January 1, 2015 by Lyn Thorne-Alder
The shoveling, it seemed, would never be done. And after three days, it seemed as if the stink of the stables would never leave them, either. It might have been in their heads: they weren’t lacking for people sitting near them at meals, at least, and even people going out of their way to talk to Saydrie. But nowhere in that had they had the promised conversation with the Stable-master.
He had said “Go, shovel more, and then you will understand” more times that Tairiekie had any desire to count; he had passed them more barrows of feces and of straw and other bedding than she could imagine. Her shoulders ached, despite hours spent in the bathhouse trying to soak out the pain. Even her braids ached (although that really could have been from the goats trying to eat them).
And yet – despite the fact that the whole school, it seemed, knew what their punishment had been – their Art House nemeses seemed even more downtrodden, even more tired, and even more resentful.
“What could they have gotten that’s worse than what we got?” Not that stables was the worst thing in the world, but…
“I heard…” Riensin’s crony, team-mate, and possibly suffix-seeker Kekdela had turned out to be a very good gossip – AND she was in Art House. She leaned forward, impossibly long and out-of-dress-code sleeve-drapes laying on the table like she was setting her own stage. “I heard that they were given a lashing with the House Monitor’s own belt. And then they were set to moving rocks for the new garden.”
“Moving rocks?” Tairiekie stifled a giggle. “You’re joking, right?” It was the oldest saying in the book, the oldest fool’s-labor. Their continent was nothing but rock from coast to coast. “The House Monitor has them moving rocks?“
“We could call it ‘clearing garden space,’ I suppose, but, yes, she has them moving rocks. After a lashing. And Loskyigog and his friends are complaining that that can’t be fair, because they didn’t start the fight.”
“Well, in a sense they didn’t. But in a bigger sense they did. Have they told anyone what they said that started it?”
“No. No, but they didn’t have to. Because Tudines heard it all, and he told everyone in his dorm room, and they told their teammates, and they told their roommates…”
“I begin to understand.” It had spread through the school, then, by their vaunted “connect outside your specialty” network, which had re-purposed itself into a gossip chain. Unless that had been part of the plan, too. “So everyone knows.”
“That’s not a bad thing! Look, even the people who are a bit weird about the Bitrani – yeah, I mean, some people grew up on ancient war stories, I suppose, and most of us have never seen a Bitrani before we came here, but that mostly means that we’re curious, because hello, students – I’d like to draw you, by the way. Preferably nude but I know that the Bitrani can be a little prudish so with your clothes on would be fine if that’s fine with you?”
“Uh.” Saydrie blinked. “You want to draw me? You want…”
Enrie interrupted with a string of Bitrani and a few pointed hand gestures whose meaning Tairiekie could guess at.
“Oh! Oh, with my underpants on would be fine, yes. I’m flattered.”
Kekdela bowed from the waist. “I would be honored, thank you. But, as I was saying, most of us have never seen a Bitrani before, but that doesn’t make us want to throw things and call him names. It makes us curious. Because we’re Pupils at the Empress Edaledalende Academy of Higher Learning and that means we like learning, generally, and we’re here to learn. Not to, you know, practice our insult-hurling, because I’m pretty sure there’s not a class in that.”
She seemed to realize everyone was looking at her and ducked her head, bright beads clacking in her many-braided hair. “I did it again?”
“You did it again.” Riensin patted her back. “But we like it, and I think the point there was that Loskyigog and his buddies got hit hard, and they’re sullen. So watch your backs, guys.”
“Watching.” Tairiekie nodded. “I don’t think anything short of a visitation from the Three would make them kind toward us anyway.”
“…why do you want to draw me?”
“Knowledge. Bitrani bodies are shaped differently than Cālenyena. You have broader shoulders, generally, but you are more…” Kekdela made an up-and-down gesture with her hands. “Tubular?”
“I don’t feel tubular.”
“Well, one doesn’t normally feel their looks, do they?” She brushed his shoulders with her hands, as if moving off invisible dirt. “You simply are that way. And you’re so big.“
“I’m, uh.” He hunched over further, his cheeks reddening.
“And your complexion is so interesting.”
“He said yes, Kekla. Leave the poor boy alone.” Tairiekie thought the arm that Riensin wrapped around the girl was more possessive than restraining. But if he wanted to be going for a Kek at the end of his name, that was his business.
“I will. But yes, you’ll let me draw you?”
“Um. Yes, when I’m done being punished.” Saydrie shrugged. “I don’t think you want to draw me all covered in goat waste, anyway.”
“That is not particularly my school of art, and there are those that would say that that portrayal of a Bitrani national like that would be, mmm, problematic. Noble and beautiful, but problematic.”
“Um.” Saydrie poked his food with his fork.
“Kekla, you’re doing it again.”
“I know, but he’s so…”
“Kekdela.” Riensin had a very good stern face.
“All right, all right. Come find me when you’ve finished your punishment, all right, Zhedrie?” She patted his arm. “I’ll be around. I mean, we’re in our eighteen-group together.”
“I… yes.” He shot Tairiekie and Enrie a pleading glance.
Tairiekie pocketed a pastry and an apple, and stood. “Speaking of being punished, we really ought to get going.”
“We should.” Enrie duplicated her move. “We’re on to doing-something-for-the-House-Monitor today, and if we’re late, I don’t want to know what she’ll put us to doing.”
“Scrubbing the bathhouses, probably.” Tairiekie twitched. “Well, let’s hope it’s something benign, like washing all the blackboards.”
“That’ll only take us a month.” Saydrie stepped behind the two of them, hiding his smile behind another pastry. “Maybe two. Don’t forget the Philosophy building has two chalkboards in every room.”
“Oh, and then ones in the labs in Mechanics.” Tairiekie stole another hand-pastry from the table and shepherded her friends towards the House Monitor’s office. “But the ones in War House…” she broke down laughing as they made it out of earshot of the dining hall. “Saydrie, the look on your face!”
“She was… what was she doing? Is she going to do that when she draws me?”
“Probably not. Have you seen her in the intro art class? She’s entirely focused on what’s on her paper.” Enrie patted Saydrie’s arm. “You’re adorable. Nobody’s ever done that before?”
“Nobody’s… no. Bitrani women aren’t, they aren’t like Calenyena women.”
“I’ve noticed almost every blonde here is male.” Tairiekie tilted her head at Saydrie, curious. “Is that…” How did you even end that sentence?
He coughed, and glanced away somewhere. “It’s different. Bitrani people are different, not just our women. The whole thing is different.” A frown twisted his lips. “My grandfather says that that’s why the nationalist movement, the enclaves, the festivals, the whole thing started, so that we could keep acting the way we wanted about our people.”
“That’s not dissimilar from what I’ve heard.” Enrie’s tone was slow and careful, but it didn’t cover up her sudden discomfort.
Saydrie stilled. “I’ve heard some of the other stories. I’ve heard people say things like that, to may face and behind my back. Do you want to say it?”
No, not now. They were doing so well.
“I said that I’ve heard stories. Be real, Saydrie. I know propaganda when I hear it – I’d have to, wouldn’t I, with my parents?”
A little bit of tension left his shoulders. “My roommate asked me if we kept all our women in cages.”
“That is one I hadn’t heard.” Enrie smiled, although it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Although… you know we do, in off generations.”
“You do not!”
“We do not!”
“No, but to hear a lot of people talking about it, that’s what the royal family does.” Enrie shrugged. “Cloister our women when the next ruler will be the son-of-a-son, cloister our men when it’ll be a daughter’s daughter.”
“I thought that was a myth.” Saydrie’s hands went to his mouth. “I mean…”
“No, no, most people think it’s a myth. And we don’t really cloister our men, but they do end up getting a little bit more restricted during Emperor reigns, probably as some sort of retaliation…” She flapped one hand. “We can discuss comparative cloistering some other time. We’ve got to go scrub something for the House Monitor.”
“Comparative cloistering.” Saydrie chuckled, and Tairiekie finally allowed herself to breathe again. “Okay. We can talk about it later.”
“Later.” Enrie held open the door to the House Monitor’s office for the two of them.
“Ah, there you are.” House Monitor Libkazaari was already standing up. “I worried you’d gotten lost. Come this way, with me, for your next assignment.” She walked right past them and out the door Enrie was still holding open. “You did such a good job with the stables, I thought you might enjoy another assignment like that.”
Tairiekie barely restrained a groan; next to her and behind her, she could hear the small noises that meant her teammates were doing the same. In front of them, Libkazaari chuckled.
“This is supposed to be a punishment. Remember that, all right? You broke several school rules, many of them ones which generally bear even stricter punishments. If there hadn’t been mitigating circumstances, well and then you’d be in much more trouble.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Libkazaari was leading them into the Mechanics building. Oh, no. Were they really going to end up scrubbing all of the blackboards?
“Here. Begin with cleaning all of the brass and copper on this mechanism. If you still have time before dark when you are done with that – which is unlikely – come find me again.”
Libkazaari was standing in front of Instructor Talmizhaab’s Device.
If we reach $15/month in Patreon or $25 in donations in Paypal – or a combination thereof; reviews count as $5 per review – I will post a second chapter this week, on Sunday.
Currently, support levels are at:
Patreon: $19/$15 (including 1 review) – extra episode this Sunday!
Paypal: $15/$25 (including 1 review)