September 24, 2014 by Lyn Thorne-Alder
“You got the House Monitor to come find me?” She could hear the mortification in Saydrie’s voice even before Libkazaari moved out of the way. Once the House Monitor had cleared the way, she could see the cupola better – and Saydrie’s horrified face.
“Not exactly.” She wanted to be apologetic, but she was fascinated with the architecture. A secret room! The little house-shape on top of the building was round, just big enough to not be horribly crowded with three people filling it, roofed with its own tiny copper dome and circled with three rows of tiny windows. Saydrie was sitting half-wrapped in a goat blanket in front of an open window and reading what looked like his Mechanics homework. Tairiekie sat down across from him. “I didn’t mean to? I was searching for you because you didn’t come down for breakfast, and then when I couldn’t find you, I happened to run into House Monitor Libkazaari, who thought you might be up here – where you were.”
“I wasn’t hungry?”
“We worry when you don’t show up.” The we might have been poetic license. Tairiekie didn’t care. She worried, at least, and Enrie ought to. “You’ll come to class, right?”
“Of course.” He packed up his books into his bag. “You really got the House Monitor to find me?”
“Well… yes? Sort of?” What was wrong with that? Libkazaari might hate Tairiekie, but the adults were supposed to be there to help, weren’t they? “It was an accident.”
“Well, more or less an accident,” the House Monitor coughed. “Saydrie, you do realize that this place is known to the adults of the school?”
He flushed and ducked his head. “I figured it had to be by someone, but nobody had bothered me yet. Most people don’t really bother with me at all.”
“Well, if you wish to remain hidden, watch out for the tracks in the dust on the closet floor. There should be a broom in there; it’s a broom closet, after all.”
Was she helping him hide? Tairiekie looked between the two of them. It was good advice; she wouldn’t have thought to brush her tracks away.
Saydrie only flushed redder. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
“Now get to class, you two. I’m sure there’s something important you’ll miss otherwise.”
“Yes, ma’am.” This time they said it in chorus. Class seemed like a bastion of normalcy compared to the way Libkazaari was acting.
They made their escape before the Monitor could lecture them about anything else – or everything else – pounded down the stairs, snuck out of the closet, and hurried to their first class.
Instructor Kesmasik was already writing notes on the board in Introductory Survey of Biological Systems. They didn’t look like biological notes at first; they looked like some sort of piping diagram.
They were piping diagrams, she realized, including something that was probably supposed to be a venting valve…. Her hand shot up before she’d even sat down.
Instructor Kesmasik turned to face her. “Yes, Tairiekie?” He was smiling. That was a little terrifying. Generally, he smiled when they were going to have to do something horrible.
“Sir, if you vent that mechanism that way, it won’t vent properly. The pressure is going to build up in that part, there, which I think is supposed to be a Petgie trap, although I don’t understand why, unless it’s running aether with the steam, which would explain the dip-on-the-bottom shape, because the aether would rise to the top and get caught. But that being said, if you vent it that way, you’re going to have an explos…oh.” She rubbed her hands together, feeling the bandages on both hands. “Oh.”
“Indeed. And the question is, Miss Tairiekie, if a first-year pupil can notice that, then why didn’t someone else?”
“Because Taikie is the best engineering student Akaizen House has seen in over a decade?” Enrie was standing up. Why was Enrie standing up?
“Ha. Yes, Enerenarie, Tairiekie is a very good student, and very clever, of course. But she is still, in the end, a first-year Pupil.”
The warm feeling Tairiekie had begun to feel faded away. She glanced at Enrie, who had her hands on her hips and a frown creasing her forehead.
“And she figured it out. Of course, so did you, and you’re a Biology Instructor.” Somehow, Enrie managed to make that sound exactly like he’d said “first-year Pupil.” Tairiekie wasn’t sure if she should feel warm about that or not.
“Indeed. And no other student in this classroom has said anything. However, you’d imagine that Instructor Talmizhaab, who teaches Steamworks, would have been able to figure out a fatal flaw in his machine – a flaw that almost proved fatal, not only to the mechanism, but to seven Pupils. Wouldn’t you?”
“Sabotage.” Tairiekie breathed the word, uncertain she dared say it. “Somebody…”
“I am not saying that.” Instructor Kesmasik was still smiling. “And today we are studying the science of burning – especially steam-burning – different biological items, including wood and human flesh.
“Ummm.” Enrie was still standing up. “I think we’ve discovered that one quite well.”
“Yes, but your classmates weren’t so… lucky. So we’ll have to study that from the experiences of the three of you, and from samples.”
“We’re not going to burn a lizard, are we?” Tairiekie couldn’t tell if Riensin sounded interested or horrified.
“Only if Tairiekie, Enerenarie, and Saydrie are unwilling to allow us to study their burns.”
“You want to use our scrapes as samples?”
“Yes, yes I do. If you’re willing, of course.”
Or they would burn lizards. Tairiekie nodded slowly. “I consent.”
Slowly, Enrie and Saydrie agreed as well.
Tairiekie was not entirely sure which was more surreal about the next hour: the strange situation of being under a microscope, having her friends and classmates peer at the blistering burns on her fingertips and the back of her neck, or the out-of-place comments Instructor Kesmasik dropped into the conversation.
“And if it were designed to channel aether, where do you think it was intaking the aether? And why have a Petgie-trap for it on the overflow? Was it designed to, for instance, steam out the aether the way one can boil salt out of ocean water?”
“An aether still?” Saydrie looked intrigued. “What would you do with an aether still?”
“…distill aether?” Riensin was leaning over Tairiekie’s neck at the time, staring at her blisters through a magnifying glass. “Taikie, it really looks like you lost several layers of skin here.”
“If feels like it, too.” Her neck had been one of the only bare places exposed to the steam, and then only between the loops of her braids. “I should wear more dense hairstyles, I suppose.”
“Only if you’re going to be hopping around buildings and getting in the way of exploding steam machines.”
“Or aether distillers.” She pursed her lips, thinking. Aether distillers. She couldn’t move too much, considering her position, but Tairiekie began drawing something in the margins of her notes. Of course, considering he was over her shoulder, Riensin saw everything she was doing.
“That isn’t the same as Instructor Kesmasik’s drawing.”
“No, it’s not, but it’s not intended to be, either.”
“It looks like some sort of device, though.” Riensin leaned a little closer to peer at her notes. Tairiekie resisted a juvenile urge to cover up her notes
“Well, I am in House Akaizen. It goes with the territory.”
“What sort of mechanism is it, then?” He was leaning over her neck quite a bit. Breathing down it, even. It was not the most pleasant of sensations.
“It’s proof of concept.”
“What’s the concept?”
“Something from a Philosophy test.” She shifted, wondering if she could get an elbow into his stomach without him realizing she’d done it on purpose.
Either she came close enough or he read her mind, because Riensin suddenly moved off of her. “Has to be someone else’s turn to examine your neck by now.”
“Saydrie has a longer line.” She felt rather bad for her teammate.
“Sadyrie has fairer skin and bigger burns. Did he really shield the two of you with his body?”
“He really did. He was wonderful.”
“I didn’t think his religion allowed him to get that close to a woman, much less two of them.”
“We’re girls.” It was a lame answer, so she tried again. “And, besides, the Bitrani enclaves worship the Three, the same as we do.” She was pretty sure they did, at least. He spoke about the Three, and it seemed unlikely there’d be two Threes.
“Hrrm. They worship the same three as we do, at least.”
“What do you know about it?” She risked sitting up, only to have Instructor Kesmasik tut-tut at her. She had to settle for glaring at the desk and her half-finished diagram. “Have you been to the enclaves?”
“No, but he’s not the only Bitrani in the school. There’s one or two every year, almost.”
“That’s more enclaves than I thought there were.”
“Or more pupils per enclave.” Riensin had dropped his voice to a low whisper. “They’re required to come, you know. Not just the enclaves, but the east coasters, too.”
“I know.” She tilted her head at Saydrie. “There’s him, and then my roommate is from the east coast. Gaikvya. It’s what they mean by the quotas.”
“Yeah. Doesn’t it seem a little wrong to you?”
“I… don’t know?” She’d never really thought about it. “I think treating them unkindly when they have to be here is pretty wrong, though. I think, if they’re being made to come, the least we can do is be nice to them.”
“Hunh.” Riensin finally sat back and looked at her, instead of staring at her neck. “Well, that’s definitely one angle of attack.”
“Well, he’s my teammate, and she’s my roommate. It leads to thinking about them as friends. It’s supposed to.” How many times was she going to end up explaining that? “We’re supposed to bond. It’s in the handbook.”
“Hah.” Riensin smiled broadly at her. “I like the way you think.”
“Thanks?” She was more perplexed with every passing day. She thought like herself. How else could she do it?
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