The door to his classroom made very little noise upon opening, but Lieder’s entry still attracted several people’s attention.
“Ah, welcome back,” Justus greeted as he rose to his feet. “Did you have…”
Justus trailed off and his friendly smile transformed into concerned disbelief. 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 volume low and his tone casual as he briskly approached. “What happened to you?”
It suddenly occurred to Lieder that there would be visible evidence of the attack on his body. His shirt was stretched, his hair was probably rumpled, and there were several spots on his body that ached enough to be bruises.
He hadn’t thought of what this might mean to his agenda.
“Ah, I forgot. The details are so easily lost when your mind accumulates this much clutter. I was involved in something of an altercation.”
“Who?” Justus narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Who did this to you?! Do the Martials have them in custody? Or was it Waldemar?”
“Waldemar?” Lieder flinched in surprise, then chuckled. “No, no, Waldo had nothing to do with this.” Lieder glanced in the boy’s direction, confirming that he was in the classroom. “This happened maybe twenty minutes ago.”
“I don’t know their identities,” Lieder said slowly, carefully choosing his words. “But I’m convinced that they’re not as curious about the past as you are.”
“The Tombs!” Justus whispered harshly. “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’s eyes narrowed 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!”
“They’re definitely deluded, we agree on that.” Lieder suppressed the urge to smile at the fact that Justus was equally convinced as he was that the Tombs were behind Sphinx. “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 I perceive my minor injuries to be proof of their failure, not success. Had they succeeded, you would never have seen me again.”
Justus closed his eyes and took a deep, tremulous breath as he considered Lieder’s words. Lieder knew that he was very close to pacifying his anger.
“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 start to 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 somehow 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 handle 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 said dismissively, 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 doubly worthwhile to me.”
Lieder smiled as they nodded in farewell, then both men began to make their way towards their seats. Lieder’s pace was notably slower, though, as he had noticed that his cube was already partially occupied.
Cyril sat precariously on the inner-back corner, watching Lieder intently as he approached. As he drew closer, Lieder noticed that Cyril’s eyes seemed to be focused on 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 the many stares and glances being directed his way. Since the injury was on his right, most of the class could not have seen it until he’d turned to walk towards his desk.
“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 remarkably peaceful place now, Lord Lieder. As such, on the rare occasion that a person feels like they’re being threatened, it’s common that their retaliation will 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.
Suddenly panicked, Lieder’s eyes shot around the room, desperate to confirm that nobody was seeing this.
“Are you insane?! I don’t know much about modern regulations, but there’s no way you wouldn’t be severely punished for bringing something like that here!”
“Professing great concern for my wellbeing, but lacking any at all for himself in a potentially dangerous situation,” 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 handle to him.
“Everyone here has one of these, there’s no danger in taking precautions. 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 by the fact that Cyril had brought this weapon and was publicly offering it to him, but for the sake of assuaging the boy’s concern, he accepted the handle. “Cyril, I understand that you believe I’m a self-saboteur, but suggesting that my situation is an emergency is…”
“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 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. The thought of going back to sleep had occurred to him, yes, but he knew exactly how he’d attempt to do that. Cyril would never have had a chance to know about it until after it had been done. Not only was he incapable of understanding why Lieder would consider taking such action, there was absolutely nothing he could possibly do to change Lieder’s mind about it.
“I can see the way in which 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 the Virtuoso Sapient. You know how I feel about this contemporary caste system. That boy’s treatment of her enraged me. I assaulted him in a manner that disallowed him any chance to retaliate.”
“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.” Lieder was completely unprepared to deal with the unfathomable amount of time and effort this boy must have devoted to contemplating Lieder’s psyche. “We are convinced of different realities, though. I will submit to your treatment, but only on the condition that you swear to suspend your disbelief of the possibility that what you think is correlative is actually coincidental.”
“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, these can only be discharged intentionally.”
“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 will set about to preparing your treatment. 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 guess it’s more important that I make a point to leave in six hours.”
Lieder was struggling to remain amicable. He shouldn’t have to spend the time it would require to make this boy understand him, but it was his own fault that Cyril worried at all. Lieder was so accustomed to people inattention that it hadn’t occurred to him that culture would have changed to allow psychiatry to be practiced so aggressively.
There’d been countless times that he’d joked about someone being crazy for having a different political opinion than him; it seemed that now it was socially acceptable to institutionalize someone over such beliefs.
This whole situation could have been avoided if he’d kept his opinion about the fairness of the Peerage’s dominance over the Sapients to himself. In the future, he’d be much more careful about who he shared his views with. In the interim, he’d patiently agree to attend Cyril’s sessions and use that time to pacify the psychiatrist-in-training.
After all, in Lieder’s experienced opinion, Cyril exhibited an unhealthy obsession over Lieder’s beliefs. There was very likely an explanation for why he would feel so strongly about the Peerage’s superiority over Sapients.
“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 very 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 silently considering ways to make sure this situation never happened again. It was the conviction that he could have easily avoided Cyril’s scrutiny that made him more agreeable than he’d normally be.
“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 the center of his cube and swiveled to begin the transformation. The situation with Cyril was wrong; thinking back on their interaction after Lieder revealed his perspective on the inequality between Peers and Sapients, everything had felt like an awkward mistake.
Why had he agreed to the ‘treatment,’ especially without first confirming what that therapy might involve? Normally, when someone suggested that Lieder’s way of thinking was wrong, he’d adopt a more authoritative persona and persuade them that he knew what he was doing and why.
With Cyril, he’d been uncharacteristically submissive. Was it because Lieder felt some subconscious need to handle young people delicately?
He considered their last two conversations; Cyril had blindsided him with the ‘self-saboteur’ theory in the first one, and someone had abducted and attempted to murder Lieder immediately prior to the second one. There was reason to forgive his own sub-optimal reactions.
He took a deep breath and sighed cathartically. Now that he’d focused on the vague awkwardness and dissected it, he was equipped to repair his friendship. Lieder knew exactly what to do. After their appointment, Cyril would voluntarily cancel his treatment.
An unnoticed, chronic murmur of activity between his classmates began to tug at his attention.
When he turned his gaze to investigate, a good majority of the class reacted by averting their eyes back to their workstations. Waldemar’s group ignored Lieder’s sudden awareness, continuing their conversation that was evidently centered around him.
The majority of the class was in front and to the right of Lieder; it shouldn’t have come as any surprise to him that they wouldn’t have noticed the bruise on his cheek until he’d sat down. Though a few had likely 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 disheveled state.
He smiled incredulously, closed his eyes, and shook his head in disbelief. Lieder had almost forgotten that this new life seemed to be the subject of some sick sitcom; the morning’s events had almost fooled him into thinking it might have actually been a comedic thriller. That incident now felt more like it was scripted solely to complicate his situation with misunderstandings.
Contrary to Lieder’s expectations, Waldemar seemed to be denying the praise. His expression was shaped by earnest denial and annoyance for his friends’ refusal to accept his claims. Despite the calm support from the two boys that had accompanied Waldemar to his attempted bullying the previous evening, Lieder got the distinct impression that Waldemar’s friends still believed that he’d literally beaten their new Lord classmate.
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 assumed that Waldemar would capitalize on the opportunity, claiming responsibility for Lieder’s wounds and spinning their existence as proof of his supremacy.
From his body language, Waldemar seemed to be admitting his lack of involvement, and there were no hints that he was acting out of fear of punishment; he’d already displayed a total lack of respect for Justus’s authority. If Lieder was correct, 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, so long as 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.