Almenten threatens, Xifa remembers, and Socora confronts. Direct epilogue to "Drawing A Line".
It had not taken Almenten long to learn this. It never took Almenten long to learn anything.
He found Yarama sitting at a table with two other students. The two students were in a heated discussion of a recent movie; Yarama was leaning back and toying with a model dodecahedron. Upon seeing Almenten, he very nearly fumbled it, and then caught hard to it and gave his most oil-slick smile. "/Almenten/. Dear old friend. Do sit down."
Almenten remained standing. "I want to talk to you."
Yarama raised his eyebrows, affecting naivete. "Please do."
The other two students were looking around now, sneaking half-glances in between their discussions.
"You have made a deal with Socora Sanne," Almenten said. "You have obtained an oath from her to Game. Is this correct?"
"Do you think this is a matter for public discussion?" Yarama asked, tilting his head towards the other students.
"I don't think it is a matter for secrets," Almenten replied evenly. "Did you make a deal with Socora Sanne?"
Yarama nodded. "I did."
"To Game. At a time and place of your choosing."
"Fairly simple, I thought." Yarama tossed the model into the air, and caught it again.
Almenten's tone did not change. "You intend to predate upon someone who is new to the deeper Game; to take advantage of her relative inexperience and drain her power without right of reply."
"Hey, don't be judgemental here." Yarama set the model down. "I didn't force her to Game with me. She agreed to Game with me. And it's not like I'm asking a lot, anyway, I just want a guaranteed response to one challenge. That's not out of the ordinary, for an active Gamer."
"Which does not refute what I said. Does it?"
Yarama sighed. "I really thought we could be friends, you know, Almenten."
"You profit from exploiting others as a matter of course. I would never be kind to you."
"And you're unpleasantly confrontational." Yarama stood. "Let's assume - just as a hypothetical situation let's assume - that you're right about my motives. That's not really the point, is it? The point is, what will you do about it?"
The two students turned on that last note, staring openly.
"I think we're done," Yarama said to them, smiling. "Meet back here next week?"
The students nodded, almost in unison, and pulled away quietly.
Yarama turned back to Almenten, and his smile became a sick thing again, a mixture of cruelty and desperation subsumed in false happiness. "You and she both think you can stop an agreement between two completely different people just on your say-so. You /interfere/. What, you're going to tell her to withdraw her promise? Going to tell me not to Game at all?"
Almenten stared for a moment, and then slowly shook his head. "No."
"Then what are you going to do?"
"Make sure Socora is fully informed."
Yarama's expression twitched a little; the suspicion of suspicion.
"I will inform her of the rules of the Game, and what I know of how the various arenas work. I will make sure that even if you meet her at a time and place of your choosing, she will know the rules, and she will set the rules. No matter where you choose to Game with her, no matter when..." Almenten leaned just a little closer. "I will make sure that it is a combat Game."
Yarama actually laughed. "So that's what you're threatening me with? Socora Sanne's sabre? Oh, make no mistake, she's pretty scary, but it doesn't look good for a strapping lad like you to hide behind a girl."
"You may well match yourself against Socora's sabre," Almenten allowed. "But if you take the Game you have made her promise, you will match yourself against my rapier, and it will not be in an arena."
"Big man," Yarama said, with a nod. "You know, I don't believe you."
"I don't care." Almenten drew himself back to his full height, and began to turn away.
"You're not serious."
Almenten walked away, silently.
Almenten turned - just a couple of degrees.
"So, what," Yarama said. "I Game with her, you fix it so I lose, and then you stab me. But if I..."
"Swear that you will not take advantage of the Game. That if you challenge her, you challenge her without obligation, and that both of you agree upon the time and place."
"Fine. I swear by my khukuri that..."
Almenten raised a hand. "You don't have her swordfighter's faith. I don't trust an oath made by a weapon you'd just as soon throw away."
"What would you believe? Want me to swear by my father? My mother?"
"I have no doubt you care very little for either."
"Which one?" Almenten's voice was a knife edge.
"...okay, fine, fair point. What are you going to believe?"
"Swear by your soul's hope of resurrection."
Yarama laughed, though it sounded raw. "You tell me I don't care about my khukuri and then tell me to swear by my /soul/? Almenten, I don't believe in my soul! You think I give a damn about it?"
"In the matter of souls," Almenten said, "it does not much matter whether or not you believe."
"You're really creepy, you know. I'm sure it's all intentional. You get to feel like you're mystic and special and a better person than anyone/, and all it means is..." Yarama struggled for words. "Nobody /likes you," he said, somewhat lamely.
"Are you finished?"
Yarama was silent.
"Then will you swear?"
"I swear by my soul's hope of resurrection that I will not take advantage of the Game and that I will not bind Socora to an obligation." Yarama's voice had the sound of rote recitation.
Almenten nodded, and walked away.
"I really did think we could be friends, you know," Yarama said, and picked up the model like a talisman.
When Lanni came back from his Painting From Life meeting, Xifa was sitting on her bed, looking at the floor. Her hair was a curtain around her, not quite long enough to hide her face. The melancholy piano piece was playing on the CD player again.
Lanni stepped backwards, and tried to close the door without being noticed.
"Oh for God's sake don't be a pissant," Xifa snapped.
Lanni stopped. "Sorry," he said, opening the door again and stepping through.
Xifa reached up, pushed hair away from her temples. Treading lightly, Lanni moved to set his paintbox down by his desk.
"I'm hard to live with, I know," Xifa muttered, with the air of a confession acquired under torture.
"Oh, ah, I, I don't..."
Xifa shot him a glance under her eyelashes, and Lanni abruptly shut up.
"Who is this?" he asked, after a moment, gesturing at the stereo.
"Hmm?" Xifa turned to look. "Oh. It's Socora."
"I didn't..." Lanni said, and tapered off.
"Don't be too impressed. There's some kind of CD maker in the music room. I don't know, I've never gone in there. Socora played the piano, she wrote her own music, she was very good at it." Lanni noticed, after a moment, that Xifa was actually looking at a point somewhere over his right shoulder. "Which was really no surprise..."
Two seconds passed slowly, with Socora's piano in the background, and then Xifa reached out with her left hand and hammered on the EJECT button. The CD half-screamed to a stop, and Xifa pulled it out of the player with what was almost violence. Still, she held it by the edges. "Here," she said, thrusting it forward like a weapon. "You take it."
Lanni recoiled. "Me? I, but..."
"If I keep it I'll probably step on it sooner or later. Look." She pulled an unlabeled jewel case from her CD rack and put the CD in it. "Here."
Lanni took it, and - for want of a better place - put it in the pocket of his black overcoat.
"I suppose you'll..."
"I'm visiting with Qarade soon," Lanni said, quickly. "She's teaching me the game."
"Give her my best, then." Xifa's gaze was just where it had been when he came in.
"Um." Lanni stared. "Are you..."
Xifa glanced again, and Lanni decided not to finish that question. "I'll probably be back before ten," he said, faintly, and left.
After some time, Xifa closed the CD player.
Socora wasn't expecting any visitors, but when the quick knock at the door came, it was no surprise at all.
"Hello, Almenten," she said, opening the door.
"Good evening," Almenten replied. "May I come in?"
"Please." Socora stepped backwards. "I've been wanting to talk to you."
Socora watched him walk. He'd acquired the rapier he'd brought to her meetings soon after she'd met him - he hadn't said where - and she knew he was an excellent fencer. Having matched her sabre to Xifa's swordbreaker, however, she looked at him differently. There was the footwork she knew and could parry so well, and yet he was far too easily familiar with it. No other fencer in her class walked like that. Socora began to realise that Almenten was above and beyond the hobby fencers she taught every day. He fought in entirely different and much graver competitions.
He took Xifa's chair again, and she sat opposite him.
"May I fetch you anything?" she asked, studying his face.
Almenten shook his head. "No, thank you."
Long familiarity had some advantage. Socora never quite knew what Almenten was thinking, but she understood him very well at times. She knew very well what he had come to talk about.
"I have spoken to Yarama Ansete," he said, after a moment.
"That does not surprise me," she replied.
"He has released you from your obligation."
"I swore the oath, Almenten." She didn't ask him how he had known. That was not the answer she wanted. "It was my obligation to release, and not his."
"He lied to you."
"I do not believe that. In fact, he said very little."
"Then he did not give the complete truth. Your oath was obtained under false pretences and thus the obligation itself is false."
Almenten closed his eyes. "I understand. Very well. You swore to Game at a time and place of his choosing. I ask that you simply allow yourself to advise his choice, and then you shall have no obligation."
"I do not intend to retire from the Game, Almenten."
Almenten's eyes opened, and she could read surprise in them - even shock. "Socora..."
"Yarama told me that he had played against you. He said you walked on water."
"The river arena." Almenten's voice was hollow.
"You appear to be well-known in this Game. You have played for some time, and through the Game you have gained power."
Almenten nodded. "Power of a sort."
Socora's voice stayed dead level and cold. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"It was secret."
"Why? What sort of secret? What harm could the knowledge do?"
"Those, too, are secrets." Almenten had not broken eye contact, though at times he had plainly wanted to. "But harm..." He stopped, started again. Socora had never seen him lost for words. "You could be hurt if..."
"Now you keep knowledge from me for /my own safety/?" Socora's voice was a weapon - a hand, a whip, a blade - and Almenten bowed his head in surrender.
"It was not my intention," he said.
Socora laid a silver stone on the table with a firm /click/, and Almenten stared at it.
"You intend to play me for my secrets?" he asked.
"Would you answer, if I did?"
Almenten said nothing.
"Is that my answer?"
"There are obligations," Almenten said, echoing Xifa.
"You could be bound?"
"What are these obligations?"
"I do not fully understand."
"Is that the truth?" A riposte.
"You know I would not lie to you outright."
"Instead, you'd simply not give the complete..." Socora paused and retreated. "No, that's an unworthy thing to say."
"Sometimes a challenge to Game cannot be rejected," Almenten said, quietly. "By playing in an arena at all you are a signatory to that contract. You will feel it in your blood when you are obliged. A time may be set, a place may be set, but the challenge cannot be rejected."
"There are other obligations." It was hard to interrupt that low voice; it had its own irresistable force. "Sometimes a stake cannot be rejected. The loser cannot avoid giving the victor power. Under some circumstances the challenger may request something as stakes that will then be the necessary prize of the Game. Sometimes a rule cannot be rejected. Mostly the arena sets the rules by its own pattern, and you will learn to recognise those rules - the arena simply will not recognise an illegal play - but there are times when a challenger can posit rules which are not negotiable. Sometimes a victory cannot be rejected. There are times when I have lost a game intentionally, but... a player who tries to lose might sometimes feel a kind of steel. Almost as if her mind is not her own, and she must play to the utmost of her ability no matter what. Sometimes..."
Almenten was silent.
"Tell me," Socora said, softly.
"There are... inevitabilities," Almenten said, his voice still lower, starting almost to grate. "The Game can hurt. The Game can even kill. And sometimes a death cannot be rejected. Sometimes a player comes to the Game only to lose, and lose, and lose again, and he plays on regardless. They play until they are taken. And there are secrets." Almenten closed his eyes for a half-second, opened them again, found her gaze once more. "And it is not only sometimes that secrecy cannot be rejected."
Socora laid two fingers over the silver stone on the table. "And you are bound now. You feel it in your blood."
Almenten nodded. "If you challenge me, Socora, I cannot refuse. And if you challenge me for my secrets, I must give them to you."
He drew a yellow stone from his pocket, and played it on the table across from her silver. Socora looked at it - the translucent yellow, shadowed by his hand - and withdrew her own.
"That, too, would be unworthy," she said.
Almenten stood. "You understand why I did not tell you."
"I do not accept, but I understand." Socora stood to match him. "Almenten."
"You wanted to protect me. Why did you not protect your pupil?"
"Lanni?" Almenten looked aside for a moment, as if to study something Socora could not see. "He keeps secrets from himself. He has power he does not recognise. He needs, at least, to see the powers of the Game. I believe he needs the powers of the Game. And I believe that once he understands them, he will want them for himself."
"And I?" She walked with him to the door.
Almenten looked at her. "You?"
"Don't I need those powers?"
Almenten paused, and shook his head, sending ripples down the long rope of hair behind him. "You already have every power you need, Socora Sanne," he said, and opened the door.
He turned. "Yes?"
"May Mureona watch over you," she said, "and may Greine Aifen keep you."
"Goodbye, Almenten," she said.
"Goodbye, Socora," he replied, and walked away.