Deleted Excerpt from The Artificer’s Knot: Chapter 0, “Nothing Personal”

Deleted Excerpt from The Artificer’s Knot: Chapter 0, “Nothing Personal”

Deleted First Chapter: Nothing Personal

This section began as a prologue to The Artificer’s Knot in a much shorter form, then expanded into my intended first chapter, then was cut entirely after advice from several people. But I still like it, so here it is as a deleted excerpt. If you enjoy it, please consider reading the book!


Ran stumbled in bare feet as the proctors shoved him down the gloomy gaslit hallway. On either side, portraits of past luminaries of the College of Engineering flickered in the shadows, glowering down on him in stern disapproval. He fought the urge to turn and fight, to flee. But there was nowhere to escape to.

They pushed him one last time, into a circular chamber with banks of raised seats all around. It was an examination crucible, where Master students defended their final research projects. But Ran was years from that rank. “What in all the twenty-three hells am I doing here?” he asked, as confused as he was afraid.

“That will soon be made abundantly clear,” came an imperious, gravelly old man’s voice behind him. Three new figures replaced the proctors. Ran couldn’t make out their faces in the gloom, but they wore the mustard yellow robes of the College, with gold embroidery on the sleeves. “Magisters? You had me dragged me out of bed in the middle of the night? Why?”

They took up three of the nine wooden booths above him, each with a number carved into the panel in front. They remained in shadow even as a phosphor lamp high above half blinded Ran in a spotlight. “Now,” said the Magister in slot Number Three, an aged woman by her voice, “come to order is the emergency misconduct hearing of one Randyll Tephius of Gerwin—

Misconduct?

“—age twenty-four, senior Mechanical Artificing student in the College of Engineering, this 32nd of Spring in the Year of the Sundering 5773. Names of presiding Magisters to be redacted to preserve reputations. This hearing will establish—”

“Can we get on with this?” complained the Magister in slot Number Two, a younger man of ill temper. “Records are going to be sealed anyway. Skip the frippery so we can go to bed.”

“Fine, fine, don’t blame me. We were instructed to resolve this matter immediately.”

“Well, what about it, boy?” said the Magister in Number One with impatience. “You admit it? It’ll make this sorry business easier.”

“Admit what? I still don’t understand what I’m doing here.”

“You are charged with having indecent relations with one Lady—”

“Ahem,” Magister Three broke in, “I think we can leave the Lady’s name out of the transcript, don’t you?”

“Indeed,” agreed Magister One, “you well know whom we mean, and the family has insisted we tend to this at once. The incident occurred approximately one week ago.”

Ran didn’t have to search his memory long. They’d been seeing each other for a few weeks, but after that night she’d just up and vanished. He’d been hurt and confused, but so close to graduation, too many other things had crowded his thoughts to dwell on it. “Lady? She was no Lady…was she?”

Magister Two: “Ah, so you do admit it?”

“Well, y—wait, there was nothing indecent about it! Nothing at all!”

Magister Three: “You were both seen, on the night in question, sitting in the Slippey Tourney pub. Ply her with drink, did you?”

Ran held up a hand toward the darkness above him. “Hold on, I most certainly didn’t ply—”

One: “Adding to this, at the time of the incident, the girl was several weeks from her twenty-first birthday. Which technically made her, by the special laws governing nobility set down by King Osmund II, a minor.”

“Minor? Give me a break, I had no idea she was a noble—”

One: “Irrelevant. The law is the law, even old law. Ignorance is no excuse for breaking it. That sort of thing may fly down in Carsolan, but not here.”

“This is insane, no one even pretends to enforce that anymore! Not unless someone wants to…” Ran’s head swam, still he could see partly through the muck to suspect what was really going on. Why he’d been rousted from bed in the dark of night. “Wait. Wait, I think I know who’s behind this. It’s that snob Desmond Berqhard, isn’t it? He’s the only one connected enough. He set me up, he and his Alchemist friends set this whole thing up, didn’t he?”

Three: “What has Journeyman Berqhard to do with all this?”

“You all know about my paper, everyone does. They couldn’t stand it, so they concocted this farce to ruin me. This ‘emergency’ trial in the middle of the night is so no one finds out about it, isn’t it?”

One: “You’re referring to…let me see here…ah, yes. Your Journeyman Artificer’s thesis. These ridiculous assertions of yours?”

“They’re not ridiculous! I’ve run the energy density calculations, the fabrication models, cost analyses. You can examine it all for yourselves—”

Three: “I don’t think so. You seriously dare to think you’ve discovered a superior energy source to Vril? Preposterous!”

Ran rolled his eyes in disgust. Despite the danger he was in, the academic arguments he’d formulated now bubbled out unrestrained, the only coherent thoughts he could string together. “Oh yes, the blessed Vril, the miraculous Vril. The crowning glory of the Alchemists! Made drop by drop at incredible cost by their hands alone. Gods forbid anything be allowed to question that! No, in base form of course not superior. But when you consider obtainment cost, refinement and distribution, at critical scale, yes. This discovery could supply all of Argovan’s energy needs with far better reliability—”

One: “Enough! Your foolish paper is not under examination here. Your misconduct is.”

“Please, listen to me,” Ran insisted. “Those jumped-up fops in Alchemy, their precious golden boy Desmond, they just couldn’t tolerate any threat to the prestige of their blessed Vril. So they got that girl, noble or not, to trap me, get me in trouble. How can you just go along with it?”

Two: “Young man, the College of Alchemy already consider us crude, ill-bred upstarts. We cannot allow a whisper campaign calling us rapists as well. Fortunately the girl’s family has agreed not to prosecute the matter, conditional upon sealing all records relating to the incident, and your immediate expulsion from the College of Engineering and the University.”

“What? No, I don’t agree to that!”

One: “You aren’t required to agree; the paperwork is already drawn up. I need only affix my seal…”

There was a rustling of papers in the dark. Ran’s blood went cold. “No, don’t! Please stop!”

One: “These proceedings are hereby closed. You’re to vacate University property by midday tomorrow. Now, if the other Magisters should care to gather upstairs before bed, I’ve recently taken delivery of some twenty year-old Cynuvik whisky and Pelonan cigars.”

Two: “Indeed!”

Three: “I believe so, Magister, thank you.”

Ran’s next words before being dragged away by the proctors were redacted from the official record. In the name of decency.

***

They didn’t even give him as long as midday. By late morning Ran had been forced to pack up his clothes and meager belongings, anything not lent him by the University, and shamble through the carved marble and wrought iron gates at the boundary of College property. Proctors shoved him all the way in full public view. A storm cloud broke. Ran was drenched, and his modest dreams of steady employment building and maintaining the great machines of the new industrial age lay in a heap of rusted scrap. Still half in a daze, he stumbled across the threshold, not quite believing it all.

Until he looked to his left. Leaning up against the remains of what had once been the University’s protective wall was the undoubted architect of Ran’s abrupt downfall. Clad in a fine brown wool Journeyman’s coat with navy blue stripes on the sleeves and a snide grin, with a couple of his toady hangers-on about him. “Desmond.” Desmond Berqhard, darling of the College of Alchemy, son of the Royal Archalchemist, and the epitome of upper-class trash. “You bastard, you did this to me.”

The youth pointed to his chest and raised his eyebrows in melodramatic fashion. “Who, me? You did this to yourself. Don’t dip your wick in nobility, weren’t you ever taught that?” He smirked, and Ran lunged at him, only to be grabbed by the collar by one of the proctors.

“Take it into town, lads,” the proctor ordered.

Ran shook himself free and pointed at the gate. “Get off me!” He glared at Desmond, teeth bared. “This isn’t over.”

“Yeah it is. Now go away.” He stomped in a puddle as he passed, splashing mud onto Ran’s legs. His entourage waved mocking goodbyes at him as they followed him, and Ran ached to charge at them again.

“Don’t try it,” said one of the proctors. “You’re already expelled, don’t go to prison too. You got somewhere to go?”

Ran turned on the man, one of those too poor or too dim to get admitted to the University and thus took the proctoring job to take his frustrations out on actual students. “No. What do you care?”

“I don’t. I just don’t wanna see you around here again.”

“You will,” Ran snarled. “I will be back, and I will get my stripes.”

“But not today. Off with you.”

Murento was, for all its grand importance, a small town at heart. There was no industry not ultimately in service to the University, so news of Ran’s expulsion spread quickly and made for a fine day’s gossip, even if the particulars had been sealed in the dark of night. He slunk down to the Slippey Tourney just to get out of the rain, but no sooner did he push open the heavy oaken door and ring the bell suspended above than all eyes in the place fixed on him for a few eternal seconds, then turn away in embarrassment.

He scanned the small front room through strands of dripping hair, desperate for a friendly face. He thought he spotted two, and he raised his hand in greeting. “Phin, Silas!” Relieved, he went over to his classmates. His elation was short-lived, though. They wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Guys?”

Silas finally looked up from his cider. “Uh, look, Ran, you best just move on, yeah?”

Ran couldn’t believe his ears. “What? What’re you talking about? Did you hear what happened to me?”

“We heard,” said Phin.

“Yeah, but you don’t know why. They set me up—”

“Listen, it’s a damn shame what they did to you I’m sure. It’s just, there’s nothing we can do about it. And, well, we’ve worked hard, you know? We got our own careers to think of. Too much to lose.”

“To lose?”

“You know,” Silas said sheepishly, “to get involved. To…be seen with you. You really should move on. Sorry.” The pair turned away from him, and Ran felt his knees wobble as he began to appreciate the gravity of what had been brought down on him.

The landlord, hands wringing in the folds of a dirty apron, waddled up to him with a dour expression. “You need to leave, son.”

Ran swallowed hard in his dry throat. “You can’t be serious.”

“’Fraid so. Nothing personal, it’s just the way it is.”

“Yeah. Well gods damn you all. Some friends you are.” He stomped back out into the rain.

He had no better luck even with the charity houses or shelters. The University dominated all. So as night fell, abandoning even the sorry sack of belongings he dragged behind him, Ran stowed away in a cargo wagon bound south, far from Murento, the University and everything he’d spent the last five years of his life working for.