In honor of the three year anniversary of "Tyrants, Tormentors and the Tiara" being published, I thought I would post one of the first short stories I ever wrote. It was originally written at the idea of an editor, who said the background history of the novel's characters was interesting enough that I should write prequels for them (a view later echoed in one of the reviews). While I have never gotten to whole prequels, I have written a few stories and this is one of the first. It has been through more revisions and edits than I can count since it was first written and I'd be delighted for any additional feedback to make it better. I hope everyone enjoys it!
The Headmaster’s Lesson
The Rhorian Academy of Magic needed a new Headmaster.
Lillian reflected upon this fact as she drifted through the open iron gates leading to her home. The house was a vibrant mansion in the wealthy northern section of the continent’s largest city. The expansive brick building was both incredibly opulent and outstandingly gaudy, decorated with hand carved oak doors and stained glass windows situated within gold encrusted frames.
Yet its beauty paled in comparison to Lillian. Long pale blonde hair reached down her back blending with the white silk dress covering her slender body. A light lace cloak with a lowered hood clung to her shoulders, glittering in the silvery moonlight washing over the sleeping city. Her flawless pale skin was soft as the lace and she possessed enchanting green eyes which seemed to glow like a cat’s. Attractive and wealthy, Lillian was the desire of many young men seeking the affections of the delicate looking nineteen-year-old.
The fragile appearance was a mirage, however. Lillian wasn’t just another enchanting beauty. She was a gifted magical prodigy. She graduated at the top of her class at the academy, winning almost every award for scholastic achievement bestowed by the school. Many people credited her success to favoritism resulting from the high political status and wealth of her family. She didn’t care. She was content to let her enemies doubt her skills.
Lillian passed through the entryway to her home, cradling a small package in her hands. She was greeted by a stout middle aged man with graying red hair. He wore a fancy tailor-made suit, so clean and neat one might think the outfit was brand new. He was the butler. Like everyone living under her father’s roof, he understood the importance of maintaining a perfect image at all times.
“Welcome home, Lady Lillian,” he said, removing her cloak.
“Good Afternoon, Arthur,” Lillian responded.
“You’re home late tonight.”
The hour was well past midnight. Such late outings were normal for her. She was a new teacher at the magical academy and spent many evenings performing experiments or training apprentices. Further, she was a noblewoman and spent most other nights socializing with fellow aristocrats at the palace.
“Urgent matters required my attention,” she said. “Is my father home?”
“Yes, my Lady. He is upstairs in his study. Would you like me to send a messenger for you?”
“No. I shall go speak with him. We have important business to discuss.”
“Very well. Shall I take your package for you?”
“No, thank you,” Lillian said, pulling the box close to her body. “It’s a special present for my father. I’d like to deliver it myself.”
“Very well, my Lady.”
Arthur bowed but Lillian was already past him. She hurried across the spotless tile floor and up the elegant marble staircase. Reaching the landing, she turned left down a short wooden hallway ending at a polished wooden door. The stone staircase inside ascended to the top of the circular tower housing her father’s study.
Lillian had expected her father to be there. He was a powerful wizard and influential figure within the kingdom. He spent most nights working in his study, answering various requests and correspondence from important regents both local and abroad. His efforts were well rewarded in the form of favors and allies.
She sighed. Politics were at the heart of all life inside the Academy of Magic and corruption ran rampant throughout the school. Every teacher and sorcerer found themselves somehow involved in the scheming, sometimes out of simple necessity to survive. No one was more corrupt than Headmaster Sorin.
Like a puppet master pulling the strings of his marionettes, the ambitious sorcerer was the ultimate schemer, beguiling the kingdom’s nobility, exploiting the school’s students, and twisting everyone around him to suit his ends. Now his time was up. The Academy was about to get a new headmaster.
Lillian worked hard to bring this day to pass. She was a clever and intelligent diplomat. She understood the intricacies of the political world and knew how to play the bureaucratic games. She was the true master: better than any king, better than any noble and better than even Sorin.
She shook her head. She wasn’t always so manipulative. Once upon a time, she rejected the notion of corruption, believing the country’s leaders to be guided by their sense of right and wrong. She was naïve, ignorant of the evil filling the world around her. She even possessed the audacity to confront Sorin when she discovered his true nature. The encounter still haunted her.
She was only a child, barely older than ten. At the time, Lillian possessed a close relationship with the headmaster, who also taught at the academy. She learned Sorin was abusing one of his students. An orphan with no wealth or influence, the boy was beaten, ridiculed and forced to flee the school. Lillian was appalled.
She arranged a private meeting where she lashed out against Sorin, calling him a fickle and unfeeling tyrant, among other less savory accusations. She suspected her childish rant was pathetic to observe. The headmaster wasn’t amused. Rising from his desk, he towered over her, rigid with anger. Despite the close bond they’d shared, Lillian believed he was going to kill her.
Then, his body relaxed and a compassionate smile crossed his lips. He held out his hand to her. His voice was gentle and soft when he spoke.
“Come with me,” he said.
“Where are we going?” she asked, fidgeting uncomfortably.
“I want to take you somewhere,” he replied. “Don’t worry, I’m not punishing you and I’m not going to hurt you. I want to show you something. Perhaps when I’m done you’ll be wiser.”
His easy demeanor dismissed her misgivings. Lillian rose from her seat and accepted his hand. With a simple spell he rendered them invisible. He led her from his office and beyond the school grounds into the city.
They walked for several miles. Lillian gazed around, uncertain where they were going. To her horror, she discovered they were approaching the far southern section of city. She was forbidden to enter this area and felt apprehensive about continuing. Her discomfort grew as they left behind the familiar streets and entered a foreign landscape.
Buildings were crowded close together. Laundry water ran down the streets mingling with the rotting garbage lining the avenues. Swarms of flies buzzed everywhere and cockroaches carpeted the alleys. Mosquitoes thrived in pools of stagnant water, forming curtains of disease and pestilence. Mange-covered animals fought with hungry beggars as they pilfered piles of standing garbage seeking sustenance amid the trash.
Lillian gave a squeal as rats raced past her feet. Disease covered faces of homeless vagabonds turned toward the open street seeking the source of the cry. She gripped Sorin’s hand and squeezed herself against him.
Sorin gave a reassuring smile. With a wave of his hand, he whispered “Proch”. The mosquitoes dispersed and transient animals of the street veered off their intended paths to avoid them.
They continued down the grimy avenues fighting to withstand the horrid stench. Lillian’s eyes fastened on the boys and girls lining the streets. She gazed at their distorted, prematurely aged faces and disfigured bodies. Though many were her age, they were different from her classmates. They lacked hope. They lacked joy. They lacked the dream of a better future she saw in the faces of her fellow students. She shivered.
“What are we doing here?” she asked.
“Tell me,” Sorin said. “Do you want to live here?”
“No,” Lillian answered, shaking her head as she looked at the poverty stricken ghetto.
“Me either,” he said. “These people have no money, no power, and will be trapped in this dark existence until the day they die.”
He steered her around and they hurried from the blighted area. Lillian hoped the trip was over but they didn’t retrace their steps toward the academy. Instead he led her toward the busy northwestern marketplace. As they moved through the cleaner urban streets, he often stopped beside large dusty windows instructing her to gaze inside.
In one building, Lillian saw line after line of women sitting in chairs, sewing clothes, quilts and other various items. Like mindless automatons, thy raised and lowered their arms in endless repetition. With one stitch, then another stitch, followed by another, they plugged away at their task. The overwhelming monotony of the endless cycle was broken occasionally when one woman would strike up a brief conversation with her co-workers. The conversation was quickly stymied, however, when a manager would appear and squelch the noise.
In other windows, she watched copyists, bookkeepers and lawyers work diligently to record notes, maintain ledgers and otherwise perform the menial tasks necessary for the operation of their small businesses. Though dressed in nicer attire than the spinsters, they nevertheless carried on their hum-drum tasks in the same mind-numbing and endless continuity. Like the spinsters, they found themselves trapped in an eternal cycle of awaiting the day’s end only to come back and do it again the next.
As they approached the central market, the crowd grew thicker. Sorin levitated Lillian and himself off the ground to avoid getting jostled. After the sickening stagnation of the slums and imprisoning solitude of quiet offices, the den of activity was a welcome break. A cacophony of voices rose from the myriad of merchants, shoppers, children and animals littering the central square. After a few minutes though, the chaotic scene started bothering her.
There were too many voices. Everyone was jostling everyone else in an attempt to get helped or served before their fellow shoppers. She could see a shopkeeper, perspiring in the noon day heat as he rushed back and forth between customers vying for his attention. Haggling with buyers, shouting at shoplifters, answering questions, and defending the quality of his product, the trader endured endless minutes of turmoil just to squeeze a miniscule profit from his wares. He was the lucky one.
At other booths, merchants stood pleading for attention. They assaulted pedestrians with a litany of shouts and cries imploring their business. Disinterested shoppers struggled to get away as these merchants transformed into beggars seeking sales sufficient to feed their families for another night.
“Every day is the same,” Sorin said. “Every single day, these people perform endless hours of non-stop labor. Day in and day out, they break their backs in an eternal quest just to make enough money to survive. Today, tomorrow, the next day, until the end of their lives, these people will slave away. All with the thin hope that maybe someday far in the future, when their bodies are too broken to be of any use to society, they’ll while away their final years in front of their fireplaces. They have money but no power to better their lives. Is that how you want to live?”
“No,” Lillian answered.
“Me either,” Sorin said.
He guided Lillian beyond the busy thoroughfare and dismissed the levitation spell. Their new road was a residential street Lillian knew well. They were moving northeast, back toward the academy. Lillian believed the trip was over. She was mistaken.
Sorin led her past the academy without stopping. At last they reached a series of mighty bulwarks. It was the outer wall of the Royal Palace, home for regents of the continent’s largest fortified city. They passed through the portcullis and into the courtyard.
Stepping onto the palace grounds was like stepping into a new world. Everything was beautiful, peaceful and tranquil. Gardens grew on both sides of the stone path they walked on, encircled with gates of finest gold. The smell of honeysuckle rose from the garden walls tickling Lillian’s nose with its enticing aroma. Royal children played hide-and-seek among the citrus trees, surrounded by butterfly bushes and jasmine growing throughout the lush paradise.
They left the gardens and passed through the open front doors into the entry hall. A large domed ceiling lined with crystalline chandeliers cast colorful rainbows around the lavish chamber. This was Lillian’s first time inside the palace. She gawked at the beauty and magnificence around her.
Sorin led her past luxurious pools of magically heated water where aristocrats soaked in pleasant leisure while servants accommodated their every whim. She strolled through vast libraries where timeless tomes of knowledge unavailable to the masses lay at the beck and call of any noble reclining in the plush armchairs. She watched as massive banquets of rare and savory delicacies lay before princes and diplomats alike to appease their hungry palates.
Lillian gaped at the gaudy lifestyle of the rich and powerful. Decadence and extravagance were a part of life in the king’s court. The poverty and humdrum existence of the working classes, she observed earlier, seemed like torture compared to the free and easy lifestyle of the rich and powerful. Sorin seemed to sense her thoughts. He looked down at her with a self-satisfied smirk.
“These people have wealth and power,” he said. “They can live in whatever manner they want, above the law, above poverty, enjoying the finest things in life while others bow to their every desire. Nothing they want is outside their reach.”
Lillian nodded. Sorin knelt down until he was at her eye level. He placed a hand on each of her shoulders, twisting her to look at him.
“I’ve shown you three different lifestyles today,” he said. “I’ve shown you those with no money or power. I’ve shown you those with money but no power, and I’ve shown you those with money and power. Which would you rather be?”
The answer was obvious but Lillian didn’t answer. She stared at him with stubborn defiance.
“What does this have to do with what I told you earlier?” she asked. “How does this justify you treating others with cruel contempt?”
“Because others don’t matter,” Sorin explained. “If you want to live this kind of life, you need to know what’s necessary to reach the top and do what’s necessary to stay there. There are three types of people in the world: those who can help you attain power, those who can’t help you attain power, and those who stand in your way! The first must be manipulated to your ends. The second are garbage to be discarded. The third must be destroyed!”
“Look around,” he continued. “Don’t you think the people in the slums and the market would do anything to be here right now? Isn’t power worth any price?”
Lillian thought about her answer to the question. Eight years had passed since the fateful confrontation. She was no longer a child but a graduate of the academy and a fiercely courted debutante. Still, she doubted any class or piece of instruction from all her years at the school made as much of an impact upon her as the headmaster’s lesson.
She’d learned the country’s leaders weren’t in their positions because of skill but cunning. She recognized being headmaster of the Rhorian Academy wasn’t based upon tenure, age, or even talent. It was based upon connections. Anyone could be headmaster, noble or even king if they knew how to pull the right strings at the right time.
Sorin knew this too. His corruption grew with his political might until the whole school was permeated by his schemes. Like a spider in his web, the shyster carefully positioned his tangled threads until he stood in line for the throne. Meanwhile, beneath his gaze, Lillian was constructing her own plan.
She reached the top of the stairs and entered her father’s study. The chamber was furnished with plush arm chairs and side tables covered with papers. The walls were lined with ancient tomes detailing subjects too numerous to name. A large fire roared in the hearth, illuminating the room. Asleep in an armchair beside the fireplace, her father dozed with his head tilted back. His hand, still clutching a number of letters, rested on the side table.
Lillian expected this. The hour was late and he was getting old. He often dozed off in his study following long days. She crossed the room to stand in front of him. She placed the box on the side table and gently untied the long ribbon enclosing it. Inside rested a beautiful golden medallion decorated with a variety of priceless stones. A platinum chain formed the top of the necklace, which rested on a soft raised stand. Lillian ignored it.
She lifted the false bottom to the box and placed the medallion on the table beside the armchair. Beneath it lay a long dagger made entirely of smooth clear glass. She picked it up and looked at her father. Without a word, she raised the blade and plunged it through his throat. His eyes flew open in alarm. His hands darted to his punctured neck as Lillian yanked the dagger back out and hurled it into the fireplace. The glass shattered into a thousand pieces as it struck the hot brick behind and the shards vanished among the burning embers.
Lillian looked back at her father. He was writhing, gripping his neck, choking as he attempted to breathe through the blood filling his pierced throat. Gargling sounds issued from his mouth as he tried in vain to utter a spell.
“Sorry, father,” she said. “But, as you say: There are three types of people in the world, those who can get you power, those who can’t get you power, and those who stand in your way. The latter must be destroyed. Lesson learned.”
The light faded from Sorin’s eyes as life left his body. His head fell backwards and his eyes gazed unseeing at the ceiling. Lillian returned the necklace to the box, retying the string. In a few minutes, she would go down and alert the guards that she had discovered her father’s murdered body. Next, she’d signal her agents. In the morning, she would be nominated as the new headmaster and following a fixed vote, would assume the post. All this was prearranged.
Lillian looked back at her father. She took no joy in his death. She was neither happy nor sad. She’d learned power was everything and you must do whatever is necessary to get it.
Thus the Rhorian Academy of Magic got a new headmaster.