Alex Roth had long built up a tolerance for—as he called it—‘people’s bullshit’.
Back in Alric he never would’ve survived close to four years in McHarris’ bakery without building that sort of tolerance: he’d have mouthed off, quit, or done something worse back when he still needed the job. That tolerance had let him get through his entire time at the bakery, waiting until the opportunity for sweet, sweet revenge was right.
With others, that tolerance had just let him get through the day to day annoyances of life: nosey neighbours, annoying students at church school, arrogant teachers and others one just had to tolerate if they didn’t want to make too much trouble in their social life. Recently, that had extended to ‘well-meaning, but overly zealous potions-lab classmates and ‘cheaters he didn’t trust as far as Selina could throw them.’
Unfortunately, he had a feeling he’d be calling on that tolerance a lot at the workshop. Like, a lot.
He glanced at Minervus, who was following Lagor around as though he were a content puppy, while the orc crafter gave the tour to his three new assistants.
The pale, thin-faced young man had undergone a shocking transformation: in Baelin’s first class, he’d been utterly self-focused and quite forward about it. In the second class—when it was clear that he had no allies—he’d tried to rip apart the others’ teamwork to get Rayne to join him.
There was no trace of that young man to be seen today.
That wasn’t to say that Minervus had suddenly become some happy, open, friendly fellow, but when he spoke, his tone toward Lagor was respectful—unlike when he’d lashed out at Baelin—and seemed every inch a team player. He asked the right questions about different areas of the workshop.
“And here.” Lagor opened a storage room. “This is where we keep the tools used for sculpting the attachment point between a golem’s core and its body.”
He gestured within the darkened space, and ran his hand over a glyph on the wall. The chamber was suddenly lit by several forceballs glowing in different colours. Mana tools and devices hung from every inch of wall, organized by their kind and function. Where professor Jules’ tools were finer and more delicate for use in her lab, these were far more robust: each looked sturdy, like they could take the day-to-day rigours of constant use in the workshop without getting damaged.
Thanks to his work with Jules and her grad students, Alex knew the function of many of them. Lagor pointed at several battered, truly massive bricks of books laid out on tables in front where the tools were stored.
“Those printed manuals identify the safety procedures and use for every tool in this room. You’ll use this shift and the next two to familiarize yourself with every one of them. You won’t need to know how to use all of them, but you’ll need to know what tools I’ll need and be able to use the simpler ones yourselves. Got it?”
“Yes,” said the third assistant—Carmen—a woman that was perhaps ten years older than Minervus or Alex. “Um. Lagor, I’ve used all of these tools at the workshop where I worked previously. Do I need to go through the manual?”
“Oh absolutely,” Lagor said. “Everybody does. Some ten years ago, I got an assistant from Illiavitch Royal Golem Crafters, from Rostovom far to the Northeast.”
Alex had heard of that country—a place where the winters were long, brutal and hungry.
“He knew his way around a shop: you could see his experience, so—because I had lessexperience, I let him do his thing. Turns out the wizards of Rostovom use a different measuring system for almost…everything. So he put too much saltpeter in the first binding stage and well, let’s just say that if a healer hadn’t gotten to me fast, I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”
He gestured back to the books. “So, the official policy is, everyone reads the procedures and manuals, and then everyone is tested on the safety procedures. You’ll be supervised by otherassistants during your first couple of weeks here. We don’t take chances like that anymore.”
“Oh jeez,” Alex said. “What happened to the assistant from Rostovom?”
“Death and the gods watch over him now.”
“Oh.” Alex winced.
“I’ll make sure to review the procedures very carefully,” Minervus jumped in, wiping some condensation that had begun to form in the lenses of his mask. “Might we also study the procedures on our own time? If there are books available.”
Lagor glanced at him. “Yeah, that’s fine as long as you check it out with me at the end of your shift and bring it back during the next.”
“Of course,” Minervus said.
‘Showing initiative,’ Alex thought. ‘Appealing to your bosses. Smart.’
What was troubling Alex about Minervus was how completely differently he was acting here in Shale’s than he had outside in the street, and during COMB-1000. And Alex had a feeling that the more cooperative side he was showing now—and that he’d probably shown in the interview—was a mask used to increase his favour now that things were noncompetitive and comfortable.
Alex had seen what happened when he thought he had nothing to lose, could literally fly ahead of others or wanted to eliminate competition. As he watched him, Minevus glanced Alex’s way.
His eyes narrowed slightly through the lenses of his mask.
They didn’t have outright malice in them at the moment, but they were guarded and watching.
Alex thought about that possibility for advancement. If there was only one opportunity and three assistants, then what would Minervus do? The area between Alex’s shoulder blades seemed to tense: like it was wary of a dagger poised to strike.
Unfortunately—as they tour went on—Alex realized there was a reason why Minervus had gotten the job.
Alex paid as much attention to Lagor, Carmen and Minervus through the tour as he did to Lagor’s lecture on their responsibilities, tools, areas of work and frequency of pay. He learned several things.
For one, Minervus was surprisingly competent in the area of golems. When he asked questions, they would be of an advanced nature: often focusing on processes involved with the construction of more specialized or advanced golems. He seemed to have a handle of the basics of golem-craft as well, though he did mention that he had never constructed a golem himself.
His insights into the rendering of flesh, moulding of skin and recomposition of fat on bone to craft flesh golems…made Alex a little sick, but Lagor definitely leaned in with interest as Minervus brought up these topics over their evening break.
Carmen was definitely the most experienced of all of them, and she did not so much ask questions as she did ‘talk shop’ with Lagor as though she’d been working at Shale’s for years. From her friendly, professional demeanour, it was clear that she would be a good member of the team at least.
That left Alex: he was definitely the most inexperienced, but he was already drinking in every last detail of Lagor’s explanations and the tools they’d be expected to use. He’d use The Mark to its full capacity to leap ahead in skill as much as he could.
Eventually, Lagor left his new assistants to their own devices while he went to work with the crafter’s assistants that currently aided him—one was being promoted, while two were students at Generasi who were finishing their studies to return to their homelands. That left Minervus, Carmen and Alex to start going through the procedures manuals. With his reading ability having been so honed by The Mark, Alex whipped through the manuals at noteworthy speed, all the while taking notes in a notebook he’d brought along.
He noticed Minervus glancing at him from time to time, but the narrow-faced young man’s expression had become unreadable. He was the first to depart as their first shift ended, though, and disappeared into the night with one of the procedures’ manuals in hand.
When Alex left shortly after him, he marched into the silent street—Shale’s was one of the only businesses on the street that worked into the night—and took a long look around in case any flesh golems were hiding in the shadows, ready to jump out and break his legs or something.
He shook the fantasy out of his head: he knew it was irrational, but something about Minervus gave off a high creepiness factor.
As he made his way down the street, he noticed several other shops and restaurants that were open late into the night—lit by light from forceballs and other spells. By now, Alric would have been as quiet as a tomb.
“Guess that’s what can happen at night when you can get light for free,” Alex said—his voice loud at first, then dropping to a quiet whisper as it echoed through the quiet night.
Luckily, he was able to hail a sky-gondola without incident and make his way back to campus. The journey home to the insula was peaceful, and he spent as much time looking up at the stars and the lights still burning in some windows of the main castle, as he did watching the path ahead. Some areas on the grass were illuminated by students travelling by way of magical light.
One carried a long lantern on a staff over their shoulder, and Alex was sure he saw a sprite sleeping inside the lantern while giving off a magical glow. In the distance, he heard the sounds of pipes, drums, lutes and other instruments as well as the noise of rowdy voices. With midterms done, half the campus was out celebrating in force.
He could understand why.
Tomorrow was when the honours’ lists were set to come out.
For many students, it would mean whether or not they were in-line for achievement, or getting trampled by others when it came time to seek future opportunities.
He took a deep breath, thinking about what Baelin and Sinbrok had said.
With any hope, he’d likely see his name on a few lists.
In the morning, he’d get up first thing and go to the registrar’s desk—where the school would post all the Honours lists on a massive central board.
That meant braving Hobb.
And it meant he might see Isolde as well.
Hopefully, she’d be in a better mood now that exams were done.
“Gods damn it all!” a student roared in front of the board, ripping off his tall, conical hat and stomping on it. “I had it! I know I had it! There’s got to be a mistake!”
He was just one among a massive sea of students that crowded up to the board as soon as it had been revealed to them. The area in front of the registrar’s office was filled to bursting—especially with first-years—though some students arrived, took one look at the massive lineup, and decided to either return later, or check one of the individual lists in the specific department.
“There’s a mistake! I know I aced that midterm!” the student roared—breaking down into angry tears—and the hall was falling into an uneasy silence.
Alex shared uncomfortable looks with Khalik and Thundar, and then with Theresa waiting close by with Shishi. Shishi was there to see if her own efforts had landed her on the honours list. Khalik was there to see how he’d done as well, while Thundar said there was only one class that ‘he stood a chance’ in.
It might take awhile until they got a chance to see their results, though. The irate student’s rage only continued to build until he looked like he was about ready to tear down the lists.
“Ahem!” a familiar voice cut through the student’s outburst. “Young fellow, might I ask that you take your temper tantrum elsewhere?”
“Who, who said tha-” The student looked up from stomping on his hat, red-faced and ready for a fight, then froze.
Standing beside the board—in a space Alex was sure had been empty the last time he blinked—was Hobb, who was casually polishing his massive monocle with a handkerchief. The cloth was patterned with embroidered gold coins. Alex couldn’t be sure from this distance, but he could have sworn that the faces sewn into each coin were winking.
“Tut, tut.” Hobb clicked his tongue as he placed the monocle back onto his face. “Wizards have come here to learn how to bend the forces of the cosmos to their unbreakable will, and instead of bringing demons or learning to call meteors from the sky, you’re here having a temper tantrum like a child.” Hobb glanced down critically. “And ruining a perfectly good hat while you’re at it.”
The student grew bolder, rising up to his full height. Physically, he was taller than the blue-skinned devil, but to Alex he seemed much, much smaller. “Was there a misprint? This can’t be right.”
“Aaaaah, if only I had a coin for every time I heard that whenever an honours list is published.” Hobb shook his head sadly. “If you need to dispute this oversight—if this is what it is—then I suggest you speak to your professor…politely, I might add. I’m afraid that standing here, stopping others from seeing their places on the lists only humiliates you, wastes others’ time and increases the chances that I will have to call the Watchers of Roal to have you removed.”
Hobb’s face turned truly mournful. “And that would be such a sad, sad thing for me to have to do.”
Turning redder by the second, the student grabbed his ruined hat and stomped from the hall, most of the other students sighing in relief as he went. As Alex watched them go, he noticed a familiar raven-haired figure standing in line by the lists for second year classes. She was with a pair of other young women, and looked far healthier than she did during midterms.
He noticed her stealing glances toward the first-year lists.
Likely, looking to see her place in COMB-1000 as well.
He wondered who would come out on top out of the two of them.
Seeming to sense his look, she turned and paused when she caught sight of his group. He, Thundar, Khalik and Theresa waved at her.
She paused, giving a little wave and polite smile to each of them.
When her face fell on Alex though, her eyes burned and her chin lifted.
Not in anger, it seemed.
But in challenge.