Orlando suspected that there had been better starts to a candidate’s bid for mastery. The mutterings of the crowd that had gathered to witness what most thought would be one of the most entertaining hearings in recent times didn’t help his concentration.
Master Angelina Wainwright, the most senior Navigator present and chair of this assessment board, waited for the noise to die down then glanced left and right as if seeking the assistance of her colleagues. ‘So let me see if I understand you — and please stop me if I get anything wrong. You are petitioning us to allow you to demonstrate your masterwork. To support your request, you have cited a situation where you caused the near destruction of a ship under your protection. Am I missing anything?’
Heat flushed through his cheeks, answer enough to her challenge for anyone observing him in that moment. Nevertheless he pleaded his case once more. ‘With respect it’s not as simple as that, Master. The weave that I’ve constructed is…’
Wainwright snorted. ‘Don’t tell me, let me guess. It’s going to revolutionise Navigation as we know it. We’ve all heard those sentiments before, from almost every Journeyman who has petitioned us. And not just Journeymen. Those Masters still involved in active research often claim the same thing about each minor improvement they make to their patterns. Even your Master, experienced as he was, claimed to be a pioneer before his last grand weave and look where that left him.’
Muscles across Orlando’s back tightened at the reference to his old Master. Was this the reason he was having so much trouble getting his application to be treated seriously? His bid had stirred up surprisingly strong feelings across the Guild, even accounting for the recent incident with the freighter. He’d studied the methods of his Master, who had been admittedly considered somewhat unorthodox by the bulk of his colleagues, and taken those techniques to their logical end point. The fundamentals were sound; indeed he struggled to grasp where his Master had erred.
Orlando remembered the frustration of exclusion when his Master had refused to show him the discovery he described as a “breakthrough that would change the face of modern Navigation”. He had seemed so sure. But when the old man had tried to put the technique into practice… There must have been some weakness in him, some hidden flaw that led to him becoming the Guild’s most recent cautionary tale.
The more traditional elements of the Guild, including the bloc led by Wainwright, had opposed his Master’s research. Perhaps this was her way of further discrediting that work? There were members of the panel who still regarded his Master with some affection but despite their sympathy he hadn’t been able to lock in enough support in the lead up to the hearing to guarantee his success. The situation was still delicately balanced.
Wainwright was still speaking about the failings of his Master and with an effort Orlando focused his attention back onto her as she swept her hand through the air to punctuate a point. At the clearly prearranged signal a screen descended from the roof. He turned to face the display, wincing as an image of his old Master appeared pacing across a featureless room muttering and gesturing wildly.
Wainwright lightened her voice, plying the rest of the panel with sympathetic tones. ‘He seems to be getting worse. Is there anything more that can be done?’
One of the Guild’s most senior doctors stepped forward from the audience. ‘As you can see his deterioration is following the normal path,’ she said. ‘The delusional state is deepening. We’re lucky if we get a few lucid moments in a week. He surfaces enough to momentarily engage with us, then within seconds we lose him and he starts the cycle again. It’s hard to tell exactly what he is experiencing, most of what he verbalises is gibberish. If he continues like the others, soon he won’t even be able to take in nourishment unassisted. Once a patient has reached that stage we’ve found that a quick, painless passing is the most humane treatment we can offer.’
‘Is there any hope he will recover?’ asked Wainwright.
‘I’m afraid not,’ the doctor replied. ‘He is truly Lost. Ever since his accident this was inevitable. A moment of weakness, a lifetime of regret.’
Orlando understood that this adage, so often used in the Guild, was as much warning for him as it was a reflection on his Master’s condition. The incident with the freighter had cost a lot in damage control and if there was one thing the Guild frowned on it was bad publicity. That, combined with this demonstration of his Master’s downfall, would probably give the conservative factions enough ammunition to crush his bid. He choked down his first reaction and forced his face into a neutral expression.
‘I believe I’ve overcome the deficiencies in my Master’s techniques,’ he ventured.
Wainwright leant forward in her chair and smiled. Reasonableness dripped from her every syllable. ‘Well, Mr Orlando, that’s the million credit question, isn’t it? I have concerns, I’ve made no secret of that. Ever since your Master’s ill-advised venture I have campaigned tirelessly for prudent restraint in how we adapt the time-honoured and proven techniques that have served our Guild so well over the last three centuries. However, some of my learned friends on the panel have argued that the potential to advance our understanding of Navigation outweighs any concerns I might have.’
She paused, and from the absolute silence in the hall Orlando could tell she was successfully milking the tension for all it was worth. When she finally spoke, it was in a quiet voice that he had to strain to hear. ‘I encourage you to take every precaution of course, but it is the decision of this panel to allow your bid to go ahead.’
Even through his relief, Orlando had to admire her manipulation of the circumstances. While Wainwright had been gaining profile in the Guild over the last few years and was one of the favourites to win the next Grandmaster election, she was far from all-powerful. She didn’t have any interest in whether he became a Master or not. A newly minted Master would have too little power, money or influence to impact the election’s outcome and a failed Journeyman would matter even less. But by emphasising the incident with the freighter and dwelling on the fate of his Master, she had raised doubt in the minds of everyone present. If he succeeded she would be the bold visionary who supported his bid despite her reservations. If things went wrong, she would be the voice of sanity that had counselled against moving forward and had been reluctantly overruled by her less measured colleagues. Either way, she would gain standing in the Guild. It was just one minor move in the vast and complicated game that was being played out around the election, but an operator like Wainwright knew how to take advantage of every opportunity no matter how small.
The onlookers drifted out of the chamber until Orlando was left alone staring at the screen that still showed the shambling husk of his Master. With no one left to keep up appearances for, he let his neutral expression sag and thumped the lectern in front of him. Why hadn’t his Master confided in him? He could have helped. His Master wouldn’t have ended up this shadow of the man he had once so admired. And Orlando wouldn’t be tainted by association, fighting one of the most powerful person in the Guild just to have his chance.
On the screen Orlando’s Master fidgeted obliviously, his eyes clouded as he contemplated phantasms that were more real to him than the surrounding walls. Orlando’s lip curled. He understood that no one liked to contemplate the Lost and that burying the Guild’s failures deep was the established practice for an organisation whose wealth was in part derived from their aura of infallibility. Nevertheless, he wasn’t his Master. He would succeed.