(This is, of course, a follow-up to "Burning Bridges" - one of four follow-ups, as a matter of fact, and all of them lengthy dialogue pieces like this one, because dialogues between these two are such goddamn joys to write, even though it means that, you know, there's no plot and little narrative and it all sounds a little cheesy. OH WELL.)
Albert's face didn't give away a thing when Lucretia opened the door to find him there. She looked him over, then tipped up the bottle in his hand to examine the label and looked up at him. "Congratulations," she said.
His lips were a steely line, his face composed. "How do you know it's not 'I'm sorry'?"
"Kanakan wine, my boy," she said, smiling. "You spend more when you're happy."
He melted, his solemnity fading into something cheerier. "Don't tell my wife."
"Future wife," he amended, walking past her into the office and pulling a pair of glasses from her desk drawer. She smiled at the surety of his motions. "Always there would be that niggling doubt - does 'I love you' actually mean 'Buy me jewelry, dear'?"
"Your enlightened positions were always what I liked the most about you."
"I'm not saying that's what it would mean." He poured out the wine with enormous precision. "I'm saying that I, in all my paranoia, would think it was what it meant."
"Alas," Lucretia laughed. "Now that I know that, I suppose we can't marry."
"I would, of course, make an exception for you," Albert said, "as I have come to suspect that you're the only woman for me." He turned back to her and held out a glass to her.
"Is that so?" Lucretia laughed louder than was her wont. She took the glass from him, held it up to him, and said, "Let's see how my divining powers have held up over the years."
"Divining?" he asked, but she held up a finger for silence and lifted the wine to the light.
"From the color and clarity, your thesis was accepted. You graduate." She swirled the wine in the glass and inhaled. "Oh, my. A fellowship?" She looked up at him, at his smile, and took a sip, savoring the flavor of it. "Mm. For study with someone important." She snuck another peek up at him, then looked back down at the wine. "Which you are going to take."
There was a bit of hesitation, and she looked up at him. He stared down at his wine. The smile faded from his face. "I haven't decided."
"Who is it? Your would-be teacher."
"General Matheson," Albert said.
Lucretia made a great show of raising her eyebrows and giving a little whistle. "If you want my advice, take it," she said. "It would be an unparalleled opportunity - "
"But - "
"You're only twenty," she cut in. "You have a full life ahead of you."
He looked at her, his brows drawn stubbornly together. "Uncle Mathiu was only twenty-four when he took his first commission."
"Good for Uncle Mathiu," she said sharply. He looked away and sat down; she crossed to sit behind her desk.
And she waited for him to elaborate, to speak a bit more on the subject, but instead he asked, looking up, "Who did you hear from?"
"About the fellowship." Lucretia lifted her glass and tapped its side with her nail, and a slight smile crept across his face. "Really."
"The wine tells all, my boy," she said and sipped at it again. When she looked up, he looked no more convinced, so she smiled ruefully. "I could tell from your face." He looked off to the side, tilted his head a touch, and she laughed. "The truth comes clear."
"I'd have preferred that it really was the wine."
"Oh, don't worry yourself, Albert," Lucretia said, "it's not that you're easy to read, it's just that I can read you. And besides, you're still free to butter up some general with a fine bottle and he won't know that you're going to stab him in the back."
There was a single moment before he started to laugh his false and flat laugh when he snuck a glance up at her face and they both knew that she wasn't entirely joking. So she reached out and tipped a bit more wine into her glass, a bit more than she'd poured into hers into his, and settled back.
"But," he said, "if I were to ever come up against you..."
"Oh, that's all moot, anyway," she said. "At this point, we wouldn't even have to look at each other to know what the other would do. Besides, I'm retired."
"Yes, I've heard of this 'retirement,'" he said, draining his glass more quickly than she would have expected and reaching out for the bottle once again. A light flush had crept across his cheeks, and she realized with some amusement that he was going to get himself drunk. Well, no matter; she'd let him have his fun, but stop him before he got well and truly smashed. "My grandfather Leon, he retired once. Went to go live alone and tend to his vegetable garden and only ended up being involved in the Toran Liberation War, the Dunan Unification War..."
"Nothing much," she said.
"Nothing much," he agreed.
"Well, I suspect I'll be a bit more resolute than your grandfather. I have my duties here, all sorts of honors. Gone are the days when I could just join an army on a whim."
"So you're really going to tell me that if - Luca Blight spontaneously came back to life - "
"If Luca Blight spontaneously came back to life, Albert," Lucretia said solemnly, "I would drop my every duty, and these old knees would regain all their youthful vitality so that I could run in the opposite direction."
He laughed, and it was strange - it sounded casual, unguarded, genuine. "I met Shu one time. I think sometimes I know the aspects of that war better than even he himself probably does, but I don't think I could replicate what he did. Yet when I met him, he seemed so ordinary."
"He just seems like a merchant, doesn't he?" Lucretia said. "Always has. That man was a more accomplished liar than nearly anyone else I've ever met."
Albert smiled at that, then said, "But really - if someone - not Luca Blight, fine, but someone else, someone - If I," he said, with a peculiar emphasis she supposed was intended to assure her that he was joking but that just made her uneasy, "if I raised up an army to attack - your home, Falena - "
"I'm not from Falena."
He sat up a little straighter and blinked at her. "All this time I thought you were from Falena. That's where your title's from."
"I was born in the Grasslands. It doesn't matter," she said. "Borders have never mattered much to me."
"All right." He poured himself another glass and gestured with the bottle toward her. She held out the glass, and he filled it back up. "So, say I gather an army to menace mankind - "
She raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together. "To menace mankind?"
"Mm-hmm. Complete genocide." He held the wine bottle up to the light and shook it slightly, staring intently at the liquid inside; it was probably just as well, since he missed her quickly smothered moment of horror. "And you, Professor, are the only one who can stop me." He set the bottle down and looked back up at her. "Do you?"
Valiantly she tried to redirect the question somewhat. "And tell me, Albert, why you would be inclined to do such a thing?"
"I'm working for someone who wants genocide," he said. "I don't ask questions. Tell me, Professor, do you once again take up pen and book and map and put a stop to my evil?"
"I suppose I have no choice, do I?" She took a deeper drink from her glass. "Though I suppose I'll have nothing to regret so much that I didn't teach you well enough to get you to turn down a job like that."
"Well, the job will be taken by someone, eventually," Albert said, uncharacteristically blithe and cheerful in his drunkenness. "Why not me?"
"Because you're very good, and if everyone turns down the job then no one will take it, eventually," Lucretia said, "but this all is neither here nor there; we're not here to talk about me, my dear boy, we're here to toast you. Your promising future."
"Yes, indeed," he said. "My promising future, which is all thanks to you. Really," he said when she demurred. "Professor Merces, you have taught me everything I know. For that, I must thank you."
"Well," she said, and smiled and batted her eyes and gave no sign at all that what he'd said had filled her with a vague unease. "You're partially to blame, too. After all, you're the one who did all the work, and you, my boy, were the one who had built the very excellent foundations upon which I helped you construct the house of your knowledge."
He laughed; again, it was free and easy, and somehow that put her even more on edge. "And quite a house it is. With very fine gables, and..." His words petered off, but he continued to sketch with his hands a general shape of his education. "So this is to you," he said, picking up his glass and then draining it again.
"And this," she said, pouring him a glass again and picking up her own, "is to the brilliant boy who approached me to be his advisor, and who understood so very well and was able to articulate so very well how the Higheast could have won its rebellion."
"To me," Albert agreed, drinking again. He relaxed in his chair, a smile on his face - not the guarded little things she'd seen before, or the smug chess-game smiles, or even the fierce smile of accomplishment that never lasted longer than a second or two. Here, he was genuinely smiling, casual and cheery, looking younger than she'd ever seen him, looking like an actual person. This Albert, this actual person, was someone she knew she could like. But he'd eventually be sober again, and then he'd be that same boy who made her so very uneasy.
"You know why I approached you, Professor?" Albert asked happily. "To be my advisor?"
Lucretia smiled and shook her hair back and said throatily, "Because I'm brilliant."
"Yes," he admitted. "But there are a lot here who're brilliant. I chose you, specifically, because I'm in love with you."
She swallowed too fast, so that the wine turned painful in her throat and she had to force it down, choking back a cough. "You're what."
And he was drunk, but even drunk he was bright enough that he understood well exactly what she meant. His smile faded away, and he pulled himself up to sit up straight. "I guess that's a terrible thing," he said, a sudden chill in his voice.
"No," she said quickly, "I was just startled, that's all."
And he stared at her a long moment, then stood; she watched him, uncertain of what he was going to do. Even he didn't seem to know what he was going to do. Slowly, he stood before her, and bent forward; he was close enough that she could smell him, wine and dusky cologne. Then he went to kiss her. She turned her face away before he made contact. He stayed like that a moment, then pulled back. She looked back at him; he was staring at her, his eyes strangely sad as he asked, "Why are you afraid of me, Professor?"
If she'd been a little more or a little less drunk, she might have laughed at that question, that vulnerable child's question, but instead she just swallowed and said, "Because I always think I know how far you're going to go and I'm always wrong."
He took a quick step back and turned away, rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth then lowering it again. "So I'm ruthless," he said without looking at her.
"No," she said, then corrected herself: "Yes, but it's more than that. It's - that you don't understand what ruthlessness is."
He turned back to look at her then, and there was true anger in his gaze. "So I'm stupid," he growled.
"No," Lucretia said. "No, you don't understand what I'm saying. It's - " She shook her head. "You know the saying, someone got an extra helping of heart at the expense of their brain? Well, you're where the heart came from and the brain went." She thought about that just a moment and realized that had been a very, very stupid way of putting it, but, again, he was drunk, so it seemed almost to be a physical blow to him. And she grimaced and said again, "You just don't seem to understand what ruthlessness is."
"I understand," he said, quietly, and she didn't know if he was disagreeing with what she was saying or agreeing with it. She felt guilty for what she had said, regardless, and took a sip from her glass.
"But tell me, Professor," he continued just as softly, "if I'm truly that amoral, if I'm truly that ruthless, why didn't I poison your wine?"
The drink twisted in her mouth, turned bitter, and she swallowed with some difficulty. "I - " She shook her head. "Why would you do that? There would be no gain in it."
"There would be every gain in it," he countered, suddenly very sober. "You yourself said earlier that you would be willing to fight me, and that you're able to read me. If I truly were ruthless, I wouldn't let someone like you live." He looked at her, not a hint of a smile on his face - but no malice, either. "I could get away with it; many your age have weak hearts. It would take very little."
She swallowed. That was it; that was why she was afraid; he was simply logical, and always had been. "Then you've given this thought," she said.
Albert said nothing. He just turned away.
She spoke again, and didn't intend to sound as mocking as she did: "And here I thought you loved me."
He turned back to her, then, his brow furrowed, his mouth drawn. "I do," he said softly. "That's why."
"And if you felt ambivalent toward me?" she asked. "Then you would?" He didn't reply, and she said, "This is exactly what I mean."
"No," he said then. "No, I wouldn't."
"And if you hated me?" Again, he said nothing; she shook her head. "I don't know if that makes it better or worse, really I don't Albert. I suppose it's just a comfort that human emotion factors into it at all."
"Well, I suppose I should thank you, that your condemnation is merely half-hearted," he drawled. Then, more quietly, intensely, "Have you always felt this way?"
"I don't know," she said, evasive, then thought about it and said truthfully, "I don't know."
"You don't know," he repeated. He rubbed his hand over his mouth, then looked up at her. "Why didn't you just say no?" When Lucretia shook her head, confused, he frowned and explained, "When I asked you to be my major advisor. When I asked you to teach me. Wouldn't the right thing have been..." He trailed off, pursed his lips, afraid, perhaps, of the answer.
She gave it to him anyway: "It would have been. But I was overconfident. I thought that you might - " She let out a long, despairing breath. "Change."
Albert looked down, and swallowed, and for a second her heart leapt when she thought it might have been grief she saw there. But when he spoke, there was nothing of grief in his voice. "The Bishops have offered me a position," he said, not meeting her eyes.
She'd been waiting for this since he brought up Uncle Mathiu's first commission. "I know."
He didn't look up, raised his eyebrows. "Divination."
"Informants." She shrugged when he looked at her. "Don't take it."
"Why not?" he asked, his chin suddenly thrust forward, challenge in his voice.
"Because you're not ready." She immediately regretted that and corrected herself, "Because the fellowship is better," but Albert hardly seemed to hear.
"I'm not ready," he repeated, his lips a thin line. "How am I not ready?"
"How?" he repeated.
"You're just not, Albert!" She shook her head. "You're just not. If you accept this position - only the Spirits know what would happen. People will die, Albert, when you command them." She hated the way she was talking, but it was the way she had to talk. "You'll - destroy - things. Maybe time will bring regard for human life." She looked at him, at his pale face, at his clenched jaw, and said, wearily, "Take the fellowship."
But he threw back his shoulders and looked at her and said, "No." Then, for good measure, he added, "Go to hell."
"Take the fellowship, or I will withdraw all letters of recommendation I have written for you."
That hung between them a moment, the most dire threat that could ever be delivered to a Silverberg. All Albert's defiance faded, replaced by a futile sort of anger, a rage with nothing to rage against save her. His jaw clenched. "You wouldn't." Then, with what for him passed for desperation: "You can't."
"Only if you don't take the fellowship." Lucretia shifted, uncomfortable suddenly with the ruthlessness of what she'd just done, and tried to explain. "Albert, it's better. It's just better."
She wished she could have dismissed his expression then as a child's, as the petulant scowl of a little boy with a thwarted will. Instead, he looked like a man betrayed. He looked like she had broken his heart.
"Look - " she started, then realized she had nothing at all to say. And he looked at her, and watched for every second as she struggled to think of something; finally, she managed, "You won't be able to avoid greatness. You're meant for greatness. You can't help it." She smiled at him, tentatively. "This will help you rise much further than anything else. I promise it."
But he hardly seemed to hear her; instead, he looked away before she'd even finished speaking and started to stand. "Thank you for all you've taught me," he said, his voice quiet and bitter, and turned away and started to leave; then he turned back, grabbed the nearly-empty bottle of wine from the table, and went in earnest.