Palamedes only signed up for the app because Cam had told him to.
“You need a distraction,” she’d said. This might have been true, but that didn’t mean he appreciated it. Sometimes what you needed wasn’t what you wanted, and what you wanted was a good wallow.
He signed up for the app anyway.
They were sprawled across the couch. Palamedes had folded himself crosslegged and gradually over the course of the evening Cam’s feet had somehow wound up in his lap. He’d been working himself into a froth about his lecture that day—because it had been poorly structured and therefore uninformative, and just because he’d come prepared didn’t mean some poor sap in the back row didn’t deserve a chance to pick up at least something— and Cam had cut him off.
“From class? I don’t think—”
“From Dulcinea,” Cam said, because Cam never minced words.
“I mean it, sir.” Sir. Cam started calling him that as a joke, back when they’d formally been bonded as necromancer and cavalier. It had stuck, and she pulled it out for anything, whenever she felt like it, but sometimes she said it with a certain tone, such that it meant something in particular.
Right now Pal thought it might mean dumbass.
“Sorry,” he said. “Am I that bad?”
“She was so nice about it,” he said. “She said she wanted to stay friends.”
“I just… What do I do with that?”
“You stay friends.”
“Yes, but—until then. Until I can.”
Cam paused. Carefully, she ventured, “You could find someone else.”
Pal looked up at her. Her eyes on him were very dark. She was pressing her lips together.
“Are you plenty of fish in the sea -ing me?”
“No, sir,” Cam said, and hesitated. Then she said, “You could try dating apps.”
Palamedes raised an eyebrow.
Cam raised both her eyebrows back.
Palamedes frowned at her.
Cam tipped her head to one side. The choppy edge of her dark bobbed hair feathered against her chin and along her neck. The lamplight caught it, giving it a soft halo, and the arc of the light continued along her neck to her collarbone and down.
“Fine,” said Palamedes. “But I’ll be blaming you when it all goes horribly wrong.”
“Of course, sir.”
So he opened up the app store on his phone and navigated to the damn dating app.
The icon was dark purple and white, with a stylized S that ended in a lensflare at the top and bottom. Sparklr—where sparks fly! Palamedes was intensely skeptical, but Camilla assured him that she’d seen at least two advertisements for it at the bus stop, so how bad could it be.
Pal thumbed at the download button, watching the little loading circle fill up, and wondered what exactly his life was coming to, that these were the lengths he was willing to go to to entertain his cavalier. Username, email, password—he generated the username and password randomly, then logged all three in his password manager. Then the screen changed to Profile Setup , and he paused.
“It wants a photo.”
“They usually do.”
“I don’t have any photos.”
“That’s not true,” Cam said, sitting up. Fluidly, with deliberate purpose, she reached out with one lean, toned arm and plucked the phone from his grip before he could stop her. She stretched out, settling more decisively across the entire length of the couch, leaned back against her armrest, and started to search. After a moment she pulled out her own phone and started to flip through it. Which was fair. Cam was good at hanging back a half-step and capturing the moment. The majority of her phone’s memory was dedicated to photographs.
Palamedes chewed his lip doubtfully. After a moment, to fill the silence, he said, “You know sitting like that’s bad for your back.”
Cam’s eyes darted up to meet his. She gave him a look, and in that look was contained her entire opinion of his posture from the day they’d met up until the present.
Pal decided it would be in his best interest not to pursue that line of conversation any further.
There was a companionable silence in the living room then with Cam quietly flicking through something on Pal’s phone, then moving back to look at hers, comparing what were presumably photos. It was nice to see her comfortable, lounging in an old worn Canaan U fencing team T-shirt. She’d seemed wound a bit more tightly lately. When he’d asked, Cam had said that her coursework was starting to pile up.
They’d reached that point in the term, Palamedes supposed. He could certainly stand to blow off steam—even moreso now, after Dulcinea. Maybe the dating app wasn’t so terrible an idea.
“There.” Cam held out the phone to him.
It was… good. Somehow. Definitely better than he’d expected. Cam had found a few photos of him that didn’t look too gawky and strange— one of him dressed nicely for debate, one of him biting his lip in studious focus over what he knew had to be a dissected vole just out of frame, and—
Palamedes knew that the probability of catching him smiling was close to nil on a good day. It was maybe something to work on, but he’d always had better projects that took priority. But the last photo...
It was good. It was a shot of him seated at a study table in front of one of the big picture windows in the main library, limned by what he thought might be the glow of a setting sun just out of frame. He was the only one in it--either it’d been taken just of him or, more likely, Cam had cropped out everyone else. She had caught him off-guard in the shot: his head was tipped back, and he was laughing.
Palamedes had several questions, which ranged from when did you take this to how did you take this to maybe why did you take this? But there were sayings about looking gift horses in the mouth, and besides, it wasn’t the first time Cam had produced a surprise array of candids. She’d managed a genuinely lovely collage for Gideon’s birthday. Instead he went with, “You really think I should show off being a nerd, don’t you.”
“People should know what they’re getting into,” she said simply.
He frowned at her, and she flashed a narrow smirk, and then the evening had to devolve into moaning about readings and research groups. Pal filled out the rest of the profile in bits and pieces, during breaks in grading papers, and then he put his phone down and put the whole thing out of his mind.
It was a few days later when Palamedes decided he should probably quit being a child, confront his fears, and stop avoiding the dating app.
He’d holed up in his room to study, spreading all his notes out on the floor just the way he wanted them, but revising was proving unbelievably boring. At some point in the last week he’d gotten ahead of the unit on cardiovascular manipulation, but Professor Joy was one of those sorts who refused to post the resources for future units ahead of time. What he wanted to get to was cellular necromancy, and the way thanergy and thalergy might interact in the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, but no.
Palamedes rolled onto his back to stare up at the ceiling and groaned, pulling his phone out of his pocket. His thumb hovered over the purple and white icon, and then he chickened out and opened Instagram.
Instagram was a bit of an enigma to Palamedes, and not one he’d ever been deeply invested in solving. He was mostly there for Cam, who was in turn mostly there at the behest of Gideon, who’d insisted that Cam’s photography be shared with the internet and then made big sad eyes that looked like melted-down gold until Cam caved. They were two of the only three accounts he actually followed. Gideon, Cam, and…
A new photo had been posted on Dulcinea’s story. A sprawling field in some park, with the leaves hovering somewhere between blood red and dead brown, with the caption fresh air do care CATCHING SOME RAYS, then emojis of a sun, a pair of sunglasses, and a leaf. The edge of a lap blanket was just barely visible at the photo’s edge: she’d taken it sitting in her chair, looking out at the view.
She was doing well, then. More than well. She was happy. There were much more devastating things Dulcie could have posted.
For a half a second, Pal’s thumb hovered over the unfollow button. He pressed it.
Immediately he re-followed her; then he unfollowed her again. Then he hastily refollowed her, threw the phone across the bed, rolled over onto his stomach, and mashed his face into his pillow.
“Argh. Argh!” he said, because it seemed like a good verbalization of his feelings, and got a mouthful of pillowcase for his trouble.
All right. Cam had maybe had a point, that he needed a distraction.
Because Palamedes didn’t approve of self-pity, he forced himself to sit up on the bed, grab his phone, and close Instagram faster than he could second-guess himself. Navigating to the app, he checked his messages — a few spambots, but nothing else of note. The nearby profiles were vaguely interesting — a man with biceps probably bigger than Pal’s head, a woman with a spiky mohawk and about sixteen lip piercings. He hit the sparkle emoji to match with the woman with the mohawk, a person who’d put up three photos of themself playing guitar alongside one picture of just their cat, and a guy with chestnut, slicked-back hair with one curl hanging loose, an irritatingly defined sixpack (two shirtless pics and one gym photo), and a somehow-appealing pout.
To refresh himself, or because he was an idiot, Pal reopened his own profile just to compare. This was, he was aware, probably a mistake. The photo of him in the library was still… all right, but it was too easy to see his own awkward slouch over the lab bench and the ill fit of his suit jacket in the others. Under interests, he’d put topological resonance theory, researching thanergetic signature entropy, and reading. What a joke.
Then he threw his phone onto the bed and let his head fall back heavy against the rug with a thunk.
This is a stupid idea, Palamedes thought. He didn’t need to get over Dulcinea. Well, he did, but he didn’t need an extra social media profile and having to meet people to do it.
But Cam had asked him. Told him. And Cam wasn’t an idiot. Her ideas were generally sound.
He wouldn’t be able to grouse to her in person until after she’d gotten back from her tae kwon do club. Very unfair, to have a cavalier who did her own thing whenever she felt like it. An inconvenient nuisance. Unprofessional.
“Caaaaaaam,” Pal said at the ceiling. “Why would you do this to me.”
There was a notification sound from the bed. It sounded like twinkling windchimes.
Palamedes lifted his head up.
There was another.
He was on his feet pretty much instantly. The phone had bounced all the way to the pillows, but Pal had a long reach, and he snatched it up without thought.
Naberius Tern matched with you.
You have an unread message.
That seemed like a useful feature, Palamedes noted, the fact that your message notifications wouldn’t be visible to any random person who picked up your phone. Discretion was a virtue, probably. Naberius Tern — that was the brunette, the one with the abs and the pout. Pal swiped the message open.
As Palamedes watched, a little bubble popped up with three dots bouncing inside. It disappeared. Then it reappeared, bounced for about fifteen seconds, and disappeared again.
Just to make sure, Palamedes watched it a little longer, but it didn’t make a return. Finally he typed out, Hello. His thumb hovered over the send button. A quick addition— Hello. Nice to meet you.
Sure. Okay. Why not.
He pressed send.
Things went a bit downhill from there.
Naberius Tern, Palamedes discovered over the course of the next three hours, was a bad conversation in a tight shirt, and typed like he got fined for every punctuation mark. sup had been an inauspicious start to a truly arcane getting to know you, and Pal was dismayed to find himself making plans to get coffee “n chill” on that upcoming Saturday.
It wasn’t… inexplicable. It was just that the explanation was—
He was… this was different. He needed something different.
And it wasn’t a terrible idea. It couldn’t be. It was Cam’s.
So: Naberius Tern. Cocky, overly forward, a little vain. Confident, Palamedes decided, was a generous way to put it, and he was trying to be generous.
He was trying.
That Saturday, the very next day, Palamedes got ready to leave. He’d thrown on a slightly nicer relatively unwrinkled button-down and pants that didn’t have any bloodstains on them, and just gotten as far as hunting down his coat when Cam caught him by the shoulder.
“Hey,” she said, and then she didn’t say anything else.
Pal looked at her.
There was a hard set around Cam’s mouth, and a tightness to her shoulders. As a defense against the apartment’s drafty windows she’d wrapped herself up in what Palamedes was pretty sure was one of his old sweatshirts, though he wasn’t completely sure—at a certain point some clothes’ history could only be determined by who it fit better, and they both liked their clothes baggy. Finally, she continued, “Dulcinea—”
“It’s fine,” said Palamedes quickly. He didn’t want to talk about Dulcinea, potentially for the rest of time but definitely not right now, not with Cam, not when he was about to go on a date. New patterns. New choices. Not old habits or old crushes. “Trying something different, remember?”
Cam’s expression didn’t change. “I remember.”
She was still holding his shoulder, her grip steady and grounding. “I’ll be all right, Cam,” said Pal, and he was surprised to find that he felt pretty confident in that one. “See you later, okay?”
“Sure,” said Cam. And she let go.
The wind was sharp that afternoon, but that was just an incentive to speed up the already short walk to the coffeeshop. This was good—it meant Palamedes didn’t have much time to get into his own head about things. He knew how this would go: he’d meet up with someone, spend maybe forty minutes talking to them, and decide whether or not he wanted to do it again sometime. It would be almost trivially easy.
They’d settled on a place about ten minutes from the university, one Pal had only visited once or twice. Gideon had recommended it, but Palamedes wasn’t sure whether she liked it due to the quality of their coffee or the quality of their baristas. Gideon’s standards could be esoteric sometimes.
It was a small place, with glass windows that gave a good view of the interior, and they’d draped little twinkling lights around the edges of each one so that the whole storefront glowed with warmth. The air that blew out of the door when it swung open was hot and cinnamon-y. And framed in one windowsill—
Was Naberius Tern, stretched out in a chair with an arrogant, lazy grace, sipping something iced with a lot of whipped cream on top and playing what looked like a match-three game on his phone. He looked almost exactly like he had in his photos, right down to the hair, which seemed so coiffed he might’ve used papier mache. Even the curl looked artfully frozen in how it was placed. His clothes were—well, Palamedes didn’t really know enough about clothes to make any sort of judgment call, but he was wearing a white overshirt, sleeves rolled up to show off toned and tapered forearms, and a purple undershirt that seemed unnecessarily tight.
Palamedes stepped inside, and went over to the table. Maybe he should have held himself to a higher standard than no wrinkles, no bloodstains. But it was too late now. “Hello,” he said, holding out a hand. “Palamedes Sextus.”
Naberius Tern looked up from his phone, looked Pal over, and pursed his lips. “Bit late,” he said.
Palamedes raised an eyebrow. “Not really.” He’d made sure to leave a few minutes early, and he’d made good time. His hand hung in the air awkwardly, and Pal decided that he’d give Naberius about three more seconds before retracting it.
Naberius did, in the end, shake Pal’s hand, straightening up as he did so to a posture that seemed somehow trained to the point of effortlessness. “Naberius Tern,” he said. “Are you all set, then?”
Palamedes squinted at him.
Naberius let out an explosive sigh. “With your drink ,” he said, jerking his planed chin towards the counter. “Coffee.”
“No,” said Palamedes slowly. “I’m not. I’ll—be right back.” He dropped his coat onto the open chair and turned away, doing some quick calculations in his mind.
First: who started with that kind of attitude? What the fuck was up with that? If this was a joke, it seemed like an overly complicated waste of time on Tern’s part, which meant that it had to be… what?
And second: how long did he have to stay before he could truthfully tell Camilla that he’d at least made an effort?
“Small latte, please,” Palamedes told the barista, absently thumbing through his wallet. “No sugar.” Then he paused. In a slightly quieter voice, he said, “How long has he been here?”
The barista looked up and over his shoulder.
“In the purple.”
“Oh,” she said. “Er… I’d say we called his drink maybe fifteen minutes ago? Somewhere around there?”
Pal blinked. “All… right, then. Three fifty, right? Under the name Palamedes.”
“Got it, thanks. We’ll call you in a minute.”
Palamedes made his way back to the table. Naberius had already gotten his phone out again, and was once again absorbed in that colorful little game. “So,” said Palamedes as he sat, trying to wrap his head around fifteen minutes ago. He hadn’t gotten the time wrong. He knew he hadn’t. But Tern had beaten him here, more than. Why? “Nice to meet you.” Had Pal said that already? He couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter.
“Right,” said Naberius, locking his phone and dropping it onto the table. He took a long sip of his drink, once again surveying Palamedes. “Likewise.”
“How about,” Palamedes tried through gritted teeth, “you tell me a bit about yourself?”
Naberius Tern rolled his neck, shifting his shoulders in a way that put his deltoids and pectorals on considerable display. “Well,” he started, “there’s what’s in my bio, you know all that”—Palamedes tried to remember what was in Naberius’s bio, and came up with zodiac emoji???— “and I’m at the university, obviously. I’m doing the standard undergrad, but really I’m cav track—offhand specialty in the dagger. I’m actually a nationally ranked duelist in the Eastern Sector, you know?”
“Very impressive,” Palamedes said, without making much of an effort to make it sound as though he found it very impressive. Cam’s offhand was the dagger, he knew. She wasn’t nationally ranked, but she’d never seemed particularly interested in the sorts of competitions that would have brought her that attention. “What are you studying outside of the cav track?”
This gave Naberius a bit of a pause.
Palamedes admittedly didn’t know much about cavalier tracking at Canaan University—most of what Cam told him about actual swords went a bit over his head—but he knew it wasn’t considered… well, an actual major. It was a program, closer to… pre-law? Cam was majoring in biochemistry, for example, as a requirement for being at the university, but she wasn’t doing it for any particular love of biochem. It was all to facilitate swords.
“Art history,” Naberius said finally, “with a double in business.” His lip curled; this had evidently not been the question he’d wanted Palamedes wanted to ask.
“Interesting combination,” said Palamedes, just to be petty.
Naberius shrugged extravagantly. “It’s all right. Like I said, I’m really just here for the cavalier program—Canaan’s got some of the most elite trainers in the country. Do you know Pyrrha Dve?”
“No,” Palamedes said truthfully. The name sounded… familiar, maybe? But it would’ve only been in passing, if he’d heard it.
“She’s head of the department,” Naberius said, taking another sip of his drink. He looked more alert now; his eyes were brighter. Palamedes noted that, though they’d looked plain blue in all his photos, they were really a mottled blue-brown, like a planet seen from afar. “Cavalier to Gideon Twain—god, he should have been so lucky. She’s a legend. I’ll be cycled into her cohort next term.”
“Oh, Gideon,” said Palamedes. He knew Gideon, at least. “I had him for ThanMap last term.”
This was met with absolute silence from the other side of the table. Naberius stared at him.
“Thanergetic Manipulation and Channeling,” Palamedes specified. “Didn’t mean to use jargon.”
Again Naberius stared at him, gaze slightly uncomprehending. Finally he tossed his head. “You’re a necromancer, then?”
“Yes?” Palamedes frowned. “Why? Not what you expected?”
Naberius seemed to consider this for a second. For the third time, he looked Palamedes over; this time, he took his time about it. “That’s not a bad thing,” he said finally. The corner of his mouth quirked up in a smirk.
Ah. Right. Flirting. That was what they were here for.
Palamedes decided to hedge a bit. “Pyrrha Dve, then?”
This was the right call: Naberius grinned. “She defeated four opponents at once during a bout five or six years ago. Don’t know if you saw the footage, it went a bit viral”—(“I didn’t,” said Palamedes)—“but that was years after she was really great, too. Always been the best, it’s why I came here, but…” Naberius let out a low whistle. “Ten, twenty years ago? She didn’t lose a match until she was forty-six, and even then her opponent had to cheat.”
“Mm,” said Palamedes.
“Kicked her in the ankle, completely against regulation, and afterwards she conceded the match and said it was a good tactic.” Naberius frowned. “Totally unsporting, I’d’ve demanded a rematch then and there, but…”
“You like dueling, then?”
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m the best.” Naberius broke out in a very self-satisfied smile.
Since Pyrrha Dve apparently existed, Palamedes doubted that was the case, but it didn’t bear commenting on. “I don’t know much about it.”
“Not a lot of necromancers do,” said Naberius, sitting up attentively. A half a second too late, Palamedes realized he’d just opened the door to have sports explained to him. “It’s all down to tactics and form at the core, really—”
This continued. Palamedes absorbed most of the information dimly and from afar, occasionally filing away terms like derobement and second intention to ask Cam about later.
Naberius managed to fill another two minutes before the barista called Palamedes’ drink and Pal could insert a break into the conversation. As he walked over to the counter he took a deep breath and tried to assess the situation objectively.
On the plus side: Naberius was clearly passionate about his interests. He was well-informed, and if he was a little overenthusiastic about his own talent, he could at least attribute greatness to others too. When he was talking genuinely, his eyes lit up.
On the minus side: He’d managed to talk genuinely for a solid four minutes (Pal had kept an eye on the coffee shop’s wall clock) without asking any questions in response. He was egotistical. And even if he’d loosened up slightly now, he’d still started the date with whatever the hell that attitude had been.
On the… variable side? Naberius was hot. It was part of the reason Palamedes had put up with a four-minute monologue on the merits of various common and niche “foil grips”, whatever those were.
There was his hair, which had been gelled and shaped into a perfect wave, to a point that Naberius clearly knew flattered him. His shirt—shirts—which clung to his chest, and his arms. God, his arms…
Well. Naberius had good arms. That was simply a fact. Which made sense. He was a cavalier. Cavaliers, as a fairly universal rule, kept trim.
Palamedes hung back a minute with his drink, watching Naberius at the window table. He was gathering data.
Naberius didn’t seem too fussed by Pal’s extended absence; his little match-three phone game had made a reappearance. Whenever the door opened, a faint chill breeze would waft around the table, and he was starting to turn rosy. The light caught on the faint flexing of his forearm as Naberius picked up his drink and took a long sip, sitting back in his chair. He rolled his shoulders ostentatiously, toned muscles standing out as he flexed.
All right, Palamedes decided. The whole point of this experiment was spontaneity. Breaking out of a rut. Doing—something. He’d find something to enjoy in all this.
“Listen,” he said, sliding back into his seat. “D’you want to get out of here?”
Naberius looked up from his phone, pressing his lips tight together in indignation at being interrupted.
“Walk around,” Palamedes continued, not sure he’d been clear enough. “With our drinks, I mean.” He gestured with his cup. “And—end up somewhere?”
This hung in the thick cinnamon-scented air for a second. Naberius blinked at him for a second, mouth curling from a pout to the barest hint of a smile at the corner. He tipped his head, and—casually, off-hand, like he did this sort of thing all the time—he said, “I guess you could come back to mine.”