The Path that Led to Nowhere
"Well, to put it honestly, Conrad, I can't see any reason why he should be enrolled there," the grim, uneasy man told him friend, lying between his teeth simply because he didn't like how dire the conversation was becoming. He regretted bringing up the topic at all.
"Of course it's a big deal!" Conrad shot back in disgust, whispering so fiercely that he was practically yelling. "How could it not be? I come from one of the most magically prestigious families in the nation, and if someone finds out that our blue blood is thinning, well…" He leaned back comfortably in his seat, let his shoulders slump and sighed pathetically. "We can forget getting that contract from the throne."
"Oh, don't overreact. What your son does has nothing to do with how powerful you are," Jamison told him pleadingly. "Don't worry about it."
"How can I not worry?" he asked as he kneaded his temples with his bony, white knuckles. "How can I not worry?"
His friend shrugged and took a drink of his usual whiskey. "Try to think of something else," he advised him, his lips upon the glass just before he took a drink, and then he took a large, hearty swig.
The two of them continued with their meal in silence for another minute, and then Conrad again brought up the subject of his son, despite the great pain it caused him to speak of the black sheep. "If I…If I sent him to one of those special schools, Jamison, do you think they would realize where he was? You know—do you think they would grow suspicious if he were suddenly gone?"
Jamison mouthed the words "one of those special schools" and then worked his jaw for a good ten seconds before he said, "No, I doubt they would notice, Conrad, but that's more of a moral issue than a social one."
"Don't you know what they do at those special schools?"
"Well, they teach them how to siphon magic from other sources than their own, right?" He shrugged. "Edgar told me all about it—he went to one, you know—he said it wasn't all bad. Just a lot of work. They feed them all right, so it's all good."
He spoke so casually that Jamison didn't know if he should take it as a joke. "Conrad, Edgar looks twenty years older than he actually is, he's in a constant state of poor health and he killed your cat," he told his friend urgently, leaning in as he spoke so that he was practically laying in his half-eaten meal by the time he was finished.
"He did not kill my cat. My cat died of consumption."
"Cats don't die of consumption."
"Well, Edgar said that was how it appeared to be when he found the body, and since he was the only one that saw it, I decide—" Conrad would have gladly gone on, completely justified in doing so, had Jamison not interjected.
"Regardless of what happened to your cat, you simply cannot send your son to one of those special schools when they've been outlawed in every nation but Bonavar, which we all know is so involved in its political upheaval that they haven't enough time to worry about children being mentally destroyed by an archaic institution."
"But…" Conrad shook his head and stabbed his salad with his fork. He lifted it up to his mouth and let it dangle there in agony while he thought. "What else am I to do, James? What else can I do for my son? What kind of life will he lead without magic?" He took a bite and chewed the salad woefully.
"What kind of life will he lead without his mind? Look, Conrad, I get that it's a miserable life without magic; the poor kid will be cut off from every wonder we've known our entire lives, but letting him go there would be like letting him die. He can still live without magic—it's just a bit more difficult."
"Your reputation shall be just fine. Tell the dirty lot that he's suffering from a skin disease and send him up to one of those colder countries," Jamison told him with great exasperation. "They'll take it to be true and let the matter rest. I mean, you've got five sons, four of which are enrolled in the most prestigious magical academies in the known world; what's the problem?"
"He's my youngest, Jamison! He's supposed to inherit the family business."
"All the more reason that he keeps his mind intact."
"What can a—a—What can he do for my business if he doesn't have enough magic to keep it in running order?" he demanded. "Will he just pretend for the rest of his life that he knows what he's doing when he doesn't?"
"He can just do what you do—hire others to do most of the work. He doesn't actually have to handle it physically. Teach him the principles in magic—the laws, the rules, the regulations. Give him a proper education in the craft, even if he doesn't know how to use it, and then let him loose. He'll be fine. I'm sure ten percent of the people we work with everyday don't have magic.
"Not to mention those who do use it aren't exactly competent. I mean…well, just watch." He reached up and grabbed one of the waiters by the sleeve, pulling him back before he could walk away. "You, sir; can you use magic?"
The waiter nervously nodded and pulled his arm away from Jamison.
"And you make—what—eight dollars a day?"
"There we go then, Conrad," Jamison concluded as he waved off the waiter. "Magic or no magic, there's no guarantee that he'll end up all right."
"That's beside the point, James!"
"Then what is the point? That you want the kid's brain to rot while he's in some medieval institute that promotes the theft of magic? No—I refuse to support such a want. He's a kid, Conrad, and your kid to boot. How can you even consider?"
He threw up his hands. "I don't know—I don't know. I just want what's right for him—I want him to be prosperous. I want him to use magic."
"Then you're wanting out of your safety zone, 'cause someone who's born without it can't suddenly use it. It's not like that and you know it."
"Then what do I do for him?" Conrad pleaded desperately.
"I've told you—teach him the principles; send him to a nation lacking in magic and he'll fit in just fine," Jamison told him, using his fork as an implement of explanation. "But tossing him off with those ruffians will only ruin him—only murder him."
Conrad ran his fingers through his shortly cropped brown hair and moaned loudly. "But I just can't, James, I just can't. I can't let him live like that. Think of all he'll be missing."
"Honestly, it's not like he's deaf—it's not like he can't listen to fine music. You'll probably be doing him a load of good, keeping him away from such a corrupted world. I tell you, it's not right, the way we live. You'll be saving him from that."
Conrad, who was holding his head up with his hands, looked up at his friend. "It's worse than being deaf."
"What—being brainless?" He narrowed his eyes. "I sort of noticed."
"No—being magically inept."
"Well, I suppose
he'll just have to deal with that then," Jamison told him with a
shrug. "It's just not something you can fix. It's not a broken
leg—it's not a speech impediment."
"No—it's a disease."
Jamison frowned. "I don't think I much like such an attitude."
"He's my son—he's ill; I have to do something about it," Conrad said, mostly to himself, but partly to justify his previous statement.
"I don't want to say this—honestly I don't—but, Conrad…" Jamison placed his fork on his nearly empty plate with a loud clatter and began to stand up. "…If you send your son to one of those schools, I won't speak to you anymore. I can't be associated with someone who so freely enslaves their children for the sake of their own personal image."
He took his napkin from his lap before it could fall and placed it on the table. "Now, if you really want me to put in a good word so that he can go to my school—fine, but that's all I'll do for you. I won't help you with the other schools…"
Conrad waved him off. "Go—go."
Jamison, saddened by the indifference but sure in his decision, nodded solemnly and began to walk away. He paused for a minute, though, unsure if he should say what he very much wanted to say. Perhaps it would fall upon deaf ears, but… "Conrad, I've only met the kid once, but he really is too sweet to be ruined by such a cold, unhappy place. You'll be harming him in more than one way."
He walked away smartly, his highly polished shoes clacking crisply on the wooden floor, leaving Conrad alone.
Feeling that he had only his dignity left, he stood up quite straight and gazed down at the rest of his meal. He wasn't hungry—not anymore. He finished off his drink, and when he saw that some of Jamison's remained he drank that as well. Once he was sufficiently on his way to the grand state of drunkenness, he leaned back in his chair and gazed up at the ceiling.
"Are you ready for your bill, sir?" the waiter who Jamison had just asked questioned asked in a respectful but clearly bored manner.
Conrad frowned. "Left me with the bill, he did."
"What's that sir?"
He sighed and sat up straight again. "Yeah, yeah… I'll pay it."
"You're no longer my son."
Simon sat there, silent because that was all he knew how to be at that point in time, and nodded in a confused, uneasy sort of way.
"I'll pay for your well-being, because I'll hear nothing of me neglecting you, but I cannot be known to have a son without magic. It's not right. It's not normal," Conrad explained as if it were nothing more than a simple business transaction. It wasn't right. It wasn't normal, yet he went about it so casually that Simon felt lost.
But he did not argue. How could he argue? What could he say?
"I'm sorry, father, for being born this way?" No. He couldn't say that.
So he just sat there, and he just took it. And even when his bags were being packed by the expressionless maids, and even when his meal was being prepared by the expressionless cooks, and even when he was being waved off by his expressionless family, he simply sat there—he simply took it.
He was numb. He was tired beyond his years. He was a disgrace.
Simon stared out what remained of the window and acted like he was seeing expansive forests in contrast to the stark, barren landscape of the northern territories. The windows were partially covered by thick, iron bars—bars like he had never seen before. And the train car around him was full of similar instruments of imprisonment—a traveling prison. It made him sick to the stomach to be so mistreated, but he didn't see any point in voicing his displeasure or discomfort.
He was a striking fellow, for all his odd habits. He had dark brown hair, which hung in a haphazard way upon his head, and his eyes were a warm yet wise green. He held himself quite nicely for someone so mistreated and uncared for, and his default expression was that of knowledge and mirth—he found much humor at times that were almost inappropriate.
He turned away from the window, since he really couldn't see trees where there were only dead animals that could not survive in the winter's fierce nature, and let his unhappy eyes fall upon the figures of those miserable wretches that were suffering the same fate as him. He found a girl beside him that had eyes that were a dark, dark shade, nearly black and very purple, and her face was horribly pale. Most noticeably, she had circles under her eyes, from what must have been lack of sleep. She was chilling to look at. He didn't want to think of what she had to do in her life to look the way she did.
"Oh, hello," Simon said blankly. He blinked several times and turned his torso slightly so that he could comfortably look at her. The heavily starched fabric of his suit jacket crinkled in the sort of way that made him want to flinch. "When did you get there?"
The girl, who had been staring forward at the seat in front of her, said to him in a monotone voice, "I didn't like the person I was sitting next to; I moved."
"Yes, but when did you get here?" He couldn't recall ever hearing or seeing her come to sit there.
"I don't know," she replied with a shrug. "I don't really remember myself—I was daydreaming."
"Oh. Well, all right then." He didn't pursue the topic, since it never seemed to work with people of her sort—the mysterious and the dark. "Who were you sitting beside that was so unlikable?"
She pointed to three isles ahead and one to the right, where a young boy that was saying to himself, "I cannot find the bridge to home, since the bridge to home is prone to roam," over and over again, and grimaced—all the while looking ahead. "It's from an old story about a man who only talks to his farm animals—about a crazy guy—and it creeps me out to have to listen to it. Otherwise, he's quite likeable."
Simon scratched the back of his head nervously—the fabric of his jacket crinkled and wrinkled as his arm moved—and smiled in just the same manner. "Well, I'm sure he's quite the fellow."
"We're not all
crazy, you know," the strange girl told him after a good long
while. "I know that we seem crazy, since we weren't brought up
like you, but we really aren't. We're just…different."
"I don't think you're crazy," Simon said defensively.
"Oh, you do. You'd have to be crazy not to." She smiled and turned to him. "I'm not crazy," he assured her with a chuckle, "but I don't think that either. I mean, no one wants to think that they've been loaded off with a bunch of crazy people, and seeing as we're all going to the same place in the same fashion…well…"
"So it's not because you think well of us or anything—you just don't like the idea of being in the same boat as us if it meant we were insane," she told him, and her insincere smile quickly changed to a frown. "I don't know about you, but I don't much like the sound of that at all."
"Well, I didn't even say it, so—if you don't like the sound—don't say it yourself," Simon replied. He wasn't the sort to become indignant, but he didn't much like having words put in his mouth.
"Sometimes you don't have to say things for them to be heard."
He folded his arms—his suit wrinkled so much that he feared it would break around the corners—and sighed. "I guess I can't argue with that."
"So you agree—you think we're crazy?"
Simon laughed. "Honestly, no one who can argue like you can be out of their mind."
The train pushed through the lifeless wilderness for another ten minutes before either of them spoke up again. They could still hear the young boy go on about how his home was prone to roaming, and every once in a while the girl sitting in the seat in front of Simon's would cry out about how betrayed she felt, but it was quite despite that. There was such a feeling of unease—no one was very willing to actually talk. Simon and the strange girl were the odd case.
Well, she was the odd case anyway.
"My name is Freya, by the way," she said suddenly—so much so that he nearly jumped out of his horrendously stiff suit. "What's yours?"
Simon clutched his chest and took a deep breath. "Si-Simon," he told her. "Most call me 'Si,' some call be 'Sime.' Of the two, I prefer 'Si.'"
"Si it is, then." She held out her thin, pale hand, and he promptly shook it. "Something tells me we'll have to stick together while we're there."
He grimaced—there was no doubt that he agreed.
"But why are you on this train, Si?" she asked. "You look so remarkably normal—a nice suit, clean, good manners; how is it that someone of your caliber ends up on a bus on the way to one of the darker regions of the world?" She gazed up at him with her dark, dark eyes and they were so piercing that he knew he could only tell her the truth.
"My father is ashamed of me, since I can't use magic, so he decided the best thing he could do was send me away, to a place where he couldn't, you know, be embarrassed by me," he explained so humbly that any normal person would have felt at least a smidge of sympathy—just a tiny trickle even in the coldest of hearts—yet his short little tale was met with nothing but the same blank expression of Freya's.
"Oh, an elitist, then?" she asked after a while. She nodded in a knowing sort of way—a "yes, I understand" sort of way—and said, "That means he's paying the institute for their time. You'll have an easier go than us, I'm sure. That's how it tends to be."
"I doubt it, really," Simon said pitifully. "I mean, my father isn't one for spending money, and we've never really gotten along…"
"Well, look at it this way, Si—your father is your father, no matter how unhappy he is with your lack of magical prowess, no matter how tightly he holds onto his aristocratic wealth, so there is very little chance that he'd put you on the same boat as us. There are few creatures in the world that can severe the familial tie for no reason other than what you currently suffer from."
He wanted to counter what she said with some sort of evidence to prove that his father really wasn't the type to regard him as anything close to 'son,' but he couldn't come up with anything that wouldn't have made him sound childish, so he did the only thing he could do in such a situation—he agreed with her. "He's not that horrible, I guess." He said this while staring at the seat in front of him, since he wasn't aware enough to pay his gestures any mind, but once he had gotten over his own personal misery, he turned to her and asked:
"So your family isn't paying for you to be here?"
"Oh, no; it's more of an abandonment sort of thing. They told me that I could either go to the institute and learn how to be a proper person, or I could be thrown onto the streets. Really, I would rather live on the streets than go there, but I care for my family, backwards though they are, and I would like to one day be considered their equal. Or at least someone they wouldn't mind too terribly much calling 'family.'"
She reached out and pointed to the many people on the bus with a broad, sweeping gesture and said, "You'll find that most of the people here are on the same sort of boat. They don't want to be here—no one in their right mind would be here—but they want to have a family again." She turned back to him and sighed. "Would you have a family if you decided to leave, Si?"
Simon suddenly felt quite small. He had never heard the words "don't return" from his father, but he had been told quite frankly that he would be a burden for his family if he continued to live alongside them. Perhaps his situation wasn't quite as dire as hers, but, well, he was rather certain that he wouldn't be very happy either way.
"My mother told me that she would pay for me to live outside of the country, so long as I did something to provide for myself as time went on, if I failed at learning to use magic…" He opened his mouth, but he faltered.
"And?" She could tell there was more to what he had to say, what with the way he dropped off.
"And," he held out his hand and forced himself to say, "my father told me that a magicless son was no son at all, and he could not be known to have a magicless son because he was so important, and it would ruin his image."
"Oh." She chuckled. "That's really not so bad at all."
He glanced at her unhappily.
She shook her head with a smile, to let him know that she wasn't scorning him. She lifted her hand once more to point to a boy a few seats away. "You see that boy right there?"
He nodded. "Yeah."
"Well, that boy was thrown from his home with not a single procession to his name. He comes from the country above this one, and in that country those without magic are required by law to go to an institute like the one we're going to. A country that doesn't even allow such an institute to exist. So he's being shipped off, dragged away. He has no family."
Simon turned back to his window, rested his head upon the hard, metal surface of the wall beside him, and closed his eyes.
"Just be grateful, Simon, that you'll have something to turn to."
She giggled. "You're a fool if you think that institute does anything but destroy lives."
He opened his eyes long enough to nervously glance at her, but he quickly shut them again. She was grinning far too broadly for him to stomach—not after what she had implied.
Simon woke up feeling very much out of place. The bed he was laying in was far too uncomfortable, the ceiling above him was far too cracked and stained by water damage, and the buzzing, droning hum of the fan was completely alien to him. So he woke up with a fright, and he sprung up from his covers and looked around wildly, whispering to himself quite softly and quite frantically, "Where am I?" again and again.
It took a while for it to all come back to him.
Freya sat there beside them even a full minute after the train had come to a stop and the passengers were being ushered off like simple sheep. Simon was surprised that they had been allowed to sit there, completely undisturbed, but she just sat there with her usual blank expression.
They had been riding on the train for an added twelve hours in addition to the entire day they had spent before they had met. It was a long, tedious ride, and all they could do to pass the time was play random games with the cards they had borrowed from one of the sleeping passengers. It was nearly as boring as simply sitting there, but Simon was the type that grew uneasy when he wasn't doing anything, and Freya patiently complied.
So when they finally arrived, tired by such a long period of inaction, he wasn't quite sure what to make of anything. In the early hours of the day, when the sun was just starting to flirt with the horizon and let its magnificent light be seen as nothing more than a thin, silver crown, and they were so tired that he was quite sure he wouldn't make it to whatever form of bed they introduced him to.
But those in charge of them, currently two severe women with their hair tightly tied back and their dresses nearly as starched as his suit, were not so merciful. They decided, since morning was already upon them, that the new group of "students" would be given a tour of the "campus." Even Simon, who knew next to nothing about his current surroundings, knew that he was the farthest thing from a "student."
The oddest thing of all was that he was straightaway isolated from Freya, which made him horribly nervous. A third woman, who was just as nondescript as the others, seized him coarsely by the arm and yanked him away before he could continue walking with the rest.
"You're not for them," she told him in a voice so piercing that he was surprised he was able to hear from then on. "You'll be going this way, young man."
She pulled him—nearly dragged him—down an obnoxiously lit hall that was so filled with magical and observational equipment that he could scarcely see the actual plaster surface. The lights above him were glaring and unkind, and they made him sweat despite the frigid temperatures outside. He had never felt so ill at ease, even when hearing Freya describe what it would be like inside of the institute.
"Your father personally called me just last night giving me special instructions on how you are to be handled." She looked over her shoulder to eye him suspiciously. "I expect you've already introduced yourself to a few of them?"
He nodded, afraid he might be reprimanded. Logic didn't support such a fear, but the way she looked at him made him feel that even breathing was punishable by death.
She sighed. "Did you at least neglect to tell them your last name or title?"
He nearly smiled. "I only used my first name."
"Perfect. Since Lord Webster is too well known for you to use your surname, I suggest you say that your first name is something a bit more common."
"Simon isn't a common last name, though," he pointed out.
"But it's not lordly, is it?"
He couldn't argue with that, though he didn't much want to. She was starting to frighten him.
"And I suppose you bragged about being rich and all that rubbish?"
Simon's cheeks colored.
"Well, it's no bother—just tell them that you are from a wealthy family, important too, why not, but don't let on that your father is Lord Webster. Personally, I don't care what it does or doesn't do for your reputation, but I'm not going to risk that huge grant he's offered us," she explained, gesturing from time to time as she spoke. She didn't look at him properly, however—she would never make eye contact.
He wondered if that had something to do with the fact that he was the one stuck there and she was the one being paid to do whatever it was they did there.
"Since he did pay for you to be here, though, you will enjoy many comforts that the other students will not. While they will only get two meals a day, you will get three; while they will have access to the showers once a week, you will have access to them everyday, as well as the staff bathrooms every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday." She stopped walking suddenly and pointed to the door right beside her.
"This will be your room." She opened the door swiftly, let him peek inside and then slammed it shut so quickly that he almost lost his nose. "You won't be in there often, but at least it's better than the others."
"Will I have to share it with anyone else?"
The harsh woman laughed. "You're the only one whose family was willing to pay for their stay—of course you'll be alone in there."
He was grateful that he wouldn't have to share—since he wasn't used to such a lifestyle at all—but he didn't like the way she said it; it made him fear that he never see Freya again.
"I suggest that you listen to everything you're told to someone in this uniform," she instructed, casually tugging at the white fabric of her outfit, "someone that is wearing…" she opened up a cupboard and pulled out a canary yellow shirt that was coupled with black slacks, "these, but not someone who is wearing," she pointed in an offhand way to a blue dress shirt and dark blue slacks, "those."
Simon took the outfit from her. "We wear uniforms?" He gazed down at the fabric, which was appallingly cheap and gaudy, and then back up at her, hoping that he would see some level of mirth in her expression. But she was just as plain and neutral as ever.
"You should be proud. Most students have to work for at least three years to be able to wear Yellows, but since you're so, well, special, we've decided that it would only be fitting that you be so honored. Of course, you should listen to your equals for the time being, since they obviously know more about this place than you do, but you're in charge of the Blues when we're not around."
She began back toward what she called his room, and they were quiet throughout the walk. Simon was grateful, since he felt so overwhelmed with strange and foreign information that he wasn't sure if he could handle anymore. He felt like he was about to break down right then and there, and, while he had never been very emotionally sturdy, he wasn't quite prone to such fits either.
Something told him that he wouldn't enjoy his stay in the institute that had no name but much reputation.
She left him at his door, bidding him a good night's sleep, and was gone before he could tell her that it was actually the very early morning. He threw the clothes that he would grow (quite quickly) to hate onto a small, boring chair and walked over to his bed, which was made of such sorry material that he felt like he had stumbled into a poorhouse.
As he climbed into bed, a thought crossed his mind. "If this is how bad it is for me, when my father's paid for my stay, then how bad is it for them—who are here for free?"
Thankfully, he fell asleep before he could really start to think about it.
But there he was, several hours later, just beginning to remember who he was and where he was and why he was in such a miserable state. Never before had he felt more tired in waking than he had before sleeping—never before had he felt that he had not even slept. He wondered if he would ever learn to get used to such discomfort.
"Oh, what I would give for a mattress made of something other than," he paused to feel around, only to find that the mattress was as hard and as lumpy as, "rocks."
He climbed out of bed and put on the clothes with much reluctance. There wasn't a mirror in the room, but he knew he looked as foolish as he could possibly get. He imagined he looked something like an overgrown bee, and all he really needed was a giant stinger of some sort. He was miserable even before he was out of his room.
As soon as he left the modest boarding room, he found himself in a hallway very much unchanged. It was just as full of obscure, unusual equipment, and it was just as unnaturally bright. Light shone down upon him viciously and cruelly, and he was so sure that he was in some way being watched that he didn't dare do anything that he thought they would dislike.
It was cold, too. Sure, the entire region was a frozen, hellish land, but it was so cold that he walked briskly simply because he hoped it would warm him some.
Simon hadn't gone very long at all until he came across one of the "Yellows" that the white-clad woman had mentioned to him. It was a boy around his age, perhaps a year older, with bristly black hair and ruddy cheeks. His eyes were like coal, and his lips were thick and fleshy. He was everything the people of that country were supposed to look like, which only made Simon feel even more out of place.
"You're the new one?" the stranger asked in the distinct accent of Bonavar. After the revolution, they had switched to the language of his nation, who they had tried to model themselves after, but few of them spoke it fluently and most of them spoke it with a thick, distinguishable accent that was often impossible to understand. Thankfully, he seemed to be rather good at speaking it.
Simon nodded, though he wasn't sure if it were a good thing or not. Being "the new one" often meant horrible things. Though he had seldom experienced such events, his older brother, who went to a boarding school, had told him horror stories.
But there was little disdain in his voice (for all Simon could tell through the accent), and he continued to speak as if Simon were nothing of any concern. "You're quite awkward in that, aren't you?" said he with a chuckle. "I suppose everyone's awkward their first day in Yellows."
Simon looked down at his shirt and pulled at the fabric. "It's awful."
"I've worn worse. You should see how the Blues look on the boys—they look like güberns." He paused for a moment, his forehead furrowed, and then he said, quite slowly, "Blueberries—they look like blueberries."
So it wasn't his first language.
"Anyway," he held his hand out and smiled at Simon, "my name is Mikhail. You're Simon, no?"
"Yes, White Lady told me that was your name." When his statement was met with only a confused look, the older boy said, "The lady who took you around last night. We call her White Lady, since she's in charge around here. Well, all beside the President. He's, well…" He glanced over at one of the blue-screened control panels. "Just don't worry about it. He's never 'round anyway."
Simon looked around the hall as Mikhail spoke and wondered if he would ever feel comfortable in that strange, strange prison.
"You'll be fine here, though, so long as you keep to yourself and listen to everyone in charge," he went on to say, but there was something about how he said it—something so artificial that Simon was felt he was a terminal patient being told he would live. It didn't feel right—it didn't settle in his stomach properly.
"What all do we do here anyway?" asked Simon.
Mikhail nearly winced. "We—well—we learn how to siphon magic."