There's nothing like a fresh pair of eyes 13
Pausing on "Clowning" which I really want to wrap up in at most four chapters. I can see what way it's going to go, and the outcome of the collapse of the clown revolt is roughly plotted (nothing like that can succeed when so much counter-force is being brought to bear on it) but I'm not too happy so far and I want more Rats in it. The Clowns have annoyed too many people. Who all want words with them.
Looking at other halted tales. I can see how Catherine and the girls are going to ace their field exercise and a really good idea occurred to me as to how they can pull it off in a way that makes their teachers think twice. And just for Nimbus Llewellyn, Natasha Romanoff will feature in this one too. I will probably have to split this into two parts.
Catherine sat down on her own and tried to work out a plan. The coming exercise involved making an unseen approach to the old wizard-tower and then getting out again, just as unseen. She assumed there was an element in between which needed to be accomplished to her teachers' satisfaction, something to prove she'd been that close, but something they hadn't yet been told the specifics of. She speculated on what form it would take, then shrugged and returned to her sketches of the land around the tower. Maybe if I crawl through this dip here. Dead ground. Stay low and it probably won't be visible from the top of the tower. I used it earlier with Deborah and we weren't shot at. And we'll be moving in twilight or even true night, with lengthening shadows. Shadow is a friend.
She considered Deborah Rust, the trail-partner who had been wished on her, and shuddered. Then fervently hoped this would be a solo exercise. Or that she might be allowed to choose her preferred working partner.
Get to the bushes on the crest of that low hill, where I did my main sketches from cover. Then I can crawl through this dip in the ground to the low hill over there at eleven o'clock. That takes me further from the tower, but it opens up another covered approach that gets me a short dash away from the archway. Damn, what's on that side of the tower? Didn't get to see… but however long it takes, I'm pretty sure I can get to within twenty yards unseen… and not being seen is the key thing.
"Cetherine?" a voice said from behind her. She jumped slightly. Miss Smith-Rhodes could move very silently and inobtrusively when she wanted to.
"Yes, miss?" Catherine said respectfully. Miss Smith-Rhodes had an uncharacteristic hint of uncertainty and diffidence about her. It was barely there, but still apparent. She noted her teacher had chosen to call her Catherine and not Miss Perry-Bowen. She wondered why the informality.
"We need to speak to you. Miss Band end I. Cen you spare a minute or two?"
"Of course, miss." Catherine said, standing up. She wondered what this was all about. Miss Smith-Rhodes led her a little way away, out of earshot of the other pupils. Miss Band and Miss Lansbury joined them.
Miss Alice Band appraised her. She took her time in speaking. Catherine tried not to let this intimidate her.
"We've been watching you." Miss Band said. "No, I'm not being sinister here and nothing adverse is intended. We watch all of you, naturally."
Miss Lansbury and Miss Smith-Rhodes nodded.
"And since you returned to the School after your injury, and especially out here, it's been growing more and more obvious that you've been developing some impressive leadership qualities." Miss Band continued. "And your general skill and aptitude levels have been improving in leaps and bounds. We do recognise these things, you know. It isn't all criticism!"
"Thank you, miss." Catherine said, wondering what the catch was going to be. If she was being praised, there was bound to be a big one.
"Earlier today, for instance, you earned serious course credits for getting close to our position unobserved, and making what Miss Lansbury recognised as some very accurate and impressive sketches of the objective."
"Starred A for Art." Miss Lansbury said, beaming with pride.
"And for Fieldcraft and concealment." Miss Band added.
"We suspected somebody wes wetching from the bushes to our right." Miss Smith-Rhodes said. "But I could not tell for certain. It wes not worth wasting en errow on. I found thet commendable!"
"Unfortunately Miss Rust will get a credit too." Alice continued, drily. "Fairness dictates that. Even though I suspect she was riding on your back and otherwise a hindrance to you. Left on her own, I suspect it would have been different."
"Which is why we're speaking to you now." Miss Lansbury added. The three teachers suddenly went very solemn.
"You took Deborah Rust. You somehow persuaded her to shut up, be quiet, to let you take charge, and to follow your lead." Miss Band remarked. "And for once a member of that family not only matched expectations, she exceeded them. Whatever form of persuasion you used, it was impressive."
There was a pause. Catherine braced herself. You didn't often get this level of praise from your teachers. There had to be a sting in it somewhere.
"We hev a request for you." Miss Smith-Rhodes said. "Be edvised this is not a command. But if you choose to eccept it, there will be extra course credits end perhaps a Sending Up for sherry."
"For the right reasons, this time!" miss Band said, drily. Catherine had the horrible ice-water sensation that they knew about her and Gareth.
"And the Master might be inclined to drop any ongoing investigations that might point in your direction." Miss Lansbury added, with seeming innocence.
"When we go on tonight's field exercise, most of you will be going in teams of two." Miss Band said. "And they will be the assigned pairings. This is a grading exercise in co-operation, after all. And a lesson that sometimes you cannot choose your team-mate and partner."
There was another almost embarrassed pause.
"You will of course be paired with Deborah Rust. If I can open up a little to you, we're pleased that most of our forced pairings have by now seen sense and are co-operating together. Except for one."
"We are esking you to lead a team of four students." Miss Smith-Rhodes said, studying Catherine's face closely. "Yourself, Miss Rust, Netesha Romenoff, end Solveig von Kugelblitz."
Catherine tried not to let her consternation show. Stung. Deborah Rust. Times three.
"There it is. You're under no compulsion to accept. And should it fail, there will be no sanctions or reproof. We would accept you tried your best." Miss Band said.
"Something hes to be done." Miss Smith-Rhodes said. "Those two are blind to reason. We really do not went them to end up killing each other."
"Whatever you did to get Miss Rust's compliance worked." said Miss Lansbury. "If you can take Solveig and Natasha and bash their stubborn heads together, we'd be grateful."
"They will be told you are in charge." Miss Band said, reassuringly. "After all, Madame Deux-Epées has already used you as an assistant teacher. She reported afterwards that she was very pleased with you."
Catherine contemplated this. A deal was being offered. Rescue a situation from potential disaster, and her teachers would somehow fix it so there'd be nothing more said of her night on the tiles (1) with Gareth. The Guild would drop any investigation and draw a line under things and they'd both get away with it. She reflected, with a guilty shiver, that Gareth was probably even now being put under pressure to tell her name. His life wouldn't be much fun right now. But Solveig. And Natasha. In addition to nurse-maiding the bull-necked idiot Deborah Rust.
Catherine sighed, and resigned herself to washing out of the exercise. She'd give it her best shot, anyway.
"I'll do it." she decided. Her teachers smiled and relief was evident on at least two faces.
"Thank you. Catherine." said Miss Alice Band. It was the first time Miss Band had ever used her first name. Catherine wondered if this was something she'd look back on later as some sort of milestone. Right now, it's a millstone…
Gareth ffitzroy-Connor staggered back to his dorm. An hour of high-impact training in the gym on top of an afternoon at the sports field had taken its toll on him. Several days in to his punishment regime, he wondered how long he could keep this up for. With grim determination, he outlined his priorities as being a shower, clean clothes, prep for tomorrow's lessons, and then bed. At least there was no early-morning Swords class and he didn't need to be up a long time before breakfast…
Miss Smith-Rhodes called the pupils together and gathered them for the pre-exercise briefing.
"It is very simple." She said. "In your designated teams, you are to plen en epproach to the tower you see down there in the velley. You are to approach silently end stealthily. You will leave proof in the doorway or inside the tower thet you hev been there. This will be taken, for the purposes of the exercise, es contract completion. Then you are to withdraw, equally silently and without being observed. Myself end miss Band will be observing from the top of the tower. Should we spot you epproaching, we will indicate we hev seen you. You will know when we hev seen you."
She smiled and allowed a pause for this to sink in. Then reached down into a large crate that had been delivered by magic carpet, picking something up.
"Miss Lensbury will be inobtrusively moving around the area of the tower. She is not part of the directing steff who are defending the tower, end is not there to signal your positions to us. Her role will be as the umpire who will edjudicate when an ettecking team hes been spotted end neutralised, end will pley no further part in the proceedings. If she tells you thet you hev been inhumed, you withdraw from the game end mey return to cemp."
Ah. Die early, and you get an early night. Catherine thought. It sounded like quite a good idea.
Miss Band took up the briefing.
"Your operational strategy and method of approach is for you to decide." she said. "As a guideline, you will plan your approach carefully and thoroughly with your assigned partner. This is not negotiable, and is intended to reinforce the idea of co-operation and collaboration with a working partner who you have not chosen for yourself. We will be watching for how well you have learnt this lesson, and will be awarding marks accordingly."
She nodded to Miss Smith-Rhodes, who lifted the device in her left hand and pulled a paper strip down one side of the tube. She waited for a count of four, then lifted the cardboard tube and threw it, overhand, into the air over the heads of the girls. Catherine braced herself. Then there was an ear-splitting explosion somewhere behind them. Some girls nearest to the noise shrieked. A sudden cloud of bright orange smoke billowed over them, the acrid alchemical smell provoking coughing. She noted Professor Stibbons, who clearly hadn't been expecting this, poor man, leap for cover. She supposed Wizards working in the High Energy Magic Building were trained to do this, in the event of loud explosions and sudden ominous smoke.
Miss Band and Miss Smith-Rhodes nodded approval as he sheepishly stood up.
"Commendable reflexes, Professor." Miss Band said. "You will note the Professor did not waste time shrieking or squealing, and dived for cover. This is the recommended thing to do if a large explosion occurs unexpectedly, by the way. All of you just stood there and looked confused."
She paused to let the additional lesson sink in. Then Miss Smith-Rhodes raised another of the devices. People leapt for cover. Their teacher grinned and motioned them to stand.
"This is a development of the common elchemical firework. It is specially edepted for our purposes." she said. "I designated this es the Type One Combined Thunderflesh End Smoke-Bomb. The elchemical composition is such thet it generates an extremely loud beng. This in turn triggers a canister of reagents thet generate coloured smoke. It is elerming end disconcerting, but perfectly harmless. Unless detonated in a confined or enclosed space. The device is ectivated by tearing off the fuse-strip down the side which, by friction, triggers the elchemicel reactions. You then hev et most five seconds to throw the thing, or it will explode in your hend."
"Which is not recommended." Miss Band said. "Especially as Matron Igorina is not present. Anyone dismayed yet?"
The initial shock having faded, forty-eight girls displayed intent attention. What amounted to a powerful and portable bomb was something they wanted to know more about. Catherine suspected Miss Smith-Rhodes had also devised versions that were not intended to be deployed for teaching and training purposes. She wondered if this was a relatively benign introduction to the sort of exothermic alchemy devices an Assassin might employ for real. It was frightening in its implications. But she decided she wanted to find out more about this sort of firepower.
Each of you will be issued one of these devices." Miss Band continued. "As the cardboard tube survives detonation, you will clearly write your name and House on the outside, so that we can identify the person who chose that time and place to detonate it. The objective of the exercise, and the proof that you have concluded the contract to detonate a bomb inside the tower of a Wizard who has attracted the attention of the Guild, is for you to get close enough to throw your thunderflash inside the ground floor of the tower. Miss Smith-Rhodes and I will be at the top of the tower watching for you."
Miss Band smiled, mirthlessly.
"Believe me, we will be very aware of an explosion some floors underneath our feet. I am assured it will make the tower shake and the noise of an explosion, in a confined space underneath us, will be very loud indeed. You may consider this to be an added incentive to completing the exercise. Many of you will have opinions to express about the way we have assigned working partners, for instance, and might appreciate at least a chance to get even at our expense."
"Thet is if you cen get close enough." Miss Smith-Rhodes added, throwing out the challenge. "End I will edd thet if you are discovered end ruled out of competition, you are each required to bring back the device in en unexploded end intect condition. Munitions are not to be expended recklessly. I will be checking for this."
"Miss Lansbury has indelible pens. She will supervise you in writing your details on the device you will now be issued. Then you have thirty minutes to get together and plan your approach. Any words, Professor?" Miss Band added.
"Ummm…" said Ponder Stibbons. His ears had still not recovered from the explosion. He then explained that most of the still-present magic in the area consisted of illusions, memories and degraded hangovers from the past, and would be harmless if you kept your heads. Umm. Mainly.
Mostly. Mainly. thought Catherine, noting the qualifying terms. She noted Professor Stibbons said he would be at hand if anyone ran into real problems. Then they went off to do their pre-mission planning.
Alice Band breathed out, long and heavy.
"Do you really think any of them are going to get even remotely close?" Gillian Lansbury asked. "After all, this is the first field exercise under operational conditions for any of them. It's been designed as a little taster to give them a practical appreciation of all the things that can go wrong. Over-confidence, and all that."
"We set a few interesting treps on the more obvious epproach routes." Johanna Smith-Rhodes remarked. "Nothing thet cen seriously injure, obviously. End they will get better, es they proceed on the Bleck end gain experience."
"Forty-eight novices just beginning the Black Track." Alice said. "Divided into twenty-three teams. They are likely to trip over each other a lot. But I do think several exceptional talents might give us a little more trouble. If only through a combination of native ability and good fortune."
"Miss, er, Perry-Bowen?" Ponder Stibbons ventured, diffidently. All three looked at him. Johanna smiled and nodded.
"Yes, Professor Stibbons. Miss Perry-Bowen. What's your assessment of her? Professionally speaking?" Alice asked.
Ponder thought of the hideously injured girl he'd ferried by air to the Igors that day in the park. He had studiously avoided looking too closely at her face.
"I'm really pleased she recovered. But…"
"Go on, professor." Alice invited him. Ponder gulped. Three Lady Assassins looking at him with intent was un-nerving. It was like interacting with witches.
"It's the new eyes, isn't it? The psychic resonance with the donor. Errr… Her new eyes are copies of those belonging to Madame Deux-Epées. The cells of which they are made have had… not quite thirty years experience of being Madame Deux-Epées.. Errr…."
"Nicely phrased, Ponder!" Johanna said, encouragingly.
"Diplomatic." agreed Gillian, with a hint of a smile.
"So transplanted into a girl of sixteen, it is possible that a lot of the biomystical field of Madame Deux-Epées, an older woman of very strong personality, was also transplanted into her. We know, purely physically, that the eyes are only the mechanism for processing light. Eighty percent of interpreting and making sense of those images goes on in the brain. The optic nerves, which were also cloned from donor cells, can be viewed as specialised brain tissue. It is entirely possible a sort of cellular-level possession has occurred. Not deliberately or consciously, and Madame Deux-Epées herself would be completely unaware of it. At most she might have odd dreams at night, concerning seeing the world through the eyes of a sixteen-year old student. Resonance, you see. The detached tissue reaching out, in a psychic sense, to its original donor. Err.."
"Professor, are you saying Catherine Perry-Bowen's brain has been taken over by her new eyes?"
"Not all of it. Just the parts dedicated to processing visual images. But a part of her brain will now be forever Madame Deux-Epées and will influence the brain tissue of a young girl, which at sixteen is still developing and growing. I'd hazard a guess that her ability to speak and understand Quirmian suddenly improved almost to native-speaker level, for instance. All it needs is practice. Many of Madame's personal quirks and outlooks on life will have become Catherine's. But she will still be Catherine, with an element of the woman who gave her new eyes and optic nerves. The host brain will dominate, but the donated part of the brain tissue and psyche will interact with it in ways that are impossible to fully predict. Errr…"
Ponder noted that none of the three looked very surprised. Alice, Johanna and Gillian looked at each other and nodded.
"End Emmanuelle is a born leader. People listen when she makes suggestions." said Johanna.
"Which will be good for Catherine tonight. She'll need it." Alice agreed. "Professor, the other thing. You know a Guild student cannot also be magically talented? The Patrician forbids this. If we can use tonight's exercise as a discreet means of checking the girls for magical ability, I would be grateful."
Ponder was on firmer ground here. He knew, from Johanna, that any Guild student showing late-onset magic would be discreetly and regretfully removed from the Black. Dual-qualified wizard or witch Assassins would simply be too powerful. Vetinari was against it. Such pupils were told they were not being expelled as such. But regrettably they could not carry on at the Guild School and arrangements would be made to transfer them to other more suitable academies, with the best possible reports and references. The university had gained several excellent student wizards that way. Johanna imagined any girl pupils showing magic would be transferred to the Quirm Academy for Young Ladies, which had a visiting consultant teacher called Miss Tick who arranged work experience terms in Lancre.
"Well, some of the residual magic around the tower can only be seen by a fully-fledged magic user." he said, relieved that Johanna had assured him any identified students would live to see their new schools. "If any of the girls report seeing certain phenomena when you debrief them, that's the pointer. I can administer a few more tests to make sure. And you can take it from there, I suppose."
"Thenk you, Ponder." Johanna said.
Catherine had been relieved that her three team-mates had accepted her without undue fuss. Apparently they'd all been spoken to separately and had been told, in no uncertain terms, that the exercise conditions for them would be uniquely different. Solveig von Kulgelblitz and Natasha Romanoff were pointedly sitting on either side of Deborah Rust, seen as a neutral third party acceptable to both, but trying to stay as far apart from each other as they could.
Catherine sighed. This was going to take diplomacy. The sort that was one step short of war, if necessary.
"I'm not going to muck around." Catherine said. "As I've already explained to Deborah, I want to come out of this with the best possible marks. Getting those good marks depends on YOU. That's my motivation. And Solveig? Natasha? I'm guessing you two are pretty near the bottom of the class right now. You need good marks too. And like it or not, that means you're depending on me. And on Deborah. And on each other."
She eyeballed all three in turn, holding their eyes and waiting for them to blink. Again she wondered what it was about these new eyes of hers.
Incredibly, Deborah Rust spoke up.
"Since starting this field trip, I've deferred to Miss Perry-Bowen's good judgement several times." she said. "She has not failed me. She managed to obtain starred credits for us both this afternoon, for instance. She has made our shared existence more physically comfortable than it might otherwise have been. I would go so far as to say that when I graduate as a Licenced Assassin, and need an assistant on a contract, I would request Miss Perry-Bowen."
Oh, I like that optimistic "when I graduate", thought Catherine. And if I ever go on a contract with you, Deborah, I'll be doing all the work and all the planning and no doubt saving your thick Rust backside. Who do you think got you that starred credit earlier? Which means you get a smaller share of the completion fee!
But, grateful for support from an unexpected quarter, she held her peace.
"This is how we're going to do it." she said, opening out her earlier sketches of the ground to be covered. "If anyone has any suggestions, speak up. But I do the deciding."
She quickly laid out her plan. There was no dissent. Even Solveig and Natasha looked warily at each other, acknowledging an unpleasant reality, and nodded. As other teams prepared to move out, Catherine smiled slightly.
"Now we check equipment." she said. "And we wait."
Gareth ffitzroy-Connor stretched out on his dorm bed, utterly dead-beat. His friend James Cheadle-Heath looked over with amusement and concern.
"They're really putting you through it, aren't they?" he said, sympathetically. "I'm getting the impression that if you tell them her name, they'll let off."
Gareth winced. This had occurred to him. But he'd come this far and faced down the Master in his own office. Madame Deux-Epées had taken a sympathetic liking to him. He wondered how she'd react if he weakened and betrayed Cathy. Then he shuddered. Hell's fury would pale against an angry Madame. He might prefer Hell's fury, in fact.
It occurred to him that if he were to be injured out there, badly enough to be sent to Matron Igorina, that would be respite for a while. With full Igor-assisted recovery afterwards. But how to do it without it being recognized as self-induced….pick a fight with Wayne Drooley? Uggh. There's damage, and then there's damage. A croquette ball, if somebody throws it hard enough and accurately enough… then he realized he was thinking out of weakness and dismissed the thought. Besides, there was no telling what he'd babble under Igorina's anaesthetics. It'd be just like them to suggest she used a suitable one. No. sleep tonight. Recover. Take it as it comes tomorrow.
"Look. I'm the same netionelity. Same beckground." Saartie van der Plessis(2) said, patiently, to Chakkie N'Golate. "That means I cen think like Miss Smith-Rhodes. Enticipate where she's going to put treps end whet sort of treps she'd use."
"Well, yes." Chakkie said, doubtfully. "But she's been doing it for longer than you."
There was a brief reflective pause. Saartie changed the subject.
"So let's say your people wented to embush my people by night. How would you go ebout it?" Saartie pressed her. Chakkie frowned.
"Do you think I'd tell you?" she replied. "Well, OK, as we're both Assassins in the same uniform."
"I won't tell." Both girls grinned. They had arrived at an early détènte.
"First, we try not to fight by night unless we have to. Bad muti. Night gods prowling looking for souls. Sort of thing. But if we had to."
And one of the better-sorted teams arrived at a working plan. As Saartie phrased it, the chance to stick a care package right up Miss Smith-Rhodes' guava was an opportunity not to be missed. Really take care of her.
Catherine and her team found a place to watch, as best they could, from behind the accepted start line. Deborah Rust briefly grumbled about the wait. Catherine pointed out that the exercise rules had not specified that everyone needed to start at the same time. It was interesting how everybody else had assumed this. There were far too many people out there, they were treading on each other's feet, best to hang back and wait for the numbers to thin out. Also we can watch and learn. Then go in last or near to last, when all the fuss has died down and other people have triggered most of the traps. You really don't think they've set traps? Miss Band, who teaches Traps? Solveig and Natasha got the point quickly. The four settled down to observe. Periodically they heard loud explosions, screams, and saw clouds of luminous yellow, neon-pink and green smoke flare up.
"People are getting silhouetted against that smoke." Solveig noted. "Makes it easy to spot and catch them."
"And the magnesium flares." Natasha added. "Not only that, they'll ruin your night vision. Just don't trigger any, beet-eater."
"Speak for yourself, turniphead."
"Look, can we please call a truce?" Catherine said, heatedly. "We've got a job to do and it needs all of us!"
They watched another silver-white flare erupt into light. It appeared to have been thrown down from the tower. Catherine speculated that Miss Band and Miss Smith-Rhodes must be wearing night-vision goggles. Surely their night vision was being shot to pieces too?
And then eliminated teams started filtering back.
"Oh, they got you too?" Sam Demisage asked. Catherine noted her clothing – and exposed skin - was stained luminous-pink. An Assassin in pink working clothes seemed incongruous….
"Dye-powder bomb." Sam said. "According to Miss Lansbury, it washes out quickly. It stains when the smoke blows over you, by the way. We triggered a tripwire. Didn't even get close."
Sam looked at her friend and frowned.
"None of you are even marked yet?"
"We haven't even started yet. Keep talking, by the way!"
"You cunning cow!" Sam said, with admiration.
A luminous-green couple followed, who turned out to be Maddy Selachii and Jeannie Venturi. Both were grinning.
"According to Miss Lansbury, we got closest." Maddy said. "But we still weren't close enough to throw thunderflashes."
"Regrettably." Jeannie agreed. "But we did fairly well, Miss Selachii."
"Good enough to get a good mark. Thank you, Miss Venturi."
"I'm almost tempted to say it was a pleasure, Miss Selachii."
The two retreated to the camp, intent on washing the worst of it off hands and faces and doing what they could for tunics and trousers.
Catherine counted another twenty or so girls returning. Some were not disposed to talk. But others provided good intelligence. All were stained with what they had been assured was water-soluble dye. The noise of explosions and the light-show started to diminish.
"Right." she said, eventually. "Now we move out. Absolute silence, please!"
And their mission began.
To be continued….
Turnipheads (Zlobenian) and Beet-eaters (Borogravian)
(1) Quite literally so in this case. See previous chapter.
(2) Absolutely no relation to the villain of Hyperemesis Gravidarum, who came later. "Plessis" is a fairly common element in Afrikaaner surnames.
taking Bob Seger's Night Moves out of context here...
We were just young and restless and bored
Livin' by the sword...
Workin' on our night moves
Tryin' to lose the awkward teenage blues...
Workin' on our night moves
And oh the wonder
We felt the lightning
And we waited on the thunder
Waited on the thunder
I awoke last night to the sound of thunder...
Ain't it funny how the night moves
When you just don't seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in