[Be] Week 243: Cleverness

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Cleverness



Wordcount: 2300​

In the southeastern reaches of the Kingdom of Excelsus, on the border of the Denuntiares range, Seven Keep stood beside a flowing river, surrounded by dark forest. Formerly one of a dozen such watch-towers, this one had been found and renovated by the mage Mesanychta Tempestas, then in his prime. At one time it was a simple barracks for soldiers to guard against the dangerous creatures slipping down from the mountains, now it was home, library, and laboratory to the sixty-eight-year-old wizard and his ten-year-old granddaughter, Eos. His apprentice of three years now, the young girl's appetite for knowledge was ravenous, and her ability to pick up on new ideas was nothing short of amazing. Every day, the pair would spend time meditating in each of the five libraries, one dedicated to each of the Vis. Most days, Eos would spend the day studying independently or doing chores; Mesan believed in training the body as well as the mind and so ensured Eos spent time outside or working with her hands.

This particular day, Mesan went looking for the girl in the early afternoon. He found Eos down in one of the basement floors beneath the tower. The areas below were both of the mundane variety, like a woodworking room and a pantry of preserved foods, but also things of an esoteric or dangerous design. Eos usually only wandered the underground when summoned by Mesan to train. Today, she stood at a particular window of thick, reinforced glass. The room inside was broad, dimly lit, and mostly bare except for a dead tree and a small, bushy-tailed pruina. The fox-like creature darted around the room, occasionally turning to look at Eos and Mesan. Its eyes glowed red, unlike others of its species.

That was because this one was infected with a pravum. It was a vistra. Its host was mostly harmless, but the pravum itself was peculiar and possibly far stronger than Mesan originally gave it credit for. This one, he had been studying for nearly seven years without learning much of note. This was also the seventh host it had swapped to, but the timing was inconsistent. Some hosts lasted for years, and others for mere months. Mesan had not yet figured out what it was that determined each host's longevity.

"Remember, that thing is dangerous. Never go in there without me, dear," Mesan said, breaking up the silence.

Eos nodded and smiled up at him. She'd grown taller, sprouting up like a weed, but she still had an adorably youthful face with rounded cheeks and a little button nose. Her golden blonde hair was tied into a long braid, and she was wearing boys' clothes: grey slacks and ankle-high black boots like Mesan, but with a red shirt. Mesan's own shirt was dark blue, bordering on black. "I wanted to try studying it," she explained holding up the paper she was writing on. Only a few scant lines were written down. "It doesn't do much, though. If the eyes weren't red…."

It was peculiar, alright. Mesan hummed to himself for a moment, then crouched to get closer to the girl's level. "I think that's its defense mechanism. It pretends to be whatever the host is, coaxing us into letting our guard down. It seems… clever." It was patient, too. When a host was reaching its limit, there were telltale signs. Mesan would typically introduce a new creature to serve as the next host, but the pravum refused to jump ship into something weaker. Although Mesan slowed it as much as he could, he did not want to lose his precious specimen, and so little by little, the pravum moved to stronger hosts. Even now, a pruina pup was small but it had some fight to it. He worried that it could do serious harm to his granddaughter if he let her get close.

"But we're cleverer," Eos said matter-of-factly.

"Yes, we are. We are indeed," Mesan said with a laugh. "But don't think that means you cannot be fooled. To be clever, you must continue to act cleverly, and not feel too comfortable in your own wit."

"Serpens?"

"Serpens," Mesan confirmed. Eos had been struggling with the school. "I have a new challenge to pose to you, a puzzle. Come on, let's head upstairs."

"Yes, sir," Eos said without hesitation, although he could see in her eyes that she wasn't looking forward to it. Eos was a prodigy in many ways, and now that she was starting to understand that, it frustrated her when she couldn't pick up a new idea right away. Mesan, as well, had to learn not to show his disappointment so openly. Unconsciously, he always compared her to himself at that age. She was smart, much smarter than most, and at only ten years old she had gone further than some went in their entire lives… but she just had not gone as far as Mesan had by the time he was ten.

He tried not to draw attention to it, but she knew. He was proud of her, so proud, but when she struggled, she felt his pride as pity. It was getting difficult to keep her motivated.

The pair made it upstairs to the ground floor and Mesan suggested that Eos make some of her special tea, made from dried dawn flowers. It was now a ritual for them, he would ask her to make the tea whenever there was something he needed her to focus on. Mesan sat silently on the couch, musing over the puzzle he had, remembering when his father had given it to him. He was thirteen at the time, so maybe he was trying to appease the girl's ego by posing her something he didn't understand at her age.

Eos brought over a tray with a clay kettle and two mugs. She was the one who made the kettle and cups, as a way of making her mark on the world, as he once told her. They were simple but well-made. She poured the tea, adding a bit of sugar to hers. Mesan added a light drizzle of honey to his. Silently, they sipped at their tea, letting the warmth build up, feeling faint tingles on the tongue and down the throat -- dawn flowers were poisonous, although most of that was removed by drying and then boiling. Just enough remained to tingle, stimulating the nerves and the mind.

"Okay, dear. What I have for you today is a mental exercise, a problem of lateral thinking." Mesan smiled, taking one more sip and then setting his cup down. "Are you ready?"

Eos leaned forward on the edge of her seat, blue eyes sparkling. "Yes, sir!"

Smiling at her eagerness, Mesan explained, "You are walking alone on a road. You are carrying no weapons, but you have two hundred exa in a purse. Suddenly, three men block your path ahead and demand your money or your life. The only spell you can use is 'Blur.' What do you do?"

"But I know a bunch of spells now!" she protested.

"For this exercise, you only have the one."

Eos puffed her cheeks out. "That doesn't make sense, but okay. Well, what do they all look like? Is one bigger than the others? I cast Blur on him first!"

"In the time it takes you to pick your target, the three men grab you, knock you unconscious, and steal your money."

"What? That's no fair!" Eos protested again. "Then, I cast Blur on the closest one!"

"The other two man grab you, knock you unconscious, and steal your money."

"I should be able to just light them on fire," Eos grumbled. "I cast Blur on the one on my left."

"The other two men…"

"The one to the right, the right!"

"The other two men grab you, knock you unconscious, and steal your money."

Eos growled and set her tea down so she could shake her tiny fists at the ceiling. "You're only giving me one spell, I already tried all three of them, what do you want me to do?" After a brief pause, she declared, "I cast Blur on myself!"

Mesan smiled reassuringly. "There's a solution, but you need to think it, through. You're just being impetuous right now. The men are stunned that you would blind yourself, but they are happy to take your money anyway."

The little girl huffed, grabbing her tea again and leaning back in her seat, sipping angrily. "Is one of the men much larger or much shorter than the others?"

"Sure," Mesan said. It didn't make a difference in his eyes.

"Which is it? Larger or smaller?"

"One of the men is larger," Mesan decided. If she tried to blind the biggest one, the result would be the same. He needed her to think, and was trying hard not to give her hints.

Eos frowned, kicking her legs in the air as she thought. "I… tell the men I only have two hundred exa."

Curious, Mesan leaned closer and said, "The closest man sneers and says, 'Hand it over.'"

"Is he the biggest man?"

"No."

Uncertainly, Eos replies, "I say… but there are three of you."

Now confused, Mesan asked, "What does that have to do with anything?"

Taking his response as coming from the speaker, Eos smiles and says, "I hold up two aurits. I say, 'But you can't split these three ways.'" He was going to protest the coinage, but he hadn't specified what coins she had, only the total amount.

Mesan laughed. He wasn't sure where she was going with this, but he played along. "Sure we can."

Growing more confident, Eos shook her head. "Nuh uh. One of the men is going to get the short end. Who's it going to be? The big guy probably."

"Are you saying that out loud?"

"Yep!"

"'It's not that much less,' the man insists. 'We'll give him a bigger share on the next person.'" Mesan shrugged off the questioning with another laugh. Thieves wouldn't balk at a ten exa difference.

Eos asked, "Big guy, what if I give you a whole aurit? It's more than they want to give you! Will you let me keep the other?"

Mesan raised an eyebrow as he looked at the girl. He started to respond that the big guy turned her down, but as he thought about it, he wasn't sure. He tried to figure out how the man would respond.

As the silence stretched, Eos suddenly declared, "Then, while they're thinking or arguing, I toss one of the coins over the big guy's head and then I make a run for it."

Mesan had to stare blankly for a few moments longer before a smile began to curl on his lips. "That's very clever, dear. You escape with your other coin, and hear the three men fighting over the coin behind you. But you still lost one coin, you know." He paused. "And you never cast your spell."

Finishing off her cup of tea, Eos giggled sheepishly. "I knooow, but I didn't think it would help! No matter which one I used it on, the others wouldn't care. I couldn't use it on all of them at once. You wouldn't let me use a better spell. Besides, you said before that sometimes it was better not to cast a spell and let people know how weak you are!"

"I did say that," Mesan agreed, "and that was the correct answer." In his day, though, he had just run away, keeping all of his money. The situation was hypothetical, but between the two, Eos actually seemed to come out on top. By just running, all three thieves would come after him; Mesan was lucky his father counted that as a win when realistically he might be caught and killed. Eos managed to confuse the thieves and potentially turn them against one another. If they chased her at all, it wouldn't be a concerted effort. Part of that was Mesan's fault for playing into her read of the situation, but that just meant he would have to be cleverer himself in the next exercise. "I'm amazed that you got that so quickly. Very well done, my dear."

"I was just thinking of what you've always told me. I know just handing the money over is a bad idea because I don't know what they'll do afterward."

"Very true. Still, you were able to break away from the boundaries I set for you, and that was the point of the lesson. You were told your only tool was Blur, but you decided that tool would not help, and opted not to use it. As you said, you managed to avoid showing your weakness. Serpens as a school has a lot of tools like these, ones which are useful only in limited scenarios. They are rarely perfect tools to solve a problem, but instead they give you more opportunities. Blinding someone, slowing them, making them sick -- it's all a question of when to use and how much to use.

"Since Serpens requires movement to cast, I also want you to think of scenarios where you might use each spell, and how you can intelligently introduce the somatic components without drawing attention to yourself."

"Yes, sir!" came the enthusiastic reply.

Standing up, Mesan finished off his tea and set the cup on the tray. "Let's return downstairs. I want you to practice your spells, but also describe the situation you're using it in. This will get you started on preparing to use spells on a moment's notice when the right situation pops up. Are you ready!"

Eos picked up the tray to return to the kitchen, "I am!"

Mesan smiled, impressed. "Good girl," he murmured to himself as he turned for the stairs. "Clever girl."
 
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