From his splintery chair on the stage, Benjamin watched students, faculty, and parents settle uneasily into their assigned seats. He resisted the urge to bounce his knee up and down, since the stage creaked loudly and it would give away his nerves, but his heart pounded loudly in his chest anyway. Under the heat of the afternoon sun, family members blistered below on shaky wooden benches in the stone courtyard while the students and faculty melted on the temporary stage. Everyone scowled at their neighbors and eyed the exits in case the graduation ceremony turned ugly, which was a viable risk with so many villains gathered in one spot.
Benjamin glared at the sun, wiping away an errant trickle of sweatfrom his temple. The sweltering heat only added to the tension among the feuding villains who came to watch future generations join their ranks. Despite the graduation pact each attendee signed before entering the Villains’ Academy grounds, some blood was always spilled. It was too tempting to settle old scores and bump off rivals. Benjamin scanned the crowd. Sweat trailed down their dusty faces, leaving clean streaks behind.
When Headmaster Greely stood, all eyes flicked to him. Benjamin glanced over his shoulder at the boys sitting behind him. He had no intention of getting stabbed in the back. There was a very limited amount of decent employment opportunities for fresh graduates, and taking out the top graduate would open the door for a lesser villain, but they just grinned foolishly at each other and waved at their families. An ache spread through Benjamin’s chest as he gazed at the crowd below. He didn’t have any living family. In fact, he didn’t know any living person outside the academy’s walls.
His father, the famous Black-Eyed Barnaby, had perished before Benjamin was born. His mother’s death, mere weeks before school had started, finalized Benjamin’s decision to attend the Villains’ Academy. He imagined her sitting in an aisle seat close to the back. She would have been smirking, and her indigo eyes would have glowed with plans for his future, knowing that only half his journey was done. However, instead of his mother, some jittery gentleman with a goat’s beard sat fiddling with the knives he had illegally smuggled in to the graduation ceremony under his sleeves.
Benjamin shifted his disappointed gaze to the back of Headmaster Greely’s head as he mumbled along in a strained way at the podium. Benjamin tugged on his sleeve, his fingers brushing against his own secret knife. It was rumored that an assassination attempt on Greely’s life had been foiled just this very morning. Ah, well.
“We would like to acknowledge the students unable to attend these ceremonies due to a truly ill-timed outbreak of influenza,” Greely said with a straight face, “and others who failed to follow the points of the graduation pact that we all signed.”
Got caught, you mean. Benjamin smirked at the three empty seats between him and the podium. Considering it was a school intended for the most promising villains on the Thieves’ Plain, Benjamin felt his peers were fairly inept. Everyone seemed to either get caught or killed a little too easily. Most of the traps his peers set for him were tripped before Benjamin even had to worry about springing them. He had never been caught. However, he tried to stay humble about his prowess; spouting off about your successes usually got you killed.
Benjamin surveyed the area around him. Sunlight glinted on tripwires around his chair. He glanced back over his shoulder. A few thug-sized boys glared back. Sven, the one with the biggest biceps, drew his long finger across his throat. Benjamin slid his knife out with a sigh and easily dismantled their booby traps. After all, he had expected some reprisals for being named valedictorian.
A rare breeze brushed across Benjamin’s damp forehead. Before it could die, he slid a small envelope out of his other sleeve and drew a deep breath. He raised his hand in a mock scratch to his ear and released a fine powder on the breeze while holding his breath. Nothing serious, just something to cloud the plotting minds behind him. Everyone would be in a stupor just long enough for him to make a clean getaway after his speech. He slipped the envelope back up his sleeve and slowly exhaled.
“Our original valedictorian is among those unable to attend,” said Headmaster Greely, barely intelligible. “We thank Benjamin Black who has graciously prepared a short last-minute address in his place. Benjamin?”
Benjamin stood up and checked the audience and graduates behind him for sudden movements or furtive glances. His fellow graduates already seemed safely befuddled in a fog bank. The parents and other villains were too busy looking over their own shoulders to be a threat. Benjamin shook Greely’s offered hand—after checking the headmaster’s palms for poisons first, of course.
Greely threatened him through clenched teeth, “And by short I mean short, or there may not be any survivors.”
Point taken. Benjamin swallowed dryly as he examined the dart that had just struck the side of podium. It was most likely poisoned. Looking up, he locked eyes, as it were, with a one-eyed man sitting dead center in the front row. The man’s eye patch glistened in the shadow of his hood while iron hair drizzled down his pale face to his shoulders. Unsettled by such straightforward attention, Benjamin choked over his introduction and skipped straight to the end line. “If we survive today, we can conquer tomorrow!”
This was met with general cheers from the audience and a few slurred outbursts from the graduates behind him. One dazed boy fell onto his neighbor and was then reflexively shoved to the floor, sparking a scuffle on the stage.
Benjamin took advantage of the confusion and slinked past the graduates, sidestepping a few poorly aimed fists and knives. Some graduates were crawling under chairs. Benjamin crouched at the back of the stage to cast a cautious glance behind him. The cloaked man watched Benjamin as families scrambled to the exits. An assassin? A knot tightened in Benjamin’s chest, but the man did not move. The idea of an assassin coming after him was incredibly unlikely; no one else knew who his father was, not even Greely.
Benjamin slid down the back side of the stage, scraping his spine on the exposed wood. He winced as he checked under the stage, his back still throbbing. He saw no one lurking among the wooden supports. All was clear. Benjamin staggered through the cobbled courtyard where the students had gathered earlier to mount the stage. There were a few grubby packs tucked away in the corners, but days before, Benjamin had stashed his pack outside the walls of the academy. No sense in taking chances now. Benjamin sneaked through the gates just as a scream sent a chill through him.
A few days later, Benjamin sprang out of bed, too restless to stay in bed any longer, though the sun had barely come up. He fumbled with his crisp, new black suit as he wadded it up, wrapped it in the dusty rug from the floor, and jumped on it. He dressed in the now- rumpled suit and rubbed chalk strategically on his elbows and knees. No one wanted to hire someone who was afraid to get dirty. He closed the wardrobe door and glanced into the mirror. Benjamin looked small for his sixteen years, and therefore, people often
underestimated him. Their mistake.
Benjamin wished once more that his warm, brown eyes held just a
speck of the cold intensity of his mother’s stormy blue eyes. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. I can do this. I will do this! He shook the tension out of his hands. His interview today was just another step on the path to becoming the greatest villain’s assistant the Thieves’ Plain had ever known, just like his father, Black-Eyed Barnaby.
His late father had assisted the archvillain Shreb the First to tame the lesser villains of the plain. No one stole a turnip without Shreb the First’s permission, because Black-Eyed Barnaby made sure there were consequences otherwise. That kind of order had not existed on the Thieves’ Plain before or since Benjamin’s father reigned beside the archvillain First. Now it was up to Benjamin to continue his father’s work.
He shoved an apple into the pocket of his jacket for his breakfast later; for once he wasn’t hungry. He plucked a sleek black eye patch off the kitchen table and hesitated. Eye patches could look pathetic if they weren’t done right; he’d seen obvious fakes before. So he shoved it in his pocket and headed outside.
Benjamin locked the door to his hideout and tucked the key into a knothole above the door. He then stepped back and surveyed the small house where he spent his early days with his mother. A broken shutter leaned from the front window. It was as sun-bleached and shabby as the rest of the shack. He turned to hurry past the front gate that lay broken to the side, nearly grown over with crisp weeds. This place had always been more of a hideout than a home, but it was his. It was someplace he could return if things got bad.
Benjamin’s heart pounded in his throat as he picked his way through the overgrown path to the road. Branches pricked at his jacket and scraped his scalp. He rarely used this path anymore. He’d resided at the Villains’ Academy for the last five years, except on holidays when he returned here to eat toast and hard cheese alone. And now he was going to a job interview with Shreb II, the son of the archvillain his own father had worked for.
He was now well on the way to following in his father’s dark footsteps, like his mother had always wished. No one seemed to know much about Black-Eyed Barnaby besides his exploits for the great archvillain Shreb the First, including Benjamin’s mother. She seemed unable or unwilling to answer even simple questions like what his favorite cheese had been. That won’t help you become a better villain, she would say.
“I can’t believe I’m finally going,” Benjamin said, smiling to himself.
Benjamin’s excitement fell as his feet hit the dust of the main road. A man with gray streaks in his dark hair stood in the road, staring at the Sunrise Mountains that marked the boundary of the Thieves’ Plain from the rest of the kingdom of Lam. The boundary had been made by King Aldo’s father, King Zavier, in order to dispel the corruption and filth that had infected his kingdom and threatened his crown. Usurpers and villains were pushed to the Thieves’ Plain and left to the mercy of the archvillain’s rule. The plain began drying into a dustbowl the day after Lam was split in half, so life was hard, and people had to steal and kill just to survive.
“Interview with Shreb?” the old man asked over his shoulder.
“Uh, the Mighty Shreb? Yes.” Benjamin glanced quickly around. There was no one else on the road. “He doesn’t like to be…” He stopped himself. Why should he be handing out free advice? Let the nosy old man find out the hard way how Shreb II liked to be addressed.
“That’s where I’m headed too. Safety in numbers.” The man turned to face him, revealing a black eye patch encrusted with small rubies.
Benjamin took a step back and was relieved that he hadn’t chosen to wear his eye patch. He took a step toward Shreb’s fortress, not knowing what to do and hoping it didn’t show. Maybe he could outpace the old man and leave him behind. Unfortunately, the old man didn’t take the hint and stepped in beside him.
“Good day for an interview. This your first one?” The old man traced the edge of his eye patch with a grimy finger.
Benjamin turned and tripped over his own feet, kicking up a sizable dust cloud that sent him into a hard coughing fit. The villain waited until Benjamin’s coughs stopped to continue talking.
“How did I know this is your first time? And that you’re going to Shreb’s?” The old man chuckled and steered clear of the dust cloud around Benjamin. “As easily as you can tell that I’ve been at this for a while. Besides, that’s the only place anyone’s going.”
“You don’t look like the type who would be looking for employment.” Benjamin hacked a few more times as he examined the man’s faded black suit.
“Worried about a little competition?” The old villain chuckled. “No worries. Let’s say I’m more curious than serious.”
Benjamin stopped to eye the one-eyed man. “You’re spying for your employer, then?”
The old villain walked on silently, not answering the question. Benjamin trailed behind. The old man tugged at the strap wrapped around his head and glanced behind them toward the mountains and then back to the road ahead, turning his head slightly to study Benjamin.
Maybe the old man will need to rest soon, and then I can ditch him.
“What position are you trying for, entry-level grunt work?” the villain asked, trying not to sound too interested and failing.
Heat bloomed in Benjamin’s cheeks. Why did everyone assume he was an incapable, just because he was young? He didn’t have time for grunt work. “I’m trying for villain’s assistant.”
The old man rubbed his chin as he stole a few sideways glances at Benjamin. “Well, you are ambitious.”
The villain slipped into a thoughtful silence. Benjamin tried to look unconcerned. So, of course, he felt self-conscious of every step he took and how he held his head and where he looked. The scoundrel probably wasn’t truly interested in him. Still, Benjamin felt there was something off with him. What if he wanted to steal Benjamin from the Mighty Shreb? He was the only employer acceptable to him right now. Benjamin slowly increased his pace.
The villain pulled out a flask and drank, and then tucked it back into his pocket. A flask! Why didn’t I think of that? Benjamin’s mouth felt like a dry riverbed. There was a well along the road, but a good VA drank from a flask to avoid poisoning. His life and job depended on it.
“I’d offer you my flask, but we both know that’s not going to happen. Don’t worry, there’s a well around the corner.”
“So why the VA position?”
“It’s the timing. I just graduated valedictorian from my class at the
Villains’ Academy.” And my dad used to work for his dad. Benjamin shrugged. “I can handle it. Plus, it’s what I want to do.”
“Sort of like fate, huh?”
Benjamin nodded and clutched the eye patch in his pocket.
“Fate can be a cruel taskmaster, kid. You still have other choices.” “I’m not a kid,” Benjamin snipped. “I’m sixteen.”
The villain adjusted his eye patch but didn’t respond.
“Wait. Is that some sort of job offer, or are you just trying to get me out of the way?” Benjamin asked.
He stopped and faced the villain, who seemed to be considering how to answer. “Navigating these interviews can be tricky. It’s nice to have someone to watch your back.” The villain’s good eye, a pale-brown one, flicked away for a moment before burrowing into Benjamin. “I want you to know that if you need help, you can trust me.”
Benjamin stiffened. Trust was a loaded word around here. The villain stepped back slowly while maintaining eye contact, and then turned and walked off toward Shreb’s Fortress alone. Benjamin stood and watched the villain’s suit until the man was a dark smudge on the road.
Benjamin tapped his foot in the fine road dust and pulled out his apple and crunched into it, while he decided what to do next. The juices were not as satisfying as he had hoped, but it was all he had.
“Good riddance,” he said, peering up the empty road ahead of him. But the cold lump in his chest said otherwise. This wasn’t school anymore. He just might need help. He picked up his pace so he could keep the old man in sight. Benjamin had never witnessed a successful alliance in school, but here in the real world, there were no points handed out for the best betrayal. He shoved his apple back into his pocket and scrambled to catch up.