In Which Mackenzie Tells The Truth
My surprise at seeing Acantha alone almost stopped me from noticing that something was odd about the space we were meeting in.
I might have figured that I’d just not noticed the soft music coming from the illusory instruments in the center of the open-air lounge until I got close enough to them, but after a few disorienting seconds I was pretty sure they hadn’t been there to hear until I’d stepped across an invisible threshold… the acoustics were completely wrong for a small space partially partitioned off from a big open room connecting to multiple hallways.
The lounge was wrapped in silence. No sound was audible within it except for those that originated inside it, which meant that no sounds from within it should be audible outside of it… it was possible to make the exclusion one-way, but easier to not. I imagined the purpose was to stop the music in the lounge from interfering with whatever was happening in the rest of the building and vice-versa.
It could also make it a useful meeting space for someone who desired privacy without being obvious about it.
“So… I guess I’m the first one here?” I said.
“Of course,” Acantha said… just those two words, and nothing more. I waited for her to finish that thought, but she didn’t. Since she wasn’t in a mood to elaborate, I tried to figureout what she’d meant by it. It was either that or ask, and I wasn’t going to impress her by asking.
The idea that she would have invited no one else was not one I could seriously entertain, at least not while I was on this side of the blankets and the lights were on. The fact that she’d picked a soundproofed meeting room might have been a little suggestive, except for the fact that it wasn’t exactly sightproofed.
“That was by design?” I guessed. It wasn’t exactly a detailed speculation, but it made it sound like I had some idea what I was talking about.
“There’s a sticker on my carriage that says ‘Product Developers Do It By Design’,” she said. “Well, not really… and actually, I have less to do with the final design of my creations than I would like, but it’s true enough for a joke, isn’t it? Ah, now you’re laughing.”
“Tell me I’m not the only one you invited,” I said. It seemed like the least ridiculous and self-serving way to ask the question.
“You’re the only one I invited… at eight,” she said. “The rest of the group will be getting here at nine, assuming they all accept my invitations.”
“Oh, I know how you enjoy being the first one to show up,” she said.
It was true that I was often the first or among the first to show up for her class, but given that I was usually there before she was, I wasn’t sure how she knew that with such confidence. Or why it bothered me… well, that actually wasn’t that much of a mystery. I might have been flattered that she was paying attention to me, or that she had wanted to meet with her alone, but given that I was trying to figure out how much I could trust her, these things seemed kind of like red flags.
…although, I was also separately flattered by it. That bothered me, too.
I did what was probably the smartest thing I could have done when I wasn’t sure what to say, which was saying nothing.
“The truth is,” she said, eventually, “you seem like the sort of person who opens up more one-on-one. I’m sure you’d benefit from a small group atmosphere, which is the point of this whole get-together… but I felt it would be easier to break the ice for you personally if we had some time alone.”
“Ah,” I said, which was functionally equivalent to saying nothing but let me reply.
“Oh, don’t just stand there… have a seat,” she said.
The lounge was filled with small round tables with three seats at them. The chair across the table from Acantha was pulled out, but I took a seat at one of the tables closest to her, turning it around to face her. I was hoping that I was still close enough that it wouldn’t look like I was trying to avoid being close to her.
“I don’t bite, you know,” she said. “I’m sure there are rules about that, somewhere.”
“I’d feel weird sitting alone at a single table when there’s so much space,” I said. “Anyway, you couldn’t possibly fit more than four people around one of these, and it might get awkward if more than two other people show up.”
“I hope more than two other people show up… but it won’t be for a while,” Acantha said. “I figured that I’d have to rise to greet them anyway, so I could sit somewhere else once I see the guests have distributed themselves. But sit wherever you’re comfortable.”
I was glad she didn’t press it… I don’t know that I would have left if she’d kept pushing me to sit with her, but I probably wouldn’t have come back, or sought out any more attention from her outside of class. I had issues with people who ignored boundaries. One of those issues was that I was bad at asserting boundaries, so avoiding people who ignored them was pretty much the strongest tool I had for dealing with them.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked.
“You can ask me anything,” she said. “If it helps put you more at ease.”
“Why exactly do you find me interesting?”
“That’s a borderline self-deprecating way to ask it,” she said. “If I already knew that someone found me interesting, I would take that as given and ask them what about me interested them.”
“So how do you find me interesting, then?”
“At first, it was just trying to figure you out,” Acantha said. “You paid attention in class and were reasonably dilligent, if a little… scattered. But then you started turning in homework that was ahead of what we were doing. I wondered if you had someone else helping you, but you never gave me cause to doubt that you understood the principles behind the work, SO I didn’t really care one way or the other. It was just… well… interest.”
“Before the wand… which wasn’t for your class… I did everything myself,” I said.
“Oh, I believe that,” she said. “I have a better feeling for your personal fingerprints now. If you had been going to someone else for help, I might be mildly interested in meeting them, but knowing what you’ve managed to piece together for yourself makes me very interested in you. You seem like the sort of person who, when someone hands you something and says ‘this is for doing these things’, you start thinking about what else you could do with it… but at the same time, you’re very careful. The world is full of cautious enchanters who never really get anywhere, and daring ones who end up going quite far in several directions at once. It’s the mix that’s so rare.”
“I think I might err a little more on the cautious side than you think,” I said.
“Well, that’s to be expected… you’re young and inexperienced,” she said. “You have a lot to be cautious about, but you don’t let that stop you from stretching your wings when you’re reasonably sure of yourself.”
“Stretching my wings?” I repeated.
“…I was trying to say ‘spreading your wings’ or ‘stretching your legs’ and they kind of both came out together,” she said. “Sorry, that was a little embarrassing… though, now that I think about it, I suppose it could have been worse.”
“How… oh,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “The thing is, Ms. Mackenzie… actually, would you mind if we dispense with the formalities of the classroom here, do you? I’d like to keep things on a first-name basis within our little group… you do go by your first name in class, in keeping with the custom for non-human students, but it would be awkward to give you a title and no one else.”
“You can drop the Ms.,” I said. I knew the honorific-and-name style was actually coded into the university rules, but I wasn’t sure how it applied outside of the classroom setting. Two could have told me what the rules were for that, and if she’d been there she probably would have. “I still feel a little weird being ‘Ms. Mackenzie’, to be honest, but I like it better than any of the alternatives.”
“I understand that. Maybe I’d get more respect if I took a title, but that’s not me. I’m supposed to make you call me that, though, even though I don’t hold any position with the school,” she said. “Anyone who teaches a university class is the professor of that class.”
“Why don’t you?”
“I’m not a professor,” she said. “I don’t know who Professor Acantha is, but like I said, it’s not me.
“I think you’re more than qualified to teach, though.”
“Qualified to teach a person, maybe,” she said. “I’m less sure about teaching a class… knowing something and doing something are different skills from teaching it, and leading a class is a whole separate bag of tricks that I don’t actually have.”
“You seem like a fast learner,” I said.
“Thank you, Mackenzie,” she said. “So do you… that’s one of the things that caught my eye.”
“Thank you,” I said. It occurred to me a second later that “One of them?” might have been a better reply.
“I hope you don’t spread around what I’ve told you,” she said. “My doubts aside, I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think I could handle it for one semester, and while it has been harder than I expected, I don’t think I’ll manage to fail too disastrously at anything before the term is up. And I doubt I’m going to leave any holes in anyone’s education, even if I don’t always get there by the most graceful path.”
“I think you’re doing just fine,” I said.
Though it sounded like an unguarded moment, I couldn’t help thinking that this was one of her practiced speeches. Of course, most of what she said that was longer than a single sentence or two sounded rehearsed… that didn’t necessarily mean she was up to anything, only that she was managing her anxiety.
“I’m so glad you say so… it’s nice to have your confidence on this matter,” she said.
It was just a word, but “confidence” gave me pause. I remembered a story that Two’s friend Hazel had told us once, about the origin of the phrase “con artist” and the word “con” meaning “scam”. I’d used to think it had something to do with “convicts”, but she’d said it came from the fact that scammers tried to gain their marks’ confidence through building a rapport with them. According to her, the original con artists would strike up a conversation with strangers over some commonality and then ask if they had the confidence to lend them a small amount of money or a timepiece or something else small and valuable.
The whole thing sounded a bit on the nose to me, as far as scams went, but maybe the fact that it used such a bald statement made it seem more likely to be honest. Or maybe it was just something that Hazel had made up. She did do that.
Regardless of the truth of Hazel’s story, there was definitely something… insinuate-y… about Acantha’s approach here. I’d volunteered my opinion, sure, but she’d kind of been fishing for it. The polite thing to do was offer reassurance when someone doubted their abilities, but once I’d done so, I was invested in the position. Had she been angling for that?
Despite all the time I’d spent dreaming about being alone with Acantha, if I’d known that it would just be the two of us for an hour I would have said no… or at least, I should have. Without the benefit of hindsight, my curiosity probably would have got the better of me. But this? This wasn’t clearing anything up, it was just muddying the waters even more.
…or maybe I was being too paranoid. I had every reason to believe she was nervous about her ability to teach a class. I’d watched her doing it. We’d spoken about it, sort of. That was why we were here, wasn’t it?
“To return to the shop talk…” Acantha said, and I nodded, since that seemed like safe ground. “I think the ability to look at something and take it beyond its established purposes is one of the surest paths to success. Consider your coach’s mockboxes. The phantasmal forces that power them were originally meant for illusory guardians. The purpose of the first mockboxes was deception and fraud. Somebody looked at that and figured out that it could be used for weapons for mock combat… and then someone else looked at that and figured out how to use it for mock combatants. Who knows where the next leap will take us?”
“I had the impression you were worried about what uses it may be put to next,” I said.
“Well, yes… in the wrong hands,” she said. “But you might remember I’ve already come upon another potential use.”
I blushed. It had probably only been a cover story she’d made up, but the image of Acantha making out with a glowing doppelganger had popped into my head assoon as I realized what she was talkin about.
“In fact,” she continued, her voice dropping down to a conspiratorial tone, “I might have snuck back in after you left for a little more, ah, private testing.”
And that was the point that I decided I was done.
Because I knew she hadn’t… Coach Callahan had shown me the logs. She and I had left at the same time that night, but she’d left her dupe behind so she… it?… could examine the mockboxes in private. But obviously she was trying to figure out how much I knew, or she was testing the waters to bring me further into her confidences.
“You don’t seem surprised,” she said.
“Coach Callahan thought you might have done something like that,” I said. I was terrible at lying, but I’d become very good at deceiving through the truth, since I’d never really believed it was lying. I understood the argument that it was, but even then, it still registered to my brain as truth. “That’s part of why she kicked me off the project.”
“I feel terrible about that.”
“I should go,” I said, getting to my feet before she could ask why.
“Why?” she asked, not actually daunted at all by the fact that I’d stood up.
I didn’t know… at least, I didn’t have an answer I could say out loud.
“I’m not sure I can trust you,” I said. That was the truth, but I’m still not sure why I said it, except that there didn’t seem to be anything else to say.
“That’s a good reason,” she said. “Not the answer I was hoping for, but I can’t say it isn’t a smart move.”
“So I shouldn’t trust you?”
“Nobody should trust anybody,” she said. “Not in the sense that you mean it. Not absolutely. People make the mistake of thinking that someone is reliable or on the level as a person instead of trying to figure out what they can be relied on to do, when, and under what circumstances.”
“You’re telling me this as part of trying to earn my trust,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Why not? Even if you believe it, it’ll be years before you’ve internalized it to a useful level. And you’re more likely to learn it for real if you spend more time around me, which means you need to trust me.”
“If you’re so self-serving, why do you want me to learn this?” I asked.
“Because you’ll be more useful if you know it,” she said. “But just because I have my own interests at heart doesn’t mean you won’t benefit as well. Two people looking out for their own interests can get a lot done together, when their interests coincide.”
“…I’m still going to leave,” I said.
“Will you come to the next meeting?” she asked.
“Will there be more than two people there?”
“There will be more than two people here if you just wait until nine,” she said. “Or come back then… the only reason I met you alone first is I thought it would make you more comfortable.”
“Maybe I will,” I said… I didn’t think I would, but it seemed like a good thing to say to get out without any more stalling.