“Greetings, Master Joss. I trust your trip here was peaceful.”
“Hello, my old friend. If by peaceful you mean boring and uneventful, then yes, it was. And shouldn't you be calling me Headmaster Joss?”
“Cheeky bastard. I'm still the headmaster of this academy, even if there’s only one day remaining. Come, step into my office. You must be weary from your travels.”
“Nothing that a good drink or two can’t cure. And don’t you mean my office?”
“Don’t push it. I'm opting for an early retirement and you’re seriously making me reconsider it.”
Headmaster Helje turns and goes into the room with Master Joss following suit. The retiring headmaster doesn't go to sit behind his desk. Instead the portly man chooses to place his plump behind into one of the two chairs he has set up earlier beside the fireplace. A small fire is going, enough to chase away the cold of the winter night and set the mood for some reminiscing.
“Before I forget, here’s your retirement gift.” Master Joss hands something to Headmaster Helje.
“Azrizz wine, you’re always fond of this type.” says the retiring headmaster after studying the bottle briefly
“Only the finest drink is allowed to touch these lips. Let’s open your gift to celebrate this joyful occasion.”
“What the… I thought I was supposed to bring this bottle home with me.”
“Where do you keep your glasses? Come now, gifts are meant to be shared. Besides, you have horrible taste in alcohol.”
“Bottom left corner. If memory serves me correctly, you didn't complain the last time you were here. Damn near emptied my liquor cabinet.”
“Found them. That’s because I was desperate. But now I have come prepared, hence the gift you’re currently holding in your hands.”
“You keep using the word “gift”. I really don’t think you know what it means.” grumbles the headmaster as he takes one of the glasses handed to him by Master Joss.
“Sharing is caring.” smiles Master Joss as he waits for the headmaster to pour a generous amount of wine into the glass he is holding in his hand.
“How is Master Wes by the way?” asks Master Joss as he sips the delicious drink in his hand.
“The same. Reliable, trustworthy, still making life miserable for the first year students.”
“I'm surprised he passed on the chance to become the new headmaster. I thought he was next in line.”
“He said he needed a few more years before he is ready. Besides, I think he likes being deputy headmaster. More freedom than a regular teacher and less responsibility than an administrator.”
“Which is why he recommended my name for the job, I guess.”
“You’re his fifth choice, actually.”
“Bullshit.” says Master Joss with a smile and both men laugh.
Headmaster Helje and Master Joss continue to exchange news and make some small talk before Master Joss finally decides to get to the heart of the issue that’s been bothering him for a while now.
“I know when old friends meet after a long time, they’re supposed to tease each other about how fat they've gotten. But it looks like you've lost quite a bit yourself.”
“Hmm, you always go straight to the point. There’s never any beating around the bush with you.”
“I always like to address the slim-down elephant in the room first.”
“Is that a dig about my weight?”
“Or perhaps the lack of it.”
“Maybe I've been exercising or eating right. Did you think about that?”
“Yeah, you’re right. That doesn't sound like me at all.”
“Does it have anything to do with why you’re retiring earlier than your term?”
“I was hoping you’d have a few more drinks in you before we finally have this conversation.” says Headmaster Helje with a sigh before downing the rest of drink in his hand. The headmaster pours himself another glass before continuing.
“It’s been a tough year for me.”
“Why? Is it because of those elite students? Or is it those nobles trying to worm their way into a teaching or administrative position in this school?
“Oh please… I can handle them. No, the reason why I've been losing weight… the reason why I'm retiring early is because of a commoner student.”
“What?” exclaims Master Joss, nearly spilling the drink in his hand.
Headmaster Helje puts down his glass on the small table beside him and leans forward. Master Joss can see that all hints of playfulness are gone from the jolly man’s eyes.
“Let me tell you about the first year student known as Rolfe Primero.”
“So those snobbish parents left without saying a word?” laughs Master Joss with tears in his eyes.
“Didn't even take their injured sons with them. They just went out the academy’s gates and didn't look back.
“And on foot too. They didn't get on their gilded carriages pulled by their fancy horses. The drivers had to chase them down when they realized their employers had left without them.”
“And you still have no idea what this Rolfe Primero said during the closed-door meeting?”
“Haven’t got the faintest clue. The boy slipped in unnoticed into a room full of rich, powerful and pissed off parents whose sons were currently spending some quality time in the infirmary because they lost at a duel… badly… to a first year student…”
“And the next thing you know, those same parents are so anxious to leave, it’s like they have a demon snapping at their heels.”
“I really need to ask the boy to share that neat trick with me.”
“I've already tried. He just smiles at me and says “Trade secret” before walking away.”
The laughter dies down and an awkward silence falls on both men. The two old friends are in deep thought. The sound of wine being sip from glasses is occasionally heard. The quietness is finally broken when Headmaster Helje chooses to speak first.
“I'm putting him in Class 2A when the next term starts.”
Master Joss is startled for the second time that night. Putting a commoner student in a class usually reserved for elite students, not to mention the Class A category, will have a heavy repercussion.
“Will he be able to stand those harassments?”
“I believe he can, and will. In fact, I'm more concern with whether the elite students that get stuck with him can last with the newest addition into their class.”
“They’ll come at him from all side. Jealous peers, resentful upperclassmen, snobbish parents, stuck up noble teacher. They won’t let him forget where he came from.”
“Trust me…” the retiring headmaster smiles with a hint of playfulness returning in his eyes. “He won’t let them forget who he is either.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re intentionally putting a fox into a henhouse, just for the sake of it.”
“When you get to my age, you’ll find yourself having less and less fucks to give. It’s a pity I won’t be around to see the outcome.”
“What a fine mess you left me to deal with. Looks like I can kiss goodbye the dream of my term being boring and uneventful.” grumbles Master Joss.
“Consider it my parting gift… to you.”
Both men smile. But like the how the flowers disappear come winter, the smiles died as well. The only noise in the room is the occasional slurping sound of a good wine being drunk and firewood crackling in the flames.
*many glasses later
“So which “if” are you feeling right now?” Master Joss slurry asks the retiring headmaster.
“You know, how a man, when he’s nearly reach the end of the path we call life…”
“Fuck you, I'm still in my prime. Come at me with a sword if you doubt me.”
“…he’ll turn around and sees the many broken “ifs” that lay behind him.”
“I'm either too drunk or not drunk enough to be having this conversation.”
“’What if I went down that path’ or 'What if I made the wrong decisions’ or ‘ What if I had chosen her instead’.”
“You’re really killing the mood here, Master Buzz Kill.”
“So, going back to my original question, which “if” are you feeling right now?”
“I'm really regretting the decision of appointing you as my successor.”
“Is it "grief"… or "relief"…?”
“It’s a simple question.”
“A little bit of both.”
“Bullshit, give me a straight answer.”
“Fuck you, it’s not that simple of a question.”
“Gods, man. Where is all this coming from?”
“Sheila left me…”
She took the kids.”
“Aw shit… I'm sorry to hear that.”
“She’s asking for a divorce?”
“She just wants and I quote ‘A trial of separation’, whatever the hell that means.”
“The bottle is nearly empty… and we don’t have enough good wine to finish this conversation.”
“I told you before, I have come prepared.”
“Another bottle! I don’t suppose you've got a third bottle in that bag there too, you know, the one you’re suppose to give me as a gift.”
“Nope, we've already drunk that one to the last drop.”
“You’re wife’s a bitch.”
“Don’t you fucking talk to the mother of my children that way! I’ll fucking smash your head in with this wine bottle!”
“Fucking come at me then, brother! Bring it on, bitch!”
“Oh wait, there’s still some wine left in this bottle.”
“Shit, you’re right. It’ll be a damn waste to have it dripping all over my head and onto the floor.”
“Let’s drink it all first?”
“Joss… Joss… Wake up.”
“Huh what? Are we under attack?”
“The answer is grief.”
“The fuck are you talking about?”
“The which “if” I’m feeling right now.”
“I asked you that fucking question years ago!”
“Bitch, you asked me tonight!”
“I did? Wow, those glasses we downed really did a number of us. Talk about too much of a good thing.”
“Speak for yourself. I'm still as sober as a judge.”
“Oh yeah, try standing up then.”
“What’s the matter? Found your lost weight and got stuck in the chair?”
“I swear to the gods… first thing in the morning I'm going to-”
“Yeah yeah, I hear you. Now what this about your grief thing?”
“Oh come on, you woke me up! Not the other way around.”
“We should have protected them.”
“The commoner students. We should have done more to protect them.”
“Letting those sons of nobles come here to study years and years was the worst decisions those big wigs up top have ever made.”
“They’ll never accept us, even when the king granted us knighthood. They’ll never forgive us for our background.”
“We go around the continent, trying to put out the flames those fucking nobles made, and they resent us for it.”
“While we were at school here, we've lost so many friends to those fuckers’ attacks, bullying and harassments.”
“The adults called it baptism by fire. Weeding out the weak and the unworthy.”
“We know it for what it truly is. Pure malice. Like putting a fox in a henhouse.”
“And when we laid there in the dorm room, huddled together in the dark, nursing each other wounds and broken bones, we swore we would change the system.”
“But now that we’re adults, we found ourselves bound to that same system. Condoning instead of condemning.”
“We should have protected them. We should have taught the commoner students to protect each other.”
“Because they’re brothers and sisters. And they don’t have anyone else to rely on.”
“And when they’re fighting each other, it will only benefit the nob- Joss? Joss? Are you lis-“
“Son of a bitch!”
Looking at those two commoner students standing (well technically only one of them is standing, the other one is sitting flat on his ass) in the middle of the courtyard that afternoon, Headmaster Joss can’t help but recall that memory from long ago.
Although he had fallen asleep near the end (much to Headmaster Helje’s chagrin) the words of the previous headmaster still echoes faintly in his ear every day to till this day.
Which is why Headmaster Joss would look the other way whenever he received news that Rolfe Primero was involved in an unsanctioned duel with an elite student. Or why the headmaster was never lenient whenever he managed to uncover a bullying case, always dealing the harshest punishment to the guilty party. But those bullying cases are rare, due to the victims refusing to come forward and the perpetrators managed to cover their tracks well.
Headmaster Joss looks at the boy sitting on the ground. To the untrained eyes, they would think that the boy has given up. But the headmaster could see he is trying to conserve and regain his lost energy the best as he could for his inevitable fight with Rolfe Primero.
Headmaster Joss has half a mind to leave the boy to his fate, he’s still sore about how the boy used his daughters’ names. But then the headmaster remembers the way he dealt with Master Haithur last night and he suddenly becomes fond of the boy. Seriously, that fucking look on the snake’s face was priceless.
Headmaster Joss licks his dried lips, he hasn't had a drink this morning thanks to the boy. Which made the headmaster angry again at him. But then he remembers the boy’s warning him about Master Haithur messing with the alcohol he kept in the office, and Headmaster Joss’ heart gradually softens.
Ah screw it, the headmaster thinks. At my age, I shouldn't be concerned about the amount of fucks I give out. Headmaster Joss turns to his deputy who is standing on his left.
“Stay here, and for gods’ sake do try to refrain from kicking anyone else while I'm gone.”
“Where are you going?” Master Wes asks his old friend.
“Buying the boy some time.” the headmaster smiles while striding to the middle of the courtyard.