a nutshell of bad dreams?” she asked.

“Should I be hoping it’s a hard nut to crack?” Back to banter. It was safer than thinking about that feeling. It made me want to shudder and sweat. It didn’t get better on repeat, but worse.

“You ever think you’re the bad guy, E?” she asked.

The question seemed like a huge non-sequitur from our conversation, and it completely derailed my thinking. “Um, only when it comes to people calling me a dragon slayer, or, well,” I thought of a few times I’d done bad things. Maybe I didn’t have a huge catalog of them, but there were always enough. It was the lazy path to humility, the stumble that led to a great Fall.  “Why?”

“Just thinking aloud,” she said, brushing me off. “So, great dragon slayer, you going to call your weird wizard friend, or are we going downtown? I could do with some nosh.”

“Since when do you use ‘nosh’ as a term?” I demanded.

“Since I was chatting with mom earlier. She was making a sweet kugel. If you make a kegel joke I will hit you.”

“Never even crossed my mind.” Truth, for once.

“So, dinner and maybe demons downtown?”

“Definitely a date.”

“Ew.”

“Ew! You’re my sister. I was just alliterating.”

“Well, pick up your a-litter, trash boy.”

“That… doesn’t even make sense.”

“Neither do you.  See you at the deli near the Historical Society?”

“Probably bringing the sibs.”

“I thought I heard sins, and I was going to tell you to pray for them, but you might pray for those weird friends of yours, too.  I’m probably,” she dripped sarcasm into the word, “bringing this guy, although he has no appreciation for good food.”

“He probably thinks a knish is a low-class empanada.  If he can’t appreciate a really good pastrami, dump him.”

“I heard that,” I heard, and then with a chuckle, the call ended.

 

 

(244) Interlude: The Feline Persuasion

“We need a cat.”

I was reading on my phone.  It was a T. Kingfisher novel (Paladin’s Grace), and I was chuckling (when I wasn’t reading excerpts aloud) when Nen stood in front of me and said this aloud.

I looked up from my phone. He was tall enough to meet my eyes, and wearing an outfit of black leather, with his hair pretty spiky, looking kind of like a really young Billy Idol.  I wondered what I had that was leather that he used as the base of the enchantment, that whole “feast from a kernel of corn” business. I remembered with a minor cringe that I had a black leather tie my sister had given me as a joke.

“A kitten, preferably.”  He brought me back to reality, and my brain kicked back into gear.

“We need a cat?” I was half making sure that I had heard him correctly, and half challenging his logic.

“Yes,” he said, as if required to explain it in simple words.  “Cats and books go together.”  He tilted his head slightly.  His eyes were bright. “Especially in libraries.”

“Oh,” I said.  “So, like a guardian?”  Nen had explained a little bit of what was needed to cement the new Realm.  I still hadn’t given it a good name, although I was vacillating between “Sibrary,” and “Sibliotecha” and working on something with “Archives” that wasn’t too derivative of C. Stross.

Nen and Rayya both had been a little coy on all of the details. Well, I describe it as coy, but it was like their natural fey state. Straight answers were more than unpleasant to them, but I guessed it was part of their Game.  (Not The Game, which, well, you 1990s kids just lost. Again.)

I had jotted down some of the rules. Acknowledgement from Powers was more than a polite part; it was an adjustment to reality.  Then there needed to be different anchors. One of them was a set of guardians, and to be kind to me, they wanted anchors that were of my reality more than the fey one. I wasn’t sure if they had to be living creatures, because frankly, even with the Realm’s extra space, I wasn’t sure about more roommates, and to be of this world, they had to be in this world at least a large part of the time. I wasn’t sure of the magic involved, like if it was a fifty-one percent kind of thing, or if it was like having a jar of dirt.

A cat, though.  Huh.  I wasn’t opposed to them, although if you’d asked, I don’t know if I would have described myself as a cat person. Cat people were odd. Cats are odd. They have brains the size of walnuts, big eyes, small mouths, sounds that mimic those of human babies, and they like to torture and murder other animals.  Yet at the same time, they are absolutely adorable and give positive feedback just made to spark out endorphins.  They stink of ammonia and like to sit on what you’re looking at because they read with their rears.

“We should get a cat,” I agreed.

I’m a sucker, I know.

There wasn’t anything in particular that kept me from getting a cat. No pet rent, or extra deposit, or whatnot.  I’d have to find a place to put a couple cat boxes, keep them in kibble and the occasional gushy treat… I even knew where to get one, since the Denver Dumb Friends League was obvious.  Hmmm. Maybe we could put one of the cat boxes in the Little Realm.

I switched from my e-book reading to doing research. “Does it have to be a kitten? Or what are we looking for?” I asked, trying to get a little more information.

“A kitten… lasts longer?” Nen said.  I’m sure I heard the question mark in his voice.

“I mean, that’s an `it depends’ if I’ve ever heard one.” I frowned. Luckily, if there is anything the internet doesn’t have a scarcity of, it’s cats.  “I am presuming we’ll keep it an indoor cat.  Even though the deadliness of cats on bird species has been found to be deeply skewed statistics, I know there are a lot of dangers out there for cats, and not just the coyotes I occasionally see at night.”

“Fred,” Rayya mentioned from the kitchen.

“Fred?” I repeated, mostly to make sure I heard it right.

“Fred. The coyote’s name is Fred.”

I blinked. Once.  Twice. Then I turned back around towards the kitchen. “Fred?” I managed.

“Naming is a tricky art. Sometimes, that name is Fred.” She brought her bowl of cereal out to where they had moved the couch. “That was so in this case.”

“We have a coyote named Fred,” I shrugged, turning back in the chair to the computer.

“We do not have a coyote named Fred,” Rayya murmured. “Fred is his own.”

“But we’re getting a cat?” I asked.

“A kitten,” Nen reminded me.

“To own another being is a shackle on your own soul. I do not recommend trying to own a cat, however amusing it would be, it only annoys the cat and makes you look ridiculous,” Rayya said, with a little more venom than I was expecting.  Venom.  Vehemence.  No, venom was the right term in this case.

“Got it. We’re getting a cat, but we won’t own a cat. Of course, from what I’ve heard, cats will more likely own us. I hate to tell you this, though, Rayya, human legislation in the area does make someone with a cat an owner, and we’ll have to be listed as such with the vet down the way.” I frowned. “Or we can be listed as mommy and daddy, but that just gets weird.  Even the term ‘furbaby’ sometimes makes me a little squicked.”

“You should change that,” she said, taking another bite of her sugar-coated crunch bombs or whatever they were.  The cereal had a bright red cardboard box, but I couldn’t always tell one from another. They all tasted sweet.

“Which part?” I asked, because with them, you have to ask.

“Naming is a tricky art,” she repeated.

“That doesn’t answer the question,” I complained.

She just smiled.

Nen pointed at a cat on the screen, distracting me.  He put a hand on my shoulder.  “That one.”

It was a white kitten with grey points.  Cute.  “I don’t think you can just order cats like a… um.. catalogue.”  I regretted my choice of words. “Besides, I don’t think we really want a kitten.  Kittens can always find homes because of the cute factor.”

Nen seemed to consider this, taking his hand off my shoulder, and slinging it behind his back as he paced back and forth.  “We will have to interview them.”

“Ask them for their résumé?” I asked. “Their job experience? Education? How many years at purring and making biscuits?”

“Do cats make biscuits?” Rayya asked, interested.

“It’s a phrase I’ve heard. Kneading. It’s a behavior thing.  Can you guys, like, talk to cats?” I asked.

“Can’t you?” Nen asked.

“Okay.  I can talk to them. I can also talk to rocks, the walls, and my reflection. Any of those answering me back would freak me the heck out. I meant, can you have a conversation with them in such a fashion that you are both in understanding?”  I sighed.

Nen smiled. “No, we cannot communicate any better than one who is a student in their language can. Every cat has its own tongue, and all those they have gotten from others.” His smile turned to smirk. “So to speak.  It is a combination of sound and smell, of body language, how they move, where they move, and training.  It is easier to teach a cat your language. They are fast learners.”

“Huh,” I grunted. “Interesting way to think about it, at any rate.  Now I’m wondering if some cats have accents.”

“Miao, versus meow? Maao, mrrp, nya nya, and miu?” Rayya asked.

“Aren’t those our accents?” I turned back over to look at her.  She had a talent for mimicry such that I could really hear the differences.

“Perhaps.” She shrugged, and put the spoon in the now empty bowl. She went back into the kitchen, either to drop off the dishes or get seconds.

“Are there cats wherever it is you come from?” I asked. “I mean, they’re pretty constant in fantasy novels, their nature being irascible and ineffable both, I suppose.”

“There are cats everywhere,” Nen laughed. I liked the sound of the sib’s laughter, although sometimes it filled me more with dread. “Truly. They are adaptable, and our natures are such that we appreciate them.  Your words reflect this. How much fey in feral, and vice versa?” he asked.

“Hmmm,” I nodded. “We can put in an inquiry.  Here’s an adult tortie female, about 6 years old. She looks nice?” I asked.

He shrugged, tilting his head.  He straightened it out to look at the screen. “We have few specific needs. We can ask if she’s amenable, and see if she likes us.”

“I don’t think there’s a try-before-you-buy option. I’m of the opinion that getting a pet is a until-death-do-you-part responsibility, basically.  Probably why I haven’t got one, except maybe you two.” I was teasing, of course.

Nen frowned. “I ask you not to use that term. It is too close to how the one who had our fealty treated us.”

“Yeah, about that. Was that the Seven King?” I had been curious too many times, but now it actually happened naturally in the course of conversation and I figured I could ask.

“Perhaps,” Nen repeated in the same fashion as Rayya had, and turned away.  I guessed that was the end of that option.

“Yeah,” I repeated, a bit under my breath. “Perhaps.”  I made an appointment. “They have an opening in a couple of days, and they’ll ask us some questions, too.  Are you both going? Are you both going incognito? What’s the plan?”

We got into the details a little, and I set up an order for some pet items to be delivered.  This was either a brilliant idea, or it would be the end of me. Or both. Probably, knowing how things worked out around me, a little of both, yes.

 

 

(243) Just Zis Demon, Y’Kna?

“You know,” it occurred to me belatedly, “I’m an idiot.”

Nen valiantly did not snicker.

“Um?” Janet asked.

“What was the name of your ex?” I asked.

“Basil.  Basil Grey.  He made this awful joke about Earl Grey tea, but that’s lavender based, not basil.  Why?”

“Seriously, Alucard?” I shook my head.  Vasil Greyn.

“I…” that was the verbal equivalent of an, “I don’t know shrug,” which I could hear over the phone.

“I’m just railing at the universe that coincidence isn’t really a thing. Every time I think it might be, the universe comes up and gooses me metaphorically with a little tee-hee.” I gave Nen what I hoped was a meaningful Look.  “Tell me about this guy you saw at the mall.”

“At first I thought, `Okay, this is creepy, but it’s just…’ you know.  Like you said.  Coincidence.  A cloud I hadn’t seen in the sky.  A cat that disturbed the birds. Something.  But he focused on me.  I could feel the, I don’t know, it sounds all literary: the weight of his gaze. But that’s really a thing.”

“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed.

“He kept coming towards me. I had the spooks, so I skedaddled. I kind of half-ran down the block and got on the next bus. Then he did, so I got out just as the doors were closing, but he called my name, like he knew me. I didn’t know him.” She took a breath.

“I don’t doubt you,” I said. I know I could have asked something like, “Are you sure it wasn’t someone from, like, high school who grew up?” but that kind of speculation just said I found her an unreliable narrator. I was first learning her truth.

“Oh, good.” She sounded very relieved. Did women really get doubted that often? I didn’t, um, doubt it.  “So I went straight to Rohana’s as soon as I got my car.”

“Probably a smart idea. And you thought to call me?” I asked. I didn’t want it to sound like, “You’re smart, why get me involved?” and I sort of wanted it to sound like, “I’d love to solve your problems,” but I’m kind of vaguely aware that that whole White Knight thing isn’t a turn-on to modern women.

“You helped me before,” she said, kind of quietly.

“I don’t want you to feel weird about this,” I said, “but did it feel kind of like the sigil you drew?”

“Exactly,” she said, and it sounded like she was relieved, like I had found the correct key for a certain lock. Not to say that I got an achievement pop up on my personal scoreboard or anything, but I found myself on better footing for certain.

I nodded, and remembered she couldn’t see it. “Yes, great, um. Okay.” I took a breath. “But this wasn’t Basil?”

“No, but,” she stopped. “You know how in dreams you recognize someone but they’re not who they are in waking? That’s how it felt.”

I hmmm’d quietly. “Evil,” I said.

“Yeah,” she breathed.  “Evil.”  She laughed sharply. “A little melodramatic? Maybe he was just a stalker-y fan.”

“I don’t think so.  If it’s the person I’m thinking of, yes, he’s stalking. You, from what I understand.” I shook my head. I hadn’t realised I’d started pacing, but I was making a circuit back and forth from the computer chair to the now much more open living room.  Nen was perched on the back of the couch, watching me. Rayya was in the kitchen, making some lunch. I could smell curry and vegetables, so she was cooking, but so quietly I knew she was also listening.

“You sound pretty sure, but he knew my name, so I guess that makes a kind of sense.  I mean, right now I feel really stupid, really, because if I try and look at it objectively, I was chased from the mall by a weird guy who just guessed my name. Heck, any Rocky Horror fan could have been making a joke and guessing it.”

I hadn’t made the connection, but I grinned when I got it. “I suppose, and Basil and Brad both sound like terribly boring people.”

“Whereas I am just terribly mysterious,” she said, and I could hear her smile.

“Terribly mysterious.  Even without guacamole.” I grinned. “Can you cut guns in half with your mind?”

“Never tried,” Janet replied. “Maybe I can!”

“Let’s not experiment under pressure,” I mock-cautioned.  Well, I mean, it was a real caution, but we weren’t talking seriously. “Objectively, you said.  I’m pretty sure we’ve past rationality.  We were supposed to take the left turn at Albuquerque if we wanted to go that way.”

“Straight to the Goblin King’s castle?” she asked. She laughed, and I joined her.

“Well, hopefully not.  He moved the stars for no one, but that sounded like maybe he could.”

“Changing your stars?” She tsked.

“Hey, it’s possible. Maybe we’re just taking the scenic route to rationality. Seeing the sights.”

“The biggest ball of twine in Minnesota?”

“Well, it’s my first demon.”

“Demon?” she yelped.

“Yeah, I don’t actually really believe in them myself, but I am starting to be convinced.”

“Demon?” she repeated, this time in a squeak.

“I’m afraid so. Bouncing baby boy demon.” I sighed, but I was listening carefully.

“You mean, like, fallen angel?” she said, so quietly I had to think a few times if that was actually what she said.

“Well, I don’t know if the mythos is correct. As I understand it, vampires and shapeslippers are types of demons, if you go with the dimensional traveler thing and why are you crying?”

“I just…” she sniffed, “I am just really freaked out.  I think I need to get off the phone.”

“You’re safe at Rohana’s?”

“Rivendell, remember?”  Smiling through the tears.

“Okay.  My phone’s on me, so if you need anything, or if you hear anything, or you see him, let me know.”

“Yeah. Uh, thanks.  I mean it.  For just listening to me.”

“It’s not a problem. Well, at least, it’s a problem that I can solve, which means it’s awesome.  Go get some rest. And hydration. And vitamin B complex.”

“Thanks Doc.”  She hung up.

Yes, we have a Discord.

Because all the cool kids are doing it.  Or because it might encourage me to work on this when I have energy and time, two resources in short supply but that actually exist!

 

https://discord.gg/td8ns3t

 

 

(242) Identity Is the Namer of Names

I have to admit that it wasn’t entirely comfortable being on the side of the argument that all sex is inherently a matter of power imbalance, because I didn’t believe that. I felt it could totally be a mutually beneficial and equal event, but I guess there was a part of my mind that gave a certain amount of credence to the idea. Maybe just as long as it didn’t imply that all such imbalances were aggressions or abuses. I thought that had to be a separate issue.

Nen had been thinking, too, something strange passing through his head and across his face, an expression I’d learned meant there was a lot more input he was processing. I usually didn’t know what that input was. “What do you know of bargaining?” he asked me, tilting his head like a cat.

“Um, that I’m awful at it? Why?” I asked.

“Inherently, or specifically awful?” he asked.

“Well, there are probably lots of people who are better at it than I, if that’s what you’re asking. Even in games, I’m like, `Let me just roll for the haggle, because we’re not going to have fun in real time.'” Charisma isn’t a dump stat in any of the games I play.  “I mean, I suppose if I was 100% comfortable with what I was buying or selling, but that’s got to be rare.  I hate buying cars, for example, which is why we’re still oscillating between buses and rentals.”

“Would you say it was part of your identity?” he asked.

“That I’m terrible at it? Um, no. I mean, if we were going to stat me up as a character with traits and all, well, it’d depend on the system, but I don’t think it would necessarily be a defining characteristic. If I had to give it a guess, and it’s been a while, I’d have an aspect of, `All women in my life are witches,’ or ‘Definitely a leg guy.'”

He made that face that was really the “hmmm,” sound. I don’t think I can explain it better than that, other than to say that it’s definitely a human expression, too.  “True, true,” he muttered, whether or not that was just polite noise (something we have discussed frequently) or an actual response I couldn’t tell.

I was interrupted from asking by a phone call.

“Hi.”

“Um, hello?” It’s not really a question in this case, but the questioning tone was more my confusion at not being the first person to speak, and also because I didn’t know who it was.

“Hi. We met at the Starbucks? This is Janet.” I experienced that sudden rush of connection that led to comfort for being on more familiar ground. Ahem.

“Oh, hello there,” I said. I had meant to put her number in my phone under “Strangely Sexy Non-Skeevy Sigil Scribbler” or something equally amusing. Well, maybe something more amusing, because that really wasn’t.

“It didn’t work,” she said, suddenly, as if trying to say all three words at the same time.

“What? I mean, I don’t think I provide a guarantee, but what didn’t work?” I asked. “Are you… safe?” I meant, “okay,” but ‘safe’ is what came out.

“I’m okay. I’m… It’s still around. He’s still around. He’s following me.  I’m at Rohana’s, actually. Look, it’s not in my Book,” and she definitely capitalized the word, “but is it something you can take care of? I mean, I could try putting a restraining order on it, but nothing’s happened, exactly.”

“It, or him?” I asked, because I didn’t like the personality on the thought.

“It’s a him. But it isn’t a… look, I’m sorry if I sound crazy.”

“You don’t, but I need more information.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “When I thought of what I could do, I tried to think of who might be able to help me, and I thought of you first. Rohana’s new place is peaceful, like Rivendell, but I don’t want it to go under siege, and I can’t stay here endless years.”

I’d never really seen Rohana’s old place, but that was just dithering because I was trying to put things together. Janet had complimented me about being fast, and thinking six or seven things at a time, and while I was touched by the Tolkien reference I needed out of the Dead Marshes and off to the northeast near Rohan if I was going to ride my white knight steed… to, um, mix a few metaphors or something.

Maybe I just needed fire mares. Fire mares would do the trick.

“If I’m reading between the lines, you’re being followed by a… demon?” I thought the word through carefully knowing the little I was knowing, and naming the name.

“Yes. No. I don’t know. It’s something, and it felt like what I touched with the sigil.  My sister… she’s out of state and I can’t get in touch with her, but it’s here, so she’s probably safe. Whatever it is. Him. He. It just feels masculine, but I feel silly saying that because maybe it’s my own, I don’t know, prejudice?”

“Where did you start feeling it?” I asked, trying to avoid the swampy bits around “all men are evil,” because the Dead Marshes were troublesome enough.

Notice they weren’t fire stallions? Nevermind. Not going there.

“I was on my way out to do some mall art, kind of 30% busking, 30% people-watching, and 40% enjoying the weather because even though it’s fall it’s been beautiful outside.” She paused. “You don’t need to know that, sorry, just thinking aloud. I mean, you live here, too. You already know… sorry, I ramble when I’m … scared, I guess.”  She stopped again, then took a breath. “It’s scary to tell people you’re scared. Vulnerability, but I’m reading Brene Brown and all.  Anyway. I’m setting up when I get that ‘someone is watching you,’ feeling. I look around, and no creeps. Then it just gets worse. And worse. And everything’s quiet. No birds. Nobody’s walking down the block. The mall bus is far away. And remember when the eclipse came around, and we got something like 92 percent coverage and it was that kind of, I don’t know, weird dark-but-not-dark? It was getting darker, just like that.  I got the spooks, and packed everything up, and started seeing patterns in shadows, and then there was… this guy.”

(241) A Talk

“A talk?” Nen asked. “Are we not already making trouble with words and misunderstood gestures?”

Somehow I thought he was teasing, although with his dry recital it was difficult to take measure.

“Is it ‘the’ talk?” Rayya asked, hiding the lower part of her face with a fold of light rose fabric in the way that often seemed to indicate a teasing or embarrassed expression for her.  I wasn’t sure where she found something that colour in my stuff, but I suppose being man enough to wear pink meant I had some in my wardrobe.  I was just proud of being able to identify it as something more than “pink.”  I could also point out a beige or a chartreuse, if only because it was fun to spell.

I kept staring at Rayya. “I don’t think so.  On the subject of how the fey procreate I am comfortable in retaining my ignorance.”

Rayya laughed. “We do many things for pleasure as well,” she said.

Nen sighed and shook his head in a fashion not only human but “brotherly” as well. As in being a brother, who had to deal with an uppity sister, not as in the term of brotherhood. You know. I knew, at least.

“Exactly. But there’s a lot more involved in gift-giving than that. I mean, it’s bad enough navigating the complex waters of human sexuality, and maybe being attracted to the wrong person or having an unexpected consequence despite precautions, and all of the levels of um, quid pro quo your kind seems to have as part of their DNA.  Frankly, saying it aloud like this it’s a wonder I ever got involved with anybody.” I barked out a sharp laugh, mostly involuntarily.

Rayya smiled. “It is not always easy to tell who is the giver and who is the giftee, you say?”

“Well, yeah. And then there’s politics and magic and I think the Seven King of Small Things was actually talking babies and I’m not old-fashioned, but I am, like, I believe I would want to be involved in the life of any child I’m creating.  I mean, more than just contributing genetic or whatever kind of material one does in aforementioned happy ignorance.”  I waved it aside.

“You humans have so many weird rules,” Nen said. “Politics and magic and navigating the complex waters of human sexuality. I saw on the internet–”

“Stop right there,” I interjected quickly.  “Things on the internet are their own … just don’t go there.”

“True,” Nen said, reflectively.  “I was thinking it an odd relationship between a woman and a plastic seal.”

“Oh please. I did not want that image in my head.  And it’s just gotten worse, because now I can’t tell if my image is worse or better than what actually occurred. I’m not looking it up. I’m really going to find a wizard with a mental bleach spell and insist they help me learn a very limited, directed version of it.”

“You should not deal with amnesiacs,” Rayya shook her finger at me.  “There is no amnesty for them.”

“People who have lost their memory?” I asked, confused.

“Amnesiacs, the power of forgetting.  Which is different than the power for being forgiven, although the phrase ‘forgive and forget’ is one I think need be explored.”  She paused. “Although,” she considered, “there is no amnesty in ignorance of the law, either, it is said.  These things…” she made a strange shake of her hand, “they are not so true in all places.”

“What, laws might be context based? I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked!” I wasn’t.

“You are not,” she said, frowning.

“No. I’m not.” I sighed. “Well, stunned because of the internet, but I think we just go through life with mild inflammation caused by GIF-based trauma.” I’m not telling you whether or not I pronounced it with a hard or soft “g” because that’s a holy war where I have no dogs.  That’s the phrase right?

“It’s funny,” Nen drawled, “because she was just about to hold in a lecture about speaking untruths. Now that you live so close to the Other, there will be side effects.”

“Uncontrollable gambling? Leg shakes? Prolonged incredulity that, should it last more than four hours, I should see a local religious figure?” I offered.    I shook my head. “Is there really a prohibition on lying?”

“No,” Nen said, clearly.  “It’s broken promises you should avoid. Always.”

“That was definite.” I was more shocked (in a true and actual way) that I got a straight answer from him.

“You need to see what is, so you are not led astray by what might be,” Rayya said.

“Ah. I see where this conversation started. Honey trapping.”

Rayya glanced at Nen, obviously confused. He made a folding figure with his fingers and shrugged after a moment.

“There is no…” she started.

I quickly came to her rescue.  “It’s basically when someone offers something sweet in order to blackmail you with it later.”

“Oh. Like that story with the bear and the owl and the rabbit?” she asked.

I will say, A. A. Milne threw the Spriggan Sibs for a loop, especially when they reached the posit that the bear wasn’t real. This led us directly into Watterson’s classic boy and stuffed tiger books, which I think became Nen’s favorites.  We had quite the riotous explanation regarding what we could and couldn’t blame on the influence of the fey, let me tell you.  I don’t think the stain is still on the couch, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was, at least in spirit.

“More…” I closed my eyes for a second.  “Sex.  It’s all about sex.  Everything.”

“Ah, the `and porn’ portion of the internet,” Nen nodded sagely.

“But it’s a trap?” Rayya asked.

“Of course it’s a trap.  Admiral Ackbar wasn’t just paranoid,” I said, casually.  “It’s not just an exchange of pleasure in equal amounts. It’s made that someone owes someone else afterwards, either because it’s magically delicious, or someone isn’t who they say they are, or whatever it is.  That’s inherently true with the Beyond.”

(240) Say Friend and Enter

I fell asleep before the party was over, which meant I felt pretty darn safe.  When I woke up, I had a question in my head. I teased it out for a bit, trying to remember it in more exact terms.  It wasn’t something that was translating well, because it was kind of simple or somewhat sycophantic or both, and I didn’t like that. It was important, and not just to me, I thought.

I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and sighed a lot.

“Nen,” I addressed the room once I put myself together.  There were some snacks of low perishability (if that was the right term – things that didn’t have to be refrigerated) still on the table, but the place was clean, and some things had been moved “back” although I was beginning to suspect a little L-space near the bookshelves.  I felt a smile come up on my face as I mentally renamed the Spriggan sibs to “the bookelves,” for a moment.  They’d appreciate it and then complain, I figured.

Nen moved from where he had been sitting next to the television.  He looked up at me, making the expression of curiosity on his face akin to the question rather than asking it in words.

“What happened to, at times you might call me friend, but ‘it is a marriage of convenience’ and only guarding me as given?”

His expression left his face, as quickly as if it were dropped. “I am what I am,” he said.

“And that’s it? I let someone build a polyp kingdom in my home who was just an employee of the Seven King? Yes, I figured out a long time ago it was the King who made the request.”

“You would be wrong thrice.”  He shrugged, a deliberately human gesture.

“Nen,” Rayya chided.  She came out of the kitchen with a plate of sliced cheeses and crackers, which she handed to me. At least, the tone of voice was the kind of chiding that was two steps removed from a parent using your whole name, from what I could tell.  I took the plate of crackers, but waited a moment before eating it. As I said, this was important and it definitely made a difference whether or not I took breakfast as a gift, or ate something from fey hands in the first and second place.

She looked up at me. “He counts them three times. The first that it is a polyp kingdom; it is integrated and part of this world for now. As we gain in power and people make it their home, it will grow, but not in a cancerous method. We…” she glanced at him and began again.  “We respect some of your boundaries. We have entwined, which means its development is necessarily slow. It is a place of our power and still of this world, and it is something new that we hope meets your favor.  In second, that we were employees of the Seven King in our work for you.  We were paid for by another.  In third that he meant those words.”

I started to say something, but she raised a hand up to stop me.

Her hands moved in front of her, and she wrung at them, twisting them together awkwardly. “You have influenced us in our changes. We spent our year and a day learning you even as we warded off nuisances and threats.  We mean to make treaty with you.  The Seven King recognized us, and we hoped in our invitations you would see that you are meant to be treated as a power.  We made that statement without making it, we hoped.”

“I’m just dense?  That’s totally and always an option. Like, you know, failure.  Okay, I need to think more about this.” I frowned.  “So it’s safe to eat?” I asked, raising the plate.

She gave me a fleeting smile. “Maybe.”  The smile grew. “Yes.  It is safe to eat, as is all food I prepare for you, with few caveats.”

“Any here?”

“Cholesterol and carbohydrates,” Nen said.  He was still looking at me without any real expression to his face, something I always found disturbing.

“Well, I guess I’ll take those on,” I said, grinning.  “Consider me warned.”  I moved to sit on the couch.

Rayya tilted her head to the side. One thing I had noticed was that the fey and cats had a lot of signals in similar. I acknowledged it, while chomping on a piece of swiss.

“Why do you hold that sexual intimacy with a fey is somehow more disturbing that that with a witch?” she asked, as if commenting on traffic or the weather or something entirely mundane.

I coughed, and bits of cracker sprayed over my shirt. (A black tee with, “Trust Me: I Know Things” in white lettering.)

“Do I want to know where that question c– originated from?” I asked.

“There would be great advantages in coupling with the Seven King. At least one of the aspects encouraged it, and it would be consensual and only as binding as you determined.  You have not had congress of that nature since your abortive relationship prior to our full-time employ, if our information is correct. We can be discreet if you are shy.”

“You’re not making this any better.” I brushed the cracker off, sighing.  “I just have rules about getting involved with things that aren’t human?”

“Can you be friends with them?” she asked, lightly.

Ouch.

I cleared my throat. “I’m a bit of a jerk,” I said, explaining, if not quite apologizing.

“Is it safe to eat food you’ve prepared? After all, you’re human,” Nen said. I didn’t know if I was projecting any bitterness or if it was really there.

“Uh.” I sighed and put the plate down on the table where it was now to the side of the couch.  “As much as it pains me to say it, I think we might need to have a talk.”

(239) Another Name

I tried to listen to the many conversations, and ended up instead focusing on those few people who remained silent.  Nen.  Rayya.  The Seven King.  Even the musicians seemed annoyed or concerned; it was hard to tell. They weren’t even as … human as my roommates.

I thought about that.  Roommates.  Roommates who had decided to invade my space, kind of literally, and create some kind of pocket kingdom in my house.  I was displeased about this.  Maybe I was getting soft in my old age about closing all the open doors, but just because my place was now slightly bigger on the inside, I wasn’t… it didn’t feel like a violation.  I don’t know what the difference was.  It didn’t feel that weird. It felt a lot like home.

If you thought about it, and I had on and off, maybe part of it was because I’d been partially raised by these books. I spent years visiting my friends and recalling their adventures. I had instincts I’d developed and moral quandaries I had navigated from maps of ridiculous situations into which only someone like myself could stumble.  I could find my way around the Kathseide in the dark, bargain with Puppeteers, survive the Badlands of Hark (maybe), but finishing college seemed ridiculous at this point, and buying a car was a burden I was still delaying.

I made a note to myself to write a fabulously funny fantasy novel about buying a car so I could feel better about it.  Then I made a note to myself about the hazards of thinking I could become a writer.  The notes to myself were beginning to pile up when someone asked me a question and I was pushed out of my introspection.

“Um, no,” I said.  “My current kind of quest is to find a demon and send it back to where it belongs.  Get behind me and all that.”

“Drama much?” the Questor’s wife teased. “Seriously, though, you should ask the Questor. That’s what he does.”

“Yeah, and I don’t want to just be another person using him,” I said. “I guess I feel pretty strongly about taking advantage of something he really can’t control.  It’s like… I don’t know… kissing a succubus. It’s not their motive: it’s their being, and they deserve consent, too.”

“True enough, but if I asked you to close this little door I knew about, how would you feel?” she asked.

“Like I should go do it as a favor to a friend,” I said, automatically.  “It’s different when it’s you asking the favor, though. How would you feel?”

She chuckled, and there was still an aspect of teasing to it.  “Maybe like I was keeping you out of trouble.  Why aren’t there any witches here?” she asked.

That was not a question I was expecting. “I’m sure there’s some kind of adage about spoiling the brew, or too many broomsticks a la that apprentice’s folly, but I really don’t know.  Maybe they didn’t want to invite any of my ex-girlfriends?” I frowned.  “You know, they can’t all be witches.”

“Why not?” she tee-hee’d.  I mean, I’d read the phrase in text, but I had never expected to hear it in real life.

I found myself grinning despite the plaintiveness of the situation.   “Tee hee indeed,” I said, loftily.  “I don’t want to seem racist.  Or bigoted on any spectrum. I definitely am, of course; I know how I like ’em.  The phrasing of which makes me totally sexist, too.  But I’m not sure what the equivalent is for witches. It’s not like I seek them out.  I just keep finding that all the women I know for more than a couple minutes are, shall we say, ‘magically-inclined’?  It’s got to be a curse.”

“Or a blessing, thank you very much,” she said, mock-affronted.

“Or a blessing,” I gave in quickly.

She grinned again.

Ed and Zach were looking this way, so I waved them over.  “You know Ed?” I asked while they made their way past the table where all sorts of chocolates and fruits were being displayed.

“I know Zach,” she said. “Ed you’ve mentioned a few times.”

I nodded, as Zach bowed his head and grabbed her hands.  “Misko! I was just talking to Ed about the Questor.  Misko, this is Ed, Ed, Misko,” he said, letting go.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Ed said, and they shook.

“Hmmm,” I heard myself say.

“Hmmm?” the Questor’s wife asked.

“Sorry, thinking. Is Misko a good use-name?”  I had actually been thinking about clasping hands, and the role it played versus shaking them.

“Is your name really Erysichthon?” she asked me, teasingly.

“That doesn’t roll off the tongue,” I noted, impressed. “`Eegaiarasan’ was the best off-the-cuff guess I think I’ve heard. Wrong country of origin, but what a name, eh?  I also liked ‘Eiel’ for the meaning.”

“I’m not familiar with it?” she said, curious.

“`Born to inspire fright,’ I believe,” I reported.

Ed snorted. “You’re more a ‘Born to be Mild,’ type, E.”

Zach shrugged. “The calmest person may just be expressing the eye of a storm somewhere else.  Except he and I,” he glanced at me with a grin, “would probably argue that that suggests a doorway needed to be closed.”

I nodded, having to agree. “Of course, if they could channel a storm, I’d be totally curious as to what kind of creature they were, and what rules applied.  Know of any?” After all, if I could ask anyone, the people I’d ask were kind of in the room.

“Is talking shop verboten at one of these?” Ed asked.

“Your kind,” I said with a firm tone. “You start talking shop and I have sympathetic itches.”

“Sympathetic?” he asked. “Itches for me? How nice.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Nah, he means First Law sympathetic. You talk about bugs and someone conjures them,” Zach teased, catching Misko’s glance.

“Nuh-uh,” she said. “The only bugs I like are the ones that get rid of ickier ones, and we don’t need a herd of tarantulas.”

“Herd?” I asked.

“Clutter.  Or cluster, but I like the first more,” said Ed, and well, he was the one who should know.