EPISODE 48: DECLARATIONS

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Alinore Valmont. Venday, Taurus 8th, 2348. 5:52 AM. Athenaeum (Girls Dorm — Yew).

Lin woke up glad and happy on the last day of the end of year festival. She had been back on campus for three days, but she was still high on the relief of independence. I feel like I can breathe again.

After the terrorist attack on the stadium, and the lightway bombing attempt that followed—a headline that seemed to grow more convoluted with each passing day—the Athenaeum had closed its campus. Declarations, graduation, and the festival had been pushed back by three weeks as the masters repaired the damage done to the campus, and to parents’ trust.

Lin’s mother had spent the interim trying to persuade her to bow out of the Athenaeum after declaring a Discipline. It was a common enough practice; private sector companies working in exempt magic and universities alike prized students who bowed out of the Athenaeum gracefully. Lin had never been more insulted, and by the final week of the hiatus, she communicated with Mirian almost exclusively through slammed doors, curt, single-word answers, cold stares, and caustic silence.

I’m having the last laugh. Today’s the day when I declare Peacekeeping as my Discipline. I can’t wait to see mom’s expression when I earn Prota—or, at the very least, First Defteros. But first thing’s first…

—8:05 AM. Athenaeum (Stadium)—

After their morning exercises—a constant even amidst celebrations—Lin and Pensey ate breakfast together and made their way to the newly repaired stadium, where graduating students’ theses defenses would be held.

Most undeclared students were more interested with the demonstrations, shops, and performances organized by the declared students. Artificers held a bazaar and the arcanists put on an Arcane Faire, as per usual. Animathurges did a live demonstration of ‘spinning’ fire anima from a glass forge oven. The leximancers were running a ‘restaurant,’ demonstrating what kinds of enchanted cuisines were possible with newly approved culinary magic, which struck Lin as something of a stretch. But how else are they supposed to show off exemptions in a way that won’t put people to sleep? Honestly, it’s the kind of thing that Pen would love.

Lin turned to her as they made their way to the stadium:

“Athren genuinely appreciates your support, but if there are other things you want to do at the festival you don’t have to—”

“Oh hush. I wouldn’t be a very good junior wife if I skipped my husband’s big moment.”

Lin giggled. Pensey made no effort to hide her infatuation with Athren, but when she flirted, it was at once overblown and without expectation. Athren answered her with affectionate teasing. Lin liked to believe that if Pen had been born older, or if Athren was younger, there could be a chance between them. To her eye, they had remarkable chemistry. But I’m an ass at romance, so what the hell do I know?

Athenon and Mirian met Lin and Pensey at the entrance of the stadium with basic pleasantries. The air between Lin and her mother seemed to buzz with friction, but they managed to avoid an outright fight in the time it took them to find their seats.

Same stands we watched the kumite from three weeks earlier. Lin felt a pang of annoyance and regret. She was livid when the masters informed her that the Final Match in the Chirothecam’s kumite had been cancelled. The fight is supposed to factor into class rankings! And I was looking forward to throwing down with Matthews, especially after seeing how easily he dealt with… Lin couldn’t remember for a second. Drav. He fought Drav. The specifics were hazy in hindsight, but she knew both fighters had acquitted themselves well.

The rectangular arenas that had been marked out on the stadium’s court for the kumite had been replaced by a circular stone dais with a twenty-five-foot radius in the center of the court.

Each Discipline required students to submit a thesis for graduation, which always entailed a written paper, and a “practical defense.” In the case of Peacekeeping, practical defenses entailed a simultaneous argument and a fight. Eight masters would interrogate the aspirant while testing their combat skills. The defense only lasted five minutes long, and was mostly a formality—Lin had never heard of an aspirant being denied graduation for a poor defense—but there were a number of unspoken rules that governed the defense’s etiquette.

If a master was knocked off the dais, they could no-longer attack or question the defending aspirant. Similarly, if the Aspirant managed to strike a clear, “killing blow” with their blunted weapon of choice, the master also had to yield. Usually, students targeted masters known for asking particularly devastating questions to take them off the board, and then fended off the remaining masters while delivering their argument.

Once a student attempted to eliminate more than four masters, however, the tone of the exchange would shift. Eliminating all eight masters was known as a perfect defense, and it had been at least forty years since a student managed it. Athren told Lin he was undecided but considering making the attempt.

The theses panel consisted of four masters and four active keepers—all men. Which is hardly surprising. Peacekeeping has always been and always will be a boys club. Still, Lin was disappointed to hear that Fitz wouldn’t be able to participate due to the injuries she sustained in the terrorist attack on campus. I’ve always wanted to see her cut loose.

Most of the defenses were highly ritualized. The masters pulled their punches when the aspirants answered their questions satisfactorily, and attacked in sequence out of consideration. Defenses were organized according to class rankings. And around the midway point, there was a tonal shift in the defenses. Less turn taking between master and aspirant. Martial mistakes and poor responses were punished severely. The more advanced students went on the offensive eagerly and dethroned certain masters early.

None of the students were ejected from the Dais, but some defenses were rougher to watch than others. It was pretty clear that one of Athren’s buddies had spent the night drinking or something, and he was still feeling it when the teachers started to question him. He sobered up pretty quickly, at the expense of three powerful blows to the head in sequence.

Finally, it was time for the main event. Athren rose from the bench. He had chosen a blunted but otherwise standard issue amagiate saber as his weapon of choice from the narrow pool of options; mostly blades and sticks, or sorcerous foci. Lin had tried to persuade him to go for something flashy, like paired swords, or a sword-staff, or… anything other than the most boring option. Guess I couldn’t sway him.

“Mister Valmont. Are you ready to defend?” Headmaster Faulkner asked. As with the kumite, he sat at a row of chairs in between the dais and the stands, along with Athren’s mentor.

“Yes, Headmaster Faulkner. I am,” Athren said.

“Begin,” Faulkner said.

Athren slowly unsheathed his saber as he began his introduction.

“To the Peacekeeping Council and Academic Faculty of the Arroyo Athenaeum, I present the following thesis: Proposed Revisions to Amagiate Intervention in Asfalis Conflict Zones.”

“What problems does your thesis address?” Master Hemmingway asked, hands capping his staff.

“The Amagium oversees and mediates asfalis military exchanges with Judges. But most judiciary interventions result in immediate lethal force with considerable collateral damage. Putting aside the considerable physical and psychological harm, the current system is also eroding the Amagium’s credibility.”

As Athren spoke, the other judges started to circle him. Master Hawthorne was the first to strike, launching a dashing slash at Athren’s back. As he attacked, he asked:

“Please elaborate.”

Athren parried the blow—surprisingly narrowly—but he kept his saber locked firm against Hawthorne’s. The two broke away, then Athren lunged and started to fence against Hawthorne as he spoke, grinning all the while:

“To begin with, we appear callous and hypocritical. This isn’t a subjective opinion; an Erician continental survey recently determined that Judges and military intervention were the most often-cited causes for distrust and disapproval of the Amagium.”

With a flourish, Athren disarmed Hawthorne, and added:

“See the figures on page twenty-two.”

Hawthorne scoffed and withdrew to retrieve his sword. Simultaneously, Hemmingway attacked from the opposite direction with a broad swing of his quarter staff, and asked:

“What is your proposed solution for this problem?”

“My solution is three-fold,” Athren said. He parried the blow with the flat of his blade, used the impact to help him pivot, and brought the edge of his practice blade down on Hemmingway’s shoulder. The master staggered back. Athren pressed his advantage as he continued his argument:

“First: The Amagium should establish battlefield-specific peacekeeping ventures in conflict zones with a priority of policing license-cracking. If we cut off the belligerents’ access to cracked licenses, we cut off their access to restricted magic. Attack the disease, not the symptoms.”

Hemmingway was on the defensive and only half-blocking Athren’s slashes and thrusts.

“I assume you’ve proposed a budget for those expenses?” Master Hawthorne asked, popping in again. He closed the gap to Athren shockingly quickly and struck him in the jaw with his saber’s pommel.

Athren rolled with the impact and the two started trading blows. Both fighters used their sabers and scabbards in tandem, clubbing and blocking each other.

“See the figures on pages one-hundred thirty to one-hundred thirty-five.”

“Proceed,” Hawthorne grunted in retreat.

Two of the keepers stepped in, taking Athren in a pincer attack, both using staffs. Athren parried their incoming attacks with sword and scabbard, then ducked and retreated laterally so that they had to come at him in sequence. This is so cool! It was a totally different level than any of the other defenses and Lin was in awe. She knew her brother was setting Athenaeum records left, right, and center, but she rarely had the opportunity to see him in action.

Athren continued to argue his point:

“My second proposal is that we demand greater accountability from all of our existing Judges. We need to overhaul and enforce existing incident reporting protocols. Mandatory body camera footage. Mandatory incident reporting on every casualty. If the Amagium is going to continue to mediate conflicts with lethal force, the world deserves to know exactly why.”

“Come now, Athren,” Hemmingway said and used his quarterstaff to pull Athren into a chokehold from behind. The master continued speaking as he pulled the shaft against Athren’s throat. “In a combat situation it can be impossible to act as a journalist and cite each intervention. Split decisions mean the difference between life and death.”

“That’s true,” Athren rasped. Then he used sorcery to abruptly duck, flinging Hemmingway forward with an aikido-esque, over-the-shoulder throw. The master’s back struck the dais heavily, winding him. Athren whipped the tip of his saber just shy of Hemmingway’s neck. Hemmingway slapped the stone in surrender.

“That brings me to my third point,” Athren said, turning to face the remaining seven masters.

“We need to overhaul how Judges are trained to act in the field. Lethal force should become a last resort, rather than a de facto response. Most illicit uses of magic on battlefields are for self-preservation. Barrier fields. Reflex enhancers. They don’t fit Homer’s definition of malefaction. It is not magic intended to cause harm.”

The four peacekeepers on the panel began to close in on Athren as Hawthorne started a contract.

“Support magic on a battlefield enables hostilities to escalate and becomes accessory malefaction,” Hawthorne said as he continued to cast.  “And you know, relaxing restrictions on battlefield magic is a slippery slope—”

“No,” Athren said, his voice surprisingly vicious. He spun and threw his scabbard like a javelin, past the four keepers circling him. The shaft struck Hawthorne in the forehead with a wince-inducing crack. The blow was decisive enough to disrupt his contract, which spectacularly miscast and ejected him from the dais.

Two down! Come on brother, you can do this.

The encroaching keepers paused for a moment, reassessing the situation. Athren turned to the broader audience and held his arms open as he continued to argue his case:

“We do not know. We make that argument because we are terrified of what could happen. And I won’t argue against it, because this isn’t about hypotheticals. But my thesis is not proposing new exemptions. I am saying that Judges should always attempt to restrain and detain these ‘accessory malefactors,’ and when circumstances permit, true malefactors as well.”

The keepers attacked Athren simultaneously, a vicious maw of sabers and staves. In the space of a second, Athren cast a reflex-enhancing contract, and seemed to vanish. Lin could only track the after images of his movements, and watched with guilt and envy. He jumped over the closest opponent, and proceeded to spin around them in a circle, ‘cutting’ each keeper in sequence with his blunted blade. Each stroke was a quick, impeccably clean line against their necks. And he spun from one target to the next like clockwork artifice.

The stadium collectively gasped. It took all of Lin’s self-control to avoid cheering, which would break decorum. Holy shit that was cool! That was so cool. He needs to teach me how to do that. Out of the entire Valmont family, he probably has the strongest gift for quick casting. I don’t think I could do that even if I took a double dose of Focaline.

As the stupefied peacekeepers left the dais, Athren turned to address the audience again:

We are not at war. The belligerents are not our enemies. If we are willing to give ourselves the authority to end their lives, we must be willing to assume greater risks to preserve them.”

The remaining two masters, Eliot and Bierce, sized up Athren and Lin sized up the masters.

Eliot was a relatively young—or young looking—member of San Francisco’s Athenaeum filling in for Master Fitzgerald. He had a small, wiry frame. From what Lin observed from the preceding matches, he had a talent for a wide variety of magic, though most of it seemed, ‘tricky’ in nature. He couldn’t blast down steel doors, or call lightning to smite his foes from on high, but he could make one man believe he was fighting twelve.

Bierce lay at the opposite end of the spectrum. As with Eliot, the Arroyo Athenaeum had borrowed him from another campus to stand in for Master Elroy, who was still in critical condition after the egregoric attacks. Bierce stood slightly taller than average and had reasonably broad shoulders, but he projected a towering presence with thick urdic pressure. Each of his movements were powerful and self-assured, like a lion. And his magical skills lay with kinetic sorcery; barriers, bindings, and telekinesis. Lin always thought he was similar to Dravnik Sokolov. Though not as handsome.

“Mister Valmont, what is the purpose of your thesis assignment?” Eliot asked, and removed his small, circular glasses, which he slid into his uniform.

Athren’s smile flickered slightly. Bierce cracked his neck from side to side and drew his weapon; a blunted cleave blade rather than the officer-standard saber. Lin felt a chill. Be careful. This is some kind of trap.

“Graduation theses are intended to test an aspirant’s ability to contribute to their respective discipline as a fully fledged member of the Amagium, Master Eliot.” Athren said dutifully, pacing the dais so he could keep both Bierce and Eliot in his sightlines.

“All of the arguments you’ve made so far have been made by other people. Many of them asfalis detractors. Tell me. What new knowledge or insights pertaining to magic does your thesis contribute to the Amagium?”

Athren answered without hesitation:

“I am not merely proposing policy changes, Master Eliot. I detail the curricular changes I am suggesting for Judges. I include benchmark models for assessment. I have three proprietary contracts I have developed to aid in non-lethal apprehension of—”

Eliot disappeared. Athren raised his sword and went quiet.

“Do continue,” Eliot’s voice said.

Athren smirked.

“In brief, Master Eliot, I didn’t treat this as a school assignment. I did everything I could to make my thesis an actionable roadmap for change within the Athenaeum. It is an earnest proposal. Not a science fair project.”

Bierce moved—far faster than Lin would have expected, fast enough to take Athren by surprise, despite his contract-enhanced reflexes—and swung his cleave blade in a vicious horizontal swipe. Athren blocked the attack with his saber, but the blow knocked him into a reverse summersault, and he jumped to his feet only a few inches away from the edge of the dais. Bierce grinned and called:

“Sounds like you should apply directly for an education position, Valmont. Why bother playing at Peacekeeping?”

Lin scowled and looked to see how the others took the comment. Pensey was puff-cheeked with anger. Her mother wore her typically inscrutable expression, which meant she was either bored, or trying not to look like she was intensely focused on the match. But Athenon wore an odd smile that struck Lin as ugly. Amusement, tempered by a hint of anger. And I guess it makes sense. Athren is criticizing your policies.

“My father always said that those with gifts have an obligation to use them to make a better world,” Athren said, grinning.

Athren used the second of the two anima he was permitted to bring into the match. The animus was metaphysic—which struck Lin as somewhat strange. Eliot—wherever he was hiding—and Bierce, were also perplexed enough to let Athren cast his spell unmolested.

There was a snapping sound, an explosion of displaced wind, and Athren stood beside Bierce. The larger man made a hacking noise, crumpled, and fell to the floor of the dais wheezing. The entire stadium went quiet as the grave. Lin’s eyes bugged.

What the fuck just happened.

Piecing the evidence together, she guessed that Athren had reversed the grip on his saber, somehow closed the thirty feet of distance between himself and Bierce, and thrust its square-capped pommel into Bierce’s solar-plexus. But I didn’t see it happen and I was watching. Closely.

“He compressed the reflex spell,” Pensey said, awed.

Lin’s mouth made a wide ‘oh’ shape as she understood. Pen was always better at theory than me. Metaphysic anima were useful for changing the parameters of existing magic; usually to make a spell more specific and nuanced than a single contract would allow. They were also frequently used in counter magic. But Athren had made the spell speeding his reflexes and muscles more intense; rather than lasting several minutes, the metaphysic animus allowed him to use up all of the spell’s power in the space of a second.

Athren stood, breathing heavily over the defeated master.

“That’s not an answer to Master Bierce’s question,” Eliot’s voice said. “But it was an impressive rebuttal of sorts.”

Athren grinned again and searched the dais for the source of Eliot’s voice.

“I believe in the lessons my father taught me. I have gifts that can only be completely expressed by fighting malefaction. And I mean to devote my life to that cause.” Athren cast his saber to the side, and knelt to pick up Bierce’s cleave blade. “But I also believe in scrutinizing that cause.”

He held out the enormous blade with one arm, seemingly getting a sense of its weight and balance, though he was clearly straining at supporting its weight. Lin recalled that Athren hated using huge weapons. “If you can’t swing it quickly without your wyrd, it’s worse than dead weight. And I prefer to have my wyrd ready when I need it.”

“To me? That entails owning up to what you do wrong, and doing better in the future.”

As he spoke, Athren swung the enormous sword with one hand, covering a large swath of the arena. Then he took another step with another slash, covering another near-quadrant of the space, developing a sort of drunken, spinning rhythm. Some people in the audience started laughing. Athren, what the hell are you doing? You look like a drunk.

Lin got her answer as soon as she thought the question. After Athren’s fourth swing of the cleave blade, something brushed against his dropped saber which rattled against the dais. Athren spun with the arc of his cut, raised his free right hand, and fired a powerful kinetic burst at torso level.

There was a grunt as the spell hit, and something thudded against the edge of the dais. The invisibility contract Eliot had used melted away in patches, either because he had dismissed the spell, or his body was so shocked that it dislodged the spell from his wyrd. Athren strode forward, now wielding the cleave blade with both hands.

“Any further questions?” He asked. 

Eliot scoffed and slapped the stone in disbelief.

Lin was the first to start clapping. In seconds, the entire stadium was awash with applause.

—4:31 PM. Grand Arroyo (Rose Bowl)—

Faulkner’s interminable speech—made longer by a section on Athren’s Perfect Defense—finally came to a close, and the recognition ceremonies began. Pensey glanced at Lin and wiggled her eyebrows. Lin grinned, butterflies in her stomach. Will I be our Prota? There were other contenders. The girl sitting next to her for one. But I like my odds.

“Among our declarants, we recognize the Class of 2355’s Trites; the sixth, fifth, and fourth highest honored students. Kezman Phillips, step forward and claim your title of Third Trite.”

Kezman! Really! Kez was a bookish, somewhat slender student who had struggled with the martial component of the curriculum. And unlike graduation, declaration honors take both martial and academic scores into account. He must have worked hard in the Chirothecam. Good for him! He’s an aspiring Arcanist if I remember correctly.

“Our Second Trite. Levahn Crest.”

Ah! Leva. He’s…an interesting one. Animathuge. A handsome boy with greenish-gold hair stood and clenched his fists in triumph. Half-fae. I think he might be gay? But I heard he was dating Clessa Perkins. Hmm. Well, maybe he’s Bi? I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m talking about.

“And First Trite goes to Pensey Hayes.”

Pensey’s face lit up like fireworks but Lin couldn’t hide her horror. What the hell? Who could have beaten her for Defteros? Vetha elbowed Lin in the side, and she belatedly cheered and hugged Pensey.

“Can’t believe it?” Pensey whispered.

“No! You were robbed,” Lin said, voice hoarse.

Pensey pulled away and rolled her eyes to dismiss Lin.

“See you on stage!” Pensey said.

“Now. Selecting this year’s Defterolepta was… one of the hardest decisions our masters and administrators have ever faced. Both of these exemplary students would surely be our Prota in any other year. They have mentored younger students, challenged their upperclassmen, and already possess the bearing of Aspirants deep into their declared disciplines. In the end, we are proud to recognize our Second Defteros: Alinore Valmont.”

Lin’s jaw dropped. Third place?! Vetha, again drew her out of her seat in a hug, trying to obscure her expression from the inevitable cameras. She whispered something that Lin didn’t really hear and she let go, Lin was still stunned. Through the haze of the applause, she spied Pensey on stage—also stricken white—but quickly cheered wearing a pleading expression for Lin to do the same. Lin put on a shaky smile, tried to clench her eyes against tears, and walked to the stage.

I can’t catch up now. I can’t outperform Athren. She used her wyrd to keep her face from faltering. Cohort Prota. Kumite Champion. Perfect Defense. And Valedictorian. I have no doubt.

“Now, we call our First Defteros: Hace Matthews, to the stage.”

Again, Lin was stunned. Wait! Then who the hell is Prota? Hace was always my competition. His combat record is roughly the same as mine. He scored at the top of the labyrinth. His performance in class is a little behind mine though.

“Despite the challenge our Defterolepta presented us with, the Class of 2355 was blessed with a clear Prota. A student sure to shape the future of the Amagium as a whole. Apart from his peerless academic performance, quick aptitude for magic, and tremendous athletic growth, this student’s volunteer work at Remington Memorial has helped save lives, mend wyrds, and comfort people in times of dire need.”

Oh. Oh! Of course.

“It is an honor and pleasure to pronounce Glem Grayson Hughes the Prota of Class 2355.”

Good for him. Lin decided immediately. I can train proudly under Prota Hughes. But… One thought ate at Lin as she applauded and cheered. What would have been different if they held the final match of the Chirothecam? If I won… She stole a glance at Hace, and was surprised to find that he was looking back at her with an equally serious expression. They both seemed surprised, put on business-like smiles, and went back to cheering and waving at the crowd.

—|—

The rest of the pomp and circumstance played out like Lin expected. Their cohort declared themselves, discipline by discipline. Pensey practically jumped onto the stage when they put the call out for Leximancers. And then it was finally time for aspiring Keepers to step up. Hace Matthews, Alinore Valmont, Zaire Aoyama, Dravnik Sokolov, Vetha Smith, and Azmuir Stillman, were the first six among fifteen total students who swore themselves to peacekeeping. After, graduating Keeper aspirants—now wearing their black uniforms—distributed Keeper aspirant pins. Lin made sure she received her pin from her brother: a downward facing blade beneath two crossed keys. He winked at her. She winked back.

Next, it was the graduates’ turn. They came up discipline by discipline, swore their oaths, and traded their brassy aspirant licenses for the amagiate licenses of their discipline. Lin watched the new Keepers clasped their silver vambraces around their wrists with reverential hunger. And finally, the end of the graduation announced Athren as the Valedictorian of the Cohort of 2348.

—7:14 PM. Brookside (Valmont Estate)—

Lin tried not to sulk. She had vowed to enjoy tonight’s party. I can finally wear an upper classman’s dress uniform, so I don’t have to worry about looking pretty to my mother’s specifications any more. And honestly, third place out of one hundred twenty-seven isn’t that bad.

“You’re sulking,” Carroll said.

Lin hadn’t even noticed his approach.

“You’ve also been standing at attention on this balcony overlooking the dance floor for about five minutes. It’s rather ominous from below. People are beginning to talk.”

“They are not!” Lin protested. “Wait, are they?”

She realized that she had, in fact, been standing with her arms folded behind her back, legs in a wide stance. And she couldn’t remember how long she had been standing that way. Embarrassment seared her cheeks. Carroll grinned, pleased to have gotten her goat. Lin deflated and leaned on the rail. Carroll leaned on it next to her, and fished the crystal chess queen out of his pocket, studying it as if he couldn’t recreate the thing from memory to micron.

“There he goes playing with his piece in public again,” Lin said, snorting at herself.

“Lin!” Carroll said sharply.

She stuck her tongue out and winked. He surrendered by way of chuckling, and presented her with the queen.

It had become something of a ritual between the two of them. Every time she advanced to a new zenith, he would offer the queen to her. She never seemed to make any progress, but she didn’t believe for a second that Carroll didn’t know the solution to the puzzle. Or else he wouldn’t be so certain that I can break it.

Lin focused her wyrd on the chess piece. Once again, she felt the incredible, oceanic depth and density of the magic within. She closed her eyes and decided to try a vision training method that Carroll had taught her only recently. “Metaphor is at the root of most magic, because what is metaphor if not another form of sympathy? The more metaphors you can establish to link to a spell, the easier the magic will flow.”

Lin decided to meet the spell halfway, envisioning herself on a raft in an endless sea. And the magic responded. Powerfully. She could feel the curved contours of the lashed timber beneath her feet, and the steady swell of the sea underneath. She could smell the briny, abruptly cold air. Something beckoned her to the edge of the raft.

She crept forward, no longer aware of herself in her home. The clouds above started to darken, and thunder crashed in the distance. These aren’t my metaphors anymore. Lin felt compelled to gaze into the water, despite dull and muted warnings from the more cautious parts of her brain. But the waves were opaque. Inscrutable.

She was about to look away when she felt an urdic swell. Something huge and tremendous, rapidly rising from the water, except it wasn’t just beneath her—oncoming jaws prepared to swallow her raft whole—it was all around her. Somehow inside her.

“Eep!”

Lin started back to reality, nearly fumbling the queen.

“Lin!” Carroll asked. “What happened? Are you alright?”

She shook her head.

“I’m fine. I think. I just… backed out. Are you sure this thing is safe, Master?”

Carroll opened his mouth and then closed it.

“I had no reason to think it dangerous… until now, maybe. What did you see, Lin?”

“I used the urdic visualization technique. And I was in an ocean. On a raft. And then something… It was like a leviathan. It nearly ate the raft. Do you think it’s a security feature of some kind?”

Carroll took a deep breath, concerned and seemingly confused.

“It’s possible. I think we’ve had enough chess for the night, at any rate.”

Lin passed the piece back to Carroll, nodding morosely. She turned and leaned on the balcony railing again, and sighed.

“Just another failure.”

“Pardon?”

“I didn’t make Prota. I didn’t even make First Deftero. I’m not keeping up my end of our deal.”

“Lin,” Carroll sighed. “Look at me.”

She looked up at him and her composure broke. Is he annoyed? Disappointed? No. He pities me. Jesus, I wish he was just mad instead.

“I never stipulated that you had to be a model Athenaeum student. We have our eyes on something bigger.”

Lin blinked.

“But Athren—”

“Yes, your brother is incredible, and he will go on to do great things, but I have every ounce of faith that you will surpass him. From where I am standing, you are right where you need to be.”

“Third place?” Lin asked.

“Would you prefer it were easier?” Carroll asked.

“No,” Lin said, sullen.

“If you didn’t have people pushing back, pushing to surpass you, I think your talents would develop slowly. I was actually worried about what I would do if you won Prota. You’d be insufferable, for one. You’d never listen to me again, for another.”

Lin swatted him in the shoulder.

“I am proud of you, Lin. And I am still counting on you.”

They hugged. And for a while, Lin felt better.

—8:38 PM—

Dinner was delicious; an absurd buffet with a carving station, seafood, and an open bar for those of age. Pensey even managed to drag her out to the dance floor, and for a few minutes, she was able to lose herself in the music.

But after working up a thirst and getting a refreshment, her frustrations caught up with her. Throughout the night, she had been stealing glances at Matthews, or rather, the First Defteros pin on his mantel. He caught her staring a couple times, and each time she chided herself. But as she sipped her drink, she looked again, only to see that he was staring at her this time. Shit. I’ve got to stop. The last thing I want to do is give him ideas.

Pensey returned from the dance floor, red-faced and giggling.

“You done dancing for the night?” She asked, a touch disappointed.

“I think so,” Lin said, smiling faintly.

Pensey plopped into the chair next to her and smiled wickedly:

“Maybe I should go tell Drav that you’re lonely.”

Lin gave her a sharp look and Pensey cackled. I will beat you stupid. She didn’t even notice that Matthews had approached the table until Pensey abruptly stopped laughing to look at him. He bowed at Lin and asked:

“May I have the honor of a dance, fellow Defteros?”

Lin was dumbstruck. Ahh shit. Nice job, Lin. This is what you get for your not-so-furtive glances. She pointedly ignored Pensey, whose wyrd fluttered to life next to her like a storm of butterflies. I really do not want to dance, fellow Defteros. But he was probably trying to be polite, and she didn’t want to make a scene, especially now that they had been singled out as role models for their cohort. She forced a smile, did a stiff curtsy and followed him onto the dance floor.

As soon as they reached the hardwood, the music switched from fun and up-tempo to something inescapably romantic. Christ. Now we’re supposed to stand here and sway for three minutes.

Matthews held her right hand with his left, and put his right hand on her waist. He was light on his feet, had excellent rhythm, and actually knew how to lead, but his touch was too light. Timid. He handled her like she was made of molten glass; caustic and fragile. Realizing that he was as uncomfortable as she was put her at ease somewhat, but also perplexed her. If you don’t want to dance either, why the hell did you ask me?

“I watched your brother’s defense,” Matthews said, trying to cut the awkwardness.

“O-oh?” Lin was surprised, but appreciative.

 “What he did with that metaphysic anima… my jaw dropped. Valedictorian too. Guy’s already a legend.”

“Yeah. He is. I’m really proud of him.”

They swayed in hellish silence for another few seconds while Lin tried to think of something to say. Finally, she came up with a topic:

“You’re pretty light on your feet. Who taught you to dance?”

Hace pinkened slightly.

“My mom taught me the basics when I was little,” he said. “Our opus seeking classes filled in the gaps. What about you?”

“My mom started sending me to cotillion when I was four,” Lin said.

She suddenly felt hollow again. Today was the day I was supposed to prove my mother wrong. They had barely spoken since the ceremony. She had told Lin that she was “very proud,” but it came across as lip service, and most of her attention was focused on Athren. She knew a talk was coming. She could feel it circling her, like the leviathan-like monster she had encountered in Carroll’s queen.

“Is it true you lost a tooth fighting Zaire?” Hace asked to break up the silence.

“Oh, yeah,” Lin said, snickering at herself slightly. “He got me good with one of his hooks and knocked a molar loose. Small miracle he didn’t break my jaw.”

Hace winced.

“I think I remember the hit. Drav did a number on my ribs, but I think they’ve healed by now. Half-fae bounce back quick.”

“How’s Master Fitz doing? I heard she was injured by the egregores.”

“Heh. She’s mad as hell. Hates being an invalid. But the surgery to repair her Achilles’ went well, and she says she’ll be back on her feet before the end of the summer term.”

“That’s good. She’s a good teacher.”

Hace looked like he was going to say something else about his mentor, but changed his mind at the last minute:

“Uh, listen. I’m not sure how to say this but… I just needed to tell you that the class rankings don’t sit well with me.”

“What?” Lin asked.

“I don’t feel like I earned First Defteros,” Matthews said. His face was solemn to the point of grimness. “We never got to compete directly in the kumite. And if the decision was so hard for the proctors, they should have used the finals as a tiebreaker.”

Lin felt her cheeks pinken and winced inwardly. Am I that obvious?

“It’s fine. Really,” she said, trying to sound bright and breezy, like Pensey. “I’m sure you outperformed me in the maze. I mean, you have lots of practice with pocket dimensions, right? It sounds just like your condition.”

“It was similar,” he agreed. “But that’s just another reason why this feels wrong. The deck was stacked in my favor, and I want an honest competition.”

Lin didn’t know what say. Finally, she sighed in concession and nodded:

“I would have liked to face you too. But not much we can do about it now.”

“Fucking terrorists, right?”

“Indeed,” Lin agreed.

When the song ended, Matthews pulled away and bowed again. Lin curtsied to excuse herself. That was less painful than it could have been. But she panicked slightly when he started to follow her. Now what?!

“Let’s talk to our masters,” he said. “Or Faulkner. Maybe we can agree to get them to hold a match.”

Lin was too puzzled to come up with a reply. Matthews continued:

“I don’t want to feel like a fraud for the next seven years of my life, and right now, that’s all I see when I look at this pin,” He tugged at his mantle next to the First Defteros Pin. “And I don’t want you to feel like you’ve been cheated.”

Why do you care how I feel? But Lin nodded in agreement.

“Alright. Maybe I can persuade Master Carroll to help argue our case.”

Carroll was probably the most popular Master on campus, and Matthews was a favorite of his.

“That’s a good idea. Let’s go talk to him.”

“Right now?” Lin asked. It struck her as impertinent somehow. She suspected he would tell them to try and enjoy the party. But it’s eating me up. And if it’s bothering him too….

“No time like the present, right?” he asked.

“I guess not,” Lin agreed.

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