And here we go again, Cherry sighed, straightening the tiles in front of her for what felt like the dozenth time.
She wished it was only the dozenth time she had watched Delyth and George start by conversing innocuously and then watched it take a sharp and sudden turn for Here Be Dragons land. But no, this had been going on for weeks. And weeks …
And weeks, Cherry thought, taking a few of the Mah-Jong tiles and dropping them from her hand one by one.
Click, click, click, they said to her as they fell.
My thoughts exactly.
Cherry glanced at George and Delyth. The argument had not started yet, but oh, it would. Now there were still in shallow waters, splashing about a bit and testing the depths. Nobody had gotten too wet, not yet. But in a few minutes …
“And what the hell is that supposed to mean, George Ferreira?” snapped Delyth.
And off they went.
“It’s obvious!” George replied. Cherry winced on his behalf. Didn’t he get by now that calling his arguments “obvious” when his sweetheart was obviously objecting to his logic wasn’t going to get him anywhere? Sometime she thought that boy had too much brain for his own good. The Cherry of two years ago would have been shocked that the thought could cross her mind, but the Cherry of two years ago hadn’t met George.
Or maybe the problem was — as it was with so many Sims — he didn’t use the brains he had. Yes, that was more than likely it. He was a smart guy, but she was getting the sense that sometimes he just didn’t think.
Case in point: he kept talking even as Delyth’s face grew blacker and blacker. “Look, a, a mundane … they’re just not going to get the problems, the things that a wizard has to face every day, day in and day out. When’s the last time you had to worry that saying the wrong word at the wrong time could lead to lightning coming down from the heavens?”
“I think that if you have to worry about lightning striking because you say the wrong thing at the wrong time, you’re doing the wrong kind of magic!”
“That’s hogwash! That’s — that’s the kind of hidebound thinking that got us into this mess! We need to be more creative with how we approach our problems, or else we’re always going to think that rain is bad and sunshine is good! Come on, Delyth, you’re smarter than that!”
On the plus side, Cherry had to give this to George: even though he didn’t always think, he never made the mistake of assuming others, particularly women, couldn’t. It wasn’t a mistake men often made in Bledavik — in Bledavik, the men were quite well aware that though a woman might not be as physically strong as a man, there were lots of other ways to beat him — but these southlanders seemed to make it every time they breathed. George didn’t. It probably had something to do with the fact that he was a wizard and was constantly coming up against evidence of women besting men in his favorite arena. And whatever else George might be dumb enough to do, he wasn’t dumb enough to ignore the evidence right in front of his eyes.
Except when it came to a steaming Delyth. “And who says it isn’t? Who likes a rainy day? And who doesn’t like a sunny day?”
“That’s the wrong question to ask! It’s all about the context! Which is better — a sunny day for parched crops, or a rainy one?”
“Rain at the wrong time can spoil crops, too!”
“But that’s only an argument for better context, not an argument against rain!” George smirked.
Cherry winced. Oh, he had to go and do that, did he? Be so smug about the way he was thinking. He wasn’t allowing himself to think about the situation from Delyth’s perspective, to put himself in her shoes. Hopefully he would soon, because if he did …
“And in what context is the fact that my sister and Sir Mordred’s marriage broke up my sister’s fault?”
Yup. That’s what would happen.
“What?” George wailed. “I never said that!”
“Oh, yes, you did! You just said it! A marriage between a wizard and a mundane would never work out, because the mundane wouldn’t understand! That’s what you said!”
“I never –” George started, then brightly bit the words back. Good, the boy was learning. “I didn’t mean that in that particular case that’s what caused things to go sour! There’s obviously a lot ofother context –”
“And what about my brother and Lady Garnet, huh? Will they fall apart because Lamorak just won’t understand? Huh? Huh? Is that what you’re saying, George?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know either of them!”
“George Ferreira, you liar!”
“Hey! Having your brother glaring at me every time I go to dinner at your house does not count as knowing him!”
“You’re going to his wedding!” Delyth snapped. “You should know him, if you’re going to his wedding!”
“I’m going to his wedding with you! Because you asked me to!”
“Well, Dilys gets to have her sweetheart at the wedding, so why shouldn’t I?”
“I never said you shouldn’t!”
“I never said you never said I …”
Oh, Lord, they were getting into this now. It was only the fact that Delyth’s feelings would be hurt that kept Cherry from sending her head crashing into the tiles with a groan. Sometimes, she wished she could see her way clear to telling Delyth that she and her swain sometimes sounded like six-year-olds without making her upset. It would probably make the fights that much less painful to listen to.
“My Lord!” George yelped, slapping his hand to his forehead. “You are impossible!”
“I am nothing of the kind!”
“Oh, yes, you are! You always take everything so damn personally,” George spat. “And you know what’s worse? You know what’s even worse?” he continued. “I was trying to agree with you!”
“In the most insulting way possible!”
“Only to you!” George yelped. “You said that Sir Mordred and your sister should have never gotten married! I agree! It sounds like they–“
“Because she didn’t have magic! Like my brother doesn’t, even though he’s going to marry Lady Garnet!”
“Argh, if you’d just listen –“
“Like I don’t!” Delyth yelped, saving, as she ever did, her coup de grace for last.
Cherry would give her this much: it did generally end the argument. But she thought Delyth’s winning last words were losing their power. A few weeks ago, an observation like this would have George abjectly apologizing. He might even ought to be apologizing for it now. Instead, he threw his hands up in the air. “You. Are. Impossible!” he repeated.
“Better that than an ass!” Delyth replied.
“Fine! If that’s the way you want to play it!”
“And I do!”
Cherry wasn’t even sure who technically got the last word there — the “fines” were starting to run together in her head. She knew she would have awarded the honors to Delyth, because Delyth was the one who came up with the argument that George had no argument for. But George might not have agreed. He might have gone for it being whoever actually spoke last — he did tend to be overly competitive. Then again, so did Delyth. Delyth had laughed with Cherry over how she used to try to match or best her sister in everything when she was little, even though Cherry was pretty sure that Dilys was never the least interested in competition.
In any case, it wasn’t long before Delyth sidled up to one of three free seats at the Mah-jong table. “This seat taken?” she asked with the ghost of a grin.
“Of course not. Sit your butt down.”
The slightly-naughty word — Cherry wouldn’t rate it bad, even by the crazy southlander standards — didn’t even make Delyth smile. Still, at least she sat.
“Deal me in,” she said, gesturing with her chin toward the tiles.
“George isn’t watching, you know,” Cherry replied. Her eyes were on George’s rigid back as he made his way over to the card table where Jack, his friend Billy, and some arse named Morgan were sitting. “You don’t have to –“
“Oh, no,” Delyth snarled. “He’s a wizard. Who knows how he might be keeping an eye on me with his arcane powers?”
“I don’t think George would do that.” He liked his victories, but he wasn’t a gloater. Not when people were hurt.
“Don’t care. I’m not upset, after all. So, deal me in,” Delyth replied, scooting closer to the table.
Cherry sighed but, lacking a better alternative, started to shuffle and mix the tiles.
But if she wanted to inspire a confidence, she couldn’t have chosen a better action. The clinking and clacking of the porcelain tiles seemed to be all it took to get Delyth’s mouth moving. “Would it kill him to consider the implications of what he’s saying?”
“Possibly. He is a boy.”
Delyth only snorted instead of wickedly giggling. A pity, that. Was Cherry’s world-weary cynicism catching onto her friend so soon? Delyth in slightly-scandalized innocence was at her best.
Then again, Delyth was probably just growing up some, and there was no help for that.
“I wasn’t being completely unreasonable, was I?” Delyth asked plaintively. “I mean … when I pointed out that he could be talking about us?”
“Not … entirely …” Cherry hedged. Damn it, she knew she was supposed to support Delyth in this, but … but …
But George just didn’t think that way! His thinking was all about things, and principles, and how they would react when you put them together. He thought abstractly. He thought like an alchemist: let’s mix this chemical and this powder and see what happens. He never stopped to consider was that sometimes you got your eyebrows blown off.
“I went too far, didn’t I?” Delyth pouted.
“I wouldn’t say that … I mean, aye, he probably should have thought of what he was saying and who he was saying it to before he did.”
“But …” Delyth prodded.
“But what?” Cherry replied with her best innocent blink.
“There’s a but attached to that. I know there is. I just want to know what I did wrong, Cherry,” Delyth leaned forward, elbows on the table, chin cradled in her hands. She knocked several of the tiles over, a fact Cherry forbore to mention. “I don’t want to do that wrong next time.”
Yes — that was the problem. “Delyth …” Cherry scratched the back of her neck. “Maybe … I don’t know. Goodness, why are you asking me? I don’t have a sweetheart!”
“But you’ve got a good head on your shoulders,” Delyth pointed out, “and …”
Cherry raised one eyebrow.
“Dilys and Kay don’t get into fights like this.”
Well, no, of course they didn’t. First of all, they barely saw each other, except when Prince Kay was home on a visit. Secondly, you had to work hard to get a fighting reaction out of Dilys. And thirdly … the Prince was a lot older than George, and Cherry would bet he was more mature thereby. It was amazing the fights you didn’t have when all or even half the parties were above a certain mental age.
“Well, maybe next time …” Cherry stared at her tiles, wishing that the stylized flowers or numbers would give her some kind of answer. “Maybe next time … you should stop worrying about next time.”
“Huh?” Delyth replied.
“Delyth, you’re sixteen–“
“Whatever. In this land, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t get betrothed for another year or two. And married? Come on. Your father wants you to go to Camford almost as badly as my mother wants us all to go. And I’m sure George wants to go, too. So that’s another five, six years before marriage is even on the table. On the table, Delyth. You’re sixteen and you’ve got another five to six years before you even have to worry about getting married. Do you have any idea how lucky that makes you?”
“Dilys seems pretty happy with knowing who she’s going to marry,” Delyth murmured.
Cherry snorted and waved a dismissive hand. “Please. No offense to your sister, but she’s … a die-hard romantic. And she’s found her handsome prince. Of course she’s happy. You, my friend, are made of … sterner stuff.”
“Sterner stuff?” Delyth wrinkled her nose.
“When’s the last time you waxed romantic over a painting?”
Delyth snorted. “Maybe you’ve got a point.”
“I know I have a point. The point is, do you see the point?”
“I guess. But I guess I’m just afraid …” Delyth kicked her legs under the table. “Look, Cherry, it’s one thing for you to say that you don’t care if you have a sweetheart right now. Or if you know who you’re going to marry. You can marry whoever you want!”
“Eh, I’m not sure about that. And didn’t your parents say you could court whoever you wanted?”
“Within reason,” Delyth stressed.
“Well, I can marry anyone — within reason. So I’d say that makes us equal.”
“No. No, it doesn’t.” Delyth shook her head. “Your reason is a lot bigger than mine, so there’s a lot more that fits within it.”
Cherry stared down at the tiles. Damn it. She had been hoping Delyth wouldn’t mention that.
“I didn’t think of it so much when my parents first brought it up,” she whispered. “It was … so much fun, not being hemmed in like Dilys was. But … I’ve been thinking, Cherry. I don’t want to leave Albion when I’m grown up.”
Cherry sighed. “Delyth …”
It’s such a long way off, she wanted to say. You have another whole year before you go to Camford! And then four years at Camford! Anything can happen, Delyth, anything! Why worry about this when you could be enjoying yourself and just having fun?
Because if Cherry would bet anything … She glanced over her shoulder at where the boys were playing cards. George wasn’t worrying about this. So why should Delyth? Why not take each day as it came?
But of course Delyth wouldn’t see it that way. “And — and who is there for me to marry in Albion? Other than George? Sir Elyan, if Lady Leona finally chucks him over for good?”
“There are lots of guys you could marry –“
“Not in Albion.”
“There could be, by the time you go to get married. Isn’t Sir Milo Carpenter one of Vortigern’s bastards?” Cherry pressed. “There could be others who come to Albion. You could marry one of them.”
“But what if there aren’t?”
“Then you can find some nice guy in Camford –“
“No, no! Then I’ll have to go live where he’s from!”
“I wasn’t finished, Delyth,” Cherry replied. “What if he doesn’t have a lot of land or money or … well, what if he doesn’t want to go back to Glasonland or Reme or wherever he’s from? Come on, Delyth, you have to admit that Glasonland and Reme are kind of … crappy, right now.”
“I guess …”
“Yes, that’s right, you agree with me.” Cherry smirked, but Delyth didn’t even crack a smile. All right, so much for that joke. “But moving on — you could always try to persuade your guy to come back here, you know. Your father’s an earl. And he’s a smart guy. Between his money, your brains, and his brains, you could come up with something, I’m sure.”
“Maybe …” But she still sounded unconvinced.
“Look, Delyth,” Cherry sighed. “I’m pretty sure that the problem you’re having with George is …”
She hesitated. Did she really want to say it — lay it right out and say it? That she thought Delyth’s problem was that she was focusing too much on the future and not enough on the present? She was trying so hard to make George her “forever” guy, her one and only, that she forgot about having fun with George in the here and now. Before she got this bee in her bonnet about marriage, Delyth would have never picked a fight over the “implications” of what George said about wizards and mundanes marrying. She might have even agreed, if he put it in the right way — certainly if he was talking about a forced marriage between two parties who really didn’t think much of each other to start with. But now Delyth was trying to think of them as “forever,” and if every little thing he said was analyzed to see how it would bear on their “future” together …
Yes, it was all very clear to Cherry. The question — how to tell that to Delyth?
She hadn’t the least idea. So she did the next best thing: gave up and started to push her chair out. “Come on.”
“Huh? Where are we going?”
Delyth hesitated … but as if to prove that the marriage bug hadn’t sucked out all her brains (only those she used when George was in the picture), she got up and followed Cherry. Good to see that she still had a sense of adventure.
They went down the steps, and from there it wasn’t far to the bar. Cherry slid onto a stool, and so did Delyth. Amazing — she had brightened up already. And she didn’t even know what Cherry had planned!
Delyth signaled to the barmaid. “I’ll have a –“
“Whoa, easy, girl. Let the expert order first.” She turned to the barmaid. “I’ll have a double frosty walrus, on the rocks. And she’ll,” Cherry pointed to Delyth, “have a single one …” She hesitated. “Delyth, rocks or no?”
“Frosty walrus?” Delyth squealed. “You’re ordering a frosty walrus for me? But I thought you said it put hair on your chest!”
“Oh, it will, and that’s why you’re getting a single one. You’ll be able to pluck ’em out real easy. But rocks or no?”
“Rocks!” Delyth called, and giggled. “I’ll have what you’re having.”
“No, you’ll have a single one. You have to work your way up to the double.” Cherry winked. “Well, you heard the lady,” she added to the barmaid, who clucked her tongue but went to work on the drinks.
“A frosty walrus!” Delyth repeated. “I can’t believe you think this is a good idea!”
“What can I say, my dear — you’ve proven yourself ready for it.”
Delyth cackled and rubbed her hands in anticipitory glee … and Cherry, she focused her mind on other problems. Like how she was going to get Delyth home after this without getting them both in trouble.
But that was all right. That was a manageable problem, a solvable one. Getting Delyth to see sense about George …
Well, that one was simply beyond Cherry’s ken.