Ella arrived at the administrative building at a minute after five in the morning. The doors were still locked, but after five in the morning her key would let her in and out. Any attempt to enter the building before that would result in the silent alarm wards going off.
The halls were dark, except for the faint glow of the emergency lights, orbs nestled in old-style sconces high on the walls. She headed past the row of chancellors’ portraits, past the office of the school’s current chancellor, down a spiral staircase that was not quite hidden in a recess, then through the double doors under a plaque reading “Edmund M. Embries, Vice-Chancellor” into the dark outer office that was her own. Turning on the light, she was surprised to see a red envelope left in the otherwise empty wire basket on her desk.
She picked it up. It was addressed to the vice-chancellor. The sender’s name was familiar, in a niggling, back-of-the-brain sort of way. The address was in town. Instead of a postmark, there was a courier’s seal over the envelope flap.
She licked her lips and looked at the solid oak door of the vice-chancellor’s office. She’d only been hired at the start of the previous summer term, but in her brief tenure, it always seemed like Mr. Embries was usually the last person to leave the building, apart from any janitors or maintenance folk who were working late. Quite often, she came in first thing in the morning to find him looking for something in her desk. If he arrived and found that not only had his assistant beaten him to work, but that there was already a letter on his desk… that would feel a tiny bit of a coup for her.
It wasn’t a huge thing, but it was too rare an opportunity to pass up.
That, and it would give her a chance to look around and get a feel for the office, and by extension, its owner. During the work day, she was either hurrying in or out, or she was interacting with him, and he sort of… demanded attention. She knew there was a gorgeous tapestry behind his desk depicting a majestic silver dragon. It looked very old, and she didn’t know if it was his personally or if it belonged to the school.
She felt like she could stare at it forever… but not while he was there. She was very lucky to have landed this position fresh out of college. She wasn’t going to stand there like a slack-jawed yokel, ogling her boss’s wall art in front of him.
She’d go in, put the letter on his desk, take a moment to admire the tapestry, and then maybe have a very quick look around.
She took a deep breath, then opened the door to find the vice-chancellor already inside, freezing in place in the act of closing his closet door.
He was a tall, silver-haired gentleman with sky blue eyes and a very slight beakishness to his nose. He was an older man… how old, Ella wasn’t sure, but he always seemed full of vitality and strength. He moved like a cat, Ella thought, and he was always so well-dressed… she had to admit she had a bit of a crush on him… well, more than a crush… even as there was something terribly disconcerting about him.
Without moving his head, one of his eyes slid to the side to spot her, locking with hers. He didn’t often look directly at her. Usually he spoke with his head bent over his desk, his eyes on a letter or form. When he did turn his gaze in her direction, she often felt like he wasn’t seeing her… he was looking past or through her.
This time, she felt like not only could he see right through her to the other side, but he was searching everything he found within. She felt sure that he could see the crush, that he knew that she’d broken off her long-standing engagement because she couldn’t picture anyone but him during the act of pleasure… that she’d taken to picturing him when she was alone; once, even while she was sitting in her outer office.
She felt dead certain that he knew all of this somehow, and just as certain that he didn’t care in the least one way or the other and would never say a word about it… that as long as she got her work done, she could diddle herself under her desk all the livelong day, thinking of him or anyone else, and it would neither excite nor displease nor even interest him.
Not that she could think of anyone else.
Maybe “bit of a crush” wasn’t the right phrase.
“Ella,” he said, pleasantly, turning away from the closet to face her as he finished shutting the door. His gaze was so constant that she had the impression that the one eye managed to stay exactly where it was while the rest of his head moved into position around it. “You’re here early.”
Maybe “disconcerting” wasn’t the right word, either.
Mr. Embries was scary. There was something frightening about his very presence.
“Oh! Mr. Embries!” she said. “I came in early so I could finish up the, um, the revisions… I-I-I didn’t expect you to be here…”
“Why ever not?” he asked. “They haven’t promoted you over me already, have they?”
She colored, as she always did at his little joking admonitions at her expressions of shock… things like “I’m not interrupting an assignation, am I?” or “I didn’t stumble into the wrong office again, did I?” or “You weren’t planning a surprise party, were you?”
“I was just coming in to put this on your desk,” she said, holding up a red envelope.
“What is that?” the vice-chancellor asked, frowning. He reached out and took it from her hands. “Do I have a secret admirer to worry about?”
“I, uh, don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think so. It looked personal, so I didn’t… anyway, it arrived by courier yesterday.”
“Why wasn’t it brought in immediately?”
“A-apparently it was after you’d left for the day,” she said. “It was in my inbox this morning.”
“‘M. Blaise’,” he read. “Why does that… wait, M. Blaise?” He scrutinized the letter as if peering through it, his nostrils puffing out slightly before he sniffed. “That’s very odd.”
“What?” she asked.
“Oh, nothing,” he said. He waved her away. “Random recollection. I’ll just go see what this is.”
She left his office, closing the door behind her. He sat down at his desk, on a high-backed chair cunningly covered in illusion to look like it was made of wood. Perhaps it was his imagination, but he always felt as though the cold, soft metal shifted a little beneath his weight, in such a way as to very lightly embrace him.. He picked up a slim wand from the edge of the desk. It was shaped, rather appropriately, like a conductor’s baton, and waved it at the music box on the sideboard where he kept his brandy glasses.
An air for strings began to play as the vice-chancellor of Magisterius University set about the day’s work, beginning with the unexpected letter. He opened the center drawer of his desk and pulled out his favorite letter opener, a silver blade with a curved handle made from a discarded claw. He slit open the envelope and pulled out the contents, a letter handwritten on heavy but inexpensive-looking parchment.
“Dear Mr. Embries,” he read aloud. “I write to you concerning the continuing education of my granddaughter and ward, Mackenzie Jo Blaise, who has made such a spectacle of herself already that the news media, grown tired of covering the whorish behavior of… blah, blah, blah, blah, look forward to speaking with you in person. Yours in Khersis, Martha Blaise. Martha. Ah.”
He put the letter aside, opened up the top drawer of his desk, and extracted a cream-colored sheet of letterhead paper. He took up his pen, tapped the envelope the letter had come in, then tapped the paper near the top. The address and salutation filled in. He then wrote, in large, looping letters, the words “terse refusal; student privacy” across the page. When he lifted the pen up after finishing the final letter, the ink migrated outwards in all directions, filling in a form letter explaining the vice-chancellor’s regrets in being unable to discuss the matter with her.
He signed the resulting missive, then placed it in his outbox and began composing a few other necessary letters, some of which required more actual composition than others. After an hour, Ella came in with a short stack of letters written by the chancellor, Bethany Davies, and other high officials, for him to look over before they were mass scribed and sent out.
“How many more do you suppose I’ll have to do before they make me a doctor of letters?” he asked Ella as she picked up the contents of his outbox. She smiled but didn’t answer. Neither did she make a move towards the door. “Was there anything else?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. One more thing,” she said., holding up another letter, this one written on a piece of lined notebook paper “Miss Jilli… uh, I mean, Coach Callahan is appealing to you again.”
Mr. Embries covered half his face with one immaculately groomed, long-fingered hand and scowled. Ella had never known anybody who could irritate the man like Jillian Callahan… Ella didn’t know how she could stand to keep doing it the way she did.
She felt sure that if she ever made the vice-chancellor look like he did at that moment, she would be forced to kill herself from the shame of it all.
She almost wanted to, anyway. Even though she had nothing to do with his pain and frustration, she felt the irrational urge to offer herself up as a not-quite-maiden sacrifice on the slim chance that it would somehow ease his burden, even a little bit
“Is this one about students or faculty this time?” he asked.
“Students,” she said.
“Does she have anything new to say this time?”
“She says ‘please’ a lot more often than usual,” Ella said, smiling lamely.
“By the Star Drake, I’d like to find out whoever pissed her off and kill him myself… most years, she drops this after the start of term. Right,” he said. “I need you to take a letter for me. If I try to hold a pen right now, I’ll break it.”
“Yes, Mr. Embries,” she said, and she took the notepad she had tucked under her arm and got ready.
“Letter begins: Unfortunately, the university’s charter and the board’s resolution on student safety are in agreement on this matter, to say nothing of the law. Therefore, the university will not be revising its policy on the deliberate killing of students at any time in the foreseeable future. While I understand that it is no doubt as effective a motivational tool for the survivors as you have claimed it to be, at least one participant comes away from the exercise unlikely to learn anything of immediately applicable value. I believe the best teachers work to find ways to motivate the entire class. Yours, etc. Read that back.”
She did, and Embries said, “Take out that word, ‘deliberate’. Just say ‘killing’. We don’t want any misunderstandings. That woman needs to learn that we don’t kill students here. Or faculty.”
“What about assistants?” Ella blurted out.
“Nothing,” she said. “Um, would you like me to read it back with the change?”
“No, thank you,” he said. “Wait until the end of the day to send that through, you hear? There’s a reason she’s up at six… I’m not going to spend the whole day crossing pens with that creature.”
“Of course, Mr. Embries,” she said.
“Is Ms. Davies breakfasting with the governor today?”
“Yes, Mr. Embries,” Ella said.
“And that’s at nine?” he asked, looking up from his work briefly, his eyes rolling over her so quickly that the movement reminded her strangely of a snake’s tongue flicking out, a serpent licking its lips.
“Yes, Mr. Davies,” she said. “Embries!” she corrected. “And uh, you’ll be taking your usual breakfast in the office?”
“Possibly… I’m thinking of trying something new,” he said, and his eyes flicked back to her and stayed, and for once she didn’t feel like he was looking past her at all.
“Yes?” she squeaked. She cleared her throat feebly, and then said, in a more passably adult voice, “Yes, Mr. Embries?”
“I’d like to try those multigrain pancakes they’ve been talking about, with a dollop of light cream instead of butter or syrup,” he said, looking back to his work.
“Multigrain pancakes,” she noted.
“Maybe if I start eating better on a regular basis, I’ll feel less guilty about the occasional indulgence,” he said.
“Maybe,” she agreed, and hurried from the room.
At seven, Ella went to the faculty dining hall on the back of the administrative building, for her own breakfast. She gave the cooks Mr. Embries’s revised instructions. She also amended her own customary order, having her egg white omelet made with whole eggs and with ham in addition to the cheese. Normally she took her time over her breakfast, eating slowly and enjoying it while she read the newspaper. Today, she gulped it down without even tasting it, then realized she’d left the newspaper back in her office.
She looked around the hall to see if anybody else had one that she could borrow a section of, but she realized that while she recognized a lot of the men and women sharing the facility, she didn’t feel like she knew any of them enough to approach them like that. She wasn’t ready to go back to the office just yet, though, so she had a few more cups of coffee to cover for the fact that she was just sitting there.
Just have another omelet, she thought. Or a waffle, covered in strawberries and cream. It wasn’t as though she were watching her figure.
At twenty till eight, she abandoned her table to collect Mr. Embries’s breakfast order and brought it around to the other side of the administrative building on a tray. Twelve sausage links, fifteen strips of bacon, five pieces of ham, and a neat stack of multigrain pancakes with a dollop of light cream.
Back in the outer office, she set the tray down in order to pick up the few interoffice items that had popped over while she was out and check the a-mail and echo trap so that she could bring Mr. Embries everything that required his attention at the same time she brought him his tray. She’d learned right away that he liked to eat alone, and that extended to not being disturbed while he did it.
She copied the important messages, put them along with his mail on the side of the tray. Precisely at eight, she knocked twice on his door before opening it and announcing, “Breakfast, Mr. Embries!”
“Thank you,” he said, waving at the corner of his expansive desktop. It was ebony, inlaid with silver in an abstract pattern that had always reminded Ella of wings. He eyed the stack of notes and memoranda. “Anything important?”
“Lynette Havilland is petitioning the board for reinstatement,” she said.
“She’ll be denied,” he said. “We can’t even think about that while the case is ongoing. Does that need a response from me?”
“No, but you’re being copied on everything, like you asked,” Ella said.
“If it were up to me, we’d be paying her on her old wages,” he said. “Odds are dead even we’re going to end up doing so retroactively. It seems like we could save a lot of paperwork and headaches that way. She was absolutely an idiot in the case, of course, but you can’t really blame a person for being an idiot around something as strong and powerful and traditionally ravenous as a half-demon, can you?”
“I… I suppose not,” Ella said. Automatically, her hand went up to the silver Egg of Khersis she kept on a slender chain on her neck, the only jewelry she wore on a daily basis since giving back the engagement ring. Mr. Embries had admired it the first time he saw it.
She felt guilty for leaving the holy symbol on when she was alone and fantasizing about him… but… he’d actually reached out and touched it, and for a moment his fingertip had brushed so close to her chin that she’d felt it.
“How one student can be at the middle of so many messes… if I didn’t know better, I’d suspect she’s doing it on purpose,” he said. “Actually, I don’t know better and I do suspect that. Is that racist?”
“It… wouldn’t be for me to say,” Ella said.
“I’m half tempted to tell Callahan I’m willing to make one specific exception,” he said. “Of course, that would look very bad for the school, and if we tried to put it all on her… I’d rather have the half-demon as an enemy, frankly.” He sighed. “No, I wouldn’t have Callahan do it. But it would be a satisfyingly simple solution, to just get rid of her. What else?”
“What… oh. The healing center is generating more complaints,” she said.
“Wait time, probing questions,” she said.
“They are sticking to the questions on the form, aren’t they?” Embries asked.
“Yes, they say they are… and it seems that way from the complaints,” she said. “Students are just used to getting healing no questions asked.”
“Complaints are up… are costs going down?”
“I rather thought they might,” he said. “Nobody wants to wait around for a hangover cure or a paper cut heal. If nothing else, I’m glad this whole debacle gave me an excuse to reform the healing center practices. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a net decrease in brawling and dueling, and stupidity-related injuries, too. Get a message to Campus Safety for them to keep an eye on that.”
“Yes, Mr. Embries,” she said.
“Anything else out of the ordinary?”
“The latest updates from the legal department,” she said. “They’re still waiting for Miss Mackenzie’s lawyer to return their questionnaire.”
“Funny, I thought everybody wanted a speedy resolution,” Embries said. “Do we get to take five points off for every day it’s late, I wonder?” She smiled again at his joke. “Is the rest just the usual noise?”
“I think so,” she said. “Would you like me to leave now, so you can have your breakfast?”
“Actually,” he said, reaching for the tray and pulling it towards him, “I’d like for you to stay.” He picked up a fork and knife, and began to cut the stack of pancakes with neat, economical motions. The faculty dining hall had real china and real silver silverware. “There’s a question I’d like to ask you.”
“Yes, Mr. Embries?” she asked, as he took a bite of pancakes.
She waited while he chewed it up and swallowed.
“If I told you that I had to let you go, what would you do?” he asked her.
Kill myself, she thought. Beg you to kill me. Find a replacement who is better than me in every possible way, make her swear undying fealty to your greatness, and then beg her to kill me in your name.
She said nothing. He went on eating the pancakes. When he finished, he dabbed his lips with the cloth napkin and then looked at her, expectantly.
“Sir?” she said, confused.
“You didn’t think I was in yet, when you came into my office this morning,” he said. “I was, and so it’s no harm done… but you thought I was out and you came in.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I want you to understand that my office is off-limits, if you ever happen to be here working when I am not,” he said.
“Certainly you weren’t planning on doing anything untoward,” he said. “But urges… urges can be strange and powerful things, and you never know when an urge will strike you. I like you as an assistant, Ella,” he said, and she felt pathetic for the gratitude she felt at the first thin bit of praise he’d ever given her, “and that’s why I’d rather not have to worry about whether or not you’ll feel the urge to start prying if you ever find yourself in here alone. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Mr. Embries,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s quite alright,” he said.
“May I go back to my desk?” she asked, feeling every inch of her like a naughty schoolgirl asking to be excused. “The revised…”
“No,” he said. “Please. Stay. You can carry the tray back for me when I’m done.”
And he proceeded to finish his breakfast with painstaking slowness, while she stood on her three-inch heels and watched. He cut each sausage fine. He shaved the ham. He slivered the bacon. Between each individual morsel, he did a bit of work, not looking at her and not speaking to her.
The longer she stood there, the more she felt certain she should have eaten another omelet or the waffle, if not both… and not because she was getting hungry from watching him eat. It wasn’t Mr. Embries she was envying… it was the meat that was getting so much more of his attention than she was.
The realization of that fact, the articulation of the thought inside her head, made her want to run screaming from the room and send in her resignation from her mother’s house, in Ravenport. It made her want to go back to her desk, sit down, and find a way to remove her pantyhose and underwear without the odd visitor noticing.
For an hour and a half, she stood there, terrified out of her wits and more aroused than she’d ever been. When he finally finished, he gestured for her to take the tray, and then said, “I have a few reflections to make, so I don’t anticipate having to leave my office for the next hour or so. If you could see that I’m not disturbed in that time, please?”
“Y-yes, Mr. Embries,” Ella said.
“And take your lunch a little early today,” he said. “You’ll be joining me for mine.”
Ella hurried from the room as fast as she could walk and still be walking, but the tray and dishes didn’t make it back to the kitchen until the allotted hour was almost up. She locked the outer doors, sat down on her desk, and… not to put too fine a point on it… she proceeded to go to town on herself.
Urges, as Mr. Embries had said, were a strange and powerful thing.
This is horribly unprofessional, she thought, after vigorous activity restored some clarity to her thought. What kind of a man am I working for?
She wasn’t able to get much work done, even after that release. Lunch was even longer and worse than breakfast had been, in every regard… and somehow better than breakfast had been, in every regard, except that she had no chance of repeating her solo performance afterwards. Mr. Embries was keeping his door open, as he was expecting a stream of visitors in the latter half of the afternoon, and she had to get her work for the day done, or she’d end up coming in at five again the next morning.
By the time she went to take Mr. Embries’s dinner order, she felt like she wouldn’t be able to contain herself if he made her stand and watch him eat, she’d start pleasuring herself right there in his office.
And he wouldn’t even care.
“And… will I be joining you for dinner, Mr. Embries?” she asked him after taking down his order.
“Oh, no. You won’t be doing that for a while,” he said. “And then, only if you really want it.”
“I want it,” she blurted out.
He smiled a sad sort of smile at her.
“Not just yet,” he said. “Not just yet you don’t. Not badly enough. But in time, I think you will. Urges, after all, are strange and powerful things. You may go.”
She hurried from the room, and alone, he clicked his tongue, chiding himself for not maintaining better control. It wasn’t like he could expect any better of Ella… she was only human. However toothsome she might be, he’d have little room to criticize Jillian Callahan’s teaching methods if he went through assistants like a glutton.
“Few people mistake a noble dragon for a nice one more than once.” — Professor Hall.