Daniel knocked on the imposing oak door barring the way to Vespasian's study before glancing down at his shoes. When had — He felt like swearing when he noticed the scuff mark on his toe. He had only walked down one flight of stairs. He swayed between running for the butler's room and staying as he calculated how long it would take.
Damn it to the vampires. As if it hadn't already been like spending two long days in a vampire's scum pit, between the fear of his father's reprisal over the fiasco and the guilt of having led Valere's abductors straight to him, he had to arrive with a scuff mark. A scuff mark!
He flung his hands in frustration, then his joints locked into place as he realised he was wrinkling his jacket. His eyes downcast, he opened and then carefully closed the door. Vespasian hated to be startled.
His father sat at his enormous desk, wearing his cobalt master robes even though he tucked away at home. He scribbled notes into a thick leather-bound tome.
Little doubt remained in Daniel's mind that firstly, the tome contained the next magical breakthrough that would prove once again why Vespasian was heralded as a national treasure, and secondly, that his father had staged the view to remind him just how much time Daniel was wasting for him by having to take care of such an insignificant matter.
His knuckles clenched. His mother was not an insignificant matter! But no, his father didn't consider her insignificant. Her outburst during his monologue at the re-enactment was the talk of the ton. Daniel stretched his fingers in an attempt to appear relaxed.
It was he, Daniel, that was insignificant — a tiny bug that always caused his father irritation disproportionate to his importance. He couldn't even carry out the simplest tasks — top marks in school, sitting quietly in a pageant.
"You asked to see me, Father?" he asked when the scratching of the pen failed to cease. He bit his lip after finishing the last word. Add 'waiting until spoken to as to not interrupt a great man's work' to the list of tasks he couldn't manage.
Vespasian, though, didn't even raise his eyes in a caustic reprimand, but continued to write until the end of the page. Only then did he set his pen into the holder, stoppered his inkwell and pushed away the tomb. Leaning back in his leather chair, he crossed his hands in his lap and looked at Daniel. Ten rings glittered on his fingers, each housing a unique and powerful spell of Vespasian's own creation.
"I'm incredibly sorry," Daniel said.
"Oh, incredibly? How much is incredibly?"
"Please Father, I didn't mean to upset Mother."
Vespasian raised his eyebrows. Oh, Daniel knew then he would receive a sound beating, from the switch or perhaps a leather strap, but not from his open fist. He had already received that.
Daniel's eyes turned to the umbrella stand. "I've just been worried—" He stopped.
What was he thinking? He couldn't explain why! Valere had been clear enough so that even his half-wit could understand. If he told anyone, they would hurt him. Hadn't Daniel already done enough by leading his kidnappers directly to him?
If they hadn't already killed him. Daniel didn't know a thing about abductors. He had certainly never been kidnapped, well, except for that time with his clothes which he had sworn to never, ever tell anyone. He didn't know if he could trust their word — but Valere must, or he wouldn't have told him that. If he believed those thugs would hurt him regardless, why make Daniel keep such a thing secret?
No news was good news. Daniel kept telling himself that.
He swallowed, the acids in his stomach as unkind as they had been for the past week. His mother had sensed his uneasiness and prodded him to tell him what was wrong. Of course he had refused.
The longer he refused, though, the more agitated she had become. Or perhaps the more anxious he had become, which made her more agitated. He had tried to pretend for her, but just jot that one down on his list of failures.
Then, at that fateful moment during the ceremony, she had somehow managed to glimpse the scrape, even with the high collar he'd chosen to wear.
"Worried about next trimester," Daniel finished, examining his shoes. At least Vespasian hadn't noticed. If Daniel stood with his toes against the desk, Vespasian might not be able to see them at all. "It's my last trimester, and if I don't grade high enough, I won't be invited into the guild…"
Terrible save! Terrible! Just terrible! Remind his father just how stupid his only son was, as if he had the chance to forget. That should put him in Vespasian's good books.
"Are you finished babbling?" Vespasian asked. Daniel mashed his lips together. "No, answer me, are you finished?"
'Finished wasting Vespasian's time' was left unsaid. "Yes, Father."
"We'll talk about your mother another time. It's not unexpected that you should disappoint me. If only you could make a career out of it."
"I'm sorry, Father."
"What do you know about your classmates?"
His classmates? "Umm…" He swallowed, as if that would make his 'um' disappear. Vespasian hurled his pen. The point struck Daniel square in the cheek. Daniel's hand automatically covered the sting. He bent to fetch the pen off of the floor.
After Daniel set the pen back in the holder, Vespasian said, "I should have been more specific, I suppose. What do you know about Valere Braud?"
Daniel choked, which was a much better response than 'um.' Vespasian knew! He had to know! How did he know? The same way he knew anything. Oh Heavenly Four, what would happen to Valere? No! Vespasian couldn't know. Right? Daniel took a deep breath as his father made a disgusted expression. Daniel asked, "What in particular?"
Daniel knew Valere was in his class, shared a room with Ashley Hayworthy, had been blessed with the beauty of a god, and had been recently kidnapped. Which of that information could his father possibly be interested in?
"As you said, it is the last trimester at West Ridge and soon the new recruits will be selected." Vespasian paused to sneer at him. "Everyone at the Guild is already gossipping about which senior students will make the cut."
Which meant that the Guild had already started reminding Vespasian just how useless his heir was. Apparently, he wasn't even capable of ruining his own reputation correctly — he needed a whole organisation that his father desperately wanted to rule to help him. Perfect.
Oh, they'd say he would make it, when Vespasian was in the conversation. An "Oh, I'm sure your boy will make it too," while everyone knew that Daniel was completely worthless. That would drive Vespasian to strangle chickens. As Daniel knew from long, angry rants, it was one thing for Vespasian to know, but it was quite another for the peers that should be occupied with idolising him to know.
"I believe it's time for me to choose an apprentice."
An apprentice, because even nepotism couldn't stretch that far.
"Ashley Hayworthy is the top of our class," Daniel said.
"Thank you for that thrilling recount of widely available information. I know that Hayworthy is at the top. I am considering him, but he's a classic overachiever. Everyone is expecting him. Braud is a mystery. He has the grades, but no one knows quite what to expect from him, if they've even noticed him at all. No one even knows who his family is."
Someone powerful enough to have their son abducted!
"Well, he's quiet," Daniel said.
"Oh, he's quiet? Well then, decision made!" Vespasian snorted. "Honestly, eight years at school with this boy and that's all you can say?"
Daniel's eyes dropped. "Because he's quiet."
Vespasian sighed. "Your duty for this last trimester is to associate with him and report back to me everything he does."
"The consequential details," he said. "You are, of course, not allowed to let him become suspicious of your motives. He must never know that I asked you to do this."
Vespasian stood without waiting. The conversation was over.
Daniel nodded. "Only—"
"Only…" He had helped Valere's kidnappers. What would Valere think if he suddenly tried to become friends with him? "Only if he's right to be your apprentice, won't he think I'm too dull to stand?"
"Yes, I have thought of that." Of course he had. Vespasian would never think for a moment that someone clever would want anything to do with Daniel if they didn't have to. "I've made arrangements."
Oh, well, that sounded… promising. Except… well, this would be helping Valere. If he wasn't lying in an unmarked grave.
Vespasian was the most prestigious and gifted man in the Guild. To be granted an apprenticeship with him would be the greatest honour the Guild could bestow. He could quickly rise in the ranks with all the right connections. So… perhaps helping Valere win this apprenticeship would make up for the whole abduction thing.
Vespasian reached into the umbrella stand and withdrew the switch. "Now, pull down your trousers. I think thirty lashes for humiliating me should suffice. Oh, and an extra two for the scuffed shoes."
Daniel blinked blearily at the classroom, even as his muscles tightened until they were harder than a wooden doll's. His eyes darted but refused to settle on anything. He didn't need to make out the details. He only needed to catch a flash of silver.
Their first class of the year, Practicum, began soon. No West Ridge student missed Practicum. Theory, history, foreign languages, literature — go right ahead, as much as a teacher allowed before delivering a solid caning.
But Practicum? Never. Any boy who didn't delight in practising sorcery was not meant for the Sorcerer's Guild. Even he would have liked it, if not for the feeling of dread at any misstep.
Valere had already missed breakfast and the haphazard dinner the night before, students wandering in at all hours, cheerfully greeting the friends they hadn't seen in three weeks. Ashley hadn't seen him either.
Valere might have just returned too late. Even Ambrose had almost missed dinner, catching the last few minutes before the servants carried away the platters, and Ambrose loved a good roast beef platter. His stomach conquered all — well, except…
"Dan-iel," a voice sang behind him as two hands pushed him into the room. Daniel stumbled, but caught himself before his forehead went through the closest work table. "Aren't you going in?"
Ambrose grinned from ear to ear, stepping into the room. Why shouldn't he grin? He had no concerns about giving a classmate to possible murderers before being instructed by his dominating father to spy on said classmate.
The headmaster hadn't announced anything. If Valere had died, surely they would have had a moment of silence. If he was still missing, it would be in the daily newspaper that Daniel had scoured. Surely.
So there was nothing for him to worry about. He had done as he had been instructed. He hadn't failed.
So where was Valere?
"Come on," Ambrose said, plunking into the seat behind Marcus and Aldric. "Roux's going to appear any second."
Marcus turned from where he whispered to Aldric. Daniel's eyes glanced at the sullen greasy boy in the corner. "Are you chickening out, Danny-boy?"
"It's only one more trimester," Aldric added. "Shame to come all the way back to school just to lose it."
"I'm not quitting," Daniel said. He tossed his school bag over his shoulder, like Ambrose would, but he didn't look as good doing it. If only he felt as confident as his friend.
An invisible hand grabbed his heart and yanked it as a new thought crossed his mind. What if the Headmaster and the Braud family assumed that Valere had simply dropped out, and too ashamed to face his family, had run off?
But what use was it to abduct someone and not tell anyone about it? They had seemed reasonable, for thugs, and not mad hackers.
He shook the line of thought from his head. No one would assume Valere had dropped out. Daniel, yes. If he dropped out, he had better run to the edges of the Fallion empire as fast as he could, if not farther, to escape his father's wrath. Valere wasn't him.
"Better run now," the sullen boy, Dominic, grumbled in the corner. "I'm surprised Daddy protected you so long."
"It's an even bigger surprise that you're still here, Dominique," Marcus said. He shifted his chair with a screech and leaned back so he could look down his nose at the boy. "Having to look at you day after day — it's too much! It must hurt our beloved teachers deeper than a vampire bite."
Their history teacher had once had to give Marcus three detentions for jumping into a debate against Dominic when he was supposed to only arbitrate. Marcus had even gone so far as to argue that the del Marians should have sovereign rights to deal with vampires as they saw fit. That had caused the additional two detentions, even if Marcus had added that the 'how' could only mean execution, for what moral person could see it otherwise?
Daniel sucked in a breath as Dominic swiped a strand of too-long, too-greasy hair behind his ear. "Not as deeply as letting you in here at all. Or is it the number of balls to the head that makes you so stupid?"
"Ooh," Aldric cooed. "That was almost snappy, Dominique. Like a kitten batting her paws."
Dominic snarled, actually snapping his teeth. "That was almost witty, like walking on two legs."
"That was almost adorable, if you could get past the hideousness of… you."
"Valere's not here," Ambrose said. All eyes swung to him. He just shrugged.
BECAUSE HE WAS ABDUCTED!
"But unlike Dominique here, we can actually stand the sight of him," Marcus said. "Shame it couldn't be Valere here and Dominique not."
"Monsieur Travere, Monsieur Braud, perhaps you could please enter the room so that I may properly begin class?"
Perhaps the sight of skinless-dancing-Daniel would keep the three from fighting. He certainly felt like he'd left his skin behind, just as Master Roux desired.
"Yes sir," Valere said — Wait! Monsieur Braud — Valere! Valere was here and not in some den of ill repute. Huzzah!
The other man passed him as he tried to control the silly grin erupting, his silver hair blocking Daniel's view of his face. For the first time in weeks, Daniel could breathe! Valere was safe, just like he had said. Daniel had done the right thing, for once.
Roux, a forty-some master sorcerer who looked like a fat blueberry in his cobalt robes, held his register in one hand and coughed into his other pointedly. Daniel blushed a healthy pink and hurried to take the seat next to Ambrose, shoving his bag underneath the worktable.
While Roux proceeded to his own desk, Marcus leaned back between the two of them and whispered, "Nice shiner. You always get into the best fights."
Daniel followed Marcus' attention. His breath hitched. Daniel had had the pleasure of receiving many a bruise from Vespasian. In fact, he had one fading on his rear at that very moment. Never on his face, of course, to keep up appearances, but still Daniel had moaned.
Daniel regretted any moment that he had ever complained about his due. All of those bruises appeared like a pastel watercolour compared to Valere's.
Valere's wasn't just purple. The left side of his face, from cheekbone to hairline, was as black as a vampire's heart. Valere's eye should have been swollen shut, but the eyelid just drooped as if it had weeks of healing. Was this the result of a chirurgeon's hand?
Roux began register, as if he hadn't known them all for eight years.
"Are you all right?" Daniel whispered.
Valere's eyes flicked toward him. He didn't look like he was in pain. He acted like he normally did with the same cold frown, as if they couldn't possibly amuse him even if they all burst out into a Verismo opera.
"Should you be in class?" Daniel asked. Although really, why should Valere want to speak with him? He had inadvertently caused all of this! "You really should be taking it easy—"
"Daniel." Ambrose elbowed him.
He quickly turned himself around. "Present!"
"Very good, Monsieur Travere," Master Roux said. "Would you like a special participatory medal? Or would a ribbon do?"
Ambrose cradled his head in his hand, trying to act the disappointed parent, but Daniel knew he enjoyed every moment of it.
"Sorry, Master Roux. Excuse me, Master Roux."
"Perhaps you would like to take out your notebook?"
Ah. Thus the elbow. He should have remembered that Roux didn't actually require their participation. "Yes, Master Roux."
Daniel banged his hand against the underside of the table and bit back a yelp. Marcus and Aldric guffawed and pointed, not at him, but to the source of the anguish they had undoubtedly caused. No one else pulled pranks anymore.
"You — you—" Dominic sputtered, spitting out ink. Soaked with ink above his breast, it had even managed the impossible task of turning his greasy hair matte.
Dominic tried to climb out of his overturned chair, but the furniture refused to cooperate. He tumbled with it to the ground.
Managing to extract his limbs, Dominic threw the chair at the laughing pair, but since the angle was wrong and athletics had never been his forte, it clattered against the desk.
Ambrose chuckled and checked that Daniel laughed too. Seeing Daniel's tired expression, he shrugged. "What?"
Daniel said nothing as he rubbed his sore thumb. It was small retribution for the black eye he had caused Valere.
"Now, now," Roux said, holding his girth to stop jiggling.
"Really." Ashley shook his notebook in an attempt to remove a splash of ink from the pages. "Was that necessary?"
"Maybe — maybe—" Marcus gasped between giggles. "Maybe now I can — I can concentrate on my work."
"He's — he's — he's like a fat lady in a negligee!" Aldric slapped his thigh. Daniel hadn't known that anyone actually did that. "You know it's hideous, but you can't stop staring!"
"Don't be crude, my boys," Roux admonished. "As future guild members, you're representing Le Savant himself."
Dominic's body trembled so hard that it was a miracle he didn't punch himself with his own fists.
The two must have crept into his room and cursed his inkwell, mixing in metal filings to hold Le Savant's power. Creative.
Valere held a handkerchief out to him. "Are you alright?"
Well, that was Valere. That's what Daniel should have told Vespasian. While everyone had been giggling or lecturing, he had stolen through the classroom, unseen and unheard until he chose to be.
"You." It looked like Dominic reached out to take the handkerchief, but it ended with two hands shoving Valere into the worktable. "You were in on that! Don't deny it! I saw you two colluding!"
Except for a cringe that disappeared so quickly from his face that Daniel would have needed magic to ensure that it had existed, Valere didn't move. In a banal voice that seemed mismatched with the erupting tension, he said, "I did not—"
Aldric smacked his lips together to coo as if he was the annoying aunt squeezing the cheeks of the family's newest addition. "Aww, is little Dominique getting upset?"
Dominic dragged two fingers across his eyes, trying to wipe the ink away. When he flicked his wrists, specks of ink flew across the room to land on Roux's useless register.
"Now, boys," Roux said, standing taller in his black master's robes. "This is not becoming of senior students of our most prestigious West Ridge."
If he expected shock as that realisation sunk in, he was left without. Dominic lunged at Valere.
Marcus's face broke out into glee — finally, his hero would apply his lethal fighting skills against Marcus' surly victim! Daniel jumped to his feet, even knowing there wasn't anytime to get to them, especially with Ambrose blocking the way.
Valere simply stepped out of the way with the liquid grace that only Le Chasseur himself could possess. Snarling as he stumbled, Dominic crashed into them, landing half in Ambrose's lap. Ambrose screamed but couldn't untangle himself quickly enough from Dominic's flailing limbs.
"ENOUGH!" Roux roared. "Fournier, extract yourself from Dufour at once! What has gotten into all of you? You are grown men of nineteen, contending for entrance to the Sorcerer's Guild, not little boys!"
To which, of course, Marcus and Aldric collapsed into more giggles. Of course, they'd had their fun with little recourse gone their way.
Daniel was sure that Dominic flushed as he finally jerked himself away only to trip over one of Ambrose's feet, much to Marcus and Aldric's amusement.
Ambrose wasn't in a laughing mood, staring down at his ink-smeared jacket. Daniel fished out his clean handkerchief, draping it over his friend's shoulder. Sneaking glares at the ink-soaked boy, Ambrose dabbed at the stains.
"Wipe yourself off so we can get back to our class, Fournier," Roux ordered.
Dominic mumbled something, collapsing in his own seat. Still wet ink dripped from his cheeks onto his notebook.
"WEST RIDGE STUDENTS DO NOT MUMBLE!"
"Excuse me, sir. Sorry, sir. I don't have anything to wipe off with, sir."
Roux's shoulders dropped. "Well take Braud's handkerchief then. He's still holding it out for you, only Le Savant knows why. By the Four Gods, how could you have possibly made it to post-sixth, never mind your final year, when apparently I have to tell you how to tie your own shoes!"
Dominic's shoulders tightened as he hunched over his desk. Roux took a deep breath for another insult when Valere stepped forward, settling the handkerchief beside Dominic like a bride laying out her nightgown. Without a word, he retreated back to his worktable behind them.
Only Le Savant knows why, indeed.
Daniel liked to think he was a nice person. He tried to be friendly with everyone, even those who would rather cuddle with a porcupine than speak civilly with another human being, like Dominic. But he had his limits. If Dominic had lunged at him, Daniel would have taken it as Dominic not wanting his help.
Ashley, who had no partisan divisions since his nose was more commonly stuck in a book than in the real world, had only risen half out of his chair due to shock, not politeness. Although he could have simply been annoyed that the ruckus had halted their class.
Valere, who didn't seem to care to be nice to anyone, who was above such things as social engagements, had been nice anyway. He had been nice anyway.
They couldn't be friends. It was impossible. Dominic didn't have friends. With the size of Dominic's ego, there wasn't any room for anyone else. He cringed for thinking it.
Dominic had many faults, that Marcus and Aldric reminded him of every day, but he had pride. He had the sort of fierce pride that Vespasian had.
Wouldn't Dominic be perfect for Vespasian's apprentice? Dominic was no slouch in sorcery. He was actually very talented, competing regularly against Ashley for top spot, although he was… difficult to work with. He and Vespasian could snipe at each other for being complete morons.
But, oh right. Dominic was a scholarship student. He had no long line of tradition, no title, no nobility. It didn't matter if he had the mind of Le Savant himself, Vespasian would never take him as his apprentice.
Which left Valere, and his pseudo-friendship with Dominic. But what kind of friend was Dominic to believe that Valere would collude with Marcus and Aldric? And what kind of a friend attacked another friend? Daniel had had his share of tiffs with Ambrose, but none of them ever led to blows. Perhaps it was their breeding.
After Dominic wiped off his face but left his hair to stiffen with dried ink — an improvement over his usual hygiene — Roux started the class.
Roux strolled around the classroom, hands clasped behind his back and now completely unconcerned with the time that had been wasted. Time spent menacing his students was always time well spent, in Roux's books.
"Monsieur Hayworthy," Roux drawled, as he reached his first lap. "How were your grades this past semester?"
"Excellent, sir," Ashley said. Beyond excellent, actually, being at the top of their class.
"And you believe you will graduate and be accepted into Le Savant's Guild based on these grades?"
Ashley chewed his lip, showing the confusion that they all — or at least Daniel — felt at the question. "Yes, sir."
Roux sniffed, although he looked pleased to look down his nose at him. "That's what you all think, isn't it?"
Of course. They all looked around at each other with raised eyebrows, well, except for two. Dominic still sulked and not even Roux's theatrics could entice him out. Valere watched the blackboard as if he wasn't aware that the rest of them were there.
"Your grades are just indicators of your ability, nothing more. A tantalising carrot to lead you out of your caves of ignorance to actually learn what you need to learn. They do not guarantee you entrance into the guild. No, we have a much different process for deciding who graduates and who doesn't."
Roux stopped in front of the door, then turned with his arms wide, his lips ready to announce their doom—
Instead, another voice said, "You're pitting us against each other until only one survives."
To be continued...
Next week: "Water poured down his pale back and Daniel's eyes followed, watching it twist down his limbs."
Hey everyone! Not much new this week, except that I started writing the next book, Dusk Cursed. I always feel it's crummy at the beginning, but it does get better. I just have to hang in there (and follow my instincts to figure out why it's crummy).
More importantly, I wanted to ask: is Wednesday a good day for new chapters? Or is there a better time of the week?
Thanks for reading! ~Katsueki