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Chapter Eight: Far From the Best

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September 8, 2014 by Lyn Thorne-Alder

“And remember, you have your first test tomorrow. Study hard: the first test often indicates how the rest of year will proceed.”

Their Introduction to Diplomacy Instructor waved cheerfully at them, her long sleeves flapping. Tairiekie resisted the urge to sigh, and instead gathered her books and turned to her teammates.

“We need a quiet place to study.”

“Not my dorm’s common room. I think they’re all getting all the gossip you’re not allowed as a true Diplomat out of their system their first year.” Enrie rolled her eyes. “They never stop talking.”

“Not my dorm.” Saydrie hunched in on himself, then popped back up as soon as the girls looked at him. “I mean…”

“You mean not your dorm. It’s fine.” They’d met a few more members of the History and Philosophy House and none of them seemed like the friendliest sort. Then again, most of Tairiekie’s House had an unfortunate habit of talking about her Bitrani teammate as her “sea anchor” or her “goat hobbles”. “Possibly not my dorm, either.”

“So not in a tower. What does that leave? The courtyard didn’t work that well…” Enrie frowned. “And the Library only works if I finish teaching you both the gesture-language.”

In the week they’d been in classes, they had tried to meet in every place they could think of. The courtyard and the Library had been two of their first attempts; their later tries had met with even less success.

“We haven’t tried the stables yet.” The idea didn’t so much come to Tairiekie as it hit her between the eyes. “They’ll be dry and quiet at least.”

“They smell like goat.”

“They smell like goat, yes, but they don’t smell of obnoxious third-year students.” Tairiekie looked down at her books in woe. “And I’m going to need a lot of studying. Do you feel like the upperclassmen are trying to make it harder on you to study?”

“Every clock-tick of every day.” Saydrie flopped against the wall. “Every heart-beat of every night.”

“Saydrie, are they still giving you trouble?” Tairiekie frowned. “I know the first couple nights…”

The first couple nights, the upperclassmen in Akaizen House had been running up and down the stairs all night, shouting and whooping and making it impossible to sleep. House Monitor Libkazaari had been, her roommates reported, unhelpful.

It wasn’t just Akaizen, she’d learned. It was all of the upperclassmen, everywhere. The only useful comment on it had come from Instructor Rintegarai, the teacher of Rudimentary Needlework and Leather-Binding Techniques.

“They don’t like competition.” The woman, as lean as one of her leather cords and as brown, hadn’t been looking at any of them as she spoke. She might as well have been talking about the weather. “They forget – or remember too well – what it was like to be a first-year student, and they’d rather send you all packing to your mothers and fathers before you grow enough to challenge them in the rankings. Never remembering, the way all must remember, that the old gives way to the new and becomes it at the same time.”

That had gotten the group whispering, but Instructor Rintegarai had ignored it, and gone on with her lecture as if she’d said nothing at all of interest.

After a few days, the noise-making had settled down, the older students either accepting their place as the old or simply getting too busy to run up and down stairs all night.

Saydrie, she realized, hadn’t really answered. He was shrugging again, but he spent much of his life shrugging.

“Not the same. But they can be sort of…” He paused, and muttered a word that had to be Bitrani; a glance at Enrie confirmed that it wasn’t a nice word at all.

“We can try studying in the stables, then.” The idea was growing on her. “The stable master seems nice and it’s warm in there all the time.”

“It smells like goats.”

“I’ll bring a little of that incense you like so much. I don’t think the goats will mind it.”

And now both her teammates were smiling and nobody was arguing with her. Tairiekie decided to feel proud of herself for a moment. “We’ll meet there just past the six o’clock bell.”

And, just as the bell began to clang out its six resounding chimes and thirty-six notes of song, Tairiekie slid through the back door of the stables, carrying her books and a small incense burner.

“…and I know that it’s an imposition, but maybe if we could just use the stall that doesn’t have any goats in it right now?”

She would, she thought, eventually get over being surprised when she heard Saydrie talking. Not today, however. Today she stopped in her tracks, and then made herself walk forward –

– and nearly walked into Enrie. The other girl put a finger on her lips and tilted her head at Saydrie. He was standing, shoulders back, actually looking like he knew how to stand up straight, talking to the stable-master.

“Just the three of you?” The man had a glacier beard, one that was grey-and-white on the top and yellow on the bottom, and long braids to match, wrapped up on his head like a turban. “Just to study, no pranks?”

“No pranks. I swear it on the blessings of the Three.”

“Well, Bitri boy like you, that means something. All right, you and your little team can study here, s’long as the goats don’t start to complain. No pranks, mind you.”

“No pranks.” Saydrie repeated himself patiently. “We just need someplace quiet.”

“And clever of you, to think of the stables.”

“Oh, that wasn’t me. But thank you again, sir.” Saydrie bowed. “The girls should be here soon.”

“I think they just walked in.” The stable master waved at Enrie and Tairiekie. “Hello, girls, are you this young man’s teammates?”

How long had he known they were there? Well, no use denying it. Tairiekie stepped forward and bowed. “Yes, sir. Tairiekie of House Akaizen, sir, and this is Enerenarie of House Estiessyaa.”

“Well, as long as you don’t bother the goats, you’re welcome to use an empty stall to study in. Warmer than the courtyard and more welcoming than the dorms, I’d imagine.”

Tairiekie tilted her head. “Yesss, yes, that’s very accurate.”

“And how do I know that, you’re wondering?”

“Only a bit of it, sir.” She bowed again. “I was wondering if this happens a lot.”

“People hiding out in the stables? Not normally like you three, to study. We get our share of the goat-crazy girls, you know, the ones that come with their own saddles and three pairs of riding boots. But the last time I had someone study in here was maybe fifteen years ago.”

So she wasn’t the first to think of it. Still, he’d thought it was clever. “We’ll do our best to be quiet and out of your way.”

“Don’t worry about me. I work with goats, so I’m pretty hard to bother.” He pointed at the open stall. “Right in there. The incense ought not to bother them if it’s something mild.” He gestured at Tairiekie’s burner.

She bowed again. “Thank you very much, sir.”

“I do like to help out pupils when I can. Here, have some blankets to sit on – they’ve been laundered.” He tossed down three thick wool goat-blankets on the floor. “Good studying, all of you.”

“Thank you.” She should have thought of this place sooner.

“All right, so we need to focus on the Philosophy test first, but what about the Mathematics and Aetheric Studies homework?” She laid out her books in tidy piles and hung the incense burner from a convenient nail.

“Those are going to be a lot harder for me than the Philo. I know Instructor Pelnyen seems to have it out for you, but this is mostly review for me.”

“I’m jealous,” Tairiekie admitted. “I’m having a lot more trouble with Philosophy, and not just because of Pelnyen. It just doesn’t quite click for me.”

“Well, Math and Mechanics ought to ‘click’ for you,” Saydrie teased. “Let’s do the Philosophy first and then move on to the others, then? We have at least three hours before curfew.”

“Good plan.” She shifted her Philosophy textbook to the front. “All right, let’s start with this ‘Social Aetherism’ idea. It seems to be saying that the way that people rub together, um.” She coughed. “The way that people interact is as important as the way objects rub together to make aether. Am I close?”

“Almost. But there’s this element of flow to it, too. Not only do people interacting make a sort of metaphorical aether-”

“Why is it metaphorical?” Saydrie leaned forward. “Everything else creates aether. Why wouldn’t two humans, or two goats, ‘rubbing together’ make aether, too?”

“You heard Instructor Posvorrem. There is no such thing as humanic aether. Or goat-manic, either. Caprinic. Or weasel.” Enrie shook her head. “There’s no living-creature aether.”

“Just the philosophy of connections that act like aether.”

“I admit it looks a little strange. But Instructor Posvorrem got very stern about it, and very unhappy. We won’t want to push either him or Instructor Pelnyen, neither of them like me.” Tairiekie sighed. “I wish Instructors changed positions, or schools, or something.”

“At least it’s only Instructor Posvorrem for you, with your parents. They all can tell what Saydrie and I are just from looking at us. Or our names, at least.”

Tairiekie nodded, shamefaced. “Sorry. I didn’t…”

“It’s all right. So, Social Aetherism?”

“Social Aetherism, please.”

“All right.” She leaned forward and imitated Instructor Pelnyen, one hand in the air. “The theory is that all people form connections, and that the more connections we make, the more powerful we become. It’s based on the idea that you need to interact with more and more people as you get older, and specifically with more types of people.”

“Do you think the whole ‘team’ and ‘eighteen’ system is built on that idea?” Saydrie toyed with his sleeves, not quite looking at them.

“Not if House Monitor Libkazaari has anything to do with it. She doesn’t approve of people rubbing together at all.” Tairiekie was trying to make a joke, but it came out sounding dour and bitter.

“She just doesn’t want you rubbing with Kietsaip.”

“It was Riensin.”

“Or him. Or both of them.” Enrie leered.

“Enerenarie!” Saydrie looked genuinely shocked; Tairiekie was startled into a laugh.

“It’s all right, Saydrie.”

“That sort of thing… I know people joke about coming here for their suffix…” The whole concept made him look uncomfortable.

“Well, I’m here for my title, thank you. No time for rubbing with Riensin or Kietsaip.”

“I’m just here because my parents insisted. I can rub with anyone I want,” Enrie countered.

“Not unless you pass all your classes,” Taikie chided. “We’re supposed to get each other through, remember?”

“Ha.” Enrie raised her fist. “To our success.”

“To our success.” Their fists went up in the air together.


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1 comment »

  1. Marina Brave says:

    Man, I hope they encounter more kind people like stable dude. Everyone else seems to have it out for them. Well, I suppose not the twins…

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