Jennifer strode with an air of apparent confidence through the empty hallway of the dormitory, though this appearance was shattered a moment later when she knocked on a door and then visibly winced at the way the sound carried in the quiet building.
“Jennifer,” Samuel said, opening the door to his cell-like dormitory room. “You had no trouble getting in?”
“None,” she said.
“I’m surprised that you wanted to come here instead of meeting somewhere else,” he said, standing back so she could slip into the room.
“Oh, I’m not worried about my reputation,” she said. She felt it would have been clever to say something about how being seen in a men’s dorm hall could only improve her reputation, but it wouldn’t have been true… she didn’t have a reputation to improve.
“Please, sit,” Samuel said, pulling the chair out from the lone desk for her.
“This is a single room,” Jennifer said as she sat down on it. She expected Samuel to sit on the bed, but he remained standing.
“Well, they only let us have the one,” he said. “It’s considered hoarding to stockpile them, and bad manners.”
“I mean, it’s single occupancy,” she said.
“Ah, yes… it costs a bit more, but worth the price to not have to spin the wheel of fortune for another roommate,” he said. “That’s not a privilege they afford you, is it?”
“No,” Jennifer said. “No, it isn’t.”
“On a related subject, I hope you didn’t really come to me for help with your Household Alchemy,” he said. “There’s less overlap between that and what we learn than you would think… or maybe not less than you would think, seeing as you’re actually taking it.”
“Yeah, my all-time favorite moment is when we were learning headache remedies and the dean stuck his head into the door to say ‘you gals pay attention now and you’ll have no excuses later’,” Jennifer said. “I would swear he winked so hard I could hear it. Anyway, the reason I wanted to meet you here is that it’s place we’re least likely to randomly run into Melanie, since she does care about her reputation.”
“Ah, I thought as much,” Samuel said.
“Yes… obviously, you want to know my intentions.”
“Regarding Melanie,” he said.
“I know what you meant,” she said. “It’s just such a her wording… old-fashioned. I mean, it’s an old-fashioned idea in the first place.”
“Well, I like some old-fashioned ideas,” Samuel said. “The actions a man might take towards a lady are becoming increasingly fashionable, so why should the idea of his intentions be allowed to fade into obscurity?”
“Honestly, I think your intentions are your business. Oh, and hers, if they’re towards her. But not mine,” she said. “Though it’s kind of… charming, I guess… that you thought I needed to know?”
“You don’t sound charmed.”
“Well, I’m not necessarily an old-fashioned kind of girl,” Jennifer said. “I aspire to modernness, even. But I think you know that.”
“It’s not that hard to see,” he said. “Especially not when I see you with Melanie.”
“Yeah, she brings it out,” Jennifer said. “Next time you’re with Melanie, Samuel, look in a mirror… that’s why I don’t need to ask your intentions. I might know them better than you do. And I’m pretty sure she feels the same. Well, similar.”
“I can assure you, I have no…”
“No intention?” Jennifer said. She laughed. “Samuel, relax… I didn’t come here to bust you. You really are like something out of a book, aren’t you? It’s like you’re from a different age… hmm.”
Jennifer’s eyes had narrowed slightly and the traces of laughter had disappeared from her face.
“What?” Samuel said, trying to gauge her look.
“I’m just suddenly wondering… well… exactly how old-fashioned you are,” she said. “I wonder, Samuel, if you’re older than you look… some kinds of people can live a long time without aging, I mean.”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “Seeing as I have no idea how old I look to you, and you’ll have to excuse me for not knowing my exact date of birth.”
“Didn’t you know your mother?”
“Only after the fact,” he said.
“But you’re an orphan,” she said.
“Very few people are born orphans,” he said. “I wasn’t raised by my mother, but she didn’t die in childbirth, if that’s what you mean.”
“Okay, well, if you can’t tell me a date, how about a decade?”
“I can tell you a year, give or take,” he said. “Around 158. I was supposedly walking and talking in 160, but I was also small and scrawny… I might have been a fast learner or a slow grower.”
“Well, my memory of events from the time is incomplete. There are a lot of blocks.”
“Wooden ones,” Samuel said. “With the KhABCs painted on them in faded, chipped letters. That’s what I remember most about being approximately two-ish. That, and the soldiers.”
“No, real ones,” Samuel said. “They brought gifts to the children’s home at Khersentide, and did fundraisers. There was a picnic in the summer. We were near a military base, you see, so my earliest memories of grown-ups who weren’t associated with the home were all men in uniform. It was originally a home for war orphans, and the ties remain strong.”
“…you’re having some fun with me.”
“Less than I expected to, honestly,” he said. “I despise pretty easily, but I can’t seem to despise you, and it’s hard to feel good about teasing someone you like.”
“I suppose you want me to believe you feel guilty about it,” she said.
“No, I want you to believe I’m a cocky bastard with not a care in the word, but I don’t think I can sell it to you,” he said.
“I think you’re cocky, but I don’t care about your parentage… much… and I already know you have cares,” she said. “And as much as you’re ticking me off, I don’t think I could despise you, either.”
“That’s a shame.”
“You know, the funny thing is that I came to you because I thought for sure you’d give me a straight answer,” she said. “Melanie is… basically honest… but she tries to manage the truth like it’s a herd of skittish cattle that will bolt at the first loud noise.”
“Or a pack of sleeping beasts that will attack if startled awake.”
“Or that,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t expect you to play those kinds of games.”
“It’s not a game,” Samuel said. “A game implies frivolity.”
“Or that someon will win and someone will lose… I know what it means when a guy tries to get in good with a girl’s friend,” Jennifer said. “So I can guess what you meant to accomplish by turning me off of you. Cutting through the crap: were you hoping I’d warn you off of Melanie, or warn Melanie off of you?”
“Whichever gets the job done, honestly,” he said.
“Are you… are you afraid you’ll hurt her?”
“Only as a last resort,” he said. “I was hoping you’d do it for me. It’s better that she gets hurt now than comes to harm later.”
“She doesn’t think you’re a danger to her.”
“I’m not,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not dangerous to be around. I have a tendency to attract… dangerous interest.”
“Which sounds more like the actual reason I’m here,” Jennifer said.
“Yeah, I was actually hoping you could fill in some blanks,” Jennifer said. “I know your story… well, I know the table of contents… and I know what they said on the news about what happened here last year, but I don’t see how it relates to you.”
“Do you see how it relates to Melanie?”
“No,” Jennifer said. “Does it?”
“Of course not,” Samuel said. “Why would you think it does?”
“I don’t… I can’t see any reason why it would.”
“So on the basis of not seeing any relation between the events and her, you conclude that she has nothing to do with it,” Samuel said. “But on the same basis, you conclude that it did have something to me.”
“I know it had something to do with you,” Jennifer said. “I just don’t know what it is.”
Samuel said nothing for a while, but as he wasn’t protesting or evading, Jennifer said nothing to push him. She simply waited for him to speak.
“When you’re in a position like mine,” he said finally, “you have to be… wary… anytime there is something frightening and unexplained happening. People, in their fear, cast around for any explanation that’s at hand… which makes it dangerous for me to be at hand.”
“And that’s why you were so shaken by the attacks.”
“It’s the truth,” Samuel said.
“Thank you for being truthful with me,” Jennifer said. “Now tell me the rest of the truth. Melanie said it was definitely a demon, which is more than the news said… she learned that from you?”
“I think you’ll find that when local events eventuate, you’ll hear a lot more than gets said on the national news,” Samuel said. “Which isn’t to say that all of it’s true, but surely you’ve heard the rumors yourself. And then there’s the strengthened wards, which among other things repel demons. It’s not hard to draw that conclusion.”
“You’re being careful not to say anything that isn’t reasonable and true, but that’s not what I asked,” Jennifer said. “Is it true that demons can’t lie?”
“I doubt it, but the best liars never say anything that can get themselves caught in a contradiction,” Samuel said. “You don’t convince someone by piling on untruths… you save that for when it matters.”
“And you’re a good liar?”
“I’m really bad at talking about myself.”
“Tell me about the man, then,” Jennifer said.
“There are lots of men,” he said. “This campus is probably between eighty and ninety percent male, easily. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“The one you don’t know.”
“That’s only marginally more specific.”
“The one who was giving you a hard time.”
“People I don’t know often give me a hard time,” he said. “It’s a refreshing change to get it from a friend.”
“I mean the man you specifically denied having met after Melanie saw him harassing you,” Jennifer said. “And if you try to deny either of those things to me, then you can shove your ‘friend’ talk, Samuel… that’s why you’re being so careful, isn’t it? You got caught in one bold-faced lie already, and Melanie doesn’t mind, but you don’t want to get caught in another.”
“So what if I truthfully tell you that it’s none of your business who I talk to or what I have to say about it to anyone?” Samuel said. He sighed and turned away. “But you’re right… that was stupid of me. If I’d known her better, I might have trusted her… but at that point in time, there was no way I could have told her what that was about without telling her about me, and that seemed impossible, so I panicked. That’s the simple truth, can you accept it?”
“I want the truth, I don’t care how complicated it is,” Jennifer said.
“I see,” Samuel said, still facing away from her. “And do you believe me when I say that I have Melanie’s best interests at heart?”
“I definitely believe that you mean her no harm and possibly that you want what’s best for her,” Jennifer said. “I don’t think you’re the authority on what her best interests are, though.”
“You know, I’m afraid that I’ve badly underestimated your worth, Miss North,” he said. “I thought you were a bit silly when Melanie first introduced us, but I can see there’s more to you than I saw.”
“I also don’t think you’re the authority on the worth of girls,” she said.
“I like you, Jennifer, I really do,” he said, turning around to face her. “So I’ll tell you the whole truth, what I’ve told Melanie and more, if you ask.”
“Okay, so you panicked,” Jennifer said. “Let’s go on from there. Even in a panic, you had to know it was an obvious lie.”
“Yes, but I could see no way out except to bluff and hope she had more faith in my firm words than in the evidence of her senses.”
“Yeah, I see a lot of guys who hope that,” Jennifer said. “They aren’t nice guys, Samuel.”
“I didn’t think it was nice,” he said. “I thought it was necessary… and even then, ‘thought’ is something of a strong word. It was more reaction. And the rest of the truth is that I wanted to keep her from having any knowledge of the man, for her own safety.”
“You’ve told her who he is now, though?” Jennifer said.
“I admitted that I lied,” Samuel said. “And I told her some of what I know, but not all. I couldn’t hold back much, because I don’t know much. My concerns about her safety if she were to get involved still apply.”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know his name,” Samuel said. “He guards it pretty fiercely, from what little I’ve been able to find out.”
“What, like an old timey wizard?”
“They’re the ones he guards it from… he’s been around in these parts since they were fresh and modern,” Samuel said. “As you said, some kinds of people can live a long time. He’s a demon… a true demon, with no mortal blood except what stains his lips. And he… objected to my presence.”
“So demons are territorial, then!”
“Maybe,” he said. “I don’t think there are enough truly at large in the world for long enough time periods for it to come up often. But he wanted to know who I was and who sent me and what I knew about him… I could really only answer the first question, and he didn’t like my answer to that. He told me that it would be best if I ‘attended to my schooling somewhere back east’.”
“And you didn’t tell anyone you’d been threatened by a demon?”
“I didn’t know that he was one,” Samuel said. “I just knew him as a smug man in a cheap suit. I thought he’d figured out what I was and wanted to put the squeeze on me for some silver. I’d like to say I put two and two together after he threw the body of his latest victim over the campus wall, but some nice men from the government actually had to show me the math.”
“What did he hope to accomplish?”
“To start a demon hunt on campus,” Samuel said. “I don’t think he realized how fully my condition is known to officialdom, or how fully his existence is… or perhaps he counted on panic to remove the significance of those obstacles, what with me being conveniently here and he being absent.”
“Did he really think the officials would have offered you up as a scapegoat, knowing you were innocent?”
“I think if it had proven necessary, they would have,” Samuel said. “Or possibly if they had known the attacks were motivated by my presence and that removing me would end them. I survived because the thinking was that there was a long-term security problem that wouldn’t be solved by merely apportioning blame, and because there was money available to pay for the new wards.”
“So, that man… the demon… he can’t get to you any more,” Jennifer said.
“Not easily, not here,” Samuel said.
“Then why are you still worried about Melanie’s safety?”
“Because I won’t be living in this bubble forever,” Samuel said. “And even if he doesn’t follow me… I have no reason to believe he would, unless he bears a grudge… trouble still does. It’s not for fear of demon attacks that I don’t wish for Melanie to get any closer to me, Jennifer. It’s because of human attacks. Did you know that at least seven people were severely beaten last year, in the belief that they were the monster responsible for the death or the fires?”
“But not you.”
“No, I have the advantage of knowing that I am a monster and thus was consciously striving not to appear as one,” he said. “I was keeping my head down. Others… weren’t.”
“And that’s all you know about the demon attacks?” Jennifer said.
“All that isn’t common knowledge already,” Samuel said. “Well, I know the demon feeds on some aspect of virgins… most likely the heart, since that’s what’s missing from his victims, but the bureau is still trying to narrow down the exact parameters. He appears to strike about once a year, but there are some years when no victim is found.”
“How are you so well-acquainted with these details, if they’re not public knowledge?”
“Once the investigators were assured that I honestly knew nothing and that the demon had made contact with me, they told me in order to help encourage my cooperation if he contacted me again.”
“There was more than one encounter, but they all predate this,” Samuel said.
“If he kills once a year, have you considered the possibility that he’ll strike again? The last attack was almost a year ago.”
“It’s a certainty that he’ll strike again… he’s a demon, he must feed,” Samuel said. “It’s in our nature.”
“So you kill, too?”
“I feed,” Samuel said. “On the laughter of children.”
“It’s a bit metaphysical, if you mean the workings of it,” he said. “But if you mean the logistics… I operate a puppet theater on the weekends. The children go home a bit more serious-minded than before they saw me, but they soon recover.”
“Do you tell people?”
“That I’m part demon and I’m stealing the mirth from their children to survive?” he asked. “Guess. In any event, it wouldn’t be like him to do so twice so close together. He’s active over a fairly wide region, apparently. And now you know everything about him that I know. Is that all you wanted from me?”
“Yes,” Jennifer said. “It took longer to come to the point than I expected, but that’s what I wanted. Thank you.”
“And you couldn’t have simply asked Melanie?”
“She doesn’t like to talk about it.”
“I hope I haven’t given you the impression that I’m having the time of my life here,” Samuel said.
“Well, neither one of you like to talk about it,” Jennifer said. “And either one of you might have lied to me about it… but I can always tell when Melanie is lying to me.”
“So wouldn’t it make more sense to ask her, then?” Samuel said. “Not that you’ve been any slouch in seeing through me, but if you were confident in your ability to know when Melanie was lying…”
“The problem was, I knew you’ve lied to her at least once,” Jennifer said. “If I had gone to her, she could have told me the gods’ own truth about what you told her and all I would have known was that she was telling me the truth as she knew it. But I really didn’t think it would be an issue. You always say what’s on your mind, Samuel. I thought you might turn me away, but I really wasn’t expecting evasiveness.”
“Well, I’m honestly sorry to have disappointed you,” he said. “On a thousand topics, I’ll say what I please and I don’t care who hears me, but you had the misfortune to ask about me.”
“But you answered,” Jennifer said. “That means a lot. Does Melanie know about the… children thing?”
“She knows about the puppet theater, though not why,” he said. “She knows I must feed, and I’ve told her it is on nothing fatal or consequential but asked her not to inquire further. My puppeteering is just a hobby, as far as she’s concerned, and I was… reluctant… to tell her about it, as my performances aren’t really in keeping with my image. My personal taste in humor does not run to things that would make a seven or eight year old laugh.”
“I can imagine,” Jennifer said. “Well… your secrets are safe with me.”
“I thought they would be,” Samuel said. “That’s one of the reasons that I told you them.”
“Secrets are a burdensome thing, Jennifer,” he said. “It’s easier to shoulder them when there’s someone else to share the load.”