"Burning Bridges"

Lucas Windamier's exam had run long; Albert had arrived only five minutes early, but had had to sit for ten before the inner office door creaked open and the other boy crept out.

"Oh, Silverberg, hey," he wheezed, "hey, Silverberg, good luck."

"How is it?" Albert asked.

Lucas let out a low whine, punctuated with little whuffs, from low in his throat. It took a moment before Albert realized it was supposed to be a chuckle. "Terrifying," he said.

But Lucas was a cowardly, nervous boy, so his word was hardly fit to go on. "Thanks," Albert said, and stood to hold the door out into the corridor for Lucas. Then he went in himself.

"Please, sit," the lady Merces said with a graceful sweep of her fan. And Albert sat and gave to her a polite (if slightly condescending) nod, crossing his legs before him. She smiled at his courtesy, gave a nod of her own, and then gestured to the squares of parchment arranged in a grid before her.

"Now," she said, "if you'll pick your fate..."

Albert nodded and pulled a square from the middle. "Task eight," he read.

"Task eight..." she muttered and leafed through the papers before her. "Ah! Here we are." She handed one over, and Albert felt no little satisfaction at what was written there: Green Drop Pass.

"You're smiling," Lady Merces said, an answering smile teasing the edges of her lips.

"It's nothing," he said. "It just seems as though fate favors me."

"Is that so?" she said. Her smile didn't slip a centimeter, and it sounded to him almost eager when she said, "You'll have five minutes to read over the task and plan accordingly."

All the writing beneath the title was cramped into the top third of the paper, the space between words and between lines approaching nothing, but Albert had become accustomed to that over the past few months. Somewhat.

"Professor," he said, holding the paper where she could see it, "I think I may need five minutes for the reading alone."

If anything, her smile deepened. "You're the first to have the gall to challenge me on that, Mr. Silverberg," she said, and he looked up at her and pressed his lips together, his cheer slightly dampened, then looked back down. "All right," she continued. "Eight minutes for task eight; mercy upon those unfortunates who pull task one."

"Thank you," he said and bent his head to the task. He imagined that she had no idea how well he'd absorbed her lessons: when he pointed out a scribble and asked her what, precisely, it was supposed to say, half the time it was to put her off her guard and the other half so he could smell her hair and watch the fascinating curve of her neck when she leaned over to read it. Once or twice it may have been because he actually couldn't make the word out.

"Green Drop Pass," he said at seven minutes, and she looked up at him and set aside her pen. "I have a force of three hundred, and with these men I'm to wipe out a force of four hundred, taking no prisoners, which sounds severe..."

"It's for the purpose of the exam," Lady Merces said, not a hint of impatience in her voice.

"All right," he said, looking down at the rudimentary map of the pass sketched in the bottom right corner of the paper. "My great-uncle, actually, was once called upon to defend this particular pass - "

"Oh?" the lady said, and snapped her fan up before her face to hide her expression. "I didn't know you had any strategists in your family."

Albert looked up at her, a stab of irritation - not anger, certainly not anger, merely irritation - flashing, then fading. "There have been a few," he said, looking back down at the map. "What isn't illustrated here - " He pointed down. " - is that there's a system of mines cut into the walls of the pass." He looked back up at his professor. "My great-uncle used them to his advantage."

"Is that so?"

"Yes," he said, looking back down. "So far be it for me to buck the trend. It says about a hundred of my men are capable of using runes?"

"Correct," Lady Merces said.

"All right," Albert said. He looked down at the map, thought of Lucas Windamier's whined warnings, and smiled - "I'll send my magicians ahead and conceal them in the caves. One hundred will engage the enemy at the front of the pass, then feign a retreat. The others will be hiding in the forest. My hundred will retreat across the bridge and destroy it behind them - "

"Will that not create difficulty after your impending victory?" Lady Merces asked, a little archly for Albert's tastes.

"There's another bridge hardly a mile north," he said brusquely. "They'll be able to rejoin the main force easily."

"All right," she said, and swept her fan out to the side in an invitation for him to continue.

"The enemy will be trapped between the gorge and my mages, who will come forth from the mines and attack their flanks. Magic attacks are quick enough that this should cause significant damage. By the time the enemy regroups to attack, the mages will have fled back out the pass into the forest, where my waiting soldiers shall kill the rest." He leaned back in his chair and smiled.

"Hm," the lady said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. She looked down at a paper before her, then said, "Would you like to hear my response?"

That had been phrased oddly; Albert couldn't help but get a little nervous, but he rallied. "Of course, my lady."

Lady Merces took another pause, nodded, then said, "My force will - "

It was usually a bad policy to interrupt teachers, but this was too startling not to. "Your force?"

"Why, yes," she said, girlish and wide-eyed, her fan fluttering before her face. "What, did you think your enemy was made up of mindless automatons who would dance to your every tune? Please, Mr. Silverberg - were that true we would need no strategists at all."

"Of course not," Albert muttered, then, louder: "I was just startled - I hadn't thought I'd be going up against someone so brilliant. This changes things."

His words had the intended effect: the lady fanned herself a little harder and smiled a smile that was deeply pleased, deeply satisfied. "You flatter me," she said.

"Not at all." Manipulating his professor calmed him a little. "Please. I apologize for having interrupted you. Continue."

"Ah, yes," she said. "We'll cave in the mouths of the mines as we pass."

It took a moment for that to sink in. Then Albert coughed, once, incredulously. "You can't do that."

"Oh, it's easy enough," she said. "Runes would help, though they would no means be necessary. Just a bit of agitation of the roofs, and..." She fluttered her fan from side to side. "The mines are old; it would take hardly any work at all."

"That wasn't what I meant," he said. "You can't - just - if this were a real battle, you wouldn't know that I was hiding men in the mines."

"Wouldn't I?" she asked, and it was startling how unsubtle her mockery was. "I know who I'm up against, after all - Albert Silverberg, desperate to emulate the outstanding members of his family..."

He worked his jaw a moment, then said, "Regardless, Professor, I have my suspicions that if I hadn't announced that I was - "

"No?" she interrupted, resting one of her long shapely nails on the paper before her. "This is my battle plan, Mr. Silverberg. Note that it was written before you began to speak." She waited a moment, then said, "What was it you were saying?"

He studied her a moment, watched her hooded eyes. "May I see the paper?"

One eyebrow lifted, then settled again. "If you want your exam to be invalidated, certainly."

That reaction had shown it - he'd caught her in a bluff. This, doubtless, was part of the test as well. "I'll take another task. I wasn't prepared for the conditions of this one. I just want a better idea of the conditions of this exam."

"If you were unprepared, Mr. Silverberg, you have no one to blame but yourself." But she spread her hands and shrugged and slid her paper over to him. Albert's heart sank as he read it over - she had predicted every move he had made and was going to make, and now he not only had lost, resoundingly lost, but had humiliated himself, as well. And before lovely Lucretia who was also his professor - just thank God there was no one around to see this, though years from now Lady Merces would probably not shrink from telling this at parties and getting a great laugh -

"Satisfied, Mr. Silverberg?" she asked.

He swallowed and got a hold of himself. Still, he was a little shaky as he said, "Yes," and slid the paper back over. Lady Merces folded it into fourths with quick sharp creases, then dropped it in the trash. "I'm sorry for questioning you," he added hesitantly.

"Amais Trueguard challenged me, as well," she said mildly. Albert was simultaneously startled that the soft-spoken, rather dull knight's son had worked up the nerve and irritated that Amais got a first name, while he wasn't even sure if she knew his. "More politely, though," she had gone on. "None of the rest thought themselves smarter than the teacher."

"I don't think that I'm smarter than..." Albert started, then trailed off uncertainly; he'd hoped that by that point, she would have interrupted him, but instead she just looked at him expectantly. "I..."

"You were complacent," she said, and he almost sighed in relief. "After a full half year of this class, I understand you; you didn't think I would. That's all right. Pick another card, just as Amais did before you, and just as I shall allow anyone who comes after to do."

He looked into her eyes; she stared back, unblinking, and finally he lowered his gaze and pulled another card. "Task two," he read, quietly.

"Task two," she repeated, leafing through her papers. She tugged one free and slid it before him. "Now, you're to have, what, two minutes?" He didn't respond; she laughed. "I'm joking, of course. Five minutes. Good luck."

Scarleticia Castle, the paper read. Your forces: 600 infantry, 200 cavalry, 200 runemasters, 400 archers. Enemy forces: N/A.

"Professor - "

"Mm?" She leaned forward to look at where he was pointing. "Ah. That's the special one. Don't worry, Mr. Silverberg; it shall be explained."

You are the lord of the eastern region of the Scarlet Moon Empire. After several droughts, food supplies are low and illness is widespread. The people blame you and have risen up against you. Their arms are rudimentary, their training minimal. Given the forces described above, as well as your own knowledge of the region in question, how do you respond to this? Articulate your thinking aloud. Use the map provided for reference.

He stared down at the paper a long moment. "I - Professor, there's no way to win this," he gritted.

"It's not about winning," Lady Merces said. "I just want to see how you respond."

He bit back his anger and said, "Besides, it's not even strategy - this is politics."

"Oh?" She was hiding behind her damned fan again. "I've always thought the two were one and the same. I suppose that's a semantic argument, though..." With a snap, she closed the fan, then flipped it down to point directly at his nose. "And I suppose you would be the expert on this, wouldn't you? Mr. Silverberg?" And damn if that one word wasn't more mocking than anything else she'd said up to that point combined.

And he couldn't help it - maybe it was because it was his grade was on the line, maybe because it was his family's honor, but even though he hadn't lost his temper in years he swatted the fan aside with the back of his hand and growled, "You think I don't know what this is about?"

She actually looked for a moment startled, but recovered quickly, setting the fan aside and clasping her hands before her like an attentive student. "I thought it was about your grade," she said innocently.

He gritted his teeth further. "It's about you hating me," he said deliberately, watching her. Her expression revealed nothing, so he continued. "You've always hated me. And do you know why? Because of my family," he said before she could respond. "Because the Silverbergs have always shaped and will continue to shape history, while you don't have children, while the only thing you're known for is some role in some uprising in a useless country no one cares about, because you're going to die alone and anonymous and I will be known, regardless of what I may do, merely because I have the surname that I have. Because you, madam Professor Merces, are jealous of me, all of fourteen and already more famous than you are." He realized his hands were shaking, that his voice was shaking, and he took a deep breath, another, and looked up to see that at least she wasn't smiling any more.

But when she spoke, her voice was just as serene and rich as ever. "I suspect, Albert, that you may be projecting some of your issues onto me." And it was so damned condescending, so damned mocking, that Albert would have walked out if she hadn't used his first name. But he stayed.

"You're right," Lady Merces continued. "I don't like you. I don't hate you - trust me, it would take a talent more formidable than yours to make me hate you - but I don't like you. And you know why?" she asked, mocking his question. "It has nothing to do with your family. It has nothing to do with being forgotten. It has everything to do with your being a self-important, entitled little brat who has it in his head that he's the most talented thing ever to hit Soledt Academy." At least there was a slight heat in her words. At least he'd gotten to her. "And you are intelligent - I've met some in my day who are brighter, and I suspect you study more than you say you do, but there's no denying that you're intelligent. But by the Earth Spirits, boy, nine times out of ten the strategist who prevails isn't the brighter one, it's the more experienced, and it's the one who doesn't underestimate his enemies. And unless you come up against some truly incompetent enemies, your name won't win you battles. You, and only you, will." She took a moment. "Do you understand?"

Quietly, Albert said, "Yes."

"Good," she said, then pulled a kerchief from her sleeve and dabbed at her upper lip. Then she nodded and tucked it away. "And Falena is a lovely land," she said. "Don't you ever insult it." She took a deep breath, and finished, "Continue, then."

"All right," Albert said, looking down at the paper before him, and cleared his throat and wondered if he was honestly supposed to act as though none of that had happened. "I suspect you'll be playing the role of some charismatic figure."

"You suspect correctly," she said, then ventured a laugh that was only a breath less certain than those that had gone before. "Lucretia Dawn-Walker, Gentle Hero of the People, Beloved of the Sword and the Shield," she said, fondly, and looked up at Albert. "What's wrong?"

He collected himself. "Nothing." He cleared his throat and looked back down. "So - the key to ending the rebellion would be capturing you, wouldn't it?"

"Oh, you're making me feel important," she said, fluttering her fan once again before her face. Albert raised an eyebrow; she chuckled. "But - " she added, suddenly serious, "a word to the wise - that hardly would solve your problem entirely."

"I'm aware," he said. He wasn't, really, but confidence was key here. "I don't have enough men to serve as an effective police force. My attack can't really be military, can it?" The Lady nodded briefly. "Well, I'm sure that I have capable propagandists back home, don't I? I'll launch a vicious smear campaign against you. Lady Lucretia Hero-of-the-People will become a brigand, a murderer. She'll want to live in luxury; she'll have designs on the empire itself. We'll of course despise her actions in burning down - " He glanced over the map, then looked up, remembering something he'd heard about Lady Merces. "Soniere Prison - that's for mostly political prisoners, isn't it?"

The Lady's face was unreadable. "Then you would murder all the people inside?"

"I wouldn't," Albert said, taking some delight in his nastiness. "It would be the Hero of the People, wouldn't it? She would say that the prisoners were collateral damage - she'll burn it down just to get to one of my lieutenants who was on inspection, just to kill the prison guards. I will remind the people of the poets being held there, the great artists and political minds. I will print some of their art."

"And the people will forget that you were the one who imprisoned them?"

"It was for their own protection," Albert said. "From Lucretia, who hated their dissenting ideas."

"And you feel no guilt over killing them," she said.

"They're just criminals," Albert said, shrugging casually but unable to keep from smiling. He may have been reading too deeply into her expression, but it looked to him as though she was actually a little disturbed, and the fact that he was actually able to disturb her - that was well worth playing the brute. "No, I don't feel the slightest bit of guilt until it comes to the decision over whether or not to burn down Lucretia's hometown. Which one would that be again?" he asked, leaning forward a little.

"I - " Her brow furrowed as she looked down. "Teien. I suppose."

"Teien. Right." He looked down. "I camp a small force in the town, citing Lucretia's statement that she had repudiated her hometown because it didn't support her wholeheartedly, a statement which I would have printed a few weeks previous. I say I'm there to protect it. I wait for Lucretia to contact me. I threaten the town with destruction if she doesn't give herself up. I expect she will. I was never to blame for the problems in the region, anyway - the rebellion was unfounded. The Hero of the People was never anything more than a dilettante at best, a criminal at worst."

Lucretia was silent a moment. "And if this gets out to the people? Their fury would be formidable."

"It won't get out to the people," he said firmly.

"Because the press is yours," she said. Her voice was quiet.

Albert looked at her, and was rather pleased that she was so taken aback by the decisiveness of his response. Still, he didn't want her to have it in her head that he was actually so monstrous, so he said, "But do know that I wouldn't actually do all this."

"That's a relief to hear," she said, but sounded unconvinced. Then she looked up and pushed her paper off to the side. "I'll spare you my response. It's completely incapable of countering such ruthlessness."

He could feel his teeth gritting again. Of course, since he won, she would be bitter about it, would call him ruthless - he hadn't really expected her to be a sore loser, but he shouldn't have been surprised. Really, she was the predictable one. So when she asked for his grade book, he shoved it at her resentfully. She raised her eyebrows at that, then wrote a few things down and passed it back to him. He looked down at the grade, shook his head. "A four?"

"Be thankful," she said. "It was going to be a three, but I lost my temper as well, so I felt as though that would be unfair."

"But - I beat you," he said.

"Your performance in the first task was extremely flawed, and in the second..." She shrugged. "The solution you gave was not a long-term one."

"I've never gotten below a five before," he said.

"I'm glad this class has been a learning experience," she said, smiling brightly. "Chin up, Mr. Silverberg, only two others have even gotten so high as a four so far."

"For the..." he started, then cut himself off. Lady Merces, however, caught it.

"What's that?" she said.

"Why do you always call me Mr. Silverberg?" he asked. Maybe it was foolish, but he had his grade, he wasn't going to take any more classes from her, he could afford to be rude at this point. "Everyone else gets a first name."

She looked at him a moment, solemn. "I always thought you would prefer it."

"Oh." That, for some reason, had never occurred to him.

Strangely earnest, she asked, "Would 'Albert' be better?"

"I..." He cleared his throat. "It doesn't matter."

"I wish you would have said something earlier in the term," she said with a rueful little smile, and he was struck by how beautiful she was when her smile wasn't mocking. Then she sighed and said, "And I shouldn't have lost my temper earlier. You, I was provoking, and you're young, it was only to be expected - " And it was a little disappointing that she had been expecting nothing else of him, but Albert could manage that disappointment. "But I had no reason. I apologize."

He nodded and took this as his cue to leave. So he stood and said, "Thank you for the class, Lady Merces. It was - very educational."

She nodded and smiled. "I'll be on sabbatical for the next term, but after that I'll be returning and teaching a sixth-level course on guerilla warfare. If you were to apply for that course, I suspect you would get in."

Uncomprehending, he shook his head. He wouldn't be able to get into sixth-level courses for another three years yet. "But Professor," he protested, "you don't like me."

"No," she said, a distinctly amused smile back on her face, "but like I said, you're very bright." She laughed, then, and waved her hand for him to go and said, "I'll see you next spring."