This is what I’m working on. Enjoy <3
Mercury sat in the front row of the Great Hall in Kaditeos’s premier Evil Overlording Academy, pointedly not sweating. This was mostly because she made it a point never to sweat, sweat being an indication that she was working hard, and hard work being antithetical to her way of life.
However, if she had been sweating right now, it would not have been due to overexertion. Instead, it would have been caused by an even more unfamiliar concept in Mercury’s emotional vocabulary: nervousness. Mercury did not get nervous. Mercury got things done. So that fact that she was sitting here, in the front row of the Great Hall, about to graduate from Evil Overlording Academy with distinction, and was feeling nervous… She crumpled the paper program in her fists. It made her furious, that’s what it did. Abjectly furious, that snooty-tooty Deviran with his stupid morals and his stupid I-don’t-want-to-be-here and his stupid overlords-are-empty-figureheads and his stupid face sitting over there on the other side of the hall, looking implacable as though he knew it gave him a stupid air of alluringly stupid mystery… She scowled and searched for the train of thought that had been derailed, yet again, by Deviran’s stupidity.
Ah. Yes. She was angry because she was nervous because she wasn’t absolutely entirely one hundred and fifty percent sure that she’d beaten Deviran in their final exams, and one, being anything less than a hundred and fifty percent certain of anything made her cranky, and two, being beaten by Deviran for dux of the year would be utterly unbearable.
In the corner, the starkly-attired band with their traditional blacked-out instruments began playing the March of the Oncoming Doom. The screechy scrapes of hundreds of chair feet on the hall’s wooden floor sounded, and the crowd climbed to its collective feet.
Mercury sat with her arms firmly folded for a few moments longer, until her best friend Sparky kicked her in the ankle.
“Get up, idiot,” Sparky hissed, hints of real flame flickering through her flame-coloured pixie cut.
“No,” Mercury said, flouncing to her feet and tossing her glossy brown hair. Six years she’d been playing by the Academy’s rules in order to get what she wanted, and she’d had just about enough.
Sparky rolled her eyes before focusing on the stage, where the ceremonial party had begun entering.
Mercury clenched her jaw and narrowed her eyes as the teachers of the Evil Overlord Academy filed onto the stage, dressed in their formal finery. Each teacher had their own distinctive look that matched their personality and their Overlording style, from severe charcoal suits to jet-black leathers, ballgowns and lingerie and spandex, and even on one tiny little old woman at the back, worn jeans and a flannel shirt. She was the one to watch out for, of course; Mercury could respect an Overlord who was confident enough in their abilities that they didn’t need to telegraph them. It wasn’t a look she herself would consider, of course, but still. She could respect it.
The band’s march finished and, after a moderately awkward pause, the crowd sat. The Principal took the podium, and Mercury narrowed her eyes. He was doing a superb job of hiding it—he was a premier Evil Overlord, after all—but she was Mercury, and unlike anyone else, she had the benefit of being able to rummage through people’s consciousnesses. She was better at adding things in than taking things out, but he was telegraphing fear loudly enough that she could sense it without trying.
Mercury pursed her lips. Hmm.
The Principal cleared his throat at the podium, and the fear made it into his eyes. “Before we begin,” he said, and Mercury’s stomach did a peculiar kind of flip-flop. “I have a pressing announcement to make regarding the safety of our students and their families.” He cleared his throat again and took out a sheet of paper from his pocket, unfolding it carefully and smoothing out the creases before beginning again. “The Council”—quiet booing echoed around the hall—“have asked me to recommend that students from Tumul Tuos seriously consider postponing their return to town for a few days. The city is dealing with a situation at present which may present a danger to our students’ health and safety.”
Mercury’s hands fisted at her sides and she forced herself to remain seated. What was wrong with her city? What had the Council mucked up now? A risk to the students’ safety? There had to be more he wasn’t telling them. Gently, Mercury tugged on his consciousness, implanting the suggestion that it might be better to share the news than to keep it secret. After all, how could they fight an enemy they didn’t know?
“There has been, ah…” He trailed off, glancing side to side as though wondering why his mouth had decided to continue.
Mercury didn’t snicker, but she did press her lips together in satisfaction.
The Principal took a deep, steadying breath. “There had been one death already. The family have already been notified, so it is with much regret that I must inform you that Woovermyer will no longer be with us at the Evil Overlord Academy.”
Murmurs broke out around the room, not all of them sad—to be expected in a school devoted to raising the next generation of dictators and despots.
Mercury, however, shook quietly.
“You okay?” Sparky murmured, leaning towards her.
Mercury gave a single, tense shake of her head and stared at the podium. Dead. Lizzi Woovermyer was dead in her city. And the Council hadn’t done anything to stop it. Couldn’t do anything to stop it, probably, given they’d warned the students to stay away.
Enough was enough. Seriously. A good thing she was about to graduate at the top of the class, giving her the right to knock any current overlord she chose off their throne. Tumul Tuos would be hers in a matter of hours. And then there’d be no more of these wasteful deaths. Her city would be safe at last.
Madam [name] was up the front now, and abruptly Mercury realised Madam was there to make the announcement that would change her life forever. She leaned forward in her seat, ready to stand when her name was called.
“And now the announcement you’ve all been dying for,” the [subject] teacher trilled, the frills on her pink cardigan fluttering in a stray breeze. “The dux of this year’s cohort!”
Sweat slicked Mercury’s palms. Irritated, she reached over and wiped them on Sparky’s thigh.
Disgusted, Sparky pushed Mercury’s hands back into her own personal space bubble and Mercury, nervous to the edge of distraction, let her.
“Will you please join me in welcoming to the stage, our wonderful dux for this year, Deviran [namityname]!”
Mercury froze halfway to standing. “Did she just say Deviran?” she whispered furiously to Sparky.
Sparky hauled her forcibly back into her seat. “Yes,” she hissed back. “Sit down, you’re making a fool of yourself.”
Mercury’s spine snapped upright and she arranged her black skirt demurely. “No I’m not.” She closed her eyes. “Deviran’s going up to the stage, isn’t he?” Even at a whisper, the misery in her voice was clear.
Sparky reached over and squeezed her hand.
Mercury squeezed back, laced her fingers through Sparky’s, and held tight as all her plans and dreams vanished in front of her.
A stone had landed in her chest. That must be it. Some strange sort of magic that made her chest contract and sink, and made the world distort for just a moment, long enough to trick her into thinking Deviran had beaten her so that someone could jump in front of her and yell SURPRISE!
Any moment now.
She refused to open her eyes and watch Deviran parading across the stupid stage like some stupid stupid-person, receiving his stupid medal and stupid symbolic [thingy].
It was that last question. She’d known Deviran would pull out his stupid ‘Evil Overlords are merely figureheads, the Business Guild is where the power really lies’ rant that everyone had heard a million times back when he was younger and angrier, and she’d tried to counter it, she really had. She’d argued for the importance of the Overlording position, for the power of having a symbolic figure to unite the population in their hatred, for having a person able to make all the difficult, necessary decisions the Council was too weak and spineless to make… But it hadn’t been enough. Everything she’d worked for, everything she’d set out to prove—and it wasn’t enough.
There were words, there were names, and then forever later, once she’d died twice already, Sparky elbowed her in the ribs. “Come on,” Sparky muttered. “You’re up next.”
And just as Sparky said, there was a shuffling of presenters and the next speaker announced in threatening, funereal tones, “The Overlording class.”
Mercury blinked. She looked properly at Sparky this time and noted the graduation pin on her collar. She made eye contact, meaning to ask if Sparky had been up already without her noticing, but obviously she had or she wouldn’t have the pin, and they’d called the Overlording class up, and she was making a spectacle of herself.
Mercury blinked furiously and strode to the end of the line at the side of the stage. The other thirteen candidates proceeded one at a time across the stage, two girls and then stupid Deviran, and then the rest and then the speaker was calling her name.
Hands fisted, Mercury tossed her head high and marched across the stage. She wouldn’t look at them, the stupid faculty who’d denied her the city she rightfully deserved, and she wouldn’t look the other way either, at the classmates undoubtedly sniggering at her failure.
She shook hands with the presenter, and while he pinned her badge on her collar, her eyes betrayed her and slid towards the audience. Her stomach flipped as she saw the crowd of parents and friends behind the rows of students. Everyone had someone here to watch them graduate. Everyone except Weird Al—and her.
The presenter muttered something to her and offered his hand again. Mercury coldly ignored it and strode from the stage. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. It was her city anyway, and no one could change that. She’d think of something. She’d take a day or two out, make some plans… And she could always hope that Deviran would choose some other Overlording territory.
He’d be stupid to, but then again, he was stupid, so. Mercury could hope.
All at once, Mercury came to rigid attention, scanning the room. Somewhere out there in the crowd, an exchange of power had just taken place, and it felt… unusual.
But the final few students were backing up behind her and muttering, so Mercury headed back towards her seat, craning her head all the while and searching for some sign of whatever it was that had just discharged a dizzyingly quiet amount of power into the room.
She sat, and Sparky leaned over. “Okay?”
“Mm,” said Mercury. “Did you feel…”
She turned it over in her mind. It had felt like a large shot of power discharged very quietly—but perhaps it hadn’t been. Perhaps it had only been a small discharge after all, something most people probably wouldn’t have noticed. But still, something about it had tugged on her. She shook her head. “Never mind. Don’t worry.”
Sparky sighed and straightened. “It’s fine, Mercury,” she said, drily exasperated. “I know you didn’t win, but I promise, you’ll live through it.”
Mercury waved a hand for silence. The power had just discharged again, and it had come from somewhere in the back corner. Impatiently, Mercury waited for the final formalities to conclude. The crowd stood while the band played the exit march and the stage party left, Mercury tapping her foot all the while.
The moment the last notes of the march died away, Mercury turned and headed to the back corner, weaving in and out of students and parents, ignoring Sparky’s calls behind her. Power, something that tugged in a way that was strange and familiar, all at once. She pushed her way through a family posing for magigraphs—and halted.
Deviran stood with his family, with his stupid, smug little smile. His mother and father, she presumed, gushed over him, patting his back and hugging him tight. Within moments the Principal was there, glibly shaking hands and congratulating them on the success of their son. Something flickered across his consciousness, and also Deviran’s fathers, some moment of recognition in response to what they were saying—but Mercury brushed it aside as the mother brushed melodramatic tears from her cheeks and handed Deviran a package about as long as her hand but half the width.
That. That was the source of the strange, magical feeling. Mercury watched hawk-eyed as Deviran unwrapped the gift. A glimpse of gold set her pulse racing—What was it? What did it do? Could she steal it?—and then the paper fell away to the floor, and Deviran stood staring at the object in his hands, and Mercury did too.
Wide-eyed, buoyant, Deviran raised his gaze to his parents, and she could hear the reverence in his voice as he thanked them even from here.
But Mercury had eyes only for the object. No wonder she’d felt it discharge, and no wonder it had felt both strange and familiar. In Deviran’s hands lay a glorious, sunshine-gold key, large and strong—and with a handle in the shape of a stylised fish, long, flowing fins curving to make the grip.
A Key. They’d given him a Key. And not just any Key, but the Key, her Key, the Artefact of Power belonging to her city.
A wordless noise of wanting rose in Mercury’s throat. Who cared about being dux? She needed that Key.