Gaia wasn’t in the cafeteria when we got there. Professor Dare was, and before dinner started she informed everyone that there would be an announcement from the headmistress once dinner was over. Which meant that they needed everyone to stay put after they were finished. This was, naturally, met with a chorus of groans that stopped almost immediately. Dare, like most of the staff around here, had a way of seeming to look everyone in the eye at once that made it impossible to anonymously complain.
“Well,” Sands remarked after looking around the room once we had found a table to sit at, “I wonder what’s taking the headmistress so long. I mean, it’s just a…” Trailing off, she glanced around at the other tables once more before lowering her voice. “Just a new student. So what’s taking her so long to just come in here and assign him to a team? It’s not like they could actually say no to a new recruit.”
Avalon shook her head, her voice flat. “It’s not that simple. Not with how paranoid the Committee is right now. They’re–” She paused as though considering the right words before continuing. “–not reacting well to everything that’s happened. Some of them think that Chambers has been attracting too much danger to the school. As soon as they found out that she was one of the ones that found him, they probably started up with the conspiracies.” Looking at me, the beautiful girl added, “They’re idiots.”
“Are they?” I asked with a weak shrug. “I mean sure, I’m not Ruthers’ biggest fan and he’s not mine. But beyond that, they kind of have a point. Bad things do keep happening around me. Ammon came onto the school grounds because of me. He wouldn’t have found out about Koren if it wasn’t for that. It’s not going to take a genius for him or his father to work out why his powers didn’t work on her.”
“Don’t be such an idiot, Chambers,” Avalon snapped. “Should I leave the school just because people have been trying to kill me? Do you want me to leave?” Her voice was as hard as her intense stare.
Flushing a little at that, I shook my head quickly. “No, of course not. Those idiots coming after you isn’t your fault. You shouldn’t have to walk away from everything here just because–” I stopped. “Oh.”
Smirking, Sean reached across the table to poke me with one of the menus until I took it. “Don’t worry, Flick. It may take awhile, but Gaia has a lot of clout. She’ll get enough of the Committee to sign off on letting him stay. Trust me, most of those guys know better than to annoy the baroness too much.”
Before I could say anything to that, Columbus spoke up. “Okay, that’s been bugging me for awhile. What’s this whole ‘baroness’ thing? I mean, is there a king and queen too? What’s she the baroness of?”
I nodded quickly while glancing at the menu. “Me too. I haven’t really heard anyone else be addressed by a similar title like Gaia has.” Using my finger to circle the options for spaghetti with garlic bread and a coke before circling the little ‘finished’ note in the lower right corner. Then I put the menu down.
It vanished a moment later and was replaced by a steaming plate of food that made my mouth water.
“See?” a new voice spoke up as Deveron (and boy was I having very conflicting feelings about him now) tugged a seat out beside Columbus before dropping himself into it. “This is why they need an extra course for Bystander-kin who don’t know enough about Heretic society. They just expect you guys to pick all this stuff up by osmosis or something. Frankly, it’s pretty poor planning on their part.”
He held that for a solid five or six seconds before coughing as a wry smirk crossed his face. “Oh come on, stop glaring. I’m kidding. Yes, you should’ve been told all this stuff by your mentor. But, to be fair, I’m pretty sure Avalon over there has been enjoying playing the role more than she’ll ever admit.”
For her part, my roommate just stared intently at him in silence before taking a bite of her Cobb salad. Deveron managed to hold her gaze only for a few seconds before coughing as he looked away. “Right, I think you see my point. Anyway, there’s no king or queen or anything. That’s what the Committee is for. But under them are the Archdukes. Each Archduke is in charge of the day to day running of the world they’re assigned to. Sort of like the president of a country, while the Committee is the UN. You know, if the UN had any actual power and could veto anything the president said if they felt like it.”
I raised a hand along with both eyebrows. “Yeah, what do you mean by the world they’re assigned to?”
“You know,” he replied, “the whole Explorer thing where they find brand new worlds to expand into?”
Columbus and I looked at one another for a moment. He was the first time speak, his tone as uncertain as I felt. “Well, yeah, sure. But we thought that was just sort of… you know, exploring. Looking around, like… like when we go up to the moon and bring back rocks and soil samples. Little stuff like that.”
Avalon was the one who spoke next. “Of course. But the Bystanders have always talked about colonizing the moon and living there. If they had the technology ready, they would’ve done it a long time ago. Part of the Explorers job is to bring back samples from places that are too dangerous to settle on. But another part of it is to establish beachheads for colonies on other worlds to expand out from.”
My mouth opened and shut. “I… never mind, I probably shouldn’t say what I want to say right now.”
Deveron shook his head, plopping a menu of his own down before it was replaced with a salad identical to the one that Avalon was eating. “Don’t worry about it.” From his pocket, he produced a coin, which he flipped onto the table. “Anyone listening in right now is just hearing a mundane conversation about school work. As long as no one comes close enough to touch any of us, it’s safe.”
Blinking at the coin, I managed a weak smile in spite of myself. “You’re showing us how to make those, mentor.” After eyeing him pointedly for a moment, I continued my previous thought. “But seriously, you’re saying that we’re actually… invading and conquering other worlds? We’re the alien invaders? You know, guys, it was already getting pretty hard to see us as the good guys, but with this?”
“It’s… it’s not supposed to be like that,” Sands said weakly. “It’s supposed to be a… a defensive measure, to stop dangerous locations from being able to invade us with forces that the Heretics can’t hold back. We’re protecting people. I mean…” She trailed off, clearly trying to come to terms with the difference between knowing about the invasions when she thought all Strangers were evil, and now.
“The British Empire didn’t see themselves as the bad guys either,” Sean pointed out mildly while eating his own spaghetti. “It’s not really that different. Just make the whole ‘new world’ thing a lot more literal.
Shaking my head, I waved a hand dismissively. “Okay, we’ll unpack that whole thing later. What about this whole Archduke thing. Each world the Heretics expand into has an Archduke in charge of it?”
“Garden calls them something else,” Avalon put in mildly. “Each tribe has their own name and way of doing it. Usually it’s centered around whoever is the most powerful person in the colonization team.”
Sean was nodding. “Sure, the Archdukes are in charge. Except for here on Earth. The Committee handles things here. But under the Archdukes they have barons and baronesses. We don’t have an Archduke here on Earth, but we do have barons and baronesses that are assigned to each section of the world. You know, like there’s a different baron in charge of each of the different states in the US.”
Columbus frowned at that. “So Gaia’s supposed to be in charge of some other area? What’s she the baroness of, and why is she here at the school instead of there? She can’t really do both, can she?”
Scout leaned over to whisper something to her sister, who nodded. Her voice was obviously pained. “Scout says that you can when the place you were in charge of doesn’t really exist anymore.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I demanded as my eyes widened. “What do you mean, the place she was in charge of doesn’t exist anymore?” Columbus looked just as confused, even with the goggles covering his eyes.
There were more glances from the others to each other before Deveron spoke. “In the 1800’s, before Gaia became a teacher here, she was the baroness in charge of the state just south of Mississippi.”
Blinking once at that, I asked slowly, “You mean Florida?”
“West of Florida,” Sands explained. “Kind of connected up against parts of it and then the bottom of Alabama and Mississippi, in that gulf area.”
Columbus was already shaking his head before I could respond. “There’s no state there, guys. I may have gotten a C plus in geography, but even I know that much. There’s nothing but water there.”
“Nothing but water now,” Deveron murmured. As we stared at him, he continued. “There used to be a state in that spot. It was called Desoto. As in Hernando de Soto, the conquistador that was the leader of the first real European expedition down in that area. First European to cross the Mississippi river.”
My mouth opened and shut a few times. “You’re saying this… this Desoto was a state, as in an actual land mass that existed there and now it’s just gone? What the hell happened? And why don’t we–” I stopped short, sighing as my head dropped a little. “Let me guess, they used another memory spell.”
“It was around the time of the Spanish-American war, right before the turn of the century,” Deveron explained. “There was a… an invasion by really bad Strangers. Yeah, I know, but trust me. Joselyn and I both looked into it. These were the real deal. It was a full scale hostile invasion, one that Heretics couldn’t turn back. At least, not in time to stop it from spilling out into the Bystander world too much to cover up. I don’t know what the Bystanders at the time thought it was, but there were literally thousands dead in just a few days. It was a massacre. You were lucky if you were killed. The ones who were taken prisoner… well, let’s just say they were experimented on. These things, these Strangers, the Heretics called them Fomorians, after the old Irish myths. The Fomorians were really into biological experimentation. The stuff they did to the humans they found… it was bad. Stuff you don’t wanna hear about over dinner. Jos and I found a lot of good Strangers, but the Fomorians weren’t one of them.”
Avalon took over speaking then. “Gaia was in charge of that area. She saved as many as she could. She ignored Crossroads rules and had Heretics reveal themselves to Bystanders. They wouldn’t remember afterwards anyway, so she had them use Heretic powers and technology to evacuate the state. Then…”
She trailed off, and Deveron took up the story once more. “She had the state destroyed. She made sure the whole place was annihilated just to make sure all of the Fomorians were killed and their incursion point, the spot where more of them could come through from their homeland, was gone forever.”
I sank a little in my seat, feeling overwhelmed. “They… had to destroy an entire state just to stop an invading force of monsters? And then… then they erased the state from the minds of Bystanders because… because losing an entire state like that, especially back then, would be impossible to explain. I mean, they could have said it was some kind of massive geological disaster or something, but…”
“It was easier to just erase it,” Sands spoke under her breath, looking away. “It was a massive failure for Crossroads. And for Heretics in general, I guess. A lot of people died. But more would’ve if Gaia didn’t do what she did. She made the impossible choice. She basically cut off a limb to save the rest of the body. But a lot of Heretics didn’t like it. They thought we should’ve stayed to fight to the end.”
“It would’ve been the end if she didn’t do what she did,” Deveron put in. “The Fomorians were just getting stronger. They were pulling in more and more of their armies from the other side, and it was all the Heretics could to to keep them confined to that one state. The line was going to fall any day at that point. So Gaia did the only thing she could. She made the impossible choice and destroyed the state.”
Columbus was the first one to find his voice after that. “How… how did she go from that to teaching?”
Sands shifted uncomfortably in her seat before answering. “It was the right thing to do, but like I said, a lot of Heretics didn’t like it. Gaia was pretty unpopular for awhile. No one wanted her around. The person who did, the one who gave her a job and a place to live, was the Headmaster here at the time.”
“Ruthers,” I realized abruptly. “Ruthers was the headmaster here back then, wasn’t he?”
Though his face still contorted a little in obvious dislike, Deveron nodded. “He may be a piece of shit, but he believes in doing everything to help humanity. Some people disagreed with Gaia’s choice of revealing Heretic technology and magic to Bystanders, even if it was temporary. But Ruthers thought it was the right thing to do. So he gave Gaia a job teaching here. Eventually, people got over it and realized that Gaia did the right thing after all. The Heretics she worked with on the ground during the fighting itself got into power and replaced some of the old, stubborn fools who hated her for it.”
“Anyway,” Sands added with a slight shrug, “that’s why she has that title. She’s the baroness of the lost state, the woman who destroyed the place she was in charge of in order to save the rest of humanity.”
I realized something then, starting a little. “That’s why she was so against the idea of open war through the rebellion. That’s why she’s been trying so hard to do things quietly. Because she doesn’t want to risk putting the Heretics in a position where another group of invaders could do even more damage. She’s afraid that that kind of open warfare is going to end with losing a lot more than just a single state.”
Before we could do more than look at each other after that, the woman in question arrived. Gaia made her way through the room while people’s eyes turned that way. By the time she arrived at the front, everyone’s attention was on her. The headmistress paused, glancing around the room before smiling faintly. “Good evening,” she spoke in a calm, quiet voice that still somehow easily reached us. It sounded and felt like she was right beside the table rather than clear on the other side of the room.
Gaia waited while everyone murmured their own greetings before continuing. Most people clearly just wanted to get out of there and back to whatever they were doing or had planned. Still, they listened fairly politely.
“Thank you all for being gracious enough to wait here until I could get back. I do appreciate that you have limited free time, and that this is eating somewhat into your weekend.” Gaia smiled a little bit then. “I promise that this will not take long. But as each of our new students at the start of the year are given their chance to be the center of attention, I thought it only fair that our newest student be afforded the same opportunity for the spotlight.”
That caused a few whispered discussions here and there, before the headmistress lifted her hand toward the nearby door, gesturing for the boy to come in. “While I’m sure everyone is well aware that Crossroads is not normally a place that has mid-semester transfers, there are specific exceptions. I would like to introduce you all to–”
“Tristan!” the voice came from across the room, and my attention snapped that way along with everyone else’s. Hell, even Gaia looked surprised to hear the sudden shout.
It was Vanessa. The blonde girl was standing up, plate of half-eaten food forgotten as she stared that way with her mouth wide open.
For his part, Tristan looked just as confused as everyone else. Then something seemed to click in his head, and his eyes widened. “Va…. nessa?” he managed, sounded completely shocked. That only lasted for a few seconds, however, before he abandoned his spot beside the headmistress. Sprinting that way, the boy literally leapt up and over one of the tables, clearing it completely before landing on the other side, near the table where Vanessa was practically tripping over herself to get around it. The two of them met in a tight embrace, completely ignoring the fact that everyone was staring at them.
“What—what just happened?” Sands demanded, eyes wide.
My mouth opened and shut. “I… I think Tristan just found his sister.”
The second realization struck me an instant later. “… which means Vanessa isn’t fully human. She’s half-Seosten just like he is.”