“Of course,” Samuel said, sounding suddenly weary, resigned.
“I’m hoping someone saw that,” the man said. “Actually, I’d really hoped he would have made some kind of noise on the way down, but I guess the lesson there is to never underestimate the fragility of the mortal condition.”
“You killed him,” Samuel said. “You killed him like he was nothing.”
“And speaking of him being nothing, you haven’t even drawn your sword,” the man said. He raised the pitchfork upright and then leaned on it like a staff. “Wasn’t he a friend of yours?”
“I would have fought you to protect him, and I’ll fight you now if I have to, but I’m not going to be goaded into fighting on your terms,” Samuel said. “I thought I made that clear after you took the pages from Jennifer’s diary.”
“Funny thing… I never actually had them,” the man said. “It was easier to have them destroyed than to get them to a place where I could get my hands on them, but I didn’t actually need to have them… I just needed you to think I did. I knew you were too stubborn, too prideful, to ever let yourself be backed into a corner. If you thought I was going to hold those pages over your head, you’d do something about it. And so you did. You see, you’ve been working on my terms the whole time.”
“Your plan… was for me to expose myself?”
“Yep,” the man said.
“Didn’t work out exactly how you planned, did it?”
“You think not?” the man asked. “Because you did expose yourself, sure enough.”
“They didn’t exactly drag me out of town on a rail for it,” Samuel said.
“Oh, that might have been nice, but things are rarely as easy as they can be,” the man said. “That’s why I like to keep things… flexible.”
“How did you do it?”
“Well, warded walls can keep a body out,” the man said. “I don’t have to explain that their protection ran out twenty or thirty feet below us, do I?”
“Of course not,” Samuel said. “I worked that out the instant I saw you.”
“If you were as clever as you think you are, you would have worked it out before ever coming up here,” the man said. “And then I would have had to come up with something else. Anyway, it would take an entirely different sort of ward to shut out my mind, and no one was guarding against that.”
“You possessed Jennifer,” Samuel said.
“I visited her,” the man said. “Left her some… suggestions, you might say. She’d be a tough nut to crack in general, but she was wound up about her little diary. She was fairly sure you’d try to take it, and also more than a little worried that you were right about it being dangerous. It just took a few pokes and prods in the right direction in the middle of the night, and she became her own worst enemy. I didn’t count on that hack you hooked up with managing to put quite a toothless and fluffy spin on your debut, but at least the truth is out there. That makes the next step easier, nearly inevitable.”
“If it were inevitable that the campus would turn on me, it would have happened already,” Samuel said.
“You think? Your late writer friend was right about this campus,” the man said. “It’s a grain silo waiting for a spark… or a trap waiting to be sprung. And your little friend Jennifer? That book’s not the only thing she’s been wound tight about, is it?”
“What did you do?” Samuel said.
“Hardly anything, I promise you. Why, she’s such a conflicted little soul. What she likes is clarity,” the man said. “Honesty. Forthrightness. It’s just not in her nature to believe in a thing and not stand up for it. Her girlfriend, for all that she’s a little rebel, she’s a smart rebel. That legal technicality your friend mentioned before he dearly departed from us? That wasn’t Jennifer’s idea, I’d bet you. And now the girlfriend is cooling her heels in the clink and Jennifer’s on her own, just her and several dozen of her closest comrades. What do you think is going to happen next, Cross?”
“Jennifer isn’t stupid, you beast.”
“No, she isn’t,” the man said. “She’s hurt and she’s angry. That’s better than stupid. But that isn’t your problem right now… your problem is that you went up a tower with the man who was responsible for outing you and he came back down a good sight faster than was healthy, with a bunch of holes in his chest. What’s that look like to you?”
“Desperation,” Samuel said. “Eugene was my friend, and the article was my idea.”
“Didn’t work out exactly how you planned, did it?” the man echoed. “And they’ll say that this is what happens when you trust a demonblood, this is what happens when you let their kind among ours. Look what happens to his friends. Look what happens if you let your guard down. Look what happens if you try to help one of them.”
“Why would you do this to your own kind?”
“You aren’t my kind,” the man said. “If I had kind, they’re a bunch of mostly feral idiots on the other side of a planar abyss, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m one of a kind and a kind of one. As far as I’m concerned, you’re just a human with a couple of dangerous extra features. You can’t be allowed to roam free. You can’t be allowed to get in my way.”
“I’ve never had any intention of being in your way,” Samuel said. “I’ve never wanted anything to do with you, one way or the other, but I promise you I’m going to be quite the thorn in your side from here on out.”
“You’re already a thorn in my side,” the man said. “But if your friend the cliche-monger were still with us, I’m sure he would tell you that a thorn is an irritant. This is me, plucking you out.”
“You think you’ve won?”
“There’s no way off this tower for you except through me,” the man said. “And if you thought you could beat me, you’d have drawn that sword. We’ll just sit tight until someone notices our Mr. Harlowe, and then I’ll vanish, leaving my friend here behind for folks to draw the appropriate conclusion about you. It’s inescapable.”
“You’d be better off just killing me,” Samuel said.
“Oh, probably, but this way’s more fun,” the man said. “Safer, too… there is such a thing as a lucky hit. Plus, if I can make things bad for demonbloods…”
“Aren’t you worried about the effect that will have on your breeding program?”
“I like my progeny to be a little scattered and scared,” the man said. “Can’t have them thinking they can turn to anyone else for help and support, can I?”
“You realize that your whole plan falls apart if people just reach the other obvious conclusion,” Samuel said.
“That I simply survived an attack by Eugene’s killer.”
“What could you possibly say that would convince anyone of that?” the man asked.
“…nothing,” Samuel said after a pause.
He lunged forward, taking his hand off the hilt of his sword and swiping out at the pitchfork. The man easily moved it out of the way of his hand and lashed out, scoring a bloody groove across Samuel’s cheek.
“Thank you for that,” Samuel said, reaching up and touching the wound. “I was going for a defensive wound on my hand, but I suppose a facial wound is more visually compelling.”
“They’ll just think he inflicted it,” the man said. “In a struggle over the fork, maybe.”
“No, they won’t,” Samuel said, backing away. There was not a trace of desperation in his voice, just a flat denial that the man visibly found unnerving.
“You must think you’re a real silver-tongued charmer, boy, but you came up here with your friend and he’s been slain by a demon’s weapon!” the man said. “There’s not a thing you can say that will save your skin, and you know it!”
“I told you, I’m not going to say a thing,” Samuel said.
“You think silence will save you?” the man said. “That’s rich. Raised by a clown or not, I can’t believe you’d be that naive.”
“No… silence won’t save me,” Samuel said. “But unconsciousness might.”
He didn’t give the man time to absorb his words or react, he was already moving as he spoke. He grabbed the balcony’s railing with both hands and flipped over, launching himself downwards headfirst with a boost from his supernatural strength. There was nothing forced or faked about his scream of terror on the way down.
The man followed him to the balcony’s edge, reaching out an arm even though it was far too late to do anything. No magic he could conjure to break the boy’s fall could reach within the protected confines of the walls.
He looked up and out over the grounds… already people were moving towards the bell tower, some of them moving quickly. He saw faces turned up towards him and realized how neatly he’d been trapped. The first arrivals on the scene would know that Samuel hadn’t been alone with Harlowe… two men flung from a tower with a third figure still standing up top? It was obvious. He couldn’t pretend to be a random human who’d also been attacked by the demonblood… that lie would expire the moment he was expected to descend the staircase. He couldn’t let himself be caught up on the balcony at all. He’d have to slink out the way he’d gotten in, and his vanishing act would only bolster the impression that he’d been the attacker.
He grudgingly had to hand it to the boy… the whole thing was downright diabolical. Even though Samuel’s single wound was minor and there was no chance he’d be killed or even injured in the painful fall, no one would believe that he’d thrown himself off the tower when there was a mystery man to take the blame. Even if the pain didn’t knock him out, he just had to play possum until someone shook him and he’d evoke sympathy instead of mob rage.
The best or worst part of it was that he’d be implicating the man in attacking Eugene by framing him for attacking himself. Not that the man gave half a toss what humans thought he had or hadn’t done, but he’d been counting on coloring Samuel as a killer rather than a victim or a stalwart defender of his friend.
Oh, well, he decided as he faded out. Time to get out of here before the mewling horde gets a better look at my face.
The key was still flexibility. Painting Samuel Cross as a killer would simply have been the insurance policy on his other plan, already in motion. There would be plenty of opportunities for him to perish in what was going to happen in next, or take the blame for what followed.
And it wasn’t like he had to leave anything to chance. The walls were warded, but anybody could still walk up to an imperial mailbox and drop something into the post.