Lamia - Chapter 05

Published at 4th of August 2023 05:35:15 AM

Chapter 05

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Christian dropped his backpack on one of the kitchen chairs on his way to the pantry. No homemade cookies these days, he'd have to settle for those sold by a local bakery. They were good, just not quite as good.

He picked up on Mark's proximity just before he heard him actually come into the kitchen. A cupboard door opened and closed.

“Going out?” Mark asked. “Usually when you aren't working you spend the day in the library.”

“Shakespeare in the Park with Val, they're doing As You Like It.”

“Which one's that?” Christian heard the fridge door.

“It's a comedy. A couple of female cousins run away together, one disguises herself as a boy, and a woman falls in love with her-as-him, and they run into the guy that she's actually in love with but he doesn't recognize her in disguise.” He finished filling a plastic box with cookies, snapped the lid on, and emerged from the pantry with it. Mark was leaning against the counter next to the fridge, a glass of juice in his hand. “I'm not really a huge Shakespeare fan but Val talked me into it. Afterwards we're going to grab some supper at the cafe where she just got a job.”

“She's quitting the bookshop?”

“No, but Amanda doesn't have enough hours to offer for Val to pay her rent and stay fed. She's tried having just one employee before but it doesn't work well when things like holidays or unexpected situations come up. Val likes the job too much to give it up so she works elsewhere too. The cafe's new, I've never been there, but Val says the food's good and healthy. Apparently they'll do takeout too. Do you want to come with us? Or we can meet you afterwards for supper, if you aren't into sitting in a park watching gender-bending comedy from four centuries ago.”

“I have plans, but let me know how the food is. I'm still building up a list of what's available and variety is nice.” Mark finished the last swallow of his drink thoughtfully. “I'll walk downtown with you, though. Maybe I'll hang around in the park for a bit and check out at least the beginning of this.”

“Um, yeah, sure, I'd love the company.” To say that was a surprise didn't even begin to cover it, but it was a pleasant one. Mark must have had as much fun during their first evening at gaming as Christian had, since the invitation had been repeated twice over the past couple of weeks. Several times over the same span, Mark had checked what Christian liked before ordering an evening meal, and Christian had given up on offering to pay for his own when Mark had hinted that it would be easier to just not share. Neither of those led to a lot of conversation, but it gave Christian a sense of gaining ground in making friends, at least. Was this a further step? “Give me a sec to check the back door is locked.”

“Take your time.”

The back door opened into a smallish room that offered access to the kitchen on one side, the living room on the other, the stairs down to the basement straight ahead, and served as home to washer and dryer; being towards the back of the house, it offered the easiest access to the back yard and to the clothesline, so Christian used it often. He didn’t always remember to lock that one. He checked the deadbolt, then hastened back to the kitchen.

Mark waited for him near the front door, keys in hand, and locked it behind them while Christian finished tying off his backpack and slinging it onto his shoulder.

“You're spending a lot of time with Val,” Mark observed, as they reached the street and started down it. “I don't recall that you were when I first moved in. Did I miss something?”

“No, not really. We've both been working at the bookshop for a while, Val's been there a lot longer than me. But there's only ever one of us on at a time, so we didn't see each other much. We started talking about her hours lately. Because the schedule in the cafe is more complicated and sometimes changes, Amanda has basically just declared that as long as one of us is always there when we should be and we're both happy with the hours and we keep track, she's letting us figure it out between us. We ended up talking about some other stuff and I found out that she's kinda fun to hang around with. Most of my old Dungeons and Dragons group has moved to bigger cities looking for jobs or lost interest, same thing for Val's, but we're thinking we might try to put what's left of both groups together and see if we know anyone else. Ever played it?”

“No. And I can't honestly say I'm all that interested in it.”

Christian shrugged. “It's not for everyone. I tend to have some trouble staying friends with people, there's too much I don't dare tell them but after a while I start feeling like I'm lying to them by leaving things out, y'know? At least gaming gives me a way to be social that doesn’t tend to lead to that particular problem, plus it can be fun. There's still stuff I can't tell Val, but there's less of it, at least. She was a bit cautious too, she says guys who genuinely respect the fact that she's mostly just into girls are pretty rare but she believes me that I will. Honestly, I don't understand why anyone wouldn't. Only having relationships with girls but now and then enjoying sex with guys doesn't mean that every guy she's willing to be friends with is entitled to expect anything. Or every girl, for that matter.”

“I've encountered a considerable number of people who believe the opposite sex exists only to fill their needs. If not both sexes and everyone between.” Hands tucked into the pockets of his jeans, Mark looked casual and relaxed, but Christian noticed that those golden eyes never seemed to be still, tracking every suggestion of sound and motion. He seemed unaware of the earth elemental that Christian saw above them as they passed under an ancient maple with branches arching over the sidewalk, but he spotted and then dismissed a black squirrel watching them from a small apple tree in the middle of a front yard.

“I completely don't get that. But then, my usual babysitter was a glaistig, and a harpy told me bedtime stories, I learned Tarot readings from a vila and research from a naga and climbing trees from a couple of fruit-tree nymphs my age while their parents helped my dad, and my great-aunt taught me how to talk to cats and understand their answers, so I guess I might have missed some normal human socialization.”

“Oh, you think maybe?” Mark said dryly. “I wouldn't worry about it, I don't think you missed anything you aren't better off without. I'm not particularly familiar with glaistigs and I don't think I've ever heard of a vila.”

Christian glanced at him, surprised. “You usually seem to recognize anything I mention.”

“I'm guessing they're both more common in rural areas. Do I strike you as someone who spends more time outside a highly-urban environment than necessary to get from one to another?” Golden eyes flickered across the street, stayed on the middle-aged colourfully-dressed woman for a moment before moving on briefly to a crow perched on a streetlight.

“Honestly, I really don't know much of anything about you at all. Or what's likely or not.”

“Mm. You know what I feel like sharing. Although that's probably going to change in the very near future. I do seem to recall that glaistigs are usually considered dangerous.” A couple of teenaged boys with skateboards apparently weren't worth more than a passing glance from Mark. Just in case, Christian scanned the immediate area with his extended senses, but he found nothing suggesting a threat. That was about what he'd expected. He'd walked this route countless times and there was nothing hostile here. He did his best to ignore Mark's hyper-alertness.

“Yes, glaistigs and vili are both more rural types, for the most part. Glaistigs have been known to get offended if someone says or does the wrong thing. They're physically strong with an affinity for water and a tendency to be protective of small children and domesticated animals, so having one pissed off at you is probably not a good thing. They sometimes adopt families, though. That particular one has been hanging around my mom's family for four or five generations now and decided that Mom and I needed her more so she relocated here for a few years.”

“Obviously she's not currently around.”

“She went back to Scotland once I started school. Vili can and do pass for human, generally as old-school priestess-of-the-great-goddess pagans. They're seers and healers, mostly. They normally come in threes and I doubt there's much a trio couldn't handle, and I'm pretty sure they can have a seriously nasty side, but I was a kid and they don't hurt kids. They like wilderness and small bodies of fresh water a lot but they aren't particularly good at growing things. A coven of nine had a house for a dozen years or so north of the city, and my dad kept the landscaping the way they liked it. One vila took a fancy to me, she said I was polite and perceptive and bright, and she started giving me lessons, mostly in reading cards since they work better for me than other kinds of divination. They moved away a few years ago.”

“It sounds like you have a history of being around liminals that can be dangerous to anyone outside their immediate circle of favoured humans. And of getting and keeping 'favoured human' status.”

“I suppose so. But it's not like it's uncommon, especially once you get into liminals with human intelligence or above. I mean, they each have their own innate nature that isn't something that can be changed. Even the most intelligent and sympathetic may not see any reason to want to modify behaviour, even if it's something a human might see as appalling.” Christian rubbed the back of his neck absently. The feeling of something watching him was just because of Mark's behaviour, right?

“They are what they are.”

“Pretty much, yeah. One of the vili told me once that with liminals, you can usually figure out where you stand and how to relate to them, because that will always be something consistent with their nature. Humans are the frightening ones because we're completely erratic and unpredictable. Ten humans in the same situation may have ten totally different responses.”

“Depends on the situation, I think. Still, it's an interesting observation.”

“Plus I have a lifetime of a naga challenging me to think things through instead of making assumptions, which makes it pretty hard to see things in dualistic or absolute terms. It's usually fascinating seeing a different perspective even if I don't learn anything else specific, and I'd much rather just be friends.”

“I take it you aren't including the critters you might run into while doing housecleaning jobs.”

“Well, no. That's kind of situational. I really don't like the thought of killing things, and I'm not sure how I'm going to feel the first time that becomes my only option, but I don't like people doubting their sanity or worse, either.”

“Maybe you need an ally of some sort that doesn't mind killing pests so you don't have to.”

“That's one option, and I might feel safer, but I'd still be responsible. Besides, I'd have to find something that fits that description.”

“Possibly there's something closer than you think. Tell me more about vili. They sound interesting.”

Christian glanced sideways at him. “I'm not sure they do. I'm getting the oddest feeling that you're trying to keep me talking.” And what was that supposed to mean, closer than he thought? Absolutely everything he’d observed made it unequivocally clear that Mark was human. Maybe Mark had a liminal friend? He’d speculated about that as the reason he was supposed to tell Mark if he got into trouble. Although unless his family had set up a loophole of some sort, no liminal should have been able to get into or out of their house through the protections on it, and certainly not without Christian’s knowledge.

“If I ever run into a group of them I'd like to know how to deal with the situation. And it tells me quite a lot about you and what you consider normal.”

Christian considered that. “So when do I get to find out more about you and what you consider normal? I'm not actually trying to be nosy. It's hard to know how to meet someone halfway and be accommodating and all if you don't know anything about them.”

“You've been doing just fine. I tend to keep a lot to myself unless there's a real need for someone to know it, but the longer we're sharing a house, the more you're going to need to know. Tell me about vili.”

By the time they reached the park, Christian had covered roughly what he knew about vili and glaistigs and even huldre like his grandmother’s friend, and had moved on to some of the liminals he'd had much less contact with.

“I know there are a lot of things out there that are a lot less friendly,” Christian said thoughtfully, as they stepped off the sidewalk and onto the grass. “But I haven't actually encountered them.”

“With a mature naga around, not much surprise. He's strong enough that even your coven of vili would probably have hesitated to start a war with him, especially given his strong connection to a witch with other allies available. Where are you supposed to meet Val?”

“Wherever. We didn't really say a particular spot. We'll find each other.”

Mark surveyed the park. “People who are part of this theatre group, people showing up presumably to watch, people over in the playground with kids, people selling hot dogs and ice cream, people wandering around who are probably connected to the university since classes started a couple of weeks ago and we're not far from it, and you're expecting to just bump into her?”

“Pretty much, yep. It won't be so bad.” Christian laughed. “I'm psychic, remember?”

“Silly me,” Mark said dryly.

“Actually, I think I'm going to drop by the bathroom and then grab something cold to drink before they get started. Do you want to sit somewhere and I'll find you?”

“Oh, yes, let's complicate things and lose each other along with Val, certainly. Forget it. I'd rather keep you more or less in sight.”

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