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.


“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.”