Chapter 194: Out of AlignmentAlexandra Erin on December 18, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 6: Career Counseling, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Makes Her Time
I stuck around the lounge for a while longer, until other people started to drift away and it seemed like the meeting was breaking up naturally. During that time, I did learn a bit about my fellow recruits… specifically, that they all were more knowledgeable and experienced than I was.
That wasn’t a huge surprise, since I was just barely out of my first year. The only thing I could really legitimately bring to any shared endeavor was my greater-than-mortal energy reserves… I’d traded on my energy pool with enough enchantment grad students to know that this was not an advantage that could be erased by a few years of schooling, or even equipment like powerstones. Life energy naturally refreshed itself faster and cheaper than outside power sources could.
But I doubted that alone would have bought my way into the group, which made me really curious about what Acantha was up to.
No… “curious” isn’t the right word. “Suspicious” is better. If you’re curious about the contents of a box, you open it. If you’re suspicious, you put it down carefully and then walk away as fast as you dare to.
I didn’t want to be the first one to leave or to walk out as soon as Acantha stopped actively leading the discussion, because I thought that would send too strong a message.
I wasn’t looking to start a confrontation or give her a pointed rejection of what she was offering, I just… wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to get involved with someone who was involved with sketchy things.
Of course, I saw Acantha first thing the next morning in class. I hadn’t bothered to time my arrival and so I ended up getting in plenty early. This time, she did, too. Instead of asking me to stay a moment after to talk to her, she came up to my work station and started talking.
“Why do I feel like I haven’t sold you on my little group project?” she asked.
“That’s actually kind of an understatement,” I said.
“Are you that skeptical?” she asked.
“I’m not skeptical so much as not interested,” I said. “It’s more like I’m not completely sold on walking away.”
“I’m… surprised to hear that.”
“It’s nothing against you or the idea in general,” I said. “It’s just… kind of the exact opposite of what I wanted.”
“Really? You don’t want an opportunity? You don’t want experience? Guidance?” Acantha said. “I had the impression that you were hungry for all of those things.”
“I mean complication,” I said. “I’m really trying to focus on my education this year. When I’m closer to graduating…”
“…you’ll have a lot more demands on your time and energy than you do now,” she said. “You among everyone I’ve brought together… barring, maybe, the other elves… have a unique opportunity here. All it’s going to cost anyone to buy in is a little time, and that’s a price you can afford to pay more than anyone else.”
“I think I can decide for myself what my time is worth,” I said. I felt like I was being snippy, but Acantha rewarded me with a sly smile.
“Well spoken,” she said. “Keep that thought close to you and you’ll go far. But why not give me a shot? If I didn’t think this could be done in a way that works around the course load of a full-time student, I wouldn’t be recruiting full-time students in the first place. You can always walk away later, right? And in the meantime, I’m not asking any more than the time you were willing to give to Coach Callahan… I know you were doing that as a favor for her for grading consideration, but I had the impression you were eager to learn what you could from that project. Since I got you kicked out of it, I thought I could make it up to you.”
“Don’t pretend this whole thing is for my benefit,” I said.
“It’s for everyone’s benefit,” she said. “Remember? This is meant to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I’m not saying I put all of this in motion specifically for you… you wouldn’t believe me if I tried. But… sometimes one has an idea and one is on the fence about whether or not it would be worthwhile to put it into motion. In those cases, something has to be the thing that pushes it past the tipping point in one direction or the other.”
“So this was just an idle idea until you realized it could help me?” I said.
“That was certainly a factor,” she said. “But I get the feeling that you don’t trust me.”
“You’ve pretty much told me I shouldn’t trust anyone,” I said.
“You don’t trust that my interests are aligned with yours,” she said.
“I’d have an easier time trusting you if I knew what exactly you had in mind.”
“As I said, I don’t have a specific project in mind,” she said. “It just occurs to me that such a talented group could come up with something, in the presence of the right catalyst.”
“Sure, it seems plausible that we… they… could,” I said. “But you’re acting like you’re banking on a sure thing, not gambling on a possibility.”
“Well, I didn’t pick eight students at random,” she said. “I hand-picked the group with the same discernment and insight that I use when I’m picking projects to pursue or recruiting for a job out there in the real world. Is it so unbelievable that I would be banking on my own abilities? Or maybe…”
“Maybe?” I prompted when she trailed off.
“Maybe that’s why you’re so eager to disbelieve,” she said. “If you saw just the others and were told that they were chosen for their abilities and potential, you could believe that the person doing the choosing is on the level… but when you’re part of the group, you feel like there must be a hidden agenda.”
“I did wonder why I was there, yeah,” I said. “But I think I have some solid reasons to doubt that. Also, you’re the one who suggested you were doing me a favor.”
“I could have found someone else who fits the bill,” she said. “I still could, probably, but I’d rather not… you were my first choice for the spot for multiple reasons, one of them being that I was sure you were going to take it, because I thought you were interested in this kind of opportunity. But remember? I wanted you enough to schedule things around your availability. You hear that as me doing you a favor because you’re resistant to the idea that you deserve that kind of treatment.”
“And now I’m supposed to jump at the chance to prove that you’re wrong about that?” I said.
“I hope you don’t,” she said. “People who have something to prove are easy to manipulate, but hard to get quality work out of. No, what I hope you do is realize that whether or not you deserve an opportunity is something that can only be proven with time… and not something I would occupy my mind with, in any case. Luck is always a factor in success. You will encounter no shortage of people who don’t give you the chance that you deserve. The universe doesn’t actually make this up to you because if life were fair there wouldn’t be anything to make up… but that alone is enough reason to not second-guess whether you’ve earned the opportunities you do get. If you hadn’t been in my class, I probably never would have noticed you. That was luck… good luck. Don’t throw it away because you don’t trust it.”
“Uh, yeah. I noticed that I seem to be the only one you tapped who’s actually had you as a teacher,” I said.
“I’m only covering a small number of entry to intermediate level classes,” she said. “Most of the people who would catch my eyes aren’t going to be in those classes. But even before this was more than an inkling in the back of my brain, it didn’t make sense for me to be here and not be scoping out the emerging talent. The people who are coming up now might be the ones who are shaping the industry in a decade.”
“I thought you didn’t plan that far ahead,” I said.
“I don’t try to harvest crops when it’s time for planting,” she said. “But I still plant. Well, keep me posted on your schedule anyway… that way you have the option of coming and don’t just fall out of the group by default.”
“Okay,” I said, since that wasn’t asking much. There was no need to say anything else on the subject, as it was time for class.
It might have been easier for me to walk away from Acantha if Professor Stone had been… well… more interesting.
My sessions with him and Two taught me a lot about things like how to miter a joint, or joint a miter… okay, maybe it would have taught me a lot about those things if I’d cared enough to keep them straight in my head. He peppered his instructions to Two with remarks about how I might find this technique or that tidbit useful, but unless I decided to go into woodworking I didn’t see how.
I could have learned something from him about work ethic or attention to detail, I supposed, but… well… I already knew those were good things to have. He was doing what he liked because he liked to, which was another good lesson… but he was also doing them in the back of his office and mainly as a hobby.
I had a feeling he could have been doing it full-time and made a decent living at it. People still did pay top coin for quality handcrafted goods. Occasionally, he even made a reference to how much he thought something in his workshop would go for… or more rarely, how much he had sold a similar piece for. A lot of it, though, was intended as gifts for his relatives or neighbors.
It’s not that he didn’t ever do any enchantment work or use any magical techniques in his crafting, because he did. It was just such a small part of what he did. He was more of a crafter who used enchantment, not an enchanter who crafted his own goods.
I was definitely getting two very different perspectives on the enchantment business. What would have been more useful was two different perspectives on the same part of it. If I could have got the kindly woodcarver’s perspective on Acantha’s approach to things… or even the glib corporate consultant’s perspective on Professor Stone’s little workshop… I might have been able to learn something from comparing and contrasting what they had to say.
I said as much to Teddi, since it had been on her advice that I’d decided to seek out both of my teachers’ viewpoints in the first place.
“Is there any reason you couldn’t get one’s perspectives on the other’s way of doing things?” she asked me.
“I don’t think the subject is likely to come up,” I said. “I mean, I could always ask, but…”
“But?” Teddi prompted.
“…okay, I could always ask,” I admitted.
So I did raise the subject with Professor Stone, after my next class with him. Unlike Acantha’s open-ended project, my excuse for hanging out with him in his workshop had a natural end point that was rapidly approaching. I was only there to help facilitate communication between him and Two, and as they settled in to working together I would be needed less and less. That gave me a sort of opening for bringing it up, since I wasn’t comfortable enough talking to him to just introduce a topic at random.
“Professor,” I said, “one of my enchantment teachers is recruiting me for a… sort of project.”
“Oh? What sort of a project?” he asked me.
“I don’t know, exactly,” I said. “Some sort of product design, I think, but if she has any specifics, she’s keeping them to herself.”
“Oh, that’s not unusual,” he said, in a reassuring tone… reassurance seemed to be his default mode when he suspected someone needed it. “Loose words burst wards, you know… she may not be able to be as forthcoming as she’d like before you’ve committed to the project. Non-disclosure agreements are fairly standard in cases like that.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I said.
“I don’t like to think of things in those terms myself,” he said. “It’s one reason I prefer to work for my own pleasure… I learned to keep my counsel from my mother, naturally, and I understand the need for secrecy in a cutthroat environment… but I’d just as soon stay out of it, myself. But don’t let that scare you! I have a calling to teach. If I were to go into business in earnest, I’d surely have to affect a more business-like manner.”
“I guess I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of non-disclosure because… well… she wasn’t presenting anything as formal as that,” I said. “She was more just… playing coy. The way she presented it, she didn’t have any details to share.”
“Well, that may be,” he said. “If she’s representing another agent, for instance. Did she sit you down and ask you to agree to a task without telling you what it was?”
“…not as such, no,” I said. “She definitely presented this as her own idea, though. If she’s working for someone, she’s not just not telling us who it is. She’s leaving that out of her pitch entirely.”
“I won’t say I can’t think of any reasons why a person would conceal that, but they’re all what you might call context-specific,” he said. “When you say ‘pitch’, what exactly do you mean?”
“She invited a small group of students to… basically a little reception in the Bardic Arts building, in this little coffee shop/lounge thing…”
“Ah, the Jay O’Kelly Lounge?” Professor Stone said. “Did you notice the illusory instruments? I designed them myself, in memory of a dear friend. I do say that some of the images are a bit, er, stylized, but the sound is all natural, I’m happy to say, and completely true-to-life.”
“I did notice them, yeah,” I said, feeling a little awkward that I hadn’t paid more attention to them. “It was mostly just background to the event.”
“It’s interactive, you know,” he said. “You can add or remove instruments from the orchestra by touching their sigil at the base of the column. Putting a finger through an instrument toggles its prominence in the composition. Sustaining a touch creates a virtual instrument that responds to your hand movements in a way that usually manages to be pleasing… the idea was that students gathering during a break or after classes could come together to make music regardless of their individual talents. I think most see it as a novelty more than anything else, but as long as it brings some people some joy… well, you didn’t want to hear me ramble about my work.”
“Actually, that’s really interesting,” I said. “That’s the kind of… I mean…”
“Ha! You didn’t think I would have anything to do with that sort of ‘modern’ enchantment, did you?” he asked. “I don’t just carve television boxes and make toy wagons, you know. It was a bit outside my usual milieu, I’ll admit, and I required some assistance with getting the notes just right… but I had no shortage of volunteers. Professor O’Kelly was well-liked… well-liked, and well… well-missed.”
“You sound like you knew him well,” I said.
“When you’re my size, my dear Ms. Mackenzie, it’s not often that you see eye-to-eye with another instructor,” he said. “I hope you’ll take a closer look at my handiwork, if you happen to visit the lounge again.”
“I will definitely keep that in mind,” I said. “You’ve given me some things to think about.”
“As every teacher aspires to do,” he said. “If there’s nothing else, I have a lecture to prepare.”
“No, thank you very much,” I said.
Professor Stone’s passion when he spoke about the work had inspired me in a way that his tinkering with toys hadn’t… and it had reminded me of how Acantha had impressed me when she spoke about her own work.
I had misjudged the professor… even as I’d liked him and found him pleasant and agreeable, I had thought of him as sort of a quaint figure whose art was completely rooted in the past.
And maybe I had misjudged Acantha. In trying to figure out if I could trust her or not, I’d basically been trying to sort her into a box labeled good or evil. If she was one of the good guys I could learn from her without guilt and trust her not to screw me over. If she was one of the bad guys I could ignore her, also without guilty, trusting that if I’d let my guard down around her I would have regretted it.
I wasn’t ready to trust her wholeheartedly… the way she talked about trust was enough to let me know that would be a bad idea… but I was ready to stop trying to assign her a simplistic moral alignment. She was an experienced enchanter and a successful businesswoman. She did have things to teach me… and if she had a use for me, she’d either offer me compensation that was worth what she was getting from me, or I’d walk.
Though I’d already decided that this would include my time. As I’d said… and as she’d agreed… I was the one who would determine its value. I wasn’t going to give her another minute of it without getting something tangible in return. I wouldn’t be paid on spec for a job that she didn’t want to or couldn’t describe.
If she didn’t like those terms… well, she couldn’t complain. She was the one who’d postured about not wasting her time on a gamble.
Some Words From Your Author
Hey, folks! I’ve been trying to make a MU blog post on this for a while now, but the site keeps turning unstable when it gets busy and I thought anything that drives more traffic to it would probably be bad right now. I’ll be upgrading the server over the course of next week, which will hopefully fix that. In the meantime, here’s the Cliffs Notes:
- After reflecting long and hard on what’s worked in terms of production schedule and what hasn’t, I’ve decided to focus on writing better rather than writing faster. You can read my thinking about that at length here on my external blog. The short of it is, I’m going to be focusing on one really solid update a week instead of aiming for two or three.
For now, I’ll be aiming for Wednesdays, with bonus stories coming on Friday when they do. I can develop and write an unrelated story at the same time as I’m writing a regular chapter much more easily than writing multiple chapters at the same time, for reasons that should be obvious.
This plan is the most realistic way to bring you updates that are high quality, contribute to an advancing story, and consistently on time. I miss the speed I could manage updates when I started out, but I’ve gotten older and… well… reviewing my early work shows me how much my standards have gone up. I’m sure yours have, too.
- On the subject of early work, the first Tales of MU e-book with author’s commentary is on sale through the end of the year for only 99 cents. Get it on Amazon, Nook, or straight from me (multi-format bundle).
- This Saturday, I fly back to Nebraska for Christmas with my family. This might be one of our last holidays where everyone is present, so I hope everyone will respect that I’m taking the week off from posting.
- In order to address some of the shortfalls of the PayPal subscription system and to offer greater accountability and more goodies for/engagement with my sponsors, I’ve started accepting payments through Patreon. That link takes you to my page, which explains how it works. In essence, you pledge any dollar amount (including cents/fractions) and every fourth weekly update that goes up triggers the pledge. You don’t get charged if I’m not updating/I don’t get paid if I’m not writing. In addition to enabling the ongoing story, sponsors have access to a stream of content there that I’ll use to share drafts of works in progress (including future MU chapters) and can opt to receive my newsletter. Sponsors will also receive a free copy of every short story or novella that I self-publish during their patronage (or that they want to scroll back and find, since the posts don’t exactly expire.
Edit: Note that you do not have to join Patreon if you’re already subscribed through PayPal. Though some sponsors have already chosen to switch over for the greater flexibility, I’ll be keeping both options. Patreon just gives me tools that PayPal doesn’t, and is available for some people who can’t use recurring payments in PayPal.
- On that note, I just published a new short story. You can buy it on Amazon Kindle, or in a multi-format bundle from me. That same bundle is available to my Patreon sponsors.
- Happy holidays! I’ve got a bonus story that I expect will be ready this Friday, but other than that, I will see you on January 2nd, 2014. (Yes, it’s a Thursday, but Wednesday is New Year’s Day. Wednesdays after that!)
Okay, so that’s not exactly the Cliffs Notes. Have I mentioned that conciseness is not numbered among the skills which I may reasonably be said to possess? <3 AE
Help keep me writing! Tales of MU depends on the support of readers like you. Ongoing support is especially appreciated, but even one-time contributions help. Your readership is appreciated!