September 17, 2014 by Lyn Thorne-Alder
“He was covered in scorch marks and so were both of his teammates.”
Tairiekie hadn’t intended to walk in on two adults arguing. She’d meant to go find Saydrie, who hadn’t shown up to breakfast. After their adventure the day before, she couldn’t really fault him for hiding, but they needed to make it to their classes on time. So, despite respecting his wishes, she’d gone looking for him.
Instead, she’d stepped into the classroom – the Philosophy classroom that should have been empty – to find Instructor Pelnyen arguing with their Basic Mechanics teacher.
“And Enerenarie had a perfectly logical explanation for that.”
“They were on the over-roof path.” Instructor Pelnyen sneered out the explanation. “That’s not something first years do.”
“I, personally, have seen several first years on that path every year. It’s not as if it’s a secret and it’s the fastest route in good weather.” Instructor Kaatetzie didn’t sound so much patient as he did done with the argument. “It can’t have been Saydrie. The boy is not exactly a mechanical genius.”
Tairiekie winced in sympathy for her teammate, but the wince quickly translated itself into a cringe.
“Tairiekie, then. She might like mechanics but we both know she has no more morals than the Three gave a wild weasel. She’s an uncertain variable, and she always will be.”
“She is not her mother. It would do you good to remember that.”
“What do you know of her mother? You’ve only been teaching here for five years.”
“But I attended this school before that. Dairdo was in my House, three years ahead of me. I had more than a little time to get to know her.” Instructor Kaatetzie smirked at Instructor Pelnyen. “You had a three year… ah, hiatus, around that time?”
He managed to make “hiatus” sound like a dirty word, like “you spent three years doing grunt labor” or something. Or “you failed at everything and should have been replaced.” Maybe he really had. Maybe he’d gone too far in being mean to a student. Maybe he’d finessed grades and gotten caught. Maybe he’d taught things incorrectly and been sent back to school for re-education?
Instructor Pelnyen coughed. “Enough of that. There are other things to discuss, such as the explosion in your Hall.”
“It’s not my Hall yet. Give me a couple decades. It wasn’t Saydrie. Saydrie doesn’t have the mechanical know-how.”
“Then his teammates.” Pelnyen seemed insistent, and his voice was getting louder.
“Enerenarie is bored to tears by my class, and Tairiekie wouldn’t risk getting a bad grade.” No, she wouldn’t. Silently, Tairiekie thanked Instructor Kaatetzie.
“She wouldn’t risk anything.” Instructor Pelnyen sneered it. Tairiekie didn’t need to be able to see his face to know what his expression would be. It was the same one he always had when he was looking at her. “She never risks anything. Her answers are textbook-correct, but they’re textbook-copied. She doesn’t innovate. She doesn’t think.”
She didn’t what? She almost said something, almost shouted at him. But it was too late to pretend that she’d just been walking by; she really had to stay hidden and tough it out.
“You find her too scholarly?” Instructor Kaatetzie sounded amused. Amused was not really all that much better. Tairiekie didn’t want to be funny.
…Was this how all her teachers had talked about her?…
“I find her too much like a scribe and too little like a pupil. She recites what she is given, that’s all. Blah, blah, blah, like a goat bleating at you.”
“And does not the Philosopher Pyogreglievzyorpek say that in the bleating of a goat you may find the truth of the world?”
“And now you’re doing it!” Instructor Pelnyen sounded apoplectic. “You’re deliberately just rattling off things you’ve read in a book. Without putting any meaning behind them!”
“It’s the easiest way to process the material if you don’t understand it. It’s what a lot of students do in every class, Pelnyen. Tell me, if your pupils are having difficulty understanding the subject matter, do you think you might have a problem?”
“You’re just favoring the girl because… because…”
“And you’re getting down on her because. Now, it wasn’t Saydrie, Enerenarie, or Tairiekie. What about other options? There’s the Bitrani boy in Mechanics, he’s bright and could probably have done it. Voltarno. There’s Ebusdiz.”
“What about Gaikvya? She has the right mentality.”
Tairiekie resisted a loud huff of frustration; were they ever going to stop volleying back and forth? She needed to get out of here. She needed to get out of here before she was found: because if she was discovered, it would be hard to continue to protest her innocence. And she was innocent.
And Gaikvya was one of her roommates. At this point Instructor Pelnyen was just pulling out everyone he could who might be connected to her. Next he’d suggest…. “I can’t imagine it would be Iesovyenyie, not with her family connections. But it’s likely a Mechanics student.”
“More likely an Alchemy student, or a Martial one. Mechanics students don’t tend to blow things up – at least not that far up.”
She backed out slowly, careful not to bump into anything. Iesovyenyie was her second roommate, and she had enough “family connection” to get an initial vowel and not much else. What was Pelnyen getting at?
“Mmm. I’ve seen enough mechanisms go sour…”
“And what are you doing?” House Monitor Libkazaari was standing in the hallway, glaring, of course, at Tairiekie. There was nothing to do but try to push through it: “billy on,” her father would say.
“I’m looking for Saydrie. He didn’t come to breakfast and I’m worried about him. After the scorching he got yesterday…. He took it worse than either of us, because – did you hear? – he dove on us to protect us.”
It worked, much to her surprise. The House Monitor’s expression softened; she almost smiled. “Aah. Well, if that’s it, then yes, we should find him. Why did you think he’d be here?”
“Well, he does like to find empty classrooms to study in…?” It was the truth, and why she’d been here in the first place. “He likes the quiet. Calenyena culture is a bit loud for him, I think?”
She still didn’t know that much about the Bitrani but she could hazard a guess or two.
“Mmm, likely. They like their silent prayer and their quiet times, the Byitties do. All right, if he’s looking for a quiet place, have you checked the cupola?”
“Oh! No, I didn’t think of that… I don’t even know how to get up there.”
“Well, and I shouldn’t be showing you, but I will. You really care about your teammates, don’t you?”
“We’re supposed to.” She let the House Monitor take the lead. “That’s what they said. That’s what you said. Work together, be a team, help the others in your threesome succeed. That’s what we were told to do.”
“And do you always do what you’re told?” Libkazaari opened a door – one between classrooms that Tairiekie had foolishly assumed was a closet – and gestured her in. “Are you that sort of student?”
“Everyone says that like it’s a bad thing.” She stepped into the closet, almost certain this was just a trick by the House Monitor to get her out of the way for a while. But she did do what she was told! “I’m obedient. I give the answers the book has. I recite the facts I’m told to memorize.”
It was dark in the closet, but Libkazaari lit a match, and from that lit the gaslight hanging on the wall. They were… actually in a closet. This was more than a little nerve-wracking.
“Memorization is good. Doing what you’re told is good. But so is innovation, and so is thinking up new ideas. So is challenging yourself and your instructors.”
“Challenging myself and my instructors gets me scolded, makes people claim that I’m here to get my suffix and generally doesn’t make people happy.” She stepped back to the wall away from the gaslight, as far as she could get from Libkazaari in the tight space. “Doing what I’m told and getting one-hundreds on my exams makes people happy.”
“And is that why you’re here?” In the flickering light, the House Monitor looked bigger than ever, and more terrifying. “Are you here to make someone happy?”
“Well… yes?” She blinked up at the woman. “Of course. My parents came here and left as Engineers. I can’t do anything less than that. So I’m here to make them happy. I’m here to make my instructors happy so that I can become an Engineer. I’m here to make you happy so that you stop yelling at me.”
“And then what?”
“Why are we standing in a closet?”
“And then what, Tairiekie?”
“I don’t know! Why are we standing in a closet?” She reached for the doorknob, but the House Monitor was faster. Her big hand grabbed the knob and held it firm.
“Answer my question and I will answer yours.”
“And then… and then I’ll be an Engineer. A good one. A very clever one.”
“And will you like that?”
“And then my parents will be proud of me.”
Libkazaari stared at her for a moment. It was the most uncomfortable minute Tairiekie could remember. Her heart was pounding. Was that the wrong answer? Why was this suddenly an issue? “Why are we still in the closet?”
“Mmm.” Libkazaari nodded. “We are still in the closet because the closet is the stairwell.”
“Now you sound like Instructor Pelnyen.” She still didn’t know if it was the right answer.
“Ha. Nothing that interesting, I’m afraid.” She pulled a lever next to the gas lamp – it was fashioned to look like it was part of the light – and a door swung open in the back of the closet. “It’s just a stairwell.”
“A secret passage.” Tairiekie barely resisted bouncing. “A real secret passage.”
“You didn’t hear this from me, but almost all of the buildings here have at least one. This is just secret to keep all the pupils from bounding up there to hide from classes.”
“But you’re showing me. You hate me.” She slapped her hands over her mouth. That was not really the thing to say, especially not to someone who hated you.
“Ha. No. I want you to succeed, and I want you to succeed for yourself. No mucking about, no getting lost because some pretty boy thinks that you’d be fun, or because you think some pretty boy would be fun. No giving up your chance at a title to be a goat-wife, or a circus performer, or any one of a dozen other shortcuts. And I know your type, and they too often do all of those.” The door, all the way open now, revealed a white-washed stone staircase running upwards, and a hole with a ladder heading downwards. “Up it is.”
Tairiekie waited until the woman was on the stairs before beginning to climb up behind her. “My type?”
“Good girls. Studious girls. One-hundred-percent-girls. I know your type.”
“Everyone here is top of their class. Everyone here is studious.”
“So they tell you, so they tell you. But why are they top of their class? Why were you top of yours?”
“Because I’m the best. Because I’m the best?” She wasn’t sure if that was the answer anymore. “I worked for it, in every class, until I was the top of the class.”
“And your friends?”
“Mostly didn’t like me.” It hadn’t so much stopped hurting or healed as it had grown a thick pad of scar tissue. “All of the private schools are very competitive.”
“I think Enrie likes me, and I’m pretty sure Saydrie likes me as much as his religion allows.” She hesitated. “I mean, they’re my teammates. We’re supposed to work together.”
“And when he threw you down to protect you from the steam?”
They were almost at the top of the stairs, she thought; she could see daylight from above instead of just the thin light of the gas-lamp from below. That was good; she wasn’t sure she could handle this new, inquisitive House Monitor, especially not with these new, uncomfortable questions. She’d prefer, she thought, if the Monitor just went back to yelling at her for talking to boys. She worried at her lower lip with her teeth and didn’t answer.
“And when he protected you?” Libkazaari wasn’t going to let that one go, was she?
“It felt wonderful. He… I liked it. He got hurt. For me.”
“Careful there.” There was a heartbeat, where Tairiekie thought that perhaps Libkazaari was going to lecture her again, perhaps on not rubbing too much Social Aetherism together with the boy from the far South. And then she just repeated “Careful.” And then, as if it were what she’d been talking about all along, she added, “The top couple steps can get slippery. Sometimes people leave the window open, and rain comes in.”
“I like the rain.” That voice came from around the House Monitor, somewhere on the other side of the wall that Libkazaari made. “It reminds me of home.”
“I’ve been down there to the Enclaves. Not surprised rain reminds you of home. We found your boy, Tairiekie.”
“He’s not… Hi, Saydrie.”
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