Samuel was aware of light before he knew that he’d opened his eyes, much less that they’d been closed.
“Welcome back,” Melanie’s voice said, soft and welcoming but with an unfamiliar crack in it. Samuel sat up a bit and turned to face her. One look at her face… weary, haggard… dispelled any notion that he’d only been out for a short while.
“What happened?” he said. “The fall shouldn’t have…”
“It didn’t,” she said. “They say you were probably just winded or something, but the first person who reach you was a divinity student… he tried to bring you back to consciousness.”
“Which I suppose gave me this,” Samuel said, touching a red spot on his forehead that was slightly tender like a sunburn, “and consigned me to further unconsciousness. I’m lucky he was no Sir Cyrus. How long was I out?”
“Two days. Sorry, but no one knew how to do undo what the would-be healer did. He feels terrible, apparently. The school paper’s calling you a hero, even though no one knows exactly what happened. Poor Gene!” Melanie said. “I’m sorry, I know I’m rattling on, but I’ve been so worried and there hasn’t been anything to do. It was him, wasn’t it?”
“What’s been happening?” he asked. “Has Jennifer done anything… rash?”
“How do you…”
“Never mind that, just tell me what it is.”
“It isn’t just her,” Melanie said. “The Women Warriors’ Collective… that’s what they call themselves now… have barricaded themselves inside the library. The men’s library. They’ve been in there for a day now.”
“They’re armed,” Samuel said. It didn’t seem worth making it a question, knowing what he did of Jennifer and what the group was called.
“Not… flagrantly!” Melanie said. “I mean, they have weapons but they’re not waving them around or anything.”
“Why hasn’t the school just put a sleep spell on the whole building? Tell me they don’t have hostages.”
“They have books,” Melanie said. “Rare, valuable magic books… they say at the first sign of magic or anyone other than Julia walking through the door, they’ll start slashing and burning… her exact words. The university doesn’t want to risk it, but they might not have a choice for much longer… there’s a group of male students who’ve massed on the lawn and are talking about ‘taking back what’s theirs’ and putting people in their place and such… there have already been a few scuffles between them and the girls’ supporters.”
“So the whole school isn’t against her,” Samuel said.
“Thank goodness, no. Some people are on her side.”
“It would be better if they weren’t,” he said.
“Samuel, how can you say that?”
“She’s been pushed into a hopeless fight, but it might have at least been a quick one,” Samuel said. “The more people are involved, the faster it’s going to spread and the uglier it’s going to get… the more people are going to be hurt, and the less likely she’ll be able to just walk away and live her life when it’s all done.”
“What do you mean by ‘pushed’?”
“She’s being manipulated,” Samuel said. “We’ve been manipulated… myself as much as her. Our Man in the Woods… he’s been planting seeds in her head. She hid her own diary from herself, just to provoke me into outing myself. This… rebellion… didn’t come from her, not entirely. I guarantee it.”
“But why would the Man in the Woods want this? Does he suddenly care about sex equality?”
“No, he wants things to get ugly and people to be hurt,” Samuel said. “He wants to send this campus straight to hell and then put my fingerprints all over the handbasket. You’ve seen the letters in the paper… there are plenty of people who are willing to take all things modern and new that they find distasteful and call them the handiwork of evil, and who’s the most convenient embodiment of evil around?”
“But you’re not evil!”
“And women aren’t a kind of inferior adjunct to actual people,” Samuel said. “But saying so in public has Julia in jail and Jennifer occupying a library.”
“You could get her out of there, though,” Melanie said.
“I can do nothing of the sort,” Samuel said. “I shouldn’t be anywhere near her. In fact, I shouldn’t be on this campus while it’s happening.”
“But you can’t leave,” Melanie said. “The campus walls are your only protection from him!”
“They’re the most effective protection,” Samuel said. “There’s also speed and distance and cunning… if I were to leave suddenly and make for town, there’s a good chance I could be there and arranging transport to somewhere more removed before he even notices I’ve left. I mean, it isn’t as though he can spend all his time hanging around outside waiting for me to appear. I do hate to retreat, but if I’m right about how bad things are going to get then I think we can expect that classes will be canceled, and even if I’m wrong I think I won’t be the only student pleading to have a sudden absence excused.”
“But you said he’s been manipulating you all along,” Melanie said. “Why do you think he wouldn’t be waiting for you? The university has always been your sanctuary… so the point of making it dangerous or hostile to you would be to drive you out of it. I mean, if this is his plan, he can hope that something happens to you as a result of it, but he has to rely on chance for that. Otherwise, he’s better off with you running right into his hands and taking chance off the table.”
“Damn… you’re right,” Samuel said. “He talked about the campus turning on me because he knew that was what I feared, and the fear of it would have driven me right out into the open.”
“So, you can’t leave,” Melanie said.
“No,” he said. “I’ll just have to lie low.”
“But you said it yourself,” Melanie said. “The longer this goes on, the uglier it will get… if we can end it quickly, we should.”
“How can we?” Samuel said. “Jennifer would probably let you into the library, but she doesn’t trust me. And then what would your next move be? Trying to tell her that she’s been manipulated probably won’t go over too well… people have a powerful underlying need to believe that their actions are their own, and the bigger and stupider those actions are, the more powerful the need becomes. It’s like trying to get someone to admit to an embarrassing mistake, only worse.”
“I couldn’t get close to the library,” Melanie said. “It’s cordoned off, no one gets in or out… but you could get past the guards, and you could walk in and talk her into putting the books and weapons down and coming out.”
“And how am I supposed to do that? If she didn’t make good her threat at the sight of me, she would as soon as it became clear I wasn’t there to aid her struggle but to end it.”
“Unless she thinks she’s won,” Melanie said. “You’ve been practicing illusionary disguises. If she sees Julia walking into the lobby, then it’s over.”
“I could flawlessly imitate Julia’s appearance and her voice, but do you think that would be enough to fool her lover?” Samuel asked. “She knows Julia’s mannerisms better than I could, and you know as well as I do that she’s always the first to spot a flaw in my cloaks or disguises. The best case scenario is that she knows it’s me. The worst is that she thinks it’s a ploy by the government or the university. Really, it would be insulting to try it. They’ve got to have eyes on the cordon. They’d know nothing has changed outside, no word from the authorities that they’ve capitulated, and suddenly Julia du Lapin is there saying it’s over and they’ve won?”
“Okay, so maybe that’s too simplistic,” Melanie said. “But you have to try something… we have to do something. You could still get in and out without being seen. Maybe something you’ll see inside will cause an idea to present itself, or you can leave her a message… something short and simple, like she’s being set up. She might not trust anyone, but a message like that isn’t asking her to trust anyone. But it might make her reconsider her position.”
“Hmm… I could honestly see that going either way,” Samuel said. “A shot of paranoia is as likely to simply make a person dig in deeper as anything else. But I suppose you’re right… there’s no harm in a little reconnoiter, and even if I can’t think of anything I can do to help from out here, that doesn’t mean no such thing exists. In any event, if I’m going to remain out of sight, it scarcely matters where I happen to be out of sight, does it?”
“Oh, thank you!” Melanie said, throwing her arms around him. “This means the world to me… you mean the world to me, but I do care a lot about Jennifer, too.”
“As do I,” Samuel said. “And having watched one of my very few friends die in front of me so recently while I was powerless to stop it… it feels like just minutes ago to me… I’m in no hurry to lose another one. I’m in the healing building, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” Melanie said.
“I’ve never been here before,” he said. “There isn’t anyone guarding this room, is there?”
“No,” she said. “Why would there be?”
“Because even with the school newspaper saying nice things about me, I still might be a ‘person of interest’ in Harlowe’s death,” he said. “Can you tell me the quickest way from this room to the door? I think it’s best if no one knows I’m awake and gone… a divinely-induced coma is one hell of an alibi.”
“Just follow the signs, I’m afraid I’m terrible at directions,” Melanie said.
“Wait here,” Samuel said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, so I can’t tell you to wait until I get back, but give it as long as you can and say nothing to anyone on the way out. If anyone asks you, tell them I’m the same as ever, but otherwise, volunteer nothing.”
Samuel had been laid out in his clothes, so he stood up and went to the open-fronted cupboard where his cape, boots, and sword were. Once fully equipped, he worked his spells of invisibility and concealment.
“How do I look?” he asked.
“Like nothing,” Melanie said.
“Good,” he said, then he slipped out the door and was gone.
It was easy enough to find a side exit from the healing building, and though that put him on the other side of it from the library, he was still close enough to it to see it. The men’s library had the largest and oldest edifice of any of the three libraries on campus, though the co-ed library was bigger in terms of actual capacity. The place looked like a temple, a cathedral of knowledge, though it had never been consecrated.
Samuel could see that Melanie had not been exaggerating about the state of affairs on campus. If anything, things looked worse than she’d described… but then, she’d probably spent a lot of the time he was unconscious by his side, not getting up-to-the-minute updates on the standoff situation.
There was a cordon of armed and armored guards standing on both sides of a line of sawhorses ringing the bottom of the library steps. There was a crowd of students and people who looked older than the typical university student… no, actually, there were multiple separate crowds of people, and waves of hostility radiated between them.
One group had signs that said things like “This is what happens when WOMEN get FRESH” and “EXORCISE the demon FEMINISM”… Samuel was somewhat grateful the sign wielder had chosen not to emphasize “demon” but he doubted it was a coincidence that term had been chosen. Sadly, that group looked to be the largest. Most of the students in it were male, though they had a dismaying number of female supporters. They also had most of the outsiders, possibly outraged alums from the pre-co-ed era and some local temple groups.
The other recognizable group was mostly but not entirely female students, and of course there weren’t as many women attending the university as there were men to begin with.
There were plenty of people who weren’t obviously with either group, but were just there hanging on to see what happened next, and possibly be a part of it. There were also people who weren’t necessarily for the women in the library, but were against the presence of the guards or for a chance to act up.
The university’s guardsmen were mostly focused on keeping the two groups apart, with some keeping an eye on the library’s windows and doors. The windows on the lower two levels had been blocked out with what looked like upended tables or possibly the backs of bookshelves, but the upper levels were clear. As he’d expected, he saw a few faces keeping a wary lookout on the proceedings below.
It would have been impossible for Samuel to pick a path through the crowd to the front steps, so he went around the edges. He kept his eyes and ears open, looking for a sign that things were going to take a sudden turn for the worse.
What he heard was not reassuring. The word was that the provincial governor had overruled the university and was calling for the Imperial Guard, or possibly had already called for them.
At one point, he had to pass uncomfortably close to that elven poetry teacher, who was trying to convince a couple of be-suited officials that she had received credible information that put “the half-demon” squarely in the middle of this. Her senses might have been his undoing, but she was so focused on her task that she missed him. He didn’t feel comfortable lingering to hear the response, but he caught the condescending tone of voice it came in.
It was a stark reminder of how bad it would be for him to be discovered lurking invisibly around the place, and he almost abandoned the task. He felt like he owed it to Melanie to press on, though. He hadn’t actually promised her in so many words, but when she’d hugged him and told him that he meant the world to her…
No, he’d go on with it, but he’d be careful about it. He made his way to the end of the line of guards and slipped under one of the sawhorses.
Now what? He obviously couldn’t open the front doors without causing a commotion on both sides of them, but he’d. He looked up at the old building, hoping for some inspiration. If any of the windows were actually open for ventilation or listening purposes…
He froze. There, in one of the upstairs windows. He’d only seen a glimpse of her face as a curtain twitched aside, but it was like Jennifer recognizing Julia… he only needed a glimpse. It was impossible, though. It couldn’t be. He stepped to the side a bit at the sensation that someone was passing close behind him, but kept his eyes trained on the window.
There she was again… Melanie.
The question of how she could be up there when she’d just been by his bedside jumped into his head, where his sensible brain turned it right around: how could she have been by his bedside if she was up there?
He’d been manipulated again. It had been a dream, or a suggestion, an implanted memory…
“Damn it!” he said, out loud… too loud. He’d been putting his silence spells on his feet only, so the words spilled out into the world as words will.
“Who said that?” said the guard right behind him. Samuel whirled around and tried to leap up the stairs, but the man flung out an arm and caught his cape. It ripped off his back, and he landed in a heap, his spells of concealment broken.
“Invisibles! We have invisibles!” the stunned guard’s swifter partner said.
The shouting was contagious. The guards who were manning the cordon turned their attention towards him, some of them running along the line towards him and some just standing flat-footed, not sure what to do. Many of the guards who had been handling the crowd rushed in the direction of the hubbub. Some students followed them to see what was happening, some students rushed into the gaps in the previously impregnable lines.
And then one voice in particular, harsh and sharp and magically clear and carrying in the way that only an elven voice can, rang out.
“It’s him! It’s him! I told you it was him!”
And that was when all hell really broke loose.