Dueling Studies

“And as we can see in this latest uprising of humans, they actually seemed to strike farther into Germania than before. Can anyone respond as to why?”

“Vampires?”

“That’s right. The vampires, a terrorist sect of humans that utilized their species’ unique blood magic, allied themselves with the German humans against a tyrannical Fae presence.”

Raemillin scoffed. Mr. Book understood the response. Raemilin was fae, an elf of high parentage. He had relatives that remembered the Vampire uprising. Like most of history, it was complicated.

Mr. Book returned to his textbook. The class was on Germania and its microcosm of human relations. It was bound to be controversial, hence the small number of students. There were only five. Raemillin, and two of his cohorts. A nice young woman that Mr. Book already discovered had no small amount of affection for him.

And the Ogre Mage.

Bin Tract’s frame was hunched over the book, scribbling furiously in a secondhand journal. The eleven-year-old was tall for his age, his ankles and wrists stretching out of the mismatched robes that Zibnizik had provided him.

For someone so young, he was relentless. His golden skin was drenched in sweat, struggling to keep up. The textbook was on his lap, a dictionary and thesaurus each on his desk. Coming in to the class late, and with no background in this, Mr. Book doubted Bin could point to Germania on a map.

Regardless, Bin was not his only student. He turned back to the class.

“Yes, Raem. Tyrannical. While we look back at the vampires and see that their methods were self-destructive and ultimately more harmful than good towards advancing the human cause, there were grievances. The humans were being quartered in ghettos, taxed for the “protection” that they were provided by the Fae that profited off their squalor.”

“The humans requested the protection,” Raem explained. “They had barely any magic, no defenses whatsoever. The Fae helped them build their walls, which the humans asked for to protect their “cultural identity,” and then blamed us for asking for recompense.”

“I see,” Mr. Book looked down his nose at the elf. “And your evidence for this claim would be?”

“A primary source,” Raemillin said.

“Would this primary source happen to be the words of your great-uncle Innivadi?” Mr. Book asked. At Raem’s silence, he nodded. “I would consider that a suspect source.”

Raemillin started to respond. One of his friends tapped him on the shoulder, and the three stood and left instead. Mr. Book let them leave without further comment.

The girl stood up, and looked at the historian. “Does this mean class is over?”

“Apparently,” Mr. Book said. “History waits for no one, and apparently no one waits for the final bell.”

The bell tolled, and the Master smiled. “Run along, milady,”

The Lady-in-Waiting Ruby Lawks blushed, and ran off. She was not a real noble, and especially not a lady. But when she had joined the Circle at her Lady Verida’s request, the Hoppi was all the more interesting. She had even received a perfume designed for the rabbit women’s particular coat.

Maybe even Mr. Book was noticing. He was such a fascinating Sphinx.

Mr. Book sighed, and collapsed. Those four were going to be the death of him. No questions, no inquiry. Raemillin already had his view of history, he just needed the Masters to confirm it and send him on his way. And Ruby was just far too interested in him.

He clapped his paws together, rousing Bin. The ogre had fallen asleep in his book again.

“I’m up!” He said.

“I’m aware,” Mr. Book said. “How did class go for you, Mr. Tract?”

Bin frowned, looking over his notes. “There are a few words that were harder to understand, Master.” He said.

“Which ones?”

“Sect?”

“A group of persons, sometimes religious in nature. But more properly defined as having a particular doctrine…” Mr. Book trailed off at Bin’s confusion.

“Doctrine is a set of teachings and beliefs that are held by the group.”

“Oh.”

“Anything else?”

Bin looked over his notes, shuffling them around.

Mr. Book frowned. “Perhaps if I saw your progress I could help fill in the blanks.”

The half-ogre clutched at his notes, and shook his head. “That’s okay, Master. I think I’ve got it.”

“Bin,” Mr. Book said. “Show me your notes.”

The boy wordlessly handed them over. The sphinx pored over the notes, and saw why he was so reluctant. The notes were filled with spelling errors. Down the side of the page was an ever-growing list of words that Mr. Book had used in class. The boy must have been attempting to keep up with the class while expanding his vocabulary.

“Bin, how much schooling did you receive before applying?”

Bin shrugged. “We had teachers pass through the village.”

“I see.”

Bin puffed out his cheeks. “I can read and write!” He said. “I don’t need anyone thinking I’m dumb.”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Book said. “But your vocabulary is not as developed as the course requires. And many of the terms listed here are names of places, people and events that I need you to have a basic understanding of before you can continue into the nuances of the classes.”

Bin nodded.

“Do you need…would you like,” Mr. Book changed the words at the ogre’s flashing glare. “Some extra schooling? I would be able to provide a few extra hours as need be.”

Bin shrugged. Where would he find the time? He was already taking extra classes with Mr. Book, catching up on the Circle’s library system and furiously trying to shove as many new words down his own throat as he could. The rest of his days were spent with Lady Hilt, training for the tournament and he was already far behind. The half-ogre’s one source of income and small respite were sessions in Lady Rune’s workshop every other night.

The boy did appreciate the extra help, but there just wasn’t enough time.

Mr. Book sighed, and nodded his head. “Go get yourself some lunch. We’ll discuss the words at length when you get back later this afternoon.”

The sphinx watched the boy stumble off towards the kitchens. He had energy, and an insatiable desire to be the best. He was willing to run through a brick wall to reach his goals. Good, since he had several in front of him now.

Zibnizik was not eating.

It was not the cook’s fault. He had received a particularly succulent selection of chicken for lunch. With sautéed mushrooms, a raspberry reduction, green beans with sprigs of parsley…no! the gnome wrinkled his nose. Being both starving and unable to eat was just impossible.

Bin was arguing with the register again.

It was a magic register. Enchanted to charge for the exact amount that one ordered. No excuses, no refunds, no arguments. Something that Bin was having a difficulty understanding. The ogre was convinced that he was being suckered into an extra cucumber, and was not having it.

“And I’m telling you, I don’t like vegetables!” Bin shouted. “Why would I order more than I needed?”

Zibnizik buried his nose into a book and tried to disappear into a corner. The common room was a comfortable size, not particularly large. But the Masters had a penchant for comfortable chairs by the three fireplaces on the walls, and the gnome had always preferred the warmth farthest away from the door.

That was his roommate, no doubt about it. But if he just wasn’t seen, perhaps no one would connect the dots.

“Disgraceful, is he not, Zib?”

Zibnizik winced, and looked up at Raemillin. The elf settled into a chair next to the gnome, and looked back at Bin.

“I only have to take a single class with him, but you must deal with his antics every night.”

The gnome fumed into his chicken. He prayed for his appetite to return to better ignore this new nuisance. Raem was known as a braggart, a bully, and extremely talented, in that order. If he was speaking on Bin, it could not be to wish him well.

“Are you hard of hearing, gnome?”

“What do you want, Raem?” Zibnizik asked.

“Just to speak of this new project the Masters have taken on.” Raemillin gazed at Bin. The ogre had finally thrown some coins in the register and was allowed to eat. He was now looking for a place to sit. “The rumors spreading about him are impressive. Is it true that he defeated Lady Hilt in single combat?”

“He passed her test,” Zibnizik said. He decided not to mention the way Bin went about it.

“So maybe a glimmer of potential. But still, to spend so much effort on potential…” Raem mused.

“There you are!” Bin finally found the two. He rushed over, and nodded to Zibnizik.

“Hi, Zibnizik. How has your day been?”

“Crowded,” The gnome said.

“Bummer.” Bin looked at Raem, and frowned. “You’re in one of my classes, right?”

“Raemillin,” The elf said. He did not rise from his chair. He folded his hands together, and smiled. “And you are Bin Tract.”

“That’s me,” Bin said. “Is there an extra seat around here somewhere?”

“I doubt it,” Raem said. “There is barely enough room as it is.”

Bin shrugged, and turned away. “Ok. See you tonight, Zibnizik.”

Oh, thank the gods.

“Tell me, Bin.” Raem raised his voice so the entire common room could hear. “I am curious as to what your take was on Mr. Book’s assertions in class.”

Zibnizik swore under his breath. Don’t berate the young half-ogre. But Raem was out for blood, and had an audience.

Bin shrugged. “It was okay.”

“Okay?” Raem smirked. “What exactly was okay? The decimation of the ruling class by the terrorist vampires? The degradation of an entire region that is still embroiled in a centuries-long conflict? If that is the definition of okay, then this whole planet must be wonderful.”

“I didn’t mean…”

“What?” Raem lifted himself from the seat. “Would you like to defend the vampires? Defend their wars, their xenophobia? Would it make Book feel better when every human is pat on the head and told they’re…okay?”

Bin stood, silent. Raem’s words were striking home. With every sound Bin understood more and more just what the elf was trying to say.

“I’m going to my room.”

“Yes, go to your room, little boy,” Raem said. “Let the grownups talk.”

Zibnizik muttered a few words, and waved his hand towards the pouch hanging from his belt.

Bin stood still. And remained standing. The gnome rushed over, and snatched the food tray out of his roommate’s hands.

“Come with me,” Zibnizik said.

“I’m not going to…”

“You have cost me lunch, and if you do what you are thinking, you may cost us both the Circle,” the gnome hissed. “You will come with me now.”

Bin glared at the elf, and ran out of the room.

Zib ran after the ogre. “Bin. Bin!”

The ogre ignored him, and kept running. He easily outpaced the gnome wizard. Zib gave up before they’d raced for a hundred yards. Zibnizik threw his arms in the air.

“Fine! Run! Just don’t do anything stupid!”

Bin ran more. He ran through the curving halls. Past so many apprentices twice, or thrice, his age. People with more experience, more knowledge and more connections.

They looked at the child running through the halls. Some thought a Master’s kid had been turned loose, gallivanting in the building. Another wild little one, cannot wait for the chance he could be a real mage.

Bin burst through a small door. It led into a Spartan office, bare save for a small desk pushed up against the wall. Torches lit the entrance, with a small bolthole window providing enough light for Lady Hilt.

Her hand was at her sword, and hovered there. It was Bin, out of breath and sweating profusely. The kid gulped in air, and leaned in to the doorframe.

Hilt stood up, frowning. She hadn’t expected the boy for another hour. What happened to his lunch?

Bin’s eyes were alight, staring right into Hilt’s. “Can we start training now? I have a long way to go.”

Hilt smiled, and punched him in the arm. “Today we start looking at stances. I don’t care if you’re hungry, or tired because you skipped lunch. You will stand how I tell you, and if you move an inch, the gods will not protect you.”

Bin smiled broadly. He was going to beat them all. Every last one of them.

 

Zib sat in his room, trying to understand the latest texts. This was the hardest part of his area of study. Lady Froth was counting on him to start bottling soon, just as Book wanted to see if the translations were indeed accurate. If they were wrong, if he was wrong, well…whoever said potions was a safe track clearly never stepped in a lab.

The gnome rubbed his eyes. He wanted to do this. Zibnizik had written papers defending the need for both study and application of older potion recipes. Some of the secrets that had supposedly been lost to time were simply hard to understand. The texts were written more as prose rather than a scientific formula. But what could be accomplished in early magic was no less impressive simply because it was ancient.

Just like Bin wasn’t amazing just because he was new.

Zibnizik grunted, and shook his head. He had to stop even thinking about Bin. The ogre mage was on his own. He wasn’t Zib’s expertise, or child, or responsibility. He was just a roommate the Masters had foisted on the gnome.

Should not even be considered when there was so much work to be done. Zib returned to the text, making another note on the prose. Bin was going to be fine. He was energetic, and the Masters seemed to like him. It would take the kid a while to come to grips with how people would speak, but he had a strong grip on the basics. He would…

Zib’s ears picked up something at the door. A piece of metal scraping against the lock. Strange, it wasn’t even locked. The gnome hopped down and opened the door.

One of Raemillin’s cronies held a bronze lockpick in his hand. He looked up from the door, straight into the gnome’s eyes.

“You might have knocked.” Zibnizik said.

“We didn’t want to bother you, Zib,” Raemillin himself stepped into view. The elf flashed a smile, pushing the other elf out of the way.

“So breaking into my room was better?”

“Not yours, per se.”

Zib sighed. This was going to be trouble. “Bin’s not here, Raemillin.”

“Excellent. He will love the surprise.”

Surprise? Zib’s eyes narrowed. “I think you should leave now.”

“Just take a walk, gnome.” Raem’s friend muttered.

Zib closed the door in their face. Locked it, and started to rummage through his chest.

The elves rapped on the door. “Zibnizik, be reasonable,” Raemillin’s voice seemed muffled through the wood. “We’re just trying to educate the kid. We’d never do anything just to hurt him.”

Zib wanted to hurt them. He looked through his personal store of potions, examining the bottles thoroughly. The hotfoot potion was too strong, went right up both legs into truly painful areas. The bee stingers were untested, something Zib was tempted to try right now.

“He does not belong here, Zib!” Raem said. “Not yet. He needs time to develop, and right now he is just a distraction.”

“The only person he is distracting is you,” Zib said.

“And the Masters.” Raem responded.

A muffled voice rose at the door. The pounding stopped. Zib frowned, pocketed the hotfoot, and opened the door.

Bin stood in the hallways, glaring straight ahead at the two elves. His arms were folded across his chest, steam billowing out of his ears. It was cute, but not exactly threatening.

What was threatening was Lady Hilt. She stood behind the ogre mage, her hand at her sword.

Raemillin’s face was pale. His friend looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

“Please,” Lady Hilt said. “Continue. I would like to be made aware of how I am wasting my time.”

Raemillin recovered quickly, and straightened. “Is it true that he lost the challenge, but you let him in anyways?”

Hilt frowned. “Where did you hear that?”

“It’s all around the Circle,” his friend said. “How that brat challenged you to a duel, and then you felt sorry for him and decided to adopt him.”

Flames traveled up Bin’s arms. The fact that he was silent was absolutely remarkable. Zib would have expected the young boy to charge straight into the two. Fighting, kicking, doing anything to release the emotion.

But Bin remained quiet.

“If this kid is your pet project,” Raemillin said. “That is fine. We all need a hobby. But the Tournament is in two years, and those of us who have an actual chance of participating need training by those who are apparently our Masters. They can’t be distracted by a new child who has no business with us.”

“How dare you.” Zibnizik said. “Do you know what Bin did just to get here? What he accomplished?”

“His head was thick enough that running through a wall didn’t leave a dent.” Raem said.

“Enough.” Hilt said. “Disperse, now.”

Raem straightened, and walked away. “If my chances of victory are harmed because you can’t keep a bleeding heart in check, this Circle will lose its Swordmaster.”

Hilt did not watch the two leave.

Zibnizik shook at Raem’s words. “You need to get them expelled, now.” Zib said, his voice low.

Hilt sighed, and shook her head. “Boy, bed.”

Bin walked past the gnome towards his room. Zib turned after him.

“No. No! No matter what you could have done, what Raemillin said to our Swordmaster was unacceptable.”

Hilt turned to the gnome. “It’s nothing that isn’t being said in hushed tones around the Circle,” she said. “Froth, Oak, and a host of other Masters do agree. And Raemillin is connected.”

Zibnizik swore. Raemillin was the nephew of Innivadi, one of the Elf Lords in Prague. While not exerting direct control over the Circle in Bel Haven, the Elf Lords controlled much of the trade that Bel Haven depended on for survival. If Innivadi wished it, he could starve the city. And Zibnizik knew enough history to know just how truly petty the Elf Lords could be. If Raemillin felt like he wasn’t getting enough attention, he would complain.

“Why is…”

“Raemillin is a general-to-be,” Hilt said. “He is not studying for himself. He fancies himself a warrior mage, able to strike down the vampires from their stronghold and finally take back what he considers ancestral lands. The boy needs accolades to have the respect needed to command the forces he requires.”

The gnome frowned, and considered. Everyone knew about Raemillin’s ambitions. He made no secret that his love for elves was only exceeded by his hatred for humans. He needed to be great, and powerful, and respected.

And Bin represented a roadblock on his path. No wonder the boy rankled Raem so.

Still, for Bin to stand there and take the abuse seemed out of character. He ran through walls, he didn’t sit there and take it.

Hilt looked past Zib to Bin, still standing there, halfway his room. “Work on your left foot for tomorrow.”

“Yes, Lady Hilt.” Bin said.

“And rest. You’ve got more work with Book and Rune tonight.”

Bin nodded, and left for his room. Hilt glared at Zib for a moment, taking the gnome in his entirety.

“Zibnizik.” Hilt frowned. “Terrible form, no penchant for combat.”

She nodded to the potion still in his hand. “But there might be some hope for your initiative and intelligence.”

Zib looked at Bin, and frowned. “Bin has no chance of beating Raemillin,” He said.

“Battles are not won by wisdom alone,” Hilt said.

“Or youthful vigor.” Zibnizik said. “He’s a kid. A kid who doesn’t understand the way the world works.”

“Doesn’t he?” Hilt said. She walked towards the door and peered into Bin’s room.

The ogre was sprawled over a too-small bed, fast asleep. His legs lay flat on the floor, his mouth hung open. Hilt smiled.

“A child should be out exploring their own little world,” The Swordmaster murmured. “Playing at pretty lights and games of little consequence. Their lives are their own, filled with bliss, the sort that only comes from ignorance.

“Bin has none of this.”

Zibnizik didn’t understand.

“Bin risks everything to join the adult table. He’s abandoned everything he knows. No parents around him, no friends from before. Anything that was familiar to Bin is gone. And yet he seems determined to keep pushing forward.”

Lady Hilt closed the door. “Gives one hope to see such a figure. And perhaps make it worth it.”

Zibnizik understood. He locked the main door behind her. Returned to his studies. And kept one eye on the door.

 

Raemillin’s door was knocked on.

The elf rose irritated. It was the middle of the night. His rooms were in the southern tower, near the top, but not too high to have to deal with the rafters. The elf had ensured that he would never be disturbed at night. So who would dare to rouse him?

The elf lit his candles with a wave of his hand. This was just a waste. He was to have another discussion with Mr. Book tomorrow, and give the little sphinx a chance to apologize for his comments on the Vampire wars. Raem would need to be well-rested to appear properly magnanimous in his acceptance of the apology.

These Circle Masters…they were adequate. Not enough elves in positions of real power, but it was in a little backwater called Bel Haven. And their reputation far exceeded their abilities, something Raemillin was happy to take advantage of. Becoming known as the best of the Circle should not be too difficult, and sufficiently impressive to begin his commission in a decade or so.

He had time, he could wait. But not if he did not get enough sleep.

Raemillin tore open his door, poking his head out. “You better have a good excuse for waking me.”

Bin slugged the elf in the gut. Raem collapsed, spluttering and choking at air. Bin took a step back before the elf landed on his feet.

The ogre looked back at Raem, and smiled.

“We’re not going to like each other very much,” the boy said. “I don’t right now, and doubt that will ever change. We both want to be the best. I just wanted something cleared up.”

Raem struggled back to a sitting position. Bin smiled.

“If we want to beat each other up, that’s cool. But let’s do it to really prove we’re the best. Not sneaking up and trying to get the jump on each other.” Bin held his hand up, and closed his eyes. “So I promise I won’t bother you in your rooms, or at meals, or anything like that, period. I’ll just challenge you to a duel and win.”

Bin winked at Raem. “Hope you do the same.” He turned and walked away.

“This isn’t over, you speck!” Raem said. He got back to his feet, glaring at Bin. “There will be consequences for this.”

Bin didn’t turn around. “Good. Let everyone know Raem couldn’t handle an eleven-year-old in a fair fight. I’m sure the generals would love that.”

The elf’s face grew pale. Bin was right. Being involved in a squabble, with a pre-adolescent? It was possible he had even gone too far already. What would any of the leaders in the elven lands think of this?

No. Hilt would not talk, if she valued her position. And that gnome was smart enough to keep quiet. He trusted his man completely.

Bin was the only unknown. And who would believe a child over one incident?

Raem closed the door, and blew out the candles. He spat into the sink, and frowned.

The kid had a mean sucker-punch.

Bin smiled, and began to jog back to his rooms. Classes might start to get fun soon. He might even make a friend for once.

copyright 2017 Jack Holder