“Julia’s been detained,” Eugene said by way of greeting as he approached Samuel.
The half-demon had a pretty good view of a fair portion of the campus from his vantage point near the top of the university’s bell tower, on a balcony that ran all the way around the perimeter of the circular building. The observation deck was open to students, but few took advantage of it even during fair weather. Going all the way up to the top of the tower was the sort of thing that you wanted to do once before you graduated, but why do it any more than that?
The view never changed, after all, despite the rumors to the contrary. The tower had once been a functioning wizard’s tower, and odd things did sometimes happen with the number and arrangement of the stairs, but the grounds below were quite static.
“I did warn her,” Samuel said, turning around to face Eugene. “Is she being charged?”
“The only thing they could really make stick are immorality charges, and to do that would mean admitting that the university has a lesbian problem,” Eugene said. “She’ll probably be held over the weekend and then released. The other protesters have already been cut loose.”
“I’m honestly surprised that the powers that be aren’t choosing to make an example of them,” Samuel said. “After all, there have been riots elsewhere in the imperium.”
“It’s because of the riots that they aren’t going further,” Eugene said. “Technically it’s illegal to promote the idea of women voting, but our local nest was protesting that law, which it’s perfectly legal to complain about, barring a direct edict from the emperor or someone with the appropriate imperial power. To do nothing would encourage them, to do too much would invite an even larger backlash. So they try to send a warning.”
“They’re a gang of idiots if they think a warning will slow that one down,” Samuel said. “Of course, she’s an idiot for not heeding it when she’s given the chance.”
“You’ve spent a long time keeping your head down and hoping not to be noticed,” Eugene said. “But it’s not the only move in the game.”
“Don’t I know it,” Samuel said. “I’m glad I learned how to move around without being seen before I stepped into the spotlight.”
“Have you had much trouble?”
“More annoyance than trouble,” Samuel said. “A lot of idle curiosity, a bit of people who are determined to poke the hornet’s nest to prove their bravery… I’ve had a few invitations to duel, but no out-and-out attacks.”
“That’s something, at least.”
“Was Jennifer with Julia?” Samuel asked.
“Yes, and she’s been released with the others,” Eugene said.
“Good. I’d be sorry to see her get into real trouble,” Samuel said.
“You should be worried about yourself,” Eugene said. “You’ve been safe so far, but you can’t keep ignoring the dueling invitations.”
“Who said I’m ignoring them?” Samuel replied. “I could probably make good money charging young bravos… it would cost extra for me to lose, of course, but even being defeated by a half-demon carries a certain cachet.”
“That would really be asking for trouble. All you’d need is one disgruntled customer… this whole damn campus is a firespout just waiting for an excuse to go off, if you ask me.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t ask you,” Samuel shot back. “Things haven’t gone as well as I’d hoped, but they’ve gone better than they could have. Anyway, it isn’t like the whole student body is up in arms over me…”
“No, but collectively they’re up in arms about just about everything, including you” Eugene said. “But this is what you’re not grasping, man: all of that stuff adds together. It’s not separate. It all gets dumped into the same cauldron and it all simmers over the same fire. If the whole festering concoction boils over or explodes, it doesn’t really matter what provided the final spark, does it?”
“I’m last week’s news,” Samuel said. “You of all people should know that. There are young co-eds getting arrested, there’s those elves who are petitioning for admission…”
“I of all people know that we’re still getting letters about you and our little feature,” Eugene said. “And what’s more, that poetry teacher isn’t going to let the issue die.”
“Oh, yes, her… she’s been addressing her concerns to the administration, who are on my side,” Samuel said. “Or at least, on the side with the path of minimal difficulty, which means complying with the law. For Ariadne to stir the students up against me, she’d have to see us as something more than a brief variation in the scenery in front of her desk.”
“You’ve taken her classes?”
“I audited one, briefly, when I first learned about her background,” Samuel said. “I can’t say it was particularly informative, but it was entertaining.”
“Yeah, well, here’s some information for you: with the administration not budging, the word is that she’s turned to parents and wealthy donors,” Eugene said. “She might not notice individual students much, but she knows when she keeps seeing the same names over and over again.”
“Names like Harlowe?”
“And LaBelle,” Eugene said.
“The LaBelles are terrible enemies to have, I’m sure, but it could be worse,” Samuel said.
“You think so?”
“Oh, yes,” Samuel said. “Imagine having them for friends.”
“Very funny,” Eugene said. “But just you wait and see who has the last laugh.”
“You were a born journalist, Harlowe,” Samuel said. “You think in cliche.”
“Hey, there’s a lot of truth in cliches,” Eugene said. “Take the saying about being the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
“No, thank you… you may keep it.”
“It’s not that there’s anything special about that straw,” Eugene said. “If not for the weight of all the other straws that are already there, the camel could take it without a problem. The ‘final staw’ is not the one outrage that is somehow so much worse than all the others so that it demands action, it’s just the one that happens to arrive after all the tolerance for such has been used up.”
“And you think my admitted presence is that final straw? I very much doubt it,” Samuel said. “If the mob was going to be coming for me with pitchforks and torches, they would have come by now.”
“That’s just it,” Eugene said. “I don’t think you’re the final straw, I think you’re just one more load of hay waiting on an already overburdened camel. Something else is going to come along, maybe something that seems small and innocuous at the time, and that’s going to be the last straw the camel can take. What it is exactly isn’t going to matter, the whole beast is still going to fall and all the things stacked on its back will come crashing down.”
“You paint a vivid picture,” Samuel said. “But just because the figure of speech plays out one way, that doesn’t mean reality will conform to it. I think it’s more likely that all of these other troubles that are threatening to boil over, to use your earlier imagery, will simply distract people from the splash our little announcement made. After all, the question of women’s suffrage or elven scholarship has nothing to do with me.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Eugene said. “Not when you’ve got crackpots lining up willing and eager to blame you for the sins of the world. A ‘devil’ attends our fair school at just the moment that ladies begin wearing swords on their hips and marching for the privilege to vote? That can’t be a coincidence.”
“But you know it is.”
“Right, and you want me to pitch a story that says ‘Magisterius Half-Demon Claims Suffragists Have Nothing To Do With Him’?” Eugene said. “The idea won’t occur to sensible people, but once it’s been put out there by anyone else, it’ll be a bit harder to shake. Because let’s face it, even a person of ordinary levels of sensibleness has no trouble believing that a university should be restricted for humans only, or that the franchise of citizenship should be reserved for men only, or that our blessed Imperial Republic should be more imperium and less republic.”
“Those are dangerously bold words, even for so secluded a spot,” Samuel said.
“Technically we aren’t secluded, we’re right out in the open,” Eugene said. “It just happens to be a very private open. And anyway, isn’t that why we’re meeting here? So we can say what we like?”
“So I assumed.”
“What do you mean, assumed?” Eugene said. “You’re the one who picked it.”
“What do you mean?” Samuel said, his hand going to the hilt of his sword. “It was your idea to…”
The rest of the sentence died in his throat as three metal prongs suddenly sprung from Eugene Harlowe’s chest. Samuel’s hand flew to his sword’s hilt with a quickness, but he was not quick enough to stop a quick flick of the pitchfork that had impaled his friend from launching his body over the railing.
“Hello again,” the man holding the implement said. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk fast.”