Bitter 581

“You’re alright with this?” Britta asked the AI. He looked calm and relaxed, watching proceedings with the crowd like he was at a fireworks show. “They’re burning books.”

“Yes,” said N-28. “You could think of it like that.” He smiled.

“No, it’s not a matter of thinking of it like that,” said Britta. “That’s literally what they’re doing.”

“They aren’t really books though, are they?” said Stan.

“You as well?” Britta couldn’t understand why they weren’t both outraged. It wasn’t even a question of differing opinions. There was something fundamentally evil about burning books.

“He isn’t burning them as a way to prevent people learning,” said N-28. “He’s using it as a way to funnel them all onto the same path. Without the Institute for Magic, they will be more likely to join the Empire. It’s really quite smart.”

Britta looked up at the AI, with his hands behind his back and a patronly air about him. He approved. He almost seemed proud.

She turned and stared across the roaring bonfire. Rick was still ignoring the Dean, who was still pleading for him to stop.

“You’re wrong,” said Britta. “Both of you are idiots.”

N-28 twitched a little around the eyes, but then nodded in a patronising fashion to show he was going to allow her to be rude, the way you allow a friend’s child to be noisy because you don’t want to embarrass the parent.

“You simply don’t understand his goal,” said N-28.

“Oh, I get it. And I get what you think it is, too. You think this will get people to work together under one purpose, so everyone will be stronger and more focused. Then all these lazy nerds,” —she dropped her voice when she realised the other players might hear her — “then everyone will be forged into a mean, lean fighting machine, right? But let me ask you this — if he wants people to be stronger and more capable, why doesn’t he just confiscate the books and use them to train people himself? Burning them prevents anyone from using what’s in them.”

There was a moment of silence, filled only with the crackling and popping of the fire.

“It’s probably a symbolic gesture,” said Stan, his tone a little more diffident. “Makes it clear to everyone the Institute has nothing to offer them.”

“Yes,” said N-28. “He’s making a point. It isn’t like he doesn’t have access to the same sort of reading material in the palace library. There is no knowledge being lost.”

“You’re a terrible liar,” said Britta.

N-28 reacted with surprise. “I expressed no emotion to suggest I was lying.”

“Yes,” said Britta, “that’s one of the ways I can tell. You know very well Rick’s going to turn into a mad little dictator if you let this carry on.”

“Rick?” said Stan. “His name tag says Nasty McNice. You know him?”

Britta hadn’t realised she’d let the name slip out. She hesitated, not sure if she should tell Stan the truth, but it wasn’t like he was going to be able to tell anyone. “Sort of. He goes to my school.”

Stan’s eyes widened. “Is there anyone above the age of consent in this game?”

“He also knows I have special abilities and he’s very keen to get me to be his assistant. That’s why I’ve been trying to avoid him.”

“Can’t he just ask you during break in the tuck shop?” said Stan.

“We don’t have a tuck shop. I don’t go to a posh boarding school where everyone wears top hats and eats crumpets at break time. Like you did.”

Stan snorted. “I didn’t go to school in the 1930s.”

“You went to a boarding school, then?”

“Never mind my educational background, let’s focus on your star-crossed relationship with Rick. The book-burning tyrant and the innocent gnome. Romance is inevitable, I feel.”

“It bloody isn’t. He doesn’t know who I am in the real world.”

“He interested in the gnome but doesn’t know about the girl?” said Stan.

“Exactly, and I’d prefer to keep it like that.” She looked back at N-28. Did he know about Rick’s hack? She didn’t want to say anything with APE probably watching, but the AI was bound to have spotted any irregularities.

“I concede the book burning isn’t the most admirable choice,” said N-28, the fire reflecting in his eyes, “but it is still a valid approach. Your history is full of individuals who changed the world. It only takes one person to bring everyone together in a common cause, and then amazing feats can be accomplished.”

“Sure,” said Britta. “Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, Stalin they all achieved remarkable results.”

“Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela,” countered N-28.

“You’re saying those people are all the same?” said Britta. “Individuals who changed the world?”

“I’m saying it isn’t possible to control the power of an individual, but the power is there. It only takes one person, is the point. And when you find that person, their journey is worth watching.”

“Not if they’re insane,” said Britta. “It isn’t hard to spot the mad ones.” She pointed at the fire. “They burn books.”

“So you won’t be handing in the ones you took from the Institute?” asked N-28.

“No. And I don’t expect you to tell anyone I have them.”

“I wouldn’t think of it,” said N-28. “My role is entirely impartial.”

Britta let that one slide. “How do I use the books I have?” she asked him. “Can I get the skill points out of them on my own?”

N-28 smiled again. “My role is entirely impartial.”

Britta rolled her eyes. “Fine. then I guess I’ll have to ask the Dean.”

She looked across the fire again. The Dean was still at it, ignoring the soldiers trying to guide her away from Rick.

“What about you?” she said to Stan. “You entirely impartial, too?”

“Me? No. I’m very partial, to all sorts of things. What did you have in mind?”

“I want to get the Dean on her own, away from Rick, I mean Nasty.” She shook her head at the stupid name. “Think you can help?”

“I should think so,” said Stan. He took a small bag out of the inside of his jacket, about the size of his hand. “One distraction coming up.” He tossed it into the fire.

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