Lieder sighed, annoyed by the tension that had spread throughout his body.
He had started reading sentences without absorbing their meaning, oftentimes having to return to the same paragraph multiple times in order to comprehend even simple information. It wasn’t as easy to tell when his mind was exhausted as when an arm or leg was. It often felt like he could continue, but when he tried, the tiniest detail would distract him.
The Tombs woman on the current page had the most intriguing hair. It was long and auburn, extending down past her midsection, but this wasn’t what was remarkable. Iit was the way it was all braided. Every single strand belonged to one of the several beautiful ropes hanging heavily at her back or over her shoulders. They looked thick enough to substitute for industrial-grade cable, yet they managed to retain the gloss of a lifetime of pampering.
Until he’d closed his eyes, he couldn’t keep them off the hairstyle. It was pleasing to look at, but he shouldn’t care; important work was waiting.
The red-orange tint passing through his eyelids told him that the sun had lowered considerably; it was probably between four and seven pm. The classroom had quieted in proportion, but wasn’t empty. Justus was still seated at the front of the room, the brooding, dark-haired girl still lethargically operated her terminal, and behind him…
Lieder frowned and opened his eyes. How long had it been since ‘behavioral sciences’ moved over there? He silently scolded himself; he was supposed to pay attention to that.
Lieder turned to meet the gaze of the boy that had been watching him. He had been sitting cross-legged on the cube behind Lieder for a substantial amount of time.
“Ah, apologies, am I disturbing you?” The boy’s expression was as reassuring and soothing as ever.
“Nope,” Lieder shook his head. “Just wanted to make sure you’re alright. I’d understand if you wanted to initiate conversation, but felt a bit awkward after all this time.”
“No, not necessarily, but now I’m curious. You speak knowingly.”
“Well, if I assume your studies are focused on one of the behavioral sciences, it makes perfect sense. Seems like, at this point, you’d come to class to practice on your classmates more than you would to browse the database.”
A slow smile grew on the boy’s face. “How astute of you, you were playing my game the whole time. Indeed, I’m looking to stay with my birth family and work with a focus on psychiatric care. I’m impressed that you would figure that out without me ever saying a word.”
“Nah, it was just an assumption,” Lieder replied dismissively. “Forgive me if I didn’t feel too much fear about the prospect of being wrong.”
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
“What family is it you belong to, if I may ask?” Lieder was curious about what a family of psychiatrists or psychologists might call themselves.
“I am Cyril Anthropist.”
“Ah, wonderful.” Lieder smiled. That made sense. “Can I hear your analysis, then?”
“About you? Well, it’s not like I’ve heard you say anything to complete it, but here’s what I have.”
He took a deep breath before continuing.
“Simply put, your mannerisms match profiles from any age demographic more than two tiers above the one you look like you belong in. Particularly, the disciplined focus with which you study content in an order that doesn’t fit into any standard curriculum suggests that you’re accustomed to being productive without the need of supervision.
Finally, your studies were all related to the Tombs enterprise, and from what I could tell, there was only one thing you knew about them when you started: they had something you needed. This suggests that your interest in Interpretive Precepts is unique in its exclusion of vocational aspirations; you’re not concerned with how it may or may not prepare you for a career amongst the Peerage.
To do all of this with full confidence is entirely undocumented of for a person your age. Summarily, you don’t just act or appear to be older than you look; you are older than you look.”
“Wow, I am impressed.” Lieder raised his brow and offered a warm smile. “The fact that you could perform such a thorough analysis at your age is the only evidence I can think of to debunk your reasoning. If the fact that I don’t act my age means I’m not my age, couldn’t I say the same about you?”
“Well, I’m aided by my knowledge of what I believe you to be. Without that, I wouldn’t have progressed this far by simply observing.”
“And what is it you believe me to be?”
“Winkle,” the boy said simply. It wasn’t a question.
“Ah, that’s always a relief,” Lieder sighed contently. “It’s been such an ordeal trying to explain it to everyone.”
“They’re fairly common, but you can still be caught off guard if you don’t personally know any,” the boy explained. “My family employs several Sapient Winkles and one Peer. She’s a Baroness. Plus, it helped to notice that Marquess Preceptor is so anxious today. He seems ready for me to go home.”
Lieder glanced at Justus, whose leg was bouncing with impatience as he sat hunched over his expander. His gaze periodically shifted from the tablet and towards them, quickly confirming the situation before returning to the screen.
“His curiosity over Winkles is no secret, is it?” Lieder asked, feeling both guilty and amused.
“Not in the slightest. Last time my family inducted one, he extracted every bit of information I had about them.”
“I guess it’s my fault he’s so anxious then,” Lieder admitted, recalling his implication that Justus should keep his status as both a Winkle and Lord secret from the other students.
He’d probably been waiting for the other students to leave, or at least be far enough away where they wouldn’t overhear their conversation. Lieder hadn’t been considerate enough of Justus’s consideration; the man had delayed satisfying his curiosity in order to protect a secret that Lieder didn’t care much about.
“Yo, Justus!” Lieder hoped his informality wouldn’t be considered offensive. “I’ve got to commend you, my friend, you’ve got some real prodigies in this class.”
Justus looked back at him with hopeful confusion in his eyes. Lieder noticed another pair of eyes looking at him, and the fact that they now held any emotion at all was refreshing. The brooding girl glanced at him nervously, appearing to be much more affected by Lieder’s omission of Justus’s status than the Marquess was.
“Appreciations, young Lieder, what makes you say that?” Justus smiled back at him.
“This kid figured out where I come from,” Lieder called, his voice suggesting that its audience should be as impressed as he was.
“Kid?” The boy asked, chuckling. “Was that really in common usage in your era?”
“Awh, is it really not anymore?” Lieder asked, disappointed. “Justus said so too, but I had hoped he was incorrect. It was all we ever used in my time, it will be hard to make this adjustment.”
“As far as I’m concerned, it might be more fun if you didn’t adjust.”
Justus rose from his chair and made quick strides towards them. “Is that true, Cyril? Add this incident to our surplus of evidence, then. I keep telling you you’re ready to move on, and this proves it more than anything. I can’t imagine a more difficult patient to analyze than a Winkle, except one with some sort of syndrome, perhaps.”
“It wasn’t a fair test,” Cyril dismissed the compliment. “I’ve known several healthy ones already, they gave me the answers beforehand.”
“Accolades aside, Cyril,” Justus started. “It’s true that the best possible use of your time here is the observation and analysis of your fellow students, but I want you to be extra careful about not disturbing Lord Lieder while you hone…”
“Lord?” Cyril repeated, a blank expression on his face.
Justus began to turn pale. “Your analysis didn’t include that detail did it? Of course it wouldn’t, it couldn’t. Carl, I’m so sorry for revealing that…”
“It’s alright, Justus, don’t fret,” Lieder chuckled, feeling a recurrent twinge of guilt. “Part of why I called you over here was to address that. I know what my words implied, but all I really meant to ask of you was that we not advertise my status right from the start. We can’t keep everyone in the dark about my Lordship or origins forever.”
“Perhaps, but your concern was valid,” Justus argued.
“My studies aren’t so important that I can’t risk interruptions to answer some of the questions that are eating away at you. Forgive me for not noticing at first, but I can understand why you would perceive opportunity in this.”
“Was I that transparent? Apologies, I was hoping I might muster a little more self control than little Maximilian. It took a monumental effort to waylay him when he charged your way and started stuttering. I practically had to drag him back to his seat and gag him to calm him down. I don’t know what he wanted you to tell him so badly, but I’m glad I got to him before he could decide which question to ask first.”
“Did that happen?” Lieder asked, attempting to recall. He had been oblivious to this incident.
“Yeah, what was that about?” Cyril mused. “I was wondering what had him so preoccupied that he almost broke his nose climbing out of the terminal.”
“Who knows?” Justus responded. “He probably had a hypothesis on Carl’s origins and wanted to confirm it.”
“More than a hypothesis, I’m sure. I won’t have been the first to tell you, but he seems quite the prodigy. I told him that I was called a Winkle, and that outburst probably marked the moment when he discovered what that was.”
“Of all the irony!” Justus laughed. “He is the last person I would have recommended you reveal that to! He’s going to be yammering at your heels every chance he gets. Does he know of your Lordship, too?”
“Nah, but even if he finds out, that seems a lesser deal than the knowledge that I’m a Winkle,” Lieder replied.
“Not from my perspective,” Cyril replied. “That fact interests me much more than your being a Winkle does. I’m still skeptical that it is a fact; did you mean that, Marquess?”
Justus sighed. “I’m afraid so. Again, apologies…”
“Again, unnecessary,” Lieder laughed. “Why would that be more interesting though, Cyril?”
“Because I couldn’t tell you were one. If asked what rank I thought you held, I’d have guessed Earl, or maybe Marquess. That’s a factor in someone’s profile I would normally be able to determine long before any other. Lordship… that kind of power, privilege, and capability leaves an enormous footprint on someone’s personality. Baron and Lord, the opposite extremes of the Peerage, are by far the easiest to determine without simply asking.”
Lieder considered this, defaulting to the first analogous system he could remember. The only military rank that was as identifiable as a General was a Private. Uniforms and badges didn’t matter; Lieder could always tell if a man was one of those two ranks.
This was more proof that Lieder’s status as a Lord was suspicious. He never was a Private, but nor would he have ever been a General.
“I was awakened only yesterday. Perhaps my status as a Lord was a mistake.”
“Come now, nobody suggested that,” Cyril denied. “The only thing less likely than a Winkle becoming a Lord is the idea that it could happen by mistake. I’m not surprised that modesty was a precious commodity in your day, Lord Lieder, but it’s not necessary anymore. Not for a Lord.”
“I don’t believe I’m speaking out of modesty,” Lieder replied. “Nor do I agree that it’s unnecessary.”
“Before we wander too far off the subject,” Justus interrupted. “Let me stress that I believe we should take steps to ensure that this conversation doesn’t recruit more participants anytime soon. The three of us are enough of an obstacle to your acclimation as it is.”
“Four of you, you mean,” Lieder replied. He pointed to the troubled girl that still remained at her workstation. “It’s not like we’re whispering over here.”
“Incognizance!” Justus cried, turning to look at her. “Eirian, I’m so ashamed, I forgot you were there. My dear, you’re just so quiet… sincerest apologies!”
She smiled sadly and shook her head. “No apology necessary, Marquess. And please don’t worry, Carl. Even if I were in with the gossip group, I wouldn’t share this with them.”
“Thanks very much,” Carl said with exaggerated cheer. He liked that she’d been conscientious enough to know that he preferred his first name. “Sorry if we’ve been distracting you from your thoughts.”
“Lately, such distractions are welcome; don’t fret for my sake.”
“I can do that, but I’m sorry that your situation is less than pleasant,” Lieder empathized. “I’d be happy to help, if there’s a way I could.”
“Oh no, please.” Eirian shook her head rapidly before rubbing her brow in regret. “Don’t.”
“Understood. You have my condolences, I won’t bring it up again.”
“Appreciations.” Her reply sounded like an apology.
Lieder turned his head back towards Justus, but his eyes lingered in Eirian’s direction for several moments. He hated being snoopy, but things seemed more dire than he’d hoped.
“Do we need to be out of here by a certain time, Justus?” Lieder asked. “When does the building close?”
“Oh, it doesn’t,” Justus assured. “At this level of study, I’d have no issues if I came tomorrow morning to find that you were still here.”
“Excellent, that’s very convenient for me.” Lieder smiled. “If you two have any questions, now seems like a good time to answer them. I know there’s plenty I’d like to ask you.”
“Appreciations,” Justus smiled in anticipation, turning towards his chair. “Let me grab my expander, I stored a number of them in there.”
As Justus walked away, Lieder turned to Cyril, careful to keep his voice low.
“What do you think, young psychiatrist, is Eirian going to be alright?”
Cyril looked her way. There was a scowl on his face, but Lieder could tell that his anger wasn’t directed at her. “I don’t envy her. She shouldn’t have to suffer this, especially not by herself.”
“I don’t want to violate patient confidentiality,” Lieder tried not to sound intrusive. “But may I know what’s wrong?”
“If you take a good look at her,” Cyril’s sigh admitted his reluctance. “You’ll understand.”
Lieder turned his gaze back to her, inspecting her for clues. She was perfectly pretty, beautiful in a way that seemed to defy nature. Her skin was free from blemishes, smooth and uniform in its pale color. There weren’t any injuries, her hair was a glossy and deep brown, her clothes were clean and undamaged; physically, she seemed in perfect shape.
As his eyes moved over her torso, though, the meaning of Cyril’s words became clear. Though her abdomen was as lean and healthy as the rest of her, the way her shirt rested against her belly showed that it protruded just far enough to be noticed by the scrutinous eye.
“Oh my god,” Lieder gasped. “She’s pregnant.”
“God?!” Cyril’s eyes lit up. “You have one? Can you tell me about that?”
“Ah, no, that’s just a habit I’m afraid,” Lieder replied sheepishly. “Like saying ‘kid’. Just something everyone got used to saying, whether they believed in one or not. I have no faith of my own, but I could tell you what I understand about what other people believed.”
“Oh.” Cyril seemed disappointed. “I’ll decline, I’m more interested in analyzing the storyteller than I am the story itself. I’m afraid that interest of mine requires a believer’s account.”
“Then truly,” Lieder gave him an empathetic look. “That’s something I can’t help you with.”
Justus beamed as he walked back towards them, expander open in his hand. Lieder mused over how certain he was that he’d soon be revisiting the explanation that Cyril had just declined.