Hello, humans of Terribleminds. I’d like to introduce you to Emma Newman, a lovely and wonderful new talent I met at Worldcon. She asked if I’d host one of her Split Worlds stories here, and further said that she’d even use this past week’s flash fiction challenge — “The Novice Revenges the Rhythm” — as inspiration. Below, you’ll find the story. You can find Emma at her website, and on Twitter (@emapocalyptic). She is the author of Between Two Thorns, upcoming from Angry Robot Books. Now: onto Emma!
This is the thirtieth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. This story is part of the build-up to the release of the first Split Worlds novel “Between Two Thorns” in March 2013. Every week a new story is released. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.where you can also sign up to receive each story free in your inbox every week (starting at the very first one).
Kay was expecting a stern glare when she arrived at her tutorial ten minutes late, not a smile and a note handed to her as soon as she walked in. The excuses she’d lined up – some of which were actually true – proved unnecessary.
The note read; ‘Please send Kay Hyde to Convocation House A.S.A.P. Regards, Rupert’.
“He’s a close friend of the Chancellor apparently,” the don said.
“But what about the tutorial?”
“We’ll reschedule. Go!”
After a brisk five minute walk across central Oxford she knocked on the huge wooden door of Convocation House, shivering in the fog that had been clinging to the city for the last two days. The door was opened by a man wearing scruffy jeans and a hoodie, not the member of university staff she was expecting.
“Yes, I was told to-”
“I thought you’d be a bloke.”
“Well… I’m not.”
He ushered her in and slammed the door shut. It wasn’t much warmer inside. “Forgot how bloody cold this place gets in November.” He held out a hand. “I’m Rupert.”
They shook hands as he pulled his hood down. He was barely older than most of her friends, a DPhil student at a push. She expected a friend of the Chancellor of Oxford University to be a jowly man in his fifties, not someone who looked like he was on his way to the kebab van.
“You wanted to see me?”
He beckoned her further in and she looked up at the vaulted ceiling. It really was a beautiful space. “A little bird told me you’re the best person at cryptic crosswords in the whole university,” he led her past the little sign which read ‘No Entry Beyond This Point’ and sat down on one of the wooden benches. He patted a space next to him.
She sat. “The best? I don’t know about that. I like doing them.”
He reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. “What do you make of this?”
She looked at him before reading it. “Is it true you’re a friend of the Chancellor?”
He grinned. “Oh yeah. Really, we’re best mates. We go way back. Speaking of which, your surname, Hyde…”
She braced herself for the inevitable bad joke.
“Are you a descendant of Edward Hyde by any chance?”
Kay nodded, now a little creeped out. “Yeah.”
“He was an amazing bloke. By all accounts. But you’re studying English Lit, not law.”
“Who are you?”
Rupert waved a hand at her question. “Just a history nerd. Read the clue. I’m stumped, I really am.”
“A novice revenges the rhythm,” Kay read out loud. “I don’t remember that one, which paper was the crossword in?”
“You remember all the crosswords you do?”
She nodded. “Most useless superpower ever.” She read the clue a couple of times. “How many letters does it have?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “This isn’t a crossword clue, is it?”
“It’s more a riddle,” he said, spreading his hands. “Yeah, that’s a better way to put it. Sorry. I gave the wrong impression. But your leet skills should still come in useful.”
“I should be in a tutorial you know.”
“Trust me, this is far, far more important.”
“For me or for you?”
He laughed and it echoed around the freezing chamber. “So go on, what do you think the answer is?”
Kay shook her head. “It’s written a bit like a crossword clue but there’s usually more of a hint about how to solve it, and I’m just not seeing that here. It’s more like something Google Translate would come up with, or someone pissing about with a random sentence generator. Hang on, did someone send this to you?”
He pressed his lips tight together for a moment. “Maybe. Yes.”
“Ah, then we’re missing something. What else did they say?”
Rupert scrunched up his lips for a few moments, then shrugged. “It can’t hurt,” he muttered and fished something out of his back pocket.
At first Kay thought it was a piece of paper, but it was too heavy. She unrolled it, feeling its texture with her thumb. “Is this vellum?”
The ink looked fresh. “Your friend must be a real eccentric.”
“Only half of that statement is true.”
“Ah, okay, now we’ve got something to work with,” Kay said. “Your friend wrote; ‘First and foremost, I am the most intelligent of all of us. Here is a simple proof.’ He sounds like a bit of a tosser. No offense.”
“None taken, never was a truer word spoken.”
Kay got her pen and notebook from her bag and wrote the clue out, one word to a line. “Okay… let’s see…”
She tried a variety of ideas, but the third one felt right. “I think I have it. I think ‘first and foremost’ is telling you to use the 1st and 4th letters of each word. Ignoring ‘A’ and ‘the’ because they don’t have enough letters, we get Ni, Re and Rh which could be-”
“Nickel, Rhodium and Rhenium! Elements from the periodic table!” Rupert leapt up and punched the air. “Yes! Get in! That’s it. Ekstrand is going to be so-” he stopped, as if remembering that she was still there. “That’s why he said a simple proof. Another word for elementary. Right?”
Kay nodded. “He might be a tosser but I like the way he makes riddles. So… is that all you needed?”
Rupert clasped her hand with both of his and shook it enthusiastically. “I really do appreciate your help. Listen, every month I like to get people together, students, researchers… people from the university. We chat and have a drink… it’s secret though. Exclusive. I want you to come.”
Kay stood and slung her bag over her shoulder. “So Oxford really does have a proper secret society?”
“Oh dozens,” Rupert smiled. “But mine’s the best one.”