“Day three,” a voice came from his side. “I’ve got to respect your endurance.”
Lieder directed his gaze through the right corners of his eyes, one lid twitching slightly in irritation. Even this subtle movement seemed like a wasteful squandering of his remaining energy.
Cyril was standing next to him, holding out a bottle as an offering. He caught a faint, fruity smell as the straw built into the lid flipped open.
Lieder snatched the container and put the straw to his lips. He sucked the fluid into his throat as fast as it would flow, too ecstatic to classify the heavenly flavor that passed over his tongue. The thick slush instantly washed the dry haze that had been lingering within down, and to his relief, it didn’t creep back up after the meager moments it took him to empty the cup.
“Appreciations,” Lieder gasped, swallowing hard as he returned the bottle to Cyril. “And apologies.”
“You can get these out of every dispenser, and there’s at least one on every floor. If this is going to be your usual behavior, I’d recommend you visit them frequently.”
“You can count on that happening,” Lieder replied. He felt rejuvenated, and the massive appetite he’d built up was receding quickly. It was obvious that whatever he’d just imbibed was substantial enough to take the place of a meal or two.
“As tough as you are, I expect you’ve been forced to know where the nearest fountains and lavatories are?”
“Then as long as I can confirm that you know you can recline as far as you like if you need to catch some sleep, I suppose I can rest easy knowing you’re practically living here.”
Lieder smiled mischievously. “C’mon, you don’tknowthat I haven’t gone home. There’s plenty of time for me to go home and come back without anyone noticing.”
“That window may be smaller than you think, unless you purposely timed your departure and return within that four-hour window that your favorite senior classman wasn’t here.”
Lieder scrunched his brow in confusion, turning to inspect Waldemar. He looked to be in as bad of shape as Lieder was; his hair was slightly disheveled, his posture sagging, and he stared hatefully at Lieder through squinted, bloodshot eyes.
Lieder laughed sympathetically. “Guess I should have gone home soon after everyone else did, huh?”
“If you’re concerned, I’m sure Justus…”
“Thanks, but I’m an adult.” Lieder shrugged. “I’ll handle this. You can even have my promise that I’ll make it painless, so long as he allows it.”
“I thought so, but certainty’s preferred to remorse.”
Better safe than sorry. Lieder had translated the phrase before even intending to.
“Indeed. I’ve got to say, it’s pretty brave of him, assuming his friends enlightened him on my status.”
“Oh, he knows you’re a Lord,” Cyril confirmed. “I can assure you of that. If I may ask, what was it you said to him when he leaned over you? I’ve never seen him like this, I think it really affected him.”
“I think I scared him a bit, is all,” Lieder replied vaguely. “The reaction I gave wasn’t the reaction he was looking for, and I think that kind of thing riles his syndrome.”
“Come now, he doesn’t have any kind of disorder,” Cyril argued. “He’s just young and acts the part. Don’t let Maximilian’s prodigious nature distort your perspective.”
“I don’t know about that, Cyril,” Lieder pressed. “How much thought have you given his situation?”
Cyril shrugged. “Not a lot. Should I have?”
“It’s subtle, and it’s not something he’d ask for help on,” Lieder explained. “In fact, the majority of the battle would be getting him to admit the issue. There’s still a chance I’m wrong, but as of now I believe the reason he wants to hang me from the flagpole by my underwear is that he’s desperately addicted to control.”
“Hang you by your underwear?” Cyril laughed. “That’s got to be some high-tensile material, I can’t imagine that’s comfortable! Besides, I don’t know where he’d find anyone that flew any flags.”
“I’m just going off what the bullies always did to Bart,” Lieder chuckled. “His agenda could easily be different, but the important thing is his motive.”
“Help me see it,” Cyril requested earnestly. “What makes you think that he has a compulsion to be in control?”
“Well, for one, he seems to be the center of that group over there. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s my first assumption.”
“No, that’s accurate,” Cyril assured. “What else?”
“The more convincing evidence is in how he treated little Max. He claimed otherwise, but I have good reason to believe that Justus never said anything that would imply that Waldo would receive any punishment should Max graduate before him. Waldo simply spun it that way to justify what he wanted to do.”
“Which was to control Maximilian?”
“Yes. I don’t think there’s any ulterior motive beyond that; I just think he likes to prove that he can do it. It’s not a matter of proving it to himself, really. He just thinks everyone sees the world the same way he does, so he thinks he’s proving to Justus and the rest of the class that he’s the one in charge. If everyone sits idly by while it happens, he perceives that as universal acceptance of his control.”
“I see. Interesting theory. By itself, there’s no single syndrome for that symptom, but it is indicative of other problems.”
“I didn’t even know that word existed until it bounced off the Lexicon just now.” Cyril grinned. “But yes, it could indicate self-obsession. One would have to feel incredibly isolated from the thoughts and feelings of others to believe that kind of philosophy to be acceptable. That’s a syndrome that almost-exclusively develops in members of the Peerage, it’s usually not severe enough to need treatment.”
“Don’t take my word on whether or not Waldemar is actually self-obsessed, you’re the psychiatrist here. Look back on your relationship with him and decide for yourself whether it’s plausible.”
“I already think you’re correct. Especially in light of his recent exploits. I won’t formally diagnose until I’ve observed him with this in mind, but I’m glad you brought it up. You may not have been a psychologist in your former life, Lord Lieder, but I would have believed it if you’d told me so.”
“Call me Carl,” Lieder insisted. “And the older you get, the more your vocational lines begin to blur. It’s a peculiarity to human society. To survive on your own, it’s more behooving to be versatile than it is to be a specialist. It seems so opposite of most animal ecosystems.”
“Well, to be a part of society is to never truly be alone, meaing one doesn’t have to survive on their own” Cyril corrected, chuckling at his rhetorical meticulousness. “I know what you meant, though, and understand. It must have been especially true in your time.”
“Perhaps. Things seemed more competitive, before. People would practically stampede for the higher-paying jobs, even if they didn’t have a natural affinity for that line of work. Your education system seems to do a much better job at identifying people’s natural talents and putting those people into the proper fields.”
“Indeed.” Cyril nodded. “It’s a great source of pride for the Peerage in general, though understandably more-so for the Preceptors.”
“If Sapients are raised with as much attention given to their affinities as Peers are, then society’s truly come a long way in terms of education. Before, only a tiny minority of people claimed they enjoyed their work. Even if they did enjoy it, they always had to worry about the possibility that they’d lose their job and need to find another. Nowadays, if my research on the Tombs means anything, adults rarely ever leave the family they join after the Academy years. If I could assume that Sapients are comparably satisfied, it would be safe to say I’m proud of the direction your ancestors took us.”
“Yes, it’s very rare that anyone does try to leave a current employer,” Cyril confirmed. “Sapient and Peer alike almost always remain where they are once they’ve established their place. After the chaos you experienced, it must be refreshing for you to see that the Peerage finally established its dominance.”
Lieder smiled patiently. “Well, I’m withholding judgment on that. I can certainly see the perks, especially for Peers, but I can’t be certain that this was the correct conclusion for society to reach. I feel like Sapients aren’t being given a fair chance.”
Cyril’s eyelids flared in surprise. “Really? You do seem to be a skeptical type, but I would have expected you’d be more predisposed to accept this system.”
“I am only four days into this new life. I suppose I could learn something that would change my mind. Still, I have a hard time believing you could accurately rate a person as superior or inferior based on their genetics.”
“I hope that outlook changes soon, Carl,” Cyril said earnestly. “You restrain your words to hide your true opinion, but I think I know what you’re getting at. Sapients are a remarkable species and a boon to society, but the Peerage is so much more. The Peerage’s broader liberties enhance our Sapient cousins; our leadership allows them to be more than they could be without it.”
“I’m just saying that I don’t think humans can be measured that easily, Cyril.” Lieder shrugged, obviously reluctant to continue on this subject. At that moment, he was too weary to really try changing anyone’s mind about this topic. “People with perceived genetic handicaps and disabilities have achieved things that many gifted people couldn’t even dream of. Some people do seem born with an advantage over others, yes, but that advantage always has room to be squandered.”
“I believe the phenomenon you’re referencing was a flaw of medical technology at the time, and your philosophy is understandably adjusted to that. Was ‘genetics’ even a field of study, then? If so, I suspect it could only have been in its infancy. Certainly, it couldn’t have been sophisticated enough to distinguish between Sapient and Peer.”
“It was relatively new, compared to other fields, but it matured extremely quickly. We weren’t blind to it; in fact, scientists made great strides in proving that the way a person’s raised is much more important in determining their quality as adults than their genes are.”
“Ah, environmental factors. Yes, other Winkles have told me stories of appalling neglect and abuse. Consider those problems solved, Carl; it doesn’t happen anymore. Contraception has become foolproof, and the educational system is far more empowered to care for children; so much so that the parents could be taken out of the equation and the child will still lead an enriched life. Any inequalities in each child’s care are negligible. We’ve developed to the point that, for every two children, the system can tell you which will be more capable in which area with one-hundred percent accuracy.”
“Contraception is foolproof, you say?” Lieder asked, glancing at the pregnant Eirian.
“Yeah,” Cyril sighed and smiled sadly. “When used.”
“I don’t doubt that things have come a long, long way,” Lieder acknowledged, considering his own upbringing. “But I’m skeptical to believe that we’ve managed to equalize every child’s resources enough to claim they’re truly equal. Just like how most people are born with natural affinities for certain lines of work, certain people are born with a natural affinity for parenthood. Being lucky enough to have those kinds of parents is more of an advantage than you could ever hope to create for everyone.”
“Which is why we employ those people in the schools,” Cyril pressed. “Those empowered parents are our teacher; that fact means all of our children have access to that caliber of parent.”
“Try as they might, a parent can’t care for students in the same way they can for the children of their own household. I’d have a hard time believing otherwise.”
Cyril was looking directly into his eyes, and after he didn’t respond for several moments, Lieder felt the smallest tinge of discomfort. He wasn’t used to people trying this hard to understand him; he always found it hard to fathom why anyone would be interested enough to try.
It didn’t help that the boy was so eloquent. Children weren’t supposed to speak this well; these Lexicons put him at a disadvantage when trying to gauge people.
“We’ve deviated pretty far from the subject, haven’t we?” Cyril finally spoke.
"Yeah, but it is pertinent.” Lieder forced himself to maintain the intense eye contact. “I think there’s immeasurably more to determining a person’s worth than what their DNA can tell us, and we were examining one avenue of evidence.”
“I no longer think this is about Sapient and Peerage equality. I think it’s been about something else all along. I’d like to confirm that, so bear with me as I examine the possibility.”
“Alright,” Lieder mused, stifling a chuckle. “Care to enlighten me? Maybe I can help confirm or disqualify your theory.”
“I’m starting to think you spotted Waldemar’s potential personality disorder because you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum. In psychology, opposite extremes are never a solutions to any problems; it’s the center area we should strive for. The in-between.”
“Yeah, that’s how I feel about philosophy, too,” Lieder agreed, despite the implication that Cyril believed he was personality disordered. “Black and white are both bad. We should strive to be grey.”
“Splendidly simplified,” Cyril replied, his voice monotone. “Do know that I strongly suspect you might not be as grey as you’d like. I don’t want that to despair you, I simply want to suggest that there’s still room for you to improve your outlook.”
“There always is!” Lieder proclaimed, suppressing the defensive instincts that were rising in his gut. “As everyone always said, you never stop learning, no matter how old you get. I believe that’s true, at least until the point where your brain runs out of storage space. It’s not like I could hold a conversation like this at that point, so I can only assume there’s still some growing space.”
“Trust me,” Cyril asserted, his expression still determined. “The storage space issue is no longer an issue. Your potential is limitless, Lord Lieder, and you need to recognize…”
“Thanks, Cyril, but don’t sound so worried. I survived to one-hundred and thirty just fine, I-“
“It’s not about survival!” Cyril said forcefully, loudly enough to attract a couple of glances from their nearest neighbors. “Surviving is hardly a challenge for any Peer, let alone a Lord. No, Lord Lieder, you are capable of contributing much more than you believe.”
“Please, try to stick with ‘Carl,’ if at all possible.”
“I will not.” Cyril was adamant. “Think back, Lord, you’ve always been better than most people at most every task. There may have been a couple people who could surpass you in a single area, you may even be able to name enough individuals to collectively surpass you ineveryway. But no single one of them could claim superiority over you in any sort of majority of features, could they? If we were to weigh your qualities against any lower-than-lord individual’s, your worth would always measure substantially more, wouldn’t it?”
There was some truth to what Cyril was saying. Lieder had always had a hard time delegating tasks to others; if he wanted something done right, he often found it was best to do it himself. It was the only way to ensure that he wouldn’t be disappointed.
Still, he couldn’t quite understand how Cyril justified his philosophy. At its simplest, the Peerage assigned status based on people’s genes. A person labeled as a Peer had no vocational limit; they could potentially earn their way to the top of any family. Meanwhile, the only way a Sapient could become a Peer was to prove they had the genetic makeup of one; no matter how capable they might prove themselves to be, the Peerage would never allow them to advance above Sapient status.
By assigning people status by their genetic makeup, society was gambling with people’s potential. Most people would perceive the man who loses his house in a Poker game as a fool. Lieder believed it was wrong to believe that same man a genius should he happen to win that hand.
It didn’t matter how good that particular hand was.
In his sleep-deprived state, however, Lieder couldn’t begin translating that feeling into words. He stared back into Cyril’s gaze through bloodshot eyes, sluggishly trying to shake off the apathy and conceive a proper answer to the boy’s questions.
“By what standard?” This was all Lieder could do. “Who decides how much my patience weighs against another man’s passion? I’m not qualified to judge, especially when the stakes are so high. I don’t believe any man is.”
“That argument is more evidence to my theory,” Cyril shook his head; there was no impudence in his demeanor. He wasn’t smug over feeling like he’d won the debate; he simply believed he had. “Your body’s senses are more honed than you believe for gauging a person’s traits. While there are different types of personalities, distinguished by differing proportions between things like ‘patience’ and ‘passion,’ intelligence, skill, and talent aren’t defined by personality. They’re traits you’re born with, and someone with those traits can easily recognize both those who have and those who don’t. I believe my analysis is complete enough: you’re a self-saboteur , my dear Lord. Rest assured, I will do everything in my power to cure you.”
Lieder laughed, more heartily than he intended to. Did he really believe that he could confine Lieder to that label so easily? In all his century-long adult life, Lieder couldn’t think of one thing he’d accomplished that could be done with the self-destructiveness that the term ‘self-saboteur’ suggested.
“I’m fine with whatever you believe, Cyril, but know that it’s not so simple. Remember, I’m a very old man, and the more you believe in my capability, the more you should consider what that belief suggests when combined with my massive amounts of experience.”
“You have my admiration for surviving such a harsh era,” Cyril started, taking one step backward. “But consider the possibility that the harshness made it impossible to spot the more subtle problems. We tend to look at the most pressing problems visible, Lord Lieder. In your time, that was probably war, disease, and famine. Those aren’t problems anymore, Lieder, we’re now able to devote much more attention to far lesser evils.”
“I will take that into consideration, Cyril,” Lieder smiled gently. He was being honest, but he knew it wouldn’t change his outlook on the Sapient-Peerage relationship. “I’m grateful you’re around to help me. Let’s just do our best not to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Cyril smiled cryptically, then turned on his hind-set foot and walked away.
Before Lieder turned back to his own work, a strange shape in his peripheral caught his attention. He rotated his focus to find Waldemar bent over Maximilian’s desk. He could tell they were talking, but aside from Maximilian’s agitated movements, there wasn’t much he could interpret about it.
Lieder faced his workstation’s screen, the distant memory of a TV documentary on walruses in mind.
“Search for walrus documentaries, sort by relevance to keywords ‘juvenile bully.’” The search results displayed instantly. “Play the first hit.”
“As with many mammals, male walruses are quite aggressive; particularly towards younger males. Here, a juvenile has instigated a conflict against this calf, who made no apparent action to bring about such aggression. Unfortunately for our bully, the eldest male has taken notice, and promptly flops to the calf’s rescue. It’s said that in pre-Exodus times, men with frame and facial hair resembling a walrus were perceived to be wise and sophisticated; if this is typical behavior for the dominant walrus, it’s not hard to imagine why.”
“Share this with Maximilian Savant,” Lieder barely managed through the tremors of laughter.
“Accept,” Maximilian said, nearly immediately. The fact that Lieder could hear him now was evidence that his conversation with Waldemar had been hushed.
Cued by Maximilian’s interruption, Waldemar turned his head to see what was being accepted. As the video played, the smaller boy’s laughter crescendoed.
As it finished, Waldemar stood up straight to look towards Lieder, but the laughter had caught Justus’s attention.
“I’m glad it seems amicable this time, but Maximilian has a very delicate project to finish. Please let him concentrate, Waldemar.”
“Apologies, Marquess, I’ll leave him be.”
When Waldemar’s gaze drifted away from Justus and back towards him, Lieder cupped his hands together in front of his neck and made a massaging motion with his fingers, as if to caress a neck much thicker than his own. Waldemar’s inconclusive expression became a glare as he realized why Lieder had chosen to send Maximilian a video about walruses in particular.
It was easy to see how the walrus resembled the manatee.