Dreams of the Past II

The students that attended the Magic Academy were unofficially split into two groups.

The first were the children of nobility, for whom attendance at the academy was a means for them to develop connections with other families at an early age. It was seen as a way to impart social skills to the young scions of the nobility, and to sow the seeds of profitable alliances for the future. These students took great pride in their lineage and status, and often took pride in displays of haughtiness that suited their nobility.

The second group consisted of the children of wealthy commoners – more often than not the children of merchants, with the occasional professional performer’s child included in the mix. For these children, the Academy was a place to learn negotiation tactics and to forge future business connections. They were constantly engaged in some discussion or other, occasionally on topics related to the magic education curriculum, but mostly discussing market trends or recent developments in various townships. Their conversations were like a crossfire of omitted information and vague misdirections, with each student attempting to gain a profit for themselves while attempting to corner their opponents into a loss.

The two groups didn’t get along – the nobles felt that the upstart commoner children had no place sharing their space of learning, while the merchant children were convinced that the nobles were talentless fops who only gained admission on merit of their name.

And, of course, both groups hated me.

While the nobles viewed the merchant children as inferior, they looked upon me as less than the dirt beneath their feet. I was from a craftsman family – among the bottom rungs of the social ladder – and while the merchants at least could furnish the houses and banquets of the nobility, I lacked that same redeeming factor. Meanwhile, the merchants saw me as a liability, as someone whose poor family background gave the noble children the excuse to demean them further, and so actively chose not to associate with me.

I had no friends among the children in the Academy. That was fine with me. I wished to learn, not to socialise. The fact that nobody sat with me during the two meals provided as part of the Academy’s social curriculum meant that it was easier for me to smuggle my share into my worn-out satchel to bring home to my siblings. It was a lonely experience, but I was happy. I got to learn, I had full access to the library, I could bring food home to feed my family, it was truly a dream come true for me.

It helped that the teachers were always on my side. Many of the teachers were academics to the core – they valued intelligent discussion over money or standing. Several of them were nobles who had renounced their nobility in order to free themselves to spend their lives studying. Although some of the faculty treated me with disdain when I first enrolled, once they saw my work and spoke to me, they began to treat me as a friend. Many of my happiest memories from my time at the Academy consisted of vigorously debating some hypothesis or other with one of the faculty members. I learnt so much from them, far more than I did from my books.

Unfortunately, while the teachers were my allies, the Board was not.

The Board of Directors that dictated the school’s policies consisted of various high-ranking nobles who held key positions in the Empire’s administration, as well as a token number of influential merchants. Although the merchants had to be included due to their influence, in practice they were often too busy to attend meetings, so many decisions were made solely by the nobility. The nobles did not like that there was a penniless commoner studying in the same school as their proud children.

That said, due to the faculty’s support of me and the fact that my acceptance had become sort of a national sensation, it would be bad for the Academy’s reputation if they were to dismiss me solely based on my background – after all, the Academy claimed to put knowledge above all other considerations, and expulsion based on status would run contrary to that claim. There was also the fact that my name was quickly becoming well-known in academic circles, so having me suddenly drop out of these discussions would have raised quite the uproar. The board needed some way to force me to withdraw while discrediting me – which was a problem since I always made sure to observe all necessary procedures. I knew all too well how perilous my position was, and so I took great pains to ensure that they had nothing they could use against me.

Of course, I was naive. Since I stalwartly refused to give the Board a reason to expel me, they simply had to fabricate one in its place.

It came out of nowhere in my 3rd year of study. “Conclusive evidence” that I had cheated during the entrance exam. emerged. Teachers that I had thought my friends were suddenly coming out to testify that I had displayed below-average intelligence during our discussions – to protect their own positions, of course. Not all of them, though. Some of them chose to leave the Academy rather than participate in the slander against me. I remembered their names. Some of them gave me their addresses, with offers of support and help for me if I found myself in need. I remembered promising myself to go find them and thank them personally once the whole affair died down.

The noble children laughed at me. The merchant children derided me. The teachers stopped associating with me. My published works were collectively re-attributed to the children of various influential noble familes. The solution to the question I had attempted in the entrance exam was credited to the scion of one of the Board’s members, the 2nd-rank student in the Academy after myself.

I was expelled without a second word – not even allowed to defend myself, not given the opportunity to collect what few belongings I had from the dormitory. The news of my “dishonesty” – my defeat – was rapidly spread among the academic community, to the point where my name became synonymous with academic dishonesty. Defeated, dejected, I returned to my home in the slums.

When I entered the house, my family was waiting for me at the table. They said nothing, my mother served dinner as per usual. My siblings were unusually quiet that night. My father ate with a barely concealed anger. My mother kept asking me if I wanted seconds. The whole family knew that what had happened to me was completely unfair – they knew that I would not have succumbed to dishonesty, even for an exam. They knew, and yet they couldn’t do anything about it, simply because we were merely a family of carpenters.

It hurt. The looks on their faces hurt. My father’s anger, my mother’s worry, my siblings’ unease. I never wanted to see those expressions on the features of my beloved family. To know that the cause of those expressions was me – was my failure – made me hate myself. If only I had kept a lower profile. If only I had never attempted that question. If only I had kept my intellectual thirst under control, stifling it until I was in a more secure position. If only, if only, if only. Throughout that meal, I could only think of alternative scenarios that could have avoided this outcome. Eventually, it became too much. I couldn’t stand the sight of my family’s expressions for a moment more. I put down my bowl and stood up, running out of the house.

If only I had stayed in the house that night…

I found myself in a dark alleyway several blocks away from my home. I was half-praying for someone to come kill or rape me. I felt miserable, and I wanted everything to end. I wanted someone to punish me for causing my family such pain. I wanted pain to replace my current pain. Unfortunately, I was granted exactly what I desired.

As I sat in that alley, knees to my chest with tears flowing down my face, a shadow fell upon me. Julio Kronschild said nothing. I didn’t lift my head. That bastard didn’t give me any warning. He just silently used the Ring on me – a test case, he called it.

When I left that alleyway, I was no longer Advent, the carpenter’s daughter. I had become Alpha, the doll, the maid, the puppet.

I never saw my family again. They were told that I had committed suicide. They were not given leave to see the body.

Several years later, in a moment of drunkenness, Julio let slip that he had been the one responsible for initiating the chain of events that had led to my discrediting and expulsion. He had done it to force me into a position where he could acquire me as an asset.

At the time, I was unable to think or feel. I had no reaction nor response to his revelation. I had not the capacity to feel rage.

But I remembered it. I remembered everything. And now that I once again had the power to feel emotion, that memory aroused 7 years’ worth of rage in me. Now that I had my will back, that rage allowed me to make a resolution.

Julio Kronschild would pay. I would make certain of it.