Nick paced back and forth, footsteps silent on the porous floor. This room was so small…and it felt even smaller with the mirror mushrooms staring at him. Neck-high Nicks looked up at him, smiling. Arms flat against their sides. That was the way of mirrors.
What was he even doing here? To think—just a few weeks ago, he was no one. Speaking at small parties. A dot on the face of Ayphae.
The door opened. Nick spun to see a man with spiked gray hair enter. Jace Evanter. He wasn’t wearing the usual glittering gold suit—maybe it was too glitzy for the occasion? His gray suit was still buttoned, though.
“I see you’re early.” Jace smiled, though his eyes were sharp. “Please—take a seat.”
The seat. Nick jerked his head around to see a pair of cushioned chairs at the room’s edge. He made his way over, arms flat against his sides. Turning, he sat stiffly. He placed his palms against his legs—then shifted them to his knees. Then back to his legs.
“Make yourself comfortable. No need to be nervous.”
Really. Besides the fact that this was the biggest job of his career. Of course there was no need to be nervous. “You’ll forgive me if I feel otherwise.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised, at least.” Jace took a seat opposite the coffee table, facing Nick. He put his fingers together, crossing his legs. “I appreciate you coming in. I know you’re busy.”
More or less. Nick rubbed his palms against his pant legs, inhaling deeply. “M-hm. Yes, it was a little bit of trouble. But I’m glad you’re considering me.”
“Oh, don’t mention it.” Jace waved dismissively. “I heard about your success in Mycella City and figured I’d give you a try.”
That was his reasoning? “There are plenty of speakers in Mycella.”
“Ah.” Jace raised a finger. “But how many of them hail from Beaverton?”
“Bloomtier, actually.” Nick coughed into his fist. “Close, though.”
“Right. My bad.” Jace held up a hand, glancing at the mirrors. “Point is, you’ve come a long way. Halfway across Ayphae to speak at Mycella. It’s only fair that talent like you gets a shot at Obo City.”
Was it? “I’m not sure if…” Nick licked his lips. How could he put this? “I don’t think fairness is in question here.”
Jace chuckled. “I didn’t intend to make a philosophical statement. Pardon my presumption.”
“M-hm.” Was the host testing Nick? Nick leaned forward, putting his hands together. Should he start the conversation? “Listen. You called me here to ask me some questions?”
Jace grinned—though his eyes were still sharp. “That I did. I simply want to know what you’ll talk about. You see…” He let his voice trail off, waving his hand toward the mirrors. “I have a very difficult audience. They’ve heard a great deal of ideas—and I think they’re tired of hearing the same things over and over.”
Of course. Nick gave a sharp nod. “That will not be a problem.”
“Is that so?” Jace’s eyebrows went up. “And which candidate are you supporting for the election? It’s in only two months—so I assume you’ve got a horse picked out.”
Nick pressed his lips together. His eyes darted over to the mirrors—they were still staring at him, arms flat against their sides. They almost seemed to be studying him. He softened his voice. “I don’t have a candidate I’m voting for.”
Jace chuckled. “O-ho…here to tell us all the politicians are bad.”
“No.” Nick shook his head. He tapped his fingers together, focusing on them. How should he phrase this? “But they can’t solve the problems we face.”
“Really?” Jace leaned forward, eyes narrowed. His speech quickened. “And how would you justify that kind of statement before a polarized audience?”
“It’s about the obosas.” Nick stood quickly. “I’m sorry—I explain better when I’m walking. Now the obosas fuel the land—”
Jace raised a hand. “Don’t bother yourself. I don’t need to know the details.”
What? Nick put his hands behind his back. “Really.”
“I only need to know that you’re prepared to offer some kind of explanation for your viewpoint. I don’t even need to agree with it, frankly.” Jace waved dismissively, then leaned back. “And from your opening, I’d suspect you have something at least somewhat unique to say.”
This host was sharp. Nick raised his eyebrows. “Well then. Am I in?”
Jace chuckled, shaking his head. “Oh no, no—you need to show me that you know how to speak. No one appears on my show without oratory skill.”
Easy enough. “I trained under Mrs. Pistonbark. From—from Hyphae City.” That sounded much less impressive out loud. “She’s been tutoring for fifteen years.”
“Irrelevant.” Jace’s voice was low, his grin fading. “Show me.”
Nick swallowed. “Very well.” He opened his mouth—
“Address the mirrors, please.”
Ah. Pretending they were the audience. Nick nodded. “As you wish.” Straightening his shirt, he turned to the mirrors. “A few years ago, I was a pathfinder. I had a mission to tame green beat mushrooms while students from Budson University looked on.”
Jace stared at him, eyes narrowed. Fingers tapping against each other, legs still crossed. “Ignore me. I want you to be speaking as if before an audience.”
Fair enough. Nick straightened his shirt again—then cleared his throat. “The herd of drums was far bigger than we’d expected. We had a major problem. Students and pathfinders were injured in a stampede, and the group was split—we could have all died that day.”
It was so uncanny seeing an audience of Nicks. Each mirror mushroom might have been exactly like him—if it weren’t shorter. But now one of them was making faces at him.
“Our troop leader made some tough decisions that day. Decisions that saved us.”
Another mirror looked like it was sleeping standing up. A few others yawned.
“We could’ve avoided the whole disaster simply by sending out more scouts at the beginning. We would’ve seen the big herds attempting to merge, seen the problem—” Nick spread his hands, grasping at the air, “—solved it. Just like that.”
One mirror rolled its eyes. Two of the mirrors were chatting silently.
“They’re bored.” Jace was leaning on one hand, an eyebrow cocked. “And I don’t blame them.”
“Of course they are.” Nick indicated the mirrors with his thumb. “Mirrors don’t relate to personal experience the way real people do.”
“Actually, these mirrors have read the minds of my audiences repeatedly. They’ve been programmed to imitate my typical audience on a Friday night.”
Nick blinked. “What?”
“If they don’t like you, neither will my audience.”
This was so unfair. Nick balled his fists—then softened his voice. “That—are you sure?”
“It’s not that your story is boring. You’re just taking too long.”
“And how long do you expect your audience to sit for a speech?”
“Half an hour. Maybe forty-five minutes.” Jace uncrossed his legs—then crossed them the other way. “But you need to be interesting.”
A chirping noise. Mirror mushrooms always chirped when they laughed.
“I’ve been interesting. You said my story wasn’t boring. And—” Nick licked his lips, glancing at the ceiling, “Look. Is my story interesting or not?”
“It’s great.” Jace shrugged. “But why should I care? What are you even trying to say? Without direction, your audience has no idea what to think.”
“Why would they—” then Nick understood. His shoulders lowered. “They need to know what I believe first.”
“Get to the point.” Jace smiled, holding his palm out. “You see, my guests love debate. The sooner they know your position, the better. They can start processing it, turning it around in their minds—seeing if they disagree with you or not.”
That made sense. A great deal of sense. Nick nodded, his cheeks tingling with heat. His eyes wandered over to the mirrors. “Fair enough.”
“So they need to hear your position first. Then you can give them an anecdote to back yourself up.”
Of course. Nick wasn’t used to this kind of audience. “I’ll—I suppose I’ll try that approach then.”
“You certainly will.” Jace swept a hand toward the mirrors. “Go ahead and try again.”
Try again. Nick turned to the mirrors, hands behind his back. The mirrors straightened, giving him their full attention. They were resetting their expectations. But a real audience wouldn’t do that. He’d only get one shot come showtime.
“You want change. You want progress.” Nick pursed his lips, muscles tensed. “Where does that come from? Where do you think real societal change can stem?”
He paced back and forth, eyes darting across the mirror Nicks. “I’ll tell you. It comes from you.” He jabbed his finger at a mirror. “Your heart.”
Now the mirrors were paying attention. Some exchanged glances, eyebrows raised. A few seemed taken aback.
No matter. Nick would keep speaking. “I used to be a pathfinder—but I saw the destructiveness of apathy. Of no one really caring or performing their responsibilities.” He stopped pacing and turned to face the mirrors. “And I decided I’d had enough.”
“Good!” Jace patted one palm in a polite clap, grinning. “Much better. I can tell they’re interested.”
Some of the mirrors were even leaning forward. Others were scratching their chins, glancing at each other.
“Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they agree with you,” Jace held up his hands as if apologizing, “but I can guarantee they’ll think about what you’re saying.”
That was good enough. Nick put his hands behind his back, dipping his chin. “I hope so.” His kept his voice soft. “I want them to really consider it.”
“Of course, of course.” Jace shrugged—then leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “But you can’t really guarantee that, can you?”
“No.” Nick swallowed, gazing at the mirrors. “I can’t.”
“And that’s the adventure of speaking—isn’t it?” Jace spread his hands. “You never know what you’ll get with your audience.”
“It is.” Nick licked his lips. “Until they throw things at you.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be concerned about that. They’re a bit harsh—but probably nothing you haven’t dealt with already.”
Nick gave a light shrug. “Probably.”
“Now—” Jace uncrossed his legs, then stood. “About the payment. All speakers at my auditorium are prepaid.”
Nick’s eyebrows shot up. Did that mean… “I’m hired?”
“Yes.” Jace rubbed his chin. “You’re a fascinating individual, Nickolar Elegard. Full of mystery.”
Especially since Jace hadn’t let him finish his speech. Sure, why not. “I see.”
“You’ll be a thought-provoking speaker for the Election’s Eve Party.” The host offered his hand. “Particularly with your brand-new take on politics.”
Nick stared at Jace’s hand, lips pursed. Was that it? Was he only fascinating for his ideas? He hesitated—then grasped Jace’s hand firmly and gave it a shake. “I hope that’s the case.”