Lieder blinked with purpose, indicating that he was not in need of any assistance. He hadn’t counted how many times his workstation had prompted him to take a break, but the stiffness in his temples and around his eyelids told him that these muscles had been used many times more than was typical between periods of sleep.
The blur that crept in from his peripheral vision seemed to be a metaphor for his state of mind; the object of his focus was still clear enough, but anything surrounding it would seem so murky that it may as well be out of frame.
The rewards were still proving themselves worthy of his exertion, though. He felt like he understood a good portion of the Tombs’ collective character now. There was still a monumental amount of research to be done, but he was beginning to get a sense for which options would be plausible.
More and more, it was seeming unlikely that they could be persuaded to release the information he needed. It was beginning to look like he would have to force them to give it up, or otherwise take it without their approval.
Though the sights and sounds coming from his right were unrelated to his purpose, they were starting to tug at his strained attention. He sighed and turned to survey whatever it was his classmates were doing, knowing his instincts wouldn’t allow him to tune it out until he understood what the commotion was about.
“Please return that to me, Waldemar,” Maximilian begged. “I implore you, it’s very important to me.”
Waldemar held a plastic cube in his hand, just big enough that he wouldn’t quite be able to close both his hands around it. Half of it was clear and obviously hollow, while the other half was filled with solid metal.
“Oh, I’m fully aware of that, Maximilian,” Waldemar spoke in a teasing tone. “And rest assured, I will; eventually. You know why it shouldn’t be here, though, and I don’t appreciate your attempt to ignore that.”
Maximilian’s fists were balled at his side, his posture rigid in a helpless frustration. “My progress is not a standard for yours. You shouldn’t have anything to fear about when I graduate.”
“You’re close, but not quite right,” Waldemar’s scolding was thick with mockery. “Your progress shouldn’t be a standard for mine, but the Marquess made the mistake of threatening me about what he would try to do if you graduated before me. This device you’ve made is something my curriculum covers, but it’s further along than I currently am. What does that tell the Marquess?”
“Nobody ever suggested that I should worry about what my advancement could mean to my classmates. I got this far without anyone ever hinting that I was hindering them. I have good reason to believe that I can continue my pace without getting in your way. It’s not a competition, we’re free to move at the speed we please!”
“You must notice how your progress makes the rest of us seem slow, though,” Waldemar ignored Maximilain’s attempt at persuasion.
“We’re all individuals, with our own strengths and weaknesses. I know my situation may seem unique, but we are all united by our mutual uniqueness.”
In spite of his weariness, Lieder smiled. This child really was maturing at a remarkable rate.
“Yes!” Waldemar explained, a response Lieder found peculiar. “We all have unique situations. My unique situation is one in which your pace hinders me. That’s why you haven’t had this problem before, and that’s why that argument doesn’t work against me. I’m unique!”
A chorus of approving snickers rippled through his neighbors. Lieder’s smile faltered. In stark contrast to Maximilian’s competence, this child was under-developed.
“Yes, you are unique,” Maximilian pleaded. “But I don’t see how I’m getting in your way, Waldemar. I think there’s plenty to respect about you, why is it you need me to hold back?”
“Why are you in such a hurry, Maximilian?” Waldemar avoided the question. He wasn’t sure if it was if Waldemar’s gaze had drifted or if it was just his imagination, but it looked to Lieder as though Waldemar was looking over Maximilian’s head towards Eirian. “Isn’t it enjoyable here? I hardly expect the resources at the Savant estate could be all that much better, at least at your level of research. I understand that reality, see, because it’s a very similar situation to mine. As it stands, I can accomplish just as much here as I can back at the Bouwmeester estate.”
“I can understand your argument, but I believe you’re mistaken,” Maximilian replied. “I don’t have as many friends as you do, Waldemar. Besides, there’s a whole lot I can’t do until I graduate. The sooner I traverse that barrier… please, Waldemar, return the hourglass.”
Lieder inspected the object in Waldemar’s hand again. Was that an hourglass? Could that solid metal somehow drip through to the empty side of the cube?
“Congratulations, Max, you really are a prodigy!” Waldemar repeated his refusal to address Maximilian’s request. “You’ve progressed to the point where I feel you can handle an important lesson. It has a whole lot to do with those unique situations you mentioned. See, sometimes our unique situations bring us to conflicts that we just can’t resolve with a fair compromise.”
“You’re right.” Maximilian was trembling a little. “I think the Marquess might be a little vindictive if I were to mention this to him.”
“Indeed.” Waldemar sneered. “That could very well be the case. You didn’t let me finish, though. Maximilian, sometimes our unique situations disallow fair resolution to conflicts. In those situations, the stronger situation is the one that ends up deciding how it’s resolved. So let’s compare our situations. Yours lets you progress through intellectual matters at a far faster rate than I. My situation, on the other hand, has made me much, much bigger than you.”
Maximilian’s face had become much paler, his trembling now uncontrollable. The rest of the class was silent, and most of Waldemar’s crowd wore deviant grins.
Lieder sighed. He hated his occasional messiah complex.
“Hey, Waldo!” Lieder yelled, letting his irritation spill through his words. “Shut your trap and give the man his hourglass already.”
Waldemar’s eyes snapped towards Lieder, his head slowly turning to match the direction of their cold gaze. Those around him offered a collective, ominous jeer as he lifted one leg out of his workstation.
Lieder rolled his eyes as Waldemar dropped the hourglass onto his interface tray and climbed out of his terminal. Both of them purposefully maintained eye contact as Waldemar approached, though their expressions couldn’t have been more different; Waldemar’s every feature was forcefully crafted to appear intimidating, while Lieder was barely managing to suppress his laughter into a smug smile.
Though he was both frightened and fascinated by what was happening, Maximilian wasted no time in snatching the hourglass and trying to obscure it at his side. Lieder was glad. Not only had this accomplished his main objective, but it had also proven his hunch that Waldemar hadn’t really cared about whether or not the Marquess ever saw the strange, translucent cube.
Waldemar arrived at Lieder’s workstation and leaned forward, bringing his face uncomfortably close to Lieder’s. Lieder resisted the urge to pull back, and found it even harder not to laugh at this mild surprise.
“Do not…” Waldemar paused for a moment, intent on letting his dangerous emphasis on the word sink in. “…call me ‘Waldo.’”
Lieder closed his eyes and lamented. There was a time when this would have genuinely terrified him; that time was half a millennium ago, when he had been a mere ten percent of his conscious age.
This poor child had just killed all of Lieder’s apprehension. He hadn’t thought so, before, but perhaps Waldemar really was ready for Lieder to teach him some of life’s harsher lessons.
Lieder tilted his head forward, aligning it so that he could rest his forehead against Waldemar’s. The boy’s eyelids flinched at the split-second movement, but he wasn’t deterred enough to pull away.
If Waldemar had the presence of mind to look, Lieder’s SympaThreadics could ruin this ploy. The facial expression he was about to make belonged to an emotion he didn’t understand well enough to fake.
“Whatcha leanin’ so close for, sailor?” Lieder whispered. His eyes were as wide as he could force them, and if the dull ache was any indication, they’d be bloodshot. The grin on his face was the kind of wicked that reminds its audience of why the human skull made such a menacing symbol. “You lookin’ for a kiss? Hate to tell ya, but if you ever try this again, a kiss ain’t what ya gonna get.”
Lieder tilted his head forward again, somewhat more severely. His brow scraped down Waldemar’s and bumped lightly against the bridge of his nose before Lieder pulled back.
Immediately, Lieder assumed a neutral posture and facial expression.
Waldemar recoiled, whipping his arm up to bring his hand over his nose. Lieder had been careful not to injure him, so he knew the action must simply be a reflex. It was hardly a surprise; there was no telling how someone might react when witnessing something that frightening.
At least, Lieder hoped he’d replicated the phenomenon. The face he’d made wasn’t something he’d seen often. He imagined most people went their entire lives without witnessing it.
The first man he’d seen wearing that expression didn’t ever laugh for the first two years Lieder had known him. The only three things Lieder could remember about the first time he finally did were: that expression on his face, the scent of blood, and the sound of his laughter.
He supposed there were kinder ways to teach Waldemar what he needed to know; still, it seemed appropriate to inject a little justice for Maximilian’s torment.
Waldemar’s expression was one of terror, but his eyes were beginning to narrow back to normal. His lips closed and his arm lowered back towards his side as he recovered his thoughts. Lieder suspected that the boy now doubted what he’d seen.
The other students seemed confused over Waldemar’s reaction. There was little chance that any of them could have seen what happened to prompt it.
“Tell me, Carl,” he began slow, as though searching for words. “What is it the Lieder family specializes in? I haven’t heard of them before, could it be a family of musicians? ‘Lieder’ means ‘songs’, right? Perhaps you’re of an entertainment family that never rose above its local scene?”
Lieder smiled a patient but sardonic smile as several of Waldemar’s friends snickered over the veiled insult.
“Yeah, sure, I’ve been known to sing.”
“A musician at Interpretive Precepts.” Waldemar’s mocking tone was transparent; Lieder could hear his voice catching in his throat. “Perhaps he’s opting to leave his family’s trade, or maybe there’s something about making music that requires interpretation, and I’m just overlooking it.”
“Who knows? Could be either, could be neither.”
“Sounds like I’m implying reality. Why don’t your prove me wrong by demonstrating what the institute has enhanced in you? To advance to this level so quickly, your progress must have been impressive.”
“What, you want a song?” Lieder gave him a skeptical look.
“Why not? Prove that you aren’t here because of some delusion or insanity.”
Waldemar’s attempt to be condescending was forced, and Lieder could still detect turmoil about him. This was all contrived, a play for time. The boy was desperate to retain some measure of control over the situation, but was having a hard time believing there was any control to be had. He’d need time to convince himself, but couldn’t retreat if he wanted to keep the respect of his pack.
He had intended on denying his request, but Lieder thought better of it now. It would be more of a poem than a song, but it was the closest he could manage. A movie leprechaun had once inspired him to practice improvising limericks.
“Of this child that questions my sanity,
His depth’s only deep as his vanity.
And his neck, it’s so thick!
Did he swallow a brick?
Or maybe his mom’s just a manatee.”
Waldemar looked back at him with a furrowed brow; Lieder couldn’t tell if it was from anger, confusion, or a mixture of the two. Judging from the uncomprehending murmurs that Waldemar’s classmates were exchanging behind him, Lieder felt safe assuming it was probably both.
If they were confused, it must have been about the manatee. Lieder wondered if they were extinct, or if the students’ Lexicons could define the word but not provide an example image. Neither possibility would be hard to test.
“What, seriously?” Lieder sighed and rolled his eyes. “You guys don’t know what a manatee is?”
It was time to take another guess about his workstation’s functionality.
“Can we share an introductive commentary on manatees with the class?” Lieder casually asked his display.
All the other terminals in view flickered as a confirmation window popped open. Less-simultaneous were each student’s confirmations as they realized what was happening.
Lieder could only hear the sound from his own workstation’s speakers, but he could tell that the experiment was a success by the matching video that played on each screen. Lieder motioned at the bloated grey creature drifting lazily across his own monitor to be sure that Waldemar knew what he was referencing.
“Manatees are aquatic mammalian herbivores, measuring between three and four meters long and weighing up to six-hundred kilograms. They can be found drifting between rivers and coasts in the waters south of Continent B, and migrating astounding distances between certain inland rivers and coasts on Continents C and E. At one time, manatees were considered to be seriously endangered, but thanks to the discovery and incorporation of multi-frequency sonar that could both locate and deter the creatures…”
Stifled laughs and snorts came from most of the room’s occupants, though Maximilian had failed to control himself. He was doubled over and struggling to breathe.
Lieder doubted it had anything to do with the insult; he thought manatees were cute enough, but it would hard to find a sillier-looking creature on the planet. Looking at one often inspired a laugh, even without noting any resemblance it might have to a person.
“Come now, that’s quite unsophisticated,” Waldemar said icily, though he now kept his distance. “To bring one’s mother into a quarrel she has no involvement in.”
“Quarrel?” Lieder mused. “I’m just singin’ a song, like you asked. This was meant to demonstrate Interpretive Precepts’ worth to a musician. As you can see, my education has enabled me to form a hypothesis through song. It’s scientific and poetic! I can communicate a theory on why your head seems to be a glorified extension of your torso and be entertaining while doing so. I won’t assume your mother is actually a manatee, nor that you are capable of swallowing a brick, we’ll just list them as theories until we can ascertain the exact cause of your disfigurement.”
Lieder was severely exaggerating the thickness of Waldemar’s neck; it was bigger than average, but not so much that it stood out.
“This repeated vulgarity is very unnecessary,” Waldemar seethed.
A scoffing snort escaped Lieder’s nose. When had he been vulgar? Or had the standards changed so much that something this mild was now considered crude?
“Look Waldo, I never intended to offend you just for the sake of offending you. Just lay off our wee friend Maximilian and we won’t have any future issues.”
“Stopcalling me ‘Waldo!’”
“I can’t help it, you look like such a Waldo. Get a striped shirt and hat – and maybe a neck reduction - and you’d be the spitting image.”
“Don’t test me,” Waldemar warned.
“I wouldn’t ever need to, I already know that outcome. Spoiler alert! You fail.”
“You really must be new around here.” Waldemar tried to sound sinister. “Otherwise, you’d know not to harass the Bouwmeesters. Especially not Waldemar Bouwmeester.”
“Why, what happens if I do, I laugh so hard that I manage to somehow injure myself?” Lieder chuckled, much to Waldemar’s surprise and chagrin. “Let me tell you somethin’, Waldo: you’re one century too young to scare me. Considering how hysterical you sound when you try to make ‘Bouwmeester’ come across as intimidating, it’s probably closer to two centuries.”
Waldemar looked as though he wanted to say something, but the metallic sliding of an opening door interrupted him. Lieder watched Justus take two steps into the room before noticing where Waldemar was.
“What now? Waldemar, please come here, I need to have a word with you.”
“Marquess!” Maximilian cried, turning and rushing towards him. He was holding his hourglass in outstretched hands. “It’s not urgent that you verify it now, but it’s urgent that you take it now.”
“Maximilian, are you done already?” Justus’s suspicious glare morphed into a beaming grin. “That’s fantastic! I’ll verify it very soon…”
“Maximilian,” Waldemar chastised. “You know you weren’t supposed to do that. I’m disappointed.”
Maximilian didn’t react to the taunt, maintaining his haste as he handed Justus his hourglass and made his way back to his seat. He seemed emboldened after surviving Waldemar’s earlier lecture.
“Waldo,” Lieder mimicked Waldemar’s tone. “You know that behavior is what started this whole mess. I’m disappointed.”
Waldemar looked at him and shook his head slowly, silently assuring Lieder he’d regret that statement. Lieder laughed in response.
“What is it that happened here?” Justus murmured, glancing between Maximilian, Waldemar, and Lieder. “Waldemar. Get up here now.”
Waldemar continued staring at Lieder through narrowing eyes, the gaze broken only for an occasional flick in Justus’s direction. Lieder suspected that he was confused over why only he was being summoned; in Lieder’s experience, two students on equal ground would receive comparable punishment for such a fight.
After a couple of moments, Waldemar’s expression relaxed and he turned to amble towards Justus.
As Lieder watched him walk away, the tension in his eyes and dryness in his throat crept back into his attention. He wondered how hard it might be to find and use a futuristic drinking fountain.
He again pushed this fatigue to the back of his mind, intent on obtaining some peace of mind on Maximilian’s plight. There was no risk in observing Waldemar’s scolding. Justus was trembling with barely-contained rage. Lieder had never been the best lip reader, so he had to hope that Justus’s anger might exaggerate his mouth movements.
“I thought we had an understanding.”
The words were slow and deliberate. This was of great help to Lieder. Waldemar’s back was turned to him, so there was no way he could see his response, but half of the conversation would probably be plenty.
“I made a mistake using Maximilian as an example, but I explicitly told you that I wouldn’t invite you to hold him hostage. How long have you been harassing him?”
There was another pause as Waldemar spoke.
“It’s abundantly clear that your parents don’t care. I understand that now. But I’m not so daunted by the idea of going above their heads to allow you to sabotage Maximilian.”
Waldemar stepped back as if surprised, but Lieder caught a glimpse of a fake smile on his profile during a faux-innocent shake of his head.
“Reasonable is not something you’ve ever been, so I’ll be the judge of that. Do not pretend that you’re in a position to decide how Maximilian should be enhanced. I will approach a Bouwmeester Earl or Marquess if such behavior continues, and while we’re on the subject, know that while it’s true I can’t exercise as much control over you as I can the other students, young Lieder is outside of my domain entirely. No matter what my opinion of his behavior might be, there’s not a thing I can do to protect you.”
This seemed to disturb Waldemar. It wasn’t fear in his body language; it could have been disappointment, perhaps, or maybe confusion. He perceived this as unfair.
“That information isn’t mine to share. It belongs to him, so if you are to obtain it, it’s through him, and before you get any ideas, I will intervene on his behalf if you aren’t nice about it. I will share my disagreements with him if he plays instigator, and if it got bad enough I’d risk expelling him. Those are the limits of my power, and there’s no in-between. I can see why this would seem more dangerous for the rest of you, but as long as you don’t go out of your way to burden him, we should all get along fine.”
Lieder lowered his eyes back to his display, satisfied that Maximilian had been in good hands even before his intervention. It had probably been unnecessary, but at least the confrontation seemed to have alerted Justus to the situation earlier than if he’d remained neutral.
“Pardon me, honorable Lieder.”
Lieder turned to his right to find a pretty young blonde woman standing next to him. He recognized her as a desk neighbor of Waldemar’s.
“That’s very kind of you,” Lieder said with a gentle smile. “To treat me that way after how I acted towards poor Waldo. What can I do for you?”
“Oh, that would have come as no surprise if I’d known beforehand,” she dismissed his observation. “As you’re aware, a closed expander won’t respond to verbal input. I can only imagine that it is, but can you confirm that this is accurate for me?”
She raised a retracted expander to Lieder’s eye level and clicked it open. She had ensured that the screen was oriented in his direction. The confirmation window that had appeared when he shared the manatee video was still waiting for a response.
Apparently, the request had also gone to all the expanders in the room. While his classmates had accepted too quickly to notice the first time, it would be hard to miss when they next opened their personal expanders.
Lord Carl Orionne Lieder
Has offered to share an educational video
Lieder laughed and cradled his forehead in one hand. Once again, he was reminded that there was always a price for playing messiah. As his old colleagues would have loved to point out, this was a classic case of his own special brand of ‘fail.’
It seemed that he would no longer be able to keep his Lordly status a secret from anyone in this room. He hated the kind of scrutiny that was bound to be coming his way.