Masters of Deception

Ruse prided himself on his skills of observation. His life depended on those skills, or would shortly at any rate. He saw dozens, hundreds, of things that told him stories no one else would ever read or hear.

The nutty smell to Madame Pincer’s coffee, for one. She might take cream and sugar, but that wasn’t all, and to judge by the way she fidgeted she would soon start to need it in more than just her coffee.

Groundskeeper Brotherton was meticulous in his work, and took a great deal of pride in doing it all himself. The school was a small one, after all, and one devoted, proud man could manage it just fine–except he always hired on a boy around the summer, whose sole duty seemed to include tending to the giant pond in the northeast corner. Oh, there were other token chores, but even when it was frozen over, Brotherton never went terribly close to it. Ruse had not yet determined if he was afraid of the water, or of something in it, but as boring as his classes were becoming, he would soon feel like troubling himself enough to observe the answer to that small puzzle.

Few secrets managed to escape him, unless he chose to let them lie.

Except Master Fall, who taught history, and Master Toshton, the King’s Guard hired on to teach swordsmanship when his predecessor retired.

Personal relations amongst the instructors was strictly forbidden-to carry on so with each other might take their focus from where it should be, and sow discord. Students constantly gossiped about which instructors were breaking that rule, which Ruse told himself was the first reason he had missed it. Anything so heavily gossiped about could not be true–except no one, he realized now, ever gossiped about those two together. Fall and Toshton never spoke, never crossed paths except where duty overlapped.

One of those places of overlap was the study period at the end of each day, where students assembled in the library or the laboratories to study or work for the three hours between the end of classes and the dinner bell.

Toshton, for whatever reason, had been assigned to the library rather than the laboratory–and he supervised the students in the library study hall every first and fourth day of the week, and he always worked with Fall.

The second reason he had missed it, Ruse told himself, was that there was simply nothing to notice, and that should have tipped him off much, much sooner than it had.

It should have registered with him that they seldom spoke to each other, though there was never an air of displeasure or discomfort. It was now painfully obvious that there’s was a comfortable silence. They knew each other, and people who know each other well have less need to speak of every little thing. They worked together smoothly watching the students, taking away objects of mischief from the troublemakers, slapping a ruler upon the hand or head or back of the dozers, praising the studious, carefully not bothering Ruse and the two others like him (Mist, a woman, she would not last long, his observations told him that much. Fade, a man, and no greater irritation had ever been born).

They were quiet, they worked well together. Harmless enough. Countless instructors got along with such ease.

Except they never spoke, outside of this one duty. History was in the northeast section of the school, and the whole of the history department preferred to sneer down their long, dusty noses at the martial department in the southeast portion of the school, for reasons that no one really remembered but to which they feverishly clung.

It was possible they had grown up together, or studied together in their youth, or lived close to one another when instruction was done for the day–but they did not. By all accounts and observations, they did not know each other past school, past this duty every first and fourth day of every week. Time enough to grow comfortable, if not for the fact Toshton had only been there a few months. This was his first semester.

Still, he might never have noticed, except for the touch. Fall had dropped his ruler after slapping awake a lazy dozer. It had clattered to the floor, startling awake the other half dozen or so dozers, briefly bringing the troublemakers to a pause–but they had all grown immediately bored as Toshton stooped to retrieve it, and Fall had murmured a near-soundless thank you as it was replaced in his hand.

Ruse would not have noticed, except he was bored and irritated and anxious to be distracted from his books and the infuriating puzzled that was Fade. So he kept watching when other heads turned away, had seen the way fingers brushed just a moment too long as the ruler was returned, the way the fingers lingered even as words of thanks were murmured and both teachers turned to tend their duties. Everything else about them turned away–but the fingers lingered, an extra heartbeat or three.

Intriguing. At least until something more amusing came along.

He finally slid his glance away, and realized too late where he had allowed his gaze to slide–only to find dark green eyes watching him, and lips curved in a smirk he hated more than anything else in the world.

That smirk said Fade had figured out the instructors’ little secret ages ago, and he was vastly amused Ruse had only figured it out now–and Ruse hated that he had managed to give something away, because no matter how hard he tried to hide as he had been taught, Fade could read him.

He slowly slid his gaze away, refusing to move quickly, because that might indicate some upset of emotion and he would not give Fade that sort of satisfaction. Instead, he returned to Fall and Toshton, and watched them, and wondered how the hell he had ever missed it. Much could be faked or hidden, he knew that better than anyone, but it was nigh on impossible for two people in love to pretend indifference.