Chapter 17

The Subtlety class was smaller than Close Combat, and had actual desks rather than a mere smattering of benches. Of course, there were only four students able to discern those differences, as very few had been selected for both courses. Julia and Sasha were both such rare cases, walking into the room and noticing they were among the last to arrive. They recognized Gilbert and Hector, both still softly simmering in sweat from the Close Combat class, lounging near the back. Sasha scanned the room further, noticing Will and on impulse turning to join him. That’s when she noticed who he was already sitting with.

Sasha barely repressed a sneer as she altered her direction instantly. She understood that Will was somewhat insecure about the viability of his ability taking him all the way to Hero levels; Jill had confided that much in her during their first year as suite mates. Still, that didn’t fully excuse his continued association with those freaks from Melbrook. It was bad enough she had to deal with Vince in her first class, now she was discovering that this one would be shared with the sunglasses-wearing weirdo and the buxom bitch. If some part of Sasha remembered that only four months ago she’d counted both of those two as friends, it kept itself silent. That is not to say it allowed itself to be extinguished, merely that it recognized the fact that biding one’s time is a classic, and often beneficial, strategy.

“Good morning, class,” Professor Pendleton greeted them. “I’m glad to see you all found the classroom today. I hope you have the same luck tomorrow.” With that, he stood from the desk he had been nimbly perched and began handing out syllabi. The first hands went up before he’d even gotten halfway around the room. He dutifully ignored them, finishing the process and sitting back down at his desk.

“I can see you already have questions, but let’s hold those for the moment, shall we? Instead, I’d like us to read through the syllabus. Who would like to start?”

Alice was slow in lowering her hand, still not quite ready to accept that she wouldn’t get to query the strange professor for answers, so hers was the highest when he asked for volunteers.

“Thank you, Ms. Adair. Please start us off. Read the first paragraph.”

“Um, I’m not sure it’s really a paragraph. I mean, it’s just one line,” Alice said uncertainly.

“Less lip and more reading, Ms. Adair,” Professor Pendleton replied swiftly. Alice felt her cheeks flush for a moment then turned her eyes to the page.

“Lesson One: Lie,” Alice recited dutifully.

“Adequate,” Professor Pendleton said. “Next part, how about Mr. Reid?”

“Lesson Two: Sneak,” Gilbert said, not bothering to question the curious nature of this process.

“Much better,” Professor Pendleton praised. “How about Mr. Weaver goes next?”

“Lesson Three: Cheat,” Rich snapped off automatically.

“And for the finale, I think it should go to Mr. Campbell,” Professor Pendleton instructed.

“Lesson Four: Think,” Nick said, eyeing the strange lanky man at the front of the class with something bordering on respect. He had an inkling where this was going and might have actually felt a twinge of excitement deep down in his gut.

“Lie, Sneak, Cheat, and Think,” Professor Pendleton repeated. “These are the tenants of a Hero who specializes in Subtlety. Very few of us are the physically powerful types. Those of you enrolled in combat classes will likely find yourself losing this course next year. We give you the opportunity, however, because one never really knows where the seed of true talent may have been planted.”

Professor Pendleton stood from his desk once more and stepped around to the front in a short series of long-legged movements.

“Now, before we go any further, there is something you all need to know. Subtlety is considered the grey line between Hero and criminal, and those who graduate with it as their major are seen as high-risk tightrope walkers along this metaphorical division. More of us turn to crime than any other specialty. There are a multitude of theories why that is the case, but at the end of the day the blame must be laid at least partially at the foot of the nature of our job. You see, those who master Subtlety do not bask in the sunlight of public acclaim and moral purity. Rather, we are the ones who must outthink, outmaneuver, and out-plan our enemies. We are the ones who steal into a South American drug compound to retrieve data on the giant robot someone built. We are the ones who seduce and con friends of criminals to learn where they are and what weaknesses they have. We dirty our hands with the jobs that must be done but that no person with a sound moral compass would want. Because we can. We are smart enough, bold enough, and yes, grey enough, to handle the lurking and conniving. It is a thankless job, save only for others of your craft who appreciate the work you put in.”

“Then why would anyone want to do it?” Will asked, the words popping out before his sense of logic could stop him.

“Because someone has to. Without those stolen plans, without that insider information, without a weakness to exploit, people are going to get hurt. Possibly die. Not just citizens either, but fellow Heroes. As I said, most of you with combat options will leave this class behind at the year’s end. The reason is that you will have options outside of this path, and who can blame you for taking them? We are the fewest of any Hero type. We are also some of the most valuable,” Professor Pendleton explained.

Will nodded his understanding and fell silent. He felt a stirring in himself, a stirring that was echoed in the bodies of several others around him. This was an avenue he’d never known about before, one he’d never suspected existed. This was one where wiles and wit were prized over bulk and biceps. This relied on quick thought and fluid morals. This was one he might actually be able to do.

“Now that I’ve hopefully turned most of you off to the profession as a whole, let me elaborate on the syllabus,” Professor Pendleton continued. “We are going to learn the hallmarks of the field through the year, piece by piece. Make no mistake, the most important part is lesson four. That one we will be doing constantly. To that effect, our classroom will be a floating one. Some days I’ll tell you where to meet next time. Other days I will give you a riddle, or a puzzle with the location concealed within. If you can’t solve it, you miss the class. As you can infer, missing too much class doesn’t reflect well on you when the year-end review comes around. With that said, I’d like you all to flip your syllabus onto its back.”

The students complied, revealing a strange diagram with numbers dotting the edges and something that seemed like a maze in the center, with entrances jutting from each digit.

“That will tell you where to meet for the rest of this week,” Professor Pendleton said, giving what he felt was an adequate explanation. Still he decided to toss in some encouragement as well.

“Good luck.”