The door to his classroom made very little noise upon opening, but Lieder’s entry still attracted several peoples’ attention.
“Ah, welcome back,” Justus greeted as he rose to his feet. “Did you have…”
Justus trailed off and his smile transformed into something confused. The large, athletic boy in the front row also seemed to notice whatever Justus had; his brow was raised in aloof surprise.
“Yeah, whatever I had, it was fine enough,” Lieder answered, confused over the pause. “Is something wrong?”
“Unless I’m oblivious to some kind of strange tradition, yes.” Justus was struggling to keep his tone casual as he approached. “What happened to you?”
It now occurred to Lieder that people would be able to see evidence of the Sphinx’s attack. His shirt was stretched, his hair was probably disheveled, and there were several spots on his body that ached enough to be bruises.
He hadn’t considered the idea that the attack might have consequences on his agenda.
“Ah, I forgot. The details are easily lost when your mind accumulates this much clutter. I was involved in something of an altercation.”
“Who?” Justus’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Who did this to you?! Do the Martials have them in custody? Or was it Waldemar?”
“I don’t know their identities,” Lieder said, careful with his words. “But I’m convinced that they’re not as curious about the past as you are.”
“The Tombs!” Justus whispered. “They haven’t even contacted me about the quotations you used in your aptitude tests. This isn’t fair, there was no investigation! You have my testimony, Lord Lieder, use it to help bring them to justice. They may have their rights, but this kind of behavior transforms them into a public menace…”
“Easy, Justus, I must emphasize: I couldn’t confirm their identities. I suspect the same thing you do, but they wore masks and left no clues. The Martials are trying, but currently there’s no way to link the Tombs to this organization.”
Justus furrowed his brow and his body trembled in fury. “Barbaric! To think they put so many restrictions on Winkle freedoms, all the while claiming that without the Tombs policies, the Winkles will return the world to the supposed barbarism of their era. If this is how they enforce their policies, they’re a detriment to the very cause they claim: barbarism cannot be countered with barbarism!”
“We agree on that.” Lieder suppressed the urge to smile at the fact that Justus had come to the same conclusions that he had. “Still, don’t let them damper your mood, Justus. Their operations are unlawful, and everything that can be done to stop them is already being done. Try not to dwell on this. If it helps, know that the fact that my injuries are minor is proof of their failure. Had they succeeded, you would never have seen me again. They have nothing to celebrate, and things are only going to get worse for them.”
Justus closed his eyes and took a deep, tremulous breath as he considered Lieder’s words. The Marquess’s anger was nearly pacified.
“The Martials assured me that a criminal is only likely to succeed in victimizing someone on the first attempt. The chances of success on any subsequent attempts plummet into virtual impossibility. In many ways, it’s very fortunate that things happened as they did.”
Justus said nothing for a few moments, but when he spoke, his voice was calm.
“Apologies. Violence is so obsolete that I become violent myself when I hear of someone using it. I will tolerate my anger while I don’t know who it should be directed toward, but when the culprits are exposed, please allow me to assist in their prosecution.”
“I can do that.” Lieder only intended to fulfill this agreement if the exposure that Justus foresaw ever became public. “In the meantime, let’s be grateful that it happened to someone that was accustomed to such methods, and thereby was prepared to combat them.”
“A sad but noble perspective.” Justus donned a sympathetic face. “I admire your strength, but lament the tribulations that made its acquisition necessary.”
“Don’t do either of those things,” Lieder dismissed, turning towards his workstation. “It’s energy that would be better spent elsewhere. My injuries don’t hurt, so long as I have a mission to occupy my mind.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re anxious to return to your work. I approved before, but now your research seems essential.”
They shared a nod, then made their way towards their seats. Lieder’s pace became slower, though, as he had noticed that his cube was already occupied.
Cyril watched Lieder with intent in his eyes from his precarious perch on the inner-back corner. As he drew closer, Lieder noticed that Cyril’s gaze seemed to be directed at his right cheek.
With a silent curse, Lieder recalled the kick that the suspected Martial woman had landed on him. It was bound to have left a sizable bruise, and this contusion was likely responsible for Cyril and Justus’s reactions to his arrival.
“Did you have something that someone else wanted?” Cyril asked once Lieder was close enough to be the only one that could hear him. “Or perhaps you offended them in some way?”
“What, the bruise? I tripped and banged my check against a storage rack.”
“The world is a peaceful place now, Lord Lieder. As such, on the rare occasion that a person feels threatened, their retaliation tends to be be exaggerated.”
Lieder grimaced as Cyril called his bluff. Perhaps he should have pretended to not know about the bruise?
“That’s a valuable suggestion, I’ll be cautious to avoid such scenarios.”
Cyril said nothing as he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket. When his hand came back out, Lieder instantly recognized that he was holding a large pistol by its barrel.
Panicked, Lieder’s eyes shot around the room, desperate to confirm that nobody was watching.
“Are you insane?! It’s true that I don’t know much about this peaceful new world of yours, but if it’s so peaceful why would you bring that here?! You can’t mean to tell me that you wouldn’t be punished for bringing that!”
“Expressing concern for my wellbeing, but lacking any for one’s current disadvantages,” Cyril spoke as though he were reciting a well-known rule. “These are certain signs of a self-saboteur.”
As Lieder recalled the boy’s usage of the term ‘self-saboteur’ in the argument they’d had the previous day, Cyril offered the gun to him.
“Everyone here has one of these, of course I wouldn’t be punished. I’ve been told by Winkles that there’s a long history of the nobility carrying blades or sidearms with them wherever they went. Why does it seem so odd now?”
“Sure, in the nineteenth century and previous. They’d challenge somebody to a duel for something as trivial as getting their spouse’s name wrong back then. We were a bit more civilized in the twenty-first, Cyril, at least to the point where kids could feel safe at school without things like this; especially kids at the rich schools.”
“You’re mistaking coincidence with correlation. These aren’t capable of firing unless the facility acknowledges an emergency anyway. Regardless, I insist that you take this. I fear for your safety. As a health practitioner, I’m obligated to act when I suspect someone is unwell, and ensuring that you possess the means to defend yourself is the first step of my emergency treatment.”
“Emergency treatment?” Lieder was still appalled, but for the sake of assuaging the boy’s concern, he accepted the gun.
“I hereby grant ownership of this weapon to this new holder and fully relinquish my own.” Cyril spoke before Lieder could continue, and before he released his own grip on the barrel.
“Cyril, I understand that you believe I’m a self-saboteur, but suggesting that my situation is an emergency…”
“I know of your attack on the Comptable boy, Lord. While the person who presented me with this information suggested that you did it to defend a Sapient, my knowledge of your self-destructive tendencies leads me to believe that you hoped for retaliation. Perhaps that’s where that bruise on your cheek came from? Even if it wasn’t, that’s all the more evidence to believe that you regret being awakened. As I would expect most people to do in such a situation, I fear that you won’t end your own life. You’d attempt to have someone else do it for you.”
Lieder tried to ignore the offense he took to this observation. It was impressive that Cyril had guessed that Lieder regretted his reawakening. Still, if Lieder had the option, it would have already been done and, Cyril would never have had a chance to prevent it. Cyril was a prodigy in his field, but he was still incapable of understanding why Lieder would consider taking such action, and there was nothing he could do to change Lieder’s mind.
Applying his education as an Anthropist would only lead Cyril to false conclusions. Lieder believed this couldn’t be argued because, to him, it was never a psychiatric issue.
“I can see how you’re connecting the dots, Cyril, but that’s not the correct method. Whoever told you about the Comptable incident was correct. I was defending a Virtuoso Sapient. You know how I feel about this contemporary caste system. That boy’s treatment of her enraged me. If I wanted him to retaliate, I wouldn’t have been as efficient as I was.”
“A plausible lie, Lord, but not one I’ll be deceived by. We both know that his family could have retaliated later, and you still haven’t told me the truth about that bruise on your cheek. Those incidents could be related, and if not, then I should be even more alarmed: it would mean you’ve taken some other reckless step towards your own demise.”
“Cyril, I admire your ability to read between the lines. Your insight is remarkable.” Despite his convictions, Lieder was unprepared to deal with the amount of effort this boy must have devoted to analyzing his psyche. He’d need time to prepare if he had any chance of changing Cyril’s mind
“We are convinced of different realities, though. I will submit to your treatment, but only on the condition that you consider the possibility that I might still be healthy. You see cause for alarm in factors that would be alarming if they’re connected. Please bear in mind that if these factors are, to use the terms that you have, coincidental instead of correlative, then you have nothing to fear.”
“I will administer treatment regardless of your will, but I must admit that the gesture was unexpected. I’m pleased. I beg you, Lord Lieder, carry that weapon at all times; all of the students in this room do the same, I assure you. Unlike the ballistic weapons of your time, there’s no possibility of accidental discharge.”
“If you say so, I guess I’ll believe it.” Lieder’s words defied his thoughts. He believed it ludicrous to allow anyone to carry this in such a place, especially for children to do so. “As for treatment, do you have an office, or do you want to talk to me here?”
“Allow me to take care of the meeting. As a matter of fact, now that my most important errand is complete, I can start preparing now. In my absence, I request that you remain here at the school for at least six hours.”
“I can do that, I was going to stay a lot longer. I think you’d be better off asking that I make a point to leave in six hours.”
Lieder considered testing whether he could use his Lordship status against Cyril’s implied authority, but even in this situation, the idea revolted him. The amount of submission he was showing made him feel uneasy, but he knew that his own mistakes had invited Cyril to act this way. The moral way out was not through confrontation.
“I would appreciate that punctuality. I can’t provide a solid estimation for how long the preparations will take me, but I do suspect I’ll finish long before the deadline. Your timely departure would be very convenient.”
“Count on it. Where is it I’ll be departing to?”
“I’ll meet you at your home.”
“Alright, that should be convenient.”
“I’ll see you there,” Cyril bade his farewell as he stood. “Please be safe until then, Lord.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll avoid all hints of danger.” Lieder was considering ways to make sure this never happened again.
Excellent. We’ll make you well again, Lord Lieder. Your future is more glorious than you can imagine.”
Lieder struggled to think of a response, but decided against any as Cyril walked towards the door.
Slowed by contemplation, he sat on his workstation and swiveled to activate it. It wasn’t worth dwelling on, but this was all a product of his own lapse in caution. In their conversation the day before, Lieder had revealed his opinion of the Sapient-Peer hierarchy without knowing how Cyril would react. Lieder had experienced his fair share of culture shock in his life, so he should have known that his words were venturing into that territory.
At least those same experiences taught him how to make things right again. Though it was often easier to take a more assertive approach, he found that the best way to handle a faux-pas was with flexibility. Obstinacy only proved the undesired impression true.
A chronic murmur of activity began to tug at his attention.
When he turned his gaze to investigate, a majority of the class reacted by averting their eyes. Waldemar’s group ignored Lieder’s attention, continuing their conversation that was evidently about him.
His fellow students were in front and to the right of Lieder; it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that they wouldn’t have seen the bruise on his cheek until he sat down. Though a few had noticed it when he first entered, the others wouldn’t have been able to confirm it until now.
They were too far away for him to understand their words, but from the repeated nudges and shoulder-pats being directed at Waldemar, he guessed that most of them were assuming the boy was responsible for Lieder’s injury.
With an incredulous smile, he closed his eyes and shook his head. Lieder had almost forgotten that this new life seemed to be the subject of some substandard sitcom. The Sphinx incident now felt more like a cheap plot device to inject the sort of misunderstanding that the genre thrived on.
Contrary to Lieder’s expectations, Waldemar seemed to be denying the praise. His expression was shaped by earnest annoyance for his friends’ praise. Despite the inaudible testimony playing on the lips of Waldemar’s accomplices from the previous evening, Lieder got the distinct impression that Waldemar’s friends were convinced that their imaginations were accurate.
Lieder felt a twinge of guilt. He might not have given Waldemar enough benefit of the doubt. If asked to make a prediction beforehand, Lieder would have guessed that Waldemar would capitalize on this opportunity to claim responsibility for Lieder’s wounds and spinning their existence as proof of his supremacy.
Yet there he sat, his body language denying his involvement. So long as Lieder hadn’t overlooked some vital factor, Waldemar was telling the truth despite the potential benefits of lying. Perhaps there was more integrity to the boy than Lieder had assumed.
He supposed it didn’t matter. Whatever the scenario, he’d already planned to be courteous towards Waldemar in the future, provided Maximilian was left alone.
Lieder turned back to face his console, unconcerned with the outcome of the conversation. There was much to be done in his investigation of the Tombs family; the studio audience would simply have to cope with his refusal to participate in the usual high school sitcom politics.