The Turn of the Story, Part VI
Since last we spoke, I finished the Lynburn Legacy series, wrote an article on sexism in the Toast (super excited to be hosted by the Toast, and Malinda Lo wrote an awesome companion article about homophobia as well as sexism), and went on tour round England with Holly Black, and met some of you excellent people. A few of you even mentioned liking Turn of the Story, and I was so pleased.
So… here is more. This part is for Seanan McGuire, because she said she liked it, and because Parasite by Mira Grant is recently out, and it was fabulously awesome and I wish to celebrate it. 😉
The next morning was ungodly awkward.
Luke was very quiet, staring at his porridge with his arms crossed over his chest. Serene was also very quiet. Elliot could not tell from Luke’s face if he was upset at still having an intruder in his home, or from Serene’s face if she regretted any rash acts of pity kissing that might have happened last night. He concentrated on being a good polite guest: he didn’t steal the little container of jam Luke had for his own porridge, even though he was used to it and the porridge tasted awful without it. He passed several excellent-guest remarks about how delicious the awful porridge was, and how nice the weather.
Everything became even more hideous because people kept stopping by the table, one of a dozen little makeshift tables out on the lawn, to congratulate Luke on his shining victory.
“Guess that Woodsinger wench is teaching you something, at that,” said Eric Sunborn, Adam and Neal’s father.
“Like my mother and my sister taught me before her,” said Luke, speaking mildly but also basically uttering treason. Sunborn women were meant to be regarded as an exception.
“Commander Woodsinger is not a wench!” snapped Elliot. “And I’m sure she’s very proficient at teaching weaponry and other terrible things.”
“How would you know, you sissy?” Neal hissed.
Elliot was about to snap back that he only had to examine the evidence—Luke was champion, and what was Neal?—but then he remembered that he couldn’t insult Sunborns while under a Sunborn roof. He bit the inside of his cheek and sulked.
Luke did not look in the least appeased by Elliot’s noble self-control. He glared at his porridge.
“Do humans call women wenches?” Serene asked. “That’s very humorous.”
Elliot jumped and stared at her. She looked just the same as ever, a beautiful enigma with no discernable thoughts about kissing.
Eric Sunborn gave Serene a squinty suspicious look and drifted away. Luke kept glaring at his porridge. Serene ate dried apricots and continued to be a lovely mystery. Elliot wanted to be back at school, very badly.
The one bright spot of the day was that Adam was sitting at another breakfast table with a broken nose.
Elliot disapproved of violence, but obviously Adam had decided that for his next brilliant move he should sexually harass someone else who was totally okay with it. That was what you got for having wandering hands, Elliot thought with satisfaction. Not everybody was as kind and forbearing as he was.
He beamed at Adam. Adam flinched away as if he was about to be hit again. Whoever had hit him, Elliot thought cruelly, it served Adam right.
Being back at school was marginally better, though Serene and Luke were off spending a lot of time together. Serene stopped by Elliot’s cabin once late at night by herself and Elliot’s heart leapt, but it turned out she only wanted to study some pamphlets to broaden her understanding of the human world.
Over the summer, a tavern had opened for the farming community and the soldiers alike. It was called the Elven Tavern. There was a sign outside that showed an elven warrior, though in oddly revealing armor that Elliot had never seen any elf warrior wear and striking a strange pose. Elliot brought the matter of the sign up with the tavern keeper.
“It’s empowering, innit?”
Elliot examined the sign some more. “What… putting your back out and getting stabbed in the midriff?”
“You have to strike a balance between being empowering and, you know, gettin’ actual customers,” said the innkeeper. It did not seem all that balanced to Elliot, but he added: “Tons of your students come down bringing their ladies. That blonde cadet Adara, she’s brought three men in the last week.”
“She lives a life of daring and adventure,” Elliot agreed.
So the elven tavern was the new place to take a date. Elliot gave the matter deep thought, and then some more thought than it needed because he was very nervous. Finally he glanced across the library table at Serene, who was making a study chart like the babe she was, and mustered up the courage to ask: “Do you want to go to the elven tavern with me?”
Serene looked up from her task, gray eyes like the dawn. “Absolutely,” she said. “What a good idea.”
“Oh,” said Elliot, stunned by his good fortune.
Maybe Serene had been trying to do things the human way, he thought, as he sometimes tried to do things the elven way. Maybe she had been waiting for him to ask her.
“Luke could really do with some cheering up,” Serene continued. “Let me go fetch him.”
“… Oh,” said Elliot.
And maybe it wasn’t Elliot she really wanted, and never had been.
They were not a cheerful group at the elven tavern that evening. Luke was sulking as usual, Elliot was dismayed by how terrible he was at romance, and Serene was appalled by the décor.
“I would be extremely surprised if any elves were consulted when the theme for this building was discussed,” Serene sniffed. “Ever. At any point.”
And Elliot did not know what to do about it, when the girl he loved had kissed him and then decided she wished to spend all her time with Luke from that moment on.
Even though he knew it wasn’t Luke’s fault, and Elliot had been a bad guest, and he was trying hard to be more polite, not that trying to appease Luke was working at all. Elliot appeared to be terrible at manners as well as romance. He should possibly be locked up in a dungeon as one unfit for any kind of human companionship.
Serene excused herself. Silence reigned, a dark tyrant, over the table while she was gone.
“Why are you mad at me?” Luke asked abruptly.
“I’m not mad at you,” Elliot said. “Why would you think such a stupid thing, loser? Now I’m mad at you.”
“There is a statue in the women’s bathrooms that I have strong objections about,” said Serene, returning. “Will you come and examine it with me, and then come and speak to the tavern keeper?”
“Sure,” said Elliot.
“No we will not go into the ladies’ bathrooms!” said Luke.
Was this, Elliot wondered, how Luke wooed ladies? Not giving them all their own way. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen.
They reached a compromise and Elliot peeked in around the door of the ladies’ bathroom while Luke kept guard. Elliot had to agree with Serene that the statue was physically implausible.
It had also been defaced. Someone had drawn COMMANDER WOODSINGER on it in lipstick.
Elliot kept hearing more of the same kind of thing Eric Sunborn had said, about Commander Woodsinger. Apparently Captain Whiteleaf had been suggested to replace her: Elliot thought that was a bad idea, on account of Captain Whiteleaf was a dribbling idiot, but it seemed his father Colonel Whiteleaf was a very important man.
Elliot supposed that was nice for Captain Whiteleaf, but the man was still an idiot.
He proved that by giving them the worst ever lecture about mermaids three weeks into term.
“The hostilities between mermaids and man arose from that incident. Given the draining of their home lake, the Grayling clan of mermaids might thus be said by some to have a legitimate grievance,” said Captain Whiteleaf. “But then the sea mermaids began to murder innocent sailors. The only question is, did the sea mermaids join the Grayling clan in their mission of vengeance because they were bribed by the Graylings, because they have some dark purpose of their own to fulfill, or simply because they have an innate love of violence and destruction?”
“Sorry in advance for my insolence and lack of cooperation in class, but you phrased that question incorrectly,” said Elliot, and noticed Luke had his hand up. “Luke, put your hand down, this question insults your intelligence.”
Luke kept his hand up.
“Your aguments are based on a false hypothesis. The thing is that some mermaids are able to swim in both fresh and salt water,” said Elliot. “We don’t know for sure whether the Grayling clan are exclusively fresh water mermaids or if they can survive in both. So you can’t say for sure that the Grayling clan weren’t responsible for the initial sea attacks. Your father Colonel Whiteleaf wrote about them: the mermaids who perpetrated them were never identified as being from any clan. And of course after we started attacking all the other mermaids, they defended themselves.”
“It hasn’t been definitively proven that some mermaids are able to survive in both,” said Captain Whiteleaf.
“Almost every in-depth report we have on mermaids suggests it,” said Elliot. “Please see Maximilian Wavechaser’s A Thousand Leagues Across A Sea of Blood. It’s an excellent book.”
Dale Wavechaser gave Elliot a thumbs-up. Elliot ignored it because he was embarrassed to be associated with Dale in history class: Dale was very bad at history.
“In any case,” said Captain Whiteleaf. “Cadet Sunborn, I commend you on raising your hand and not shouting out insubordinate remarks. Whenever you have something to say in the classroom, always do so.”
“Can I speak now?” Luke said. “It’s not so much of an answer to a question as a personal announcement.”
Elliot glanced over at him. Luke looked a little pale under his tan. Elliot wondered if perhaps Luke needed to go to the infirmary and felt guilty about talking so much. People’s stupidity could always be corrected another time.
“I’m—I like guys,” said Luke, staring at his desk. “Romantically.”
Elliot put his hand up so fast he almost dislocated his arm. Captain Whiteleaf was staring and nodded, possibly on stunned autopilot.
“Since when?” Elliot demanded.
Luke put his hand back up. “Since always.”
Elliot put his hand up in retaliation. “That’s absurd.”
Luke put his hand up and waited for Captain Whiteleaf to nod and say apprehensively: “Er… Cadet Sunborn… is this going to be a question?”
“Yes,” said Luke. “What is wrong with you? Not you, sir. Cadet Schafer, sir.”
“I don’t understand your question and I have one of my own,” said Elliot, putting his hand back up as a formality and not looking at Captain Whiteleaf. “If that’s true then why don’t I know?”
Luke looked mulish about the face. “You do know because I just told you!”
“Excuse me,” Dale Wavechaser said. “Excuse me, sir.”
Everybody turned to look at him. He had apparently been waving his hand in the air for some time. He was very flushed.
“Yes?” Captain Whiteleaf gazed upon Dale as a shipwreck survivor seeing rescue in view.
“Me too, sir!” said Dale. “I like boys romantically too.”
Captain Whiteleaf looked hideously betrayed. Shot through the heart, his pallid demeanour suggested as he looked at Dale. And you’re to blame.
Dale blinked innocently at him, and then concentrated a hopeful gaze on the back of Luke’s head. Oddly, that was what made Elliot believe it: of course if this was true, then Luke would immediately have someone offer to be his boyfriend in five seconds flat.
Elliot spun to the sound of Serene’s small, polite cough. Captain Whiteleaf bitterly nodded permission, having obviously abandoned all hope.
“This is not a question so much as a comment, sir.”
Captain Whiteleaf gave a hollow laugh. “Of course it is.”
“I wondered, sir, if anyone had attempted to capture a Grayling mermaid and prove Cadet Schafer’s hypothesis,” she said.
Captain Whiteleaf started, suddenly a man finding hope in a hopeless place. “You have a comment about the lesson?”
“Why yes, sir.” Serene nodded gravely. “I had already vouchsafed my comments to Cadet Sunborn on the other matter under discussion in private.”
It was true, then. Luke had told Serene.
Elliot put his hand down and was silent for the rest of the lesson. Captain Whiteleaf was almost embarrassingly happy as a result.
Elliot didn’t know why he had assumed Luke would’ve told him. He was such an idiot: he kept forgetting that Luke wasn’t his friend.
“Is it true?” asked Peter next class. Peter was excused from some lessons in geography and history because his mother was a master map-maker, and looked disappointed to have missed the whole thing. “What they’re saying about Luke Sunborn?”
“It is true!” said Myra. “I mean, I was there, I heard it all.”
“I assume it’s true,” Elliot said. “Luke doesn’t lie.”
There was a long, awkward silence. Elliot fiddled with his biros. Myra slowly dipped her quill in the inkpot, and stroked her mustache with the feathery end.
“So you didn’t know?” Peter asked slowly. “Isn’t that a bit weird?”
“No,” said Elliot. “Seems totally reasonable to me. Did you know?”
“Well, I, well, no,” said Peter. “But that’s different. I would have thought you would know.”
“Why?” asked Elliot. “He’s your classmate too. I cannot be expected to know every little detail about every one of my classmates, Peter. Surely you see that.”
He fixed Peter with a severe gaze. Peter nodded humbly.
“People get to choose who to tell their secrets to,” said Elliot. “You know—people who they trust and feel comfortable with. That’s all right. That’s fine. I understand that. Nobody’s owed anyone else’s secrets.”
“That’s true,” Myra said, and favoured him with a smile. “I think that’s very mature of you, Elliot.”
Elliot smiled, comforted, and made Myra his favourite between Myra and Peter for the rest of the day.
He really could understand. Elliot was not sure that he would have told himself any secrets: it wasn’t like he was conspicuous for his ready sympathy and emotional depths. And the fight he’d had with Luke about Adam looked different now, when Elliot was not just a guest who was behaving badly but someone who Luke might’ve thought was judging and condemning Adam for something Adam and Luke had in common.
Elliot was slow to learn, that was all: he always had been, well before he ever came to the Border camp, when he kept hoping that his dad would start liking him and kept doing everything wrong so his dad never did.
Serene might hate him, too. Perhaps that was why there had been no repeat of the kissing incident, even though Elliot had waited and watched and hoped and tried. Perhaps they had both decided he was worthless.
It didn’t matter what they thought. It was no use Elliot sitting around making himself wretched over it. This wasn’t even about Elliot feeling bad: if Elliot had been the one to make Luke feel bad, it was his responsibility and it was Luke’s feelings that mattered. Elliot had to do something. Elliot had to make it up to Luke.
Elliot had to find him first. He searched the halls, the practise rooms, in the Trigon field, and finally wound up outside the cabin Luke shared with several other guys who always gave Elliot the disapproving side-eye as if he had grievously insulted their leader. This loyalty was even more impressive, Elliot told himself, on a new quest to be understanding and kind, considering he didn’t think Luke knew their names.
Elliot tapped on the door and when nobody answered he peeked around it. Serene and Luke were the only ones inside. Neither of them had lit the candles, though day was slipping down to night.
“Hi,” said Elliot.
“Hello,” said Serene.
“Why do you walk inside when nobody’s told you to come in?” asked Luke.
“I don’t know, I don’t want to spend my whole life waiting outside closed doors,” said Elliot. “I wanted to… talk to you. I might have been taken by surprise and expressed myself in ways I did not exactly intend.”
“Is that so?” said Luke.
“I might have not shown enough consideration for your feelings,” said Elliot.
“Sorry,” said Luke. “Are we just talking about today?”
The thing about Luke was that he was a secret snarky jerk. Elliot was not sure how Luke kept that a secret: possibly it was a secret from Luke himself. His shoulders looked a little bit less tense from where he was sitting on the bunk, though, and Serene looked a little bit less like a bodyguard standing in front of the bunkbed.
“I’m terrible at feelings, it’s like they’re knives, I don’t really know what to do with them and I end up throwing them with too much force,” said Elliot, advancing. “But I have strong views on having a more accepting society, and everyone getting to be who they are, and so it’s excellent that you made your class announcement and if anyone else had been insensitive about it I would have been extremely vexed and plotted vengeance.” He paused. “I don’t suppose anyone was insensitive about it later?” he asked hopefully.
Luke shrugged, the last of the tension going out of his shoulders. Serene looked relieved. Elliot knew that she lived in the constant fear that one of them was going to go off into wild hysterics.
“Just the one guy at first,” said Luke, and smirked. Such a secret jerk: it was unbelievable that nobody else had caught on.
“I can’t plot vengeance against myself, you have to see that,” said Elliot. “But I can plot something else! I love plots, you know that.”
Luke, grinning a little, looked up at Serene: she looked fondly down at him, and smiled. “How many times have the words ‘I love plots’ been followed by good consequences?”
“Statistically it has to be very few,” said Serene.
“So little faith,” Elliot said mournfully.
He closed the distance between himself and them. Serene subsided onto the bunk beside Luke with a little sigh of satisfaction, and Elliot sat at her feet, leaned an elbow against her knee and looked up at Luke expectantly.
“So,” said Elliot. “Is there a boy you like? Tell me.”
Luke choked on air and spluttered.
“Elliot, that’s inappropriate,” said Serene. “Luke has his maiden purity to think of. To be modest and discreet is to be much desired. Although I am not quite sure how it works when two gentlemen desire each other.”
“Serene,” said Luke.
“–presumably it is a very tactful courtship, and no doubt most chaste–”
“Serene, you’re not helping me!” said Luke. “Neither of you are helping me.”
“No, I know,” said Elliot, leaning toward him. “But I want to help you! I can help you! Tell me who it is.”
“Drop it,” said Luke, and squirmed across the mattress, away from both of them. His shoulders were hunched again.
This was a clear sign of guilt.
“The fact that you’re not answering me makes me believe that there is a boy you like. You can’t fool me because I’m extremely intelligent. Now tell me or I’ll keep pestering you to tell me.”
“You’re supposed to be supportive of me!” said Luke.
Serene nodded. “That’s what the pamphlets said. We studied them carefully.”
Elliot’s pamphlets had been taken from him and used against him, and he couldn’t even be angry because this was more important.
“I’m trying to be supportive of you!” he told Luke.
“Then stop yelling at me!” said Luke.
“I will stop yelling at you if you let me support you,” Elliot proposed. “Do we have a bargain?”
Luke’s shoulders were still hunched in, but he glanced over and down at Elliot: there was a deep flush running along his cheekbones. “You’ll laugh at me.”
“I won’t,” Elliot promised. “I’ll be supportive. We’re going to be supportive, aren’t we, Serene?”
“If you wish to tell me I will be happy to hear your secret,” said Serene. “I vow not to mock at you and never to tell anyone the object of your tender maidenly affections, not even if they torture me. A true gentleman’s heart is as sacred as a temple, and as easily crushed as a flower.”
Elliot and Luke absorbed that in a brief moment of silence.
“See?” Elliot said. “We’re being supportive. I promise not to laugh.”
“You promise?” Luke asked warily.
“Yes. Trust me,” said Elliot. “Tell me.”
“Okay.” Luke took a deep breath. “Dale Wavechaser.”
“Uh,” said Elliot, and broke into a grin.
“Elliot, you promised!”
“No, no,” said Elliot hastily. “I’m not laughing at you. But that’s pretty convenient, isn’t it?”
“How do you mean?” Luke’s eyes narrowed. “Just because he’s into guys doesn’t mean he’s into me.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what did you mean? Why did you smirk?”
Elliot had smiled because that was so typical of Luke’s life, that everything would go smoothly for him. Confessing to a crush on someone who clearly had a crush on you back was a bit like saying you were hungry with breakfast already laid out before you: expressing a wish that was already granted.
But Luke looked upset, and Luke’s life was not quite as easy as Elliot had always supposed—not as easy as Elliot had thought it was when he first saw Luke, not even as easy as Elliot had thought it was this morning–and Elliot had promised to be supportive.
“I didn’t mean to smirk,” said Elliot. “That’s great. You should ask him out!”
“Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“Usually yes, today no,” said Elliot.
It was ridiculous, how uncomfortable and upsetting this was. Elliot glanced at Serene, but she was looking to Elliot clearly expecting him to make things right: not only because she thought men were the ones who talked about feelings, but because Elliot was the one making Luke so tense and unhappy. Luke had trusted Serene with his secret, and that had obviously gone well: it was Elliot messing everything up. It was Elliot who always did.
It was clear, from the elves and the council of war and Adam Sunborn, that Elliot needed to learn how to tact, both personally and professionally. Being more tactful was the only possible tactical decision.
Elliot cleared his throat and tried again. “I mean, I like Dale.”
“Yeah?” Luke brightened. “He’s nice, right?”
“Sure!” said Elliot. “Also super handsome. You should definitely ask him out!”
Serene and Luke both spoke at once, Serene vehemently on the subject of modesty and chastity and Luke even more vehemently on the subject of not being pushed or teased and also it being a little soon.
“—I only just decided,” Luke finished, as Serene said: “—a gentleman’s most private treasure!”
“Oh, you only just decided?” Elliot inquired. “Like, you decided today? Luke.”
Well done Dale Wavechaser for putting his hand up, he supposed. He could not help laughing.
“You promised not to laugh at me!” said Luke, but he was laughing a little too, even though he didn’t seem quite sure why.
“I’m trying!” said Elliot. “I’m sorry but I can’t do it.”
He wasn’t just laughing. He was plotting. And he was thinking, as well, about something that perhaps should have occurred to him earlier: if Luke liked guys, he didn’t like Serene, not in that way. Elliot had got it all wrong. Elliot might not have any real competition: Elliot might really, truly have a chance with her.
The next day was bright and clear. The sky was blue, trainees wandering over the grass between classes, luxuriously slow as the wisps of cloud moving across the sky, and Elliot was not in a love triangle.
“Hi. Hi, wait a minute. Hey, wait. Oi, Dale!”
Dale Wavechaser turned around and looked startled to see Elliot bearing down on him. He opened his mouth to speak but Elliot forestalled him: Elliot was on a mission.
“I wanted to say,” said Elliot, speaking fast and fiddling with the strap of his bag. “I’m really sorry if I came off badly in class yesterday? I was just surprised. I think it was brave of you to tell everyone and I totally support you.”
“Oh,” said Dale. He smiled crookedly. “Cool.”
“Also I like you,” said Elliot. “And I want to be friends. Good friends. Can we be friends?”
Dale’s smile got brighter. Elliot smiled back and in case it would help, tried to add charm to it, the endearing air he had used on the elven warriors and on the council of war last year. Oddly, it seemed to work.
“The rest of the guys from the Trigon team are coming to meet me and we’re all going down to the Elven Tavern,” said Dale. “Do you want to join us?”
Elliot shook his head gently. He was devoted to his new life of tactfulness, so he carefully did not say that he would rather be boiled alive in a cauldron of fire ants and cyanide.
“I don’t want to be friends with them, Dale.” He gave Dale the soulful look that he had practised on the elves. “I only want to be friends with you.”
Dale looked surprised, and still a bit puzzled by Elliot’s behaviour, but mostly pleased.
“You should come hang out with me,” Elliot said. “And Luke and Serene and Luke and me. Any time you see us. Come hang out. Any time. Also it seems to me that you might need help with your classes. You should come to me about that. Especially about history. No offence meant.”
“I think history’s kind of boring,” said Dale, and Elliot controlled himself and did not flinch. “But that’s really nice of you.”
“Yes,” said Elliot. “We’re both nice. This is why we’re such friends.”
Dale laughed. He was actually nice, not pretend nice like Elliot was being. Elliot knew the difference. It was probably better to know how to interpret what everyone said to you as the best thing they could’ve meant than to know history. Probably he and Luke would be great together.
Behind Dale Elliot could already hear the clatter of boys coming from Trigon, loudly discussing the many imbecilic intricacies of the game. Escape became urgent.
“I’m looking forward to hanging out,” Elliot told Dale earnestly. “But now I must go. Goodbye, friend.”
He thought that had gone excellently. Get Luke and Dale together, be very supportive of Luke and Dale together, and get Dale to like Elliot so that almost all of them could be friends. Elliot’s plan was fiendishly brilliant, elegant in its simplicity, and bound to succeed.
Elliot was feeling fairly good until two hours later, when somebody attacked the library.
Elliot was peacefully looking up facts about mermaids, feeling a thousand leagues away under a cool blue sea, when the smell of smoke and fire made him slam his book shut and jump to his feet. He looked up to the roof and saw it kindle: saw the thatched roof open into a burning hole.
“Don’t worry, children, the women will protect us!” shouted Bright-Eyes-Gladden-the-Hearts-of-Women.
The students, mainly boys, looked skeptical but frightened as well. They were mostly young, in council training because those in war training didn’t spend much time in the library.
Elliot raised his voice. “Come on, follow me.” He strode over to the library door, opened it and saw fighting in the yard beyond. He slammed the door swiftly shut again. “Never mind that! Let’s not go out there. You and you, behind those stacks, you and you, under the table. You two, help me with the fire. If the fire gets too bad get out and make for the lake—don’t go back to your cabins.”
A first year boy helped Elliot pull down one of the heavy curtains and muffle the floor where one burning arrow had hit. The wood smoked and crackled, Elliot coughing in the poisoned air, but he was mainly concerned about the books.
“In my world there’s this beautiful thing called running water,” sighed Elliot.
The boy looked at him as if he was crazy. “We have running water here too,” he said. “In rivers and streams. Where water runs.”
Through the tall narrow windows of the library, like windows in a church in Elliot’s world, Elliot saw the sudden chaos in the courtyard, saw the Border guard in camp and the warrior training students running out, their weapons gleaming in the light of the sinking sun. He saw battle joined.
There wasn’t time to hang out the window and stare at the battle, even if Elliot had the stomach for it. He turned away and got back to pulling down curtains.
The skirmish was brief: the numbers of the Border guard far outstripping their attackers. Elliot saw the blades sheathed almost as soon as drawn out through the windows.
He still tensed when the door was flung open, but it was Serene, who stood framed in the doorway with her braid flying and in the process of sliding her sword home in its sheath, attached to her belt. Elliot had seen Myra and Adara wearing jewelry on special occasions, but Serene’s swordbelt was the only ornate thing she ever wore. She didn’t need jewelry.
“Rest easy,” she said, and Bright Eyes looked pleased to be rescued by a lady, even if he did clearly think Serene was only a young whippersnapper. “We have beaten back the foul attackers. You are all safe.”
There was a flaming arrow, set deep and burning in the centre of the table. Serene strode over to it and took the parchment rolled around the shaft of the arrow, careless of the fire that licked at her fingers.
She walked out to the threshold of the library where nobody else could see them, and unrolled the parchment.
It read: HAVE THAT WOMAN GIVE UP COMMAND OR WE COME TAKE IT.
“Oh, men are cowards,” said Serene. “So afraid of a woman in charge that they would commit treason? They must worry her showing that a woman is a far more able commander than any man.”
“They’re not going to take Woodsinger’s command,” said Elliot. “Let them come and try. You’ll show them.”
Serene looked at him. The lights of the torches of war were reflected in her cool gray eyes. She was panting and disheveled from battle, beautiful beyond his dreams, and she held onto his arms with strength far beyond any strength he had.
“When we saw the library roof catch fire…” Serene began.
Her tight grip on him made Elliot think that she might be shaking, if she was not holding on so hard. He could see her violent distress: Serene always ignored how different human ways were from her own, right up until the point she could not ignore it any more.
“You must have been furious.”
“I thought you had been killed,” Serene breathed, and kissed him.
They were kissing, they were finally kissing again, and this time Elliot was not too stunned to participate. He curled his fingers around her braid and drew her closer against him, kissed her and kissed her again.
He kissed her until they were both breathless, then he whispered breathlessly against her mouth: “No. Nope, I’m awesome.”
She kissed him again, pressing him against the threshold of the door. Her mouth was warm, searching, burning-sweet, and her body against his was lithe, strong and urgent. Elliot realized her hold on his arms had changed: that she was tugging him downward. He kissed her throat and felt a spike of nerves in his own throat, as if he had swallowed a tiny shark of panic and could feel its fin scraping on the way down. He felt the warm beat of her pulse against his mouth and opened his lips to kiss her again, taste her skin, and to say he didn’t know what he was doing.
There was a sound, low and startled: Serene turned to it and let go of Elliot, though he reached out a hand to keep her.
His hand fell by his side when he looked where she was looking, and saw Luke. It was truly terrible luck that both Serene and Luke should make for the library as soon as the battle was over.
Luke had stopped and was staring at them, blue eyes very wide.
“I didn’t—” Luke began. “I’ll go. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
He turned around, boots cutting furrows in the mud with the force of his turn, and left. He had hardly been there for more than an instant.
“I should—” Serene began, blinking as if she was dazed.
She wasn’t looking at Luke’s retreating back. She was looking toward the commander’s tower. Elliot filled in the rest of the sentence for her: after years at the Border camp, he knew a soldier’s duty.
“You should go,” said Elliot. “Show that note to the commander. We can talk later.”
He stood in the doorway of the library for a long time, dazed himself, until it occurred to Elliot that he was in over his head, and he needed to find out more about women and how to please them immediately. Fortunately, he knew where he needed to go in order to obtain knowledge.
He was still dedicated to being tactful, so he waited an hour and half so that everyone could put out the fires before he sidled back into the library.
“I need some books full of elven lore,” said Elliot urgently.
Bright-Eyes-Gladden-The-Hearts-of-Women gave him a very suspicious look. “What kind of elven lore?”
Elliot gave up on subterfuge, clung to the counter and said, “All right, you got me. I need some books full of specific elven instructions on how to please an elven lady.” Bright stared at Elliot and Elliot wondered if he had perhaps misunderstood. “Sexually please her, I mean,” he clarified. “Very specific instructions, please. Do you know of a book like that?”
Bright drew in a deep breath. “How dare you?”
“The library is meant to be a place of learning, not of judgement,” said Elliot.
“I suppose you think that just because I am unmarried and in employment I am no better than a hussy peddling pornographic literature!”
“What?” Elliot said. “No. What?”
“I’ll have you know, I am dedicated to my passion for the written word,” Bright raged. “And one day, my true elven knight will come, and she will understand my love of literature and why I felt called to promote said love among human children. Moreover, I will come pure to my marriage bed, as all true gentlemen should aspire to do!”
Elliot took a moment to assimilate this new information. It was only a moment.
“Okay, cool, good for you,” said Elliot. “But what if… just for instance… a guy didn’t aspire to come pure to his marriage bed? Like, if he was no true gentlemen, but a hussy? Is there any advice for hussies in this library? I need advice for hussies.”
Bright-Eyes-Gladden-The-Hearts-of-Women made it clear the only thing hussies were going to get in his library was detention.
Elliot gave up. There were other avenues to find out these kind of things, he’d heard: you were meant to learn all you needed to know through something called ‘bro time.’ What he needed was a little help from his friends.
It was well after dinner, but the tables were crowded with people talking about the attack on the library and congratulating each other on their first skirmish or describing it as a ‘good little fight.’ It was the work of a few moments for Elliot to cut through the crowds, elbowing people judiciously, and separate Dale Wavechaser from the throng.
Dale grinned at him when Elliot grabbed his elbow and forcibly turned him around.
“Hey, Schafer,” he said. “I was worried about you. I kind of figured you’d be in the library. But you’re doing okay?”
“Excellent, never better, thanks for your concern, pal. I don’t suppose you like girls as well as boys?” Elliot inquired.
“Uh,” Dale said. “No.”
“Lots of people do, you know,” said Elliot.
“Not me,” said Dale.
Elliot had further arguments to make on the subject, but he didn’t want to be offensive.
“That’s cool, buddy,” Elliot told him, and clapped him on the back. “Suit yourself. It’s always a pleasure. But I have to go talk to another guy about something.”
He rushed away from Dale, who wore the puzzled but friendly expression that was his default around Elliot, and almost crashed into Luke, who caught him before he hit Luke or the wall or anything else.
“Luke, I need bro advice,” said Elliot.
“Oh,” said Luke, looking startled. “Okay. Is this about–”
“So have you seen my friend Peter?”
Luke blinked. “You have a friend called Peter?”
“Uh,” said Elliot. “Yes? He’s friends with my friend Myra.”
Luke was scowling now. “I don’t know a Myra.”
“I don’t have time to discuss the long list of things and apparently people you do not know,” said Elliot. “Gotta go, bye!”
He worked on the assumption that Luke had done something super heroic during the library attack, so he spun Luke around by his elbow and had his faith justified by having the person now facing Luke immediately begin to congratulate him. Elliot slipped away while Luke was still trying to escape congratulations.
Myra had been singled out by another member of the war training class, who wanted to tell her all about his valor in today’s clash. Peter was actually sitting at a lunch table on his own, looking forlorn, which was sad for Peter but useful for Elliot.
“Peter, you like girls, right?”
“Uh… yes?” said Peter, looking very startled by this greeting.
A thought occurred to Elliot, briefly distracting him from his purpose. “Hey, do you like boys as well as girls?”
“No! Wait, why do you ask?” Peter asked. “Is this about Luke Sunborn?”
“Maybe,” Elliot said, cunningly. “Would you go out with him if it was?”
Peter looked like he was considering it. This was typical of Luke’s life, absolutely typical: now boys who didn’t like boys wanted to be Luke’s boyfriend. On the other hand, Peter was a lot smarter than Dale, and Elliot thought he could talk Luke around on the subject.
“No,” Peter said at length. “I mean… well, I mean no.”
“Why don’t you think it over,” Elliot suggested. “Luke has many fine qualities.”
“I really don’t think…” Peter said, and hesitated. “Did Luke say he liked me?”
He sounded equal parts disturbed and flattered.
“I can read Luke like a book,” Elliot told him evasively. “And I read books extremely well. Speaking of which, do you have any instructive pornographic literature?”
Peter looked like he was thinking of drowning himself in his pudding. “Oh my God.”
Again, Elliot noted, not a denial. Just like Luke not denying he liked someone. Once you watched out for what people didn’t say, everything became very clear.
“Great, I need to borrow it.”
“Oh my God. Elliot, don’t you—don’t you have some of your own?”
Elliot blinked. “For recreational purposes, do you mean?”
Peter looked around at the milling crowd. “Kill me,” he said, which was not something Elliot would have said to a riled-up bunch of people with a selection of various weapons.
“It wasn’t necessary for me to have any before now, I have a very vivid imagination,” Elliot reassured him. Peter did not look reassured. “But I need some now,” he continued. “I need to learn how to satisfy a lady. Really quickly. Let’s go get your literature. Can I borrow it right now?”
“Will you leave me alone if I give you some—some, not all—of my educational literature, Elliot?” Peter asked. “Seriously, do you promise not to say anything upsetting to me for like two weeks?”
“Deal. I really think you and Luke should date,” Elliot added. “I think you might be soulmates.”
Peter’s pornographic literature turned out to be not very educational or instructive. The women in it were genuinely enjoying themselves, in Elliot’s opinion, about as much as the pictures and statues in the elven tavern were genuine elven warriors. Elliot wondered why people liked bad illusions so much more than reality.
It did, however, enlighten Elliot on several key points of mechanics. Elliot dearly wished he had some access to the internet in this land, but this was better than nothing. Elliot looked through them and made some notes in the five minutes every hour he allotted himself between his new task of reading every book in the library.
At one point Luke came and tried to get him to come back to class.
“I won’t,” said Elliot. “Someone attacked this library to send their warning, and I don’t think it was a random attack. They wanted the library destroyed because there’s something in it. I’m going to find out what.”
“Or they picked one of the big buildings to send their foul message?” Luke suggested.
“Just because you don’t know or care which building the library is doesn’t mean everyone feels that way. By the way, what do you think of Peter?” Elliot asked. “To go out with, I mean?”
“For me to go out with?” Luke asked, and looked badly startled. “I don’t even know who he is!”
Elliot waved a hand. “He’s great. You’d like him!”
Luke began to blush, which was mystifying until he muttered out: “I told you I like Dale Wavechaser.”
“I know, I’ve taken that onboard too,” said Elliot. “You can go out with him whenever. I just thought you might like another option. Peter knows four languages and is probably going to be top in the class in mapmaking!”
“I don’t care about mapmaking!” said Luke. “Nobody in the world cares about mapmaking! Or about how anyone’s doing in class!”
This was very bad news for Elliot. He’d assumed that his scholastic prowess was a huge plus for him with Serene. But Luke was kind of a philistine so probably intelligence appealed to Serene more. Elliot was going to have to hope so.
“Why are you frowning at me?”
“That’s just what my face does when I look at you,” Elliot said automatically.
“Look,” Luke said, raising his voice. “I don’t know what you’re assuming, but it can’t be just—just any guy.”
Elliot wanted to argue that someone who was top in mapmaking was hardly just any guy, but he could tell that Luke was about to be annoyed with him for being offensive.
He raised his hands in surrender. “I’m only trying to help.”
“Well, your helping is terrible,” said Luke. “Everything you do is terrible.”
“Fine,” said Elliot. “I have more terrible work to do. Please leave.”
Luke pushed one of Elliot’s books out of the way to uncover Peter’s instructive manuals.
“Enjoy your work,” he said, and stalked out.
Elliot had to break the news to Peter that Luke was not interested, which led to Peter glaring a lot at Luke for toying with his affections. This was made more hilarious to Elliot by the fact Luke noticed someone glaring at him, but still had no idea why or who Peter was.
“Do you think he might be one of the people working against Commander Woodsinger?” Luke asked in a low voice when he and Serene came to visit Elliot in the library, and Elliot laughed and laughed.
He didn’t feel much like laughing, these days. He never saw Serene without Luke anymore.
Elliot had been telling himself that of course he and Serene couldn’t pursue anything until the matter of who had attacked the library and why was answered. But maybe that wasn’t it at all.
Luke didn’t like women, but Serene could still like him. Maybe the only reason she’d gone after Elliot at all was because she couldn’t have who she truly wanted. Maybe she had realized that Elliot was no substitute, and never could be.
Elliot couldn’t think about it, or about the way Luke and Serene went out, united in their purpose: the way Serene did not stay in the library the way she used to. He went back to his books.
Myra joined him, a few days later, pulled up a chair to his table and took one of the books from his unread stack.
“Luke and Serene told me what you were doing here,” she said. “And I—I like Commander Woodsinger. She’s kind to my cousin, who’s all dwarf, and I don’t want the camp to have any other commander, and I want to help.”
“So you know who Luke is,” said Elliot.
“Of course I do,” said Myra. “We get on quite well. He’s always really nice to me.”
Elliot wanted to say: he has no idea what your name is, but he was being a prince of tact these days, so he made a tactful sound instead. “Mmm.”
Myra blushed. “He’s very handsome. It’s such a pity about…”
“Awesome luck for the guys,” Elliot said firmly.
“That’s true, I wonder if he and Dale Wavechaser will go out,” said Myra, and Elliot was deeply noble and did not try to get her to make a bet.
Even with Myra’s help, they had found nothing by the time the real attack came, the soldiers flooding in under Colonel Whiteleaf’s command, intent on replacing Commander Woodsinger with his son. There were too many of them, and the camp was full of children: the guards had to act to protect the children before they did anything else.
And they all knew reinforcements might be slow in coming: that the other military outposts might be hoping that a woman would be replaced, and they would later reprimand the colonel and leave it at that. This was the reward someone got for being a war hero, if they weren’t the kind of war hero people wanted.
Luke and Serene showed up to take Elliot to a place of safety.
“No,” said Elliot. “I told you, I know they attacked the library first for a reason. I’m staying here. We can barricade ourselves in here: we’ll be as safe as anyone in the camp.”
Serene looked upon him with worry and, Elliot thought and hoped he was not imagining it, fondness. She was the only person in either world who ever looked at him like that. “You have a valiant spirit. I will respect your wishes, but you cannot ask me not to worry.”
Luke looked tired: he addressed his words exclusively to Myra. “Can we take you to a place of safety, at least?”
“No,” Myra said slowly. “I’ll stay here with Elliot.”
Maybe Myra could be his favourite of Myra and Peter forever.
They kept reading, through the silence of a siege and then when the fighting finally broke out. Elliot did not sleep for two days and finally found himself drifting off, even though his bed was a hard chair and his lullaby was the sound of clashing weapons.
It was Myra, leafing through books of genealogy, who gave a soft incoherent sound of triumph and nudged Elliot out of his doze.
“Look at this,” she said. “And then think about that other book you had me read, the one about the mermaids—”
“I get it,” said Elliot. “I can stop all this. I have to see Colonel Whiteleaf right now.”
“You can’t go out there! It’s much too dangerous.”
Elliot looked out the window. There were buildings burning out there, cabins and towers where he had been sleeping and playing and learning for years. He had chosen council training, he would have been rubbish at anything else. Most fights were always going to be at a remove from him, but this was his home and that meant this was his fight.
“It is much too dangerous,” Elliot said. “It would be really dumb to go out there.” He paused. “Well, even I can’t be smart all the time.”
He got up quickly, before she could stop him, dropped a kiss in her hair and went out the door into the chaos of a battlefield.
It was obscene, his camp becoming the backdrop for this horror. There was someone dead on the ground, face down: Elliot could only be thankful. He did not want to see if it was someone he knew. There was a man in chainmail bearing down on him.
“I come on a mission of peace,” said Elliot, and got backhanded with a chainmail fist. Elliot tasted blood and saw stars in a gray daytime sky. “Did I stutter?” Elliot asked, feeling his mouth fill with blood. “I said I come on a mission of peace, moron.”
The chainmailed guy drew his sword. Elliot hated his life, especially when he saw two of the guys’ buddies closing in to help him slaughter an unarmed student. Elliot tensed, wondering if he should run toward the sound of fighting where there might be assistance or away.
The chainmailed guy collapsed, spat blood and dropped his sword: Luke had his own blade out of chainmailed guy’s back and in the chest of the second man before the group realized what was happening. In less than three seconds the three men after Elliot were dead.
Elliot tried not to be sick, and tried not to think of how Luke had been sick once, killing someone. Now Luke had been through a war and killed people easily, effortlessly, as if it was routine.
Luke grabbed Elliot’s arm, which led to there being blood and dirt on Elliot’s arm. This was not routine for Elliot. “What are you doing out here?”
“I need to get to the—”
“You need to get back inside right now!”
“No!” Elliot shouted back, since they were shouting, which he found to be unnecessary and rude. “I need to get to the commander’s tower. Take me there right now.”
“And if I don’t?” Luke bit out.
“Then I’m going on my own!” Elliot snapped. “And I bet I get stabbed, and Serene will be annoyed with you.”
He wrenched his arm out of Luke’s grip and strode toward the tower. He heard the sound of Luke killing someone else behind him, so he presumed he was protected: Luke caught up with him and nobody else stopped them until they reached the commander’s tower, and the four unfamiliar guards at the door.
“I urge you to surrender,” said Elliot, and stood aside.
Three guards down, and the fourth had his hands up, weapon loosely clasped in one of them, but his intent clear. Only Luke was a whirlwind of murderous movement: blade shining and singing through the air.
“Not that one,” Elliot said, and when Luke didn’t listen Elliot had no choice but to eel his way in between the two men and their blades. “He’s surrendering!”
Luke was already swinging his sword: Elliot was very glad he trusted Luke to be fast enough to catch his own swing. As it was there was a nasty moment where Elliot felt Luke’s sword graze his throat and the other man’s swordpoint at his back.
The enemy soldier could have run through Elliot right then. But he put up his blade, and Elliot opened the door and went into the commander’s tower, Luke following him.
“Oh my God,” said Luke, and sat down heavily on the stone steps, in the dark, with his head in his hands. “He could have killed you. I could have killed you!”
“No, no, I had every faith in you,” said Elliot. “I did think he might kill me but there was a life to be saved in the balance, and so you see it was worth it.”
Elliot also found war very traumatising, but he’d thought that Luke would be more used to it by now. He reached out in the dark, found Luke’s shoulder and patted it.
“I know, violence is terrible,” he said. “I’ll be more supportive later. I have to go see Colonel Whiteleaf now. Don’t let anyone come up these stairs.”
He ran up the stairs and into the commander’s office, where Commander Woodsinger should have been. Instead there was a man, burly around the shoulders with a fiercely bristling black beard.
“They send brats from council training to offer surrender and command to my son?” barked Colonel Whiteleaf, hand on his sword hilt.
“No,” said Elliot, and took the rolled-up pieces of paper from his belt.
He found ripping pages out of books sacrilegious, but not as sacrilegious as letting people die.
“I read the account of your battle with the mermaids long ago, Colonel Whiteleaf,” he said. “And I know the birthdate of Captain Whiteleaf. He’s not your son. He can’t be. He was conceived while you were at sea. But you know that, don’t you? You and your wife never had any other children. You wanted him to be your heir, and you wanted him to have command of the trainees’ camp, which is a stepping stone to real military command. So now you have a choice. I told a couple of people, just so I wouldn’t get murdered right now.”
Elliot made a courteous gesture to Colonel Whiteleaf’s sword, already half drawn.
“Whether I live or die, the story gets told. So one of your choices is that you keep fighting, maybe take the camp, maybe not, but everybody knows that your son is not your son, and he is disgraced and you a laughingstock of the Borderlands. Or you were overpowered by the brave young heroes of the Border camp, and came to realise that your doubts had been wrong, Commander Woodsinger was a brave and inspiring leader, and you stood your troops down,” said Elliot. “Which is it going to be?”
They held a feast to celebrate the truce between Colonel Whiteleaf and the re-instated and celebrated Commander Woodsinger. Serene sat beside Elliot at the feast and told him about how she and Luke had to argue down students who wanted to go over to Whiteleaf’s side.
His friends always seemed to be fighting different battles than the ones Elliot was fighting, and Serene was always fighting on the war training side. But Elliot liked to think Serene had used her council training skills when she convinced everyone to keep faith with their commander.
Elliot did not know, and perhaps could not appreciate, exactly what the war training class and soldiers of the Border camp had done. But for once, because it was the way to peace, he was happy to let them take the credit.
He let Luke tell him off for being dumb enough to go out in the midst of a battlefield. He let Serene, and Dale, and Luke tell him all about their adventures. He sent Dale on his way with his smile for the elven warriors, and Serene looked at him sharply from her place beside him on the bench.
“What did you do?” she asked.
Elliot smiled a real smile. “I might have helped a little. In my fashion.”
Serene said nothing, but she helped him to his feet, and they left the feasting hall together. She paused once they were outside, then stepped up to him and kissed him again.
A lot of the buildings had been torched, but there were tents set up around the Border camp. They found one and tumbled inside it, still kissing, kissing and kissing: Elliot did not want to let her go, not ever, and perhaps he would never have to.
“I have struggled against my passions and I can struggle no longer: they have me in an irresistible grasp,” said Serene.
“Grasp away,” Elliot advised her.
“A man cannot understand the force of a woman’s desire,” Serene continued.
“I’ll give it a try,” said Elliot.
“And I cannot—I do not offer you marriage,” Serene added, the words almost lost between their mouths, kissing and clinging. “You should send me away. You should preserve your virtue. I find I cannot help myself in the face of your charms and I fear if you do not spurn me from your door at once I will besmirch you utterly.”
There was no door to speak of, since they were all in tents. Through the rough cloth of the tent Elliot could hear the murmur of people passing by, the crackle of fires and sound of blades being sharpened and all the other sounds of a battlefield settling back into peace. War was over, at least for a time, and he was warm, his head on a soft pillow, tangled up in soft blankets with the only girl he had ever loved tangled up with him and hovering above him murmuring words that only meant, to him, that she did want him after all.
Elliot could not help but smile, and felt her smile blossom against his mouth, in response to his. He curled his fingers around her long dark hair and tugged her down the last fraction of an inch toward him.
“Besmirch away,” he said.