“Cake! Can I-”
“No,” said Alice, batting Aidra’s hand away. “Not yet!”
“Okay th- ow!” he exclaimed as she slapped his other hand away.
“I think I remember that She said there’d be cake,” she mused. In her peripheral vision, one of Aidra’s thumbed feet snuck closer to the box. She rapped his foot hard with her knuckles, and he yelped.
The cake itself was shiny and brown in a manner that would normally have suggested chocolate icing, but she didn’t want to make assumptions, given the rather eccentric nature of all the food she’d had since coming to the Realms-at-large. She looked at Red, attempting to convey a complicated question to her impromptu food-taster via expression alone.
Red shrugged. “If anything was going to be designed to be perfectly edible for your physiology, a cake sent to you specifically by the Name of Knowledge Herself would be it, I think.”
She mulled it over for a moment, made a decision and, before she could rethink it, stuck a finger in the icing and then in her mouth. It was not entirely identical to some of the best chocolate icing she’d ever tasted, and she was so distracted by the resulting flavour-based religious experience that she only barely registered Aidra leaning closer, mouth wide open, and when she elbowed him in the face it was more out of reflex than conscious thought.
“Wow,” she breathed, barely audible over Aidra’s swearing. “If we, er, get a table and a knife, and maybe some plates? When we get those, I’ll share it out. It’s great.”
“Boo,” Aidra said sulkily as she closed the box.
She glared at him. “You’ll get some when we find a restaurant table or a hotel room or something. We’ll all get some.”
“Yes, but that wouldn’t be me getting all of it!”
[I Will Not Be Having Any, As I Have Neither Taste Buds Nor Digestive System Nor Metabolic Processes.]
“Can I have Twelfth’s bit?”
– – –
“I don’t quite have the, er, palate of the rest of you,” said A Librarian. “I’m honestly not sure what ‘sweet’ is, as a taste. It’s very nice, though!”
They’d managed to find a large hotel room in the Tower for a day or so. Red was busy, doing something on the weird magic-internet ‘Connective of Orthogonal Thought’ to try to work out whether STAR still knew where she was. His piece of the cake sat on the desk he was doing this strange research at, mostly eaten absently as he worked. The paper plate Aidra’d had his piece on had a large bite taken out of it, and the less said about that, the better. Nik and Alice had been actually civilised, and A Librarian was just finishing up his, which he’d dissected on his plate like some manner of research specimen, eating various bits of it in different orders and combinations until he ran out of elements. How he’d managed to take it apart so neatly with a plastic knife and fork was anyone’s guess.
“It’s probably calibrated to be as nice as possible for all of us, knowing Her,” said Red over his shoulder.
“That’s a well-known culinary Dark Art,” Aidra added cheerfully. He was putting the finishing touches to an endless Escher staircase-of-cards, which was getting pretty hard to look directly at without getting a headache.
Alice, cake finished, was busy doing one of the magic exercises Red had shown her back in the Arboretum. She could keep a feather hovering on air currents for a good long while, now, and even move it around, a bit. Now, she was practising light. Little flickers of pale green luminescence – much paler and ‘cleaner’ than her first lights, she noticed with some pride – appeared above her hand as she concentrated, and she was managing to make them last a few seconds before they dissipated in puffs of shadow. With some effort – the lights were slippery, and didn’t want to cooperate unless she paid them full attention – she managed to generate one above each hand, but they were as insubstantial as soap bubbles and vanished before she could call Red over to have a look.
“What’re you even doing, Red?” she asked eventually, finishing the magic practice for the time being as she felt the tell-tale pinprick warnings of a thaumo-whatsit headache in her temples.
“Putting out bounties for information on the movements of STAR’s operatives,” he replied, holding up another note and making it spontaneously combust. “The burning bit is how they’re transmitted to the Connective. STAR will probably be monitoring it, but they’ve not historically been good at operating, er, magical technology? They don’t like the Causeways, don’t like the Connective. I don’t even think they like the trains.”
“What if they pick up on this with a magic wiretap or something?”
“Well, I’m spoofing my location a bit through delocalised fire, and I’ll be monitoring right back for their activity, so if they notice, I’ll know they know but they probably won’t know that I know that they know. They’ll do stuff like query my location and truename alias, so that’ll be directed back to me by the Connective at large, because I know some people at the bounty level and they’ll think it’s suspicious. In doing so, I might even be able to get a likely location for them, but they’re probably not quite dense enough to make that easy enough to bother with. We’ll see, basically.”
“Bounties and bait, then?” She actually understood that part, although some of the terminology was weird.
“Yeah,” said Aidra from across the room, “it’s eh-fish-ent.”
“Are you even trying, with these puns?”
“Yes, I think you’ll find I’m very trying.”
Red interrupted their bickering. “Anyway, from what I’ve seen, Alice, you’re definitely picking up the magic exercises I’ve given you pretty well, and I think the next thing is to brush up on theory. There are numerous ways to do that, and they vary from the tremendously dull to the merely tedious, but it’s kinda gotta be done.”
While this conversation had been going on, A Librarian had looked up from what he’d been reading. “Have you written up a reading list? I know a couple of comprehensive thaumetic literature stores in Foyer, but I’m sure there’s some somewhere in the Tower.”
Red grimaced. “I don’t really have a reading list in mind – my, er, proposed curriculum is somewhat more ad-hoc than you seem to be assuming-”
“For shame, Red!” Aidra cackled. “What would Gyran think, with you neglecting poor Alice’s educations?”
“I think Tureval’s Issicua Fantasma is a paradigm-agnostic text on the matter,” A Librarian mused. “Although maybe not so much for the beginner?”
“I mean,” said Alice, “I’m probably pretty remedial?”
“Dunno if there’s a Ladybird Book of Magic,” Aidra remarked, “but I’ve got some pamphlets.”
Said pamphlets were produced from up his sleeve, and were an eclectic mix of neon colours and far more glitter than would have seemed strictly necessary.
“Yeah, maybe something a little more advanced than…” she looked at one of the less noxious pamphlets. “‘Five Werid Tricks To Get A Bighugener Wands’. That sounds like a euphemism.”
“It’s euphemistically delicious and nutritious!”
“Mm-hmm. No thanks. I think I prefer textbooks to spam mail.”
“Excellent!” said A Librarian. “We’ll go book shopping when we get a moment, and see what styles and paradigms you resonate with.”