Gleam pushed a table in front of Colomb’s unmoving body, then placed Listener upon it. At Evran’s request, Gleam had carried the new golem. Listener was ambulatory, but with its small size and short legs, it moved quite a bit slower than the rest of them. Evran could be patient, when the situation called for it, but he didn’t like to waste time.
“Listener,” Evran said. “There is a man here that none of us can perceive. I’m not sure quite where he is, other that I’m sure he’s in this room. Can you sense him?”
“Yes,” Listener said. It swayed, tilting about, as though adjusting its perception of the room. Curious. Even golems with minor intelligence, like Listener, tended to develop some of their own behavioral quirks. Listener had just enough of a mind to understand instructions and answer simple questions. It was far less developed than Gleam or even Spider, but it appeared it would be able to accomplish the task Evran had planned for it.
“That’s good, right?” Nyle asked. “That’s a good sign?”
“Yes,” Evran said. “Listener, if the presence here speaks, I want you to relay what it says to us as it says it. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Listener said. Its own voice, when not imitating Evran, was flat and inflectionless.
“So then, Colomb,” Evran said. “Can you hear us?”
“Yes.” The voice came from Listener, but it was not that of the golem. It had the soft, deep rasp of Evran’s teacher, complete with the faint buzz that had accompanied his voice since the illness he’d had while Evran had been one of his students. In that one word, Evran heard his desperation and relief.
“Excellent,” Evran said. “Say something more, so that I know that Listener is functioning.”
“I hurt, Evran,” Colomb said. Listener’s repetition was indistinguishable from the voice of Evran’s old teacher. His empty body may as well have been speaking. “I… something went wrong. I hurt. It hurts so much.”
“That’s Master Evranelan, Servant to the People,” Evran said. “I’ll forgive your error, this once, since it’s been so many years since I left your tutelage. You may not have known.”
“M… Master Evranelan,” Colomb said. Listener’s legs bent on one side, and it tilted, perhaps in imitation of a bow. Evran smiled, impressed with his own craftsmanship.
“Very good,” Evran said.
“Please, Master Evranelan,” Colomb begged. “I had my students send for you because I didn’t know who else could aid me. I’ve gotten something wrong. It… It hurts, Evran. Please.”
“Master Evranelan,” Evran said coldly. “I won’t correct you again.”
From the side, Nyle watched him. He had come into the room this time, having grown more comfortable with Evran’s presence. The rest of the students crowded the hall outside. Evran hadn’t discouraged them from following. He appreciated an audience, at times. Nyle, though, was wide-eyed, though he seemed more disturbed than impressed.
“Master Evranelan. Please. I need your help.”
“Well, I am certainly capable of aiding you,” Evran said. He sat himself in the plush chair across from Colomb’s, crossing his legs to show exactly how comfortable he felt with the situation. “For the right price.”
“You can’t be serious.” Colomb’s every word sounded forced and strained, as though he hadn’t spoken in a long time, and the effort of doing so fatigued him. Perhaps it was the pain, too, which made it difficult. If Evran was correct, Colomb could feel, unendingly, the pain of the soul knives driven into nine points across his body.
“I am not often one to speak in jest,” Evran said. “Not about serious matters, such as payment for services rendered.”
“I thought you would want to help me,” Colomb said. “I… I taught you. I introduced you to artifice.”
“I don’t want to help you. Not particularly.” Evran held his gaze on Colomb’s body, though it was tempting to look at Listener, the source of his voice. “I can’t say I have particularly fond memories of our time together.”
“Then why did you come all this way?” Colomb demanded. Listener, perhaps compelled by some sense of Colomb’s emotions, advanced toward the edge of the table. Gleam shifted, perhaps readying himself to move if Listener should plunge off of the tabletop toward the ground, but the small, lacertiform golem stopped, claws curled over the edge.
“Curiosity,” Evran said. “That, and the chance to have this conversation. You really messed up, didn’t you?”
“Do you hate me so much?” Colomb said. “Does your hate for me overwhelm your decency?”
“I don’t hate you.” Evran laughed. It started with a small chuckle, then bubbled out again, fuller and heartier. “You think I hate you? There’s not enough room in my heart to hate someone I care for as little as I care for you. I disdain you.”
“You’re pathetic,” Evran said. “If I hadn’t thought this trip would be amusing, I wouldn’t even have come. I came to see you suffer for your hubris. You, who attempted to deny me the right to learn what I wished — you who limit the minds of all of your students, so that they don’t surpass you or learn anything truly new — in the end, you showed your truth. You never really cared about whether what you were teaching was right, morally. You didn’t care about doing the right thing at all! Look at you. You wouldn’t teach me, and you wouldn’t show me how to learn what I wanted to know, but in the end you wanted to know yourself. And you fucked it up.”
“That’s not fair.” The ire had drained from Colomb’s voice, replaced by weakness once again. Listener sagged, his belly touching the table’s surface.
“You’re right,” Evran said. “It’s not fair. You kept different standards for yourself and your students, when you should have had all abide by the same rules. You forbid exactly the type of exploration you’ve clearly undertaken yourself, and for what reason? I can’t think of one.”
“Young minds don’t need this sort of burden,” Colomb said. “I’ve done something dark and evil. I shouldn’t have done it, but I did, and now my students are the ones who have to suffer for it.”
Evran shook his head. “Even now you’re moralizing, even if the target is yourself. You need help beyond that which I could give you by returning you to a body.”
“You don’t see the evil in what I’ve done?” Colomb asked.
“Not at all,” Evran said. “You’ve attempted to preserve yourself, and to save yourself from pain. You went about it with an absurd amount of incompetence, considering the years you’ve spent teaching and practicing artifice, but mistakes aren’t inherently evil. You merely pushed boundaries. Boundaries which, I might add, are entirely arbitrary.”
“I trust you have your own take on what constitutes good and evil,” Colomb said.
“I don’t profess to be an expert,” Evran said. “Philosophy has never been my field of interest. I will say that I believe anything which serves even one person has the potential to be good, and that anything which serves nobody is probably evil.”
“That’s very broad, Master,” Gleam said. He folded his arms, watching the conversation with interest. There was a time when he would have abstained from involving himself in it at all. Now his posture bespoke interest.
“Definitions of morality always fall apart when you try to narrow them down,” Evran said. “It’s best to just lay out some broad strokes and hope that someone believes you.”
“Boundaries exist for a reason, even if you don’t believe in them,” Colomb said.
“Even so, I believe boundaries should be pushed,” Evran said. “What’s the point of existing if we don’t try to advance?”
“Not everyone needs to push boundaries in order to live their life.”
“A life with no attempt at progress is a life not truly lived,” Evran said.
“Shouldn’t you be satisfied with him, then?” Gleam asked. “You should be glad of his attempt to break a boundary, yet you speak to chastise him.”
“Ah,” Evran said, holding up a finger. “I suppose you’ve caught me there. In a way, seeing you attempt this does me with a certain glee, Teacher. It’s more about the fact that you broke the taboos you yourself try to instill in your students, though. Look at you. Even a man who lays out morals as laws will break them when the time comes that they prove to be an inconvenience.”
“So do you think what Teacher has done is wrong?” Nyle asked. He could not have looked more uncomfortable. His forehead crinkled with concern, and he shifted his weight constantly between his feet, unable to find comfort. He fidgeted constantly with the sleeves of his shirt.
“I don’t think that his attempt to divorce himself of his body was wrong, no,” Evran said. “I think it was interesting, if misguided. However, I do think he has done some wrongs. His teaching of you, for example.”
“Teacher has taught me everything I know about artifice,” Nyle said. “He’s taught everyone here. He even started you on that path.”
“Yet he has done such a horrible job,” Evran said. “Have you not, Colomb?”
“I haven’t!” Colomb said. Listener stood, though its limbs trembled as though under the effects of extreme fatigue.
“Nyle,” Evran said, with emphasis, to point out that he had called him by the corret name. “How soon does your time with Master Colomb come to an end?”
“I must pass a test when Vernoa comes again,” Nyle said. “Colomb said I could opt to take it as Hivara descends upon us, but… I told him I would rather wait.”
Evran tilted his head. “Interesting. And why did you make that request?”
“Because I… I felt like I had more to learn,” Nyle said. He looked away, but not soon enough that Evran missed the shame shadowing his features.
“Ah. Would you say there are gaps in your knowledge, Nyle?” Evran asked.
Nyle hesitated, glancing at Listener, then at Colomb’s body. “Yes.”
“Would you say that your time with me today has highlighted those gaps, and made you more aware of them?”
“Nobody can teach one person everything,” Colomb said. “Nobody has knowledge of everything to do with artifice. I teach what I know. It’s enough to get him started in the business.”
“Artifice isn’t just a business,” Evran sneered. “It’s an artform. It’s a science. It’s beautiful and majestic and it deserves to be taught in its entirety. It demands exploration and experimentation, not rote memorization.”
“You don’t treat it like art,” Gleam said. “Do real artists only do work for which they earn profit? You’ve said time and time again that you only do that which benefits you. That doesn’t sound like art to me.”
“Are you not art?” Evran countered. “I made you for myself, to know that I could make you. To push the boundaries of what artifice and enchanting could achieve. Besides, art doesn’t stop being art just because someone benefits from it. Is a work even art at all if nobody benefits from it? Did I not say that from which no person benefits is evil? Art is the antithesis of evil.”
“Please,” Colomb interjected. Listener couldn’t produce tears, but if it could, given Colomb’s tone, it might have been sobbing. “I don’t care about any of this. Maybe I wronged you, Evran, in your education. Maybe… maybe I have failed these children. I don’t know. I don’t believe that I have, and we could argue about it through the rest of Lotōm’s reign, but I don’t think either of us would end up convincing the other. But please. Help me. It hurts, Evran. I hurt.”
“It’s Master Evranelan,” Evran snapped. “You’ve suffered through the wait of my journey here, Colomb. What’s a few more minutes of discussion?”
“The pain is so… heavy,” Colomb said. His voice came through as hardly a whisper. “It’s too much. I have to fight, every second, to focus on what you’re saying.”
“Fine,” Evran said. “I have a price in mind. Are you ready to hear it?”
“Yes,” Colomb said.
“Is he really going to charge him?” Nyle asked, quietly, to Gleam, as though Evran wouldn’t hear him. Gleam nodded in response.
Evran, glaring at the two of them, spoke his price. “I expect no less than one-hundred platinum marks. I normally demand such payment up front, but given your condition, for this once, I will wait until I have completed my service.”
Nyle gasped, and a whispering from the hallway indicated the other students were equally surprised.
“That’s…” Colomb began.
Evran cut him off. “I’m not finished. That will cover my labor. I will also expect the school to provide my workspace — of course — but also my materials. They are not included in the cost. You may choose what you want your new body to be made of.”
“My new body?” Colomb said. “At this point, I would take my old body.”
“I don’t expect that’s possible,” Evran said. “Well, it may be, but to attempt it may very well kill you. You’ve basically destroyed your body, after all. Look what you did to your eyes!”
“The point is moot,” Colomb said, sounding exhausted. “I can’t pay that price.”
“I haven’t even finished, and already you admit you can’t afford my service. Unfortunate.”
“What more could you ask of me?” Colomb demanded. “Giving away that amount of money would destroy me.”
“It seems to me that you’ve already done an excellent job of destroying yourself,” Gleam said.
Evran clapped. “Gleam! I’ve rarely heard you take my side so succinctly.”
“Master, you should offer him a discount,” Gleam said. “A small town would have difficulty paying you that price, let alone a teacher.”
Evran groaned. “I knew that you’d ruin it somehow.”
“I can’t pay that price,” Colomb said.
“You can’t, or you won’t?” Evran asked.
“Can’t,” Colomb said. “Not upfront. I don’t have that sort of money in my possession.”
“Could he pay you over time?” Nyle asked. “In installments?”
“That seems like a viable suggestion,” Gleam said.
“He hasn’t even heard the final part of my cost,” Evran said.
“What is it?” Colomb asked. He sounded more ragged and exhausted by the minute, a fact which, though Evran wouldn’t dare tell Gleam, brought Evran small hits of joy.
“Teach your students,” Evran said. “Really teach them. Don’t give them the watered down, limited crap that you’ve taught for the last decade. Let them live up to their potential.”
“I…” Listener swayed back and forth, perhaps attempting to imitate a shaken head. “I can try, I suppose.”
“Trying isn’t good enough,” Evran said.
“I can only promise so much,” Colomb said. “I have been doing what I have seen as my best for all of my time teaching, yet you’ve come here to tell me it’s not good enough. How can I know that I’ll be able to live up to your standards?”
“Well, you certainly won’t be able to if you don’t try,” Evran said. “Nor will you be able to try if you can’t also pay me the money I’ve asked for.”
“I already told you I can’t pay it!”
Evran narrowed his eyes, considering. “Not even in installments, as your student suggested?”
“No,” Colomb said. “It would… It would take so many passings. With my income. I’m not sure how many. I can’t think clearly enough to do the math, now. I would have to charge my student’s more, to keep up with it, and wouldn’t that defeat your purpose? I feel like you want to help them.”
“I do,” Evran said. “But what’s a little extra money, if it means the quality of their education would increase?”
“I can’t do that to them,” Colomb insisted. “No. I can’t pay, Evran.”
“Then you will suffer,” Evran said darkly. Then he smiled, changing the tone of his voice entirely. “Until my book comes out, that is.”
“Your book?” Colomb said. “You spoke of it before, when I couldn’t respond, but I couldn’t really focus on what you said, either.”
“Yes!” Evran said. He stood. “If you’re willing to pay the debt of time and pain, you can wait until my book comes out. Should your students care enough to buy it, and should they care enough to make the attempt themselves, they should be able to save you. I’m sure that, monetarily, it will be cheaper than my services.”
Evran rubbed his hands together, then flicked them pantomiming the steps it took to wash them. He turned to leave. “Come, Gleam. Our services are no longer needed.”
“Do you wish me to bring Listener along, Master?” Gleam asked.
“No, you can leave it here,” Evran said. “I remember what went into making it, and the students did pay for it. It may remain.”
“You’re really leaving?” Nyle said. He moved toward the door, in time with Evran, and for a moment Evran thought Nyle might seek to block his path. He stopped, though, and Evran reached the door unmolested.
“I am,” Evran said. “Does it surprise you so much?”
“I suppose not,” Nyle said. “I mean, yes. I think anyone else would have helped him, regardless. But from what I’ve seen of you, no. It’s not a surprise.”
Evran turned to regard Gleam, who had followed him to the door. “To be honest, I’m surprised Gleam hasn’t put up more of a fight about this. I half expected him to try to force me to assist.”
Gleam shrugged. “If I’ve learned anything from my time with you, Master, it’s that there is little I can force you to do. I must comfort myself with the fact that Colomb is not entirely hopeless, I suppose. In time, his students may be able to help him.”
“You could also call another artificer,” Evran said, turning back to Nyle. “It may embarrass Colomb, but once my book is released, anyone with proper knowledge should be able to assist him.”
“Okay,” Nyle said. He extended a hand. “Goodbye, then, sir.”
Evran took Nyles hand, and shook it. “Goodbye.”
Evran had already climb Beast’s side and loaded himself into the howdah when the door to the academy slammed open. Nyle, breathless from running, ran the remaining distance. He knelt at Beast’s feet, head turned downward, as though speaking to a king.
“Master Evranelan,” Nyle said, between heavy breaths. “May I return with you? As your student?”
Evran laughed in surprise. “My student? What gave you the impression I was accepting students?”
Hesitantly, Nyle looked upward to meet Evran’s eyes. “You… you took me to the workshop, and had me assist while you made Listener. I thought perhaps you wanted me to learn something from the experience.”
“I did, I suppose. You’re right.”
“My parents would pay you,” Nyle said. “As they pay Master Colomb.”
“You’ve already learned that the way to my heart is money,” Evran said. He leaned back, stroking his chin. “I must admit, it’s tempting. But I am no teacher. It’s just not something that interests me.”
“Please, Master,” Nyle said. “I want to learn. I could learn so much more under you than I ever will under Colomb, if he’s even able to recover.”
“True,” Evran said. “I have much more knowledge to impart than he ever will.”
“Then will you accept me? As your student?”
“No,” Evran said. He paused, considering. He leaned forward, elbow resting upon his knee. “Not now. I’ll give you this much, though. Finish your time with Colomb. Buy my book, read it, and see if you and your fellow students can save him. When you’re done, and when you’ve finished your time with Colomb, seek me out again. If you can do that much, perhaps I’ll reconsider.”
Nyle stood. In the cooling air of Lotōm’s reign, his cheeks had flushed pink. He nodded. “Yes, Master. If it means you might teach me, then I will try.”
“See?” Evran said, turning to Gleam, who stood nearly level with him despite Evran’s perch upon Beast’s back. “That’s the kind of drive I wanted from Colomb.”
“I see, Master,” Gleam said.
“Goodbye, young Dyle,” Evran said, winking. “Good luck to you.”
“Goodbye, Evran,” Nyle said. “I will see you again someday.”
Evran waved, then grabbed the stick with which he prodded Beast into motion. He smiled to himself. He’d meant to make an impression, and he had. Perhaps some might have considered his journey here a waste of his time, but he didn’t. If anything, he felt oddly fulfilled.
Ah, the joys of helping others.