Etton rushed along the corridor, smoothing his cravat and rolling his sleeves back down. He stopped outside the Provost’s office.
“Oh dear,” said Etton. “Now you’ve done it, Ett. You've really done it, gotten them good and angry and they’re going to chuck you out this time.”
He straightened his waistcoat, his hands trembling a little. Etton knew there were few things that an apprentice could do to merit being summoned to the Provost’s office, and all the bad, rule breaking things were serious enough to be thrown out of the fortress university for.
Unfortunately, Etton had committed no less than three such crimes.
He hoped that the Provost only knew about one or two of them.
Etton took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” called a mild voice, from the other side.
Etton grasped the doorknob. Gripping it tightly, he turned it and pushed the door open.
The Provost’s office was large, and well lit from a wide bay window on the side of the wall. It was more like a workshop than an office: there were various projects hanging from the walls and lying on shelves. The Provost himself sat at a workbench, assembling something with many springs, gears and levers.
“Hello, Etton,” said the Provost, looking over his glasses at Etton with a slight smile.
“Good afternoon, Provost sir,” replied Etton. He wrung his hands behind his back, and couldn’t keep from biting his lip.
The Provost nodded at a wooden chair placed opposite the workbench.
Etton quickly crossed the room, stepping over a bit of something involving a breastplate and a clock.
He sat down in the chair, straight and stiff.
The Provost returned to his work, working the points of a pair of long tweezers into the innards of his project.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose you know why you’re here.”
“Y-yes, sir,” said Etton, almost without thinking. He wondered for a moment if he should have lied and played innocent, but he’d already said it so there was no use thinking about it.
The Provost smiled at him again. “Good. Honest.” He set down the tweezers and picked up a gear the side of a tea saucer.
“There are two ways we could go about this,” said the Provost, fitting the gear between two other, smaller gears. “I could make you comfortable with a bit of small talk, and we could ease into the discussion of your past month’s transgressions, or we could get straight to the point and have it over with. Which would you prefer?”
Etton clasped his hands together behind his back and forced himself to remain calm.
“If you please, sir, I’d much rather just get it over with.”
There was a click as the gear found it’s place among the workings of the device. The Provost set it down with care. He stood, and, walking to his desk, picked up a thin folder that had been lying there.
“I like a forthright person,” said the Provost, as he crossed the room again and sat down at the workbench.
“We have quite an interesting file on you, Etton,” he said, scanning the papers. “Missed classes… late assignments… sleeping in class… and yet the faculty claims you are one of the more brilliant students here.”
The Provost looked up at Etton. “Brilliance is good. But this file says you’re lazy.”
“I’m not lazy!” said Etton, before he could stop himself.
The Provost raised an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
Etton flushed and looked down. “Sorry, Provost sir,” he murmured. “I forgot myself.”
The Provost gave Etton a long stare. Then he continued. “For a while I believed it. And then I thought: why would this student, who used to get top marks in every class, who formerly turned in brilliant assignments, who once was alert and paid attention… why would he suddenly… lose focus?”
“Something… distracted him,” said the Provost. “So I decided to use a bit of my free time and a bit of my administrative power to find out what would distract this brilliant student in such a way.”
Etton could no longer look up at the Provost, who was no longer smiling.
“I found, through my sources inside and outside this fortress, that you had broken three major rules of the Enclave,” said the Provost.
Oh no, thought Etton, his last bit of hope vanishing like a rabbit in a hedge.
“First,” said the Provost, “You broke curfew and snuck out to get contraband materials, some of which were magical in nature and thus illegal, inherently unstable and potentially malignant. Second: you conducted months of clandestine exertion on a project involving the use of volatile chemicals and powders, four of which were explosives, without written approval or teacher supervision, which could have resulted in your or another’s injury or death. Third, and most serious of all, you have created or attempted to create something that only Master Re-inventors are permitted to even try, and you are not even fifteen yet.”
The Provost snapped the file shut and tossed it aside.
“I am half-way between expelling you and making you my personal protégé. You are at once both genius and idiot. I can scarcely believe you had the gall to try it at all. What you say to and show me in the next few minutes will determine whether you stay here at the Enclave or not.”
“You mean… there’s a chance I won’t be -?”
The Provost tilted his head. “Retrieve it. Bring it here. I want to see it.”
Etton could hardly believe what was happening.
Etton jumped up and ran out. He felt as though he’d never run faster in his life. This was his chance.
He flew through the hallways and down the stairs.
Here was a chance to show what he could do, an end to the terrible, tedious hours sitting in class, those wasted hours learning things he could skim a book and understand, those textbooks the teachers pounded into his head that he’d read in the first week, those barely usable piles of material that they had been given to build tiny, insignificant things like toys or tools for the local tiny, insignificant town…
He burst into his quarters and then his closet. He flung the doors open, knelt, and dragged out the chest. It was heavy, and when he picked it up his creation skittered around inside. He heaved the chest up and began to go out of the room.
“No, this is too heavy,” he said. “I’ll let you run, like you were meant to.”
He turned around and set it at the foot of his bed. Fumbling with excitement and nervousness he pulled a key from his vest pocket and pushed it into the lock, the lock he’d designed himself in the Locksmithy when the teacher wasn’t there. He threw open the chest.
“Your first run, boy!” he said, to the Being inside. He hadn’t named it yet, he’d only just completed it that morning.
It was made of brass, wood and steel, and its eyes glowed a cheerful blue. It stood perhaps two and a half feet tall at the shoulder, and it rose from the chest, shaking itself in an oddly natural way.
Etton knelt and stroked it’s smooth wooden shoulder. It was the most beautiful thing in the world to him. Almost as though it was really alive.
“All right, boy,” he said. “We’re going to go see the Provost. He’s the leader.”
He knew that the mechanical dog couldn’t possibly understand what he was saying: he hadn’t been able to purchase a good enough mindbox for it’s mental processes, but it wagged it’s segmented brass tail anyways. It would understand the friendly tone in his voice and what it meant when he patted it, along with basic commands.
Rather like a real dog, Etton thought, smiling.
He ran, and the dog ran after him.
Even as they tore down the halls, Etton continued to glance behind him to look at the dog. He could hardly contain his glee at how beautifully it ran. It kept pace with him perfectly, and it’s paws, padded with leather cut from an old vest, clicked on the floor in the exact same pace as a wolf or a dog would, the pace that Etton had studied for hours, carefully sketching it on paper and designing legs that would copy it. Etton could hear the springs bending and twanging and the gears inside clicking neatly, like many heartbeats.
Etton came back to the Provost’s office out of breath.
“Sit,” commanded Etton. The mechanical dog sat instantly, far more quickly than a living dog would have done.
Etton yanked a cloth out of his pocket and ran it over the dog one more time, and then he knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said the Provost.
Etton opened the door, and the dog followed him in.
The Provost’s eyes widened.
“Oh, my,” he said.
He stood from his position on the bench and crossed the room. He crouched next to the dog, staring at it. Finally, he shook his head.
“You are an artist,” he said. He stroked the mechanical dog’s head. The tail wagged again, automatically.
“How is it powered?” asked the Provost.
“Mindbox, sir,” said Etton.
The Provost went white, and stood. For some time he remained speechless. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You are a prodigy.”
The Provost looked at him. He was obviously thinking very hard.
“Etton,” said the Provost, quietly, “I’m afraid you are expelled.”