If you’ve been following the blog before now, I apologize but I’ve skipped ahead again, like way ahead, to a scene that was more entertaining. So whatever questions you might’ve had from earlier sections … keep hanging on to them I guess?
I should point out that it’s daytime in this scene. Billa is sleeping through the whole conversation, not because it’s nighttime, but because he’s hung over from the whiskey that got him through some rather severe emergency field surgery, because uh… because I said so. More on that later. (He’s gonna be fine.)
Anyway, here follows some characters clumsily banging their way around philosophy and myth and race relations and sexual tension. It may be painfully cheesy: please tell me where it hurts, I’m never offended by criticism, I’ll settle for “slightly better than Anakin telling Padme why he hates sand”.
Roughly 1300 words following.
Tedis dropped the last log onto the fire. Naturally, it rolled into exactly the wrong place to catch fire and the right place to billow smoke. She leaned forward and gave it a shove. Flames blossomed up again — then the breeze tossed some smoke in Tedis’ face, and she leaned back out of its way just in time to catch sight of Victor looking directly at her chest.
She looked down, too. The neckline of her shirt had settled a bit more than she realized; the view over its top was unnecessarily impressive. She hastily tugged up on the fabric and looked back up.
Victor was now feigning deep interest in the skin around his thumbnails. “I wasn’t,” he stuttered, and then, “I was just looking at your necklace!”
“At the necklace. At least half the time at the necklace,” he admitted. He finally met her eyes. “Sorry.”
Tedis couldn’t help smirking a little as she wrapped her coat up around her shoulders. She didn’t mind the bit of silence that followed — it was full of pale blue birdsong and deep-blue fire-chatter — but apparently Victor did.
“What is it, though?” he pursued.
“What — the necklace?” she chuckled. “It’s a Helper. Haven’t you seen these before?”
“Sure, I have. On signs and over doors, painted underneath bridges. Everybody’s tattoo. The same little figure. I just don’t know what it means. ”
So she pulled the chain over her head and held the necklace out to Victor. He took it and examined the pendant between his fingertips.
“Pretty,” he offered, after a while.
“It’s the Helper. The same Helper from the Festival of Moons. That flat bit at the top is his head, like he’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat, see. His arms circle around to clasp at the bottom and he always holds something. Sometimes it’s quartz or a little bit of stamped copper. Copper’s the fashion lately but Mama said turquoise brought out my eyes.”
“He is a Beast?”
“What? No —”
“Because his flat head looks like a Beast.”
“Well, there’s been that idea, yes. It comes from Brin, you see —”
“Oh! He is a Stranger!”
“So he was real?”
Tedis grimaced, wondering if she might be about to run up against the limits of Victor’s Gettean vocabulary. “Yes and no. Brin’s Strangers — they weren’t real, not exactly — or rather, nobody knows for sure, but probably Brin mistook Beasts for strange people the first time she saw them, and invented the Strangers.”
Victor raised an eyebrow.
“I mean — you didn’t think — because of course Brin’s book isn’t real history,” Tedis said. “It’s an important book, just not for facts. She was very old and she had the Crust very bad when she wrote it.”
“Sure,” Victor said. “Yes. Crazy story.”
Tedis remembered feeling the way Victor’s face looked now. She’d been as old as thirteen — too old — when she found the Helper costume packed in straw behind the false wall in her uncle Tandvek’s garage. She’d said nothing, but had sat at the grownups’ table during Festival dinner that night and caught all the knowing glances. And though she stayed up late as usual, she made certain the grownups all knew she only did it to watch the little cousins, and certainly not to watch for a lantern on the horizon.
“The Helper is not a Beast — well, not even a Stranger,” she went on, “but he’s — well, the Helper can be anyone. People say he is anybody or anything that helps you when you are alone and most need it. So maybe, once, for Brin, he was a Beast. You know?” Tedis shrugged.
Victor looked unimpressed, and tossed a twig into the fire. “Sure. So, he is an idea. Not a person.”
“I suppose. But that doesn’t mean he’s not real,” Tedis insisted. “Anyway, you wear a Helper sign so that he can find you if you need him. And when your Helper finds you, if he finds you, you’ll know it’s him because he’ll help without being asked, and disappear without taking anything in return. Some of the stories even say he’ll get angry if you try to refuse him, or try to offer him payment. But it’s good luck if you can slip your pendant to him before he goes — secretly of course, so as not to offend — because someday, he might need a Helper to find him, too. That’s how the story goes.”
“You ever find a Helper?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. I suppose I’ve been fortunate enough not to need him,” Tedis laughed. Then she looked around at the canyon wall, and at Billa sleeping. “Yet,” she added.
She held out her hand, and Victor returned the pendant.
“It’s pretty, anyway,” he said again.
“My mother gave it to me.”
“You said so. Turquoise,” Victor said. He tipped his head to one side, watching her. “You picked it out together, or she mailed it to you, or … what now?
Tedis was laughing. “Subtlety doesn’t suit you!”
“The pendant was a coming-of-age gift,” she said. “But that’s not your question — it’s where every girl gets her pendant nowadays — what you really want to ask is, what happened between me and my mother? And, I must tell you, that’s a private question with a personal answer. Very forward of you to ask.”
“Me, or the question?”
Tedis smirked. “You! But it suits you better than subtlety, at least.”
“You’re the first person I’ve met who thinks so.” Victor pointed at his scar.
“That was undeserved,” Tedis said. Then she reconsidered. “Well, you were a bit stupid and might’ve expected that, but —”
“Then it’s even more impressive that you called him a _______ [very rude epithet].”
“I didn’t know you heard that,” Victor said, rubbing the back of his neck.
“I didn’t. Billa told me. We have both been very impressed.”
“Like I said! He deserved that and ought to have taken it like a man. Whereas you took your hit like a ___[honorific: high-status man]. So yes — it suits you.”
Victor smiled slowly. “Even if I was forward enough to ask a lady a personal question?”
“Hmm. I suppose the lady could still be excused for taking offense.”
“Because I’m a man or because I’m a Tom?”
“Or a ___ [high-status honorific] —”
“Oh! You’re running with that!”
Tedis rolled her eyes. “Alright! Both, if you like — because they would have meant that, until now, she didn’t know you well enough to be having such a conversation,” she said.
“That’s all,” Tedis said, and meant it. “And I never technically said I was offended, did I?”
“No, you didn’t.” Victor smiled. “You should try it some time.”
“Hmm! Not worth the trouble. I’d rather just respectfully decline to answer, and let the other person stew.”
“Oh. The long game.”
“It has proven to work so far.”
“Good thing I did not ask, then,” Victor said. “Because I hate stewing. Not good at it.”
He poked the fire, then stood up and made for the edge of the clearing. He cleared the boulder in one scramble and crunched into the bracken — it was impressive how fast he could move when he wanted to. He started collecting dry sections of the fallen tree and tossing them down. The third toss cracked off the boulder, and at the noise Billa snorted and rolled over. Tedis got up and stepped over him.
“Here, throw,” Tedis called, and caught the next log. “How’s the stewing coming?”
“Not good.” Victor smiled and tossed another.
“Alright, then — ah, whoops! that was me — I propose an exchange. Answer for answer,” Tedis said.
“Depends. What answer from me?”
“That’s for me to ask, if we have a deal. Do we?”
“That’s not fair. You already know my question.”
“No I don’t, because you hadn’t technically asked,” she said drily. “You could change it. To something wildly different, even. I won’t expect subtlety.”
Victor thought it over, and smiled wryly. “Sure. Deal.”