September 7, 2014 by Lyn Thorne-Alder
“Don’t do that.” Enerenarie glared at Tairiekie. “Just call me Enrie, all right, everyone else does. I’m not a Grace, anyway.”
“You’re of the royal family.” Tairiekie tried not to flinch away. Couldn’t she do anything at all right? The curtsey had been exactly right, she knew it! She’d practiced for her last exam.
“The royal family. Right. Seventy-three times removed from the Emperor, on a cadet branch, and on my father’s side.” She snapped it off as if she’d said it three thousand times. Tairiekie, failing at the not-cringing, thought she probably had.
“I beg your pardon.” She took refuge in manners. “It was not my intention to be anything but polite.”
“This place is like that.” The presumed third member of their team finally spoke up, bringing Tairiekie’s attention to him. Once she did, she could see why he’d chosen to stay quiet.
She’d never seen one up close before. Of course there were a few everywhere; this long after the war, the populations had begun to merge a little bit. The royal family’s nose, for instance, was an indication of the place the interbreeding had occurred the most commonly.
This boy, though – he looked like something out of one of her History books. He was holding History Red, purple and blue uniforms, too, Tairiekie noted, which made her glance at Enerenarie’s uniform. Purple, teal, and red. Her gaze tracked the banners. The purple-fielded banner sported a ram-horn-twisted talking stick and a scroll case. That had to be Diplomacy, then. She looked back to the boy. “Like that? Like what?” Prodding him with a question meant that she could actually look at him without being rude.
“It’s full of traps, where everything you say turns into the wrong thing.” He was blonde: blonde, his hair the color of the beach, his skin the color of a raw parsnip, and he was huge, taller that her or Enerenarie, with giant
hands like cooking pans. “You say hello and people think you’re challenging them.”
“It’s not a problem, really. I didn’t mean to do that. Ah, sorry. Zhad… no, sorry. Saydrie, this is Tairiekie, from Amenet. Amenet is up in the North and west, past Lanamer. Tairiekie, this is Saydrie. He’s from so far south he can see the Child Islands from his house.”
“Not quite that far. But I have seen them.” He was wearing brown, too, and a muddy purple as a shirt, and his buttons ran straight down the middle of his shirt. “I’ve visited them, too. Ah. Hello.” He set down his uniforms, offered both hands, then shifted and offered his right hand normally. “Saydrie, as her Grace — as Enrie said. Pleased to meet you.”
Tairiekie shook his hand. “Tairiekie. You can call me Taikie. Pleased to meet you, too.”
“They definitely wanted to shake things up with our groupings, now didn’t they?” Enrie gestured at the three of them. “Diplomacy, History, and Mechanics isn’t a group you’d expect to see together, although I suppose it’s better than, say, Alchemy, History, and Mechanics. If that was the case, we’d spend all our time arguing about the aether, instead of half of it arguing about aether and half arguing about history.”
“I don’t want to argue with anyone.” Saydrie sighed. “I really just want to go home.” He picked up his uniform, looking at it dolefully. “Where the clothes look normal.”
For what had to be the seventeen-thousandth time that day, Tairiekie found
herself interrupted before she could ask a question. “He’s from one of the Bitrani national enclaves.” Enrie managed to speak quietly enough that it was likely only Saydrie and Tairiekie could hear her, without looking like she was being sneaky. Tairiekie was going to have to learn that trick. “They still hold to the old religion of Bithrain and a lot of the old traditions, too.”
“Is that…” Tairiekie weighed the risks of looking like a fool again against the reward of learning more about her teammate. “Is that allowed?”
Saydrie startled her by answering – and by not sounding offended or condescending. “It’s allowed, as long as we follow seven pages of regulations and agree to send our best students to the Academies for ‘education.’ But if we digress from that, then the enclaves are broken up and sent all over the country. That happened to my mother’s brother’s enclave, back when I was a kid. I don’t want it to happen to my home.”
“Oh. I…” She closed her mouth with a snap.
“There’s some pretty awful stuff if you know where to look, isn’t there?” Enrie was smiling. Why was she smiling? “But he’s here now, and everything will be better, right?”
“Storm-shat-out blobs of useless aether, it’s a Byittie. Why don’t you go home to your boring, drab little hut and leave the school to the proper people, Byittie? Why don’t you leave the good people to do what they worked so hard for, and not sit here taking up a slot in *our *school?”
Tairiekie didn’t recognize the boy – in yellow, teal, and blue, what was that? Brush and chisel, ah, it must be Arts – but she recognized the slur from earlier and the tone from people in her old school.
It seemed that Enrie did too. “What, did one of your friends not make the cut? Couldn’t pass the tests? Couldn’t pay the fees?”
“If there were more slots, if crap-eaters like this hadn’t taken up useful positions, then more people would be able to come to Edally. If this little misbred son of a mountain lion and a hornless goat wasn’t here, then yeah, my friends would have been able to come here.” The boy jutted his chin out belligerently. His hands were curled into fists at his hips.
Enrie appeared unconcerned. “I believe you’re going to have to face it. Some people simply aren’t cut out for higher education. The Academy is, after all, an institution of Higher Learning. If your friend couldn’t pass the tests, he wasn’t going to be able to pass the tests, no matter how many slots were open.” She sounded bored. That was the oddest part. She was attacking the creep, and yet, even doing that, she sounded miserable and filled with ennui. It was going to be a long year, if nothing at all excited her.
“You don’t know anything about me! You don’t know anything about my friends!” The boy, on the other hand, was definitely easy to excite.
“I can read your entire story on your face, on the cut of your boring vest and your even more boring shirt, on the way your boring braids are plaited. I can read everything important about you before you even open your mouth, and then you open your mouth and remove absolutely all doubt.” Enerenarie yawned.
“It’s all right, Enerenarie.” Saydrie surprised Tairiekie every time he opened his mouth; she was going to have to get used to that, too. “They’re right. The quota students fill a slot, and that’s not fair to anyone, us included. But they’re welcome to see my test scores, if they want. They’re welcome to take a test with me. Someone from my enclave had to come, but I’m not a quota student.”
Everyone was staring at Saydrie. Not just the Art students; Enrie’s mouth was actually open a little. Tairiekie didn’t know what was going on, but she didn’t think it was good in any way.
For one thing, the boy with the “boring braids” and the “boring vest” and the “boring shirt” – they really were, too; at least Saydrie had a reason for the way he was dressed – was clenching his boring fists even tighter. And behind him, there was another boy, carrying a yellow, teal, and blue uniform, who also had his fists ready. This could get violent, and she did not want things to get violent – especially not while her parents were still there.
She stepped up between her teammates. “We all got in. The Empress Edaledalende Academy of Higher Learning at Ileltedez does not, as far as I know, take back its admissions. Does it?”
The yellow, teal and blue set looked at her cautiously. The one in front shook his head, slowly but in the negative. “No. They don’t change their mind. They haven’t, ever, in over a thousand years.”
“So it doesn’t matter, does it? He’s in, and he’s your year-mate and ours. What comes next is what matters.” Tairiekie pulled up her best smile, the one she’d used when she’d gotten to the top of the mountain, the one she would use when she got to the top of the Mechanics and Engineering Tower. “If you have a problem with us, do better than us in classes.”
She had them. She could tell. They had that look on their faces, not quite a frown, their eyes squinched. She had them.
“That’s quite enough of that. What did I tell you about teamwork? Is this teamwork? No, this is more fishing for a suffix when you should be worried about your teammates and your class group. You, boys, back to your corner. You, girl. What are you doing? Why are you doing it?”
The House Monitor hated her. Tairiekie didn’t know why, but the House Monitor definitely had a grudge against her, one that was quickly growing embarrassing. She cleared her throat and looked up at the Monitor.
“I was simply explaining to the students from Art House that there was no need for griping and complaining, ma’am.”
Saydrie stepped forward to her left. “She was engaging in teamwork, ma’am.” His voice sounded a lot stronger than it normally did. “Our team was working together.”
“And what, exactly, was your team working together on?”
And now it was Enrie’s turn. With the same bored voice with which she’d declaimed everything to date, Enrie drawled out an answer. “We were working on explaining the difference between a quota and someone who just happens to come from the far south. And the difference between a rational competition and one born out of a boring sense of injustice and an incorrect feeling that the world has wronged you.”
The way she bent words! Tairiekie wanted to stare in awe. No wonder she was in Diplomacy House!
Even the House Monitor coughed. “Well, then. There will be enough time for that later. For now, this way. Into your class groups. There is still more to do, more to discover, more to be instructed upon today. This way.” She flapped her hands at the three of them, and, obediently, they went.
“You’re very good at that.” Tairiekie murmured it out of the corner of her mouth the Enrie.
“You think pretty fast on your feet, too.” Enrie nodded her head, a faint smile touching her lips.
“Why did you stand up for me?” Saydrie found a place to the other side of Tairiekie and leaned in, making a closed circle of the three of them. “Nobody wants the Bitrani here.”
Tairiekie shrugged. “You’re in our team, right?” Why had she defended him? Because Enrie had first?
“We’re in a team together.” His agreement was very carefully constructed, and for the first time, Tairiekie wondered if he had grown up speaking another language. Did people still speak Bitrani? She’d thought it was a dead language. “But that did not mean you had to risk a fight.”
Risk a fight. Tairiekie laughed first, but Enrie was just a moment behind her, and it was Enrie who actually answered.
“Risk? I would have liked it if they’d have tried. Did you see the way he was holding his fists?”
“Did you see the way his friend hadn’t even thought to put his clothes down?” Tairiekie giggled. “It wasn’t going to be much of a fight.”
“But you forestalled it.” Saydrie bowed at both of them, the gesture looking deep, formal, and archaic the way he did it. “Why?”
Why, indeed, and again. Tairiekie caught Enrie’s gaze for a moment, and then they looked back to their teammate together.
“Because,” she pieced it out, “we’re a team. And if we are going to excel at this Academy, we are going to do teamwork better than anyone else.”
“Up to an including picking fights with Art House students.” Enrie grinned. “Oh, the horror.”
She held out a hand to each of them. “A team.”
Saydrie hesitated, and Enrie watched him, her own hand hovering over Tairiekie’s.
“A team,” he agreed finally, and pressed his hand into hers. Enrie grabbed Tairiekie’s other hand.
“A team.” It had a lovely sound to it. Maybe even as good as top of the class.