Nicholas only just managed to hold back his annoyed mutter. The momentary satisfaction he’d get from telling Master Orlin where he could stick it just wasn’t worth the cost. He had learned that the hard way.
Instead, the young techne turned to the screen Master Orlin had indicated. It displayed code; a lengthy program designed to summon a water elemental to the caster’s service. So far as Nic could tell, the spirit would be primarily charged with maintaining the moisture levels in a greenhouse. To facilitate the task, the elemental would be bonded to a motorized sprinkler mounted to a grid of energized tracks, granting it easy access to every growing so. Relatively straightforward to figure out and unfortunately, the easy part of his assignment.
Blinking rapidly to stay awake, Nic began to go through the code line by line in search of errors. Anything the spell didn’t cover for, any assumptions the coder had made about how the elemental would act or react.
Nic found two. One was a simple typo, easily fixed and barely an issue on its face. The other was a syntax error that would allow the bonded entity to ignore the database of optimal moisture levels. Without it the elemental could choose to simply ignore its task altogether as, technically, it had been fulfilled. Or just flood the roots of every plant in petty revenge, whichever it felt like.
Quickly correcting both errors, Nic gave the code a once over to ensure he hadn’t introduced new problems while fixing the old. Satisfied there were none, Nic sent the result to Master Orlin.
“Are you sure?” his teacher asked without even looking.
“…I was,” Nic said, exhaustion heavy in his voice. He’d lost count of how many times he’d done this exercise.
“You missed this,” Master Orlin said, pointing at a block of code. “There’s nothing preventing the entity from manipulating the sprinkler directly.”
A calmer, rational, less tired part of Nic’s brain instantly understood why that was a problem. With nothing telling it not to, the elemental could attack and disable the sprinkler, preventing it from functioning or moving on the tracks. They could easily break the whole spell since, if there was no sprinkler to run, the spell had no way of keeping the elemental bound to this reality. The rational part of him understood this.
That part of him was not currently the one in control.
“How was I supposed to catch that!? There was nothing pointing to it in the code!”
“By paying attention,” Master Orlin said with infuriating calm. “A wise techne-”
“-thinks before they execute, yeah, yeah,” Nic muttered.
Master Orlin nodded. “Indeed, they might end up doing something unfortunate otherwise. Like demolishing a tower.”
Even tired and annoyed, Nic wasn’t dumb enough to push his luck on that. It had only been a week since the incident with Kaori bots and their overzealous cleaning. Master Orlin still took every opportunity to scold him about it. Better to just take the extra lessons and get it over with than risk reopening that sore subject.
“Now,” Master Orlin continued, “agai-”
“Orry Orry Orry Orry Orry Orry Orry Orry Orry Orry!”
The excitable voice crashed into the room, stumbling over itself in eagerness. Nic didn’t even flinch, having long grown used to such antics during his apprenticeship in Greytower. He looked up to find Zephyr streaming through the air towards them, his spherical body practically buzzing with excitement.
“Yes Zephyr, what is it?” Master Orlin asked, unfazed.
“There’s something weird at the door!”
“…you are going to have to be more specific.”
Zephyr didn’t miss a beat, beginning to zip circles around the room.
“It’s a robot doll thing. Weird looking. Says it has a message for,” Zephyr put on his best monotone. “The Lord Greytower, from the Good and Venerable Lord and Master Worthington.”
A curious expression passed over Master Orlin’s face at the mention of the second name. Just a flicker, a glimpse of something that Nic had not believed possible for his teacher to feel, let alone express. For just a fraction of a second, Master Orlin looked annoyed.
Nic was suddenly very interested to see where this went.
“I see,” Master Orlin said, the annoyance melting away like spring snow. “Bring it up please. Keep it within the wards.”
Zephyr bobbed once in acknowledgement before shooting off back down the stairs. Master Orlin turned back to his screens, closing most of them as he gestured at Nic.
“We’ll break here for a few minutes. Feel free to stretch your legs if you’d like.”
Nic nodded, having absolutely no intention of leaving this room. Not when there was something that could phase the indomitable Orlin Greytower.
All the same, he gratefully tucked into the cakes and tea the auto-chef brought while they waited. After a short time, Nic felt the tower wards ripple as something was allowed entry, followed soon after by the sound of heavy, mechanical footsteps. They were slow, clattering things taking several minutes to climb the stairs to their floor. Nic was halfway through his second helping of pastries when the Zephyr reappeared, followed close by the lumbering shape of their guest. Nic turned to look and nearly spit out his food in a burst of laughter.
An automaton stood in the doorway, built with the intention to evoke a human shape but let down by being the gaudiest thing Nic had ever seen. Every inch of its frame was made of smooth porcelain, polished to a mirror shine and trimmed with equally well polished gold. The thing was genderless, its form and face carved with intricate but neutral features, save for its eyes which appeared to be actual, glittering gemstones. Instead of clothing it wore a long, ornate sash embroidered with an ornate sigil Nic had never seen before. A sundered dragon skull, trailing long horns that reached down the length of its snout, sitting atop a coin, and crossed with a staff or long wand. Or something like that, the creases made it hard to tell.
With its jerking movements, the automaton crossed the room to where the two humans sat. It stopped without warning, barely more than arm’s reach from Master Orlin, and settled into a singularly unnatural standing pose, waiting. Nic did the same, this experience having been everything he’d hoped for thus far.
“Well?” Master Orlin asked after a moment of silence.
This time Nic did jump in surprise as the android began to speak. Although it had sculpted lips, they were apparently cosmetic as instead of moving, the construct’s jaw simply fell open to reveal a tiny speaker underneath.
“This unit bears a message from the Good and Venerable Lord and Master Worthington for the Lord of Greytower,” it said in a tinny, modulated voice. “Please direct this unit to him.”
Master Orlin drew a breath, coming tantalizingly close to annoyance once again. Nic leaned in closer with rapt attention.
“I am Orlin, speak your message.”
A brief silence, the automation staring in slack jawed incomprehension.
“This unit bears a message from the Good and Venerable-”
This time Master Orlin did sigh, rolling his eyes in what may as well have been seething anger.
“I am Lord Orlin Greytower, fifty-first master of Hold Greytower, Loyalist of the great city of Ronteele and I accept this message.”
Another silence, longer this time as gears literally turned in the automaton’s head. Eventually something clicked and the modulated voice picked up with new words.
“The Good and Venerable Lord and Master Worthington doth hereby invite you to the birthday celebration of his first-born son, Arthur Worthington, to be held one weeks hence. Formal attire required. Will you RSVP?”
Nic’s spirits fell a little as the automaton finished delivering the invitation. Master Orlin was regularly invited to events such as these and he just as regularly turned them down. About the only ones that got him to leave the tower were those with the proviso of being mandatory. A birthday party was about the furthest thing from that, so whatever adventures this might have led to were dead in the water.
“I will,” Master Orlin said. “Tell your master I will be in attendance as requested.”
Nic blinked in surprise, thrown for a sizable loop as he tried to adjust to this sudden swerve.
“Very good my lord,” the android said. “Will you be accompanied?”
Master Orlin paused, taking a moment to glance over at his apprentice. Nic didn’t know if he should feel excited or terrified by the attention.
“I will. One guest, my apprentice Nicholas of Greytower.”
A rapid series of beeps and clicks sounded from within the automaton’s chest cavity. They culminated in a loud ding as a small card popped out from a hidden dispenser. Taking it in a clumsy hand, it offered the card to Master Orlin, only for Zephyr to appear and snatch it up in a gust of wind. The automaton didn’t seem to care as the little sprite disappeared with his trophy, instead executing a stiff bow.
“The message is delivered, good day to you o’lord.”
Its task complete, the construct turned on its heel and jerked its way back down the stairs, leaving Nic and his master alone once again.
“…what just happened?” Nic asked.
“We were invited to a party,” Master Orlin said, restoring his screens.
“No, no I get that.” Nic gestured at where Zephyr had disappeared. “I mean why did you get me invited to it?”
“Because you have not yet earned back the privilege of being alone in the tower,” Master Orlin gave him a significant look before continuing. “Besides, you’ll be fifteen this year. High time you were introduced to your fellows.”
Nic still couldn’t tell if that was a threat or not, but the thought was quickly smothered beneath the excitement rising in his chest. Perhaps he’d be getting an adventure out of this after all.
“Anyway, now that’s dealt with,” Master Orlin slid another screen across the table.
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