Categories > Original > Fantasy

Drawing A Line

by Kadrin 1 review

Socora Sanne always appeared unbreakable. Set in the Stone and Board universe, after First Stone: Lanni.

Category: Fantasy - Rating: PG - Genres: Drama, Romance - Published: 2006-02-09 - Updated: 2006-02-10 - 13475 words - Complete

In Yotika, religious teachings focused around the Judge, an implacable goddess as tall as the world, Whose wings numbered seven times seven and Who was composed entirely of the spiritual fire that had birthed the universe. Under Her four hundred cold eyes, no soul could lie, and for every wrong the soul had committed the Judge's one thousand arms dealt out one thousand pains of repentance. The Book of Heretics, an apocryphal work that most young religious scholars read for its extreme violence and gore, told of the many warriors who had tried to storm the Fields of a Thousand Pains, to tackle the Judge in Her own lair and try to ensure that humans never needed to feel the pain of repentance again. Every one of them had met the Judge face to face, and every one of them had been easily defeated by that terrible strength.

Masked, garbed, and facing off against Socora Sanne, Lanni Edvitta had the brief and horrifically blasphemous thought that he knew exactly how they'd felt.

He advanced slowly, carefully, holding out his practice sword as if to push Socora back by sheer willpower. It wasn't long before he was - unfortunately, to his mind - within striking range, and with an edge of desperation, he feinted low and struck high. Socora, of course, saw right through his trick, blocked his attack, knocked his sword aside, and stabbed the tip of her own against his chest hard enough to bend the "blade".

"Touché," Lanni admitted, with some degree of relief.

Socora pulled off her mask, and pulled the tie from her silver-blonde hair. She never did that until she was ready to call an end to the meeting, even on the hottest days, when Lanni had needed to pull off his mask and open his garb in the break. She barely ever seemed to /sweat/, and when she did, it gave her a pleasant flush while Lanni's hair was sticking to his cheeks. It wasn't fair, Lanni thought, and knew he wasn't alone in that opinion. He took off his own mask, and was unsurprised to find a layer of freed sweat rolling into his eyes. He needed to get all of his garb washed and soon.

"That was good," Socora said. "Your footwork is improving a great deal. However, you need to work more on keeping awareness of your feet and hands simultaneously, or it will always be a stumbling block and one that your opponents can exploit. Your feints, as yet, are far too obvious. Improve them, or don't feint. Your thrusts are better than I'd expected at this point." She turned to the crowd, and raised her voice - but only a little. "The meeting is over. You may continue sparring, but it is on your own time." And with no more words, Socora headed toward the door.

"Ms. Sanne!" Lanni called. He would never dream of calling her 'Socora'.

Socora Sanne turned around. "Yes?"

"Do you think I'll ever be able to beat you?"

Socora considered him, coolly. "I told you on your first meeting. No."

Lanni nodded.

"How is Almenten?" she asked, as she had asked in all four meetings since Almenten had become Lanni's Mentor.

Lanni shrugged. "He's... to tell the truth, most of the time I don't know."

Socora nodded. "Yes, that sounds like him. You know you are his first pupil."

"I do. He told me so."

"You and he will work well together, I think," she said, and turned away again.

Lanni loosened the top of his fencing gear, and turned aside, to where a group of four students were standing in discussion. Two Suran, one binding her hair into a topknot that wouldn't have fit under her mask, and two Alteccionese. Lanni knew them well enough - they were his fencing group, rotating amongst themselves as to who would spar with whom and who would draw the short straw and be easily defeated by Socora Sanne. With a wave and a farewell, the Alteccionese and the Suran boy separated from the group, and walked towards one of the doors. The Suran girl turned around, and Lanni waved.

"Lanni, hey," said the girl. Her name was Blair Narharran, and through some questioning, Lanni had worked out that she was something like Almenten's cousin, and that Almenten had been born Almenten Narharran. Any questioning on that topic, though, brought silence and swift departure from Almenten. Almenten didn't associate with Blair, either, and it was only perhaps through the fact that he rarely visited Lanni during fencing and Lanni rarely saw Blair outside it. "Socora beat you again?"

Lanni raised his eyebrows.

"Yeah, stupid question," she admitted. "One day, maybe."

"Not to hear her tell it."

"Well, she's biased. Doesn't make her any less right, unfortunately. You heading back to your dorm?"

"I haven't had lunch yet, actually."

"It's /five PM/, Lanni."

"I've been busy," Lanni protested.

"Well, I'll walk with you to the crossroads, then."

Lanni nodded. He didn't need the company - Lysian Sattir was a beautiful landscape, and he loved walking through it - but it would be nice.

As he turned, and Blair fell into step with him, a masked figure in fencing gear stormed by them. As she passed Lanni and Blair, she pulled off her mask, and Lanni caught a brief glimpse of a face he recognised before it was obscured by black hair.

"Isn't that Xifa?" Blair asked, keeping her voice down.

"I think so. Did she seem angry to you?"

"Yeah. Do you know what's going on?"

"Xifa's... always pretty angry. Why are you asking me?"

"You're her roommate."

"That doesn't mean she talks to me."

By then, Lanni and Blair were outside the Masatjit building. All the afternoon classes were ending, and there was a crowd growing in the Masatjit square. As it was near the centre of the Academy, the Masatjit building typically attracted the students between meetings, and who just wanted a place to socialise. The susurrus of human voices made a background around Blair and Lanni, the chaos making for an odd sort of peace.

And then a voice cut through it, easily recognised as Xifa, raised in high anger - "No!"

Lanni ran towards the source of the voice almost without realising it, even though Xifa hadn't sounded endangered. She'd simply sounded furious. Blair followed him quickly, and nearly ran into him when he stopped suddenly.

Xifa wasn't shouting at a simple random bystander - something Lanni wouldn't put past her. She was shouting at Socora Sanne, untouchable queen of Lysian Sattir Academy and, to the best of Lanni's knowledge, Xifa's girlfriend. Socora's face, which had shown almost no expression as long as Lanni had known her, had fallen in incomprehension, and that seemed to anger Xifa all the more.

The crowd was gathering around them, a ring of bodies as if to watch a fistfight.

Socora muttered something, too quiet to be heard, and Xifa overrode it. "I don't /care/!" she shouted.

"Xifa..." Socora started.

"No. I'm not listening." Xifa picked up her bookbag from where she'd dropped it on the floor. "I've made my decision. Leave me alone."

As she turned to leave, Socora actually reached out after her, and murmured something inaudible again. From the way Xifa whirled around, it hadn't made her happy. "Don't you dare say that," Xifa said, only a little louder than Socora and yet still more furious than she'd been when she was shouting. "Don't... oh, to hell with you, Socora Sanne."

She turned back, and for the first time seemed to notice the crowd ringed around her. "And all of /you/, too!" she shouted. "Go /home/!"

She clutched her bookbag like armour, and stormed through the ring around her, half hunched-over. Most of the people turned to gape after her, and after a few moments, the vocal susurrus began again, already contemplating, spreading the seeds of rumour. In the centre of the gradually dispersing ring, Socora Sanne stood, still with that look of dull incomprehension on her face. No one moved to comfort her. Socora Sanne was removed and isolated from the people around her, and most of them were terrified of her. Anyone who was only ever called "Ms. Sanne" couldn't be comforted.

Lanni was starting to think he didn't feel like eating after all.

"What do you think happened?" Lanni asked, holding the handset to his ear and leaning against a wall.

He'd went straight to the dormitories after the argument, leaving Socora alone in the Masatjit square. He was overreacting, he knew, it didn't even concern him, but after seeing Socora shattered he'd needed to talk to someone, and his Mentor had been the best option he could think of.

Xifa had not been in the room. Lanni didn't know where she was, but he'd left the door open so that he could hear her coming. He didn't want her to find him discussing her life. He knew it was cowardly, but what could he do?

"I don't know," said Almenten, over the phone. He didn't sound surprised, or taken aback. He never did. "Nor do I much think it's our business, but I can see why it affected you."

"She seemed so sad," Lanni said. "I never thought Socora could be sad."

"She's as human as you or I, Lanni."

"I know that." Lanni shifted the handset and tucked it in under his shoulder. "Well, I know she's as human as you, but I don't know if you're as human as /me/."

"I thought I talked you out of that delusion in the hospital." Almenten's voice was sharply disapproving.

/One of these days, I'll find Almenten's sense of humour, and I'll take pictures and sell them to the magazines/, Lanni thought to himself, a little shocked by his own blasphemy. "Joking. It's just..."

"Would you like to talk about this in person?"

Lanni was momentarily taken aback. "Pardon me?"

"I'll leave my door unlocked. Come up whenever you want." He hung up.

Lanni stared at the handset for a moment.

In the month he'd spent as Almenten's pupil, he'd met the man in person barely more than once a week, the only times he'd seen him in Lysian Sattir's cafeteria. They ate lunch, and Almenten asked about his progress, and then ended the meeting always with the same question: "Are you happy with me?"

And Lanni always responded "yes", not knowing exactly what else could be said.

The only other meetings were chance encounters on the campus, and Almenten's frequent phone calls - Almenten would recite information, Lanni would endeavour to receive it. Only occasionally did they ever have a real conversation. And yet Lanni felt as close to Almenten as he did to Qarade. Closer.

"Are you happy with me?" Lanni asked himself, in a whisper that only held some of the tones of Almenten's voice.

He'd known Almenten's room number, and where the room was, for the entire month. He'd never even thought to visit.

"Yes," Lanni replied to himself, and walked out the door.

/526/. The sixth room in the second block of the fifth building.

The fifth building was smaller than Lanni's third building - only two stories high. Yet, when Lanni looked through it, the block doors were much more widely spaced than the block doors in the third building. The blocks are bigger, Lanni thought, which means that surely the rooms must be bigger as well.

The second block was the second door on the left. Lanni opened it cautiously, wondering what he'd see on the other side. The entryway to Lanni's block - third building, first block - seemed to always house four young men, playing video games, watching pornography, and shouting at each other. It was hard for Lanni to reconcile that behaviour with anything near Almenten.

The entryway was empty. There was a couch and a television, but both appeared unused. There was a layer of dust over the television's screen.

Lanni felt very strongly that he was an intruder and an imposter, and should consider himself lucky if he was only expelled for being found in this place.

Six should be on my right when I go down the hallway, Lanni thought to himself, and walked very slowly and quietly, until he found the door marked /526/.

He stood in front of it for a full minute, thinking how ridiculous it was to spend so much time in hesitation. He'd been invited/. Almenten /wanted him to come. Almenten had nearly ordered it. He should simply grasp the doorknob, turn it, push the door open, and walk in.

He grasped the doorknob, and - telling himself that he couldn't possibly be trembling, it was stupid to believe he was trembling - turned it. The tongue /click/ed as it came out of the latch.

Lanni stood, holding the unlatched door, and pressing not at all.

Then, in nearly one motion, he pushed the door open, and stormed through, and slammed it behind him.

"I'm in here," came Almenten's voice, from another room, and Lanni stifled a yelp upon hearing it.

"My apologies," his Mentor continued. "You're earlier than I expected."

"Coming," Lanni said, calming himself. He took a moment to get his bearings, and to look around the room.

His own room was tiny, and just a room - Almenten seemed to have a whole apartment, and not to share it with anyone. The room Lanni was in had a wall of high bookshelves, stacked with books; a desk with a computer and an office chair; an end table with a phone; and a phenomenally expensive-looking rug. Two doors led off it, one half open, the other fully open. From the looks of the fully open one, it led to a kitchen. Almenten's voice had come from the half open one, and in the interests of not keeping Almenten waiting, Lanni pushed it open and came through, nearly darting out again the moment his foot touched tile and he saw the inside of the room.

Almenten's bathroom was elegant in black and white, with a tall shower, a deep sink, a well-integrated medicine cabinet with a perfeclty clean mirror, a decently concealed toilet, and an enormous bath. Lanni would perhaps have been more appreciative if the deep bath hadn't been full, and if Almenten hadn't been in it.

"Er," he started, thinking that wholly eloquent. "Should I come back later?"

"I invited you," Almenten said, not turning around. "What did you want to talk about?"

When this happens in movies, it's always a bubble bath, Lanni thought and did not say. Almenten's back was to him, and all he could see of the man were his shoulders and his long, long hair, but that still seemed far too much. "Well... It's just that... There was the thing with Socora and Xifa today."

"There is that. What about it did you want to discuss?"

When this happens in movies, the person in the bath is always good enough to talk in innuendo, so the person outside the bath knows where he stands. "Weren't you Socora's pupil for a while?"

"For two years," Almenten confirmed. "She was an excellent Mentor. I admired her a great deal."

"I was... hoping you could tell me something about her."

Almenten leaned backwards, submerging his hair in the water. For the first time since their last meeting, Lanni saw his face, a study in sharp lines that appeared strange on such a muscular body. Most of Almenten's chest was also visible, Lanni realised, and he did his best to keep his focus somewhere above the bath.

"She is not a very open person," Almenten said. "She keeps largely to herself and always has. I don't know if she would care for me to tell you about her."

"Right," Lanni responded.

Almenten rose up again. "You're extremely uncomfortable," he said. "Would you rather come back later?"

"I... no, it's just..."

"I apologise," he said, and Lanni almost gaped at that. An /apology/. "Sometimes I do not think to other people's comfort. Believe me, this would be quite normal in Suranka."

Suran pairs often bathe together, Qarade had said to Lanni. That's normal in Suranka. For some reason, Lanni hadn't applied this to his own Suran Mentor. He felt rather like he'd failed a test.

Almenten reached for a bottle of shampoo, and perhaps out of that feeling of failure, Lanni started forward. "Let..." he said, and then paused.

Almenten turned his head. "Yes?"

"I could do that. If you wanted."

Almenten looked at Lanni for a moment, consideringly, and then nodded. He turned back into his bath, sunk to his shoulders, and proffered the shampoo bottle to Lanni.

Lanni took it, and managed to keep his composure quite well as he poured the shampoo over his left hand and worked up a lather. His hands didn't shake at all as he touched his Mentor's hair, though he was convinced they must have been going a mile a minute. It's not as silky as I thought it would be/, he thought, nonsensically. /But maybe that's just because it hasn't been washed yet. Wash. Yes.

He worked the lather shampoo into the hair on the top of Almenten's head, rubbing it in carefully. Almenten leaned back with an audible sigh. Lanni did shudder at that, but only a little, and imperceptibly.

"I'm sorry, I'm not very good at this," Lanni muttered.

"I do not imagine that skill is much of an issue when it comes to shampoo, Lanni."

"Right. Yes."

There was so much of Almenten's hair, strands floating in the bath, most of it drawn down by its sheer gravity. Lanni worked his way slowly down the man's neck, knuckles brushing against flesh in a manner that did, indeed, leave him extremely uncomfortable.

"Have you never cut this?"

"I trim the ends every so often. It's traditional for god-sworn Suran men to leave their hair uncut."

"God-sworn... You've only mentioned your religion once or twice."

"I don't see a reason to bring it up. I am instructed to lead the leaderless and give sight to the sightless, but never am I told to proselytise. What does it matter to others where my faith is? Besides, Lanni, you are neither leaderless nor sightless."

/I doubt that/, Lanni nearly said, dragging the mane of Almenten's hair out of the water and massaging in the shampoo.

It was impossible not to see Almenten's body as he did so, and Lanni nearly looked away. It was impressive that the man could discuss the privacy of his faith in that manner. It would probably be amusing, as well, but Lanni did not laugh.

"I'm finished," he said, finally, rinsing his hands in bathwater and stepping away. "You should rinse it out before long." Why am I telling him what to do with his hair? He knows much better than I.

Almenten leaned backwards, eyes closed, submerging his hair. Lanni squeezed his own eyes closed and turned away, much-abused sense of propriety screaming.

"I am sorry I could not tell you about Socora," Almenten said, after a moment. "You should likely ask her yourself."

"I... I don't think she'd welcome a visit at this point. She seemed..." Lanni paused. "She seemed so sad," he said, again.

A splashing of water heralded Almenten's exit from the bath, and Lanni squeezed his eyes more tightly closed for a moment.

"What are you doing?" Almenten asked, with apparently genuine curiosity.

"In Yotika men rarely see each other naked."

"Of course," Almenten said.

After a few moments of silence, Almenten added, "You can open your eyes now."

He was dressed in a long towel, wrapped at his waist and falling to his ankles. Lanni spent a few seconds staring at Almenten's chest and the sparse blond hair on it before bringing himself to meet his Mentor's eyes again.

"I will visit Socora," Almenten said. "You needn't worry about that. Do you think Xifa will need to be spoken to?"

"If she did, I'm not the man to do it," Lanni said.

"Very well. If you have anything else to talk to me about, you may call me. Otherwise, I'll see you next Wednesday."

"Yes," Lanni said, with a nod, and Almenten swept past him into his bedroom.

After a few moments, Lanni let himself out.

Socora Sanne had not sealed herself away with her sadness. She sat by her opened window, like a figure out of an old painting, absorbed in a book of Alteccionese poetry about ships leaving the harbour. The fact that the door was double-locked, surely, was an irrelevance.

The knock that came was quick, business-like, and Socora knew the man it belonged to before she even stood. She and he had been bound together two years. Almost as long as she had known Xifa Nareku. Some might say that Socora had been closer to him than she had been even to Xifa. He had definitely made himself more vulnerable than Xifa ever had.

She had left /him/. That was something to consider.

Once Socora unlocked the latch and deadbolt, the door opened quite easily, and she made sure to appear amiable as it did so - much though her guest never would.

"Almenten. It's been a while."

"Too long," he said, his voice a shade different from his usual austere formality. "I apologise."

"Think nothing of it." She stepped backwards and gave a brief nod, inviting him into the room.

His steps were very quiet, especially considering his size. Almenten was a man impossible to miss, and most people would be surprised that he could be stealthy. Socora knew.

"Are you well?"

"As can be expected. Are you?"



Socora returned to her chair, putting her book quietly aside. Almenten sat in another, facing her. Xifa had sat in that same chair, time and time again, and it had seemed to fit her perfectly. Now Almenten sat there, and it seemed to fit him perfectly. Was that a quirk of Xifa's, or of Almenten's?

"I had wondered if there was anything you wanted to speak about."

"About Xifa?" Socora's face did not change and her voice did not alter. Nonetheless, Almenten noticed the changes in her manner, and Socora noticed that he had done so. "I imagine you've heard the stories."

"Stories are not always true." Grim-voiced, stepping carefully.

"She left me, yes. I'm hurt, yes. That much is true. I'm afraid I don't know what else is being said."

"I'm sorry."

Socora shifted her posture, sitting a very little straighter. She looked at Almenten for a few seconds, silent before speaking. "I was about to say something very unworthy of me and of you. I apologise. But I kept thinking you were jealous."

"Why should I have been?"

He honestly didn't know. It was there in every almost-invisible quirk of his face.

"When you were in Room 343, you once said to me that you had no one and nothing. Except me."

He'd been tall even then, masses of blond hair, a body like he could snap oak planks over his knee. He had seemed to be the last person who would ever need protection, who would ever need tutelage, who would ever need to be carefully drawn out of his room and shown the world.

"And that was true. You were the best Mentor I could have asked for."

To that day, Socora hadn't known why she'd done it. The new boy wouldn't leave his room. The other students had laughed at him, made his name a byword. Socora had written him a letter, and she had taught him a game, and in all honesty, she still didn't know why.

"I know you never harboured romantic thoughts about me. Just as I never did about you. But I thought you might have been jealous anyway - that she was taking me from you."

"I am young, Socora, but I am not foolish."

Socora laughed at that. "Almenten, you were never young."

And then Almenten did something that many people would consider rather amazing - he smiled, an expression entirely unfitting on his sharp, forbidding face.

"Your pupil - Lanni, yes? - is a very interesting boy," Socora said. He was interesting. Socora sometimes wondered if such careful naivete could possibly be accidental.

"I believe he is. I hope I can guide Lanni as well as you guided me."

Socora laughed again, with less amusement. "You have interesting choices in role models."

"He is worried about you," he said, baldly. Because it was very easy to declare that Lanni was worried.

"Sweet of him." Socora's voice suggested, perhaps, that she thought otherwise. "But I am strong, Almenten, and you know that."

Almenten leaned back a little, his face moving in odd ways, obviously processing some thought that disturbed him. "May I offend you?" he said, at last.

"If you wish." She allowed a little icy stiffness into her voice, but only a little. Almenten heard it very well.

"I believe you wed your strength to her," he said, regardless. "I believe you wrapped half of your strength around her. And I believe that when she left you, she took that strength with her."

Socora was quiet for a moment, and then she stood up, carefully moving the chair away from her. "I am glad you asked my permission," she said, with a little more ice.

Almenten was intractable. "I do not believe your relationship with that girl was healthy. I think that you are better off."

"And I very nearly said another unworthy thing there, Almenten. Best, perhaps, that we do not attempt three."

"I understand." Almenten stood. He could read a dismissal as well as anyone, and that had been a very clear dismissal.

Socora softened, as she walked with him to the door. "In a week, I believe I will be past... this time. Please visit again after that. Bring your pupil."

"I shall. Goodbye, Socora."

"Goodbye, Almenten."

He stood in the doorframe, looking at her for a moment, and Socora met his gaze. She did not rest her hand on the door handle, or in any other way hasten his departure.

"May Mureona watch over you, and may Greine Aifen keep you," he said, finally, the words stiff and harsh as if they had needed to fight to be spoken. He turned, efficient as a soldier, and marched away.

"Thank you," Socora said quietly, and closed the door.

Tegustem Qarade raised her arms, balanced carefully for two seconds, and threw herself forward into two beautiful cartwheels along the balance beam, entirely failing to fall off the edge and lose all her dignity. She smirked, and wobbled a very little.

"All right!" said the instructor from /right behind her/. Qarade added yet another point to her mental 'how cool am I' tally for not shrieking and falling off. "That's it for today, then. I'll see you all next week."

Qarade hopped off the balance beam, landing with a light thud in front of the instructor, and headed towards her bag to fossick through her clothes and dig out her mobile phone.

"Hey, it's me," she said, watching the people file out to their dorms, or their meetings, or mostly the shower room. "I know you've been hanging out for the call... /Qarade/. Your /roommate/. I know you knew that, Chitra, you were just taunting me, weren't you? I just wanted to say my meeting's over and I'll be back before long. I'll want to run a few errands first. You want moussaka for dinner?"

She listened for a moment, and caught a girl who wasn't leaving out of the corner of her eye. She seemed to be waiting for Qarade, which was odd enough.

"Of course I can cook moussaka," she said, returning to the conversation. "My moussaka was the toast of the Tegustem clan. Well, those who tried it. Which was my mother. Don't sound so doubtful, no one died yet. So, I'll see you in about a half hour? OK. See you."

She flipped the mobile phone closed and turned to leave, humming a jaunty tune.

That was when the girl peeled herself away from the wall and walked, decisively, toward her. "Your name's Qarade, isn't it?"

Qarade looked, stopping the jaunty tune. "Well, yes. It is." She tilted her head. "I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, madam."

"Xifa," Xifa said, holding out her hand. "Xifa Nareku. We've been in this class together for so long and I just thought I should introduce myself."

Qarade shook her hand, eyeing her distrustfully. From what she'd picked up of Lanni's descriptions of this girl, any moment now she would spring at Qarade and tear the flesh from her face with her teeth. "A pleasure to finally meet you," said Qarade. "Do you have ulterior motives?"

It never hurt to assume. Well, it often hurt to assume, but - and this was important - not always.

"Well, yes," Xifa said, with a hint of a smile, and Qarade had no idea if she was faking it or not. It didn't look genuine, but then, it didn't look artificial, either. "I've got a letter for Socora Sanne, you see, and I was wondering if you could deliver it for me."

"You don't want to deliver it yourself?"

Xifa was rummaging around in her bag. "You haven't heard, then?" she asked.

"No, no, I've heard, I was just being tactful. You can feel free to say that I could use the practice, most people do."

The other girl smiled - that one definitely artificial - and produced a white paper envelope. "Will you?" she asked.

Qarade looked at it for a moment, and then took it. "Nothing else to do, I guess."

"Thank you," said Xifa, with a look that Qarade was sure infringed upon her personal space and above and beyond that came /absolutely from nowhere/. "I'll be sure to remember that I owe you."

She walked from the room, heading in the direction of the Masatjit building. After a moment, Qarade followed her, pulling open her mobile phone again as she did so.

The fourth building of the dormitories was big and dramatic and scary, or maybe it only seemed that way to people who were delivering messages from strange girls to fencing captains who - if the legends were true - could paralyse lesser beings with a glance. Qarade felt very, very small, and strongly considered simply throwing the letter by the side of the path. Oh, that wasn't Socora Sanne? That was a rose bush? What a crazy mix-up! My, is my face red!

The door opened in a much less dramatic fashion than she had hoped, and she headed inside.

There was a foyer easily the size of Qarade's entire dorm block, bathrooms and foyers and all, and someone had possessed the audacity to hang a tasteful portrait by the staircase, making the whole thing rather too genteel for Qarade's liking. It was almost a relief when she saw a massive blond boy on the stairs, with far more hair than could possibly be considered genteel or, for that matter, civilised.

It was entirely not a relief when he stopped in front of her and said, with a voice both unnaturally deep and unnaturally smooth, "Tegustem Qarade."

"Yes? Do I know you?" Qarade asked. It was turning into a day of people coming up to her and knowing her name. Of course, she'd seen Xifa before a few times, and heard Lanni describe her... and with that, it occurred to her that she'd heard Lanni describe this one, as well. "Wait a minute, I totally do! You're the mysterious Almenten! Man, it's really weird to finally meet you. You know you're an enormous freak, right?"

Almenten did not seem impressed by this very accurate description of his personality. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

This is where civics meetings with The Most Boring Young Man In The Universe finally pay off! "Lysian Sattir," Qarade proclaimed, "has been extended charters of limited independance by three major nations, both Suranka and Jitsayui among them, promising that the basic liberties of its population shall go unmolested. The short of it is, I can go wherever the hell I want. Why do you care?"

"I would rather you not bother Socora Sanne at this point in time."

Qarade flourished her envelope. "Delivering a letter does not count as /bothering/," she announced, and tilted her head. "Besides, why do you get to bother and I don't get to bother?"

"Socora was my Mentor until a year ago," Almenten rumbled, on the verge of a growl. "She taught me everything I know."

Qarade smiled, with all the considerable adorableness at her command, and said in the sweetest voice she could muster; "So in a year, you've learned nothing?"

And with that, she skipped merrily past Almenten up the stairs, rounding a landing with an air of well-earned victory.

"Tegustem!" Almenten called, from below her.

Qarade looked over the railing, directly into those burning blue eyes. "You just addressed a whole clan of people there and I'm not even sure I count," she informed him.

"I want Lanni to be a formidable gamer," Almenten said. "Make sure that he is."

And with that, he walked away, the curtain of blond hair falling behind him like an honour guard.

For want of anything better to do, Qarade saluted. "Well, yes sir, Almenten sir," she said under her breath, and went up to see Socora Sanne.

It was a discouragingly long walk. There were two further flights of stairs, only at the top of which did it become apparent that there was, in fact, an elevator. In the foyer of Socora Sanne's block, a rail-thin young man in glasses was poised on a couch as if waiting for someone to show up and paint his portrait, ostensibly reading a book. He glanced dismissively at Qarade over the pages, and it took all of her self-control to enquire whether Socora Sanne associated with any people who weren't emotionless aliens from beyond the universal rim. Instead, she smiled sunnily, headed into the corridor, and knocked at the door of Room 466.

After the first three seconds, there was still no response, and Qarade was halfway through rationalising "just leave it under the door" when it opened, and there stood Socora Sanne.

"Oh," said Qarade. "Hello."

The Fencing Captain did not seem overly impressed by 'hello'. She was not nearly so tall as Almenten (but taller than Qarade), and not nearly as muscular as Almenten (but more so than Qarade), and she didn't have nearly as much hair (but, damn her, better hair than Qarade's, and wasn't she meant to be in mourning or something?). However, Almenten had prompted Qarade to new heights of hilarious mockery. Socora very nearly prompted her to apologise for everything she'd ever done in her life, up to and including stealing a friend's marbles when she had been four, and then run away.

"Good afternoon," Socora said.

"I've, ah..." Qarade held out the letter like a shield. "I was asked to give you this."

Socora took it, and turned it over. "This is from Xifa, yes?"

"Yes. To the best of my knowledge. Ah. She gave it to me. I don't know why she didn't deliver it herself. Sorry."

The Fencing Captain tore it open. She /tore/. Qarade had rather expected her to have a letter opener on hand at all times, or that she could simply open envelopes through glaring emphatically. "Would you like to come in for a drink?" she asked.

Qarade demurred. "No, no thank you... I'm cooking moussaka tonight and I don't think we have any eggplant."

Socora unfolded the letter with undeniable grace.

"You need eggplant to cook moussaka," Qarade confirmed.

Looking at the letter, Socora didn't reply. She looked up after a moment, with an expression like her favourite kitten had been eaten by her favourite puppy and given her favourite puppy cancer. Which, on Socora Sanne, meant that her eyebrows had drooped a little.

"Look, I'm sorry for any..."

"No," Socora said, shaking her head. "Thank you. Thank you very much."

"I should... go get some eggplant."

"Good afternoon," Socora said, and seemed about to close the door.

Qarade began to walk away, not quite sure which kind of ending that had been. It had been an ending, at least. That was something to say.

"Excuse me," Socora called, from her door, and Qarade turned around.

"If you see Xifa again..." Kitten-puppy-cancer face again. It was an expression Qarade would really rather not see, and at the time Qarade didn't even have a favourite kitten. "Tell her I'm thinking of her. Tell her I hope she's well."

"I will," said Qarade after a moment, feeling absurdly touched.

"I'm sorry, I didn't ask your name."

"Tegustem Qarade," Qarade said, after a moment, in the age-old pattern. "Clan name Tegustem, first name Qarade, everybody gets..." She paused, and then restarted. "Clan name Tegustem, first name Qarade, pleased to meet you."

"Pleased to meet you, Qarade," Socora said, with a slight bow, and then she shut her door.

Qarade walked away, through the corridors, biding her time. She wondered, first, how exactly a superhuman like Socora Sanne could be brought low. She wondered, second, if the Little Master Fashion Victim in the anteroom knew how ridiculous he looked. And she wondered, third, if that really was Xifa down the hallway.

Xifa smiled, and turned around.

Qarade, not knowing exactly what she wanted to do except perhaps to make sure everyone stopped creeping her out so much, broke into a run. She rounded a corner, saw Xifa disappear between a pair of double-doors, pursued at high speed, and then noted that the double doors were the elevator and it was already going down. Still in hot pursuit, Qarade ran for the staircase, used the bannisters with great tactical aplomb, leapt around landings, and made it to the ground floor in record time.

It was empty.

She turned, looked at the elevator - it was on the ground floor, doors closed - and hit the "UP" button to open the doors.

It, too, was empty.

Qarade looked around, walking slowly into the centre of the foyer. Empty but for the tasteful portrait by the staircase, and a vase of flowers she hadn't even noticed before. Not even any Almentens.

"Socora says she's thinking of you!" Qarade called, to the empty foyer. "She says she hopes you're well!"

No reply.

"Everyone should stop being creepy!" Qarade continued.

No reply.

"I need to go get some eggplant," Qarade grumbled, and stormed out of the fourth building, mission technically accomplished.

Lysian Sattir Academy had seven libraries, spread over the island, most of which had complicated titles with several polysyllabic words. Four were for specialised subjects - Lysian Sattir's law library, which was named after three Suran gods, was the envy of the world - one was for the town, one was for the memory of a long-dead benefactor, and one simply /was/. It had the enviably concise name of "Lysian Sattir Library".

Lysian Sattir Library was mainly famous for its sheer /size/. It covered nearly a quarter of the campus, and was four stories tall with basement and subbasement. Beyond that, there were landings and balconies and a generally arcane layout, and students told newer students that dozens of people had simply disappeared within the Library only to turn up dead ten years later, when some unsuspecting Civics student went to hunt down Itel Saragin's "On The Position Of Women In An Enlightened Society". Every university needs a story like that.

Common legend said that any book in existence could be found within Lysian Sattir Library. Common sense said that if you could find that book somewhere else, that was probably the better option.

Socora Sanne sat at a desk on the third floor, reading an Alteccionese historian on the Seven Ships War. The cause, according to most, had either been Suran imperialism, false rectitude, and ego, or Hanjodvar's constant and barefaced sheltering of criminals and malefactors who wished to harm Suranka and its peaceful reign. This particular historian remained very carefully neutral on all points. Socora had not been surprised.

She had been surprised, however, by the book's few references to Lysian Sattir Academy - apparently barely fifty years old, the school had been heavily involved in the Seven Ships War by sheltering deserters and facilitating trade between elements in the two countries. Another new element was the reference to a group of students who secured intelligence about both nations, attempting to use them at whatever point would end the war quickest. They had been unsuccessful, and thus secured only one paragraph, but the historian was fairly voluble in his praise of the three ringleaders; "the brave, the colour man, and the newspaper writer". A book was referenced.

Socora tucked a bookmark into her history and went to check the computer system.

After a good ten minutes wrestling with software, the system spit out a decimal number and section, and Socora ventured deeper into the building. She climbed a staircase, maneuvered around improperly placed reading rooms, fought through Tegustem Qarade's poetry appreciation class who were fighting over the single copy of "Flowers Uprooted", and finally reached the section to which she'd been pointed. The book, of course, was out on loan.

Socora sighed, almost inaudibly. She'd started back towards her old position when a voice came out of the susurrus of whispers around her, a quickly recognisable voice. /Xifa/.

"Of course I want to," she was saying. "When and where?"

Socora stopped, and listened.

"Underfield's too tricky." A male voice Socora vaguely recognised - a Hanjodvarian boy, Yarama. "Maths make my brain hurt. I don't like the river. Let's do the show right here."

"The library?" Xifa, Socora thought, was sounding much too accomodating.

"Why not? I'll meet you here tonight at six. Shouldn't be too many people here then."

"Should I bring my swordbreaker?" Apparently a serious question, but Xifa had always had a knack for couching sarcasm in a believable tone. It was one of the things Socora had loved about her; a sense of humour she could never truly replicate.

"I don't think you'll be needing it." His voice went down a little. Socora had to strain to hear. "You, uh, do know what you should bring, right?"

"God, you're so /timid/. Yes, I know what to bring, I was not born yesterday. I'll see you then."

"Looking forward to it." Yarama sounded obscenely cheerful. Socora's mind ran through half a dozen particularly vicious, inventive, and deeply satisfying murder fantasies.

Xifa passed within a few feet of Socora as she left, and Socora almost had to physically stop herself from following. Xifa was wearing the standard Lysian Sattir uniform, as opposed to her smart casual clothes of before. Only Mentor and pupil couples were exempt from the dress code, after all. It didn't hurt to see her in uniform, but it felt... wrong. Quietly wrong.

Socora waited just long enough to be sure Xifa was gone, and stalked out from the shelves like the approach of an angry angel.

Yarama, absorbed in his book, didn't notice her footsteps - when she finally came to a stop directly beside him, he took a few seconds to notice her proximity, and turned around with a visible flinch. When he regained his composure and realised who she was, he visibly flinched again. "Socora!" he said, the cheer now quite plainly false. "What a pleasantly terrifying surprise! Please don't kill me."


"I, I didn't know you knew my name. Another pleasantly terrifying surprise." Yarama fumbled to get the book resting on his current page, pushed too hard, and knocked it off the desk. At the noise, three nearby students turned to look at them, and turned away just as quickly when they saw Socora. "Is there anything I can help you with?"

"Are you sleeping with Xifa Nareku?"

"...What?" Yarama seemed genuinely surprised, and given his track record for concealing emotion, Socora doubted he was faking it. "What kind of question is that? Of course I'm not."

Socora refused to lean toward him, standing as motionless as the swordfighter statue outside of the Masatjit building. "Then what were you discussing with her?"

It was a ridiculous question - even in public, their conversation had been private, and some small part of Socora hated herself for asking. Yarama, however, did not draw himself up and demand the right of silence. Instead, he still seemed incredulous. "You mean you don't know?"

"If I knew," Socora said, in a voice that could freeze suns, "I would not be asking."

"Yeah, well, of course you wouldn't." He picked up his book, and when he sat up again, he seemed taller somehow. Any hint of slouch had gone, and something like a smile was dawning on his face. "Queen of Lysian Sattir and you didn't /know/... I was asking her to Game."

"To game?" Socora's eyebrow raised, a fraction.

"Of course. I mean, I'm getting quite..." He looked at her expression, and the smile became a full-grown and revolting smirk. "Ancestors' reflection. You really don't know. You've got no idea what I'm talking about."

"I know the game." Socora was starting to regret not having her pieces with her. "I am an excellent player."

"Oh, sure. You know everything, after all."

The icy aloofness was taking some effort to maintain - Socora wanted to hurt this man. "What do you know, then, that I do not?"

Yarama looked considering, and finally decided. "I'll tell you, on one condition."

"Goodbye, Yarama," Socora said, and turned away.

"It's something Xifa knows," he called after her, and she froze. "Just, you know, if you were interested."

Hating to be so easily manipulated, Socora turned around.

"My condition's this," Yarama continued, as if there had been no break. "You play the game against me. Just once. At a time and place of my choosing."

Socora looked at him, considering. "What do you get out of this?"

"I need more than the joy of gaming?" Yarama looked wounded. At Socora's expression, he dropped the act. "Fine. As you may or may not know, I've got no social standing in this school whatsoever. I helm one meeting that three people come to and no one else knows my name. Except apparently you, which, you know, is something. Why is that, anyway?"

"I have seen you visiting one of my fencers. Go on."

"Oh, Caoimhe. We broke up." He saw, quite clearly, that this was not information Socora wanted to know, and moved on. "I'm a cypher and I don't like it, so I just want to game with you once, and then I'll get status by proxy. Simple as that."

"It seems a shallow reason."

"I'm a shallow man. Are we agreed?"

"I'm not sure I believe you."

"I'm not a very believable man. Are we agreed?"

Socora thought for a moment. Yarama was plainly a petty coward, with an overinflated sense of his own importance, but a game couldn't hurt. "We are."

"Fine." Yarama stood, putting the book aside. "Follow me."

He set off quickly, moving with a stern decisiveness of which she wouldn't have thought him capable. They went through stacks and shelves, up and down stairs, down corridors Socora couldn't remember seeing before, and he didn't speak at all until they reached a pillared room. There were statues of young angels around the tops of the pillars, but these were not the happy cherubs of greeting cards - most looked worried, and some actively tormented.

"This is as far as you'll get without me leading you," he said. "Believe me or don't, it doesn't really matter. You can't find the way if I don't show you. So I just want to reinforce what I said earlier. One game. We do have a deal, right?"

"We do," Socora said, impatient.

"Indulge me." He smiled. It was almost a likeable smile. "Swear it by something. Something important."

"Isn't my word good enough?"

"Come on, just indulge me." He was starting to look almost eager.

She considered saying goodbye again, and simply walking away. This goblin deserved none of her time. And yet, he'd been discussing something with Xifa... something secretive, something she wouldn't learn without his help. "I swear by my sword," she said finally, "that I shall game with you."

"My," said Yarama, "you are dramatic, aren't you?" He opened a door in the wall, and Socora would be prepared to swear - by her sword or by anything else, in front of any authority in existence - that the door had not existed a moment ago. Yarama stepped through and into a tight, claustrophobic corridor. It seemed to be concealed between bookshelves. Socora slipped through it, walking sideways, shoulders twisted.

"I mean, you're just such an /anachronism/. Most people would swear by gods or parents or lovers. Which I appreciate, in your case, would be difficult." Yarama was lucky it was dark - if Socora had been able to see him, she would have at least slapped him. "But not you, no, you take this whole fencing issue /seriously/. Completely out of space and time. Which really makes you perfectly suited to this." And he pulled a door open, and blinding, flickering light poured into the passage.

When Socora's eyes adjusted, the light was actually quite dim. The room beyond seemed to be lit by torchlight/, and Socora began to understand Yarama's insults about anachronism. The torches were set in brackets on bookshelves, and the floor was wooden planking. /It would burn, surely, Socora thought to herself, and moved to read the spine of the nearest book.

/Vwa vuuv kfxx fkwfl bku qkcbe vuxjb ctt/, it said.

"They say that all the knowledge in the universe that really matters is kept in this room," Yarama said, and Socora saw that he was standing behind a podium of some sort. "If only anyone could read it."

There was another podium opposite his. Socora walked to it, looked over its face. It was a grid of lines - horizontal, vertical, diagonal - cut into a wooden face, with drilled-in holes at the nexuses.

"Maybe it's not comprehension we lack, though," Yarama said. "Maybe it's understanding."

"What are you showing me?"

Yarama clapped once, and nodded. "As you so helpfully demonstrate."

"Please stop being foolish and get to your point."

"This is the Library Game arena. It's a room hidden within the library. More than just simple concealment, too. To get here, you have to know where it is." He laughed. "And what you're looking for. Like I told you, you can't find this place; you need to be shown. This is where students who happen to be in the know come to Game."

Socora looked at the podium again, and the lines and holes suddenly made sense. A game board, she thought. Some kind of prebuilt Game board...

"You wouldn't understand, of course - you're not among the initiated. So let me tell you. There's more to the Game than the game, Socora Sanne."

Where did the coward go? Socora thought to herself. Now, in this place, it suddenly seemed that Yarama was master. And he understood that very well.

"There's a competition, of sorts, and there's a flow of power. We play by rules you can't even contemplate and we give each other life and death as our victory trophies. We know secrets you can't understand and we know magic you can't oppose. We play for a champion's reward, and even if I don't know what it is I know that it's magnificent. And now, thanks to me, you're one of us. Aren't you pleased?"

"How could something like this remain secret?" Socora asked, keeping her demeanour.

"You mean, why don't you know?" Yarama smirked. "Ask your friend. I played him just last week, and we walked on the water."

"Who are you talking about?"

"Is it that hard? Almenten."

Almenten? Socora's expression did not change. I taught him the game...

"I could take my Game now, you know," Yarama said. "I probably should, it'd be the sensible thing to do. But if I play two Games in one day I just can't concentrate on either. Curse of humanity, expectation and hindsight all at once. You know I've got to play Xifa today."

"You'll play the Game?" Socora asked. "Here?"

Yarama made an exaggerated nod. "Yes, as I have just spent the last ten minutes telling you."

"I won't allow it," Socora said. Nothing about that scenario seemed right.

"You think you've got that power? Don't delude yourself. You know, though, because I'm a sweetheart, I'll do you a favour. I'll let you watch."

"You are a disgusting individual," Socora said.

Yarama didn't take any notice. "What you do is, you find the bookshelf with the hole in it... ah, here it is." He prodded. "This swings open if you press the right book cover, which is this one, starts with T-X-J, and then you can go straight through and there's a peephole set right where there's a rather big O on one of the book covers. Lots of the arenas have hideaways like this. Sometimes I wonder who the spectators were meant to be." He stood back. "Anyway, I think you're about to storm off in disgust, so. I'm playing Xifa at six PM. She'll be here by quarter to, because she's always so /punctual/. Is that one of the things you liked about her? If you're properly concealed by half past, you can see the whole thing. Now, make your little high-minded dismissal and leave, and you'll see me around twenty to six."

Finally losing her vaunted control, Socora strode across the room and slapped Yarama hard across the face, and the thing that insulted her still more than his words was that he smiled through the whole thing as if he'd expected nothing else.

Regardless, she was esconsced in the hideaway at half past five.

It was a tiny place, with no decoration - wooden walls, wooden floor - and the only light that came was through the peephole. Socora wondered, in the abstract way such things occur, whether she could be seen from the outside. It was a vivid image: in the middle of one book's spine, a single, light blue eye.

At twenty to six, the torches guttered as the door opened, and Yarama walked into the peephole's field of vision. He looked around for a moment, scanning the room, and then walked around to lean on the podium to Socora's left. "Hope you're comfortable," he said, after a moment, in a throwaway voice.

/Repellent little man/, Socora thought.

Yarama was dressed in the standard Lysian Sattir uniform - black trousers, white shirt, blue jacket. Something about the jacket, though, seemed off to Socora. The lines didn't seem right. After a moment - apparently for something to do - Yarama pulled the jacket off and bundled it up at the bottom of the podium. When he stood, the curved knife at his side was plainly apparent.

Socora's hand lunged towards the lever that would open the door, and it took effort to stop herself. If he draws it I'll kill him, she thought, quite soberly.

It was a few more minutes before Xifa entered the room, swinging her string bag of dark purple game pieces in one hand. "Hope you've got..." she started, before seeing him plainly. Of all things, she assumed the exaggerated eye-roll Socora had seen so often. "You told me I wouldn't have to bring my swordbreaker. You were very clear, and here's you with a khukuri. If you say this is going to be a combat Game I'm leaving."

"Being armed makes me feel like a big man," Yarama said, with a shrug. "'Sides, you brought it anyway, didn't you?"

Xifa's eyes flicked down to her left side for a moment. "Unimportant," she said. "I'm not interested in a fight right now."

"It's not a combat Game. I know how the rules are set up."

"Thirty and twenty and twenty?"

"With slow places and empty borders."

"I hate slow places," Xifa muttered, setting her pieces on the podium and removing her own jacket. Socora felt something she couldn't name - mostly jealousy, but jealousy of who she couldn't say.

"And I'm not too keen on empty borders," Yarama said with another shrug, putting his own pieces on his podium. They were a colour somewhere between dark gray and bright green, a mélange that made Socora think of the word /brackish/. "We all must make sacrifices. When you're ready."

Xifa thought for a moment, and then laid a stone at a defensive starting position with an assertive /click/.

The podiums were nearly parallel to Socora's view, and it was hard to see anything happening on the board. Socora knew Xifa's play style by heart, and had matched her silver to purple on hundreds of occasions - but from what little she could see, Xifa was playing a different game now. She laid out her patterns in ways subtly different than she ever had before, and at times her pieces moved on their own to escape the brackish gray lights that marked Yarama's positions. Socora almost allowed herself to be drawn in to Xifa's new play, following lines of reinforcement to puzzle out a meaning from the whole stone pattern, but she quite deliberately held her mind back. There was no time for minutiae - she had to understand the whole.

Yarama's play was tendril-like, barely reinforced lines of stones that moved to attack with a touch. Every time Socora thought she'd found one of a hundred weak points in his pattern, though, she realised that it was reinforced in concealed ways; a series of sacrifical traps to draw in an unwary attacker. Xifa played cautiously as she always had and managed to avoid them all.

Yarama made courtyards to encircle vast areas of the board, locking it away and meeting the third requirement quickly. Xifa made walls and swords, defending her pattern and striking at Yarama's. Finally, a vanguard of Xifa's stones tore open Yarama's largest courtyard, and from there was nothing but mop-up.

"Thirty and twenty and twenty," Xifa announced. "I'm claiming the win."

The pieces tumbled to the floor, clattering in a rainshower of purple and gray stones. Yarama stepped backwards, out of Socora's view. He must have been pressed up against the bookshelves. Xifa left her podium, walking slowly and delicately towards him, and Socora watched her raise a hand almost tenderly. Socora's hand twitched towards the locking lever again.

And for what felt like a long time Xifa just stood there, in place, her hand out of vision.

Then she walked back to her podium, efficiently filled her net bag with purple stones, retrieved her jacket and walked away.

After a moment, Yarama came back into view. His Hanjodvarian-gold skin seemed a little paler than before, a few beads of sweat around his forehead. His fingers tapped the handle of the khukuri. What did you do? Socora wondered.

And then he walked towards the peephole, almost blocking its light. "So," he said, in shadows, "you've seen it all."

He packed up his stones, much more slowly than Xifa had, and retrieved his jacket, but he stopped before the door. "Remember what we agreed," he said. "It's important now." He turned the handle, shaking his head. "I'm going to feel stupid if she's not in there," he murmured, plainly not for her ears but quite audible regardless.

A minute or so after Yarama had left, Socora let herself out, and looked around the arena with new eyes.

It was ten thirty in the morning. Lysian Sattir Academy looked like a painting in the late morning light, with blue-jacketed students walking leisurely from place to place, and by the river Tegustem Qarade's "Appreciating Bad Literature" meeting was just getting into full swing.

"My point," announced Maidardei, a Jitsayui boy who in Qarade's opinion was taking the whole thing /far too seriously/, "is that it's a legitimate interpretation. Hiroto stands up to Khir'ta'las even though Khir'ta'las is armed with the Mu Device - can't we see this as an endorsement of fighting for the right even if it's a lost cause?"

"Well, yeah," Qarade said. "But just two chapters earlier, Hiroto forbids his ninja from attacking Khir'ta'las' flagship... wait, name's gone, was it the /Annihilator/?"

"The /Eviscerator/," came a helpful voice.

"The /Eviscerator/, yes, thank you Kokejin... he forbids them from attacking it with spacesuits and shuriken. He has that speech about how he'll only launch an attack that'll have an impact, and he won't throw his crew's life away for an empty gesture."

Maidardei put his hands upwards in a gesture of some passion. "But when Fast Smoke disobeys Hiroto's order, it's his doomed shuriken attack that ruptures the Eviscerator's airlock and allows the ninja to board the ship!"

Qarade pointed. "Now you've stopped arguing from principle and you're arguing from results, Maidardei. Look, I see where you're coming from, but I don't think we can really redeem Dark Warlord Khir'ta'las Versus The Space Ninja/. I don't think we can even find a real overarcing theme, other than that dark warlords are bad and space ninja are apparently good. It's a /bad book/, Maidardei. It's not our job to prove that it's a /good book; it's our job to prove that it's an awesome book."

"I'm not sure I like the word 'awesome'," Kokejin said, raising her hand.

Qarade shrugged. "Tubular?"

"I take your point," Maidardei said, his voice subdued.

"It's a good debate, though. If you find anything else you think proves thematic consistency, be sure to bring it up." Qarade looked over her class. Same people as ever, the ones who wanted to have fun and the ones who wanted to reclaim the awful books they'd read as children and the very few who had that massive and completely improbable crush on her. Honestly, she had much more fun here than at her later poetry appreciation meetings.

There was a new face. Qarade was about to be at the same time warmly welcoming and hilarious when the part of her brain that dealt with self-preservation kicked her recognition synapses into high gear, and informed her that this newcomer would not be interested in the adventures of the space ninja. "Socora?" Qarade said, more than a little shocked.

"I hope I am not interrupting anything," said Socora. "I hoped to see you when you were finished."

Most of the class was either swooning or establishing minimum safe distance. Some were doing both at the same time. She'd never be able to get them focused on the scene where Hiroto reforged the Dragon Katana in a nuclear reactor at this rate.

"I think we were about to come to a break, anyway." Qarade waved her arms at the class. "Take five minutes, everyone. We'll be discussing chapter ten, if you want to look over it."

Qarade's erstwhile students dispersed. Almost all of them dispersed just far enough to still hear everything that went on.

"Good morning, Qarade," Socora said, with a slight bow.

"Morning," Qarade responded, with something of a bow of her own.

"I wanted to thank you again for delivering Xifa's letter. It was very kind of you."

"Oh, sure, no problem. 'Cause, you know, she gave it to me, so I thought I'd give it... to you. Er, I'm sorry if it was bad news. Also I tried to tell her what you said, only I couldn't really find her, because..." Qarade paused. "It was no problem," she said. Also, stop doing whatever you're doing to my synapses. I do not recognise your authority over my thinking-straight circuits, Socora Sanne! Fie upon your mystical aura of terror!

"I was wondering if you would be so kind as to do me another favour," Socora said.

"I don't do assassination," Qarade warned her, "and leg-breaking costs extra."

Socora produced a pro forma smile, and Qarade didn't feel as clever as she usually did after making hilarious comments.

"Could you deliver this to Xifa when next you see her?" Socora asked, handing over a white paper envelope that could have been the twin of the one Xifa had given her.

Qarade looked at the envelope. She wondered for a moment whether Socora had simply reused Xifa's envelope, and whether that would be vaguely romantic, kind of creepy, or just out-of-place thrift. Either way, this one didn't have tell-tale signs of repair. Another theory shattered. "Well, sure," Qarade said, taking the letter, "but the only meeting we have together is gymnastics, and that's not for three more days. Are you sure you won't see her before then?"

"I might," Socora said, "but I'm not sure she would accept a direct message from me."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

Socora shrugged. "It will get better."

Yeah, well, you don't have too much company in that opinion, Qarade thought. She'd only met Xifa once, of course, but from Lanni's stories, the girl had no intention of forgetting, and forgiving was very far from her mind indeed. "Well, I'll surely give this to her when I see her next. But, uh, that might be a few more days."

"I will be happy to wait," Socora said. "If you think she'll have it before Saturday, that is easily soon enough."

Qarade put the letter into her inside jacket pocket. "Certainly before Saturday."

"Thank you, again."

"It's really no problem."

"Then," Socora said, nodding in the direction of two eavesdroppers behind a nearby tree while giving no indication that she'd noticed them, "I should let you get back to your class."

"We're not doing a particularly interesting scene anyway," Qarade said, offhanded. "I don't know much about nuclear power or metallurgy, but I don't think you can use a nuclear reactor to forge a sword."

There was a brief, entirely uncomfortable pause.

"Anyway!" Qarade said, keeping from clapping her hands by main force. "I'll get this to Xifa and I'll, er, I'll see you again."

"You're very kind," Socora said. "Thank you."

Qarade watched her walk away, and her class come back in straggles. She noted with approval that Kokejin appeared to be demonstrating Hiroto's favourite Stance of a Thousand Killing Knives to another student, and that Maidardei had the glow in his eyes that denoted a new theory - that Dark Warlord Khir'ta'las Versus The Space Ninja would be reclassified as Great Art yet.

Definitely more fun than poetry appreciation, Qarade thought.

"I mean, personally," Qarade said, lounging back on Lanni's chair, "I don't think that ninja represent the growing trend towards sexual equality in Suranka. Unless you mean in that it's very difficult to see."

"I thought the ninja represented ninja." Lanni was tidying his desk, which had been fairly tidy already. "Though admittedly some variety of superninja."

"All ninja are superninja, Lanni. What we think of as ninja are actually kids in black pyjamas who think they're ninja."

"And true ninja can survive in deep space for up to ten minutes?"

"Ancient Jitsayui wisdom."

"Remind me not to offend you ever again."

"Damn right," Qarade said. "'Cause if you do I'll use my ancestors' secret rites and survive in deep space for up to ten minutes. That'll show /you/."

"I didn't know you were a ninja."

"There's a great deal about me you don't know!" She picked up a pencil from his desk and twiddled it between her fingers. "I was thinking we could see a movie."

Lanni put the last book into its alphabetised position, and solemnly took the pencil from her hands to place it in its proper receptacle. "Is there anything on?"

"There's a comedy with that guy you like."

"The one about watermelon smuggling?"

"Yeah, that one. There's the bit in the trailer, you know, with the jacket joke."

"That's the guy you like, Qarade."

"I just thought you recognised my good taste." Deprived of the pencil, Qarade twiddled her thumbs. "There's that action movie. The trailers strongly imply that an entire street might blow up at one point."

"Isn't there a Fedesov movie on at the moment?"

Qarade put her foot down with an exaggerated thud/. "We are /not going to see some new surrealistic masterpiece," she threatened. "You'd sit there going 'yes, yes, the space heater does represent tyranny!' and I'd have no idea what was going on the whole time. I don't know how you do it."

Lanni shrugged, a little. "It's all in how you look at it."

"Anyway, if you want smart, there's that movie about memory. My Brother's Diary/, or whatever. It looks like it's clever /and it'll have explosions."

"Will they be good explosions?"

"There is no such thing as a bad explosion, Lanni. The moment at which an explosion ceases to be so bad it's hilarious comes after the moment at which an explosion becomes good enough to be cool. Studies have been done." Qarade leapt to her feet. "I'm not waiting one more minute in this dump!" she announced, in blatant defiance of the room's alternate tidiness and luxury. "Let's go, we can steal Almenten's car."

"Almenten doesn't have a car."

"We'll buy him a car and steal it! Come on, the afternoon's young!"

As Qarade moved to the door, it swung open. Qarade took a quick and instinctive step back, and Xifa looked at her quizzically.

"We were just leaving," Lanni said, quietly.

"Actually, no, wait a moment," said Qarade, and reached inside her jacket. "Here, this is for you," she said, proferring the envelope.

Xifa took it solemnly enough, but with another hint of that personal-space-invading expression Qarade had seen earlier. "Is it from you?" she asked.

"It's from Socora," Qarade said, and Xifa's lips curled a little. "Who, by the way, says she's thinking of you and she hopes you're well."

"Isn't she always," Xifa murmured, pulling the envelope open. "Do you know what this is about?"

Qarade shook her head. "She didn't say. Saturday was involved somehow."

Xifa nodded.

"Anyway," Lanni said, "we were just..."

"We're going to see a movie about diaries," Qarade said, leading Lanni by the hand through the door.

"Do you have your key?" Xifa asked, not looking up from the letter.

"Yeah," Lanni said, tapping his pocket.

"Then I won't wait up. Enjoy your movie."

Qarade pulled the door shut, turned to Lanni, and hissed; "Did you see that look? Where did that look come from? What's with that girl?"

"Don't ask /me/," Lanni said, walking through the foyer.

"She was undressing me with her eyes!" Qarade said. "She was giving me creepy nudity eye!"

This, as expected, made Aldin and Kobach's heads turn - as if on hinges - from their co-operative shooter. Both of their characters were slaughtered by zombies in short order.

"Are you sure you're not overreacting?" Lanni asked.

"I'm totally not overreacting. Your creepy roommate has the creepy hots for me."

As Qarade closed the main door behind them, she felt quite sure that she'd heard Aldin say "that's kinda hot", and reminded herself once again to order Lanni to kick his unitmates in their respective crotches.

Socora was sitting in her customary corner table of the cafeteria when Xifa came in.

Her quick pace, and her obvious disquiet, drew glances from the other diners as she stormed between the tables. She was moving directly towards Socora, and Socora stood to greet her.

Xifa came to within an inch of Socora's face, and said in a voice little more than a hiss; "I won't be beholden to you for any length of time. To hell with Saturday. Today, this afternoon, in the library."

After a moment, Socora nodded.

"I'll destroy you." Xifa's eyes were brigher than usual. "I promise you that much."

She turned on her heel, and left.

All eyes had turned to Socora by this point, and she made a point not to notice nor care. Quietly, with all the considerable dignity she could muster, she sat back down - and after a moment, she drew the net bag of her silver stones from her jacket pocket, and stared at them for some time.

The library had been nearly deserted. Socora had walked through empty rooms, up and down stairs and through passageways, only now and again seeing a student absorbed in her work. Finally she reached the room before the room, with its young angels on pillars, and almost unconsciously touched a hand to the long sabre at her side.

There was the door. It was impossible that she could have missed it before Yarama showed her. For a moment, she was sure it would be locked - or some kind of illusion - but it seemed almost eager to open, leading her into the claustrophobic corridor and the Gaming arena beyond. The torches were burning a little lower than they had when Yarama and Xifa had Gamed. For a moment, Socora wondered who came to replace them.

She placed her jacket, neatly folded, in a corner, and moved to stand behind her podium.

It seemed only a moment later that Xifa arrived. She wasn't wearing her jacket, and the swordbreaker at her side was extremely obvious. "Twenty and twenty and forty," she snapped, putting her pieces atop the podium. "And it's a combat game."

"Xifa..." Socora started.

"Don't talk to me." Xifa pulled a piece from the bag, holding it between index and middle fingers, and laid it in her starting position - as far in the bottom left as she could. Socora watched the analogous position on her podium light up a moody purple.

"Why did you accept my challenge?"

"There are obligations." She sounded obliged, at that - speaking as though she was required to.

"How do you know these rules?"

"There are ways. Place your starting piece."

Softly, Socora placed a silver stone in the exact centre of the board, and Xifa responded with her first move.

As they made patterns in light and stone, Socora reminded herself of Xifa's subtly changed style of play. She'd always used more walls than swords, winning through holding territory and just enough capture fights. Now there were many more swords than walls, and Xifa abandoned territory to strike at Socora's stones. She tore open gambits that would have worked before, and left herself open to moves she would easily have been able to counter. There were far more counterattacks than openings, though.

Socora drew lines and lay stones and thought. She wondered how much of this change in Xifa's play style was the different nature of this hidden Game, and how much was simply the change in /Xifa/. She and Xifa had been happy together and now Xifa was not. How much else had changed?

Xifa drew a line from a purple stone to a silver. Capture fight.

She came out from behind her podium, drawing her swordbreaker as she did so and holding it in front of her chest, cautious and defensive. Socora walked towards her, sabre in hand, but she too moved cautiously. Socora and Xifa had fenced many times, but never with sharp steel. This was entirely out of Socora's experience.

"Xifa..." she tried, again.

Xifa lunged forward, with what was almost a snarl, and Socora barely brought the sabre around in time to parry. Repelled for a moment, Xifa came back at another angle, but Socora was ready now and blocked the furious attack with ease. Fencing instincts acting almost without volition, Socora lunged with a consummate riposte, putting Xifa on the defensive.

Just as Xifa's play had changed, so too had her fighting style. Fencing with Xifa before, Socora had always felt a fire in her, but one that was carefully banked and controlled. Now it was loose, fit to consume. That fire made her powerful, but also endangered. With two more attacks, Socora broke Xifa's guard and thrust forward again.

The tip of her sabre came to rest on Xifa's collarbone and went no further. Socora paused for a moment, the merest tremble coming to her hand.

Xifa broke to one side, ducked, and lunged forward, driving her swordbreaker hard into Socora's stomach. A moment later, both were back at their podiums, and the silver stone had been replaced by purple light.

Socora willed her hand to stop trembling, and sheathed her sabre again.

Turn by turn, Xifa's swords hit closer and closer to the heart of Socora's pattern, and Socora struck at Xifa's walls with carefully constructed lances. In the capture fights, Socora never felt the same freezing hesitation that had stopped her before, but she knew her hands was still shaking and her mind was still unwilling. She knew quite well that, in that moment - and no matter how many fights she won - she was not the master she had been.

/Twenty and twenty and forty/. How to track those numbers when the patterns of the Game grew and grew, entangled each other, came together and broke apart? How to recall the emotion that had led to each play?

Socora thought that she was winning, but she had been wrong in that before.

Xifa started to build a fortress in the top right, and Socora brought her pattern to strike through a small courtyard and batter at its walls, and again the two women drew swords and approached each other.

Socora struck first, hitting against Xifa's swordbreaker and driving her backwards. Xifa was moving more than she had before, focusing more on footwork. Her strikes came faster. Her parries had a fury to them that had never been there. Finally, Socora lunged out, and Xifa ducked to one side and caught her sabre in a notch of the swordbreaker.

For one infintessimal fraction of a fraction of a moment, while the metal of the sabre clashed with the metal of the swordbreaker, Socora realised that her hand no longer shook.

The swordbreaker turned, and the good steel of Socora's sabre screamed and broke in pieces, hitting the ground like snowfall.

While Xifa was off-balance, Socora lunged forward, coming well inside Xifa's range, and used the ragged edge of the halved sabre to tear her throat open. And it was not nearly as difficult as Socora had hoped it would be.

They did not return to their podiums. Tendons moved in Xifa's undamaged throat as she swallowed. When Socora looked down, the sabre in her hand was whole, with no fragments on the floor. The Game pieces fell from their places with a clatter that could almost have been applause.

"Why do..." Xifa started. "Why do you /always/..."

Socora, quietly, sheathed the sabre.

"You're the fencing captain!" Xifa said, finally. "You're the Queen of the Academy! You're the one person everyone wants to be and you spent the last week following /me/!"

"Xifa, you're..."

"Are you going to say I'm /worth it/?" Xifa spat. "That's not what I meant! I meant that I know you have a life!"

"I don't understand," Socora said.

"I know you have a life." Xifa's voice became a little calmer. "You should stick to it. You should..." In that short time, the anger was already returning. "You should leave me /mine/!"

Socora reached out to touch Xifa's cheek. Xifa twisted away, but at the moment of contact, something like electricity held them together. A stream of purple and silver colour seemed to drain away from Xifa's dark eyes, over her face and into Socora's fingers, pouring away like heat and light down into Socora's body. Xifa's gold skin seemed to lighten a little, and beads of sweat appeared on her forehead.

"I never meant to..." Socora said, after a moment.

"I don't care what you meant."

Xifa stalked back to her podium, grabbed handfuls of purple stones from the floor and shoved them into her bag. Socora stood still, neither returning to her own podium nor going towards Xifa's. Finally, Xifa pulled her jacket back on, and turned to look at Socora.

"When I told you I was leaving you, you said something and I told you not to dare. Remember?"

"I told you I love you," Socora said, quietly.

"Of course you did," Xifa sneered. "That's not all you said, though. You said 'but I love you'."

"And I still..."

"'But I love you'. As if that's a counterargument. As if because you love me I owe you something."

Socora was silent.

"I don't owe you /anything/," Xifa said, and walked away.

When Socora had finished packing away her silver stones, she noted that one - just one - of Xifa's purple was still on the floor. She walked to it, picked it up, held it between two fingers. She wanted desperately to put it in her pocket, take it home, keep it as a memento or a trophy or both.

After a moment, she laid the stone on top of Xifa's podium, and left the arena to its guttering torchlight.

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