I always suspected that Destiny’s Seers would all but conscript me into the Martell Tower for Good and Evil—I’d fancied myself a Charming Prince-in-the-making since I was a child.
Imagine my surprise when I learned my Destiny was actually to become one of Evil’s Lieutenants.
Destiny, you see, can be a tricky business. It’s full of self-fulfilling prophecies, perilous quests and no small amount of slaying—full of nasty, messy things. Most don’t want to touch it.
Many of us came with ideas of some form of grandeur that Destiny chose for us. Some of us wanted to be Warlocks or Charming Princes or Maidens. Instead, you’ve found that Destiny has chosen you to be an Evil Advisor, or Wicked Witch. But at least we’re keeping the world safe, right? Destiny must flow, as the saying goes.
Frankly, I’ve never minded getting the short end of the stick, because that short end can impale pretty nicely.
Sybil Kahn was always a good friend in those days. She was the kind of person that kept you alert. The same way a brick wall in the middle of a racetrack could keep you alert.
You could really warm up to her after you got used to the way she smiled like she was constantly thinking about holding a spider over a candle.
She saw me scowling, one day during a feast in the Great Hall. “Are you still upset Destiny chose you for this path?” She raised her goblet to her lips. “It’s been a few years, Elias.”
“A few bad years.”
She rolled her eyes. “This one will be different.”
“How would you know?”
“Because I know.”
“Is it magic?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes. “For the last time,” she said, “I’m an Evil-Queen-in-training, not a Wicked Witch.”
I mouthed an ahhh. “That’s right,” and touched a finger to one nostril. “I always forget—you haven’t got the nose.”
She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, trying to decide whether or not she’d been insulted.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Not at all,” she said, grinning. “Not at all.”
I should have been clued off by the emotion draining from her eyes, that something was about to happen. Unfortunately, I’d never been the brightest in the tower.
She slipped a dirk out from under her dress and slammed it down between my fingers. “What did you mean by that?” She spoke through her teeth.
“I haven’t got the right nose? What does that mean? What the fuck does that mean?”
“I don’t know—I—”
“You don’t know? You were the one who said it. I want to know what you mean, Elias.” Her voice went psychotically calm. “I’m trying to work with you, if you’d just help me understand.”
That was going to be difficult, since even I didn’t understand how I got into this mess. “It’s just a nose, Sybil. You know?”
“No, Elias, I don’t know! You’re the one who said it? What does that mean ‘you haven’t got the right nose.’?”
My eyes flicked from her dagger to her eyes and back again. “What are you trying to pull, here, Sybil?”
“You’re asking me?” Sybil held back a shriek. “You’re the one who started this. And you still haven’t told me what you mean!”
“I—I just—you know…”
“I promise I don’t.”
All I could say was, “Uhhhhh…”
“I’d like an answer, Elias. Sometime today, please. What did you mean when you said that? If I haven’t got the right nose, then something’s wrong with it, right?”
“Right?” I said, unsure. “No—wait, it’s wrong. Fuck! It’s left.”
She wrenched the dagger out of the table and hovered it close to my throat. “Make up your mind. What would you prefer? Do you want it to grow when I start telling lies? Is it too thin? Too wide? Too short? Too long? I’d very much like to understand you, if you’d just explain.”
I made a noise like a beam of wood before it snaps. I looked into her eyes that may as well have been lifeless. Her hand trembled on the dagger she held so very close to my throat.
Then I saw her smiling, which was odd. And then I was smiling without meaning to. “You piece of shit,” I laughed.
She pulled back, giggling, and slipped her dagger back in its sheath. “You believed it,” she laughed, “I actually got you. What did you think I was going to do?”
“Give it to me.”
“Skin me alive and wear me as a cloak.”
She grinned. “I might like to try that one day…” I’m almost sure she was joking.
We shared a double-room in the west wing of the tower, creatively named the Dormitory of Evil (though in their defense, they weren’t wrong…).
I awoke one day to hear Sybil shrieking and flailing and throwing on the first clothes she could find. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” She shouted.
“Sybil, what’s wrong?”
“I won’t! I promise!”
She seemed to deflate then, and she saw me for the first time. “How much of that were you awake for?” she asked.
“All of it.”
“Fuck me!” she collapsed onto the end of her bed and buried her face in his hands.
“Madame Tallow?” I asked.
She nodded and gave me a muffled, “She was shouting at me. In my head!”
“In my head, Elias!”
“Why would you sign up for her class?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you heard she’s a professional Wicked Witch—?” I jested.
“YOU DON’T FUCKING SAY!”
I raised my hands in mock-surrender. “All I’m saying is that you saw firsthand what happened to me last year.”
She looked like she was choking back sobs and seemed vaguely in shock. I couldn’t blame her. I knew what that was like. “She teaches a required course, Elias.”
“What’s it called?”
“All of the Fun Ways to Kill and Be Killed.”
“That’s a bit of a mouthful,” I sat down next to her. “Are you going to go?”
“That depends. If she screams at you not to be late again, does that mean you’re okay to skip class for the day?”
“In my experience, she usually think’s that’s suffering enough. Is there anything else you have to suffer through?”
“I forgot until now. Wait here, I’ll tell you in a moment.” She jumped out of his bed and hefted a beast of an axe that he left by his bedside and hauled it into the bathroom.
“Sybil? What are you doing?” No answer. “…Sybil?”
I was not prepared for how loud the crash would be—and when it came it was my turn to flail out of bed.
I was on the floor and looking at her upside down when she reentered our room with her axe leaning on her shoulder. “You should probably fetch a Housekeeping Warlock when you get a chance. Our toilet seems to be broken.
“Why would you do that?” I moaned at him.
“Because,” she said. “I’ve just remembered I signed up for Lumberjacking—and most of students will be Huntsmen.”
“That’s fair. I’ll get a Housekeeping Warlock as soon as I’m motivated to get off the floor.”
Sybil responding by hefting his axe off her shoulder, which provided ample motivation. I stood up so fast I was dizzy. “All right,” I said, “Off I go! Good luck with your class.”
“And good luck with yours!” she called, “Whatever they are.”
We had the same class halfway through the day called Oh, The Ways That You’ll Go. It was like All the Fun Ways to Kill and Be Killed, but thankfully there were a few slight differences. This class was taught by Master Ash, who had more of a focus on scheming.
I shared the class with Sybil and a man called Mandelstam—who, I am told, was the same age as us.
I had my doubts. Mandelstam was a brutish man from Greyfell way up in the frozen north. Mandelstam towered over everyone else in the class, and he was so hairy I would catch myself wondering if he’d grown himself fur to keep warm way up in the north. I never learned what Destiny chose him for, but I have my suspicion that he’s out there somewhere, taking up management under a bridge.
Mandelstam rarely talked, at least not in the common tongue. He was fluent in some near-dead ancient language. It took Sybil and me two years to realize he could talk, and another six months before realizing he could understand us.
I spent the next six months apologizing for two and a half years’ worth of transgressions.
Our introductory class was short, with Master Ash going over what we were expected to accomplish during our time in his class. At the end of the semester, those who were “Good” would have to sabotage a mock-wedding before a princess (or prince) was forced to marry someone they didn’t love.
Those who were “Evil” had to sabotage a mock-wedding in an entirely different way. An objectively bloodier way, at that.
Our assigned reading was from a book called Edible Arrangements of Arsenic. Sybil, Mandelstam and I left the class, and I was already turning over some ideas for musicians with crossbows at the mock-reception.
As we made our way through the hall Mandelstam nudged me a little too hard and I sort of stumbled sideways into the wall. He held out his hand. “Book?”
“Um,” was all I could think to say.
He turned to Sybil. He held out his other hand. “Book?”
“What do you want with them, Mandelstam?” Sybil asked.
“Book?” He flexed his fingers. “Hold me?”
“What did you say?” I hissed out the question in an attempt to keep my voice down.
Mandelstam’s eyebrows cut into a V shape; like two caterpillars crawling down his head. “No, no,” he muttered to himself. He held out his hand and said, “Book?” This time it was more forceful. Frustrated, even.
“Do—do you want to hold it?”
His grin was a crescent and he nodded, so I gave him my copy. Then he turned to Sybil and said, “Book!” This time it sounded less like a question.
She was more hesitant, but handed it over. “Why do you want to hold it?”
“We do the group project,” he said, almost parroting Master Ash. “Together, yes?”
“That’s right.” I reached up to give him a pat on the back.
“Others…others haven’t,” he lowered his head. “Years two and three. Others haven’t do project together. Others leave. Others do not know me…” He stopped and stared off into space, trying to find the right word. “Do not know me…know me…”
“Understand?” Sybil suggested.
He pointed at her. “Understand! Others do not understand, before. Others leave. They do not want to understand me, before.”
“So others just left you on your own because you’re still learning the common tongue?”
“You know we won’t do that, right?” I said.
Sybil put her hand on his arm to show her support.
“I know,” he said. “I know. But having books—” he cut himself off again, lost in thought. “It helps, it helps.”
“By all means, keep them,” I said. “I’d love to see the look on the man’s face who catches you with three copies of Edible Arrangements of Arsenic.
“Why am I called a Lieutenant of Evil?” I asked Raymond one day while we waited in our dorm. “Does Evil have a corporeal form I’m not aware of?”
Raymond was busy scribbling some notes about the trajectory of blood-splatter. Without looking up, he said, “I can see it now: a small village accidentally awakens the Great and Powerful Evil. The whole town is dwarfed in shadow as Evil descends groggily towards the village to wake him from his nap. Oh no—what’s this? Evil has stubbed his toe and is now very angry!”
I fell back in a fit of hysterical laughter that would make any Wicked Witch look away in embarrassment. Through my cackling I managed to sputter in a fake-deep voice: “E-Elias! Take charge of the vanguard! And ye gods make sure Evil doesn’t step on any sharp pebbles!”
And that was how Sybil Kahn and Mandelstam entered our dorm one day to see Raymond and I crying, red faced with hysterical laughter.
“Um.” Sybil looked from Raymond to me. “Are you two okay?”
“I’m fine,” I giggled. “I’m fine. My chest hurts, but I’m fine. Are you ready?”
Sybil rolled her eyes. “No, I came to your room but I still need put on my makeup.”
Raymond spoke up: “Has Mandelstam ever been to the Chasm of Doom?”
“No,” Mandelstam said, to which Raymond winced. He had a penchant for forgetting he could understand us. “Where is it?”
“It’s in the courtyard behind the tower,” Raymond said.
“Isn’t it sealed off?” Sybil asked. “I thought it was under renovations.”
“It is,” I said, “But I nobody bothers to report intruders as long as they aren’t breaking any rules.”
“Besides that one,” Raymond broke in.
“Obviously,” I snapped.
“Why is it being fixed?” Mandlestam asked.
“Because a few months ago,” Raymond said, “The Seers put a dragon at the bottom of the Chasm. That turned out to be a bad investment on their part.”
Sybil’s eyes lit up and seemed almost to glow with enthusiasm. “What are we waiting for?”
Looking back, it probably should have been obvious that it was never a good idea to go to the Chasm of Doom.
The Heroes had come first, led by none other than Henry himself, the Charming Prince who was all dashing smiles and shining armor.
My heart was trying to thud through my chest. I flexed my hand on the short sword at my side in a futile attempt to calm my nerves. Raymond and I exchanged a look.
“Did they know we were coming here?” Sybil asked. Her expression was caught between a glare and a grin, like she couldn’t decide to choose one so just twitched back and forth between both.
“I have no idea,” Raymond said. “But we still have a chance to leave. I don’t think they’ve seen us, yet—”