EPISODE 5: HAMMERS & SCALPELS

Alinore Valmont. Venday. Virgo 20th, 2344 AA. 3:02 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum.

“Alinore Valmont?”

Lin turned sharply to face the voice, only to find a portly man of average height in glasses. He had dun hair, gentle brown eyes, and wore the dark green robes of an Arcanist, though Lin noted the numerous pins attached to the mantel of his robes. He has licenses in multiple disciplines. The downward facing blade of the Peace Keeping Force, however, was absent from his collection.

He’s a researcher through and through.

“Yes?”  she asked, trying not to betray the cold coring her chest.

“My name is Lewin Carroll. I requested you as my protégé.”

“Oh. Yes, sir,” she said, but barely heard herself.

Shit! Fuck! Why? Why would they give me to this fat old scholar? Does my mother have something to do with this? Is this her attempt at having the last laugh? Lin shot a glance at the other two aspirants who were waiting with her—the chatty green-haired girl and her equally obnoxious redhead boyfriend—and she could see the pity plain on their faces. To hell with you and your condescension. Mind your own damn business.

Master Carroll put on an apologetic smile and gestured a polite invitation for her to follow him. He knows I don’t want this. Lin felt guilty for a half-second, knowing she was being impolite, but anger cinched her brow tight. Good. Better he knows where we stand from the start. 

Carroll was quiet as he led her out of the hall. There were no other students behind him, and he didn’t pause at any of the orientation groups. I’m alone? No other proteges? Why then? Why me?

“How are you feeling? Have they given you anything to eat since assessments ended?”

“I’m fine, sir. Thank you,” she said, voice golemic.

He gave her another sad, sighing smile.

“Fair enough. I’m feeling a bit peckish though. Would you mind if I stopped for some coffee and a sandwich?

Lin gestured acquiescence. Her fingers were crisp and polite, but she remained silent and her wyrd was muted. They exited the assembly hall into the late afternoon glare. He paused at the top of the building’s staircase. opened his mouth, and then closed it again, as if he were unsure how to proceed. Finally, he said:

“I am sorry, Miss Valmont. I know you must be disappointed.”

Lin opened her mouth to proffer some polite denial but the words came too slow. And then it was too late to cover herself. Damn it. It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Everything was going perfectly, and now it may as well be for nothing.

“I am going to become a Peacekeeper,” she said, at last.

“Like your brother and father, I know,” he said, smiling. After another second’s pause, he gestured for her to walk alongside him, rather than following as was customary for proteges. He spoke blithely, with the cadence of a practiced speech.

“Let me be the first to acknowledge: I am no warrior. I cannot offer any insights on how to fight with your wyrd, weapons, or martial arts. But based on your assessment scores, I doubt you will need much help with those areas of training. To speak frankly, I believe that curriculum receives enough emphasis already.”

What the hell would a career academic know about peacekeeping? Theory won’t save you from bullets, blades, or pyromancy. When Lin said nothing, Carroll continued:

“Too many people in the Amagium believe that malefaction can be solved if we simply punch people hard enough. Or that if we kill enough monsters and fae, they will eventually… give up, or something. Forgive me for saying so, but your father numbers among them.”

Lin stopped walking as if she had run into a wall. She actually staggered backwards. Amagia were not permitted to claim political or religious titles. But those who rose high enough in the Amagium were their own breed of royalty. And Arroyo’s first family were unquestionably the Valmonts. Athenon Valmont had held the title of Archon up until three years ago, governing the entire Amagium in Ericia. There were only nine archons, and they collectively determined policy for the Amagium all over the world.

Carroll stopped when Alinore did, turned to face her and chuckled at her expression, which only made her madder. He emanated apologies and gestured for her to wait until he could explain himself.

“Please let me clarify: there is no denying your family’s legacy. Their service has been an unquestionable tribute to the Amagium, in Arroyo, the Pacific States as a whole, and the world over. He is a hero—”

“Is my mother responsible for this?” Lin asked.

Carroll looked taken aback, and then confused. He shook his head.

“Your brother, actually.”

“Athren?” Lin asked.

“I once asked my leximancy class to write an essay on how the Amagium’s system of governance could be improved. And one student wrote an absolutely scathing, but fair, critique of your father’s policies during his time as Archon. Imagine my surprise when I realized your brother was the one who wrote it.”

“Please don’t lie to me,” Lin said, anger surfacing. “Athren is following in my father’s footsteps.”

This drew an infuriating smile from Carroll.

“Is he?”

“Yes!” Lin insisted. “He’s declared his discipline as Peacekeeping, and is at the top of all his classes. He is the clear favorite for Valedictorian of his cohort.”

“Have you talked to your brother about the politics of Peacekeeping lately?”

Lin had not, but she was tempted to insist that she had anyway. Bullshit for bullshit is only fair. But Carroll continued before she could decide on a reply:

“Your brother has… a great deal more sympathy for people who are critical of the Amagium than your father. Some of the motions and opinions he put forth in my class are quite… well, in my opinion, he is quite enlightened.”

“And my ‘heroic father’ isn’t?” Lin asked sharply.

“Not according to your brother,” Carroll said. “Make no mistake. I know he is dedicated to the Peacekeeping Force and he understands its central role in the Amagium. That is a commitment we share. But we believe that the way the Athenaeum goes about training officers is… not only outdated, but actively harmful. I believe the difference ultimately comes down to hammers and scalpels.”

Lin sighed and crossed her arms, already tired of the speeches. Carroll kept talking:

“Right now, we beat martial prowess into every aspirant that studies in these walls. We bludgeon them, until they too, become hammers. We neglect more precise applications of talent in favor of brute force—”

“I can see you’ve mastered a number of different disciplines. That is admirable. Incredible, even. But it seems you don’t know anything about Peacekeeping.” Lin said. “We are trained in urdo-forensics, interrogation, conflict de-escalation, investigation…”

“And each of those areas of our curriculum receive roughly half as much as emphasis as combat magic, weapons training, and martial arts. This is true of all members of the Keeping Force, whether they become field officers, technicians, logisticians, or liaisons to asfalis police. We train people to use volatile, destructive contracts that leverage principles they don’t fully understand…”

“So, what? You want me to become a scholar?” Lin asked, exasperated.

“That path is certainly open to you. Your talent permits almost anything, and I believe it would be abhorrent to waste that potential. But I also don’t believe in denying students their aspirations.”

“Then why did you choose me, knowing I intend to be a Keeper?”

“Because, I know I can train you into the finest Keeping Officer the Third Amagium has ever seen. If you are willing to trust me. That is not hyperbole. I’ve seen your assessment scores. You are already…. Incredibly sharp. And it would be a travesty for that edge to be dulled by a short-sighted education, especially when it has the potential to be honed even sharper.”

Lin scoffed. Why are you even playing at this?

“What choice do I have? You claimed me.”

As far as she knew, initial mentorship assignments were chiseled diamond. Transfers occasionally occurred after a student declared their discipline, but before that point, only death or some kind of scandal could break a pairing.

“If you are positive that this won’t work out, I will have you reassigned to Hawthorne, Hemmingway, or… anyone else of your choosing. But if you study under me, I promise you will master every aspect of what peacekeeping entails.” He paused for a second, then held out his hands. “What do you say?”

“I appreciate the offer, Master Carroll,” Lin said. “But I would prefer to be reassigned to Master Hemmingway.”

Carroll took a deep breath, looked down, and nodded.

“I honestly saw this going differently,” he admitted.

“Me too,” Lin said, apologetically.

“Alright. I will talk to the Administratum. But would you join me for my cup of coffee first?”

Lin knew it was probably a ploy. But if his offer was sincere, she didn’t see how being polite could hurt. Even in grade school, Lin had learned that it was always good to have allies among school faculty.

They resumed their walk through the campus, Lin looking at each aspirant with both envy and excitement. I’m finally joining the Amagium. No matter how things shake out with this scholar, I made it in, and my life, my real life, can finally begin.

“May I ask a personal question? Something you said piqued my curiosity,” Carroll said.

Lin nodded.

“You mentioned your mother. What was that about?”

“Oh,” Lin said, then snickered. “She hates the idea of me becoming an amagia, and a Keeper, specifically. She has done everything she can dissuade me. This exactly the sort of thing she would try.”

“She’s concerned for your safety?”

“That’s one of her less-persuasive arguments. Really, she wants me to follow in her footsteps. Becoming the successful woman behind a successful husband and son. And I know that takes a certain kind of talent; being the wife of a public figure is a job by itself. But it’s not for me.”

“You want to be recognized for your own achievements,” Carroll guessed.

Lin nodded.

“That’s part of it. But more than that… I inherited the same gift for contract magic that my brother and father have. And neglecting that is worse than becoming a hammer, to me. I think wasting talent is one of the most destructive things a person can do with their life.”

“Worse than using your talents for selfishness?” Carroll asked.

Lin considered for a moment, tilting her head from side to side.

“In some ways, yes. But I’m not sure how to explain it.”

“Take your time,” Carroll urged.

Damn. Lin hoped he would drop the issue, because she had never really thought the question through before, and she hated to make up important statements up as she went along.

“Well, almost nobody wants to become a villain. If you can pursue things selfishly, at least you are seeing to your own needs. That means somebody else doesn’t have to take care of you, so they can see to their own needs too. Not everybody can do that obviously, but it seems like a good general policy. Take care of yourself, and the people who depend on you. And if you take it a step further, doing what you think is right is always a form of selfishness. You are pitting your beliefs against people who disagree. It takes courage.”

“Courage is your compass, then?” Carroll asked.

That sounds very poetic, but it’s also kind of idiotic.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Lin said. “Like, I never ask myself ‘how can I be courageous today,’ when I wake up. But if there’s a fork in the road… courage is a good tiebreaker.”

Carroll nodded. His smile was approving, but his eyes struck her as sad.

“Well said.”

When they reached the expansive quad of the student union, Carroll purchased a sandwich, and a cup of coffee. The smell of food sent Lin’s stomach into revolt, reminding her that it had been 8 hours since she had eaten. Carroll added a chocolate bar to his order, and passed it to Lin without a word. She gestured thanks and lowered her head, wishing she could disappear.

In the height of the afternoon heat, the quad wasn’t too crowded, and they found a table easily. Like everything else in the Athenaeum, the craftsman architecture and lush gardens spoke of Arroyo’s extreme wealth. Everything was rendered in ornately laid brick, smoothed river stone, polished wood, and stained glass.

“Alinore…” Carroll ventured.

Here it comes.

“I prefer ‘Lin,’” she said, and took a bite of the candy bar.

“Lin. I know Hemmingway is an obvious choice. He’s a decorated officer. Newly retired from the force, but still in his physical prime. Whereas I …” he gestured vaguely and dismissively at his own body. “…Well, I am not. Worse still, I have disparaged your heroic father and critiqued the Keeping Force. You are well within your rights to reject me. But permit me one final offer,” Carroll said.

Lin had seen it coming, so it was easy to keep her face pleasantly neutral. Also, she was still chewing chocolate, so she couldn’t exactly object.

“Study under me, with my undivided attention and support, for one year and if you ever drop below the top percentile in your classes, I will personally arrange private tutoring with a different master in that respective subject.”

Lin managed to swallow her bite without choking on it, though she did cough afterwards. That is an insane offer. The mentor system was in place to restrict the amount of individual private training masters had to perform. Private lessons with masters from multiple disciplines would be the ideal way to train.

“A number of my colleagues owe me favors,” Carroll explained. “And I am willing to call them in for you.”

Lin took another small bite of her candy bar, considering. It’s a good offer. But it could be better. She chewed her chocolate carefully and then swallowed.

“Alright. One year. I will give you my all.” She waited for a smile to light up Carroll’s face before she hit him with her stinger. “On three conditions.”

Carroll smiled, apparently unphased, and gestured for her list them.

“First, I want to read the essay my brother wrote about my father.”

Carroll nodded and said:

“I will need to ask Athren’s permission, but I am certain that can be arranged.”

“Second. I want you to arrange extra lessons with other masters at my request, regardless of where I am in my class. I don’t care if I am excelling relative to my cohort. If I feel like I am falling behind what I know I can do, I am wasting my time.”

Carroll swallowed and nodded.

“And the last?”

“Firearms practice,” Lin said. Carroll drew his head back in disgust, but Lin spoke over him. “I want you to give me special dispensation to start training with a Locke revolver—”

Carroll sputtered a laugh.

“A Locke revolver? The recoil on those ridiculous cannons causes microfractures in adults who are experienced with high caliber weapons—”

“Then I should start practicing my form now so I’m prepared.”

“No. It is out of the question while you are still growing. I suppose I can permit you to start practicing with a Plato automatic…”

Lin shook her head and sighed.

“This isn’t going to work. My father allowed me to start practicing with a Socrates single-action when I turned nine.”

It wasn’t a lie. At least, not a hard lie. Athenon took Lin shooting a handful of times, and that aging, relatively-lightweight revolver was the largest caliber weapon he indulged her with. But she had learned enough to understand the gun’s mechanics and the fundamentals of shooting form.

Carroll looked appalled, and then shook his head.

“Alinore, err, Lin. A gun is the crudest solution to a problem that exists. It is… the most hammer-like approach I can imagine—”

“And that’s the point,” Lin said, a sly grin creeping from the corner of her mouth, eyes glinting with excitement: “I promise, I will be the sharpest scalpel you’ve ever seen. But if the situation calls for it, I want to be a damn good hammer as well.”

Carroll took a deep breath and sighed.

“I will allow you to practice with a Socrates one day a week,” Lin opened her mouth to object, and Carroll held up a hand. “You can permanently injure yourself with a Locke. If your father thought it was safe to start you on that hand cannon, he clearly would have.”

He has a point. Lin softened her expression somewhat, emanating a concession. He had won her over, but she still didn’t want to fold immediately. Carroll continued:

“I promise to train you to the full extent of your abilities. But do not mistake grueling curriculum with an excuse to harm yourself. This ‘suffer for excellence,’ martyr complex horse—err, hokum, is exactly the sort of paradigm I want us to tear down. And if we are going the distance together, I need you to trust my judgment. Not merely as a friend, or teacher, but as a mentor. If you can’t do that, I will re-assign you to Hemmingway. And he won’t broach any bargaining.”

Lin nodded decisively and extended her hand.

“Deal.”

Carroll smiled and took it with both of his.

“Deal,” he echoed.

Lin smiled at him for a moment, reassessing this strange scholar. And she recognized something she had missed before. Something they shared. Beneath his blithe exterior, there was an insatiable, almost-desperate drive. Intense ambition, despite his accomplishments.

They looked away from each other more or less simultaneously, gazing over the student union’s quad. She knew that she wouldn’t be moving into the Athenaeum dorms for another week, and proper matriculation wouldn’t begin until the week after that. But I’m not going to sit idle. If he’s serious, he won’t let that time go to waste. She gave Carroll another fierce smile.

“When can we get started?” she asked.

Carroll smiled and pushed his glasses snug against the bridge of his nose.

“I think we already have.”

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