Text copyright ©2011 and 2013 by B.C. Roger
Illustrations copyright ©2010 by E. Le Roux
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í1 – HISTORY CLASSí 1
í2 – FRIENDSí 7
í3 – THE MAZEí 14
í4 – THE HEADMISTRESSíS OFFICEí 21
í5 – THE COMMANDERí 31
í6 – IN THE LIMOUSINEí 42
7 – RUNAWAY BOY 54
8 – FLYING LESSON 61
9 – THE GOLDEN WARRIORS 70
10 – AT HOME 76
11 – AT THE IMPERIAL OFFICE 89
12 – THE PARTY 104
13 – SHADOW GIRL 116
14 – BATTERYRUN 132
15 – SECRET MEETING 150
16 – UNDERGROUND 164
17 – KEEPING WATCH 178
18 – ALL ABOUT LOCKS 190
She couldn’t make any more mistakes. The last one had cost her a painful blow on her right arm, and she’d barely managed to disengage and run away. She only owed her life to the pond, which Darveena hadn’t dared follow her into. It was only knee-deep where she had crossed it, but that was too much for the water-wary Trowan girl.
Now her only way to capitalize on her advantage was to circle her opponent and attack her from the rear. And the only way to do this without Darveena seeing her was to leave the park and go through the house. If she made her move now. The kitchens were right behind, just a few trees away. Without further thinking, she ran to the last tree, looked around one last time, and jumped behind a large garbage crate. Then she rushed through an open door that let out the usual clatter of pots and kitchenware, as well as the shouts from the chef.
“Hey, what are you doing here? You’re not on kitchen duty yet!”
“Just going through, Paolo.”
“And you’re wet!” More red came to the cheeks of the rotund chef—they were always a little red, what with the heat from the cooking range and his frequent outbursts. “Out!”
Miona sidestepped the large man and ducked under his outstretched arm, narrowly avoiding a big spoon coated with sauce.
“Go back the way you came! Stop her, you two!”
One of the young chef helpers was busy over the range, turning a spoon in a saucepan. The other had his back to him, and was carefully emptying a large bowl full of cream into another pan, bent over a long working bench. When they heard the chef’s command, they turned to block the girl. Unfortunately they didn’t take the time to let go of their pans.
Fortunately for Miona, her speed allowed her to duck under the pans a second before they banged into each other, and she was several steps away when the sauce and the cream flew out of the pans. She heard the splash the sauce and cream made when hitting the floor, and decided it better not to look back to enjoy the sight. She rushed out the next door and went on running between a long sink and a column of big refrigerators.
A large swinging door shut behind her, muffling Paolo’s screams. She kept on running. Soon the wet clatter of her shoes gave way to a high-pitch squeaking as she tried not to slip on the hallway’s waxed wooden floor. She threw several quick glances on her right as she passed the doors to several salons. Then she heard other squeaking steps, just ahead of her. She spotted two legs coming down a big staircase at the end of the hallway. Charles.
She threw herself through the entrance to the service corridor. If Charles caught her inside with wet shoes, it would get to the Rittress’s ears, and she’d be in serious trouble. And Charles himself always had plenty of chores ready for her. She’d be slaving for the rest of the day.
She had barely run a dozen steps when the door to the laundry opened. If it was Tedora, she was in for a good dressing down. The big maid never missed a reason to scold or slap her, even if she had to make up one. She’d be all too happy to catch her in her wet shoes too! There was only one way to go now. Miona pushed the door to the garage.
Not quite in time. “What are you doing here in combat gear?” she heard Tedora shouting before she could close the door. She dashed between the rows of cars, toward the garage entrance. If she could make it through the small side door before Tedora decided to follow her (alone or with Charles), she’d be much better off.
“Mother?” She’d stopped in her tracks. Her mom was near one of the smaller cars, holding the door, one foot in. She looked startled for a second.
“In trouble, Miona?” The slender woman stepped out and walked calmly toward the little girl.
“I am not sure you’re allowed in the garage, though. Are you?”
“Well,” Miona started, unsure how to get out of this new complication. “I had to shake off Darveena….”
“Going through the house with wet shoes?”
Miona bit her lip. The trouble with her mother was that she knew instantly everything Miona was ever trying to hide. She searched her mind desperately for a way to justify herself, but nothing came. She needed a diversion. She noticed her mother’s coat. “Mother, are you going somewhere?”
The woman hesitated a split second. “I have a doctor’s appointment…. Routine checkup.”
“I didn’t know you could drive….”
“Well, of course I can. I seldom do. Only when Ruhul can’t take me.”
“Can you fly as well?”
The younger woman chuckled. “That, no, I can’t. But I don’t need to. The doctor isn’t very far…. Now, why don’t you go back the way you came, all right?”
“Oh no, Mother, I can’t!” Miona saw the woman’s arched brow, and sighed. “Tedora is in the service area. She’ll report me walking with my wet shoes.”
“Well, shouldn’t she?”
“Please, Mother. She’ll tell the Rittress, I’m sure.”
The tall woman considered Miona sternly for a moment. Then she smiled. “Certainly it’d be better if you’d stepped out in the park instead of going back in the house wet as you are—”
“Oh thank you, Mother.” Miona prepared to run to the small garage door.
“Yes, Mother?” Miona said, checking herself.
“Take off your glasses for a second, will you?”
“Yes, Mother,” Miona said, taking her glasses off, wondering what her mother had in mind. “Why?”
The woman bent toward her and peered in her eyes for a moment. “I like to watch your eyes sometimes, that’s all. I don’t see them often, with your lenses.”
“You’re the one telling me to wear them, Mother,” Miona said, a little uneasy.
“That’s for your protection…your eyes’ protection.” The woman straightened up. “All right, go ahead, now.”
Miona was about to take off, but her mother was still holding one of her shoulder pads. “Give me a hug first,” the woman said.
Miona thought it a bit awkward to be hugged with her thick armor. Her mother released her after a few seconds and looked her in the eyes again. “By the way, Miona, no need to mention my doctor’s appointment to anyone. You know the Rittress doesn’t like it when I do things for myself. I won’t be long anyway. All right?”
“Yes, Mother. I won’t tell.”
The slender woman smiled again. “All right, now. Off you go.” She patted the little girl on her rear and stood up, and Miona took off running toward the small door.
But she slowed down quickly, panting. The door was further than she’d remembered and she could feel her legs getting very heavy. Her recent running, plus the fighting with Darveena, were starting to show.
“Come on, Miona. Get in. I’ll give you a lift to the door.”
Miona stared at her mother. She had started the car and had stopped by her. But she couldn’t make out what she was saying next. The car’s fans were too loud—
Fans? What did she start the fans for? She’d said she didn’t know how to fly….
“Come on, Miona! You said you had an important test today. Get up!”
Miona shook her head. The girl in the bed next to hers was talking to her, but she could barely hear what she was saying. “Oh, yes…. Thank you,” she muttered. She sat up bolt straight, looking around her, straining to make sense of the bustle around her. Everyone seemed up already, running to and from the showers, whose door was wide open and letting the racket from the shower fans fill the dorm. She pushed her sheets away and got up, feeling both confused and sad—and a bit angry too—trying to hold onto her dream. She’d dreamed of her mother in the garage again, and like always with this particular dream, she couldn’t remember much of it.
A half hour later she walked into the dining hall, still a little depressed.
“What’s up, Fortvallor? Not happy to go to class today?”
She looked up and stiffened. Poisonohl and his gang were coming out of the line with their trays full.
“Oh, perhaps she’s not ready for the Trowani test. You should skip breakfast, Fortvallor, and run and get your books. You have a few minutes to review them before class. Hurry!” The three boys behind him guffawed at the joke.
Miona kept walking toward the end of the line, but couldn’t help answering. “Because you bunch are ready for sure, right? You wouldn’t even know which lesson we’re at.” She picked up a tray, not paying attention to the gang’s answer. It was going to be another long day.
“…And the last question…”
Miona’s pen was nearly touching her sheet, and her nose wasn’t much higher. She was ready.
“…When did the Constitution…get its first…Slave Rights Chart?”
Miona’s pen scratched through the paper, leaving a nasty ink stain.
“An easy one for you, Fortvallor,” a voice directly behind her whispered. “Surely you must know that date by heart.”
Several snickers rang behind Miona’s back. She blotted the stain as well as she could and resumed writing. Her jaws were clenched, but she didn’t turn around. Instead she took a small ruler off her desk and slowly drew a horizontal line under the last question, her brows knitted—why in the world did they have to use these stain-prone fountain pens instead of write-on-alls? But for tests, they had to.
Pulling at the back of her rather short, unruly hair, she started probing her memory to answer question number one—‘Of the Trowan, Sriliss, or Human oil fields, which one is the largest known?’ Miona started biting on her pen. It wasn’t going to be fun. The very first question looked like a trick question—like last week’s quiz. What did Professor Nogarol mean by largest? Largest in size, or largest in production? Or else having the largest reserves?
The Trowan field was believed to cover the smallest area, but Sriliss and Human ones were always under clouds, so no one knew for sure how big they were. And each time they’d put up a satellite to spy on the area, the Srilisses would knock it out of the sky. As for the production, no one could trust the Sriliss numbers, and the Humans’ were unknown. Just like the reserves. The only sure thing was that the Trowan oil reserves were dwindling…. That was it! Trowan’s was the answer; it was the largest known oil field, because it was the only one really known at all! Miona hurried to write down the answer.
As she did, she couldn’t help thinking that the real answer should be Pyrwondu. Trowans in fact had no oil fields of their own. They’d taken them from the Pyrwondus in the south, who, like the Maruwans in the north, had long ago lost their territories and freedom to the Trowans.
“You know,” the teacher’s voice resumed in a detached tone. “I can occupy…my time as I fancy while I wait…for you, class, to finish.”
Miona looked up, brushing her unruly bangs off her eyes, and noticed that Professor Nogarol was taking a bath behind his desk.
“But you students have ten questions to answer, if I dare remind you.” He passed the back of his hand over his ear one last time.
A sudden rummaging spread behind Miona. She looked on her left and on her right, and she rolled her eyes. Half the class had been taking a bath too, and it seemed everyone was only now picking up their rulers.
Ten minutes later, Miona put her pen down and looked around. A dozen kids were done already. Junor Kendrar was one of them, of course. A small kid with short, black fur, he was the best in the class, in all subject matters. Miona didn’t check directly behind her. She didn’t need to. She knew Maltor Poisonohl was done also. He always was. He seemed to make a point of honor to be the first one to finish. It didn’t appear to matter to him that half his answers were usually wrong.
“Miss Fortvallor, can you start collecting the copies, please?”
“Yes, sir.” Hurriedly, Miona pushed her metallic collar down—making sure it was well hidden under her shirt collar—and tightened her tie. Then she stood up. Professor Nogarol always made her collect the homework and tests, and it made her uneasy. She didn’t know if he chose her because she was his favorite student, or because she was the only slave in the class. Junor Kendrar handed her his copy, as did two other kids who were finished. When she got to Poisonohl, the boy didn’t move. He was slouched in his chair and looking at her with an arrogant smirk, his copy on the edge of his desk.
“Here, Fortvallor, help yourself,” he said, hitting his copy with a flick of a finger as she was reaching for it. The copy flew off the table and Miona crouched in a reflex and caught it before it touched the floor. “Well, pretty good catch, little slave,” Maltor Poisonohl said with the same smug smile, low enough not to be heard by the teacher, who seemed busy with his own work. “Thanks for keeping my copy clean. But you know, there’s no need to kneel before me.”
Miona had straightened up already. She stared at the boy with contempt for a moment, wondering if she’d feel better pulling a handful of his long, white hairs off his face, or punching his pink, flattened nose. But they were in class, so she proceeded to the next row, ignoring the sneers coming from the boy’s gang. One was sitting next to him; the other two were in the last row. None of them seemed to be finished with their test, so she pointed at her watch and smiled. Their own smiles vanished and they plunged back into their copies.
“Thank you, Fortvallor,” the teacher said, loud enough for the whole class to hear, when she set the stack of copies on his desk. “You may return to your place. I’ll have Mr. Poisonohl collect the rest”—he turned and looked up at a large wall clock behind him—“in five minutes,” he added a notch louder, creating a stirring of papers and a few gasps of despair from the back of the class.
Miona walked back to her desk, in the front row. “You’ll pay for that, Fortvallor,” she heard Poisonohl hiss behind her as she was sitting down. She hadn’t seen Professor Nogarol observing them, but he must have. All the same, she was divided between rejoicing at Poisonohl’s disgrace and worrying on what her punishment would be after class. She’d probably have to run fast. Fortunately today was the last day of the first half-quarter. She’d be rid of Poisonohl and his clique in a few hours.
The rest of the lesson passed rapidly for Miona. She did enjoy watching Poisonohl collect the copies. Especially, she had great pleasure noticing how he had lost his superior airs—his pale, blue eyes weren’t mocking anymore—and how his ears lay flat with anger until he returned to his seat. She wasn’t the only one rejoicing in Poisonohl’s shame. She caught a few smiles—quickly hidden—that showed her how happy many were to see the official class bully taught a lesson. But she spent the rest of the hour half-listening to the teacher and half-planning her escape.
When the bell rang, she tensed up, one finger on the ‘off’ button of her writing tablet. Her books and fountain pen were already in her satchel on her lap; she’d begun packing discreetly as soon as Professor Nogarol started giving them their homework for the mid-fall break. She’d even put her gloves on under her desk, before he told them to do so—they had to be gloved at all times in the hallways and outside. As he was wishing them a good vacation, she hit the button and slid the tablet into her bag, and when the class started covering his last words with a rumble of closing books, whispers, and the unavoidable metallic ruler clattering on the tiled floor, she swung her legs around, ready to go.
“Fortvallor, I hope you’re not thinking of rushing out and ignoring the protocol?” Professor Nogarol’s detached voice startled her. She swung her legs back to face the teacher properly. Like the other kids, she had learned to be on her guard when he used that kind of tone. You never knew if he was amused at you, or mad. She adjusted her glasses with a nervous gesture, furious at the snickering behind her.
“Good try, Fortvallor,” Maltor Poisonohl whispered.
Helpless, she could only clench her fists and listen as the class was getting up and leaving in good order, row by row, starting from the last because the door was in the back. She had hoped she could get up before Poisonohl. Sometimes, especially at the end of the week when everyone was particularly impatient to leave, the two or three last rows got up at about the same time, and Professor Nogarol didn’t seem to mind. She shouldn’t have shown her impatience. “I’ll be outside waiting for you, Fortvallor,” Poisonohl said as he got up with the second row.
Junor Kendrar gave her a sorry smile when he got up in turn—the sort people give terminally ill patients, she thought. She followed him toward the door, bracing herself for what was in store for her now that her escape plan had been foiled.
“Fortvallor,” rang the teacher’s voice behind her. “I’d like a word with you before you go.”
Miona stopped and turned around, not sure if this new delay would help her out with Poisonohl or drag her further into trouble. Or if the teacher himself had more trouble ready for her. Was he going to punish her for trying to get up before her turn? “Yes, sir?” she said, once by the dais. She stood straight and tense, her hands behind her back, looking up at Professor Nogarol with apprehension.
Professor Nogarol looked down at her over his reading glasses. He was a very old man, she thought, perhaps over fifty—Miona knew that most Trowans lived well over a hundred, but to her anyone over twenty was old already. Rather wiry, he had short, reddish fur, and light brown eyes that could turn from amused to severe in an instant, and had the effect of keeping his students in line. He cleared his throat and bent slightly toward the little girl. “Miona,” he said, and Miona gave a start, for teachers didn’t usually address students by their first name, and Professor Nogarol was less likely to do so than any other teacher. “Miona, I saw what happened with Poisonohl, and I noticed that it isn’t the first time there is friction between the two of you. Is there anything you want to tell me about?”
Miona didn’t answer. She just opened her eyes wide, trying to think fast.
“Of course I understand that your code of values prevents you from reporting on your comrades. And I believe it is a fine code of conduct, most of the time. But some other times it is not. I heard that Poisonohl is capable of violence. If you think he threatens you, it is your duty to let your teachers know about it. The faculty is responsible for the security of every student. But if the students help covering those who inflict violence upon them, we cannot help. Do you understand, Miona?”
“So, is there something you should tell me about?”
Professor Nogarol straightened back up. His stare had hardened a bit. “What is your next class?”
“Srilissi, sir.” Miona relaxed imperceptibly. The subject seemed to have shifted. She hoped she was right.
“That’s at the end of the corridor, isn’t it?”
“On this floor.”
“It should only take you seconds to get there, then. Why don’t you sit back at your desk until the bell rings?”
“Yes, sir.” Miona didn’t move. Was he serious? Did he really mean she could wait in the classroom instead of going in the corridor and being harassed by Poisonohl and his gang?
“Well, go and sit down, then.”
She gave a start and nearly ran to her seat.
“And when the bell rings, Fortvallor, I’d appreciate if you don’t charge down the corridor like a herd of bulldozes.”
“Yes, sir—no, sir.” Miona waited straight on her seat, holding her satchel on her lap. Professor Nogarol wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. He had picked up the first copy of their test and was correcting it. Miona hoped it wasn’t hers. She slid a finger under her shirt collar and eased her slave collar away from her neck. Then she retightened her tie, listening to the din pouring from the hallway. She knew the kids lined up by the open door for the next lesson were whispering about her.
The bell rang finally. She darted from her bench and, just remembering her promise, slowed down and walked with long strides toward the door. She snatched her cape off one of the hooks lining the back wall and turned briefly. “Thank you, sir,” she said, and hurried out.
As soon as Professor Nogarol couldn’t see her anymore, Miona broke into a run, staying as much in the middle of the corridor as she could, dodging the kids not yet properly lined up, jumping over a few satchels lying in her way, and over several legs put in her path by some kids who noticed her in time to try to trip her. She slowed down as she neared the Srilissi classroom. Professor Slimvalsat was already at the door, the whole class in an impeccable triple line under her unflinching gaze. Miona matched her steps to two older kids just ahead of her, hoping her teacher hadn’t noticed her. When the two came close to the end of her class, she sidestepped and fell in line behind the last three of her classmates.
She stood straight, catching her breath, looking at the back of the child directly in front of her, and making sure she didn’t cross Professor Slimvalsat’s gaze. But Professor Slimvalsat had decided otherwise.
“Miss Fortvallor, please. We’re waiting for you.” Her voice was curt and sharp.
Miona felt her heart skip a beat. She moved up the line, conscious everyone was watching her. When she passed by Poisonohl, she caught a glimpse of his sharp teeth showing in a satisfied smile. She took her place two rows in front of him, next to a tall girl with blue ribbons in her long, gray fur. She was too close now from Professor Slimvalsat to avoid her eyes. They were rather large—Srilisses had, generally, small ears, a small nose, a large mouth, and big eyes. They were also a very dark blue, nearly black, and the moment Miona looked into them, she felt as though Professor Slimvalsat was navigating among her own thoughts. Probably because she knew, like all the other kids, that most Srilisses could force the truth out of you with little effort. Perhaps it was the reason Professor Slimvalsat’s classes were the quietest and most studious of all. “Talking with Professor Nogarol, Professor,” she said without waiting for the teacher to ask.
Professor Slimvalsat blinked once, then motioned the first row to enter the classroom, and everyone followed. Miona tugged nervously at her collar when she passed by the tall woman. She proceeded to her seat, in the second row, thinking how strange it was to have a teacher who wasn’t Trowan.
It seemed logical to have a Sriliss teacher teaching the Srilissi class, of course, but in fact very few schools could boast having one. Diplomatic relations between Trowans and Srilisses had been reestablished only three years ago, and sights of Srilisses’ long robes and smooth, greenish skin were rare, even in Landran, the capital. In fact, Professor Slimvalsat’s father worked at the Sriliss embassy, and Miona sometimes wondered if there were more than a handful of Srilisses in town, and if any other school at all had a native Srilissi teacher, and somehow that made her proud. And that made her want to do good in Professor Slimvalsat’s class—which, as a matter of fact, she did. And perhaps that explained why she wasn’t as nervous as most other children when Professor Slimvalsat asked a question: she knew the answer most of the time. Actually, she really enjoyed most language classes they had. She seemed to have a certain facility for languages. Perhaps it was because she heard so many at home.
Mostly Pyrwondi: most servants were from the Pyrwondu islands. But there was Kalinda, her old nanny, who spoke only Humani to her. And Ruhul, the chauffeur, who taught her quite a few Maruwani words, although she couldn’t use many of those in class, which she learned—with some embarrassment—the first day of school. Srilissi was different. Nobody spoke Srilissi at home. But somehow she picked it up rather fast, and she could see Professor Slimvalsat was impressed with her progress.
The class passed very quickly, like all of Professor Slimvalsat’s classes. Everyone was so focused they were always surprised when the bell rang. This time was no different, and Miona scrambled to gather her things. They had to wait and leave in good order, but unlike the history classroom, the door to this room was in the front, so the first rows were the first to leave. She was in the second row, and Poisonohl was in the third, and his cohort too. She got up with the second row, snatched up her cape, and began running the instant she was in the hallway, awkwardly trying to button the straps of her cape with one hand. With her gloves on, it wasn’t easy.
Srilissi was the last class of the day, and of the half-quarter. Now she had one hour to pack and make the bus. That gave her plenty of time, but of course she had to reach her dormitory without Poisonohl catching her. And the boys’ first year dorm was just across from the girls’, on the same landing. She looked down at the bicolor sea of capes—grayish blue for boys and lavender blue for girls—already cascading down the stairs, and plunged in, weaving left and right around slower children, hopping and running down the four stories as if she were surfing a giant wave. She kept on running down the long corridor toward the Main Hall doors.
Then she stopped in her tracks. The Dean was in the corridor, and she was looking straight at her, arms crossed on her chest with her crop well in view—she’d seen her running. Miona ducked behind a group of kids, following in their footsteps, but she knew she was done for. She was too close now to backtrack, and anyway Poisonohl mustn’t be far behind. She searched her head for some type of excuse, but couldn’t find any. The price for running in the hallway could vary from detention to some more painful punishment, depending on who caught you, but it happened to be Miss Bertahrat’s pet peeve. When she arrived at the Dean’s level, Miona looked straight ahead, ready to hear the tall woman call her name.
She didn’t hear her name. Instead, a faint telephone ring reached her ears through the racket, coming from the Dean’s office. She risked a glance. What a piece of luck—she was gone!
A weight came off her shoulders and she prepared to overtake the kids she’d used as a shield.
But her heart sank back just as quickly. She could see one of Poisonohl’s lieutenants guarding the double door ahead: Randor Bludjan, a large boy with tufts of long, orange hairs showing through his ever-badly buttoned shirt, and a flat face not unlike Poisonohl’s.
She was trapped. Bludjan just ahead, about twenty strides, and Poisonohl on her heels. She turned around, but her view was blocked by some tall kids behind her. Anyway he couldn’t be far. And how long would the Dean be on the phone?
She listened intently to the conversation of the group of girls she was following. They were four, two Pyrwondus and two Humans, and she knew them well. They were her age, and slept in the same dormitory. And because there wasn’t much trust between Trowans and non-Trowans, Human, Maruwan, and Pyrwondu girls in their year instinctively clustered in the same corner of the dormitory. The two Pyrwondus slept next to the two Human girls and were in the same slave class, and the four were often together. Miona’s bed was across the cubicle aisle from the Pyrwondus. If she had been in the same class also, she’d most likely be with them all the time. But not only wasn’t she in their class, she wasn’t even in an all-slave class. And she felt that her special status had put a wedge between them. As soon as she got some sense of what they were joking about, she sneaked in among them and jumped in the conversation.
“He dislocated his arm?” she asked the girls on her right. “Whose arm?”
They all stopped talking, and Miona noticed that the two girls she had turned to knitted their brows in front of her intrusion. But the next instant they were all laughing even louder. “Rotohr’s, of course,” said Soumaya Trollorf, the Human girl on her left.
“Rotohr? Who’s Rotohr?”
Another burst of high-pitched laughs. “Rotohr, the teacher’s dummy,” said Nandi Purrimor, the Pyrwondu girl on her right. By this time they were at the doors. The sliding timer was set longer for class rotations, so the flow of students kept them open. The double door was wide enough to let the five of them go through, and Randor Bludjan couldn’t get near Miona. She could see disappointment on his orange face as they passed him by. Looking behind, she saw he was following them. “How did he do that?” she asked, pulling the hood of her cape on to protect her head and her glasses from the annoying drizzle. The covered passageway they were taking to cross the playground was no protection against the gusty wind. The other girls did the same, even the Pyrwondus. None of them had glasses, and their short, thick fur could repel the rain much longer than the Humans’ hair, but the early-fall wind was ruffling it and pushing the cold and wetness through it.
Carmela Tandirl, the second Human girl, answered. “Our teacher was demonstrating a technique to relax strained and tired shoulders. He said that pulling the arm up behind the head can loosen up a tense shoulder.”
“I’m glad he didn’t demonstrate on me,” said the smaller Pyrwondu girl, the one that hadn’t spoken yet. Most Pyrwondus were lighter built and shorter than Humans and Trowans, with delicate features. But Pera Marhao was perhaps the shortest and frailest-looking student of the whole school. The top of her head barely arrived to Miona’s chin.
“Does he demonstrate on the students sometimes?” Miona asked, loudly, to cover the new outburst of laughing.
“Oh no, thank goodness,” Nandi Purrimor said, shaking her dainty light-brown head and faking a scared look.
“And do you girls practice on each other?”
They all looked at each other and laughed even louder, and Miona could see a faint blush coming on the two Human girls’ cheeks despite the chill. “Not in class,” Soumaya Trollorf said finally. “Thank goodness, we all have a dummy to practice on.”
“I see I’m missing a lot of fun,” Miona said.
“Yes, you are,” said Carmela Tandirl, while her classmates were giggling. “I get it that none of your classes are much fun at all.”
Miona thought a moment, looking behind at the same time. Poisonohl had caught up with Bludjan, and they were less than ten strides behind them. Would he try anything against her, now that the four girls were with her? No, she decided. He wouldn’t do anything in front of witnesses. She felt pretty safe now. “No, I guess not,” she admitted. “I like the language classes, and history and geography, and biology, but the other classes are tough, and pretty boring.”
“Why aren’t you in our class, then?” asked Pera Marhao, her large eyes eating up the rest of her delicately striped face.
“I told you guys already. My master wants me to learn all those things.”
“What good will it do you?” Soumaya Trollorf said, pushing a frizzy black lock off her forehead. “Will he get you a post at the Imperial Office?”
Miona could hear in the girl’s tone that she was being sarcastic. “Of course not. You know slaves can’t work there.”
“Why couldn’t you take some of the fun classes, like gardening or massage?” Nandi Purrimor asked, brushing off a laughter tear with her gloved hand.
Miona thought a moment. “I already have trouble keeping up, because I’m taking all the language classes. I’d have to drop something.” She thought a little more. “I’d love to take massage, though, and cooking. And I’d really love to drop math and chemistry.” They had reached a garden that connected the dining hall to the Library and the chapel. A peristyle ran around it, wider and much better protected from the wind than the other covered passages they had been on until now. Miona immediately pushed her hood off her head so she could listen to Poisonohl’s steps behind them. She picked up faint sounds of leather soles on the stone tiles. Fortunately the peristyle’s vaulted ceiling made them echo slightly, amplifying the sound.
Shortly before the peristyle gave way to an unprotected path that lead to the dorms, the four girls stepped aside and hid behind a fat column. Nandi Purrimor pushed a small door. Miona jumped behind the column to join them. “We can’t go through the maze!” she said, twisting her neck to look at Poisonohl and his goon. She wasn’t sure they had seen them stopping yet. They hadn’t turned the last corner, and she could see part of their capes showing on and off behind two rows of columns.
The four girls let out a surprised laugh. “Why not? It’s shorter and there’s less wind,” Carmela Tandirl said as she followed Nandi through the opening.
“We aren’t supposed to,” insisted Miona. Poisonohl and Bludjan had rounded the corner now. They had stopped and were conferring in a whisper, their hoods touching—they’d seen them. Three other kids stepped aside to avoid bumping into the two hoodlums.
Soumaya Trollorf turned on the doorstep and gave her a suspicious look. “You’re not so concerned about the rules usually. You’re not going to tell on us, right?”
“Of course not,” Miona said. Soumaya turned and disappeared.
“Come on, hurry,” said Pera Marhao. “Before a prefect comes.” And she too was gone.
Miona brushed her hair nervously out of her eyes. She felt trapped. Poisonohl could very well snitch on them going through the maze. But she couldn’t stay behind with the two boys barely ten strides away. She hurried behind the small Pyrwondu and slammed the door shut behind her.
The others were already out of sight. “Hurry up, it’s pouring,” Miona said, pushing Pera Marhao in front of her and breaking into a run to catch up with the head of the troop. She looked behind as Pera turned out of view into the first twist of the maze, and saw the little door being pushed open.
They were following. She turned the first corner of the maze, and had the weird feeling of being left alone with Poisonohl and Bludjan. Marhao was nowhere in sight. Miona reached the second corner and then she saw Marhao’s cape disappearing around the third corner. The little Pyrwondu was much faster than she’d thought, but then again Pyrwondus were known to be good sprinters. She was halfway to the third corner when she heard the peristyle door slam shut. She was level with the door at that moment. The way to the girls’ dormitory was east, straight away from the peristyle, but the maze forced them to run back and forth parallel to it, in a north-south direction. She kept her satchel pressed against her chest. The maze was very narrow, and she didn’t want the hedge to grab her briefcase out of her hand and waste her precious seconds. She also took special care not to brush against the shrub for another reason. Each time she did, the noise added to the rain and the wind, and to her own steps on the gravel, and made it even more difficult to hear what was happening around her. When she didn’t, she could make out the other girls’ steps and their occasional brushing of the hedge, and have an idea where they were, especially Pera. She turned the third corner, and was running back closer to the door again, and she could hear the girls on her right. The rain on her glasses made it difficult to see, but she refrained from pulling her hood; she needed all her hearing faculties. She was about flush with the door again, and she heard the hedges being brushed simultaneously on both sides, very close to her, mixed with the sound of gravel culminating and receding. One single brushing sound on her right and two in succession on her left—Pera on one side, Poisonohl and Bludjan on the other.
She turned the fourth corner, slipping on the gravel and nearly letting go of her satchel. She didn’t fall though, and kept on running. But she took off her glasses and stuffed them in a pocket of her cape. The next wall of vegetation had an opening midway before the end of the row. She turned into the opening, ducking to clear the arch of dense branches and leaves. She negotiated her way through the next two rows, with two sharp turns separated by just a few steps, avoiding one turn she knew would lead to a dead end.
As she turned the next corner, she heard a series of muffled screams—fear and surprise. Three in rapid succession, then a fourth one after a small delay, that last one from Pera. What was going on, she wondered, slowing down, but keeping on running anyway—she could hear the steps on the other side of the maze, closing in. She got her answer when she turned the next corner.
She stopped dead in her tracks. Borant Furriahr—another of Poisonohl’s clique—was standing nonchalantly next to another opening in the hedge, which Miona knew led out of the maze. He stepped forward when he saw her, blocking the opening. Miona took a step toward him, ready to push her way through, but froze immediately. Furriahr had taken his hand off his hip and pushed his cape aside, and she could see his hand.
“He’s got no glove on!” she heard Pera’s voice cry from close by beyond the opening. “He took off his glove!” Then Nandi Purrimor’s voice echoed, in the same horrified tone. “You can’t take off your gloves on the grounds!”
Furriahr let out an amused laugh, stretching his fingers and revealing five very sharp claws.
Miona didn’t wait any longer. She turned around and broke into a run again, hearing more protests from her friends, then a burst of new screams echoing an angry hiss.
How long before I find myself nose to nose with Poisonohl, she wondered. And then the thought that he too could have removed his gloves made her heart pound louder. The sound of gravel under her feet grew louder too as she reached her top speed, but she could also hear other steps getting close, albeit much slower. Poisonohl walked around the corner at the end of the aisle and smiled at her. She threw herself into another opening in the hedge. Furriahr’s laughs and hisses told her he hadn’t moved, but that didn’t comfort her: she didn’t know the part of the maze she was now running in.
After five rapid turns, she ended in a cul-de-sac. She faced about and ran to a side alley she’d just passed. She couldn’t hear anything except her own pulse beating against her eardrums. The alley kept turning on the same side, and she slowed down instinctively, starting to have a very bad feeling about it coiling on itself like a rope. Then her heart sank and she stopped cold. She was in a tiny square barely large enough for the lone stone bench it was hiding. She turned on her heels, panting. She didn’t have time to backtrack. Anyway, she hadn’t passed any other cut in the hedge, which meant she’d have to go back to where she’d seen Poisonohl. A sound wedged itself through the noise of her pulse—Poisonohl’s steps, just on the other side of the hedge, slow and deliberate. He knew she was trapped, and was obviously walking slowly to make her more nervous. She stepped around the bench and got ready to defend herself dearly, holding her briefcase as a shield.
Poisonohl appeared around the side of the hedge, a wide smile revealing his sharp fangs. He had recovered his haughty air. He stopped two feet from the bench. He was holding his right glove in his left hand, confirming Miona’s fears. She heard other steps growing closer through the noise of the rain and the beating of her heart. “Well, well, look who’s here waiting for us,” Poisonohl said without taking his gaze off Miona. Randor Bludjan stopped on his left, slightly behind him. His right hand also was gloveless.
“It’s our little pet masseuse,” Poisonohl went on. And, this time addressing Miona, “I’m sorry, Fortvallor, but the wind carried your conversation. I think we could help you with your massage practice.” He took another step, staring at Miona silently for several long seconds. “Have you lost your glasses, Fortvallor?” he finally asked with a sorry tone. “I hope we didn’t trample on them.” Bludjan guffawed behind him. Miona didn’t answer. She was still out of breath and she didn’t want her exhaustion and her fear to show in her voice. Poisonohl angled his face toward his henchman, still not letting his gaze leave Miona. “What do you think, Rand? Wouldn’t a little massage be good?”
Miona couldn’t help a brief shudder. It wasn’t only the cold or the fear. She just couldn’t imagine putting her hands on Randor Bludjan for anything else than hitting him. He scared her all right. He was broad shouldered, and taller than her or Poisonohl, nearly as tall as a Maruwan kid—partly because he was two years older than they were. But he also disgusted her. She found his unkempt state repulsive. He didn’t groom himself very often, resorting to cologne instead. He didn’t even bother cleaning the corner of his eyes, so that two dubious streaks ran permanently on each side of his nose. Miona sniffed and pursed her nose, even though he was behind Poisonohl.
Bludjan looked at his classmate with a questioning air. “Er…with the rain?”
Poisonohl gave him a quick look, then switched his attention back to Miona. “Well, if you don’t feel like it, I wouldn’t be against some care for my sore shoulders. After carrying these heavy copies to Nogarol’s desk…. But you should make yourself comfortable, Fortvallor. You’ll never give me a good massage with this on.” He slowly extended his hand toward Miona’s shoulder. His claws were still sheathed.
She backed up, but the hedge prevented her from moving more than a foot. She raised her satchel in front of her chest, her heart beating. Randor Bludjan moved to position himself beside his leader. Miona angled her briefcase so to shield herself from him also. She didn’t like at all the turn the conversation had taken. She didn’t see what could save her now. She could hear her friends’ voices way back toward the exit of the maze, and Furriahr’s sneers answering them. They hadn’t managed to force his blockade to come and help her. If one of them had had the good idea to get some help, it wouldn’t arrive before five minutes at the earliest, but she doubted they could find any girls ready to help against the gang, and there might not be any prefect at the dormitory at this time.
She felt her cape slide off her shoulders before she could do anything. Poisonohl had unsheathed and cut off the strap, which passed under her arm and clipped on her chest. She moved her shield back toward him and made him withdraw his hand. She backed up some more into the shrub, but the cape had already fallen on the gravel. She ducked her head between her shoulders as water from the hedge’s wet leaves seeped through the fabric of her shirt and overshirt. The two hooligans burst out laughing.
“Oh, are you getting a little wet?” Poisonohl asked with false compassion. “Well, you should grow some more hairs on your head, little Human. Like us.”
She had an insult ready for him, but she checked herself. She wasn’t sure she wanted to start anything until she’d decided on a course of action.
Poisonohl gestured toward her briefcase. “In the meantime you could use that to cover your sparse hair. But you should empty it first, or else your head will never fit in it.”
He looked at Bludjan, whose sharp teeth showed in a perverse smile. Miona would have liked her heart to stop pounding. She’d already had a few brushes with Poisonohl and his gang, but never in such a secluded place. She wasn’t sure where he wanted to go with his idea of a massage, and it made her very uncomfortable. She could see exactly where he was going with her satchel, though. He would dump her precious tablet and her papers and pads and memory cards on the wet ground. A few puddles had formed around the bench, and water wasn’t the best thing for electronics. She’d have to invent some explanation for her master, because he didn’t look kindly on fights or disciplinary mishaps. And would the satchel on her head satisfy Poisonohl? Somehow she doubted it, and she decided she wouldn’t wait to see what his next idea would be.
She bent down slowly and picked her cape off the ground with her left hand, holding her briefcase against her chest with her right. She hadn’t found her action plan yet, but she was going to make her exit and she didn’t want to leave any of her things behind, especially not her glasses. She didn’t take her gaze off Poisonohl, and saw in a flash what she was going to do. She wasn’t sure it would work, but she didn’t have time to ponder on the idea. What had triggered it was Poisonohl’s school tie. It was showing in the opening of his cape. While he was talking, he had imperceptibly bent toward her, probably because she was recoiling away. His shins were nearly touching the bench, and because of her new position, his tie was dangling above her. It would be within reach when she had straightened up.
She tucked her satchel under her left arm to free her right. “You better not touch my satchel, or I’ll go and tell my friends in the Renaissance.” She didn’t know anybody in the rebel group, of course, and she’d mentioned it only to divert the boys’ attention.
And it worked. “And what?” Poisonohl replied with a smirk. “They’ll come to the school, perhaps? And cover the walls with tags telling us to stop bothering you?” The two thugs looked at each other and laughed heartily.
At that moment she reached for the tie as she straightened up, and pulled hard.
She felt Poisonohl’s claws going through her glove when he grabbed her hand in reflex, but he was already falling forward, his legs blocked by the bench. He landed heavily on the stone. Miona let go of the tie and grabbed back the handle of her briefcase. At the same second multiple jabs of ice-like pain in her right shoulder drew tears to her eyes. Bludjan had pounced around the bench. She screamed and knocked his arm away with her right arm. Unfortunately for Bludjan, she hadn’t let go of her satchel, which happened to crash against the boy’s flat nose, and he collapsed at the bottom of the hedge. The next moment Miona was on the bench, one foot on the stone, the other on Poisonohl’s back. Another jump and she landed on the gravel, smiling through her tears at the sound of Poisonohl’s scream. “Free back massage,” she yelled. And she broke into a run.
Rushing back down the one-way alley, she listened intently through the sound of her own steps and breathing. Furriahr was still holding up the girls. She’d have to go back to the peristyle if she wanted to avoid him. She couldn’t hear any noise from the small square, but wasn’t sure one of the two boys at least wasn’t after her. Her heart gave a start and she stopped in her tracks. Edron Ratmatuhr was in front of her. She’d completely forgotten about him, but he must have been only a minute behind Poisonohl since the Srilissi classroom. He started working on pulling his glove off the second he saw her. Miona thought of trying to bump him out of her way—he wasn’t as large as Bludjan or Furriahr—but what if she failed? After what she’d done to the other two, she didn’t want to give him the chance to hold her until they arrived. She remembered passing by another bench, seconds ago, and it gave her an idea.
She turned around and ran at full speed back toward the square, praying that Poisonohl or Bludjan were just far enough away to let her execute her plan. The bench was on the next corner. She pressed her cape and her satchel to her chest and focused her eyes on the bench, and her ears on the steps she could now hear coming from the square. They were slow and uneven, a little like her master’s, she thought, and she couldn’t tell if they came from one boy or from both.
She didn’t take her eyes off the bench as she was jumping on it, but she thought the running shape she caught out of the corner of her eye while she was flying off the bench had Poisonohl’s white fur. She didn’t see more, though. The next second she was landing on top of the hedge, and rolling on the dense foliage until she fell on the other side.
She landed on her back, so hard that it knocked the air out of her. She stayed several long seconds staring at the cloudy sky, gasping for air.
Eventually she managed to draw several hungry breaths of cool, moist air into her lungs. She became aware that raindrops were falling on her face, and that the rough gravel under her back was letting water seep through her shirts and skirt. Ratmatuhr and Poisonohl seemed to be arguing behind the hedge, and she feared that one of them would decide to follow her over it. They could do it as easily as her, or even more so. She wondered what was holding them. Perhaps the fact that they didn’t know what they’d fall on, on the other side, she decided. And that they were cowards.
She pulled herself up and started running again. She called to her friends the moment she was out of the maze, and waited for them outside, shaking her satchel with a worried look. A suspect noise was coming from it. Hopefully she hadn’t broken her precious tablet on Bludjan’s nose, she thought. The four girls broke into a loud cheer as they emerged from the maze, but Miona decided she’d wait to be in the girls’ dormitory to explain what had happened, and they all ran across a wet lawn toward the massive, ancient building.
“Mr. Poisonohl, please!” The shrill and oily voice of Dargoness Slowrancohr echoed down the narrow hallway leading to the Headmistress’s office.
Miona looked up as Randor Bludjan walked out of the office and came toward the bench where she was sitting. She tried to decipher his expression, which wasn’t easy considering the large bandage the nurse had strapped around his head. It covered his right eye completely and also his nose, and the swelling from his sinuses was nearly closing his other eye. Still, she thought she saw that eye close briefly when Bludjan passed by Poisonohl, who had just gotten up and was hopping toward the door, helped by two brand-new crutches.
Miona craned her neck to see past the two boys. She managed to catch a glimpse of Krelle Slowrancohr, shuffling papers behind her desk, before Poisonohl blocked her view. After that it was the Dean’s turn to hide the Headmistress, when she closed the door behind the boy. A tall and broad-shouldered, muscular Human always carrying a switch, Miss Bertahrat had the Headmistress’s full confidence. One reason was said to be their shared imposing physical features—apart from the fur, each seemed a replica of the other, and both appeared to stretch the fabric of their school uniform to the same dangerous point. Another reason: similar views on tough discipline.
Both looked as stern as usual, Miona thought. She didn’t know if she should rejoice or not. Poisonohl might be in for a good dressing down, but it was the first time she had to see the Headmistress herself, and it made her uncomfortable. Until now when she’d run into trouble, the prefects had handled it. But this time the Dean had consigned them to stay in study hall after hearing her story and the two boys’.
Miona jumped on her feet and moved to the wall facing the bench. Bludjan had just sat down heavily next to her, nearly touching her.
“Is anything the matter, Miss Fortvallor?” The Headmistress’s secretary was looking at her over her triangular reading glasses. Her stare was no friendlier than her cold voice.
“Nothing, Miss Minfangsehr.”
“Sit down, then.” The older woman’s hands remained over her keyboard, but she was waiting for Miona to sit before going on with her work.
Miona looked at Bludjan warily and walked back to the bench. She sat down, but at the other end to where she was before. She was now closest to the Headmistress’s office and the secretary’s desk. The older woman resumed her typing, and Miona watched her fingers fly over her keyboard, fascinated. Unconsciously she caressed her right hand. Her glove bore four furrows where Poisonohl’s claws had dug. She felt her sore skin under the pad the nurse had placed on top of her scratches. She could see the pad stretching the thin leather. The wound on her shoulder was deeper, and the nurse had insisted on giving her a shot. She hadn’t resisted much, actually, because she doubted Bludjan’s claws were very clean.
The nurse was the reason she was still here instead of riding the bus home. Miona’s friends had insisted she ought to get her wounds treated, but when the nurse was working on her, she’d told Miona that Poisonohl and Bludjan had passed by the ward before her, and that she had reported their case to the Dean. Then she told her she’d have to report her case too. When she arrived at the Dean’s office, Poisonohl and Bludjan had told the tall woman about her already, and she said that she had to notify Krelle Slowrancohr because of the seriousness of the case.
The door to the Headmistress’s office opened, and the Dean stepped back to let Poisonohl pass. Miona didn’t like at all the wide smile she saw on the boy’s face.
“Fortvallor,” the Dean said in a stern voice. “You’re next.”
Poisonohl didn’t say anything when she passed him by, but he hadn’t dropped his smile. Miona dragged her feet to the office and stopped behind the chair in front of the Headmistress’s desk.
“Aren’t you forgetting something, Miss Fortvallor?” the Headmistress said without taking her gaze off the paper in front of her.
Miona opened her eyes wide, searching her mind.
“The door,” the Headmistress said irritably.
The Dean pointed to somewhere behind Miona, who understood they wanted her to go and close the windowed door at the beginning of the small hallway. As she walked to it, the thought that this door had remained open during Bludjan’s and Poisonohl’s interviews didn’t help her spirits—nor did Poisonohl’s even wider smile. As she returned, the Dean, now by the Dargoness’s desk, motioned a new command, and Miona closed the office’s thick, wooden door.
“Now, Miss Fortvallor,” the Headmistress said as Miona was turning around. “I just read your version of the facts as you related them to Miss Bertahrat here. Do you have anything to add to that statement?”
Miona stopped behind the chair again. She could see she wouldn’t be offered to sit down. She stood erect, her hands behind her back. “No, Madam Headmistress.”
“I must tell you that your account of the facts is very different from those of your two classmates.”
Miona tensed, although she hadn’t expected Poisonohl and Bludjan to tell the facts the way they happened.
Krelle Slowrancohr looked up over her reading glasses and fixed Miona for a moment. “I would appreciate the removal of your glasses when you speak to me, Miss Fortvallor,” she said in a honeyed voice.
Miona hesitated. Her master had made her promise she would keep her glasses on at all times, even indoors. Her mother had asked the same thing from her when she’d given her her first glasses several years ago. She said her eyes were too sensitive to light and that she needed the slightly tinted lenses, even if she didn’t feel any discomfort—she said her optic nerves were too fragile. She said another thing too, which really scared her and made her keep her glasses on religiously—that her often intense gaze made the other kids uncomfortable, and that she ought to wear her glasses at all times if she didn’t want to lose her playmates.
“Fortvallor?” the Dean barked.
Miona took the smoked-lens glasses off her face and hid them behind her back, standing at attention like a soldier.
“Now, Miss Fortvallor,” the Headmistress resumed in a concerned tone, looking at the paper in front of her while distractedly using the scratching pad of her chair’s left armrest. “You are saying here that Messrs Poisonohl and Bludjan were chasing after you.”
Miona took a glance at Krelle Slowrancohr’s claws, then quickly shifted her eyes back to the map behind the woman, waiting for what she was going to say next. The map showed the three main continents, and her gaze drifted to the Human land.
“Miss Fortvallor, are you listening?” the Headmistress said, some irritation filtering through in her voice.
Miona gave a start. “Yes, Madam Headmistress,” she hurried to say. “That’s what I said.”
The Dargoness started playing with her whiskers. “Fortvallor, I’d appreciate if you were looking at me when I speak to you.”
Miona’s eyes left the map and focused on the Headmistress.
“Well, that’s what they said too,” Krelle Slowrancohr continued, resuming her detached tone.
Miona opened her eyes wide.
“They say they were trying to get back Poisonohl’s write-on-all pen, which you snatched from him at the end of the class.”
“That’s a lie!” Miona exclaimed. She caught herself and said, forcefully but in a lower voice, “I never stole his pen, Madam Headmistress. I’m not a thief!” The Dargoness didn’t answer. She had recoiled slightly on her chair and was looking at Miona blankly. Miona pulled nervously at her metallic collar, wondering what Krelle Slowrancohr was going to say. Usually when adults looked at her that way, they were preparing some nasty remark.
The Headmistress blinked a few times and cleared her throat. Her hand went up and started arranging her shiny silk tie and lace shirt collar, mechanically. “You’re not a thief…. No, I don’t believe you are…. Poisonohl thinks you took his pen to get back at him for making fun of you during the class.”
“That’s not true!” Miona exclaimed again. “He was the one who wanted to get back at me. Professor Nogarol made him pick up the copies. That’s why he was angry with me!” She stepped back quickly and put her hands back behind her back, noticing she had grabbed the back of the chair. She held her breath, waiting for Krelle Slowrancohr to reprimand her for yelling. She was scared and ashamed of her outburst, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off her, after what she’d said a moment ago.
But the Dargoness didn’t scold her. She was staring back at her in silence. Still, she seemed to be upset, and Miona braced for her next words.
“He was angry with you…”
Miona took that as a prompt for her to elaborate. “Yes, Madam. So he followed me in the maze, and Borant Furriahr blocked my way, and I got stuck in a dead end.”
“Furriahr, yes…. Stuck…. Not a good idea to go in the maze, Fortvallor.”
“Excuse me, Madam Headmistress,” the Dean interrupted hesitantly. “No one mentioned Furriahr anywhere. She didn’t. Poisonohl and Bludjan didn’t either.”
Miona looked at the big woman, who had been standing still by the desk until then. She wondered if she was supposed to answer, or to wait for the Headmistress to ask her to. She looked back at the Dargoness, to see that she had pushed her chair and was getting up. The Headmistress moved slowly to the only window of the room and looked over the main quad for a long moment, her hands behind her back. Miona noticed that this position seemed to pull badly on the seams of her sleeves.
“So, Fortvallor,” Dargoness Slowrancohr said finally, still looking out. “Are you sure Furriahr was there? Think well before answering. You don’t want to incriminate your comrades lightly.”
“Yes, Madam,” Miona said eagerly. “He was. And Edron Ratmatuhr too. He came as I was getting away. He tried to block my way too.”
“Ah, I see. And anybody else? Was there anyone else in the maze?”
Miona hesitated. She couldn’t mention her four girlfriends. She had promised not to. Their masters were rather strict, and if it was known that they had been in a forbidden place like the maze, they feared the punishment they would receive at home even more than what they’d get at school.
“So,” Krelle Slowrancohr said. “Not sure?”
“There was no one else, Madam.” Miona said finally in a dull voice.
“Yes, Madam,” she said, forcing herself to sound more affirmative. “Just Poisonohl, Bludjan, Furriahr, and Ratmatuhr.”
The Dargoness still had her back to her. “Now tell me. You said Furriahr blocked your way out of the maze. Did he follow you to that dead end?”
“No, Madam Headmistress. Only Poisonohl and Bludjan.”
“What was he doing then? It seems to me that if there was some entertainment going on, like a possible fight, he wouldn’t have missed a second of it.”
“I don’t know, Madam.” Obviously she couldn’t say that Furriahr was preventing her friends from helping her.
“And Ratmatuhr, why wasn’t he watching?”
“He arrived too late, Madam Headmistress. I was getting away by then.” Then she thought of something else. “Madam Headmistress, I think Furriahr was playing lookout at the end of the maze.”
“You think. And how did you get out if he was blocking the exit?”
“I used a bench to jump over the hedge, Madam.”
“You seem to be thinking of everything, Fortvallor. But why didn’t you tell Miss Bertahrat about Furriahr and Ratmatuhr?”
“I don’t know, Madam. I was just thinking of the two others. Because I had to fight with them.”
“And why did you go in the maze to begin with? You knew it was out of bounds to students.”
“I don’t know, Madam.” She cursed her friends for that one. Why in the world hadn’t they just gone the normal way? “I was trying to get away from Poisonohl.”
“By going through a place where most people get lost? Where nobody would see you and be able to help you? It seems pretty risky to me, Fortvallor. Instead of staying in the peristyle with the other students, where teachers are never far?”
“I panicked, I guess. I thought I could lose him there.”
“How’s that? You risked getting lost yourself, on the contrary, and having Poisonohl catch you.” Krelle Slowrancohr paused for a moment. “You may put your glasses back on, now.”
Miona put the smoked-lens glasses back on her nose. The Headmistress turned around and walked back to her seat.
“Unless,” she continued, letting her voice trail a moment. “Unless you knew your way out of the maze already, of course.”
Miona stared anxiously at the Headmistress. The burly woman still had her hands behind her back. But now what Miona saw the most of her were her shoulders. The fabric of her uniform was still very stretched in that place, and the little girl remembered her friends joking that Miss Bertahrat must be overdoing it with the weight machines. Now she was wondering if Krelle Slowrancohr wasn’t overusing the gym too: she looked like someone you would be just as unwise to cross as the Dean.
She opened her eyes wide behind her glasses. She was trapped. Answering yes to the Headmistress’s last remark meant she’d already gone to the maze before. And most likely already explored there several times. With no good reason—no one to escape from.
“No, Madam. I didn’t know my way…. I just took my chances.”
“I see.” The Headmistress looked her straight in the eyes. “Very unwise, Fortvallor. Very risky.”
She glanced at the Dean still motionless at her side, then settled her gaze back on the little girl. “All your teachers say you’re a clever child, Fortvallor. What you are describing here is very unlike you. I don’t know if I can believe you.”
“I told the truth, Madam,” Miona said in an uncertain voice—she knew she had not been entirely truthful, and that wasn’t helping her sound convincing.
“There are a few other items I need to clear with you, but first I need to ask you one question,” the Headmistress pursued. Her eyes had grown even more serious suddenly, and she was watching Miona intently. “Your classmates said that you threatened them with reporting them to your friends in the Renaissance. Who are those friends?”
Miona tensed. She’d better deflate this issue fast. The way Krelle Slowrancohr seemed to be set against her, her throat went dry thinking where she could go with this. “I don’t know anybody in the Renaissance, Madam Headmistress,” she said hoarsely. “I swear. I invented that to scare them away.”
“Are you certain?” The Headmistress set her feet apart, hands still behind her back. “This is a very serious matter, Miss Fortvallor. The Renaissance is a dissident group wanted by the police. If I felt that you are linked to any of them, it would be my duty to inform the authorities about it.”
Miona blanched. She could only wonder what her master would say if Krelle Slowrancohr involved the police! And if it brought him any trouble at work, she couldn’t look him in the eyes ever again.
“Who told you about the Renaissance?” insisted Krelle Slowrancohr.
Was she really trying to carry this further? “Nobody!” she hurried to say.” In fact, everybody was talking about it at school. And since the Renaissance had resurfaced about a year ago, it was difficult not hearing about it each time she was going home too. Radios and portable TVs were forbidden at school, but at home every slave had one, so on every vacation, she would hungrily listen to or watch the news. “I heard it on the news,” she said in a forceful way, looking the Headmistress in the eyes. “I know nearly nothing about them.”
The Headmistress returned her stare, obviously searching her face for traces of a lie, she thought. After an eternity, she decided to speak again. “All right, then. That is a matter outside of school, and I will have to talk to your master about it.”
Oh, no, Miona thought, feeling definitely sick to her stomach by now.
“Now getting back strictly to school business,” the Headmistress resumed. “Independently of what we can trust about what you’ve told us, there are a few things that we do know, which we can’t let stand without taking action. First, you hit your classmates in such a way that you could have incapacitated them for life. You hit Mr. Bludjan in the face with a very hard object, and that could have resulted in a cerebral commotion. You jumped onto Mr. Poisonohl’s back in a place where you could have damaged his spine. This is very serious in itself, Miss Fortvallor. Whatever the situation, your reaction seems to have been disproportionate.”
A sinking feeling descended on Miona. She had never thought of the matter in that way. She also had a good idea of what she was facing if it was how Krelle Slowrancohr was seeing things. The Headmistress motioned something to the Dean, who walked toward a tall wardrobe sitting in a corner. Miona followed her with her eyes, but had to face Krelle Slowrancohr again when she went on. “Secondly, you entered the maze, which is absolutely out of bounds to students, in any circumstances. And thirdly, Miss Bertahrat saw you earlier today running in the corridors, and this alone is ground for disciplinary action. And she told me it wasn’t the first time she saw you do it.”
Miona swallowed hard. She was done for, and in a beautiful way, she thought. There was no escaping her fate now. She glanced at the Dean, who had taken off her jacket and was walking back to the desk, holding what she feared she would.
“It seems it is time we act, Miss Fortvallor,” Krelle Slowrancohr went on. “It seems we have waited too long. Hopefully you will remember this, and it will help you understand that the rules of this establishment are set for good reasons and purposes, of which the main is to keep students safe. Now walk over to that table.”
She motioned her to a heavy-looking wooden table set against the wall by the door. There was nothing on it, and it dawned on Miona that its sole purpose in the room was discipline. She dragged her feet to the table, filled with a mixture of resignation and rebellion. She had broken several rules, but she also knew that Poisonohl and Bludjan had too, and had not been punished, or very lightly. Maybe they got some extra homework, if that. And what they’d done was pretty serious too. They had taken their gloves off.
She turned around in front of the table. “Madam Headmistress, the reason I overreacted was that I was scared,” she pleaded. “They’d pulled off their gloves.”
“Yes, I read that in your statement,” the Headmistress said. “Your comrades invoke self-defense. They say you were trying to hit them again and again with your tablet, and because they were already on the ground, they thought they had to draw to keep you away.”
“They’re lying again!” Miona said.
“They are, are they? Well, it’s their word against yours, unfortunately. Because you don’t have any witness.”
Miona tightened her lips. She had some, but she couldn’t use them.
“Miss Bertahrat, please begin.”
“Certainly, Madam Headmistress,” the Dean said, loosening her tie and unfastening the collar button of her shirt, a long flogging rod tucked under her arm. Her brow was knitted, making her beady eyes look even tinier, but Miona could swear she could see a sparkle in those eyes.
Now all she could hope for was the two doors would stop the noise of the whip, or Poisonohl and Bludjan were gone. Their chauffeurs were on their way to pick them up, the secretary had said. Hopefully they had. Otherwise she’d have to suffer their smiles when she went past the door. And that would be just as bad as the whipping.
Both Poisonohl and Bludjan stopped smiling and straightened up on the bench when the man looked at them. They answered his greeting with a simultaneous “Evening, sir” which surprised them both. But there was no resisting the natural authority coming from him. He was reasonably tall, with short and thick fur, dark gray, nearly black, which gave him an aura of magic and secrecy that invited respect. On top of that, the way he carried himself made you want to stand at attention. You knew instinctively he was a military man—one who had seen combat, as several deep scars could tell, where hairs wouldn’t grow back. And his light, penetrating eyes would make it difficult to lie to him. The secretary too seemed to be under his spell.
“What can I do for you, sir?” she said, quickly rearranging her collar and necklace.
Poisonohl and Bludjan stared at her for a second, then checked each other out to confirm they had heard right. The tone she had taken to say this simple sentence didn’t fit her at all.
The man unfastened his cape and folded it on his left arm in one swift movement that sent a myriad of droplets on Poisonohl’s face. The boy tensed but didn’t budge, unsure how to react. Instead, he frowned at Bludjan, who couldn’t help a twinkle to appear in his uncovered eye. “I’m Franken Fortvallor,” the man said in a deep voice while walking past the boys toward the secretary’s desk. He had a slight limp, which made him lose some of the Trowans’ natural fluidity and power. Curiously this flaw didn’t make him any less impressive. The two boys were sure at once that his gait came from a battle wound. “I’m here to see the Headmistress.”
“Ah, Rittrer Fortvallor, yes,” the secretary said with an engaging smile. “I was waiting for you. The Headmistress is nearly done with your slave, Commander. It took a little longer than expected.”
Poisonohl and Bludjan had never seen the Headmistress’s secretary so affable. One of the questions that made the rounds at school was whether she had a chronic toothache or if there were tacks in her seat cushion.
Mr. Fortvallor was facing the secretary, but his ears were trained on the windowed door. “Yes, I hear that the Headmistress is doing my job there,” he said noncommittally.
Poisonohl and Bludjan looked at each other and decided it was safe to laugh. It was a good joke.
The military man’s ears twitched, but he didn’t acknowledge their reaction otherwise. “By our conversation, I thought she was the victim, this time,” he just said to the secretary. “I see I heard you wrong.”
“Well, that’s what I thought at first, but Madam Slowrancohr and Miss Bertahrat questioned the children. They must have found otherwise.” The secretary sounded slightly defensive.
“I guess that’s why Krelle Slowrancohr wants to see me, then,” the man said, knitting his brow. “Were these two boys involved in the scuffle? Was anybody else?”
“Yes, they were, Commander. Nobody else, no.”
The man thanked the secretary and walked to the bench. He didn’t sit down, but addressed the boys. “Say, lads, I can’t believe my little slave did that to two big fellows like you. What happened?”
Bludjan answered first, somewhat sheepishly. “She hit me with her tablet, sir.”
“She isn’t that little, sir,” Poisonohl said in his friend’s defense. “She’s as tall as me. And she isn’t really helpless. She can be pretty mean. She jumped on my back and now I can’t walk.”
“You can’t move your legs at all?” said the military man, sounding a bit worried.
“I can, but my back hurts too much when I stand, so I need the crutches.”
“Ah. And what started the brawl?”
“She stole my pen, sir.”
“Stole?” The man sounded genuinely surprised. “Was that a special pen?”
“It’s a write-on-all, sir.”
“She has a write-on-all already. I can’t see why she’d want another one. And I have never heard of her stealing anything in the house…. Did she give it back?”
“We made her give it back, sir. That’s why she attacked us.”
“I see.” The man stroked his whiskers pensively. “I heard that she was scratched. How did that happen? I thought gloves were mandatory on the grounds.”
“We had to defend ourselves, sir,” Bludjan said apologetically. “She’s fierce, you know.”
“I see that. Did you boys see the Headmistress already?”
“We have, sir,” Poisonohl said.
“Were you punished also?”
“Oh no, sir. She started it all.”
“I see.” The man turned around. “Tell me, Miss, how many lashes is usually the price for this kind of offense?”
“Oh, I’m not sure, Commander. It depends on how serious Miss Bertahrat or the Headmistress judges the case to be. But usually children get ten, I’d say.”
“Ten,” he said, thoughtful. “It’s hard to tell with the door, but the lash I think I heard earlier was more than a minute ago. The Headmistress should be about done by now.”
“She got three already before you arrived, sir,” Poisonohl offered helpfully. “At least. Does she get whipped a lot at home?”
The military man turned to face the boys. He seemed taken aback by the question, and he frowned when he saw the wide smile on Poisonohl’s face. “She runs into trouble periodically, I believe I could say,” he finally said matter-of-factly. “Why do you want to know? Do you get punished a lot yourself?”
“Oh no, sir. Not often. I’m not a slave!”
“Well, you’re right, of course.” Turning back to the secretary, “Miss Minfangsehr, could you please announce me to the Headmistress,” he asked while checking his watch. “I need to go back to the Imperial Office very soon, I’m afraid.”
Miss Minfangsehr opened her eyes wide. “But Commander,” she said in a confused voice. “I don’t think I can interrupt….”
The military man looked at her for a moment. “I understand,” he said. “That’s all right, Miss, I’ll take care of it.” And he walked to the windowed door, impervious to the secretary’s protests. He pushed the first door and walked down the short hallway to the heavier office door, then tapped two quick knocks on the pane. As no one answered, he turned the knob and stepped in.
“Greetings, Madam Headmistress,” he said while closing the door behind him. “Dean,” he added with a brief nod at Miss Bertahrat. He glanced at Miona, who had raised her head at the sound of his voice. She was leaning over the wooden table, resting on her folded arms. Her glasses had fogged up, but her face showed defiance rather than self-pity. “Please continue,” Mr. Fortvallor said to the Dean. “I just need to get going with the Headmistress’s meeting.” He turned to the Dargoness. “Madam Headmistress, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I am due for an important meeting at the Imperial Office. I have to go back very soon. But what you have to tell me is important too, I’m certain. Perhaps we could discuss it while Miss Bertahrat goes on with her task?”
Miona’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses and she put her head back down on her arms. The Dean had tightened her tie hastily and was now looking in turn at her whip, the intruder, and the Headmistress, waiting for her command, ill at ease. The fabric of her shirt had darkened under her armpits. The Headmistress seemed both embarrassed and irritated, but her voice showed only understanding toward her interlocutor’s tight schedule when she spoke. “I’d prefer we speak when the child is gone, Mr. Fortvallor. But that’s all right. Miss Bertahrat was just about done. The girl will miss only a few lashes. I believe she’ll remember the lesson nonetheless.”
Miona straightened up slowly and dried her cheeks with a brush from the back of her hand. “Go and wait for your master in the anteroom,” the Dean said, bringing the cane back to the wardrobe. Miona glanced at the Dean, then at the Headmistress and her master, who were exchanging bows over the desk. When they looked back at her, both had the same severe stare as the Dean, and she felt as unwelcome as she did sometimes when walking by mistake in the middle of one of her master’s receptions at home.
She turned around and went to the door, quickly slowing down when her skirt started brushing against her legs. She stopped at the door and lifted her glasses to dry her eyes, using her sleeve this time. She took a deep breath and held her chin up, then pulled the door open.
Her worst fears were confirmed when she saw Poisonohl’s wide smile greeting her. Bludjan’s face was hurting too much for him to attempt more than a half smile, but his visible eye was sparkling with glee. She walked past them and waited by the entrance, the farthest away from them, her back to the door so they couldn’t see the back of her legs. She crossed her arms and stared at an old picture of the school hanging across the bench, hoping her lenses would hide her reddened eyes.
“Are you waiting for your master?” the secretary asked without stopping her typing.
“Then sit down. You can’t stay in the way like that.”
Miona opened her mouth to protest, but Miss Minfangsehr stopped typing and looked at her over her triangular glasses. She wasn’t smiling. “I am waiting, girl,” she said in a cold voice.
Miona didn’t acknowledge the boys’ undisguised gloat and sat down with care on the extreme edge of the bench, holding her breath.
Everyone looked up as the door to the Headmistress’s office opened again. It was the Dean. She walked heavily toward the hallway door and stopped by Miona.
“Can’t you sit properly?” she asked harshly. “You’re blocking the door.”
“I told her already that she was in the way, Miss Bertahrat,” the secretary apologized from her desk.
Miona clenched her jaws and slid back on the seat a few inches. The burning brought tears to her eyes. She looked away at the door to make sure the boys couldn’t see her face. As soon as the Dean was gone, she wiped her eyes under her glasses, with the hand the boys couldn’t see. She waited to hear Miss Minfangsehr’s typing resume, and, slowly, slid forward to her original position.
“…But today isn’t the first time we have to remind her about the rules, as you know. She has spent already one half of her weekends in detention, including one of her two free weekends, plus a good amount of time doing chores in the kitchens. In addition to her regular kitchen chores, that is.” The Headmistress’s brows were knit in a concerned look, nearly closing her calculating eyes. Her short fingers were playing nervously with a small ornate hairbrush. “She is a difficult child, quite a rebel in fact.”
Franken Fortvallor furrowed his brow himself. He was facing the Headmistress across the desk, sitting with his legs crossed, in a much more relaxed way. His right hand was cupping his left knee, as if to keep it warm, and his left foot was moving slightly back and forth. “I must say I am quite surprised at Miona’s frequent problems with discipline. I am not accustomed to having problems with her. At home, it’s actually my daughter Darveena who is the difficult child. And even in her other school, Miona hasn’t had in five years as many disciplinary issues as she’s had so far this year. I am just as concerned as you are, Madam Headmistress—and quite surprised.”
Krelle Slowrancohr shifted in her chair. She started rolling her brush in her two hands, looking at the reflections the light from the window played on its nacre and gold. “You’ve told me this a few times, I remember. I am starting to wonder if it doesn’t have to do with the fact that she is the only slave in her class. Most of her problems seem related to disputes and fights with children of her own class. I don’t think she blends well with her classmates. I don’t think she is accepted.” The brush froze in the Headmistress’s hands. She looked at her interlocutor for a reaction, but there wasn’t any. The tiny brush resumed its fast rolling. “That is a problem she didn’t have to face in the all-slave school she is coming from. We might have to consider moving her to an all-slave class, Mr. Fortvallor. I am confident that would solve most of our problems.”
The military man’s leg stopped moving for a moment. It resumed its slow rhythm when he gave his answer. “It’s out of the question, Madam Headmistress. Unless you created an all-slave class with freeborn curriculum. But I thought you didn’t have such a class.”
“You’re quite right, Commander. We don’t. There is no need for such a class. You’re the first parent who insisted his slave follow a freeborn curriculum. And the only one so far. I am still not sure what you are to gain from it, actually. Sometimes in fact, I wonder if you aren’t preparing yourself for some problems with Miona. What is she going to do with all this knowledge she’ll have? Don’t you think it could be dangerous? I am worried it won’t help her fit in among her fellow slaves in your house. I’m afraid it could set her apart, like it is doing with her slave friends here already. I heard from one teacher that she regretted not being in the gardening class or the massage class.”
“She said that, really?” the military man said, thoughtful.
“She wrote it in an essay. Her Trowani teacher told me.” The Headmistress gave herself two quick combs on the cheeks before setting her brush aside on the desk. “Why not transfer her? She’d learn all kinds of very useful things for a house: cooking, waiting tables in style, small mechanics and electronics repairs, even simple accounting. Our slave curriculum is fairly advanced and complete, compared to other schools.”
Franken Fortvallor uncrossed his legs. “I know, Madam Headmistress,” he said in an annoyed voice. “But we talked about that already when I registered her. I want her to have a better education than that. I want her to be able to manage my entire estate in my absence. It takes some special skills to do that.”
“Manage your whole estate? Not just your house?” The Headmistress raised her brow. “Aren’t you afraid to give that responsibility to a slave? Instead of a professional accountant? Or at least a paid secretary?”
“I would trust Miona more than any financial adviser, I can tell you that. She is honest and conscientious.” The military man raised his brow interrogatively. “You seem yourself to have full confidence in your dean, Madam Headmistress, have you not?”
The Dargoness stiffened, then relaxed with a chuckle. “Miss Bertahrat isn’t a slave, Commander. She is Human, for sure, but she was born free. There aren’t too many freeborn Humans, I grant you…. Anyway she was here before I came aboard. I kept her at the faculty’s request. Note that I am glad I did: she is a definite asset when it comes to dealing with our Human students—she knows their strange psychology. She can foresee and foil their tricks like no other.” The Dargoness arranged the frills of her collar and checked her tie button. “Our Human security guard isn’t a slave either. I wouldn’t trust a slave for such sensitive duties as these.”
“Well, I do trust most of my slaves,” Franken Fortvallor said with a polite smile. “I might owe this to the way I handle them….” The military man frowned again. “Coming back to Miona, Dargoness…the fights she’s been having until now…aren’t they always with the same group of kids? It seems she told me that there is a gang she is concerned with.”
“A gang, Commander? I am not aware of such a thing in my school.”
“I mean, always the same three or four kids. I believe that the last time she was detained for the weekend, she said that the class bully had chased her in the corridor.”
“She is always running in the corridors.”
“Well, perhaps. But isn’t there a child the other children of the class tend to complain about?”
“I am not aware of that, no.” Krelle Slowrancohr’s eyes closed halfway into an enigmatic look. “Anyway, no other student has ever complained to me or to their teachers about Bludjan or Poisonohl.”
Franken Fortvallor raised an eyebrow. “Are you talking about the two children I saw in the anteroom? Which one is Poisonohl? You’ve said Poisonohl, haven’t you?”
“The child with the crutches.” It was the Headmistress’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Ah, yes, you might know his father. He works at the Imperial Office like you.”
“I do know one Poisonohl, indeed. But this is not such an uncommon name. What does he do there, do you know?”
“I believe he advises the Emperor, like you do. On protocol matters, I think he told me. But I don’t know any more than that. You people at the Imperial Office are rather reserved.”
Franken Fortvallor had tensed noticeably in his chair. “Hem…I’m not sure. The one I know is not with protocol. I’ll try to find out if there’s another Poisonohl who is a protocol adviser.”
A slow grating sounded from Krelle Slowrancohr’s armrests. She had recovered her enigmatic look. “Actually there was something I wanted to tell you about Mr. Poisonohl. You’ve seen the state his son is in, as well as his classmate Bludjan. Bludjan’s father is a ship outfitter, and they know each other, the sons told me. I fear that if they learn that Miona is a slave, they might push to have her removed from their sons’ class.”
“And what would you do then? Aren’t you in charge of making the classes in your establishment?”
“Well, I am of course.” The Headmistress briefly clawed at her scratching pad. “What I am worried about is…what if another fight breaks out? If they ask me to remove Miona and I don’t do it, and if something as bad happens to their sons again, I would feel very bad. Then I’ll feel responsible.”
“There’s something else. You are not the only one who has noticed that we have a Human dean. A few families have shown some displeasure about it—the Bludjans and Poisonhols among them.”
“I see.” The military man thought for a moment. “Could you move Miona to another class? Another freeborn class? At least that would separate these three kids. If they hate each other so much.”
“I could do that. There is another freeborn class in her year.”
“Do they have the same curriculum?”
“I believe they have everything that you want Miona to learn. I assume you don’t need her to learn biology or physics.”
“Do they have finance?”
“They have fundamental mathematics. And foreign religions and philosophy.”
“That, I really don’t need her to learn,” the military man said with a frown. “That’s too bad. She’ll have to stay in this class, then.”
“That is too bad indeed…. I just hope the boys’ fathers won’t press the issue….” The Dargoness seemed very annoyed now. Her whiskers were twitching, and her eyes were barely showing through the slanted slits her frown was producing—making them nearly menacing. “There is another matter, Commander. Which they could raise.”
The military man held the Headmistress’s gaze.
“It has to do with the Renaissance.”
“She threatened the two boys with friends of hers in the Renaissance.”
“Really!” Franken Fortvallor’s ears twitched strongly twice.
“If the boys tell their fathers about that, they might press for an investigation. Then we might have no other choice than eviction.”
“Madam Headmistress, please do tell me that you aren’t serious.”
“I’m afraid I —”
“I am sure it is pure child talk—boasting. With no foundation at all. How could she know anybody in an organization that doesn’t exist anymore?”
“The Renaissance doesn’t exist, Commander?” The Dargoness straightened in her chair, making it complain loudly. She seemed to hesitate between surprise and outrage. “What about all the vandalism, all the property destruction we’ve seen lately?”
“Isolated taggers for the most part.”
“Taggers? I’ve heard of bombings, myself. With the lobbying to deregulate slave trade—among other things—insecurity has now come to our state.”
“But nothing tells us it is the Renaissance, Dargoness. As for the recent bombings in Landran, it was actually a fire in the trash can of a pet store and a big firecracker in a bucket of paint in the lobby of Dranuhr Labs. No structured organization there. We haven’t found one rebel cell since the group stopped all activity four years ago, shortly after Montahra abolished slavery.”
“You surprise me, Commander. That is not what the press have been clamoring about recently—and the police.”
“There are certain interests which have advantages in entertaining such rumors, that is true.” It was the military man’s turn to close up his face. “You understand that my position doesn’t allow me to elaborate on this.” An uneasy silence fell on the room.
The Dargoness scratched the back of her ear distractedly with her right hand, while her other worked on the scratching pad. “Perfectly so, Commander.” She regained control of her hands and shifted her weight, making the chair protest again. “Still, even if they are just kids who like to play with fire… If Miona knows them—”
“How could she do that, Madam Headmistress? She’s either at school or in my home. She travels with the school bus. When would she have the opportunity to make such friends?”
The Headmistress opened her mouth to answer, but Franken Fortvallor didn’t leave her the time. He pulled himself out of his chair. “Anyway Madam Headmistress, I’ll question her about these so-called friends. I’ll give you a call to let you know what I find.” He smiled and executed a quick bow, his right hand flat on his heart, then frowned in a concerned way. “And about the school’s rules, I’ll have a serious word with her, I assure you. She will be more careful with the rules from now on.”
Miona was walking rigidly behind her master, skipping every now and then to keep up with him. Even with his bad leg and the fact that he was carrying her suitcase, she had to struggle not to lose ground. She was carrying her satchel in one hand, and her other hand was hidden under her cape, holding the back of her skirt away from her legs. But when she saw her master’s chauffeur getting out of the big hovercar to meet them, she skipped a bit more and passed her master by to go and hug him.
“Ruhul, I’m so glad to see you!” she said, nudging her nose against his arm—she was too short to reach much higher than his belt. Ruhul was a Maruwan, and like most of his species, he was a good head above any Trowan.
“Heard you were in the hot seat again, kid?” the imposing chauffeur said in a half-joking, half-concerned way, patting her head. “Come on, behave, now,” he urged under his breath. “Your master’s coming.”
She broke away from him and stood by while he hurried to open the car’s rear door.
“Come on, Miona,” Franken Fortvallor said, dropping her suitcase by the chauffeur. “Jump in instead of making a spectacle of yourself.”
She skipped toward him and climbed in the back of the car, and he climbed behind her. The chauffeur closed their door and opened a small door between the rear and front doors, to put the suitcase in the side trunk, before walking around the big, horizontal front fan to get to the driver’s door.
“Miona, for goodness’ sake, what are you doing?” Franken Fortvallor said in his deep voice, frowning at the little girl. She was kneeling on the bench seat, hanging to the side handle to keep her balance.
“I can’t sit, Master,” she protested.
“Yes, you can. You can’t stay like that when we start driving. You have to put your harness on.”
She looked at him for a long second, then passed with extreme caution from her kneeling position to one where only the outside of one of her legs was touching the leather. She twisted her hips to have her back against the seat’s back. She contorted herself a little more and managed to put her harness on. “Can I stay like that, Master?” she pleaded.
The Commander breathed deeply. “I guess you can, if you’re not afraid to get a sore back by the time you get home.”
“Oh thank you,” she said with a wide smile.
“Now tell me something, Miona,” he asked with a serious look on his face, while Ruhul was checking the many controls on the dashboard and above his head. “What is this Renaissance thing the Headmistress told me about?”
Miona stiffened, a notch more than her position already forced her to. This was the moment she’d dreaded. She’d feared he would start with that issue. “I know no one in the Renaissance, Master. I swear! I just said whatever came to my head, because they had drawn off their gloves and were all around me and—”
“I heard that, yes.”
“They’re a bunch of sleazy, coward thugs!”
“Miona, watch your language, please.”
“But they are, Master,” she protested.
The military man frowned, but couldn’t help a brief smile. “So you don’t know anyone in the Renaissance—”
“I don’t, Master.”
“In the future, Miona, do try and avoid mentioning things you don’t know. The Renaissance is a touchy subject. I have the feeling it’s going to become even touchier in the months ahead. You could get in a lot of trouble for merely mentioning their name. Not just eviction. Remember that and promise me you’ll never mention that name again at school. Promise.”
Miona hesitated. How was she going to hold such a promise, with all her friends talking of nothing but that these days? “I promise,” she said finally, in a solemn tone.
“Good.” The Commander seemed to relax a bit in his seat. He glanced up as Ruhul was firing up the engines. Miona felt glad she did promise. If that could help take the fire off her, then good. Franken Fortvallor turned his gaze back to her. “Now, tell me exactly what happened this afternoon. Don’t leave anything out.”
Miona frowned and concentrated for a moment. Then she started recounting the events, commencing with the test copies incident, while the big car began moving quietly toward the campus entrance. Neither Miona nor her master paid attention to the scenery while she spoke. It was already dark anyway, and instead of driving through the small town of Tahrlon—where at any rate she wouldn’t have seen anyone she knew—they turned immediately into a highway that ran through the unlit country.
They traveled several minutes on the near-deserted highway without crossing or passing more than a few cars, but after they merged with two other roads and were clearly heading toward the big city of Landran, the traffic became so dense that they were forced to stop every five seconds. Ruhul pushed a button and an articulated arm presented him with a keyboard, on which he began to type with one hand.
“Now, Miona,” her master interrupted at one point. “Why in the world did you go through the maze?”
This time the little girl was ready for the question. “I hoped I could shake them off there. And I was getting tired and they were gaining on me. And it’s way shorter through the maze, so I’d have a chance to reach the girls’ dorm.”
“Does it mean you knew your way through it?”
Miona thought of giving the same answer she had the Headmistress, but she didn’t like to lie to her master. He always found out anyway and that made him angry. “Some girls knew about it, and they showed me once,” she said, tensing up.
“So you went in the maze once already. Without being chased.”
She just nodded.
She hesitated, then shook her head. “A few times.”
“I see. Go on.”
She went on with the story, recounting how Borant Furriahr blocked her way and she had to run in an aisle she didn’t know, and how the fight started.
“What about the pen, then?” Franken Fortvallor asked.
“There wasn’t any pen. It’s a lie.”
“No pen? The Headmistress told me this pen started the whole thing. She certainly must have double-checked with a teacher or other students,” the Commander said in a detached tone, glancing at the traffic outside.
“It’s all a lie!” repeated Miona. “They made it up to blame the whole thing on me! They can say whatever they want, and no one checks into their lies, because they’re freeborns and I’m a slave!”
“Calm down, Miona,” the Commander said curtly.
“And you’re on their side!”
“Miona, you’re forgetting yourself.”
She opened her mouth but checked herself, suddenly conscious she had been yelling. She crossed her arms and looked through the window on her side.
“I am not on their side, Miona,” the military man said in a low voice. “I’m certainly not on these boys’ side. They seem to me rather cunning and untrustworthy.” Miona looked back at him and her eyes lit up. “But I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been too lenient with you lately. You seem to have become self-centered.” The little girl’s expression closed again. “You were right to say that they are freeborns and you are a slave. That’s the way it is, and you need to accept it.” Miona looked away again, clenching her jaws to stop herself from answering. “Look at me please, Miona,” the Commander said curtly, his authority flowing to her, so palpable that she felt forced to look back. “As soon as you accept your place, things will improve for you, you’ll see. You won’t feel so often that everyone on Omnieya is against you. They are not. But you need to accept authority. Everyone does. We live in a society, not like beasts in the forest. Everyone has a place. Everyone takes orders from people over them. I do. Even the Emperor does.”
Miona opened her mouth to reply but thought better of it. Her master wasn’t in the mood, she decided. He had a message to deliver and she’d better listen or pretend to.
“There’s the Assembly,” he went on. “And at the end of his term, he has to go without complaining. The Headmistress does the same. She takes orders from the Department of Knowledge. And when she punishes you, it’s not that she likes to be mean to little girls. She’s just trying to keep you in line, so you don’t hurt others and don’t get hurt yourself. Remember, Miona, that she has to deal with more than just you. She has to think of all the other kids. And of all the teachers too, and the parents. And the Department of course. She’s like a captain steering his ship. You can’t make so many waves with your little self that it hampers the course of her ship. If the rules were not enforced, the school would not function. And you wouldn’t be able to learn History, or biology, or Srilissi. Think about that the next time you break a rule and wreak havoc.” Franken Fortvallor leaned forward and flipped a switch under a large smoked glass partition which separated the driver from the passengers. The partition came down slowly. “Ruhul, have you found an ascension tower? Too bad for saving gas, but we can’t go on in this traffic.”
“I have, sir. Pad to corridor 23. It’s coming up soon. Five miles.”
“So, Miona,” the military man resumed, hitting the partition switch. “These boys, what did they want, if not to recover Poisonohl’s pen?”
“Just to beat me up, Master,” she said in a sulky voice.
“Just because of the copies Poisonohl had to pick up?”
“Do they beat you often?”
“I run fast.”
“I’d think they run fast too. Especially the larger one, Blandjon. Don’t they ever catch up with you?”
“Bludjan, Master. Actually, Poisonohl is faster. They have a few times, but they never cornered me like this time.”
“It’ll happen again, Miona. If you keep taking risks like that. You should never find yourself in an isolated place with these boys.”
Miona bit her lower lip. She’d have liked so much to be able to mention her friends. But she had to hush it, and pass for an idiot.
“Especially now that you’ve beaten them up yourself. I’m not sure they’ll be content with your punishment. They might want revenge whenever they get better.”
“I’m aware of that, Master,” she muttered.
“And so if they manage to corner you again, what will happen?” he pursued. “Will you kill them this time? And be thrown out of school and into jail? Or will you end up in the hospital yourself? You need to develop a strategy for after the mid-fall break, so you don’t find yourself isolated outside your dormitory. Aren’t there girls in your class who you could stick with?”
Miona made a pouting mouth. “They don’t want to be seen with a slave. The only friends I have are a group of slave kids from my dormitory.”
“So no one in your class. None at all?”
“There’s a guy who I think likes me. But he’s not going to stick with me if Poisonohl’s gang tries to beat me up. Everybody is scared of them.”
“Sounds great,” Franken Fortvallor said, frowning.
“I’m not scared,” she said, sticking up her chin.
“Even better!” He had a short laugh, which sounded more like a sneer. “I don’t see what will prevent you from being thrown out, then! But perhaps you wouldn’t see that too badly? That way you could be in an all-slave school. Is that what you’re trying to do? But the all-slave schools don’t offer foreign languages. I thought you liked languages.”
Miona looked at her master closely. He was getting irritated again. “Master, is there any way I could follow a few slave classes? That would perhaps calm them down. I think they don’t like to see me having all the same classes as them, and I’m a slave. I think if I were in just a few slave classes, they’d see that I don’t pretend to be a freeborn. I could take gardening and massage.”
“You can’t. Your schedule is full already.”
“I could drop a few freeborn classes, surely.”
“Like what?” the military man asked, throwing her a suspicious side-glance.
“The girls had massage this morning, at the time we had math, I think.”
“Miona, do you really think I’ll let you replace math with a massage class? You need to be good at math to take the finance classes later. I don’t need a masseuse, I need an estate manager.”
“You do need a masseuse, you do!” she retorted with a stubborn air. “Each winter your knee hurts…. And I don’t want to be a manager later. I want to be a pilot, like Ruhul! And one day I’ll pilot a spaceship and I’ll look for the Human planet.”
“That’s enough, Miona,” Franken Fortvallor said in a half-tired, half-irritated voice. “We’ve talked about that already. This Human planet thing is just a tale. Even your mother told you so—”
“The Khatzes are a tale too?”
“What are you talking about now?” the military man said with a raised eyebrow.
“Khatzes. From Humond. They look just like Trowans, but they’re very small, and they walk on all fours…just like the growlers from the Maruwan mountains—but smaller. They came to Humond on a big spaceship. Humans brought them along.”
The Commander took a deep breath. “That is also a tale.” He went on, cutting another remark from Miona. “And we talked about that also, if I remember. Yes, there are such animals on Humond. But there are many other ways to explain their existence without bringing in this far-fetched theory. Even on Humond, Spaceists are considered a wacky sect.”
Miona bit her lip. She shouldn’t have brought the khatzes into the discussion. This subject always seemed to irritate her master—like most Trowans, she had noticed. She frowned and looked down.
“There was never such a thing as a spaceship. It would take too much time to travel to another planet. Much more than a man’s life, Miona. And anyway, even if Srilisses decide to let us work out a real space program someday, it’ll take a long time before we can send a man into far space. Right now we can only do short thin-air trips…. Besides, you can’t be a pilot, because you’re a girl. There are no pilot schools for girls.”
“Ruhul could teach me,” she couldn’t help countering.
“No he can’t. It’s too dangerous without a simulator. Enough, now.”
A knock rang on the partition, and the Commander leaned forward to flip the central switch. He stopped himself to grab his left knee and stifled a curse. He breathed deeply and slowly leaned on his right leg, reaching for the switch with caution. “Ruhul,” he said finally while the partition was coming down, “remember to have the side partition switch looked into…. What is it?”
“Yes, sir. Sir, we haven’t made one mile yet. Do you want me to shortcut to the ascension tower? Your meeting’s coming up soon.”
“Well, if it comes to that, we might as well try to make it to the next official corridor. How far is it?”
The chauffeur typed a few words and checked a screen in front of him. “Nine miles, sir. Official corridor 4. But I see quite a few dots racing for that one already, sir. You know how some of these guys drive when they’re out of boundary.”
“Put your blinkers on, Ruhul.”
“I could, sir. But with the girl….”
“I see,” the military man said with a short laugh. “You’d put our lives on the line without hesitation, but not that of your favorite.”
“What I was trying to say, sir: public corridor 23 doesn’t seem crowded yet. The way to the pad is, but not the corridor itself. With our priority privileges, we could shortcut to the pad.”
“Go ahead, then. Cut to 23.”
A sudden throbbing started shaking the car, its pulsation quickening as the sound pitched higher. Miona looked through her window at the light rain rushing out from under the car, pushed by the large front and rear fans. She saw Ruhul pulling a lever on his left, then moving the big rectangular steering wheel in all directions to check that it had properly disengaged from the wheels and was now ready to command the fans’ trim instead. He then flipped two switches on his right, and a soft but high-pitched whining started in her back. Ruhul pushed on two other levers on his right, and the car started shaking more and more. After about ten seconds, it began to move slightly side to side before finally taking off, leaving an empty space in the line of slow moving vehicles. She looked down at the other cars getting smaller and smaller, then saw the column of lights they were heading for, far, but visible even with the drizzle. She returned her attention to her master, who was asking Ruhul a few more questions. He leaned forward to maneuver the switch again and close the partition.
“Goodness, Miona, what are you doing now?” he asked with surprise, leaning back in his seat.
“I’m treating your knee, Master,” she said in a serious voice, focusing on what she was doing. She was rubbing her master’s knee and the part of the leg directly above it, in a gentle, circular motion. “See, I could be useful if I took massage classes. Nobody takes care of your leg since mother is gone.”
“That’s not true, Miona, and you know it. Kalinda treats my leg whenever it gets too bad.”
“She uses her magic—she doesn’t give you massages.”
“She does. And they help just as much as her unguents.” Franken Fortvallor smiled and ruffled up the girl’s hair, truly relaxing for the first time.
“But your leg still hurts.” She stopped her motions, resting her hands on her master’s knee so as to keep it warm.
“Obviously. No treatment lasts forever.”
“That’s because you block the spirits.”
“Oh, really?” he said, his smile now questioning.
“She told me so. You can’t relax, she said. I’ve had Kalinda’s massages, Master. They do a lot of good, but if you can’t let the spirits in, maybe your leg needs something else. My friends say there are lots of different techniques. They’re going to learn many this year.” Miona resumed her massaging, concentrating right on the knee. “Today they learned how to ease someone’s back by pulling on their arms. Very serious business—you have to pay attention. Their teacher got distracted and he pulled his dummy’s arm out of its socket.” She bit her lower lip, wondering if she had better skipped that part. “But at the end of the class they’ll be able to really help people,” she hastened to add.
“That’s enough, Miona,” the Commander said, his smile mixed with irritation.
“But Master, I want to help,” she protested, massaging in broader strokes.
“I said it’s all right, now,” he growled curtly, pushing her gently but firmly at the shoulder. She let out a cry and fell back in her seat, squeezing her shoulder with one hand. He frowned and looked at her shoulder more closely. “Show me your shoulder,” he said.
“You won’t see anything. The nurse put a big bandage on it,” she said sulkily.
He opened the partition again. “Ruhul, please see to it that Miona goes straight to her room when you get home. She needs to rest. Make sure Darveena doesn’t force her into a game.”
“Aye, sir…. Sir, they’ve two official levels operating on 23 at the moment. We’ll be at the Imperial Office in no time.”
“Good. I still need twenty minutes to review this file, though. Don’t burn the engines.”
Miona looked at the two guide-arches growing fast through the windshield, fascinated. She loved to watch the many laser guides that each of the tall and narrow arches was shooting to the next relay arch, that one in turn sending its own beams of light to the next, and so on all the way to the city. The beams looked like ribbons of light, she thought, straight between two arches, but when she looked at the entire corridor, she saw a long double fence undulating left to right from here to the city. One fence carried the traffic toward town, and the other, running a hundred strides apart, was taking the outbound traffic. Each of the arches of corridor 23 was shooting eleven pairs of ribbons, she counted, each pair above the other, making eleven levels, each a different color.
They passed the outbound traffic fence, and slowed down to approach the inbound fence. She could see the hoverers ahead of them moving up the arch-tower in a slow dance, each picking a pair of laser guides and stopping just over the ribbon of light, waiting for the blue signal, then aligning themselves between the two beams, and shooting forward along the colored light, as if riding it.
They had arrived at the base of the arch, next to its closest pillar. Ruhul lifted the car and passed one laser beam after another. Miona looked at them appear and disappear across the windshield, one yellow, one blue, one pink, until she couldn’t remember which color she hadn’t seen yet, and was surprised by each new one. She looked down through her window, but she couldn’t see the ground anymore. What she could see was a dim glow where the big city was, and three other double fences converging toward the glow—or coming from it, if she focused more on the bluish-white headlights than on the red tail lights. She felt as if she were watching a volcano, with streams of rainbow lava flowing from it.
Ruhul stabilized the car finally. They were going for a deep green ribbon, and she saw by looking up through the moon roof that it was the next to last level. The light on the tower was still red, which meant that the sensor hidden in the pillar could see an incoming vehicle. Ruhul pulled a switch on the left of the dashboard and Miona looked down through her window, to see the semicircular wing deploy from its housing under the car. A blur of white headlights sped across the windshield, and the red light turned blue. Ruhul moved the car forward and she could see the beam of green light passing under them, as big as Ruhul’s chest and so intense it seemed made of solid metal. The car aligned itself toward the city and Ruhul placed his right hand on a small lever that Miona knew was the turbojets’ lock. The nose of the limo dipped as the car moved decidedly forward, picking up speed. A few seconds later Ruhul brought down the jets’ lock and pushed the jets’ power levers several notches as he was bringing the hood back up. Immediately the soft whining changed into a louder wail and the big hovercar leapt forward, pressing Miona into her seat. She glanced on her right and noticed that her master was watching her with a concerned frown. He finally closed the partition and pulled a file from his briefcase, and started to read it.
Miona undid her belt and carefully changed position, switching to sit on the outside of her other leg, and then buckled back up.
“Too bad the nurse was gone already,” the Commander said, looking at the seam of her skirt. “Have Kalinda look at your legs tonight.” He returned to his file and Miona gazed at the breathtaking view she had from her window. They were running parallel to the outbound traffic of corridor 23, and she could watch the outbound cars rushing past them with terrifying speed, like the eyes of colorful flying snakes chasing each other, their bodies of light undulating with each of Ruhul’s slight adjustments on the controls.
She couldn’t tear her eyes from the mad ballet of lights. She seldom traveled on the corridors. School buses didn’t use them. It took too much gas. Instead they used the regular road. Her old school wasn’t far from home, so it wasn’t too bad, but Tahrlon was another case. On the one weekend that she had gone home, the bus took nearly two hours to reach the city. Then it took a convoluted way to drop off all the students, and she didn’t arrive home before a good four hours of travel. Today, it would take her less than two hours, and that counted dropping her master at the Imperial Office and driving home by the road—unless she could convince Ruhul to fly, which she doubted. But she wouldn’t have minded if the corridor trip lasted four hours itself. Still, short as it would be, it paid back a little for the punishment she had received, she decided.
The human boy was walking briskly, hugging the walls, hunched against the cold drizzle, his arms crossed over his chest. He wasn’t wearing any cape, and his dark brown shirt, although of thick material, was already sticking to his back. His light blond hair was also wet and flat on the top of his head, even though it was thick and slightly curly. There were only marine shops and tool shops and warehouses around him. Just visible at the end of the deserted street were cranes and the bow of a tall ship.
The boy gave a start at the noise of a car. He looked over his shoulder and froze, anxiety on his face. The incoming car had emergency lights above its roof. Although they weren’t flashing, they were reflecting the lights coming from the docks, and shining like a beacon in the dimly lit street. The boy turned into a side street and broke into a run.
He found another street halfway down and dived into it, keeping at a run as if he were in a race. This street was going straight towards the docks again. He stopped dead at the sight of silhouettes walking towards him. There was a dark courtyard on the other side of the street, whose gates were open. He ran across the street and took refuge there, stopping behind one of the gate doors. He extended his arms in front of him and felt his way along the wall, stepping gingerly, his ears cocked against the darkness. He stopped in front of a dark mass and waited a few seconds. Then, his eyes almost used to the darkness, he went around the pile of salvaged building materials and crouched low.
“Come on, Alrec, he’s gone by now. Probably jumped a wall or two.”
“He wasn’t very tall, I tell you, not a full-grown. I’m sure he’s still in here!”
Three men in cloaks were peering into the courtyard. Their accent was thick, like most dockers’ and sailors’. One of them had removed his hood and his pointy ears were moving slightly left and right, scanning the courtyard.
“Let’s go, Alrec, or we won’t find anything decent at the pub. First come, first serve it is, you know. Anyway, you can’t bring it back to the ship. We’ve plenty of them slaves already.”
“I have enough work for another.”
“But you’ve got to feed’em. The captain won’t let you take it. Come on, now.”
Reluctantly, the man called Alrec followed his companions down the street. The blond boy waited for their voices to faint into the slow pelting of the rain and left his hiding place. He listened some more by the gate. The men had gone for good, and the police car hadn’t shown up. He left his shelter and walked fast towards the docks.
At the end of the street he turned the corner of the first warehouse and stopped. The wharf was wide and its wet cobblestones glistened under the greenish lights perched at the top of each of the cranes lining the quay. More lights were trained on the doors of each warehouse. The boy looked at the first door. Its lock had a huge padlock. He walked to the next warehouse, fast when he was in full light, stopping each time he reached any shaded area. The second door didn’t have a padlock, but tiny red lights that he knew he had to turn blue by pressing the combination buttons in the correct sequence. If he failed to find the correct one, either nothing would happen and the lights would remain red, or else an alarm would sound. He was about to walk on to the next warehouse when a big stack of crates attracted his attention.
Stacked three or four-story high, the crates stood only three strides from the wall and ran a good ten strides along the warehouse. A large tarp was keeping them dry, stretching from the roof to several big metal rings embedded between the cobbles. Some crates were missing halfway to the end of it, creating a haven of dry cobbles, free of wind. The blond boy crossed the dry cobbles and climbed on a crate. There he was well hidden, even from someone walking by the warehouse. He shook his wet hair and pulled a tiny knife from a pocket of his trousers. He opened the small blade and started fiddling with his collar. It was made of a light, gray metal, and there was a tiny slit on one side, a small door opening on the inside, where the collar nearly touched the boy’s neck under his jaw. He was trying to force the blade in the door, a hazardous operation, because however small it was, if the blade slipped, it wouldn’t fail to sink into his throat.
“Are you trying to kill yourself, boy?” a coarse voice asked him, coming from a recess in the crates, just across the dry cobbles.
The knife nearly slipped, and the boy thrust it in front of him in an instinctive defense gesture.
“Hey, relax, boy! No one’s going to harm you. It’s only me here, and I’m no thief or murderer. Relax.”
The boy did not relax. He kept his knife in front of him and strained his eyes, searching the shadows among the crates. “Where are you?” he asked finally in a hoarse voice. “Show yourself.”
The man had a frank laugh. He moved and the boy saw him finally, sitting on a crate like him, five or six strides away. He relaxed a bit and lowered his knife slowly. The man was a Human like him. He was draped in a dark cloak and had a hood on. “Show your face,” the boy asked in a fierce voice.
The man pushed back his hood. He had matted hair, blond, but not as fair as the boy’s. And a blondish beard that gave him a wild and untamed appearance. He had broad shoulders and exuded strength, and he could have looked dangerous if a frank smile didn’t lighten his face with friendliness.
“Who are you,” the boy said finally. “What are you doing here?”
The bearded man laughed again. “It seems to me that I should be the one asking that question,” his coarse voice said with a point of sarcasm. “My name’s Steve. I’m waiting for the docks’ overseer to show up. He’s the man to talk to if you want a job ‘round here. Unless you want to take your chance and sell yourself to the ship captains. Not for me, son. The captains have a pretty bad reputation. They work you for free and throw you overboard if you can’t work hard enough. I prefer the docks. Say, are you looking for work yourself? You seem pretty young.”
“I’m not young, I’m nearly fifteen! I can work!”
“Fifteen, eh? And rather fierce, at that!” the man said, gauging the boy in the semi-darkness. “I’d say they’d give you work, all right.” He was silent for a moment. “But you’d have to do something about your collar. And not what I think you were trying to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were trying to destroy the battery, weren’t you? You were trying to damage the seal so you could pour water in the battery compartment.”
The boy didn’t answer, just looked at his knife hesitantly.
“Don’t worry, son. You have nothing to fear from me. But let me tell you. You don’t want to damage your collar in any way. If you want work, it needs to be in good order.” The bearded man pulled down his cape slightly, revealing a metallic collar that he shook lightly. “The dock master won’t take you otherwise. He has enough problems with the law without risking being taken down for slave theft. And he’s not going to get you another collar. Too hard to find on the black market, these days. Too expensive.”
“But,” the boy started, hesitant. “I need to disable the locating system somehow.”
“Oh, I see,” the man said, thoughtful again. “Did you just escape your master?” he added, sounding even worried. As the boy was silent again, he resumed in an understanding voice. “I’ve been there too, boy, don’t worry. I fled over a year ago. Tell me, when exactly did you run? ”
The boy must have been reassured by this confession, because he answered that question, more openly than he’d done so far. “Less than two hours ago. I’ve been very quiet. The whole house must still be sleeping. But I need to silence the collar before they wake up.”
“What happened, son? Why did you decide to run? Did your master beat you?”
“You bet he did,” the boy said with a sneer. “He did every day, nearly. Or he had a guard do it. But I’m used to it, now. It hardly affects me anymore.”
“I could tell by your voice that you’re a tough kid. So what decided you, then?”
“Someone stole an ancient dagger from the entry. Covered with precious stones. I didn’t do it. I’ve no idea who did it. But he thinks it’s me, and he said he’d investigate in the morning. And that he’ll make sure I can never do it again. He has a definite way to ensure that, he said.”
“Definite, eh? That doesn’t sound too good.”
“I think he’s a little crazy,” the boy said, bringing his open hands to his ears and shaking his fingers in the conventional sign that meant someone is mentally deranged. Then he noticed that his knife made this gesture dangerous, and folded it after a last gaze at the man. “He’s killed several of us slaves already…. At least that’s the rumor, because no one has seen them leave and nobody has ever heard of them since. Of course he could’ve sent them to his oil fields, or worse to his mines. That’d be just as bad as killing them. I heard work there is really hard. Lots of accidents. I don’t want to find out what he’ll do with me.”
“I read you, boy. My master also was a little strange. We need to fix this collar then, quickly. But as I said, you don’t want to damage it visibly. What you want to do is erase the memory, so the dock master can write to your collar that he just bought you. He’ll change your collar number too, but it has to be done nicely. You’ll see, life is pretty good here.”
“You’re a dock master’s slave?” the boy asked, doubtful. “So why are you here in the rain? Don’t you have a home, a place to sleep?”
“Ah, that’s the only itch. You see, there’s plenty of us slaves here to do all the work. The dock master would need a big warehouse to fit us all. And some guards to look over us. That‘d cost too much. He prefers to give us enough money for us to live and let us find our own arrangements for the night. But you see, that way we’re free. That’s the whole beauty of it. There’s plenty o’ work, but if you don’t feel like workin’ one day, you don’t have to. And for sleeping, there’s always a cranny somewhere on the docks where you can stay dry. You can also rent a room in town. I used to do that, but now I prefer to save my money for other things. You can surely find a cheap room if you choose so. It’s all how you want it here. We’re slaves, but we’re not real slaves. We’re semi-free slaves, I’d say.”
“But how can I erase the memory?” the boy asked anxiously. “Do you know how to do it?”
”The dock master knows someone who does. But let me ask you…what’s your master’s name?”
The boy hesitated, only an instant. “Ratmatuhr. Why?”
“Ratmatuhr, really.” The man’s voice sounded worried. “With the mine and oil fields, I was beginning to wonder”, he said pensively.
“Wonder what?” the boy said, suddenly worried too. “What’s the matter?”
“Well, he’s not just anyone around here. He’s a powerful man. Knows many higher-ups at the Imperial Office. That might make things difficult for you. That might scare the dock master.”
“Scare? Why’s that?”
“Because, you see, it’s not just the collar. If your master were just a normal man, he’d probably have a routine search made for you. And those never go nowhere if the collar’s been dealt with properly. But someone like Ratmatuhr isn’t going to stop at the collar. He’ll have your picture shown everywhere, will have private detectives sniff down every dark alley. He can also have the police mount a grand-scale operation just to find you if he chooses to. He might not bother at all, mind you. But if he does, the dock master won’t have anything to do with you, son. He might send you back on the street.”
The blond boy frowned.
“He might do worse, actually.”
“Like giving me away?”
The man stroke his beard and nodded. “There might be only one thing left for you.”
“Short my collar and run further.”
“No, not that. Something better. Join the Renaissance.”
“You know the Renaissance?” the boy asked, full of hope.
“Not really, son. But I know someone who can reach them.”
“Where? Can you take me to him?”
“Hold on. It’s not that easy. I should warn him of our visit…. There’s a discrete entrance, you see, from the sewer.” The man named Steve unfolded his legs slowly and checked his watch, frowning. “They’ll deal with your collar there. They’ll open the battery door properly. But we need to hurry,” he said, climbing down his perch carefully. “No time to warn them. We’ll use the main door.” Then, motioning the boy, “Are you in, son?”
The blond boy bolted down his crate and caught up with the man, who was already walking away. “Of course I am. How far is it?”
“We’ll be there in no time. I’ll brief you as we walk.”
“Ruhul, what’s going on?”
Miona looked out the window at the idle traffic. They had dropped off her master at the Imperial Office, which was right in the center. Now they were trying to go back to the inner ring, from where they’d be able to take a speedway toward the outskirts where her master’s mansion was. But it was the worst time to be trying to leave the city, and the big car hadn’t moved an inch for a good five minutes. Miona looked through the large moon roof at the tall buildings lining up the street on both sides. Every now and then a car would take off from the motionless mass they were in and hover up along the seemingly infinite facades, and soon she would lose its lights among the myriad windows and signs. It seemed it was the only occasions they would move, and of course it happened only if the hoverer came from their lane.
“Is it always this bad?” she asked through the open partition—now that her master was gone, she kept the partition down. She was kneeling on the back-facing seat, her arms wrapped around the headrest and her chin propped on it, inches from Ruhul’s right shoulder.
“Not quite, no. Must be that satellite convention they’ve been harping about for a while. I forgot it was today.”
“I’ve not heard of it. At school, we don’t know anything of what’s happening in the real world.”
“Nothing major, Miona, really. They’re all excited about one product that they say will stop the Srilisses from bumping out our spy satellites. Like they were three years ago. And the next thing we knew, their last multimillion crown satellite nearly fell on our heads. Bet it’s gonna happen again, kid. You’ll see.”
“But we’re not moving at all.”
“You’re right, kid,” the Maruwan said, scanning the traffic around them. “There must be something else.” He suddenly slapped his forehead. “The game!” he said, recognition in his voice. “It’s Landran against Tamoril tonight. How did I forget? Now I’m afraid we’re stuck for much longer, girl.”
“How long? How long do you think we’ll take to get home, then?”
“I dunno. Looks like we’ll have to wait ‘till half the people in front lose their nerves and take off,” he said, his thumb pointing upward.
“How long will that be? Master said I should get Kalinda to check my legs.” Miona studied the part of Ruhul’s face that she could see, which was his right profile. She couldn’t see his eyes in the periscopic rearview mirror, but she could see his right ear and whiskers twitching a little in the dim, bluish-green light that came from the multitude of screens and gages. “I think he’s afraid they’ll get infected.”
Ruhul sat in silence for a moment, and Miona held her breath, making sure she didn’t distract his thoughts with another subject. “In that case,” Ruhul said finally, “I guess we can’t wait here all night.” He pulled the steering column lever on his left and steered the wheel around to check that it was now moving the fans, then pushed the gearshift lever all the way to disengage the wheels and engage the two big fans. The big car shook for a while until Ruhul pushed on the fans’ gas lever. After a few seconds more he pushed the wheel up, and Miona stopped seeing the bumper of the car they had been following, to see its roof instead, and then it disappeared under their hood.
Yes! she thought, looking at the other cars getting smaller. And she nearly had to bite her lips to keep her excitement in.
“Strap yourself,” Ruhul said, flipping the two switches on his right to start the rear turbines, while concentrating on the 3D radar screen. “We have to free-fly for a while ‘till we reach the next corridor, and this town is full of idiots who got their flying license because their cousin’s hairdresser had a client from the Transportation Department.”
Miona laughed heartily at the joke, but she didn’t try to sit properly. Instead she climbed on the luggage compartment—it was lodged right behind the copilot seat—next to the back-facing seat she’d been kneeling on. She dragged herself over the compartment, using its flat top as a kind of conveyor belt, and pulled herself through the partition, head first.
“What are you doing?” Ruhul tried to stop her, but he could only grab the top of her skirt. She was already halfway through, her hands and head resting on the copilot seat, her stomach on its headrest, and her legs on the luggage compartment. He pulled on the skirt to try to force her back into the passenger compartment, but the fabric gave a warning sound so he eased up on it. Soon he had to let go to slow down their speed. “You’re going to kill us. Go back to the passenger cabin at once!”
“I can’t,” she said, sliding further into the seat. Now only her shins were still in the passenger compartment.
Ruhul glanced at her legs and winced, holding back a new command. “Now what are you gonna do?” he said in a calmer voice. “Travel upside down ‘till we get home, or turn around and kick the controls with your feet?”
“I can’t stay like this,” she protested, the blood getting to her face. “Can’t you catch my feet?” Then she slid down as slowly as she could, trying to turn around to see what she could haul herself up with. Her hand went to the copilot controls, but she knew she’d better not use those.
“Don’t touch that!” warned Ruhul.
She managed to grab hold of the edge of her seat and pulled.
“Mind your feet, won’t you?” Ruhul said in an exasperated growl. “You’re on my tail now.”
She felt Ruhul’s hand grab her feet to keep them away from both himself and the dashboard, then pushing them under the controls. She yipped a little when her thighs touched the leather. She pulled on her skirt and arranged it under herself, clenching her teeth. “Sorry ‘bout your tail, Ruhul,” she said in a sheepish voice. “I didn’t see it. It’s hidden in your pants.”
“Of course it is. Where do you want it to be? But it runs along my right leg, you know that. And it’s no place for your feet. What are you doing now?”
She had seized the harness and had started strapping herself. “Well, I’m following the rules. I’m buckling up.”
“Don’t bother,” Ruhul said, keeping his gaze on the radar screen and windshield. “Just go back to the passenger side…. And you’re good to talk about rules,” he added, shaking his head slowly, “they did a good job on your legs, it looks like. Didn’t that teach you anything about rules?”
“Which rules?” Miona said, unsure what he meant.
“Like your master not wanting you in the cockpit, for example.”
“I won’t touch anything. I just want to watch what you do.”
“You can see that very well from behind.”
“Not when I’m strapped in my seat.” She knew she had marked a point because Ruhul didn’t reply immediately. “Anyway I didn’t break any rule at school,” she said to change the subject.
Ruhul nearly stopped the car, bringing its nose up sharply, and Miona noticed on the radar screen a bright orange dot meeting the blue dot that represented them. At the same time a small sports car came shooting diagonally across the windshield, coming from below. “Why did they whip you so much, then?” Ruhul merely asked, pushing the fans’ throttle lever to regain some speed.
“It’s a long story,” she said, not sure she wanted to tell it all again. But she did, and it did her some good, because she could tell Ruhul all the details she couldn’t tell her master—like having been forced to follow her friends into the maze—and so she didn’t pass for an idiot this time.
“Seems to me you did break a few rules,” Ruhul observed when she was finished.
Miona didn’t answer right away. How could he say that? “Poisonohl broke more rules than me,” she protested finally, not sure she should yell or cry. She loved Ruhul. He had always been on her side, always seemed to understand her better than anyone else in the house, except perhaps Kalinda. How could he be on the Headmistress’s side? “More important rules than me,” she added. “He drew off his glove, and his gang too. That’s rule number one!”
“I understand that, Miona,” the chauffeur said in a conciliatory voice. “I think he’s a nasty boy, too. But you ran in the hallway and you went into the maze. Why didn’t you stay in the peristyle? There were other kids there, weren’t there?”
“They wouldn’t have stopped Poisonohl’s gang beating me up. They wouldn’t even have reported what they’d seen if a supervisor had asked them. Everyone is scared of them.”
“Even the older kids?”
“Poisonohl knows some nasty older kids, so no one will tell on him. Anyway, even if some decided to speak, I’m not sure it would make a difference. The Headmistress and the Dean are against me. I told them what Poisonohl did. It didn’t change that I was punished and he wasn’t. It’s all because I’m a slave and he’s a freeborn. Sometimes I wish the Renaissance would find me and take me away.”
“Why do you say that, kid?” Ruhul said with a frown.
“Sometimes I’m tired of being a slave. Poisonohl doesn’t have to do chores at school. His goons don’t either. And they’re a bunch of good-for-nothings.”
Ruhul didn’t answer to that. He was busy checking his radar screen as he negotiated their way between three skyscrapers and a dozen hoverers.
“Ruhul, do you know if it’s true the Renaissance frees Human slaves?”
“Where have you heard such a thing?”
“Some kids at school. They say they can take you underground and they teach you things like languages and arms and piloting, and you don’t have to do chores any more.”
“They say that, eh? How do they know those things? Did that happen to someone they know?”
“Yes. A friend in my dorm. Another slave kid in her house had a friend, see, and her friend’s brother was taken by the Renaissance, and he came back one day and told her all the things he was learning.”
“I see,” Ruhul said absently. It wasn’t a dozen cars he had to keep track of anymore. Cars were all around them now, and it seemed the distance between each vehicle was shrinking steadily. “And what else was he learning?” he asked after he’d steered the hoverer a safe distance from a tiny car with an erratic flight.
“I dunno. That’s all she talked about.”
“Here’s what I think, kid,” he said in a serious voice. “I’ve never heard of kids working for the Renaissance. Each time there’s news of one of them terrorists, it’s a grown up who’s blown himself up trying to set up a bomb in a slave market or in one of those factories too harsh on their slaves. But even if I’m wrong and they do take kids, I don’t think they teach them much more than play with bombs. You wouldn’t learn any more than what those few freeborn Humans learn in their ghettos’ public schools. Just counting and reading, if even that. None of the important stuff you learn presently at your school anyway. No real math or physics or economics. You’re very lucky to learn all those things, kid. I wish I’d had that opportunity myself.”
“I don’t want to learn ‘bout physics. I want to be a pilot like you.”
“There’s lots of physics you need to know when you learn how to fly, Miona. Even I had to learn it. ‘twas tough, let me tell you. I’d wished several times I’d had that taught to me at school, believe me.”
“If they teach flying, they must teach some physics too,” insisted Miona with a stubborn scowl.
“You know, Miona, it takes years to learn physics properly. I’d be surprised they’ve enough teachers and time to do that, really. We don’t even know if there’s one Renaissance cell big enough to do anything more than play with paint and make some crude explosives. No, all those human kids who’ve been disappearing lately, I’ll tell you what happened to them. I don’t think they’ve been recruited by the Renaissance. I think they’ve been taken by Humeaters, like it’s been said. I think it makes more sense.”
“That’s a gross lie made up to scare Human kids, that’s what it is!” said Miona, her voice rising.
“Calm down, kid,” Ruhul said, looking at her with a questioning stare. “I’m just telling you what I think.”
Miona didn’t answer back. She pointed at the radar screen. Several orange dots in front of their blue dot were behaving weirdly, suddenly moving in all directions. Ruhul stifled a curse and looked up. Nothing strange seemed to be happening directly in front of them, but he looked quickly left, right, and up, and abruptly pushed up and twisted the control wheel. The big car lurched upward and sneaked past a hoverer that had been flying in front of them the previous second. Ruhul sped up further, avoiding several other cars with quick side moves from the control wheel. The next second the sky broke loose, all the lights under them moving in all directions like the dots on the screen had just done. “What an idiot!” Ruhul growled through his teeth.
“What was that?” Miona asked, catching her breath.
“Some lunatic decided to stop, further ahead. Then everybody tried to avoid him. There’s nothing more dangerous, because there’s no way to know where everyone’s going to move to. That’s why I hate flying outside a corridor. You have to keep watching the radar screen at all times.”
“Aren’t we getting close to one?” asked Miona, looking at the denser flying traffic. They seemed now in the middle of a swarm of bzees heading for the hive.
“Yes. That’s why there are so many cars around. Why don’t you go back to the rear now?” he said, tense on his controls. “You’re distracting me. I should’ve seen that one coming.”
“Well, I saw it coming, didn’t I?” Miona said, a hint of pride in her voice.
“Yes, you did. But you’re still distracting me.
“Isn’t it better to have two pairs of eyes in the cockpit instead of just one?” she countered. “I could help you. I could keep watching the radar while you watch through the windshield.”
“Miona, can’t you just obey?”
She looked at him, incredulous. “You’re just like them,” she said in a hurt kind of voice. “Like Master and the school Headmistress. I thought you liked me, but you just want me to stay in my place and obey.”
“Miona, really,” he said, his irritation showing. “You’re being selfish again. You’re deforming everything people say instead of seeing things simply the way they are. It’s too dangerous now. I can’t fly this car if you stay here and distract me.”
“I won’t distract you,” she said, crossing her hands on her lap. “I won’t say a thing anymore. Promise.”
“You know what’s wrong with you, Miona?” he said in a tired voice, slowing down the car. “You always try to have it your way. That’s why you always end up getting in trouble, at school like at home. You’ve got to start working on that and accept the rules, if you ever want to be a pilot one day. There are lots of rules to respect, to fly a car safely. And if you want me to show you how to fly, you need to show me you can do as you’re told.”
Miona looked at him sideways. “You’re trying to trick me. You’re not going to show me how to fly.”
“Today, certainly not. There are too many of them cars around. Now be nice and go back to your seat. We’re at the inner ring already. We’ll be home in ten minutes now, and I don’t want Graalor to see you in front and report to your master…. And try not to step on my tail this time.”
Miona fell silent, crossing her arms on her chest in a stubborn manner. After a few moments she gave a heavy sigh and unbuckled. “It’s always the same,” she muttered, turning around until she was kneeling in the copilot seat, facing the partition window. “Everyone says I’m good for nothing. I’m just to do my chores and go back in a corner and make no noise.” She stood up on the seat, stuck her head in the opening and undertook to pull herself over the headrest, still sulking. “But there are some teachers who say I’m good. The Headmistress and Graalor and everyone else want me to stay a slave forever and do as I’m told. I’d better go with the Renaissance. I’m sure they’d teach me how to fly, and at least I wouldn’t have chores to do.”
“Here you go again,” Ruhul said, holding her feet away from his face as she was contorting and sliding down the backward seat on the other side. “You’re talking nonsense again.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Ruhul,” she shot back, louder for the chauffeur to hear, her head touching the carpet. “You’re not a slave anymore.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he yelled back at her to cover the vibrations of the fans and turbines. “The Renaissance won’t teach you how to fly. They’ll give you explosives so you can blow yourself up, that’s all they’ll do.”
Miona pulled herself across the carpet, letting her legs slide all the way across the front seat until she reached the back seat. She pulled herself on it and sat carefully on her side, a sullen pout on her face. She started to strap herself. “I thought you said they don’t bother with kids.”
“I stand by what I said, Miona. You better double check what your friend told you. My hunch is that her friend’s brother never came back, that the Humeaters took him. That’s what I think.”
Miona didn’t answer. She looked out the window at the other cars hovering beside them, above them, and below them, all jockeying for position along the ascension tower to the inner ring. But soon she stopped seeing them. Instead she was seeing shadowy figures dressed in dark cloaks. Some were roaming the sewage systems under the city, strapping explosives on buildings’ foundations. Others were following lost kids in the dark alleys, long knives hidden under their capes.
The blond boy and the bearded man were walking in a part of town just as gloomy and deserted as the docks. They hadn’t seen more than a half-dozen cars, and each time Steve had pulled the boy to take cover in a dark corner, going on with his briefing as soon as the danger had passed.
“Here,” he just said, pointing at a dark steeple showing in the pale pre-dawn light between two taller buildings. “We’re nearly there.”
The boy looked up over the roofs, his arms folded in an attempt to get some warmth. Although it had stopped raining, he was totally drenched, and shivers were shaking him every now and then. “Is there any material about Humond in the church? I don’t know much about it. Most slaves at home only know old tales about it.”
“I believe there is. There isn’t any about the Renaissance, though. Too dangerous. But the Priest can tell you more about both. He’ll help you make your choice.”
“I don’t know. I’d love to go to Humond and be free, but I’d like to help the Renaissance here also.”
“Tough choice, son, I grant you. But the choice might not be yours to make. Depends on the Renaissance’s needs, or if a passage to Humond can be arranged in a reasonable time.”
“And Montahra? Could they take me there?”
“Not a good idea, Montahra. Too many freed slaves trying to get a job since they stopped slavery there. They used to arrange passage to that place shortly after the new law, but not anymore. Now it’s only Humond.”
“Are there any slaves waiting at the moment?”
“Couldn’t tell, son. I’ve not been there for a while. But if there are, don’t worry. There’s plenty of room in the shelter. There’s a whole level just for you guys, with TVs and games.”
“Well, sometimes you have to wait a couple o’ months before the next transfer.”
“And what about food?” asked the blond boy, a little worried.”
“Nothing to worry about. There’s plenty, because of the school next door. It’s a school for freeborns. Part of the church. You’ll have no contacts with the kids there, of course, but you’ll have several meals a day brought to you.” The bearded man stopped at the next corner. “Here it is, your new home for a while.”
The boy stood still, looking at the church, which was in full view now, closing a short and narrow street. It was austere-looking, with its stones darkened by the rain and pollution. Its main steeple and pyramid were surrounded by many turrets, all covered with dark, spiky roofs, and bristling with evil-looking gargoyles. The fact that it seemed rather small didn’t make it any more engaging.
“By the way, kid, what’s your name?”
“Grillahr,” the boy said. “I mean, Gilbert. My master calls me Grillahr, but my mother used to call me Gilbert.”
“All right, then…Gilbert,” the man said with a smile. “Shall we?”
The boy nodded and fell in behind him, walking toward the church.
When Steve let the heavy door close behind them, the oppressing atmosphere of the church engulfed them. It was cold and dark and absolutely silent, except for a faint running water noise. But when Steve whispered behind the boy, his voice seemed to echo off the bare walls and the high, vaulted ceiling. “Follow me, now. The priest might not be up yet. We’ll have to check with the guard first. His office is all the way behind the choir, in one of the crown turrets.”
“Well of course, son. They have plenty o’ precious old things in here. He handles the surveillance cameras. He works at night. Shall we go? First thing to take care of at any rate is your collar.” He walked briskly toward the far end of the church, oblivious to the rows of kaleidoscopic stained glass windows they were passing by on their way. Arriving in front of a majestic altar, he turned left and kept his fast pace without a glance at the richly decorated choir.
Gilbert followed on his heels, but froze when reaching the altar. Two huge golden statues seemed to be looking down directly at him. One represented a muscular Trowan wielding a wide-bladed sword with both hands. The other was a beautiful and slender woman. She held both hands out flat in an offering gesture. There was a small planet in the palm of her left hand, and water was running from her right, trickling onto the planet and down into a basin at her feet.
Steve turned around and walked quickly back to the boy. “What is the matter, son? Never seen Gorôhr and Tirva before?”
“The Lady has a sword,” Gilbert said in a whisper. “And her claws are showing. It’s not a Sacred Source of Harmony church. It’s a Sacred Assembly church.”
“What does it matter? Do you follow the Harmony cult?”
“No. I believe in Oshunta, like most Human slaves at the house. But there are the same statues in my master’s chapel—I don’t trust Assembly people.”
“Relax, son.” The bearded man looked around and bent toward the boy. “It’s all part of the cover. Assembly churches don’t deal with rescuing Humans or Pyrwondus in need like Harmony people are known to. The police will never come and sniff around here.” He straightened up and shrugged. “So, do we take care of this collar?”
Gilbert hesitated. He had a last stare at the statues, then shrugged in turn. “All right. I’ll follow you.”
“This way, then.” Steve started off away from the altar again, and this time the blond boy followed. A moment later, Steve pushed a small door next to a large pillar.
They found themselves in a narrow, curved hallway which seemed to run back all around the choir. It was filled with glass cabinets holding relics and artifacts. A security guard in uniform was sitting at a desk at the end of the hall, typing at a computer—a Human guard. He looked fat and had very short dark hair, a mustache, and a four-days beard that gave him an unkempt appearance. As they approached, he reluctantly raised his gaze from a battery of five small screens lined up in front of him, and gave them a bored stare. He had what looked like a long piece of candy sticking out of the corner of his mouth.
Steve walked up to the desk and whispered a few words while the guard stared at the blond boy, chewing on his stick and making it travel to the other side of his mouth. Finally he lifted his cap and stood up, and went to unlock a small door next to his desk, revealing that besides being fat, he was also quite tall—close to a Maruwan—and most likely quite strong. He had to duck to be able to squeeze through the door. Steve motioned the boy to follow the guard. “He’s got stuff for your collar downstairs. Mind your steps.” Gilbert looked down steep steps carved in stone, uncoiling in a narrow stairway. He climbed down, Steve shutting the door behind them. After three dozen steps, they were in another curved hallway, narrower than the room upstairs, with a series of doors. The guard had opened one and was searching a cabinet full of what looked like ceremonial artifacts. He walked back to the boy, holding a small metallic case. He touched the collar with it, and the collar opened with a click.
“You’re safe now,” Steve said, as the guard was bringing the collar back to the cabinet. “He’ll have the battery out in an instant.”
“It’s done,” the guard said gruffly. “Now put your arms up, boy.”
Gilbert looked at Steve, who nodded. “He’s going to search you, son. You’d better give him that knife of yours. They won’t allow you in the dorms with it. Because of the other folks who live there. You wouldn’t want them to have knives either, would you?”
Gilbert took one step back, frowning. He considered the guard a moment, then pulled the knife from his pocket with a sigh. The guard took it and went ahead with his search.
”All right, this way, gentlemen,” the guard said as he walked to the last door.
Moments later, Gilbert was sitting by a big heater with a dry shirt and his hair toweled dry. The guard had shown how the dorms operated, Steve filling in the many blanks in his scarce explanations. There wasn’t any other boarder at the moment, and the place looked quite big for Gilbert alone.
“Well, son, I have to go now. The docks are about to open, and if I want to work today, I’d better hurry. The guard said more kids are coming soon. Hope you’ll get along with them. In the meantime, there’s plenty o’ stuff for you to keep busy.”
“Can I go out sometimes?” Gilbert said, looking around at the photos and paintings hanging on the walls in place of windows. “I don’t like being underground.”
“That, I don’t know, son. I believe you can come out for a breather every once a while, but it might be at night only. Anyway if you plan to join the Renaissance, you’d better get used to the underground…. But you can ask the priest. He’ll come talk to you shortly.” Steve patted the blond boy on the shoulder. “I might drop by one of these days to check on you.” Then he stepped away, turning once for a short wave.
When they pushed the small door to the security room, a tall man was standing behind the desk, watching the screens. He was wearing a long, black priest’s smock. His short fur was black also, and only the smock’s golden collar and sleeves were breaking the overall darkness of his appearance. The guard bowed his head respectfully. “Good morning, gentlemen,” the priest said in a warm tone. “I see that our friend Steve did some good work again. Congratulations Steve.”
“It was easy, Grand Ordainer. He practically fell into my net.”
“But you brought him here very smoothly, as usual.” He turned to the guard. “Did you take care of the collar, Girthrand?”
“Yes, Grand Ordainer.”
“Good. I am glad we have a new boarder. Hopefully it is the end of this dry spell we have been having.”
“Traffic sure has been slow,” Steve agreed with a stern look. “Only good thing is it keeps the rates high. But Master is expecting a small shipment from Humond for next month.”
“An we will be happy to provide them with shelter while the transfer to Montahra is arranged,” the priest said with a contended smile. With all the children who escaped in the last blundered transfer, our coffers are nearly empty.”
Ruhul stopped the big car in front of the mansion. He took Miona’s suitcase and climbed the impressive stairs that lead to the large entrance door. Miona followed on his heels, carrying her satchel, grateful to the big porch for stopping the drizzle. She stepped into the hall while Ruhul held the door. They had decided that it was best for Miona to walk straight to her room and avoid the commander’s mother. She lived in the castle too—she actually owned half of it.
At her husband’s death, her son inherited half of Clifftop Manor, but could only move in if she allowed it. Which she did. Partly because she felt more secure with a military man in the house—there had always been one within the old walls—but probably more so she could see more of her granddaughter Darveena. She retained all authority over the life of the domain, although her son’s slaves really reported to him. This was a strange arrangement, which sometimes created confusion and tensions. Her son was to inherit the domain fully at her death. “But not until my death,” she often reminded him, sometimes in front of the servants—she liked everyone to know that she was still the boss despite her age. Krelle Fortvallor wasn’t keen on Miona, and she seemed to always find ways to mistreat or humiliate her, and Ruhul was getting worried about the girl’s legs.
“Now hurry and run upstairs, kid,” he whispered, pushing the heavy entrance door shut with caution. “I’ll find out where Kalinda is and I’ll send her to your room.”
Miona took off toward the small staircase that led to the rooms used by slaves, neglecting the monumental one reserved to masters and guests.
“And don’t stamp your feet!” he hissed under his breath.
Miona stopped in her tracks, uncomfortably remembering the end of her history class a few hours ago. She resumed crossing the rest of the hall, this time walking fast instead of running, so as not to make her steps ring off the polished stones. But she hadn’t reached the first landing when another voice made her freeze again.
“Ahem, Sir, Krelle Fortvallor told me to tell you that Miona is expected in the dining room. Everybody has been waiting for her to commence dinner.”
Miona turned around. Charles—a Human butler with graying hair—was standing stiffly across the hall by the door to his office, which opened onto the kitchens. He must have been waiting for them by his video monitor. Miona and Ruhul exchanged a long look.
“All right, we’ll follow you, Charles,” Ruhul said finally, putting down Miona’s suitcase and motioning her to come down the stairs. “Let me do the talking, kid,” he whispered when they were walking briskly behind the scrawny butler.
They took the long east-west corridor running along the reception area, and Miona thought Charles was leading them to Krelle Fortvallor’s apartments, in the southeast wing, where there was a small dining room that the Rittress used for her meals. But instead Charles stopped by the door to the main dining room.
Miona couldn’t believe it. They’d set the banquet table, which could fit at ease thirty guests. But only the Rittress and Darveena were actually sitting at it—the Rittress at one end, Darveena exactly in the center, facing them. Both were dressed up, in long reception dresses, ribbons in their long, dark-gray fur. Two other settings had been laid. One at the other end, and one across from Darveena.
Charles’s shiny shoes were slightly squealing on the waxed parquet floor as he walked toward Krelle Fortvallor. Miona noticed that Ruhul was trying to walk lightly, but his steps were nevertheless echoing off the walls and high ceiling. She too put her feet down with caution, but she couldn’t prevent making her steps squeal like Charles’s. The butler walked around the Rittress’s chair and stopped next to her, standing at attention facing them—without seeing them it seemed. He looked like he’d spotted an insect on the wall behind them and tried not to lose its position in order to squash it later, Miona caught herself thinking.
She also stood at attention while Krelle Fortvallor went on brushing her left shoulder conscientiously with an expensive-looking brush beset with precious stones. Miona had often heard her tell Darveena that washing oneself with one’s tongue wasn’t appropriate at the table—no more than coughing fur balls—and not worthy of someone of her rank. So she carried a brush everywhere she went, and offered one to Darveena on her tenth birthday. Miona glanced at the girl and noticed that she too had her brush next to her plate. After three more slow strokes, the Rittress carefully set the brush next to her fork and addressed Miona directly, ignoring Ruhul. “Hurry up to the kitchen, Miona. There’s a change of clothes waiting for you there. We can’t wait for you to go to your room and change there.”
“Er…Krelle Fortvallor,” Ruhul started, ill at ease. “The Commander asked me to show Miona to Kalinda. She needs to look at her legs as soon as possible.”
The Rittress finally looked at Ruhul. She seemed to hesitate between indignation and annoyance. “You mean my son, I presume, Ruhul,” she started by correcting. Then, looking down at Miona’s legs, “What’s with her legs anyway?” She pushed her half-moon reading glasses down to the very tip of her nose and motioned to Miona to turn around. “I don’t see anything wrong with these legs at all,” she said. She reached for her cane hanging on the arm of her chair and used it to lift the girl’s skirt. “Very nice,” she said after detailing the red marks covering the back of Miona’s legs. “My son warned me she would be late for dinner, but he omitted to mention why. I think I can fill the blanks myself. It appears our favorite pet is working hard toward her eviction from school, isn’t it? Very good. Then we’ll have the privilege of seeing more of her around here. There’s plenty to do in the house to keep her busy.” She let the skirt drop back on the girl’s legs and Miona stiffened. “Turn back this way and take off your glasses.”
Miona turned around and caught a glimpse of Darveena as she did so. The young girl was sitting straight in her chair, stiff due to her expensive dress. She kept a noncommittal expression on her face, but Miona knew she was fighting to hide her satisfaction. She shared her grandmother’s opinion that Miona was in this house for the sole purpose of playing with her and doing chores, and never lost an occasion of reminding Miona so. Miona took off her glasses and stayed at attention, staring at one of the large mirrors facing her. She understood that the Rittress wanted to check if the pain showed in her eyes, and she clenched her jaws. Fortunately her eyes were dry.
“All right, put them back on and off you go. Paolo is waiting for you.”
“But your Krelleship,” protested Ruhul. “Her legs need treatment first—”
“That’ll be all, Ruhul. Kalinda can take care of these little cuts and bruises—after Miona serves dinner. I’ll make sure she’s told to have a look at the girl. Now we’ve been waiting long enough.”
There was no more arguing, and Ruhul gave a curt bow, which looked more like a nod, and followed Miona out of the dining room. “Sorry I couldn’t do anything, kid,” he whispered behind her when they were in the corridor, Charles on their heels. “I’ll stay around.”
“Thanks, Ruhul, but don’t worry. I’ll manage…if you can take my satchel to my room. I don’t trust the cooks with this.” She grinned a sad smile and gave him her briefcase, then went on stiffly toward the kitchens. He stopped by the main hall, watching her helplessly as Charles followed her down the service corridor.
Miona found the kitchen like she expected, meaning that everyone there was stressed and angry. They knew the Rittress was upset at the late dinner, that she could turn against any of them, and that it was all Miona’s fault. Paolo, the chef, was a short and fat Human with a bushy mustache whose ends pointed upward. Like most slaves working at the mansion, he had been picked by Krelle Fortvallor herself. She thought only the best of him, and Miona never understood why. It was told that he was the slave whom she had to pay the most for, and Miona thought it could be one reason she kept claiming he was the best cook in town. But the young girl knew how many meals he’d actually burned each time he’d tried to cook them himself.
Apparently Paolo was the least pleased with her today, as he demonstrated by throwing her waitress uniform at her and making her change in front of him. Of course he thought she wasn’t doing so fast enough and grew even angrier. His face, usually reddish from the heat and stress of the kitchen, was keeping its red tint although he was away from the cooking range. “Let me help you there,” he said as she was putting on her uniform skirt with extreme caution. It wasn’t a pleated skirt like her school uniform’s, and its rough material was making her grimace in pain as it was rubbing against her skin. The fat Human seized the skirt at the waistband and gave it a brutal pull, making tears come to her eyes. “There we are,” he said in his loud voice, his bushy mustache not able to hide his first smile since Miona entered the kitchen. “And now take the trolley and hurry. I had to toss the salads in the bin once and do them all over again because the grasshoppers had gone limp with the sauce. The Rittress likes her grasshoppers crunchy!” As she passed in front of him, slowly pushing the shiny trolley and trying not to make the seam of her skirt rub too much on the back of her legs, he slapped the back of her skirt with a big spatula he was holding.
She turned around, stifling a cry and giving him a deadly look.
“Hurry up, will you?” he said with an irritated voice. “Will I have to redo the salad a third time?”
The two cook helpers faked big, silent laughs from behind the chef. They were Maruwans, and both already tall despite their young age—only five years older than Miona—but they knew the chef had the ear of the Mistress and were careful not to upset him any more than he usually was. “Nothing to laugh about, you two.” Miona tossed at them. “I can smell the muskritts burning!” The fat chef turned on his heels and started yelling at the cooks, the red definitely not leaving his face, and Miona resumed pushing her trolley out of the kitchen.
When she reached the dining room, Charles greeted her at the door with a nasty remark about how slow she had been and escorted her to the table. She served the Rittress first, then Darveena, and waited by the serving cart in case the two Trowans wanted seconds or needed more sauce later.
“Come on, Miona,” Rittress Fortvallor said irritably. “Who do you think these plates are for?”
Miona was taken aback. Unless other guests were to join in soon, the two other plates had to be for her master and herself. She usually ate like the other slaves, in a small dining room touching the kitchens, except for a few times when her master asked her to dine with him in his personal dining room next to his study. Also, on a few big occasions, he did insist that she eat at the banquet table, which didn’t please his mother at all. But that never happened without him being there. So tonight Miona assumed she’d be eating in the kitchen like normal.
“So, girl? Agitate those little gray cells of yours, that my son says you can move so fast!”
“My master and me?” she ventured, ignoring a snort of stifled laughter from Darveena.
“Finally,” the Rittress said with a falsely encouraging voice. “But as your master is held back at work, I’m letting you eat with us by yourself. So hurry up and serve yourself and sit down, so we can start. I should not be eating at such a late hour. The doctors told me it isn’t good for me.”
That last bit was just in case she wasn’t embarrassed enough already, Miona thought. She quickly pushed the cart around the table and laid a plate of salad on top of the empty plate across from Darveena. But as she sat too hastily, her knee pulled on the tablecloth and made one of her three glasses tip over. She reached for it in reflex…and knocked it into the one next to it—all three glasses fell atop one another and she froze, her arm outstretched.
A heavy silence followed the clatter of broken glass. She caught a glimpse of Charles’s eyes turning to the ceiling, and Darveena’s sparkling with glee. But the Rittress’s expression showed only annoyance and resignation. “Another trick to make me eat later, is it?” she said in a tired voice. “Or are you following your mother’s path? Too clumsy to do anything more than to show her nice curves and amuse guests with silly stories or riddles. I was always at a loss to understand what my son kept her for. But don’t think you’ll get the same favors from him, girl. You’d better start soon improving your waiting skills.”
Miona bit her lip at yet another of the Rittress’s customary attacks on her mother’s memory. But this time she felt also angry with herself for having provoked it by her clumsiness. She picked up a large piece of glass and used it to collect the other, smaller ones.
“What’s the new bright idea now?” interrupted Krelle Fortvallor shortly. “Trying to cut yourself to delay the meal even more? Or skip it altogether?” She looked at Miona coldly. “I should have you whipped for breaking these nice glasses.” The young girl felt a shiver run down her back, replacing the sticky warmth she’d felt there since the incident. Her legs started burning more as she imagined what a new whipping would do to them. “But that also would delay our meal, of course,” the Rittress continued. She lifted one finger at Charles’s attention. “Charles, please be so kind as to give her one of my son’s glasses. After all, she doesn’t need more than one.” Miona held a sigh of relief. She watched while the butler went to the other end of the table and brought back a glass that he set in front of her among the chips and slivers.
They ate their salads in silence. Unlike the commander, the Rittress only allowed talking at the table between courses. The old woman wasn’t too wrong saying that Miona would rather skip the meal. If she’d eaten in the kitchens, she’d have skipped the salad for sure. She found that particular mix of herbs hard to digest, even if they were widely appreciated for their properties to facilitate the passing of fur balls—which Darveena often had trouble with. She didn’t care much for the grasshoppers either.
She ate more of the second course—raw sea urchins on a bed of cooked seaweed patties. But after she’d served the third course, she stared at her plate for a while before deciding to take her fork and eat the vegetables around her muskritt pastry.
“You’re not going to waste that nice piece of meat, I hope!” The Rittress’s stern voice startled her. She knew how the old woman despised talking to the kids during a course—she hated seeing them speak with their mouths full—and Miona made sure she didn’t answer. Instead she hastened to cut a small bite from her meat. From the pastry shell surrounding the meat, in fact. Paolo had found pastry molds the shape of muskritts, and shaped the ground meat into a muskritt-looking pastry shell. He’d even pushed professional care so far as to add peas for the eyes, and put the tail back in place. She added a big forkful of vegetables to cover the taste of the meat in case the flavor had gone into the pastry. It wasn’t that the meat was too cooked—as it was most of the time—or tasted bad. But she liked muskritts. She found them funny. Often she played with them in the kitchen, invariably making Paolo mad at her. She took another bite, trying not to look at the tail artistically curved in her plate.
She wondered who had made the choice of meat: both Paolo and the Rittress knew how she hated muskritt. But she suspected it was to spite her, because her master, the Rittress and Darveena all loved fish—Darveena had never managed to keep a pet goldfish for more than a week.
After the main course, she had to answer Darveena’s questions about what had happened to her at school. The Rittress liked to take a breather before dessert, so she’d have a cup of tsai and would allow talking for fifteen minutes before ordering the last course to be served. Miona tried to keep her answers brief, but Darveena was really grilling her about the maze incident. “Poisonohl is strong and fierce,” the Trowan girl said at one point. “And some of his gang are even stronger. Ratmatuhr is pretty tall. And the two others are one or two years older. I can’t believe you escaped the four of them.”
“Let’s say perhaps I’m fiercer,” Miona said, getting annoyed at Darveena’s admiration for her class bullies. “And how do you know anyway? You’re not at Krandlinohr.”
“I know more than you think. Ratmatuhr’s big brother is in my class. He said that his little brother and his friends were having a good time with you since the first day of school.”
Miona could tell she took pleasure making the age comparison. She wanted very much to drop the subject, but there were things she couldn’t let pass. “He said that, eh? Well, I’m having some good times with them too. You should see them now. Poisonohl is on crutches and you can’t see Bludjan’s face with all the bandages the nurse put on him.”
“That, I can’t believe,” Darveena insisted. “If they trapped you in the maze like you said, I can’t see how you got out of it without help.”
Darveena’s stubborn admiration was really getting on Miona’s nerves by now. “They might be strong, that’s possible,” she said, forcing a detached air. “Especially Bludjan and Furriahr. But they are something else, too. They’re a stupid bunch, all four of them. That’s why I escaped.”
“Poisonohl is not stupid, certainly,” snapped back Darveena. “He’s a kerl. And so is Ratmatuhr.”
“And what does that have to do with anything? You’re a krelle yourself, aren’t you?…”
“Now, now, let’s keep insults out of this table, will you?” Krelle Fortvallor stepped in, throwing a stern look at Miona. “Which Poisonohl are you talking about?” she asked her granddaughter, suddenly interested in the conversation. “Is it the son of the Krant?”
“Darveena, you are still at the table. Don’t forget your manners just because Miona seems to have forgotten hers.”
“Your Krelleship,” corrected the young girl, straightening up in her chair.
“So he is the son of your father’s colleague at the Imperial Office,” continued Krelle Fortvallor. “Now that is funny.” She paused to think a moment. “And is Ratmatuhr Krant Ratmatuhr’s son?”
“Yes, your Krelleship. He and his brother are the ones giving the party the day after tomorrow.”
“Ah, yes, the party.” The Rittress turned to Miona with a smile. “Well, then, I believe this will not stay at what it is now, my girl. I’d be surprised if you remained long in that class. My son will most likely have to abandon his foolish idea of teaching you non-slave curriculum.” She dropped her smile and looked suddenly thoughtful. “I just hope he won’t show his usual stubbornness and get himself in trouble at the Office for your sake.”
On the Rittress’s command, Miona got up and went to fetch the last course in the kitchens. She came back slowly, a furrow on her forehead, pretending to be cautious with the trolley. She felt torn between the comforting thought that she’d like it much better in an all-slave class, and the worrisome one that her master could get in trouble because of her.
When she stopped the cart near the Rittress, Darveena was talking animatedly. Krelle Fortvallor interrupted her with a lift of one finger. “Don’t worry, now, Darveena,” she said in a comforting voice, smiling at Miona in an enigmatic way. “I’ll speak to your father. I am certain he will allow you to attend if Miona comes with you.”
“But, your Krelleship, I don’t want Miona to come along…”
“But you said she was invited too, didn’t you?”
“That doesn’t mean she has to come.” Darveena made a pouting face. “We could say she’s sick. Or that she can’t come because of her legs.”
“Now, now, Darveena, I’m afraid your father won’t let you go otherwise. And of that I approve. You’ll see, Miona could be helpful to you there.”
“She’ll create trouble, that I’m sure she’ll do.”
“No, no, she won’t,” the Rittress insisted, still looking at Miona with her cryptic smile. “She better not, especially after what she did today. And I think it is important that you attend. It could help mend things. Anyway, you girls can’t turn down an invitation coming from a Krant. It is just not done.”
“What…invitation, my Krelle?” Miona asked hesitantly.
“An invitation to a party for Krant Ratmatuhr’s son’s birthday.”
Miona tightened her grip on the cart’s handlebar, actually using it to support herself. “I can’t go there, your Krelleship,” she said after a moment, horrified. “Poisonohl might attend too.”
“And you’ll take advantage of the occasion to present your excuses, won’t you?” Krelle Fortvallor’s smile had the warmth of a saber’s blade against your neck, Miona thought to herself. She managed to stop the word “Never!” from leaving her mouth, but nearly had to bite her lip to achieve that. She reached for one of the shiny bowls on the cart and set it in front of the Rittress, surprised and relieved that it was enough to end the conversation.
After they had finished the desserts—fruit salads with loads of bulldoz cream on them, the one meal Paolo could not ruin—Darveena started pushing hard for them to play battery. Miona was glad that she wasn’t putting the discussion back on the party’s subject, but nevertheless reminded Darveena that she needed to see Kalinda for her legs. Unfortunately Darveena refused to back down, arguing that they had not played the game since the start of the new school year, and that they would just have a short game tonight. Finally she turned to her grandmother to intervene.
“I don’t see why Kalinda could not see to your legs after a small game, at any rate,” the Rittress declared. “And certainly a tough girl able to defeat a gang of fierce boys of noble lineage whose families covered themselves with honors throughout the ages cannot be afraid of a little game of battery. Go now, both of you. But don’t play outside, it’s pouring.”
That part was well settled, and Miona could only follow Darveena upstairs to the playroom. Darveena rushed to the wardrobe where all the gears were stored and pulled out her battery equipment and Miona’s. Reluctantly Miona dressed up for the second time. She passed on her padded vest and armor, and also shin pads and kneepads, but not her padded trunks. Instead she kept her waitress skirt—she preferred getting bruises on the front of her legs than having the thick material rub on their backs. She had barely set her helmet on than Darveena lashed a nasty blow at her with her battery saber, which caught her right below the ribs. She dropped on the wooden floor and rolled, avoiding another blow that hit the floor with a loud thud.
She got back on her legs and forced the air back into her lungs, not knowing if she hurt more on her side or on her shoulder or legs. “Come on, Miona,” Darveena said with a snicker, turning around her. “Focus a little. Show me if you’d have been able to escape, had I been the one in the maze instead of Poisonohl.”
“Oh, so that was what you had in mind, was it?” Miona replied, turning to keep facing the Trowan girl. “You want to make sure you’re still the best. Then you’d better stay focused yourself.” She held her saber in front of her, ready to parry Darveena’s next attack, while searching for a weakness in her adversary’s defense. The two girls had been playmates since Miona could remember, usually not to her advantage, as Darveena was four years older. But because Trowans lived longer and aged slightly slower than Humans, Darveena was always afraid that Miona would catch up with her someday.
And last summer Miona’s height had caught up a little, and Darveena must have been worrying more during the first half-quarter, Miona reflected. Especially since Darveena had had too much homework for battery on the weekend off that Miona hadn’t been grounded for—both girls could go home every other weekend.
And there was another reason for Darveena to worry. Like Krandlinohr, Darveena’s school, Mahrlor, was rather conservative—more conservative in fact, as it didn’t even offer an all-slave curriculum, and no Humani or Srilissi. Girls there weren’t allowed to play battery or batteryrun. But other schools had started letting girls play on their teams, and conservative schools were having each year more trouble finding enough all-boy teams to compete with.
Like Mahrlor, Krandlinohr had resisted the trend, but the rumor had it that the faculty had been studying the possibility to recruit girls into the school’s batteryrun team. It was even said that girls would be taught battery and batteryrun in the physical education class before the end of the school year, perhaps even sooner than that. Professor Musrol, Miona’s PE teacher, had brushed on the subject once or twice already, although supposedly nothing had been decided yet. But his eyes were sparkling in a way that told Miona the decision might not be very far off after all. Considering how fast any rumors traveled, Darveena most likely had heard it already. And to her it meant that Miona would be able to train several times a week, while she could not.
That prospect must be dire for Darveena, because the two girls were very close at battery. Miona usually got beaten in the end, but that summer she had been able to stand her ground in the last games they’d had. Her reflexes seemed to have come really close to Darveena’s, and her science of the game had caught up completely, thanks to Ruhul’s training—although he tried to be fair and never taught Miona any tricks he hadn’t shown Darveena too. She ducked a fast swing from Darveena’s club and hit her on the shoulder, making the shoulder plate of her armor ring loudly, but not hitting with enough force to make the girl fall.
Darveena’s saber came back immediately, aiming at her legs this time. Before Miona could clearly see Darveena’s sword, she had blocked it with hers, inches from her left knee. Following was a series of hits and parries that sent loud sounds echoing around against the walls. Battery sabers had a somewhat flexible core—a thick metallic wire wound in a tight coil and sheathed in a coating of rubber-like material—but their outside was made of a thin but strong metal sleeve which didn’t cut, but created quite a clatter when they made contact with another sword like they were now.
“What’s going on in here?” Ruhul’s loud voice made Miona freeze in mid-air. She bounded backward and avoided one last blow from Darveena, but the Trowan girl stopped in turn and looked at the big Maruwan. Miona took a second step away from her playmate. She felt a strange mix of relief and frustration. She knew she would have come out of this game with more pain in her body than she already had, but she was as curious as Darveena to see if she’d caught up at the game. And she had a few of the Trowan girl’s smiles and comments to push back up her throat.
“We’re having a game,” Darveena answered in a resolute voice, lifting her helmet’s visor. “Grandma—the Rittress said we could.” Miona lifted her visor slowly and gave Ruhul a peevish smile.
“She said Kalinda would see to Miona’s legs after dinner,” the tall man countered.
“But she said we could have a game before that!” the Trowan girl said, not wavering.
Ruhul sent Miona a questioning look. “This is true, Ruhul,” she said weakly. The excitement of the fight was wearing off and she suddenly felt very tired. The big Maruwan hesitated. “Where are your protective pants?” he asked after a moment.
“I can’t wear them. They hurt my legs too much.”
“I doubt the Rittress would let you play without the proper gear,” he said, addressing mostly Darveena.
“She can put them on. They’re there, in the gear cabinet,” Darveena countered, already walking toward the wardrobe.
“No, I can’t!” Miona said. “They’d rub too much.”
“All right, end of game, then,” said Ruhul. “Take off your helmet, Miona. I’m taking you to your room. Kalinda is up there waiting for you.”
“You can’t,” protested Darveena, taking off her helmet with an angry gesture. “I’ll tell Grandma!”
“You do as you want, girl. But Miona’s coming with me.” Annoyance filtered through in the big Maruwan’s voice. “And you may also tell your father, if you want to make sure.” He motioned Miona to the wardrobe, and she started to undress. Darveena stopped arguing and stepped away from the big Maruwan. She threw her sword inside the closet with rage and started to undress in turn.
When Miona followed Ruhul out of the room, Darveena threw in her last blow. “At least you’ve proven that you’re well enough to come to the party!”
The man behind the ornate desk was looking at a large map on the wall to his right, while absently stroking his whiskers and the short, brown fur of his cheek with the back of his hand. He wore a crimson red doublet covered with gilded laces and braids. There were two period chairs facing the desk. On them two men were sitting straight, each holding a working pad with both hands, attentive not to interrupt the man’s thoughts. One was clearly rounder than the other, although not quite fat. He had a flat face and long, wavy white hairs, which he kept rearranging every few moments. The other’s fur was short and dark gray.
“Short of seizing Human oil fields, we could start exploration on the Kandrahar archipelago. It is still a no-man’s land, and is wasted to everyone. It seems it is time at last that someone go ahead with that task.”
The two men stayed motionless, except that the one with white fur had his whiskers twitching.
“I’d like you gentlemen to tell me what you think of this idea.” The Emperor turned his ears in the direction of the two men. They sent each other a quick glance, but neither seemed eager to speak first. “Krant, any comment?”
Dretar Poisonohl swallowed. His whiskers gave a last twitch before he finally spoke. “I think you’re right, your Hoherald. It is time we explore this island. The closest Pyrwondu island is about dry now, and as all the others had their own oil pouches, we should have all chances to find a good field under these as well.” Poisonohl kept perfectly still and stiff on his chair, waiting for the Emperor’s reaction.
“What is your thought now, Fortvallor?” the Emperor said, turning to face the two men at last.
“I believe you know it already, my Kerl.” Franken Fortvallor was sitting just as stiff in his chair as Poisonohl, but his voice sounded more assured. “Wanting to exploit this island was what started the last war, and I don’t think the Srilisses are any less nervous about Kandrahar now than they were then.”
The Emperor smiled and smoothed out his whiskers in a detached gesture. “You’re right, Franken, I expected your answer, perfectly logical from a Foreign and Military Affairs Adviser. But there’s a difference with these times. We now have diplomatic relations with the Srilisses. We can use these to explain our intentions. We could, for instance, direct suspicions onto the Humans, then seize the archipelago, supposedly to help quiet down matters and keep Humans away from our own Pyrwondu oil fields. We could even offer the Srilisses some of the islands. Cut the pie in half, as a figure of speech. Who knows, perhaps they’d prefer also being able to exploit half the islands instead of keeping the archipelago as a buffer between us indefinitely? What do you think about that?” The Emperor’s smile had broadened to a grin, and he seemed very pleased with his idea.
Franken Fortvallor’s hand shot up involuntarily and scratched the back of his ear while a furrow grew on his forehead. “The idea of forcing the Srilisses’ hand this way is interesting, your Hoherald. But it’s still a gamble as far as their reaction. They still consider the islands as theirs. And how do you plan on making them suspect the Humans? The area is so far from the Human continent. It’ll point to us immediately.”
The Emperor’s smile faded somewhat, and he turned his gaze to Dretar Poisonohl. “Krant, as head of Foreign Intelligence, do you think it is feasible?”
“Ahem…I’ll have to study that possibility very closely, my Kerl.”
“It would have to be a very good plot, your Kerlship,” Fortvallor insisted. “The Srilisses know better than us what’s going on with the Humans. They have ways to spy on them which we don’t.”
“I know our weaknesses, Franken. But Krant Poisonohl is making progress on that side, now that we have an embassy in Srilissia.”
“We still don’t have any on the Human continent, unfortunately. The few Human slaves that we sent in Humond to spy for us can’t be trusted, as no Trowan can be sent there to control them.” Franken Fortvallor’s furrows grew deeper on his forehead. “And it won’t change until we make some real progress on the meat issue—clean up the black market for good and silence the Reaction.”
“Correct, Franken. And that’s a hot button I’m not ready to push these days. We’ve talked about that a few times, haven’t we?” The Emperor’s smile was gone altogether. His ears turned backwards for a second, and he shifted on his chair in a way that let his irritation show.
Dretar Poisonohl relaxed his big frame slightly in his chair and started to rearrange his fur all around his shirt collar with elegant flicks of his fingers. The tension between the two other men, which was now easily noticeable, seemed to give him confidence. “If I may, your Hoherald,” he said with a half smile. “I could also study a way to start an incident on the eastern side of the Sriliss continent. There is a group of islands there in which they haven’t dug for oil yet. They lie just between their shores and the Humans’. That’s far enough from ours to keep us clean.”
“I see which ones,” the Emperor said, his forehead rising in deep interest. “Do we know finally if—”
The Emperor didn’t go any further. A brutal cough shook him and he turned away from the two men, pulling a laced handkerchief from a pocket of his doublet. The cough went on for a full minute, during which his advisers stayed perfectly rigid on their chairs, their faces perfectly impassive. Franken Fortvallor looked straight at the map, while Poisonohl was leafing through his notes.
“Apologies, gentlemen,” the Emperor resumed after a last grating sound. He put his handkerchief away and faced them again. “I’ve been working on this annoying hair ball for the past two days…. But what was I saying?… Ah, yes—Krant, do we know if these islands are officially Sriliss or Human?”
“Er…I think the dispute is still open, My Kerl. So we can say they are still for grabs.”
“But are you sure they haven’t started exploration there, Krant?” the dark-gray man asked, turning toward his colleague. “Our last satellite took pictures for hardly a minute before being blown out. We don’t have any reliable maps of the area.”
The Emperor leaned back on his chair, throwing his head back and sending a silent laugh at the ceiling. “We must admit that our Sriliss friends have a regrettable habit of mistreating our spy satellites,” he said with a chuckle. “Sorry about that, Krant,” he added, seeing Poisonohl’s disconcerted expression. “And haven’t you tried other ways to get maps, Commander?” he added, to Fortvallor’s attention this time. “From our ships?”
“We have made progress, but we’re still missing too much data to make safe maps. Our military drones seldom return home. That area is just too close to the Sriliss continent.”
“So annoying they can be sometimes, the Srilisses, can’t they?” The Emperor made a visible effort to stop smiling. It was obvious that he enjoyed the conversation more than his two advisers. “But should this stop us from plotting something clever, gentlemen?”
“Certainly not, my Kerl,” Poisonohl hurried to answer.
“But with the near-constant bad weather that plagues the area, interpretation on what’s exploited or not is fuzzy at best,” insisted Franken Fortvallor. “So we might tread on the Srilisses’ terrain again. Also, the Humans are not known as being aggressive. They’ve never been at war with the Srilisses like we have. That makes any such plot more difficult.”
Dretar Poisonohl shot his neighbor a somber side look. “Humans, not aggressive? What about that nasty little slave of yours?”
“Please, Krant, leave this out of this room. I don’t think it is relevant to our present conversation.”
“What’s that, gentlemen?” The Emperor was smiling again, scrutinizing each man in turn. “I am most interested.”
“Just a school matter, your Kerlship,” Franken Fortvallor hastened to say. “Nothing important.”
The Emperor turned to Poisonohl. “His slave and my son are in the same class, and there was a disciplinary issue today.” Dretar Poisonohl didn’t seem eager to pursue the matter either. But the Emperor encouraged him to elaborate with a gentle hand motion. “They had an argument, my Kerl.”
“Do you gentlemen mean to say that you have a common domestic issue outside the office? How amusing!” The two men exchanged heavy looks, which seemed to fill the Emperor with even more glee. He threw his head up in a silent laugh again. “Really, gentlemen, I want to know all about it…. But wait, did you say that one is a slave? A slave and a freeborn in the same class? This is quite unusual.”
“A Human slave,” Poisonohl couldn’t help specifying.
“Human, yes. I got that…. Really, Commander? And is he following all the same classes?”
“Yes, my Kerl.”
“Why’s that, Commander?” The Emperor’s amusement was now mixed with sincere surprise.
“Well, I want her to be able to help with the management of the estate,” Fortvallor said, reluctantly.
“Ah, a girl…. You would trust her with such a responsibility? A slave?”
“Yes, my Kerl.”
“More than a professional accountant?”
“Much, much more, my Kerl,” the military man said, allowing himself a smile.
The Emperor smiled in turn, then furrowed the fur of his forehead. “A Human slave, though.”
Franken Fortvallor’s smile vanished. “She doesn’t see the difference. As far as her loyalty is concerned, I mean.”
“The question is, Commander. Do you see the difference?”
“I am not sure I understand what you mean, my Kerl,” the military man said, straightening up in his chair.
“Oh, nothing much, Franken.” The Emperor brushed his comment aside with a casual motion from the back of his hand. “Just that it is sometimes dangerous to trust one’s slaves too much…. And with the Renaissance growing, and becoming more radical….”
“Oh, my Kerl, she’s way too young for that. The Renaissance is just a word for her. She has no idea what it is really.”
“Nevertheless she threatened my son with it.” Dretar Poisonohl held the Commander’s stare.
“She said that without thinking, in the heat of the moment. Your son and his gang had her cornered—”
“Friends, if you want…. We would probably do better not to go any deeper in this discussion, I think.”
“Well, gentlemen,” the Emperor interrupted with a gleeful smile. “I am sorry I raised a hot issue. I dare hope this won’t affect the work in our office.”
Both men raised their hands in a silent protest, each managing a conciliatory smile. Franken Fortvallor’s smile broadened some more as he added, “As for my slave, your Hoherald, I do have full confidence in her. Down deep, she is a very serious child, and I know I can trust her with my affairs when she grows up.”
“And I trust your judgment, Commander. After all, knowing your men is an important part of your job when you are at sea.” Fortvallor nodded. “And I’m sure you don’t let your trust in Humans blind you when it comes to our foreign policy.” The military man locked eyes with his superior for a couple of seconds, staring blankly.
The next second he blinked and answered. “You can be assured of that, my Kerl.”
Poisonohl let out a doubtful grunt.
“And if I may insist, my Kerl,” added the military man after a brief glance at his colleague. “With our lack of data, this intox plan could backfire very easily. The consequences would be devastating for our relations with the Srilisses. And we can’t rule out war.”
“As I told you often, Commander, I think you are too pessimistic. I don’t think it would lead to war without us being able to deflate the matter in time.” The monarch put up his hand, stopping a rebuke before it left his adviser’s lips. “Let’s all think this over, gentlemen. And of course whatever one of us can come up with, it has to be as foolproof as possible.” The Emperor glanced at his watch. “Oh my, gentlemen! Landran-Tamoril will be over soon. I’m recording it, of course,” he added with a wink. “But I need to start watching it before the score is out. Otherwise it takes all the fun away, doesn’t it?” The two men’s lack of reaction made him straighten on his chair. “Right. I forgot that you gentlemen are not into sports.” Poisonohl mumbled a weak protest. “Well, I’m sorry to keep you gentlemen at work so late anyway,” the Emperor said, recovering his bemused smile. “Have a good night and I’ll see you in the morning.” On those words he stood up, and both his advisers hurried to do the same. They bowed, one knee bent and one hand flat on their heart, and rapidly left the room.
“All right, kid, I leave you now. I’ve got to go and pick up your master. Kalinda’s waiting for you.”
Miona thanked Ruhul as he started down the stairs. She turned around and climbed the last steps leading to the third floor, where most single slaves lived. Those who had their family on the grounds lived in the cottages on the east side of the castle, beyond the stables and garages. But Kalinda lived by herself on the third floor, like Miona and Charles and a few others. Miona glanced at her own door when she passed by it, and walked on to the end of the corridor. Kalinda had finished her service for the night, Ruhul had said. The young girl knocked and listened for an answer. She smiled when Kalinda’s voice came through the panel.
“Come here, Miona my child,” Kalinda said while Miona was closing the door. A mixture of baked cake and hot spiced drink floated in the room. Kalinda’s was Miona’s preferred room in the entire castle. It always smelled good here. Kalinda was always bringing good things from the kitchen and warming them up in her miniature oven. She had been Franken Fortvallor’s cook before he moved in the family castle, and still was occasionally—unlike the Rittress, he wasn’t too fond of Paolo’s cooking.
“Did you eat enough with the Rittress, dear?” Kalinda asked, noticing that Miona’s nose had picked up the cooking scent. “I made myself some soup and a cake when I read tonight’s menu. Would you care for something?”
Miona’s eyes sparkled as she looked at the oven. “I’d love a bit of cake, I think.”
“I’ll give you some after we’re done with your legs.” Kalinda’s smile disappeared and she looked above her reading glasses. “Show me,” she said while motioning the little girl around. “Oh dear, girl,” she said when Miona complied. “What have they done to you this time?” She set her needlework aside and extracted herself from her armchair. She waddled toward Miona and readjusted her glasses while lifting the little girl’s skirt slightly. “Goodness, Miona, we do need to tend to those legs.” She dropped the skirt and shook a reddish and white mane of frizzy hair, only held in place by a blue bandanna. Her light blue eyes turned from sad to angry as she added in a low voice, “Monsters, they are!” She made the little girl face her again and squeezed her off the ground in her strong arms, giving her a long hug and a little lick on her forehead. Miona couldn’t help a yelp of pain. “What is it, child?” the woman asked, hurrying to put her down.
Miona pointed at her shoulder, and Kalinda noticed the scratches on her glove. Unlike Trowan gloves, Humans’ didn’t have their tips reinforced against claws—Humans didn’t need them to protect such things as clothes or electronics. But because gloves had become a mark of non-aggression and civility, Humans had to wear them also in society, like any other clothes. And all indoor gloves had to be very thin in order to let people hold light things like pens or crystal glasses—although usually people took off their gloves to eat. So Poisonohl’s claws had no trouble going through Miona’s glove, and its leather was stained with blood around the scratches. Miona started to explain about the fight, and Kalinda opened a cabinet and took out several bottles and first aid utensils that she put on a metal tray. Miona took a suspicious look at the tray when Kalinda set it down on the low table by her armchair, atop a pile of magazines. She picked up a remote control off the table to turn down the volume on a little TV half hidden in a crowded bookshelf.
“Go on, go on,” she said, opening a metal box full of puffy white balls. “But take off your shirt first and show me this shoulder.”
“The school nurse dressed it pretty well,” said Miona, not moving.
“I want to see it anyway. Trowans don’t know a thing about treating Humans.”
“This nurse does. There are more than a few Human kids in the school.”
“And your hand as well,” the woman went on, undeterred by Miona’s protests. “Take off your glove.”
Miona could do nothing but comply. She took off her gloves first, and Kalinda removed the square piece of dressing that was covering the back of her right hand. There were four red furrows where Poisonohl’s claws had dug in her hand and slipped as he was falling when she’d pulled on his tie. “She cleaned it very well,” the little girl tried, seeing Kalinda dampening a fluffy puff with a dark brown liquid.
“Did it hurt as much as this?” the old nanny asked, clamping down the cotton-like puff over Miona’s hand. The little girl yelped and tried to draw back her hand, but the woman was too strong. Miona shook her head, tears in her eyes. “That’s because they use a bad product,” Kalinda said in a firm voice. “Okay for Trowan kids, but not for you.”
“Can’t you use one of your magic ointments instead?” Miona asked, marching in place to ward off the pain.
“I’m sorry, girl. I’m out of what you would need. You didn’t warn me that you’d get caned tonight.”
The little girl looked up at the woman, trying to see if she meant that as a joke. “Can’t you make some?”
“Several of the ingredients I’d need don’t store too well. I’d have to go out and get them from our garden. And anyway the moons are not right to make a good unguent. Not for two weeks.”
Miona didn’t try to hide her disappointment. “Will you use that nasty thing on my legs as well?”
“We’ll see,” Kalinda said, eyeing Miona’s legs. “But your shoulder first. Take off your shirts.”
Miona pulled her overshirt and shirt over her head, as slowly as she could. But as soon as she was done, Kalinda’s strong arms turned her around and the nanny started removing her shoulder dressing as well. “So what happened then?” she asked as her fingers worked diligently around the dressing pad. “How come no teacher came to save you from those thugs?”
Miona hesitated. She knew she should stick to her story and keep it the way she’d presented it to her master, but she wasn’t used to lying to Kalinda. And she’d told Ruhul already. Ruhul and Kalinda were the two people she had the most trouble keeping the truth from—even more than from her master. Kalinda’s wide blue eyes, for one, were as difficult to lie to as the Sriliss teacher’s, if in a different, more painful way. With the teacher, lying wasn’t an option. It just didn’t occur to her. With Kalinda, she had been able to hide the truth a few times, but she felt so guilty afterwards that she’d always gone back to tell everything. And most of the time Kalinda had figured it out anyway. She seemed to know every bit of Miona’s brain—most like her mother used to. “We cut by the maze, that’s why,” she finally said. She added that she hadn’t told their master about her friends going in the maze as well, to protect them from their own masters, and Kalinda understood. “But now he thinks I’m a silly dumbhead who can’t even protect herself,” she couldn’t help saying, again angry with her friends.
“Ouch!” she yelped, her back tensing up under Kalinda’s new antiseptic-loaded wad. She twisted her back and lowered her shoulder to escape the burning, but Kalinda’s arm was holding her fast. “Stop moving so much,” the nanny ordered. “I know you’re tougher than that. Is it the life in a freeborn school which is softening you?”
“It certainly doesn’t burn as much as the oven dishes you used to get burnt on as soon as you could walk. And you didn’t even complain. Of course you knew you weren’t supposed to steal from the kitchen.”
“I wasn’t stealing!”
“No, you were just tasting, right?”
“I don’t even remember. You’re the one saying that.”
“Ask your master. He’ll tell you if I’m wrong!… Anyway, what is this?” she asked, seizing Miona’s right wrist. A darker, somewhat shiny mark streaked the inside of it. “And that?” She dropped the wrist and pointed at the little girl’s left forearm, where a similar kind of mark scarred next to the elbow.
Miona didn’t answer. She was too focused on trying not to scream, because Kalinda was still holding the antiseptic pad pressed against her shoulder while reminiscing.
“The first happened in your master’s old house. When I found you in the kitchen, you little missy were sitting on the floor, hiding your arm behind you, your mouth full of cake. You weren’t even walking properly at the time.”
“Isn’t it enough now?” Miona asked, marching in place again.
“The second was when you knocked down a frying pan full of oil, because you were trying to save a couple o’ muskritts, dear. You got the muskritts out of the kitchen all right, but you were darn lucky no more oil jumped on you.”
“That one, I remember. Paolo wanted to kill me.”
“I think he would’ve killed and cooked you for dinner had I not hidden you and your muskritts under my bed.”
Miona laughed heartily, forgetting her pain a moment.
“Okay, the legs now,” Kalinda said, making the little girl lie on her stomach across her bed. Given the size of the room, the bed was at arm’s reach of the table and the first-aid tray. She pulled Miona’s skirt up to uncover her legs and shook her head. “They’re monsters, really,” she said again. “I know you have a tough skin, but it’s still not as tough as a Trowan’s. They shouldn’t have used a cane…. No, they shouldn’t.” She turned to the tray and rummaged through the flasks and tubes she’d put there.
“Kalinda,” Miona asked, partly to delay her leg treatment. “What was it like in the old house?”
The nanny stopped and looked at the little girl, still laying on her bed and facing the wall. “Why do you ask?”
“You never talk about it. Neither does Master. Was it really bad?”
“Bad?” Kalinda said in a surprised voice. “Oh no, it was actually very nice.”
“Nicer than here?”
The nanny didn’t answer. She slowly opened the bag of puffs.
“See, you don’t want to talk about it again. What was it that was so bad?”
“Nothing, Miona,” the woman said finally. “But the Rittress doesn’t like when we talk about the old days.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you like it better there? The Rittress wasn’t there, was she? She was already in this house.”
“Yes. There was just your mother and me and a butler. And your master when he wasn’t at sea, and at one point Darveena’s mother of course…. Before she died.”
“Did she die young?”
“Fairly young, yes. Darveena was just one or so.”
“Ah yes,” Miona said. “You told me already. She got sick.”
“Yes. A nasty virus, she got. She’d been weak since Darveena’s birth…. But why do you want to talk about that? You see, that part wasn’t very nice. Not very happy.”
“I remember some times that were happy,” Miona said. “Ouch!” she cried, nearly jumping although she was lying on her stomach. She turned her head and looked at Kalinda with tears in her eyes. “You said you wouldn’t use that on my legs!”
“They’re starting to turn bad already, girl. I don’t have the choice. You have to suffer now or you’ll suffer much more later. Just tough it out.”
“I’m always told to tough it out,” complained the little girl. “Darveena doesn’t get this kind of product put on her. She never gets hurt the way I get. It’s not fair!”
“She’s Trowan. She has a tougher skin. And you’re right, it’s not very fair, but that’s the way it is.”
“You’re talking like Master now—Ouch!” she yipped again. This time she didn’t turn and just tightened her legs, biting the bed cover. “Ay’ weewemwer wen wee f’layed een fe f‘hark, an’—”
“What are you saying? Get that out of your mouth, girl. You’ll get it all wet, and I can’t hear a thing of what you’re saying.”
“I said—ouch!—I said that I remember when we played in the park.”
“So, you remember the park. I used to take you there when your mother was busy.”
“Often without her. She was already going to school when you were born.”
“I remember playing with Darveena in the park. Did we have a batteryrun field there?”
“You remember seeing a batteryrun practice?” Kalinda said, half surprised.
“Yes. Lots of men in armor. They were screaming and laughing, and hitting each other hard.”
“Now that’s funny you remember that. Have you seen pictures of them?”
“No, no pictures. I just remember, mostly the noise. But that’s all I remember. Oh, and also running home with Darveena, after we’d practiced there. I remember once I fell on the stairs because Darveena hit me with her battery saber, and I hurt my leg.”
“No, no,” Kalinda said, shaking her head and unscrewing the lid of a small flask. “That was here. You’re mixing things up. The house wasn’t in the park. Don’t you remember the elevator?”
Miona shook her head. She thought a moment, then: “Oh, yes. Master told me once it was a very tall house, not long like this one. He has a picture of me and Darveena on his desk, but it shows only the inside.”
“I’ve seen the picture…. We lived in an apartment, Miona. A large apartment close to the big park in the center of Landran. But we had to take the elevator down to get to the park.”
“Oh, we passed not far from the park today. I could have asked him which apartment it was if I’d known…. Except that Master wasn’t very pleased with me…. Did we live high?—Ouch! What was that?” the little girl shrieked. “Is it another product? It stings more than the other! Aren’t you done yet?”
“Be quiet, or I’ll never be done. How do you want me to treat you if you’re always jumping and squirming?”
Miona grunted in a protesting way. “How high did we live?” she insisted.
“We were on the twelfth floor.”
“That’s not very high,” Miona said with some disappointment…. “You know, I think Mother did tell me we lived in an apartment.”
“I’m sure she did, girl.”
“I had forgotten, though. It’s just that I can’t remember much about it.”
“Nothing surprising, Miona. You were three when we left to come here.”
“So my dad never lived with us?”
Kalinda didn’t answer. She poured more liquid on a new puff and started on the girl’s second leg.
“Ouch!” Miona yipped. “Did he?”
“No…. Or…yes, but not when you were there. He stayed one summer, to redo the electrical system. After that he left. He probably never knew you were born, girl.”
“You mean Mother never told him?”
“I think she told you about that, child.”
Miona thought a moment. “I think she did. I think I asked her. But I don’t remember what she said…. Do you think she ever tried to tell him later?” Miona twisted her neck to see Kalinda’s face.
“I don’t think she knew where he was, nor tried to know. Why do you want to know, anyway? Most slave kids never get to know their fathers.”
“All slave kids here know theirs. They told me.”
“That’s not the norm. Few slave kids do.”
“Some of my friends at school do know. Do you think Master knows where my father lives?”
“After all these years, I’d be surprised.”
“Do you think he could find out?”
“I don’t think he could, and I don’t think he’d like you to ask him. I never knew my father myself. I don’t think I ever cared, either. Because men slaves aren’t interested in children. Your father no more than my own. They don’t have to. They are not responsible for us. The master is. And the mother is responsible for feeding her child until the child is in age to be sold.”
“Do you think I could be sold now?” Miona asked, twisting her neck again.
“Your master doesn’t want to sell you, Miona. Don’t worry. He likes you. He wants to keep you.”
“He doesn’t like me. He told the Dean to go on whipping me.”
“He does care for you, child. I don’t know exactly what happened with the Dean, but I know he doesn’t want to sell you.” Kalinda gave the little girl a light tap on her leg. “I’m done with your legs, girl. Get up now, I need to redo the dressing on your shoulder and hand. We’ll leave your legs uncovered. They’ll heal faster.”
Ten minutes later Kalinda was done with the dressings. She ruffled Miona’s hair and walked to the oven to cut her a big slice of cake, and she warmed up some water for a spiced tsai, “to ease up all her suffering,” she said—giving herself a serving as well. After they had talked some more and had finished their shares, she licked Miona’s forehead and wished her good night. “Come and see me tomorrow so I can check your legs again.”
Miona thanked her and walked to her own room, trying to figure out an excuse for not seeing the nanny the next day.
“By Tirva, hurry up! You’re so slow!”
“My legs hurt!”
“And you’re a sissy too!” Darveena was halfway to the front gate already. She had turned around and was yelling at Miona to try to make her speed up.
“You wouldn’t say that if I were near a battery saber,” Miona yelled back. She didn’t change her pace, following the Trowan girl on the straight graveled path, a good thirty strides behind. Her legs were better. They weren’t burning as they had been until Kalinda took care of them. But the many scrapes were still tender, and seemed to be hesitating between healing and turning bad. She had delayed showing them to Kalinda until late morning when she’d needed the nanny to help her with her dress for the party. Kalinda had been very upset that she’d managed to avoid her the entire previous day, and she subjected the little girl to another painful session of healing. It was now early afternoon and Darveena was all worked up because the party was starting in less than an hour and they still had to call a cab and have Miona’s collar reset.
Darveena pushed the metal door to the guard post by the gate. Miona saw Graalor getting up behind the bulletproof window. He smiled and listened to Darveena, then gestured to Miona to hurry. The little girl picked up her pace a little. Graalor was a big Maruwan, even taller than Ruhul. He had a nasty sense of humor and Miona didn’t trust him the least. Nobody did, except the Rittress, who liked him so much that he was given a hefty salary, it was said.
Miona closed the door behind her and pushed her hood back. It was warm in the guard post, but it felt hot compared to the biting cold of the outside.
“You’re not afraid to be changed into ice, moving as slow as you were outside, girl? But maybe your legs are keeping you warm?”
Miona shrugged at the guard’s guffaw. Apparently her misfortune had made the rounds of the property. She frowned at Darveena’s twitter and unfastened her cape. “Let’s do it quick,” she said, presenting her neck to Graalor. “Darveena says we’re late.”
The laughter trailed on a bit, but eventually died off. “Yes, Missus, she told me so. Come closer.” Miona made one step closer to the guard’s desk. “Nice dress you have here, Missus—very nice for a little slave.”
Miona didn’t answer. Graalor was a freeborn. He rarely missed an occasion to bring this fact to people’s attention, and she had found that the best way to counter his gloating was to ignore him. The big Maruwan seized her collar and touched it with a tiny metal case. There was a click, and the next second the collar was in his hand, and Miona was rubbing her neck with delight. She stopped quickly, though, because she didn’t want to show Darveena how much she hated the collar.
Graalor would be done with it in a minute anyway. He already had it in a cradle, and was typing on his keyboard, scrutinizing a map on his screen. It pictured the grounds, with the castle in their center. The mansion was covered with translucent, red disc-like shapes, each too large to differentiate them accurately. They were moving slowly, and changing form fast, making it look like there was a small red cloud hovering above the castle. Another grape of red discs was covering the cottages—slaves with a family lived there. Miona could see the shape representing her collar. It was engulfing Graalor’s house, the attached guard post, the gate, and a good chunk of the alley leading to the castle. Even though she was motionless, the disc was agitated, shaking with each recalculation of its position, its center hesitating between the house and the gate. Graalor picked up the collar and set it down on another cradle.
“How long is it going to be?” asked Darveena, checking her watch nervously.
“Should be all done in five minutes, Miss.”
“The battery is almost empty. Miona should’ve come earlier for a charging.”
Darveena frowned at Miona, who turned around and looked distractedly outside. The wind had picked up, and leaves were flying wildly in all directions.
“Can you call us a cab while it’s charging, then?” Darveena asked.
Less than ten minutes later, Graalor was latching the collar back around Miona’s neck, and a big taxi showed up on the other side of the gate.
“We’re there, lazybones!”
Miona started when Darveena’s elbow jabbed her side. She had been pretending to sleep while the taxi was taking them closer to Landran. A good twenty minutes that she had spent trying to decide what to think of the party, instead of listening to Darveena’s worried recommendations. On one hand she was nearly as excited as Darveena. Like her she was wearing a beautiful dress, that the Rittress had asked a maid to transform for her out of one of the Rittress’s own old ones. It was made of a shiny, light-brown cloth. Nearly as nice as Darveena’s golden dress. Both dresses were the puffed-up kind, worn with thick petticoats to prop up the dresses even more. She really liked these dresses. She found them more impressive than other, thinner and straighter dresses. She was curious to see what kind most guests would be wearing. It was Darveena’s first party outside the house, and it was Miona’s first party altogether.
On the other hand, she knew she was going as Darveena’s slave, and also chaperon, thanks to her collar and Graalor’s screen—and despite the fact that she was four years younger. So she wasn’t sure there would be any fun for her at this party. Still, Darveena had said there would be games, and lots of kids, so the potential for a good afternoon was there anyway.
The grounds of Ratmatuhr’s house, without being huge, were of a good size for a property so close to town. The taxi passed high iron gates and rolled down a long alley towards the mansion itself, to take its turn behind another cab.
“See,” Miona said, “we’re not so late after all.” Three Trowan girls stepped out of the other taxi and climbed up a monumental staircase towards the main door. They were holding their capes tight around their neck, and the warm but strong wind was ruffling their fur. Finally it was their turn, and a servant in full livery opened the cab’s door. Darveena hurried up the big steps, but eventually had to slow down to let Miona catch up, which the Human girl did very slowly, her attention visibly focused on keeping her petticoats from rubbing on her legs.
She sped up a little to cross the windswept parvis, but slowed down as soon as they stepped inside the hall. Another doorman took their capes, and Miona dragged her feet behind Darveena in direction of the reception hall, fluffing up her long dress so it wouldn’t press on the petticoats and make them rub too much on her legs.
Many heads turned towards them when they entered the large, half-full room. Miona first noticed that there weren’t too many puffed up dresses, and that theirs were among the most elaborate, and she felt proud. Then she noted that she was the only Human in the room, except for a small servant carrying a tray among the guests, and that dampened her spirits. Poisonohl was there already. He was easy to spot, with his crutches. She saw him make a joke to a small group gathered around him, and everyone laughed, except Bludjan—it must have been too painful. Edron Ratmatuhr and Borant Furriahr made up the rest of the group—Poisonohl’s usual gang.
Miona tensed when she noticed that Darveena was walking straight to them. She hesitated an instant, then sped up to catch up with her. She made sure she wasn’t walking more than a half step behind her. That would have pleased the gang far too much to see her behaving like a real slave.
Darveena noticed that she was nearly level with her and hissed under her breath to avoid being heard over the soft music played by three servants, “Stay behind me. You’re violating protocol…. And don’t start wreaking havoc and creating problems with your friends.”
“Keep them off my back, then,” Miona whispered in the same way, holding her head up. Then she realized Darveena wasn’t walking towards Poisonohl’s gang, but towards another group, just next to them. They were older kids, from Darveena’s class most likely. In fact the three girls who’d arrived just before them were talking with three boys of the same age. One looked a lot like Edron Ratmatuhr, just taller. It had to be Edron’s brother. The host of the party, actually—the birthday boy.
Arriving in front of him, Darveena bowed a curtsy, holding the sides of her dress. “Good afternoon, Waldrar,” she said, looking at his feet. “And a happy birthday.” Miona hastened to bow too, but she couldn’t bring herself to kneel as deep, and performed a briefer, somewhat less respectful kind of bow. Like Darveena, she knew protocol perfectly, but she wasn’t as eager to play the adult games as Darveena was.
Waldrar Ratmatuhr threw his hand out and pulled Darveena back up. “Thanks for coming, Darvee,” the older boy said. He was looking at Miona with a mixture of amusement and embarrassment. “This must be—”
“This is my slave Miona,” Darveena hastened to say. Miona could feel all the stares set on her, and imagine Poisonohl’s and Bludjan’s smiles. She also heard a disparaging comment about her dress being above her condition—the three girls had straight, less impressive types, and she had noticed their disapproving looks. She decided not to wait for the host to give her his hand. She came out of her curtsy by herself, looked him in the eyes, and smiled warmly. “Happy birthday,” she said. A murmur of hushed voices spread around them. This wasn’t proper protocol. But for a kids’ party, Miona thought it was good enough.
Waldrar Ratmatuhr seemed to think likewise, because he didn’t look offended. She even wondered if he wasn’t relieved of not having to give her his hand. He smiled back, saying simply to Darveena, “She’s just as brash as you said—and as others have told me.” Miona’s smile faded a little. Waldrar turned his head towards his brother and Poisonohl, but caught himself before making eye contact. “You’ll keep her close to you, Darveena, won’t you?” he said with a broader smile. There were a few muffled laughs and comments among the boys in his group, but only silence in Poisonohl’s corner.
Their host clapped his hands twice. “We won’t start the games before another half hour, but have a drink in the meantime.” He looked around when no waiter came, and clapped again. Finally the small Human waitress arrived from the other side of the room, walking fast and holding a single glass of a greenish and foamy beverage on her tray. Miona noticed she wasn’t a slave. She wasn’t wearing a collar like her, but an ID bracelet, like every freeborn or freed slave. When Waldrar Ratmatuhr complained that he needed five drinks for the last arrivals, she hurried back to the bar set across the big room. Ratmatuhr clapped three times, and the doorman who took their capes hurried over. “Where is everyone?” asked the host. “Only the extra to do the service? What about the other servants? And where is Daral?”
The doorman whispered at his ear and left. The host turned around to face the majority of his guests, and motioned to the three musicians. The music stopped and all the heads that weren’t already turned towards them did. “My friends,” he said a little self-importantly, loud enough to be heard by all. “We are having a momentary shortage of waiters. One of our slaves has escaped, and my father is interrogating several of the staff. Our butler is assisting him, so no one else can help with the drinks. I am afraid we’ll have to help ourselves at the bar if our little extra here can’t cope with the demand.” A murmur of comments—some indignant, some amused—echoed his words.
Miona noticed Poisonohl nudging Edron Ratmatuhr’s side and whispering into his ear. Edron in turn took two steps to speak to his older brother. “Marvelous,” Waldrar said, turning to Poisonohl. “And how do you think you could help, Maltor?”
All heads turned in direction of the white-haired boy. Poisonohl straightened up on his crutches. He had a devious smile and pointed at Miona with his chin. The little girl tensed. “I know someone who could help serving the drinks. Our class’s slave, here. She’s really good with all kinds of serving jobs. She picks up the copies, wipes the board clean, takes out the paper baskets—everything. She also helps in the school kitchen.” He looked at Darveena. “If her mistress agrees to lend her to us, of course.”
“Of course,” repeated Edron Ratmatuhr.
Miona’s throat went dry and she felt very warm, all eyes trained on her. Behind her smoked glasses, her own eyes had hardened, and were set on Poisonohl. Darveena glanced at her briefly. “I don’t know,” she began, hesitant. Miona sent her a nasty side-look. “I don’t know if she can help, with her dress…. It’s not that easy to work in it.”
“You can find her a waitress outfit, Edron, can’t you?” Poisonohl asked.
“I’m sure we can,” his colleague answered on the spot. “Can’t we, Waldrar?”
His brother’s eyes went from Darveena to Miona. He seemed slightly embarrassed.
“We have plenty of spare outfits in the laundry room,” pursued Edron.
Waldrar Ratmatuhr finally shrugged. “I suppose we could,” he said.
Darveena took another glance at Miona. Miona knew she must hate being forced the way she was now, and she prayed it would be enough to make her say no to the request. But she also knew how she admired the Ratmatuhrs. That’s when she noticed Junor Kendrar, a little to their right. He looked as embarrassed as she was. He gave her a weak smile. Miona looked back at Darveena, too embarrassed to smile back. She saw Darveena casting a circular glance at the other guests, before lifting her chin in a way that gave her hope. The Trowan girl addressed their host with a lofty and falsely warm smile very much like her grandmother’s. “I think Miona could help, that’s true. So I’m happy to lend her to you.”
Miona felt herself sink into a well of shame. She couldn’t bear looking directly at anyone in her class, and also avoided the eyes of the three girls behind her host. She had a hard time forcing herself to keep her chin up like Darveena. “I’ll be happy to help,” she said to Waldrar Ratmatuhr, managing a smile she hoped didn’t look too forced. “And don’t worry about the waitress outfit. I’m used to working in a dress.” She had decided she wouldn’t be subjected to the extra humiliation of having to give up her dress. At least, at school, she had the same uniform as every freeborn. She bowed in a half curtsy and walked resolutely towards the bar, the guests parting to let her pass.
The small Human extra was there, in front of a large two-handle tray that the barman was crowding with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. She looked tired and was leaning against the bar. Next to the Pyrwondu man, she didn’t seem as short as Miona had first thought. She was about the Pyrwondu’s height, slightly taller, and slightly taller than Miona too, in fact. Still, Miona wondered how the extra was going to carry that huge tray.
“Take that tray,” the barman ordered Miona as soon as she reached the bar. “Selke needs a breather. She’ll take the next.”
Miona balked, detailing the contents of the tray. Several of the glasses were made of thick glass, and full of bulldoz milk to the brim. “Glad for the rescue,” the extra said with a tired smile, clearing her forehead of a spike of hair which had fallen. She had very black hair, with a kind of blue shine, cut a little like Miona’s, but shorter in the back and spikier on the top. “They’re hungry and thirsty like a team of batteryrun players after a game.”
“Hey,” the Pyrwondu said with an outraged frown. “Go to the kitchen and change into proper clothes. You can’t serve in a dress!”
Miona knitted her brows and took the tray off the bar. “See if I can’t,” she said, walking away with the tray propped against her stomach.
She had only taken a few steps away from the bar when she was surrounded by the guests who hadn’t had their drink yet. Several were from her own class. At first she couldn’t quite meet their eyes. She could see mocking smiles on the faces of a few of them.
“Thanks a million, Miona. You’ve saved me.” It was Junor Kendrar, taking a heavy glass of milk topped with crushed ice off her tray. “They’re overheating this place.”
Miona returned his smile, and noticed another of her classmates whose smile wasn’t mocking either. She relaxed a little. After all it was a lot like giving out corrected tests, she told herself. Soon her tray was empty. She returned to the bar. With a stern face, the Pyrwondu piled another load of glasses and hors d’oeuvres on it, not saying a word. Selke the extra was still serving, closer to the entrance, where new guests were still showing up. All couldn’t come from Krandlinohr and Mahrlor, Miona told herself, because many didn’t seem either Edron’s or Waldrar’s age. Some must be children from other families knowing Edron and Waldrar’s parents. Or perhaps even from other noble families just vaguely connected or simply too important to not get an invitation.
The barman pointed a finger towards the back of the large room, where several guests were waving lacy handkerchiefs, a traditional way to call for drinks. Miona’s tray was again emptied in a flash. After a few more rounds, it started to take her longer to empty her tray. Most guests had already had several drinks, and their attention was more focused on conversation. Also several older kids had started some dancing in one corner of the big hall, and a few games of skill had finally started in another corner.
She looked at that corner while the Pyrwondu was refilling her tray. Everyone there seemed to really be enjoying themselves, and she felt jealous. She loved these games. There was a “muskritt’s tail” game, in which a blindfolded boy was trying to catch the tail of a toy muskritt that a girl in a blue dress was lowering from a hook in the ceiling until it touched his face. The boy wasn’t very good at it, Miona noted. She would’ve caught the tail already, even kneeling down with her ankles tied the way he had his now. Next to them, a tall girl with orange fur was trying to throw a batteryrun scepter into the hand of a sitting king, rather unsuccessfully. The king was an exact replica of a real wood-and-metal batteryrun king, which sits at each end of the field. Its fingers were making a kind of hoop in which you had to make the scepter slide. For that one, Miona wasn’t sure she’d do any better than the girl. She had never trained to throw a scepter, girls not being allowed to play until now. Even less throwing it in a small hoop!
Circles had formed around each player, and their friends were encouraging them loudly. The noisiest circle of all was around two boys busy throwing scepters at each other. This game had nothing to do with batteryrun, except for the use of scepters, of course. What the players had to do was to try making the other drop the scepter. So of course they were trying to throw it as soon as they’d caught it. It was a very good game to train your reflexes, and it was a lot of fun to play, and also to watch. Some kids were going at it so fast that you could barely see the scepter. But these two were doing even better—they were playing with two scepters instead of one, and the crowd was hysterical.
“Enough rest,” the barman said in his disagreeable, high-pitched voice, startling Miona. “Neither of you has been to the salons. There are guests there too, you know.”
Miona noticed that Selke was back also. The Pyrwondu was now filling the extra’s tray. But it was to Miona he was talking. She grabbed her tray and walked in the direction he was pointing, inwardly ranting against the way he managed to pile up so much stuff on the tray. It weighed a boulder!
She reached the door to the first salon—opposite the door to the entry hall—without losing more than two drinks to the crowd of the reception hall. She hadn’t paid attention to that door before, and hadn’t seen anyone entering the small room, so she was surprised to see how packed it was. Like the reception hall, it was sparsely furnished, so many guests were standing. She let the door close behind her and noticed that all heads had turned towards her again. There was a murmur of approval and conversations stopped, and she noticed how well the door was cutting the music and yells from the hall. Miona felt the urge to tug on her collar, but she couldn’t take even one hand off the tray handles. Fortunately conversations resumed as soon as the first guests started taking drinks off the tray. In a moment it was empty, and she went back to the hall, just on time to open the door for Selke.
When she returned with her tray full, Selke’s was empty. “There’s another salon,” she said, nodding towards another door on the other side of the small room.
“Just as full?” asked Miona in a worried voice. “How many salons are there?”
“No, only half as bad,” the extra said. “And I don’t know how many. But there’s another after that one, it seems.”
Nobody took anything from Miona’s tray this time. She walked through the next door, which wasn’t closed, and found herself in an even smaller room, but more furnished. It had two fireplaces, and comfortable-looking chairs all around and even in the center of the room, but only half were occupied. Probably not for long, Miona thought. Soon the first salon would spill over to that one. Her tray half empty, she walked to the next door. That one was closed. She pushed it and looked inside. The third salon was even smaller than number two, and had only one fireplace, set against the opposite wall. There were only two guests in the room. She could see their arms and legs sticking out of high-back armchairs. She let the door close back behind her and walked towards the chairs.
When she got close, she noticed their backs weren’t as high as she’d thought at first. And their occupants weren’t older kids, but probably kids her own age. “Drinks and food,” she said, somewhat less respectfully than if they had been older.
The kid on her right stuck his head out and smiled broadly at her, and she felt a chill run down her spine. She slowed down, wondering if she shouldn’t turn around and walk back out. It was Borant Furriahr.
She stopped two steps behind the chairs, and the second guest turned in his chair and she could see he had bandages around his head.
“Very good,” Bludjan said with a toothy smile. His bandage had been changed. The new one was just covering his nose, and showed a partially open right eye. His left eye was now open normally. “We were getting thirsty. What do we have here?” He got up slowly and walked towards Miona, his good eye focused on the tray.
She made a reflex step backward, and noticed that Furriahr was already behind her, having circled his chair the other way. She gauged how far she was from the doors, the one she’d come through and the one opposite to it, which was closer, and she realized that they were both too far for a smooth exit. If things turned bad, she’d have to resort to something messy, like dumping the tray in Bludjan’s face and hitting Furriahr with it. Still, she didn’t really believe they’d try anything on her in their friend’s house.
“Let’s see,” Bludjan said, his bandaged nose moving side to side over the tray. “I might take one of these toasts instead of a drink. What are they?”
“Fish and muskritt,” Miona said curtly.
“Are they good?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t had any.”
“Because, you see, I can’t tell if they smell good or not. The doctor said it would take me a week or two to be able to smell like before.” Bludjan was still smiling, in a rather mundane way that Miona didn’t like at all. “Why don’t you try one for me?” he asked in a soft voice. “This one is muskritt, I’d bet. Have one and tell me how it is.” He picked up a canapé covered with a thick layer of brown pâté. Miona tensed and stepped back, but bumped into Furriahr. At the same time, she felt sharp claws against the skin of her right shoulder, really close to the dressing of her wound, which Kalinda had managed to hide under the fabric. She tried to disengage her shoulder from Furriahr’s grip, but immediately felt needle-like pricks on her upper left arm. She froze. Quick glances on her right and left confirmed that the two hoodlums had drawn their gloves again.
“That’s better,” said Bludjan. “Were you thinking of leaving us?” He lifted the toast up to Miona’s lips.
She got ready to throw the content of the tray in his face. Then she thought of two things. First the new deep scratches she would get from both of them the second she’d do it. The memory of Bludjan’s scratches on her right shoulder was still very vivid. Second, what would the Rittress say if she returned her dress in pieces?
“Come on, don’t be shy,” Bludjan resumed. “I heard at school that you really love muskritt meat—eat!” He forced the muskritt mousse to her mouth.
She turned her head abruptly, knocking the canapé off his hand. The toast fell on the tray, but not without leaving a streak of oily mousse on the front of her dress. Bludjan picked the toast back up and presented it again to Miona’s lips. She could feel the pins in her arm and shoulder, a little more precise, a little more painful. There must already be several tiny holes in the dress, she thought. She tightened her grip on the tray.
A hum of conversations and faint music grew all at once, and Bludjan and Furriahr turned their heads toward the door that led to the second salon. Miona felt the pins retract from her skin and Furriahr’s grip loosen. She pulled her shoulder free and stepped back. But Bludjan hadn’t released his grip, and she couldn’t back off any further. She twisted her neck and saw who they were looking at.
Selke was watching them from the door. Her knitted brows quickly gave way to the neutral expression worn by all styled servants.
“We have all what we need on this tray,” Furriahr said with a jovial voice. “You may go back and close the door behind you.” Miona’s heart sank. It had lifted a little at the sight of the extra, but now she understood that she’d be at the two hoodlums’ mercy in a moment. Furriahr’s hand closed on Miona’s right arm and again she felt the needles pressing against the skin of her two arms. So she was just as surprised as her two tormentors when Selke closed the door and walked resolutely toward them.
“Are you deaf, girl?” Bludjan said angrily, setting the toast back on the tray. “We asked you to leave.”
“Oh, I am sorry, gentlemen. I thought my new colleague here was missing something on her tray for you.” Miona couldn’t believe the extra’s boldness. Selke was now one step away from Furriahr. She was looking him and Bludjan in the eye, in turn, a polite expression on her face. She didn’t seem afraid or even tense, and her deep blue eyes were not blinking. She quickly glanced over Miona’s tray, before adding, “I have lots of muskritt toasts.”
Bludjan seemed to think hard for a moment. “Marvelous,” he finally said. “We might need a few. Our friend Miona insists that she can eat a lot of those. Could you give her all yours?”
Miona opened her eyes wide, before slightly shaking her head at Selke’s attention.
“I could,” the extra said, a bemused smile lighting up her ever-polite face. “But waiters are not allowed to eat during service.”
“We’ve made an exception for Miona, because she’s in our class,” Bludjan said with a wink to Furriahr.
The extra hesitated a few seconds. She moved a little closer to Miona and Bludjan, looking intently in Bludjan’s eyes. “I’m afraid I would have to report her to our host anyway,” she said with a sorry voice. “But if you gentlemen want to eat all my muskritt toasts yourselves, I can arrange that.”
“That is not what…” Bludjan countered.
“Why don’t you go back where you came from and let us deal with Miona how we please,” interrupted Furriahr.
Selke turned to face him. “I’m just following Krant Ratmatuhr’s instructions. I also have a few fish canapés, sir. Would you prefer those?” Furriahr didn’t answer. The extra balanced precariously her tray on one arm, so her other would be free. “Here, have three fish toasts to start,” she said while taking one canapé with a small fish on it and bringing it under Furriahr’s nose. “Take it,” she said after two seconds, when Furriahr wasn’t moving.
Miona was amazed to feel Furriahr’s claws leave her arm, and to see him actually take the fish toast and bring it to his mouth.
“They are excellent, aren’t they?” asked Selke. She took two more toasts from her tray and put them into his hand.
“We were talking of muskritt toasts, not fish,” said Bludjan with a point of anger.
Selke quickly turned back to him, and presented him with a toast covered with the brown pâté. “Here, sir. They are delicious as well.” Bludjan took the toast with his left hand, his right still holding Miona. “Have two more also,” Selke added, giving him two more canapés. This time Bludjan took them with his right hand and Miona made one step backward. Not believing what had happened, she backed away some more while the extra kept talking to the two thugs, giving them even more hors-d’oeuvres. Reaching the door, Miona opened it and looked back to see Selke giving them two drinks. She hesitated to leave the extra with the two goons, but Selke was already walking back toward her, motioning with her chin for her to leave the room.
She stepped out, but waited for the extra two strides inside the second salon. When Selke had closed the door, she followed her across it toward the bar. “I can’t believe they let us go,” she said under her breath. “How did you know they would?”
“They had to,” answered the extra. She winked. “I made it clear I wouldn’t give into their little game. They didn’t want me to report them to the Krant.”
“But how were you sure they would react like they did?”
“I know people.”
“Still,” Miona said, admiring. “You took a big risk. I know these guys. They’re unpredictable. They don’t always think before acting—I mean, they usually don’t think at all.”
“That’s why I tried to be very clear to them.”
“Thanks anyway for saving my hide,” Miona said.
“Too bad I couldn’t save your dress,” Selke said, eyeing the front of Miona’s garment.
They arrived at the bar, where several lines of drinks and hors d’oeuvres were waiting for them. “What have you done to your dress?” the Pyrwondu screeched the moment he saw them. “I told you you should’ve changed into proper service clothes.”
“It’s nothing,” Miona said, rolling her eyes. “It’ll come off easily. Where can I find a bathroom?” She could tell the small bartender was actually happy to have been proven right, and was struggling to stop his satisfaction from ruining his somber mask. But he didn’t have to struggle anymore when Selke announced that she would escort Miona to the bathrooms, even when she told him that guests seemed to be slowing down on the drinks. “You’d better be back here in five minutes, or I’ll send someone over to get you,” he shrieked again. But they were already ten strides away.
“Do you think he has digesting problems or something?” Miona asked, following Selke into the service corridor.
“I don’t know what it is, but he sure could use some tranquilizing pills,” Selke said. She looked at Miona and laughed heartily. She led them on a brisk walk through the corridor, strangely devoid of servants. They passed the door to the kitchens and threw a quick glance inside. There were only two workers there, a cook and the cook helper who brought the hors d’oeuvres to the bar every once a while
“I wonder what’s going to happen to the runaway slave,” Miona said. “No one ever tried to escape from our house.”
Selke gave her a questioning look. “Never?”
“Never. Do you think he’ll be badly punished?”
“From what I’ve heard about Krant Ratmatuhr, I’d say he’d better not get caught.”
Quick steps rang down a spiral staircase ahead of them, and three Pyrwondu maids came rushing down, talking with animation in hushed voices. “Ten on one that they catch him,” the first and youngest maid said, not low enough for them not to catch her words.
“He can run fast,” the second said, a little louder to be heard over their steps. “And he’s a resourceful lad.”
“The Krant will peel off his skin for that,” said the last, who seemed the oldest. “I’ll tell you that much. And it’ll serve him right. He’s getting us all into trouble.”
The first maid came out of the stairwell and pushed a door just across the hallway without noticing Miona and Selke. She held the door open and looked back at her colleagues. “He had to leave. He was in too much trouble with the Krant already,” she said as the second maid was coming out of the stairs.
“He was a dare-devil,” the second maid said. “I don’t think he stole that dagger, but he always managed to get in trouble, somehow.” She noticed the two girls, now only three strides away, and stopped talking.
“He was arrogant, that’s why,” the older maid said. “Like all Humans. They think their dexterity makes them smarter, and that they’re owed special privileges. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d stolen the dagger, in fact. Can’t trust them Humans. People who take only a bath a day—” She stopped, seeing her colleagues’ embarrassed expressions just before spotting the two Humans. She didn’t look embarrassed herself, though, and detailed the two girls up and down. Her gaze trailed off on Miona’s dress, then stopped on her collar, and jumped to Selke’s bracelet. “Say, you guys are new here,” she said suspiciously. “Where are you going?”
“To the washroom,” Selke said joyously. “My friend here has a stain on her dress.”
The maid had a questioning look at Miona’s dress, then she looked back at Selke. Miona could see that she was confused by the fact that it was the slave who wore a dress and the freeborn who wore the waitress outfit. She didn’t ask for clarification, though. She simply told them that the three of them happened to be going to the washroom too and that they’d have to wait. Miona looked behind the door that the first maid was still keeping open. It was a bathroom all right. There were two sinks and it seemed big enough to have two or three stalls although she could see one only from her angle. The three maids disappeared inside and the door closed behind them. The Humans could hear them talking loud and laughing. At them, no doubt.
Selke checked her watch. “Let’s hurry. I know another bathroom. We can’t be away too long.”
“Do you really think the barman could send someone to get us?” Miona asked.
“He would certainly if enough handkerchiefs came up so as to worry our host.” Selke took off to follow a passage leading away from the corridor.
“Aren’t we going toward the salons?” Miona asked, nearly running behind her.
“Yes, we are.” Selke must have guessed what was worrying her, because she added, “But we won’t enter the one your friends are in, don’t sweat it.”
Seconds later they turned into another corridor, and Miona thought they were walking back towards the reception hall. Selke turned inside a vestibule just off the corridor. The tiled floor gave away the fact that bathrooms were not far. Miona noticed the appropriate signs on two doors set at each end of the vestibule. Selke pushed the ladies’ door and they stepped in another vestibule, similar to the rest room they had lost to the maids a minute earlier, except that the decoration was conspicuously richer.
“Are you sure we’re supposed to be here?” Miona asked, looking around at the artistic mirrors and stylish faucets. She also doubted the statue standing by the immaculate sink would ever have found its way into a servants’ rest room. It was holding a scratching pad, but servants would have nothing more than the usual, plain hand drying/scratching pad unit fixed to the wall.
“Why not? Considering the size of this bathroom, it’s obviously made for guests.”
“Guests, yes. But what about slaves?”
Selke glanced at Miona’s collar. She reflected a second or two. “You’re a slave all right, but you were invited here, weren’t you? I heard that you’re in one of the hosts’ class.”
“True, I’m in Edron’s class, and he did invite me. But I bet it was just so he and his gang could make fun of me. And they have all right. Darveena brought me along as her slave, and they could humiliate me in front of my class. That’s slightly different than being a real guest,” Miona rectified with a bit of rancor. “As for yourself, you’re a freeborn, but you’re here as a waiter.”
“First, I’m not a freeborn. I was freed with my mom not long ago. Second, too bad if someone isn’t happy to see us here,” the extra said with a touch of impatience. “And if they complain to our host, I’ll tell them the truth—we came here to save time so we could rush back to serve them…. All right, what do we have here,” she added, going through the many flasks and the collection of brushes sitting on a commode next to the sink. “Ah, that should do.” She picked up a bottle and turned to face Miona. “You need to take off your dress.”
“What?” Miona exclaimed in protest. “Can’t we just use the towel there?”
Selke shook her head, reading the print on the bottle. “It won’t work. It’ll make a worse stain. We need to soak the top of your dress in the sink.”
Miona hesitated. She didn’t like the idea of undressing in front of a complete stranger. Somehow it didn’t feel the same at school, perhaps because there were always several girls changing at once, and they were not in a small room like here. Also, they were always in a hurry, so no one had time to stare at the other girls.
Selke checked her watch with a frown. “Hurry up. We don’t have much time…. Do you want me to turn around?”
“N…No, that’s okay.” Miona took two steps back and contorted herself to unzip her dress in the back.
Selke repressed a smile. She walked to Miona and made a spinning motion with her finger. “Turn around, I’ll help you or we’ll still be at it tomorrow.” Miona complied, and heard her zipper go down in a flash. Then Selke made her turn back to face her and started to pull her dress up. She stopped when the dress touched Miona’s nose. “Give me your glasses.”
Miona hesitated. She was so used to keeping her glasses on that she felt weird without. Also, her mother’s recommendations were so ingrained in her that she’d started to feel very self-conscious about her eyes being bare.
“Come on,” the extra said, impatience showing in her voice. “We’re wasting time.”
Miona took the glasses off. She had no choice anyway, or they’d be damaged with the dress. She’d barely taken them off when Selke took them out of her hands and set them on the commode. “Why the smoked lenses?” she asked as she came back.
“My eyes hurt when it’s too bright,” Miona lied. “Like with lamps.” She found that this answer usually cut off more questioning. “I get headaches if I don’t wear them.”
“Oh, then,” Selke said, grabbing the dress again and looking intently into Miona’s eyes. “Do you have your mom’s eyes or your dad’s?”
Miona hesitated, looking in turn into the extra’s deep eyes. She was surprised by the personal question. Some of her closest friends at school had asked her the same thing, but never on their first encounter. “My mom’s,” she said finally. “Only darker I think… And you?” She didn’t know why she was asking. She didn’t really want to stay on this subject. But she certainly didn’t want to slide to her father either. She didn’t want to talk about her father to someone she had just met—to anyone, in fact.
“My father’s.” Selke’s expression shut off. Maybe she also found the subject too personal after all, Miona said to herself. The extra pulled the dress over Miona’s head. “Say, what’s the deal with your legs?” she asked.
Miona made a move to pull the petticoats down, but her arms were trapped by the dress. She couldn’t see how far up the petticoats had slipped because her head was inside the dress as well, but she could feel cooler air on her thighs. She shimmied and pulled harder on the dress and managed to free herself, and immediately pulled the petticoats down. She looked at Selke, half furious, half ashamed. The extra was staring at the hems of the petticoats while Miona was forcing the ruffled, multi-layered garments down.
“Sorry,” the extra said, bringing the dress to the sink. “I couldn’t help seeing…. Was it your master?”
“No,” Miona said in a slightly defiant voice. It wasn’t so much Selke seeing under her petticoats that embarrassed her. It was having to admit that she’d been whipped. “T’was the school’s Dean.”
“What happened?” Selke ran the water on the stains.
Miona sighed. She might as well tell, now. “Poisonohl’s gang trapped me and I defended myself.”
“Who’s Poisonohl?” Selke picked up the bottle she had selected and poured a creamy liquid on the stains.
“I can do it, you know,” Miona said, pointing at the dress.
“Don’t worry, I’m about done. Who’s Poisonohl?”
“The boy with the crutches.”
“You did that to him?”
“He asked for it.” She crossed her arms—she felt a little cold without anything on her shoulders.
“There might be more towels in the commode,” Selke suggested. “How many in his gang?”
Miona pulled the first drawer of the commode. The extra was right. She pulled a towel out of the drawer and wrapped her shoulders in it. “Four. Edron is one, and you saw the other two.”
Selke whistled through her teeth. “Edron Ratmatuhr? And you came to the party?”
“Not my choice, really.”
“Who are the other two?”
“Bludjan and Furriahr. You fed them toasts in the salon.”
The extra looked up from her cleaning work. She seemed impressed. “I’m glad I could help there.”
“I’m glad too. I couldn’t see how to get out of that one without getting into a real big trouble at home.”
“Imagine; invited to a party and beating up the host’s brother’s best friends. Without mentioning shredding my dress in pieces.”
“Beating up?” Selke asked with a raised eyebrow.
“I was about to hit them with my tray when you stepped in.”
Selke had another soft whistle. “But they were the ones provoking you, weren’t they? They’d pulled their gloves off.”
“Same as at school. And they didn’t get punished at all. Not even detention.”
“That’s not very fair,” observed Selke. “How come?”
“What do you mean, ‘how come’,” Miona said, raising her voice a little. “I’m a slave, that’s how. I can say whatever I want, nobody listens to me; I’m a slave, so I’m wrong—always. You said you were a slave till not long ago. You must know what I mean.”
“I do,” Selke said, starting to rinse the product off the dress.
“How did you get freed?”
“My mother got her freedom. I followed her.”
“You must have had a good master,” Miona said, thoughtful.
“Horrible,” Selke dropped, looking up into the mirror above the sink, as if she could see her past in it.
“Why did he free your mom, then?”
“I helped him a bit.” She opened the faucet some more so it would fill the sink. “Do you think your master would free you?” she asked, cutting off Miona’s next question.
“I don’t know,” Miona said, looking at her own reflection in the mirror.
“He must be a tough master. You said no one ever tried to escape from your house.”
“Not at all. He’s a very good master. That’s why nobody wants to leave.”
“They don’t want to?” said Selke, doubtful.
“They’re happy there, most of them.”
“And you’re happy too?”
“I would be if Darveena wasn’t there. And Graalor. And Paolo, and Charles the butler…. And the Rittress of course—she’s the worse,” Miona said, furrows deepening on her forehead.
“Seems there are quite a few people giving you trouble, aren’t there?” Selke commented with a smirk.
“But Master is very good to me,” Miona protested.
“Do you think he’d free you, though?”
“I don’t know,” Miona said, thinking. “He wants me to run the estate….”
“And would you like that?”
“I want to be a pilot.”
“So there, that’s it—he’ll never set you free.”
Miona didn’t answer. She looked down at the dress soaking in the sink, only half seeing it.
“Is it why you’re in a freeborn class?” Selke went on, draining the sink.
“Yes. He wants me to learn economics and finance.”
“I see. So is he such a good master after all?” the extra pressed.
“What do you mean?”
“Does he let you do whatever you want? Like eating all the sweets and cakes that you want? Or playing late at night?”
“Of course not. I must go to bed early, except when I have chores to finish.”
“So he makes you do chores.”
“Only when I’m done with my homework. Actually, it’s mostly Charles and Paolo who give me chores to do. And the Rittress.”
“But he forces you to learn stuff that you don’t want, and he doesn’t help you train to be a pilot, right? How good is that?” She took one hand towel from a basket and laid it on the commode, pushing the bottles and Miona’s glasses aside. “He won’t rid you of this collar of yours,” she said, pointing at Miona’s neck. She laid the dress atop the towel, put a second towel on top of it, and started drying the dress. “Because he needs you where you are now.”
Miona didn’t respond. She knew Selke was right. She’d told herself the very same thing many times. She felt depressed suddenly.
“Perhaps I can show you a way to get rid of that collar,” the extra said nonchalantly, pulling a hair dryer off the wall and bringing it over to the dress.
Miona came out of her strange state. Had she heard well? She waited impatiently that Selke was done with the hair dryer. “What did you say?” she asked when Selke switched it off.
“I can show you a way to take it off whenever you want. And perhaps to get rid of it altogether one day.” The extra turned to face Miona. “But you need to swear to keep the secret,” she said solemnly, staring into Miona’s eyes.
“I swear,” Miona said without hesitation.
Selke considered her a moment, with the same serious look. “Have you heard of the Renaissance?” she asked finally.
Miona opened her mouth, speechless. “Of course I have,” she said after she’d gathered herself. “Are you part of it?”
“Can I join?”
It was the extra’s turn to gape for a second or two. “That’s what I wanted to suggest. I didn’t expect you to beat me to it. I wasn’t even sure you’d be interested.”
“I am,” Miona said eagerly. Then Ruhul’s words came back to her, and she started to doubt.
“I need to ask and double check, though,” the extra warned. “I was told the Renaissance always needs more people, but each case is different and I need to talk about you and see if we can use you.”
“Use me?” Miona said, still thinking of what Ruhul had said about the bombs.
“Well, yes. To see what you can do for the organization. What can you do?”
“I don’t know,” Miona said, trying to list in her head all the things she knew how to do. She was embarrassed to see how little she was actually good at. She knew a lot of things, but nothing really well. Except battery, which she was getting very good at, thanks to Darveena—servants’ kids at home were either too old or too young to play with her. And also languages. But there she still had a lot to learn. She’d have loved to be able to say that she could fly, but with Ruhul not wanting to train her, she couldn’t. “I’m good with languages, and I’m good at battery,” she answered finally, hesitant. “What do you do?”
“Me? I’m a tag artist. I’m pretty good with paint and stuff. And drawing—I go to an art school in Landran. That’s primarily why they hired me.”
“Do they pay you?”
“Pay? Oh, no, they don’t pay. But they can support you with the material. For tagging, and for other things, like communications. They could help with your collar, for example.”
“What can they do for my collar?”
“I can give you a key, so you can take it off whenever you need. But first I have to ask if they take you in.”
“Of course,” said Miona, half disappointed, half relieved. It’d give her a little time to think it over, she thought. At the same time, she wanted so much to join….
“Put your dress back on, it’s dry now,” Selke said, grabbing the dress and holding it above Miona’s head. “Do you have a number I can call?”
“What?” Miona said, her head emerging from inside the dress.
“A phone number to reach you.”
“Not really,” Miona said with a sorry pout. “I doubt Charles would pass it on if you call. And he’d be listening anyway.”
“I can give you my cell number.”
“You have a cell phone?” Miona exclaimed. “I thought no kid was allowed to have one!”
“The Renaissance got it for me. I have to hide it of course. Do you think you’ll be able to call?”
“I can sneak into Charles’ office when he’s away, I guess. And there are a few other phones at home. The problem is, they are all on the same line, so anyone can listen. Except for the phone in my master’s office. And in the Rittress’ apartments, but both are pretty difficult to get to,” Miona said, furrowing her brows.
“And at school?” suggested Selke.
“That would be easier. I could pretend I’m calling home. We are allowed to once a week, and when we stay at school for the weekend—we get free tokens for that.”
“Good. Now we really need to get back. The barman must be close to having a heart attack already.” She pushed the door and stepped outside. Miona turned around to grab her glasses and followed on the extra’s heels.
The next second Miona froze and grabbed Selke’s arm. Voices were ringing, very close. She knew these voices. And with the strange rhythm of steps that went with them, she couldn’t be wrong. She backed up inside the rest rooms and pulled Selke with her.
She was forcing the heavy door shut when two boys turned the corner and entered the rest room vestibule: Edron and Poisonohl. The strange noise of the steps came from Poisonohl’s crutches.
That was close, she thought. By chance, her classmates hadn’t noticed that the door wasn’t completely shut. They were too busy with their conversation. She reopened the door slightly to better hear what they were saying. She’d caught a few words that roused her interest. But the voices were echoing strangely in the vestibule, mixed with the sound of the crutches. She pushed the door some more, and finally decided to really open it. Too late—the men’s door had closed on them.
“What’s the matter?” Selke said under her breath. “Who were they?”
“Edron Ratmatuhr and Maltor Poisonohl.”
“Really! Good thing you have good ears…. They’re gone now, let’s go and hurry.” Selke gave Miona a light push and made one step toward the vestibule. “What’s the matter again?” she asked when Miona didn’t budge.
“They were talking about our Srilissi teacher.”
“You didn’t hear?”
“Not really, no. Was it that important?”
“I haven’t heard enough to tell for sure.”
“Let’s go, then,” urged the extra. “The barman is going to call the entire guard on us.”
“I can’t,” Miona whispered, stepping aside to let Selke pass. Whatever those two could be saying about Professor Slimvalsat, she knew it couldn’t be good, and somehow this got her upset. Possibly because, as overawing as the woman could be, she might just be her favorite teacher. “You go. I must hear what they’re saying.”
“Are you crazy?” the extra said just as low, taken aback. “They’ll see you.”
“Go,” Miona said again, walking on tiptoe toward a couch that was in the center of the vestibule, facing the archway to the corridor.
Selke ran behind her and grabbed her by the wrist. She pulled her behind a big plant beside the couch. “What if they see you? What will you say?”
“I’ll think of something. Let me go, I need to listen right now. Before they come out.” She tore away from the extra’s grip and ran to the men’s door, slowing only as she was nearing it. Her heart was about to burst. She tried to get an excuse ready, but had to concentrate on the noises that filtered through the door.
She was right by the door now. She wasn’t sure what was happening on the other side anymore—the blood pumping at her eardrums had become louder than the faint noises themselves. But she couldn’t stay there forever, she decided. She took a deep breath and pushed.
“What does he think she’s doing?”
That was Ratmatuhr. She couldn’t see any of the boys. But the voice was kind of muffled. She pushed the door some more, listening intently.
“He didn’t say. But he trusts my judgment.”
That was Poisonohl. Now she could see the boys’ ears sticking out above a screen masking the urinals. The screen was made of a thick stained glass that let only vague shadows go through. Poisonohl’s crutches were propped against it. Miona prayed none of them decided to look over the screen before they were finished.
“If you say you don’t trust her, he told me, maybe she should be looked into,” Poisonohl went on. “He wants to know her exact schedule. Not just which classes she teaches, but also how long she stays in her office after class; how long it takes her to walk home to her campus house; if she leaves the grounds on a regular basis, the whole works. I’ll even have a special pass to leave school whenever I want—to take music lessons, supposedly—”
“Whoa!” Ratmatuhr exclaimed. “Does he think she’s a spy or something?”
“No idea. And he made me swear not to tell anyone about it. So you need to swear you haven’t heard any of this. Or I can’t tell you anymore.”
“I swear,” Edron Ratmatuhr declared in a solemn voice. “Do you think Bludjan could keep the secret?”
Miona couldn’t hear the rest. One of the boys had flushed the water. Poisonohl, no doubt, because she saw his white ears and the top of his head turn away from the wall. She pulled the door shut and tiptoed away from the men’s room.
Only then did she notice that Selke was waiting in front of the couch, playing lookout by the archway. She was gesturing at her to come faster. Miona covered the last steps in a bound.
Immediately Selke grabbed her hand and stepped out in the corridor in the direction they had come from.
“Hey,” called a voice behind them.
Selke turned, but Miona pulled her forward, eager to put more distance between them and the rest rooms. She knew the two boys would come out within seconds.
“Hey, where are you girls going?”
Miona turned around. It was the cook helper. He broke into a run and slowed down by their side, Miona still pulling Selke after her.
“The bar chief is going to kill you,” the young Maruwan said, breathing hard. “Guests are all around the bar and he can’t keep up. I looked for you all over the house.”
“Well, you found us now,” Selke said without stopping. “My friend’s stain was of the tough kind.”
The cook helper grabbed Miona by one sleeve. “Come back that way,” he commanded. “It’s shorter through the salons.”
Miona shook him off and stared him in the eyes. “We’re going this way because that’s the way we prefer. Go back to your kitchen, the chef must be ready to cut you into pieces too.” The cook helper stopped, speechless.
Selke pulled Miona in the narrow passage they had taken when coming from the service corridor. “Good,” she said. “You shut up that blabby bastard nicely.”
“I guess I did,” Miona said, near-running beside her. She pushed a bang from her eyes and noticed that she was still holding her glasses.
“The few brighter of you might have noticed that there’s another class with us today for your PE session,” Professor Musrol declared in his deep and loud voice. A short, stocky man with disheveled brown fur and shiny eyes, his face reflected a deep satisfaction as he was standing on a big plastic crate next to the other PE teacher.
Feet wide apart and hands joined behind his back in his favorite posture, he scanned the students assembled in front of him in two disorderly but distinct groups. He looked on his side and winked at Professor Trakronuhr, a tall, younger PE teacher in his first year at Krandlinohr. Their eyes were at the same level, but Professor Trakronuhr was standing next to a similar crate, not on it. Professor Musrol turned back to the students and repressed a mocking smile half-successfully. “Let’s see if anyone can tell me why,” he said in his loud voice.
Miona stamped her feet a few times and crossed her arms tight. She pulled down a little on her shorts, both to hide a few remnant bruises showing below the free-flowing fabric and to protect herself from the crispy air. The wind had turned north, and brought the first cold days of the year. The early morning sun had started lifting the fog, but couldn’t warm her legs up enough. Other kids had puffed their fur up that showed below their shorts, but most of them looked cold nevertheless. She glanced to her right. Her four slave friends were whispering excitedly to each other, the two Human girls marching in place like Miona every now and then. They all looked back at her from the other group of students and waved discreetly. She waved back in the same way. Everybody thought they could have answered the question, of course, but no one seemed eager to.
“Kendrar,” Professor Musrol called. “You who always knows everything, don’t you have an idea?”
A few students snickered, Poisonohl and his gang among them. Junor Kendrar’s ears twitched. He hunched slightly, staring at the teacher and avoiding the other kids’ glances. “We’re here to play batteryrun, sir.”
“Very good, Kendrar. And why the two classes?” the PE teacher pursued. “And speak louder so everyone can hear, please.”
“Krandlinohr is building a boy-girl team this year, so we have to train with boys and girls together. There aren’t enough girls in our class, so we’ll be mixing up the two classes.”
“Very good. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Everyone heard?” Professor Musrol asked even louder, standing tall. He raised both hands to stop a spreading murmur. Most everyone knew about the rumor already, but now it was finally official. Miona glanced at her friends again. They seemed just as excited as she was. She scanned the faces around her. Actually, girls seemed overall happier than boys this morning. Professor Musrol stretched his arms forward. “Now you classes are going to make two nice lines facing each other, the freeborn on my right, the allslave class on my left. Execution!”
Everyone shuffled around in a hubbub of voices. After several seconds of confusion, two sinuous lines formed, some students nearly touching, while others were several steps apart.
Professor Musrol blew the whistle he was wearing on a chain around his neck. “Please make these lines straight,” he said irritably. “And everybody take two steps backwards so Professor Trakronuhr and I can walk between the two lines.”
Finally the two classes were facing each other at three strides from one another. The teachers approached the students closest to them. They started walking down slowly between the two lines, conversing together, pointing at students and motioning to them to walk to the other side, writing down on their tablets after each swap. Four girls from the all-slave class crossed over to Miona’s side—her two Pyrwondu friends and two Maruwans. Professor Musrol nearly picked Soumaya Trollorf, but Miona saw the other teacher pointing towards her and overheard him say that the freeborn class had a Human already.
Her disappointment was balanced when she saw Professor Musrol sending Poisonohl and Furriahr to the other side in exchange for the new girls. But the teachers didn’t just swap a few boys for the four extra girls Miona’s class needed. From what she caught of their discussion, they wanted to build up four teams somewhat balanced in strength and speed. And it didn’t seem that easy. At one point, the two men walked back between the lines, discussing more animatedly. More swapping took place, and Miona’s team gained three Maruwans, two girls and one boy. Miona began hoping again for her two Human friends to be picked.
The teachers did, in fact, stop by her friends and started discussing again—Professor Musrol pointing at Miona, Professor Trakronuhr at two Human boys—so animatedly that Miona wondered if they weren’t about to come to claws over it, even if they were whispering. She cranked her neck and strained her ears, and gathered that they would keep the four Human kids in their class for those two teams to have a balanced number of Humans. She exchanged a sorry look with her friends when the two men turned and walked away.
More Trowan boys and girls walked to the other class after that, and two more Maruwan girls, two more Pyrwondu girls, and one Pyrwondu boy came over to Miona’s class. But not only none of the Trowan boys leaving were Bludjan or Ratmatuhr, she was dismayed to see that Poisonohl and Furriahr took advantage of the confusion to cross back to her line, pushing two other Trowan boys over to the other class to replace them. Miona considered seriously giving them away despite the certain backlash, but she remembered her master’s concern about the gang getting back at her for the maze incident. Both Poisonohl and Bludjan were doing better—no more crutches or bandages—but they were still looking at her in a vengeful kind of way. After all, if they’d planned to get even at the party, Selke had spoiled most of that…. Also, what if she got Poisonohl and Furriahr sent back and her two Human friends ran into some trouble with them later on? She decided not to tell on them and swallowed her frustration as she watched Ratmatuhr and Bludjan congratulating their colleagues.
She hoped the teachers would notice that the gang was reunited when they passed back by them, but they didn’t seem to. Professor Trakronuhr left with Soumaya Trollorf and Carmela Tandirl’s class toward the next field, dragging behind him the big crate on wheels. Professor Musrol stepped back on his own crate and stamped one heel to get attention. “Before I give you your equipment, we need to form two teams,” he shouted over the students’ conversations. Everyone fell silent, more than a few heads turning toward Poisonohl’s gang.
Professor Musrol checked his tablet for a moment. “We have a problem here that the other teams don’t,” he began, a crease forming on the thick brown fur of his forehead. “We don’t have even numbers in the different ethnic groups. So we need to balance the two teams the best we can.” He raised his head from his tablet and pointed successively at a Maruwan boy, a Pyrwondu boy, and Miona.
“You, you, and you,” he said in his commanding voice. “Step aside. The others, form two even groups, one on my right, one on my left. Go ahead!”
Everyone scrambled at once, and two groups formed on each side of the teacher. But the groups kept changing, most children moving to the other team as soon as they discovered that they were with Poisonohl’s gang, Professor Musrol blowing his whistle and gesturing from the top of his crate to send some back when one side was obviously larger than Poisonohl’s side.
“Stop!” Professor Musrol shouted at one point, pulling at the hair of his cheeks. He blew a long note from his whistle. “Everyone stop moving!” he barked. “If you can’t decide where to go, I’ll decide for you.” He jumped down from his pedestal and started pulling and pushing the students from one side to the other, including Miona and the two other slave boys.
After a few minutes, Miona found herself across from her Pyrwondu friends, and on Poisonohl’s team.
“You better not make us lose, little slave,” Poisonohl whispered to her behind the back of a Maruwan girl.
“You will make me lose, you mean,” she replied. “I’d have better chances winning if I was on the other side!” She looked at Professor Musrol and saw that he was busy opening the padlock of the big box. “I think you guys would be better off with the big Maruwan there,” she said, pointing at the tall Maruwan boy whom Professor Musrol had put in her friends’ team. The next second she slipped to the other line in one quick step.
Immediately Bludjan pointed at her and opened his mouth to call the teacher, but Poisonohl grabbed his arm.
“Professor Musrol,” Miona called without waiting for someone else to tell on her.
The teacher turned around, taking the padlock out. “What is it now?” he said in a tired voice.
“Professor, don’t you think the teams would be more balanced if the other team had one more Maruwan?” she said, pointing at Poisonohl’s team.
Professor Musrol straightened up and came down the aisle of students, counting them for the umpteenth time. “I thought we had two even teams at last,” he said with a vaguely worried frown. He went back to the crate and picked up his tablet, and started checking his notes, pulling nervously on the fur of his cheeks.
“Yes, Professor,” Nandi Purrimor jumped in, a big smile on her dainty face from seeing her friend on her team. “And if Todril comes with us, it’ll make five boys and seven girls on each team,” she added, pointing to a small Pyrwondu boy on Poisonohl’s side.
“We could take one of the Trowan girls to make up for the Pyrwondu boy,” Poisonohl decided to barge in.
“Stop!” ordered Professor Musrol, pulling on his cheeks’ fur so hard that some hair came off. He blew a strident rolling note out of his whistle and walked toward Miona and Poisonohl. “Let’s do just that and see if we’re even,” he said in an attempt to regain control of the situation.
After this last swap, he wrote on his tablet again and smiled as if witnessing a miracle. “Fantastic. It all fits again. Now I’m going to write down all your names, and no more transfers!”
While he was doing so, Poisonohl snickered toward Miona. “With the Maruwan on our side, you guys have definitely no chance. You’re going to suffer, Fortvallor.”
Pera Marhao left Nandi Purrimor and sneaked by Miona.
“Sorry I made you guys lose the Maruwan boy,” Miona apologized.
“I’m glad you’re on our team,” Pera answered. “But don’t you think you would have been safer on Poisonohl’s side than against him?”
“Safer perhaps, more aggravated for sure,” Miona said with a knowing wink. Another long whistle made them look up.
Professor Musrol was holding the lid of the crate open. He pulled two rolls of fluorescent red and green armbands from it and handed them to the first student in each row. “Now take one of these and pass them on. It’ll avoid you hitting the wrong guy,” he said with a short laugh. He watched the armbands moving along the lines and the children putting them on their arms. “While you folks put your armbands on, come one by one and take your gear. We won’t be needing the padded vests and pants today, nor the helmets. Just the sabers. And the sport gloves of course. They’ll protect the outside of your hands, and their tips are thicker than your regular gloves’—no danger that a few claws go through inadvertently.” He took a quick side-glance at Poisonohl and his goons. “Interceptions will be reduced to one saber hit—only one. And you’re supposed to shout “HIT” before your strike, and be sure the player you intercept sees you and parries. Real swordplay won’t take place for several weeks. And here’s a special word for you boys. Most of you have trained already at battery in your previous school, but remember that the girls haven’t. So there won’t be any real battling before girls get at least a month of battery practice, which will start later this week. Understood?”
Professor Musrol shouted the last word, leaning forward with his hands clutched behind his back. At his signal, the children moved toward the chest. Soon the lines had changed into two packs of bodies, until Professor Musrol blew his whistle again, which changed them back into two sinuous lines. At one point Miona found herself very close to Poisonohl. “Hey, Fortvallor,” he snickered under his breath. “Too bad we don’t have the padded gear today. You’ll be all blue when we’re done with you.”
“You’ll be needing your crutches again,” Miona said through her teeth. “Hope you have them close at hand.”
Moments later they arrived in front of the large box, both at the same time. Professor Musrol was standing by the crate, but at that same instant he blew his whistle and took a few steps forward. He gestured and shouted to those children who had already picked their swords to form their lines again. Poisonohl pulled one saber from the crate and in the same movement swung it at Miona’s back.
But she hadn’t taken her eyes off him for more than a second at a time while she was choosing a sword for herself. She caught the movement in the corner of her eye. She pulled a saber from the pack and swerved it with both hands in a parry. Poisonohl’s saber bounced off her own with a clank, and a flick of her wrists put the end of her sword one finger away from the hoodlum’s face.
The next second both sabers were pointing to the ground and both Miona and Poisonohl moved away from the crate as if nothing had happened.
“Hold on, there!” Professor Musrol said, walking back to the crate. “What was that noise I heard?”
Both children stopped. Miona noticed that all the other kids were watching them, some with their mouths wide open, which wasn’t very good if they were to pretend nothing had taken place.
Poisonohl might have come to the same conclusion, because he went on the offensive first, in his usual manner. “She tried to hit me with her saber, sir!” Saying so, he sent a heavy stare at the closest children.
“Not true, sir,” Miona countered with a scowl. She decided not to let Poisonohl get the better of her, but she could see how easily he could turn things around this time again. She might be very close to returning to the Headmistress’s office, and of course she’d be the one getting the blame. “He was the one who tried to hit me. I just parried.”
“She’s lying, sir! She always does.”
“All right, all right,” Professor Musrol said, a heavy frown on his face and his whiskers twitching. “I can see that there are people trying to get thrown out of practice even before starting it.”
“She’s always making trouble, sir. Ask the Headmistress.”
“The Headmistress, eh? I just might send you both there to explain your case.”
“Oh no, sir,” pleaded Miona. She bit her lip and said nothing more, wondering if sounding afraid of the Headmistress wouldn’t make the teacher think she was guilty.
“No?” Professor Musrol stared at her for a moment. “We’ll see after the practice if it comes to that,” he said finally. “Now go on and fall in line, both of you.”
Miona exchanged a heavy look with Poisonohl. They walked behind their own team’s line, still staring at each other, and went to take their places at the end of their line. “You’re in trouble again, little slave,” Poisonohl teased her, affecting to stand at attention. “You’d better behave during the practice—if we let you.” He winked mockingly.
Soon all children had a saber in hand. Professor Musrol stepped on the closed crate again and made both teams line up three rows deep, one team on his right, one on his left.
“Today we’re going to do mostly game technique,” he said, his hands behind his back. “And for those who have never heard the first thing about batteryrun, let me do a bit of an introduction.” Professor Musrol scanned the students below him with a satisfied smile. “Let’s put it this way: batteryrun’s rules are fairly simple.” He brought one hand in front of him, brandishing a kind of stick about the length of his forearm. It was adorned with a mythical beast, with wings and a gaping mouth, and painted in a golden color. “Pick up the Lost Scepter from its mark on center field and bring it to your King, who is held prisoner behind the opponent team’s lines.” He gestured with his scepter towards two tall figures raised on each side of the field they were on. All heads turned quickly left, then right, before focusing on the teacher again. The figures represented each a King sitting on a throne. They were made in hard plastic, but were very realistic, freshly painted, with a rich fur coat and a golden crown. The kings’ right hands were cone-shaped—and empty.
“To accomplish this, nearly everything is allowed,” Professor Musrol went on. “Most of all, you use your legs. To run to your King. Second, you use your saber. To fend off the players who try to take the scepter from you—or to steal the scepter from the scepter bearer if you’re not it. But you can also use your elbows and shoulders. Not your feet or fists, though, and not your head—this is not All-Out Batteryrun, where you can kick with any part of your body.” Poisonohl kicked Bludjan’s side and they snickered in a knowing way while looking in Miona’s direction.
“Let me point out one big problem, though. How do you battle one or three opponents and hold the scepter at the same time?” Professor Musrol had another big smile while he scanned his audience, his hands behind his back again. “Anybody know?”
“You take it in your teeth,” Ratmatuhr proposed with a snicker that was carried on by his three friends.
“Very funny,” said Professor Musrol, not really amused. “It has been done, but that’s a quick way to lose your teeth, let me tell you.”
“You battle with one hand only,” said the Pyrwondu boy on Miona’s team.
“That’s a more sensible answer. But of course you understand that you’ll have a hard time resisting other players who will be fighting the normal way, with both hands. And that’s the big difficulty, and the reason the scepter changes hands fairly often during the game.”
“Can’t we tack it under one arm?” a Trowan boy on Miona’s team offered.
“Absolutely. But here also, you’ll see that it’ll impede your battling. And often you’ll drop it doing so. There’s no good way. You’ll have to use your head.”
“Er…I thought we couldn’t use our heads, sir!” Furriahr objected. A muffled laughter spread on Miona’s team, and Furriahr and the rest of his gang darted angry looks at them. The laughter died off at once. Miona put her hand on her mouth to stop hers, and she exchanged mirthful glances with Nandi and Pera.
“Not to bump into your opponents, but to think,” the teacher said, putting one finger to his head. That’s usually when you need to hand the scepter on to one of your teammates. Or to throw it. That’s when you need to know who in your team is best placed to receive it. Which means that you need to always keep an eye on the rest of your team and think ahead. Not as easy as it looks, you’ll see.” Professor Musrol had his satisfied smile again. “And that’s where strategy comes in handy,” he said. “Let’s see how many different tactical moves you guys know. Raise your hands before talking.”
Several hands shot up, and it appeared that most Trowan boys knew several tactics already, and Poisonohl and his friends weren’t the least knowledgeable of them. Miona had heard of some before, like the Blockade tactic, played on a counter move, in which players try to protect their team’s attacker by forming a line to contain all the other players while their scepter bearer runs quietly to the King; or the Bait, in which the scepter bearer pretends to pass the scepter to one player from his team who acts as a bait and leads the other team to one corner, while the real scepter bearer runs to the King. There was also the Shield, a maneuver in which players escort their scepter bearer to the King, battling the other team while the scepter bearer is safely hidden among them.
“Very good, very good,” Professor Musrol said after they had reviewed a half dozen tactics. He waved the scepter above his head. “Now let’s see what you can make of all this on the field.” He jumped off the crate and walked to an “X” painted on the grass between the two teams. There was a plastic cone buried in the ground, its wider side flush with the dirt. The stocky man thrust the handle of the scepter inside the cone. “I buried the scepter. Now you need to take your places on the field. For this first try, I’ll tell you where each of you will be. Later you’ll change positions until you’ve experienced all of them and find the best for you.”
The next ten minutes, Professor Musrol was very busy, gesturing to children and pointing them to their places, shouting just as often as he was blowing his whistle.
Miona found herself in the center of the pivot line—called that way because of its alternate roles of attack and defense—with Purrimor on her left and Marhao on her right. Just in front of her, Junor Kendrar was in the Captain position, at the point of a “V” formation, with two Trowan boys on each side of him, and two Trowan girls at both ends, close to Nandi and Pera. Professor Musrol had assigned the two Maruwan girls to the rear guard, a few strides from the other team’s King. Finally he’d put two boys on the reserve, the Pyrwondu and a Trowan. They were standing on the sideline between the two teams, watching the scepter for now, until they were needed for replacement. Rotations were very fast at Batteryrun, he’d assured them, due to the intensity of the game and the number of injuries.
Professor Musrol walked towards Miona’s team and stopped in front of Junor Kendrar. Behind him, Poisonohl and his gang were making aggressive gestures with their sabers. Poisonohl was in the captain position, directly facing Kendrar, who looked like he’d rather be somewhere else. Ratmatuhr and Furriahr were on each of Poisonohl’s sides in the attack “V”, and Bludjan was directly behind him, mirroring Miona’s position.
“As I’ve just been telling the red team,” Professor Musrol started, “I want you to begin with a simple attack. No big strategy yet. I just want you to practice passing the scepter, throwing it, and making basic interceptions. The others will attack on your left if they get the scepter first. Your first line must be ready to stop them, and your second line to stop any of those who’ve managed to break through. But if you get the scepter first, Kendrar, I want you guys to attack on your right. Then the second line must accompany the first line to the right, but must always be ready to redeploy in the center. Clear?”
It seemed clear enough to Miona, except that she would have liked to know what she was supposed to do if Poisonohl’s gang didn’t follow the rules.
Professor Musrol returned to the scepter and took a few steps back. He spread his arms wide, then closed them above his head as he drew a long note from his whistle.
The first lines sprung forward, the Trowan boy and girl on Kendrar’s right angling already to their right to follow their attack plan, Ratmatuhr and a Trowan girl next to him slanting the other way. Junor Kendrar charged at the scepter, only five strides away. Miona sprung right behind him, slower, though, to remain able to counter a breach through the first line.
Kendrar dived for the scepter, but Poisonohl’s saber caught him in the pit of his stomach, stopping him short. He let out a humph and rolled on his side. Poisonohl grabbed the scepter with his left hand and dashed forward, brandishing his saber in front of him. He breached through the first line a second before the Trowan boy on Kendrar’s left could intercept him. Nandi Purrimor dashed for him, but Miona was right in his line of attack. She raised her saber and yelled “HIT!”.
Poisonohl didn’t stop. The point of his saber was aimed straight at Miona’s stomach. The point was rounded of course, and of the size of a large marble, and the spring core would compress into the handle on impact, the same way the telescopic metal sleeve would onto the guard. But it would still hurt like it must have hurt Junor, Miona thought in a flash.
She brought her saber down to deflect Poisonohl’s sword outward. The sabers met with a clang, and Poisonohl’s right arm was sent aside. But instead of stopping as they were instructed, Poisonohl brought the scepter down on her right leg, just above the knee, and skirted round her as she collapsed.
She dropped her saber and held her leg with both hands, tears of pain filling her eyes. She barely heard Professor Musrol’s whistle. Nandi Purrimor was by her side first, shortly before Pera Marhao. She assured them she was okay, but still used their help to get back up.
“Come back here, please,” Professor Musrol said to Poisonohl. “I see that we’re going to have lively games in this class,” he added in a merry voice. “But this last action wasn’t too clean…. What’s with your leg, girl?” he asked Miona as he arrived in front of her.
“I must have hit her with my knee in passing,” Poisonohl said, walking back slowly with a content smile.
“Not true, sir,” Pera said, infuriated. “He hit her with the scepter!”
“Nonsense. I vaguely felt something bumping my knee. I wasn’t sure, that’s why I didn’t stop.”
Professor Musrol twisted his whiskers between two fingers pensively. “Can you run, girl?” he asked Miona. She nodded, massaging her leg. “Then you can keep your place as we put the scepter back in play. As it wasn’t a saber hit, you don’t have to go to the hospital bench.” He looked up toward Junor Kendrar, who was only now getting up painfully. “Kendrar,” he shouted, “to the hospital bench.” The boy stifled a sigh of relief and left readily. Professor Musrol turned to the rest of the team: “In a real game, your coach would be the one deciding to use the reserves only for tired players or for replacing hurt players. But when it’s the captain who’s hit, the coach usually replaces him.” He whistled a long note and waved the Trowan boy standing on the sideline to come and replace Kendrar.
“As the last action wasn’t too clear, I’m restarting the game between you two,” Professor Musrol said to Miona and Poisonohl. “Everyone returns to their last position.” He waved Purrimor and Marhao to move back to where they were when he blew his whistle. “Now I place the scepter five strides from each of you.” He made five long strides from Miona, laid the scepter on the grass, made five more strides, and motioned Poisonohl to stand near him. He went back to where the scepter was, backed up four steps, and gave the signal to resume the game.
At the sound of the whistle, Miona pounced forward, her eyes set on the thinning gap between the scepter and Poisonohl. Her leg was hurting too much, and she could see that Poisonohl was nearly on it already. She lunged and swung her saber at the scepter.
It hit with a thud, taking the scepter away from under Poisonohl’s fingers, sending it flying towards Pera. Miona didn’t see how Pera caught it, because she had to dive on the grass to avoid Poisonohl’s saber, aimed straight at her face. She rolled and felt Poisonohl’s legs hitting her back as she rolled some more, and heard his scream of surprise and anger. She got up, her saber ready. Poisonohl still had one knee on the ground, and was holding his back with one hand. He glared at her for a second, before finally getting up. He turned toward the small Pyrwondu, but the scepter was already out of her hands and into those of the Trowan girl in front of her. Miona circled Poisonohl and made a few limping steps toward the action.
But the action had picked up and everyone was running. The Trowan girl was running away from the Trowan girl on Poisonohl’s red team, whom she had been marking since Poisonohl’s attack. The red team’s pivot line was running to meet her, but she threw the scepter over them just before they were on her. The Trowan boy from Miona’s green team caught it and dashed toward the Reds’ rear guard, Bludjan and the rest of the pivot line on his heels.
Professor Musrol was there already, shouting orders to those who hesitated on how to place themselves. Miona started walking toward Pera Marhao, slowly because she knew how fast the scepter could come back if it were intercepted. And also because her leg was really hurting, enough to give her a pronounced limp.
She was following the action, until she noticed that Ratmatuhr and Furriahr had stayed behind, and were only a few strides in front of her, and she didn’t like the smile they had on their faces. She turned around. Poisonohl was only three strides behind, and his saber was raised.
“You walk funny, little slave,” he said, stopping two strides from her. His back didn’t seem to bother him anymore. He was standing tall and smirking in the same way his goons were. “Look at you: you’re just like your crippled master.”
Miona raised her saber too. “My master is not crippled,” she said through her teeth. “He could stun you with one hand.” She nearly lunged at Poisonohl right there, but she held herself. Somehow the face of her master had made its way through her rage, and that face was concerned and sad. It was the face he’d had when he’d lectured her on their way back from the Headmistress’s a week and a half earlier. Her master wanted her to stay out of trouble—just the opposite goal from Poisonohl. She took a deep breath and lowered her saber.
Poisonohl gave an appreciative whistle. “Look how she likes her good master. Isn’t that touching, guys?”
Miona spun around, raising her saber again. Ratmatuhr and Furriahr were just three strides away now. She backed off, but Furriahr dashed ahead and blocked her way. She turned halfway to Poisonohl and stayed sideways, her head mobile to try and keep her eyes on all three goons. A glance around her showed her that everybody had followed the two Trowan boys on her team. They were now running toward the two Maruwans of the Reds’ defense, with the Reds’ pivot line trying to catch up. If Poisonohl and his two goons wanted to do something, they’d have to do it quickly, before the action stopped and Professor Musrol looked again their way. Or would Poisonohl be happy just to scare her?
The gang closed the distance by one more step. Not a good omen. Another step and she wouldn’t be able to look simultaneously at all three. She had to break free. Nandi had seen she was in trouble and had turned around, but she was too far. The two Maruwan girls of her team were too far also to help her, and she didn’t know if they would or if Poisonohl’s reputation had reached their ears.
She spun around, whirling her saber in one hand as she turned. The trio all jumped back one step from surprise, but when she pounced forward in the opening she’d made between Furriahr and Ratmatuhr, both boys’ sabers crossed in front of her as they lunged too.
She lifted the blades in one forceful hit with both her hands back on the handle. But the effort to lift the swords forced her to stop, and a piercing pain in her left shoulder drew a cry from her, making her regret her usual padding gear—Poisonohl had struck her in the back.
She spun to her left, saber ready, and froze: Poisonohl was preparing a second strike, and his friends’ sabers were coming back down, straight at her head.
The next moment she jumped back into action. She sprang at Poisonohl and swung her saber at his side as she passed him by. Spinning again to face his friends, she saw their swords crashing both as one into Poisonohl’s back.
She didn’t stay to savor the spectacle, but couldn’t repress a wide smile while she sped away towards Nandi. Looking over her shoulder, she could see that none of the goons was chasing her. They stood by Poisonohl, looking at him and at her in turn, mouth gaping. The next second Poisonohl started shouting imprecations at them both.
“Are you okay?” Purrimor asked when she arrived at her level.
A strident whistle made them look at the game. Their captain had his saber up, and so had Bludjan and the Maruwan boy of the Red team’s defense. They were very close to the Reds’ king line, but quite far to the right. Professor Musrol turned to them and waved them over repeatedly. They caught up with Pera and briskly ran towards their teacher.
Soon they were all crowded together around Professor Musrol—and waiting for Poisonohl and his two friends. Furriahr and Ratmatuhr decided to run after another of the teacher’s whistles. “What’s wrong with your friend? Professor Musrol asked them when they joined the rest of them.
“Maltor can’t run, sir,” Furriahr said. “Fortvallor’s fault.”
Professor Musrol furrowed his brow, looking in turn at Miona, the two boys, and Poisonohl, who seemed to be slowing down more now that he was getting nearer. “I’ll check on this later. Let’s start without him.” He turned to the rest of the class. “When the scepter goes out of bounds like it did here, the referee stops the game. The Greens’ captain was the one crossing the sideline with it, so now the Reds do the throw-in. Go ahead, place yourselves as you please. The Reds’ player closest to the Greens’ captain throws the scepter.”
Everyone scurried to take a good place before the Maruwan boy could throw the scepter. Miona didn’t know where to go. None of her team seemed to want to mark Bludjan or Furriahr, who were the tallest besides the Maruwans, and gave everybody nasty looks.
“You’ll have a hot seat again soon, Fortvallor.” She spun and met Ratmatuhr’s mocking eyes. “Maltor will make sure you see the Dean.”
Professor Musrol’s whistle rang before she could answer. The scepter flew out of the Maruwan’s hand, going up, then down, right towards Bludjan’s outstretched hands.
Miona bounded forward. She jumped and swung her saber with one hand, hitting the scepter in mid-air.
It flew away from Bludjan, to land in front of a Trowan girl. The girl bounded on it and picked it up, but froze with a scared look when Bludjan and Furriahr converged on her. Her eyes caught sight of Miona, and she threw the scepter back to her.
Miona caught it, and the next second Bludjan and Furriahr turned on her, as well as the big Maruwan boy. She spun to find an escape route, but Ratmatuhr was blocking her way, raising his sword as if he intended to knock the scepter off her hand.
She raised her own sword and looked desperately around.
It was Pera’s voice. Miona saw her, crouching low right behind Bludjan. She threw the scepter at her and grabbed her saber two-handed, then wheeled around and shouted “HIT” at Ratmatuhr.
Ratmatuhr’s blade didn’t stop. She parried and made a wide swing that whistled just above his ears before passing inches from Bludjan’s and Furriahr’s noses. They all froze.
A high-pitch note came out of Professor Musrol’s whistle. “Get on with the game, everyone! Follow the scepter!”
Bludjan turned around to run after Pera, while his two cohorts hesitated. Miona broke off and chased after him.
By now Pera was getting very close to the Reds’ king, and the Reds’ defense seemed to have realized the danger. They all converged on her, jostling a few Green attackers out of their way. Bludjan used his saber to trip the Greens’ captain, and Miona had to jump over him.
Pera slowed down. She was getting sandwiched between the three Red Maruwans and Bludjan. She stopped in front of the closest Maruwan and looked right and left, desperately searching for a way out. Bludjan raised his saber, aiming at the scepter in her left hand.
“Pera, behind you!” yelled Miona.
The Pyrwondu girl stopped and looked over her shoulder, but Bludjan’s saber was already coming down. Miona lunged.
Her saber deflected Bludjan’s blow. “HIT!” she yelled again, swinging her sword in front of him, blocking him and also stopping the big Maruwan boy.
It was Nandi. She had sneaked behind the two Maruwan girls. Pera saw her. She dived under the two big girls’ sabers and rolled on the grass, at the same time throwing the scepter to Nandi.
The Maruwan girls bounded after Nandi, jumping over Pera. Miona took off after them, but she quickly realized that her legs were no match for the two big girls’.
Still, Nandi seemed to possess the legendary sprinting abilities of Pyrwondus. She covered the short distance that separated her from the Greens’ king, the Maruwan girls on her heels, and jammed the scepter into his fist.
Professor Musrol blew a long note, and a clamor of triumph exploded behind Miona. She raced to Nandi, Pera in her wake, and soon the three girls were jumping up and down, broad smiles on their faces. The rest of the Greens caught up with them and joined in the celebration. Angry voices made Miona glance back. Ratmatuhr was yelling at the Maruwan girls, and Bludjan and Furriahr joined in the bawling out. Poisonohl was some twenty strides behind, staring at her and looking as peeved as his colleagues.
It was too late for another game, and Professor Musrol whistled the end of the play. Feet akimbo behind the crate as he was watching the children return the sabers, he told them how he was pleased with their first field test, calling it very promising. When it was Miona’s turn to give her saber back, he made her step aside. The same happened to Poisonohl.
“Now you two,” he said, closing the crate. Miona watched the last student leave and Professor Trakronuhr wheeling his own crate toward the gymnasium. Professor Musrol, Poisonohl, and herself were the last people on the field. “How’s your leg, girl?” Professor Musrol asked.
“Okay,” she said, mostly so as not to make Poisonohl happy. But she also didn’t want to give Professor Musrol an occasion to send them to the Headmistress’s office.
“What’s wrong with you, boy?” the teacher asked, turning to Poisonohl, who was supporting his rib cage with his crossed arms. Miona tensed, wondering what lie Poisonohl might have cooked up for his revenge.
“I think I have a cracked rib, Professor,” Poisonohl said with a grimace of pain.
“Oh, that fall you took when Fortvallor kicked the scepter off with her saber. I remember.”
Poisonohl hesitated a second or two. Not sure how to present his story? wondered Miona. He opened his mouth to answer but Professor Musrol cut him off. “I must admit that you guys gave it a real go today. Especially you, Poisonohl. I expected the game to be a lot softer, for a first game with so many total beginners.”
Poisonohl tried to speak again, but once more the teacher didn’t leave him the time.
“Perhaps you could play a little lighter next time. That’ll give a chance to those girls who have never tried batteryrun before. And that’ll give me the chance to show you more tactics…. By the way,” he added with a knowing smirk, “the one you used on Kendrar, the saber-point attack—not seen often. Too easy to parry when you’re ready for it. I don’t think you’ll fool Kendrar with it a second time.” Professor Musrol looked at both children in turn, his forehead creased. “At least I’m glad you guys haven’t tried to settle your little argument on the field. I guess I won’t have to send you to the Headmistress’s this time.” He grabbed the handle of the crate and started pulling it toward the gymnasium, smiling broadly again. “Okay, off you go now. And, Poisonohl, have your ribs checked by the nurse, just in case.”
Miona didn’t wait for Professor Musrol to change his mind, nor for Poisonohl to try and make him change his verdict. She took off trotting toward the lockers, trying to lighten her limp, happy that Poisonohl’s ribs stopped him from catching up with her.
When Miona was brought to Krandlinohr High for the first time, she wasn’t sure if she ought to say that the school was in the town, or that the town was in the school. Seen from the limo before it landed, certainly the second seemed more true. But soon she found out that it wasn’t just Krandlinohr which was surrounding the small town of Tahrlon, but other schools and a university as well.
In fact there were so many students of all ages around town that it was said that on permit days—the days some students were allowed to go to town—it was difficult to spot an adult in the crowd. Like many slaves, and most freeborns of her age, Miona wasn’t allowed outside the school grounds, so she didn’t know if it was fact or folklore. And she did wonder if she would ever find out, even when she’d be in the older classes, because it seemed that so much of her free time was spent in detention—due mostly to Poisonohl’s gang.
It so happened that today was a permit day. It was Sevenday, the next to last day of the week, and many Krandlinohr students in their fourth year and over could leave school after lunch. It would be a good day for Miona to sneak out of school. A day where her school uniform wouldn’t be too noticeable in town.
Miona pushed open the dining hall door and checked her watch. It was a little after 6 pm. She had just finished setting the tables for dinner, as part of her kitchen duty, and was allowed to rest for an hour or go back to the study hall or the library until dinner was served at 7:30—she wasn’t helping serve on Sevendays. So she had plenty of time—she just wouldn’t eat.
She shivered and pulled the hood of her cape on, and walked briskly toward the teachers’ quarters. Dusk was settling in already, turning doors, columns, and statues into spooky shadows. The fog was rolling in from the lake and a little creek nearby, damp and penetrating. Actually Miona was happy for the fog. It gave her a good excuse to put her hood up, and with the two moons bright as they were these days, she felt better with it. The perimeter wall of the school grounds was at its highest by the houses reserved for teachers. It was also new, and impossible to climb. That was probably why there were no cameras there, and why guards seldom came to check on it. That was also where Miona was to meet Selke tonight.
She sped around the peristyle toward the library, unable to stop a glance at the small door to the maze in passing. Instead of climbing the steps to the library door, she took a narrow, paved alley between the library and the chapel. Beyond the chapel, the alley went on towards the teachers’ cottages, but she would be in plain view there until the first house. After that, Maruwan-height hedges and shrubbery would give her some protection.
She stopped by the corner of the library and scanned the open area, hoping Selke would succeed climbing the wall, and wondered if she was already inside, waiting for her.
She couldn’t see anyone walking on the glistening path. The only two lampposts set along it were already lit, eerie balls of light cutting the foggy dusk. She wrapped her cape tighter around herself and stepped out in the open, still amazed at how her life had changed in just two weeks. She hadn’t dared call Selke from home, but had been able to call her from school at the beginning of the week. Selke’s progress had surprised her. The dark-haired girl had gotten her Renaissance contact’s approval to take Miona in. She’d told them Miona could help her in her tagging stunts. She had even found a secure place in Tahrlon where they could meet. She hadn’t given Miona any more details, because they’d mostly talked about how they would go about setting up their first meeting.
Miona reached the hedge of the first cottage and was relieved to round the first corner of shrubbery. The next second, she thought her heart would stop.
A dark, hooded figure was facing her, standing still on the path less than ten strides away. Miona froze, ready to turn around. The shape was wrapped in a dark cape and was gauging her. A lamppost just behind it blinded Miona and she couldn’t tell who it was. The figure started walking and Miona turned around.
“Stop!” Miona recognized the voice and turned back. “You scared me,” the figure said, stopping one stride from her.
“You scared me too. How did you get in?”
Selke lifted a flap of her cape. “With this.” She pulled a hook from a bag hanging on her shoulder. It was quite a sizable hook, with a nasty-looking end with three strong sharp teeth. A synthetic rope was attached to it. “Let’s work on your collar right away. Do you think there are any slaves in these houses?”
“Not sure. Perhaps some teachers give private lessons? But if they do, that wouldn’t be to slave students. So I’d say no. Why?”
“Then security could see you right now.”
Miona tensed up. “I don’t think they’re always monitoring,” she said hopefully.
“Do you want to find out?”
“Er, no,” Miona agreed. “I wouldn’t want to meet the Dean or a guard right now.”
“So let’s go to where there are other students,” Selke said urgently.
“But what will you do with my collar? Do you have a scrambler or something?”
“I have a scrambler, but I didn’t bring it. If we scramble your signals, your master won’t see you anymore and might call the school.”
“I don’t think Graalor monitors me when I’m at school.”
“Our security guard…. And he might think my battery is out. It was when I went back for mid-fall break.”
“But if your master wanted to check on you, wouldn’t they ask the school to recharge your battery?”
“They didn’t before the vacation, and I’m pretty sure my battery was out way before the vacation.”
Selke frowned and thought for a moment. “But if they do decide to check on you and school security can’t find you, things could get bad,” she said, looking around them nervously. “Are there any slave students in the dorms now?”
“Not in the dorms, but below, on the first floor. That’s where the older kids’ study halls are. All those who aren’t out in town are there now.”
“Is it easy to get there without being seen?”
Miona furrowed her brow. “Not all the way to the dorms building. And there are lots of prefects in the building—they watch over the students or study in their own rooms.”
Selke’s nervousness moved up visibly. “Any other place with slave students, but easier to get to?”
“The first to third years’ study halls. They’re by the library. Next to the chapel.”
“Let’s go there. Let’s go now.”
Miona caved in and lead the way. They crossed the open area as fast as they could without actually running. The moons were high and too bright for Miona’s taste. She started feeling very nervous to be with someone who didn’t even wear the school uniform, and she kept scanning the paths and shadows for the silhouette of a guard or a teacher.
“We’re here,” she said, pointing at the library wall, after they’d reached the protection of the narrow alley by the chapel.
“Let’s hide for a moment,” Selke said, looking up worriedly at the lit windows on the library wall. “Is that the library or the study hall?”
“Both, actually,” Miona whispered back. “Study halls are downstairs. The library is behind, but also above. It takes up the second and third stories.”
“Nobody ever looks down those windows?”
Miona glanced up. “I never paid attention to them. I guess they’re too high. Everything’s big in there, and you’re sitting low.”
This didn’t seem enough to calm Selke’s worries. She scanned the alley, squinting her eyes—there was only a lamppost at each end of the lane. Miona did the same, feeling very tense herself. “By the chapel,” Selke said, and she stepped through a sparse hedge that was bordering the lane, and crouched between the chapel wall and the shrubbery, motioning Miona to join her.
Miona crouched next to her. “What do we do now?”
“Turn your collar around. Show me the lock.” Selke was holding a small metal case like the one Graalor used to open collars. She brought it against the collar lock and there was a click. “Take it off, quick.”
“What are you going to do with it? Remove the battery?” Miona said, giving the collar to Selke.
“That would do the same as scrambling it. No, we’ll leave it around here. That way if someone checks on you, they’ll think you’re still at school.” She wrapped the collar in a plastic bag and got up, peering over the hedge at the library windows.
“But they won’t find me,” objected Miona.
“They’ll find you on their screens, so they won’t have a reason to go and look for you. That’s the best we can do…. Follow me.” She left their hiding place and crossed the lane to the other hedge, the one lining the library wall. She pushed herself through the sparse shrubs, and Miona followed. “Why not here?” Selke whispered, shoving the plastic pouch into the shrubbery. “Try to remember where it is,” she added, pulling a spray can from her shoulder bag.”
“You don’t need to mark the spot,” Miona said, suddenly alarmed. “I’ll remember.”
Selke couldn’t help a short laugh. “It isn’t paint, it’s De-Scent.” She sprayed a clear mist of gas all over the shrubs where she had put the collar. “Can’t be too cautious with Trowans’ or Maruwans’ smell. Just in case they do look for you.”
“Okay, what if they don’t find it?” Miona said, not fully convinced.
“They’ll have to go back to their screen. They’ll think you were with the other students and they missed you. Remember, we can’t get rid of all the risks. Just minimize them. That’s valid for the rest of what we’re doing. Are you still game?”
Miona didn’t hesitate on that question. “Let’s go.” They left the protection of the hedge and of the alley, and sped across the open lawn again. Then she started thinking more about what Selke had just said. She could hear her master’s and Ruhul’s words trying to sway her again, but her other reasons for joining answered them. She massaged her neck under her hood as she was walking briskly by Selke’s side. She knew why she was going with the Renaissance: she didn’t want to stay a slave forever and she wanted to learn how to fly. She had not changed her mind about that. And there was something else she was becoming aware of. It had just started, but she could tell already that she liked the hiding game.
They walked through the teachers’ sector without meeting anyone. Miona followed Selke along the last house’s hedge and stopped next to her. Like Selke, she pushed back against the shrubs, trying to fade into the foliage.
“Behind the trees,” Selke said under her breath. “Let’s go.”
Miona ran behind the spiky-haired girl, across a short lawn. In just a few strides, they were able to dive behind a cluster of trees, most likely planted there to hide the unsightly wall from the teachers’ view. Selke stopped on the other side of the grove. “That’s where I climbed,” Selke whispered, taking the hook and rope out of her bag. She pulled out something else too. “A slingshot,” she said, holding it out to Miona. “Place the hook in it, like that, and aim way above the wall. Make sure you step only on the end of the line.” She dropped the coiled rope in front of Miona and pulled the end of it, placing it under Miona’s foot. “Step hard,” she recommended.
Miona looked at the slingshot with respect. She had played with a small one once—they had trained one summer with it, until Darveena got tired of losing their contests. But she had never handled such an impressive one. It wasn’t that it was so much bigger. It just looked very professional.
“It is a competition slingshot,” Selke said. “Very light metal, but powerful. Hurry up, give it a try.”
Miona squeezed the hook inside the leather strap and pulled the elastic band all the way near her ear, surprised at how easy it felt. She aimed as Selke had told her, high enough above the wall to be sure the hook would clear it, and let go.
The line whooshed as it uncoiled itself, darting above the wall like a flying eel. The next second it was hanging across the wall. Selke took the end from under Miona’s foot and pulled slowly on the rope. Miona could hear a slight scraping coming from the other side of the wall, then the scraping stopped. “Hooked,” Selke said softly, holding the rope tight. “Now you need to walk to the wall without releasing the tension,” she said, taking the slingshot from Miona and giving her the line.
“Too bad you couldn’t get a scrambler for the camera by the back gate,” Miona said, getting anxious about the climbing. “Climbing the gate would be easier.”
“I have a scrambler. Handy for tagging government buildings.”
“Why can’t we use it, then?” Miona said, surprised.
“Because you’ll have to go out too often. Security’s bound to find it weird if they keep getting static on their screens, and always on the same one. They might install a second camera and you’ll be caught.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” admitted Miona, frowning.
“Well, there are loads of things to think about when you do these types of operations,” Selke said with an important kind of tone. “That’s what you’ll have to train for.”
Miona felt excited again, and eager to learn all that Selke knew. She walked to the wall, making sure she pulled herself toward it rather than stepping first and pulling on the line after.
“Show me your shoes,” Selke said, just behind her. “Your soles.” Miona’s shoes were more suited for walking under the peristyle than on the wall, but her soles were thick and gave a good grip. “That’ll do. Don’t try to take big steps, keep your feet next to each other, otherwise you’ll sway side to side and fall over. Make sure your hands are not too far ahead of your feet. If your feet slip, don’t let go, and try pulling yourself up. Do you have strong arms?”
“To handle a saber, you need to,” Miona said, leaning backward, one foot already against the wall.
Selke looked around, suddenly nervous. “When you’re at the top—”
She didn’t finish, because Miona already had her two feet up. She made three quick steps and started swaying. Her feet slipped the instant her body flipped on the side. She smacked against the wall painfully, muffling a cry.
“Come down slowly,” Selke said, looking nervously toward the cottages. A few windows were lit already, clearly visible through the few trees.
Miona let herself slide down, the wall scraping her left shoulder through her cape, and the outside of her left leg. She dropped down and massaged her shoulder with quick strokes, lifting her skirt to check on her knee.
“Hurry,” Selke whispered urgently. “But go slower, this time. And remember, don’t make big steps, and keep your feet closer together.”
Miona put her foot on the wall again and leaned backward like the first time. Deep furrows of concentration on her forehead, she took two deep breaths. Then she pushed with her other foot and brought it next to the first.
She started swaying left and right again, but this time she adjusted her feet, bringing them closer to each other. The swaying stopped. “Take one step,” Selke whispered. “A half-step, rather.” She did. But she reduced that move to an even shorter one, holding her breath. The swaying started as soon as she lifted her foot, but stopped quickly. She took another deep breath and risked another step, barely one inch higher this time. “Good. Go on like that…. And once at the top, lie down on the wall and wait for me.”
She went on, shuffling rather than stepping. After what seemed an eternity, she reached the top. She grabbed the edge of the wall like a life buoy and swung one leg over. She winced when her bare skin brushed against the rough material of the wall. She’d thought her legs were fully healed, but their skin was still tender. She wasted a few seconds disentangling one of her legs from her cape, then started to slide backward, very carefully. When she was sufficiently far from the hook, she lay low and watched Selke climb.
The tagger girl was up in a few seconds, with no apparent effort. Miona looked at her in awe while she was pulling the line up. She dropped it on the other side, moving the hook to the inside edge of the wall. “You did well,” Selke whispered encouragingly. “You learn fast. Now go down—not too fast.”
Selke’s warning was a good one. Miona started going down the same way she used to go up, and all went well for a few seconds. But soon enough she started to sway, and she flipped on her side again. On her right side this time, and she braced for the pain that would come when her wounded shoulder would hit the wall. In fact her shoulder didn’t hurt as much as her right leg, where Poisonohl had hit her with the scepter. But she got a rush of fear, considering how far up she was this time. Not able to see the relief of the ground, she was sure to turn an ankle if she fell down, or worse.
So she held tight. Luckily she managed to get back in the proper position, and using as much caution as she had going up, she finally touched the grass. She brushed her right knee, wincing. She’d have a few scrapes there too, like on the left one.
Selke landed next to her, and Miona straightened up and covered her legs with her cape. Selke shook the line a couple of times to free the hook. She coiled the rope and shoved it in her bag. “Where are we going?” Miona asked under her breath.
Selke turned around. “Towards town, of course.” The place they were in looked very similar to where they were coming from. The grass was higher, but still well kept, and a small grove was only four strides away. That’s where Miona started walking to, but angling her path to their left doing so.
“Follow me,” Selke said, running to the trees and circling them to the right. There was more underbrush among those trees, and she didn’t try to go through them. When they were on the other side of the thicket, Selke stopped.
“We’re going toward the lake, aren’t we?” said Miona when she caught up with her. They were in City Creek Park, a narrow band of land stretching from the outskirts of town to the lake, about a half hour to their right when walking fast. The small creek that ran in its middle was coming from the lake—visible by day in the distance—and flowed into the river right in the very center of town.
Selke pointed to the right, slightly downhill. “Not for long. We’ll cross the creek on the little bridge there, and then we’ll turn back left towards town.”
“If you say so,” Miona said, squinting to pierce the creamy layer of moisture that the two moons and the fog produced below them. She couldn’t see a thing.
“Let’s go quick. The park is closed by now, and police patrol it sometimes. After the creek, we’ll jump the wall to the university side.”
“Another wall?” Miona said without enthusiasm.
Selke turned to face her. The moons were bright enough for Miona to see a slightly mocking smile on her face. “It’s good practice. Anyway, I prefer entering town that way. The university doesn’t close its gates, so we won’t have to jump on the pavement from the top of a wall or a gate. Much more discreet. Let’s go.”
Miona ran downhill behind her and they crossed an open lawn under the protection of the fog. Miona saw the creek seconds before their feet rang on the wood of the small bridge. Soon they were at the foot of the university wall. Miona was a lot faster climbing this one, earning her an admiring and slightly puzzled look from Selke once at the top. “You are a quick learner, definitely. You’ll do great on operations.”
“I’ve always climbed a lot with Darveena,” Miona said humbly. “Trees mostly. But I’ve never tried with a rope before.”
After a quiet stroll on the university grounds—Selke insisted on them not running—they were walking in town. “Stop looking left and right constantly,” Selke said in a low voice. “You’ll attract attention.”
“Poisonohl and Bludjan are in town today.”
“Really? You told me first years couldn’t get out.”
“Most don’t. But Poisonohl gets permission quite often. Well, they’re probably on their way back—Bludjan never misses a meal. They’d recognize me at once.”
“We need to find you a cape,” Selke said, eyeing Miona’s mauve uniform cape. “And a place to hide it. Somewhere in the city park, that’d be ideal.”
“Could you get me some pants like yours?” Miona said, glancing at Selke’s wide, free-flowing pants with envy. “I’m getting all scraped by those walls.”
“You don’t have any at the dorm?” Selke asked with some surprise.
“Never did. Do all girls wear those in art school?”
“No, but many do…. I’ll see what I can do, but I think you might have to suffer through the scraping.”
“You don’t want to spend too long changing. And also you need to be in your uniform the second you’re back on the school grounds. You could cross a guard or a teacher as soon as you come out of the trees.”
“Tirva, you’re right,” Miona said, disappointed. She tugged at her shirt collar nervously, looking around them.
“Stop touching your neck all the time,” Selke said under her breath. “You’re going to attract a patrol’s attention.”
“Sorry. It’s a bad habit I have.”
“By the way, do you have a chip in your neck?”
“Yes, I do,” Miona said, her hand shooting up to her neck. She forced it down and put it in her cape pocket. “But it doesn’t work. Darveena broke it years ago.”
“How did she do that?”
“Battery. She nearly broke my collarbone too.”
“I bet.” The rebel girl glanced at Miona sideways. “Are you tattooed?”
“No. I never was. My mom convinced my master not to get me done.”
“Are you yourself?”
“I was. I got another type of tattoo done on top of it, though.”
“Can I see?”
Selke shot Miona another side-glance. “Too dark…. You couldn’t see it—it’s really small.”
“Oh,” Miona said, disappointed. Selke’s hood prevented her from seeing her ear—she didn’t know which one to look at anyway. She tried to remember if she’d seen anything on one of her ears during the party, but she believed that Selke’s short hair was still covering them. She thought of asking what the tattoo looked like, but somehow she had the feeling that the spiky-haired girl didn’t want to talk about it, and another thought crossed her mind. “Have you got a neck chip too?”
“Sure. But we got it zapped years ago when I was freed.” She stopped by an advertising board and pretended to study it, throwing a quick glance behind them at the same time. “Let’s go,” she said, resuming their fast pace as abruptly as she had stopped. “I’ll see if I can get you a link bracelet, just in case we’re controlled.”
“Do you have yours on now?”
“Of course,” Selke said. Not slowing down, she pulled her left hand from the inside pocket of her cape and pretended to check the time, flashing a metallic bracelet next to her watch. “It’s better to wear it. Every freeborn has one. Even your master.”
“That’s true,” Miona admitted. “But he doesn’t wear it all the time…. Ruhul has one too.”
“My master’s driver. My master freed him a while ago, so he doesn’t wear a collar anymore. He has a bracelet like that one…. But would you get me a false ID?” she said, excitement in her voice. “And how would you get the info inside the band?”
“That’s what I’m not sure about. It might not be possible.”
Miona’s excitement went down at once. “What was the last place you tagged?” she asked in an effort to cover her gloom.
“The house of an assemblyman. He’s part of the Reaction.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know about the Reaction?” Selke glanced at Miona with a raised eyebrow.
“We don’t talk about politics much at home.”
Selke opened her mouth, but checked herself, keeping her comment in.
“But I heard about it,” continued Miona.
Selke waited a few seconds for Miona to elaborate. As Miona didn’t, she said, “They want to deregulate slave trade, and bring it back to Montahra. Many also want to repeal anti-trade laws on Human meat, in Montahra and everywhere else. Basically, they want to turn the clock back fifty years! This representative is very powerful. He has a lot of influence on the Emperor. And also the Assembly. He has been pushing hard to change the law, but not openly. Because many of his constituents—those who voted for him—want to keep the ban on Human meat. So we showed everybody what he was doing.”
“And he stopped?” Miona said, incredulous.
“My tags showed on TV,” Selke said proudly. “Since then he hasn’t talked about slave trade deregulation once.”
Miona whistled admiringly, looking immediately all around them. “When do we do the next operation?”
“I have to train you first. You don’t want to go into action without proper training. It’s very important.”
“Right. So, where’s the…place? What part of town is it in? Are we still far?”
“Keep walking, and you’ll have a better idea where it’s at.”
They had been walking along a wide boulevard until this minute, when Selke made them turn into a narrower street. Miona had wondered if it was because she was getting nervous like her about all the kids walking back from the center. “You know, I really just have a vague idea where we are. I’ve never been in town before. Aren’t we close to the river?”
“Correct. And we’re going to cross it.”
“I don’t see any bridge,” Miona said, scanning a pedestrian area they had arrived at, turning around. There were a lot of small shops and flower patches and benches and small merchant kiosks, but no bridge.
“Not over,” Selke said with a short laugh. “Follow me.” She walked faster and soon Miona saw her turn and disappear down some stairs. She walked briskly down the steps behind her. There were quite a few steps, and they found themselves in a wide corridor covered with shiny tile. “This passes under the river,” Selke explained, her voice echoing slightly inside the tunnel. “There’s a series of galleries on the other side. They connect the docks and the underground market, and also the monorail station. There are plenty of cellars there. Merchants use them to store their stuff—those who sell underground and those who have shops above on the surface. It’s better to have a cellar, because it keeps the temperature constant.” She winked. “We have one also.”
They arrived on the other end of the tunnel and Miona walked by Selke along a series of other tunnels, most of which seemed alike to her. Sometimes the color of the tiling changed, or it was replaced by rougher concrete material or polished stones. Every once in a while Selke pointed at a lit sign and Miona tried to commit it to memory to find her way back.
Suddenly she slowed down, alarmed by a growing vibration. Selke turned around when she noticed that Miona had fallen behind. The vibration grew clearer. “Monorail,” Selke said with a smile. A faint hissing came and went, seeming to come from all directions at once. Miona turned around and Selke laughed. “Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint where those noises come from exactly. Everything vibrates, that’s why.”
“How long did it take you to get here?” Miona asked after she caught up with Selke.
“It wasn’t too bad. Not more than twenty minutes from Landran center. Haven’t you taken the monorail to Landran? How do you go back home?”
“I went home only once by myself. In the school bus. I’m not allowed to take the monorail. Anyway there’s no monorail from Landran to home. It took four hours. Two hours to Landran.”
“Two hours! They don’t take the corridors, do they?”
“They didn’t. Say, does your mother know that you’re with the Renaissance?”
“Are you crazy? Of course not. Why do you ask?”
“I meant…how long can you stay here without her finding out?”
“She thinks I’m at school. There’s a monorail station really close. And we live ten minutes south of downtown—this way. Basically a round trip to here takes me thirty minutes more than going back home. And sometimes we stay pretty late trying to finish a project. She won’t find out.”
After a few more corridors, they came out into a large hall, with many pillars, most of them used as the structure for merchants’ kiosks and shops. Several lines of shops were created that way, making a sort of small underground city with its own streets and corners. Many shop owners had affixed rails along the pillars for their rolling shutters. Actually half the shops were closed, but there were enough counters still open to fill the air with numerous scents, some very strong, like spices or perfumes, some more subtle, like vegetables and grains, or fabrics, or leather goods. Some sections were rather quiet, most of their shops being closed, whereas others were bustling with people hurrying to catch their favorite store before its owner decided to close for the day.
“We need to cross the market,” Selke said. She walked resolutely toward the most central aisle. They seemed to be right in the middle of the market when Miona froze and grabbed Selke’s cape. “What is it?” the dark-haired girl said, stopping as well.
Miona motioned with her chin to a group of grayish-blue capes standing in front of a food stand. Krandlinohr capes—boy capes. She hid behind Selke and forced her to face the vegetable stand she was pretending to be interested in. She checked her watch and looked at the group over Selke’s shoulder. It was nearly 7. The boys still had time to eat a treat and be back in school for dinner. They were five, and two had the same fur as Poisonohl and Bludjan—with long, white, or long, orange hairs. The stand wasn’t far, and the boys would surely come their way as soon as they were served and had paid for their treats. “That group there,” she whispered in Selke’s ear. “Two look like Poisonohl and Bludjan. We need to go back.”
They started backtracking toward the next corner. “Oh, Tirva!” Miona said through her teeth, and froze again. She turned and pretended to check clothes on a rack, pulling Selke close to her.
“What now?” Selke asked, checking the clothes also.
“Two Krandlinohr boys, in front of that green stand, there.”
“Not Poisonohl again?”
“Can’t tell. They’re trying on masks. One looks like Bludjan, from behind. The other is looking our way. He’s got a mask of that tree-climbing champion on—forgot his name.”
“The others are done,” Selke said with an alarmed voice.
Miona looked toward the food stand. Two of the boys had turned around. They made a few slow steps towards them, laughing, a large cone of whipped bulldoz cream in hand.
“The others won’t be long,” Selke said under her breath. “They’re still facing away. I can’t see their faces.” She looked sideways at the green shop. “The other guys still have their masks on…. Which ones do you think are Poisonohl and Bludjan? They can’t all be, for sure! But we can’t stay here much longer without them seeing us. It’s already the third time we’ve looked through that stand.”
Miona took Selke’s hand and pulled her firmly inside the store. She walked resolutely to the rear of the narrow shop and started going through the clothes hanging on another carousel rack, while keeping her eyes on the boys.
“Are you girls going to buy something?” The shop owner was a middle-aged woman with a suspicious look and a pink nose tip. She had put aside her balancing books when they’d stopped by the clothes rack outside, and had been watching them over her reading glasses since then. She stepped out from behind her register by the door and walked toward them in a dignified way. “I am sorry to ask,” she insisted, furrowing her light-gray forehead, “but too many of you school girls come here and put all the clothes upside down without buying anything. And don’t even put them back in order before leaving.”
Miona and Selke froze and exchanged a quick half-stunned look. They pushed their hoods back, somewhat reluctantly. Miona put back a flashy dress that she’d pulled out of the rack without even looking at it.
“Do you girls have any money that you can show me?” the woman said, stopping three steps from Miona and looking sternly at her scraped knees and dirty skirt.
Miona pulled on her cape to hide her legs. She suddenly realized that she had no money on her. Of course. Most slaves weren’t given any until they were much older than she was. And, as she wasn’t allowed outside school yet, she really didn’t need any. She looked at Selke to avoid the owner’s searching eyes.
“I have some money.” Selke pulled a small coin purse out of her pants pocket and held it in view. Miona noticed that she’d switched the purse to her left hand and had pulled up her sweater slightly so as to show her link bracelet to the shop owner at the same time. Miona’s heart beat faster as she realized that she had no ID at all with her. No collar and no bracelet. She wondered if the merchant would call the police if she noticed. She took her left hand off the dress hanger she was still holding, and hid it under her cape. She hoped the woman hadn’t seen that she had no bracelet. She was looking at Selke’s hand and purse now, and Miona thought she saw the vertical folds between the woman’s eyes ease up a little. She felt a slight relief. A short one.
“No card?” the owner asked, her furrows deepening. As Selke wasn’t answering, she went on with a disdainful smirk, “I doubt you have enough in there to buy my cheapest accessory.”
Miona looked around and realized that all the clothes, gloves, or purses in the shop seemed very expensive indeed. She pulled her shirt collar up nervously, wondering if it was better to make the owner think she had a slave collar under her shirt, or if merchants knew that Krandlinohr’s slave students weren’t allowed outside of school, in which case she’d do better to show that there was no metallic collar around her neck. Then she realized that she wasn’t sure her neck didn’t show a mark where the collar had been. She hoped Selke’s bracelet would be enough to set the owner’s doubts at rest. She started to feel very warm, and glanced outside, hoping her schoolmates were gone. They weren’t.
Not only they weren’t, but one of the three finally turned around, a cone in his hand. And it was Poisonohl. “We’re just looking for ideas,” she said, moving further behind the carousel rack to hide her cape to anyone looking through the door. The owner didn’t seem to like her answer, and Miona wondered if the furrows between her eyes weren’t permanent, darker streaks in her light fur. “For a present,” she added, smiling warmly.
“For your mother?” the woman asked, looking just as suspecting.
Miona couldn’t help hesitating a second or two. “Yes,” she said, uneasy, fighting to keep her smile on.
“What price range are you thinking of?” the woman pursued in a weary voice.
“I don’t know,” Miona said, glancing outside at the food stand and wondering how she could stop the owner’s questioning. “It doesn’t matter much,” she said finally. “My father will give me the money…. He just wants me to find something nice. He doesn’t like to shop.”
Miona felt as if she’d said a magic formula. The woman suddenly relaxed and smiled.
“I know what you mean, young lady,” she said with a knowing look. “Men are all alike, no matter what species.”
Miona glanced at Selke, not sure what the woman really meant. Selke was smiling in the same way the owner did, and Miona wondered if she knew what she meant.
“What is your mother’s dress size?” the woman asked, now smiling as if Miona was her favorite niece or pet.
Miona looked at Selke again, her eyes imploring for help.
“She’s ten-six, like my mom,” Selke said. “That’s what you told me, right?”
“Right,” Miona said. “Ten-six.”
Miona threw another desperate glance at Selke. She had never shopped for clothes before. She had no idea how sizes worked. Kalinda was the one taking care of all that for her.
“Er…yes,” Selke said in a decided tone.
The woman went to another stand, closer to the door. “You girls are checking the wrong rack. I have only Trowan sizes there. Human dresses are over here. You folks size tighter usually—this fur thing, you know.” She turned, and Miona thought she gave them a slight wink.
Both girls hesitated. They could see Poisonohl talking to the other three boys in front of the food stand. The boy with orange hair was still ordering. The woman frowned again. “So?”
“Stay behind me,” Selke whispered. She walked toward the owner, Miona in tow.
“Is it a dress for night, or for day?” the merchant asked.
“For day,” Miona said after a second’s reflection.
“What’s her hair color? Like yours?”
“No, lighter,” she said, remembering her mother’s hair on one of the few pictures of her she had. Then she remembered also that she was only faking to do some shopping for her mother, and could have answered just about anything.
“And her eyes? Like yours?”
“Can you take off your glasses, girl?” the woman asked. “I really can’t tell what color your eyes are.”
“Oh, yes,” said Miona. She took off her glasses and held the woman’s gaze. “Sorry.”
The merchant stared at her for a moment, then let her agile hands go through the dresses. “Warm day, cold day, rainy day, sunny day?”
“Cold and rainy,” Miona said, following her mood.
“Cold and rainy,” repeated the shop owner. “Here is something that should go with her colors,” she said, pulling a bright orange dress and handing it to Miona. “It’s very lively, very fresh, perfect to give some hope to the nastiest of days. And it’s thick and warm enough to replace a good fur,” she added with a compassionate smile.
Miona put her glasses back on. She looked at the dress with a fake interest, then glanced over Selke’s shoulder and over the carousel rack. Bludjan—it was him obviously—was still not done. The glutton is buying the entire stock of cream, she thought, inwardly ranting against her classmate, and praying that some of the other boys made him hurry. “It’s very nice,” she said, wondering what she could say to gain some time. An awful thought crossed her mind—could they have decided to skip dinner and feed on bulldoz cream and puddings or other treats instead? “But she doesn’t like orange.”
“Oh, no orange, is that so?” The shopkeeper frowned. She rummaged some more and pulled out a bright aqua dress. “Isn’t this one a shiny and nice dress for a gloomy day?” she asked triumphantly.
“Very nice,” Miona said, glancing at the food stand and at Selke, then looking back at the dress. “My father doesn’t like blue, though. It would probably be better if he liked the dress also, don’t you think?”
“It would be better, yes,” the owner said, her frown coming back on her forehead. “So, no orange, no blue.”
A few minutes later, Miona was staring at a light green dress with yellow ruffles along every hem, laid on the carousel on top of the dozen other dresses that the merchant had pulled. It was obvious that the woman was getting close to the bottom of her stock of patience, and Miona could feel that Selke’s nervousness was as strong as her own. She was running out of arguments to deny finding the right dress.
“I think I remember Mother saying that ruffles made dresses look too much like shirts,” she said, uncertain.
A hanger snapped in the owner’s hands, and she turned and dumped it and the dress it was on onto another rack behind her. She seemed as composed and dignified as before when she turned back, but Miona couldn’t help wondering if the woman wasn’t about to lose her temper for good. Would she call security then? Miona started shuffling through the dresses the woman had pulled already.
Selke’s elbow pressed against her own. She looked up and saw that Bludjan had joined the rest of the group finally. He had one huge cone in each hand, each three times bigger than his friends’. They seemed to be in an argument of some sort. Bludjan had sat down at a small table and was talking and licking his cream as fast as he could, getting a lot on his nose and the fur on his face. “Let me go through these again,” she said to the merchant, thoughtful. “Some were kind of nice.”
She picked up a dress and hung it in front of Selke as if to see the effect. “Of course my mother is taller,” she said with a forced smile to the owner’s attention. The woman smiled back, and this time her smile looked just as contrived as Miona’s.
Selke stepped lightly on her foot. She looked up. The boys were gone. She turned to the owner and smiled a frank smile. “I’m sure she’ll like this one after all,” she said, giving her the dress she had in her hands. “Could you put it aside for me? We’ll come back next week with the money.”
“I’ll do that with pleasure,” the owner said, smiling back in a stern way. “If you give me a deposit. Let’s see what your friend has in her purse.”
Selke pulled her purse again and took a coin out of it.
“I don’t think that’ll do,” the owner said. “If you’re serious about getting that dress, you need to give me ten times this amount. Let’s see what else you have here.” As Selke hesitated, the woman leaned toward her over the carousel. She was smiling again, but this smile had no warmth to it. “Unless you girls were only playing with me, like many of you schoolgirls like to do to pass the time? If that is the case, we can see what security can do with you. How would you girls like that?”
Selke took a second coin from her purse and put it in the woman’s hand. “This will do. Please keep it aside for my friend and we’ll be here next week to pick it up. Thank you.”
“No problem,” the woman said. “It’ll be here, waiting for you.”
Selke turned and walked out of the store, pulling Miona behind her. “It was getting too hot in here for my taste,” she said after they were several strides away.
“How much did you give her?” Miona asked. “I hope it wasn’t too much. Will the Renaissance pay you back?”
“I don’t think so,” Selke said with a smile. “But don’t worry, it wasn’t very much. Now let’s hurry. These guys wasted much of our time!”
They sped through the market, walking as fast as they could without actually running. They decided not to put their hoods back on, because no one else seemed to have theirs on. Once they passed the last kiosk, Selke stopped by a large service elevator. A merchant perched on a three-prong cart was trying to load a big pile of crates on the elevator platform, but seemed to have some trouble lowering his forks enough to clear the top of the elevator door. “Let’s take the stairs,” she said urgently. She pushed a small door next to the elevator and led Miona down a steep and narrow staircase. The corridor below was much narrower and darker than those that led to the market. The lights were weaker and further apart here. Miona looked all around as she was following the tagger girl. Contrary to the bustling world above, this level was much more quiet. The only noises she could hear were a few metal doors being shut further down the tunnel and echoing all the way to them, and several men calling one another, also too far to see. Then she heard the whining of a cart coming their way, and soon it turned out of a nearby tunnel. A big Maruwan was driving it, his head barely sticking up above a load of rolled carpets. He looked at them as if he was surprised to see two young girls there.
“Aren’t you ever afraid the Humeaters will catch you?” Miona asked Selke when the noise of the cart had gone down enough. “Ruhul says they are everywhere. He even thinks they are the ones taking away runaway slaves, not the Renaissance hiring them.”
Selke turned in the same tunnel the Maruwan had come from and shot her an amused glance. Then she looked straight ahead for a moment. “The Reaction is powerful, that’s true,” she said finally. “But I’ve never heard of such a thing as Human meat eaters actually attacking slaves. To me that’s folklore…. Maybe in those states closest to Montahra, but still. I think your Ruhul is just trying to scare you.”
Miona looked at her. Even with the weak lighting, she could tell that Selke wasn’t as confident as she pretended. “Still,” she said, “I’d feel better if I had a battery saber with me.”
Selke smiled. “We have this, remember.” She pulled the slingshot partly out of her bag. “I can use it if we need to.” After a few steps, she added, “But we won’t. Stop worrying.”
She pushed a heavy metal door. Miona followed her down another staircase. “How much deeper is it?” she asked, feeling more uneasy.
“Only the next level. That’s just two levels below the market. Three below the ground.” She pushed another door at the bottom of the stairs.
The corridor it opened onto was even darker than the one they came from, or so it seemed to Miona. She stopped and looked around, smelling and listening. It smelled of mildew and old grease and dust, and it was warm and stuffy. And completely quiet. She could only hear Selke’s steps.
She turned and ran after the spike-haired girl. She’d just caught up with her when they turned around a bend and Miona tensed again. A dark shape was lying by the wall. She walked closer to Selke, who had moved closer to the wall opposite the shape, without slowing down.
“Just a beggar,” Selke said in a low voice. “They like to sleep here. It’s warmer than above.
Miona stared at the shape as they passed by. It was a middle-aged man, wrapped into an old cape. His matted gray fur barely stuck out of his hood. He seemed to be sleeping, his head resting on a dirty backpack. She wasn’t used to seeing beggars. The only ones she’d seen had been on TV, except one real one, spotted in Landran from the limousine a few years ago, one time when Ruhul had taken a shortcut driving her from her old school. “You didn’t give him a coin?” she asked after they’d passed him.
“Why?” asked Selke, seemingly taken aback.
“Well, isn’t it what people do when they see a beggar?”
Selke stared at her with raised eyebrows. “Are you serious?”
Miona shook her head. “Never mind what I said. I can’t give him anything myself, so I shouldn’t talk.”
Selke knitted her brows. “I give to beggars sometimes. I didn’t want to help that one, because he’s Trowan. He’s born free and can help himself if he wants to.”
“Are you sure he can? Seems to me he could use some help, even if he’s Trowan.” Miona raised a hand as if to brush the subject aside. “Like I said, never mind. I don’t know much about beggars anyway.”
Selke was still staring at her. “I guess you don’t. Let me give you a piece of advice. Don’t get too close to them. Most are harmless, but some are not. They don’t always wear gloves, and some can scratch, and they’ll pass diseases on to you. Anyway, they are dirty and they smell.”
“That one smelled good.”
“Cologne. Not very strong—not like Bludjan’s…. More like hair cream, I’d say.” She sniffed in Selke’s direction, unwittingly moving the tip of her nose. “A little like your hair.”
Selke stopped. “Are you still serious?”
“You didn’t smell it?” Miona said, genuine surprise in her voice.
“No.” The tagger girl resumed walking, and soon they turned into another tunnel. Selke slowed down at the same time that Miona spotted another beggar. That one was slouched against the wall, using one of the weak ceiling spotlights to read a half-torn newspaper. “Wait here,” Selke said, taking a coin out of her purse. She walked to the beggar and bent next to him to put the coin by his backpack. The man reached for a bottle and waived it at her as she was straightening up. He offered her to drink out of the bottle to thank her for the money.
“I didn’t smell any cream,” Selke whispered to Miona as they walked away from the man, his words of thanks following them. “But I didn’t smell much else either. Not the usual stench of unkempt fur and dirty clothes. He didn’t even smell of alcohol when he talked to me. And his backpack was dirty, but not torn or scratched or damaged in any way.”
As soon as the tunnel made another bend, she stopped and listened, motioning to Miona to do the same. They stopped trying after a few seconds, because the beggar had started singing, his spirits propped up by Selke’s gift. “He’s a good actor, but I don’t think he’s a real beggar,” Selke said, concentration creases on her forehead. She resumed walking, but her steps were not brisk anymore, and she seemed to be straining her eyes and ears to guess what the next bend or pile of crates could be hiding, or the next adjoining tunnel. Miona wondered a moment if her spiky hair was not pricked higher on her head.
“How far is the vault?” she asked after they’d rounded another bend. “I’m a little lost.”
“We’re nearly there,” Selke said, stopping near the opening to another connecting corridor. “See,” she added, jutting one stretched hand against the other, “since the market, we’ve been walking toward the end of the docks, parallel to the river, and we’ve passed several corridors like that one, always on our right.”
“Four,” Miona said.
“You counted them?—good…. Well, see all these doors in this corridor? Those are vaults. Every corridor is the same, full of doors. And they run under the docks, all the way to the river. Our vault is one of the last ones in this corridor, the fifth.” She entered the corridor, but stopped after a few steps. “I don’t like those beggars,” she said under her breath.
“Do you think they’re Humeaters?” Miona whispered, her eyes wide.
“No, I told you I don’t believe in that tale. Not here in a central state…. But they could be police.”
Miona opened her mouth wide. “For us?”
Selke frowned. “I don’t think so. But they could be there to watch for burglars or drug dealers.”
“Are we still going?” Miona asked, suddenly unsure she wanted to.
“Why not? We won’t be breaking into any vault. We have a key…. Let’s go.” Selke resumed walking, in a faster pace this time. “See the end of the corridor?” she asked a half minute later. “Our vault is the fifth from the end.”
“Oh, there’s nothing connecting the corridors on that side? It dead-ends?” Miona asked, looking behind herself nervously.
“Yes…and no. There are stairs behind that small door,” Selke said, pointing to the end of the corridor some forty strides away. She pulled a key from one of her pants pockets and walked decidedly towards the corridor’s end. “We could use those to leave if you—What?”
Miona had grabbed her cape and motioned her to keep quiet, one hand flat against her lips. She was listening intently, her head tilted towards the corridor’s end. “There,” she said under her breath. “Did you hear?”
Selke shook her head. “Hear what?” she whispered back.
“Heavy boots on metal. On the stairs. Very slow steps.”
“Are you sure? I can’t hear a thing.”
“Have you used those stairs? Are they metal or concrete?”
“Metal,” Selke whispered.
Miona redid her silence motion. “Again,” she said after a few seconds. “There are people on the stairs, waiting.”
“Waiting? Are you sure they’re not just climbing up or down?”
“Waiting,” repeated Miona. “I hear no more steps. Now it’s more like…a weapon or something, rubbing against a metallic door. Or against some railing.”
Selke turned around. “Let’s go,” she whispered, putting her key back in her pocket. “I don’t like that.” They retraced their steps briskly, walking as silently as possible.
“What about the beggar?” Miona asked halfway to the main tunnel
Selke glanced at her and grabbed her hand. “Come back this way. There’s a service ladder. Not afraid of heights?” She didn’t wait for Miona’s answer and walked back a few strides. There was a narrow metallic door that Miona hadn’t paid attention to. It was locked. “Stay by the wall,” Selke ordered, leaning against the wall herself while she rummaged nervously in her bag.
Miona pressed herself against the wall like Selke. She stuck her neck out to look beyond a series of large pipes and ducts and check the staircase door. It was still closed, but for how long? Selke pulled a small tool from her bag. She pushed it inside the lock and moved it about slowly. The lock clicked before Miona could really see what she had done. Selke pulled the door open and pushed her onto a small concrete platform. Miona grabbed one of the rungs embedded in the concrete wall and stepped back, staring at the gaping hole by her feet. A hushing sound made her turn. Selke was spraying de-scent on and around the door.
The next instant everything went black, and she squeezed the rung tighter. Selke had closed the door. Miona stretched out her arm to stop Selke from falling in case she hadn’t seen the hole. “You’ve seen the ladder, right?” Selke whispered. “So go for it.”
Miona felt around and managed to put one foot on a lower barrel. “Up or down?” she asked.
“Up. I’ve never been in the fourth basement. I don’t know how the corridor connects to the main tunnel on that level. And there could be more beggars there. But I know what’s above.”
Miona started climbing carefully. Soon she heard Selke spraying more de-scent. Her eyes started getting used to the dark, and she began to see some very faint light above her head, and Selke’s face right under her feet.
“Step out on the next platform,” the tagger girl whispered. “Quick!”
She had actually just reached the platform. The light filtering under the door to the second level corridor allowed her to move faster. And she did, because she could feel vibrations all along her body, a little as if a car hovered by—people were running out there. She stepped onto the platform and squeezed against the door to leave room for Selke.
The spiky-haired girl had barely joined her on the platform when the door below them flung open and more light came on inside the service duct. Both girls held their breaths, squeezed together against the door and the side wall, as much away from the ladder as possible. After the door below hit the wall, Miona could clearly hear running steps, coming up from the corridor they’d just left. There was no other sound, for several seconds. Then a distinct sniffing came to her ears, and she hoped Selke’s product worked.
It must have, because whoever was checking for a scent trail finally stepped away, and the door closed. The girls waited a few more seconds, then Selke stepped out onto the ladder.
They stopped on the first basement level, just long enough to listen at the door, then resumed climbing. Selke struggled a little to lift a heavy plate that closed the service conduit, but eventually they found themselves outside in the foggy night, in front of a line of sheds. They pushed the metal slab back in place to plug the manhole. There was a big yellow “X” painted on it, which most likely had allowed them to exit the conduit, judging by the number of crates stacked everywhere else.
Selke sprayed some more de-scent on the plate, then they hurried along the sheds, using the many crates to stay out of the docks’ greenish light. They reached the surrounding wall without meeting anyone, and used Selke’s grappling hook to climb it. For most of their way back, they were silent, on the watch for any police patrol.
“Do you think we can ever go back to the vault?” Miona asked after they’d crossed the river, using the bridge this time.
“I’ll see what my contact thinks. If the Renaissance can find you a bracelet, we won’t have to be afraid of police patrols. Still, if the police are watching the area regularly, we might have to find another cache. We have some stuff in the vault that I might have trouble explaining.”
“Like what?” asked Miona, curious. She was growing disappointed that she hadn’t been able to see the Renaissance’s cache.
“Well, I have lots of cans there, for tagging. And more grappling hooks, another slingshot. There’s also a scrambler and another collar key, and more lock-picking sets. Also a bunch of de-scent cans. For the paint cans, perhaps I could set up the vault to look like an artist’s studio. I could bring some art projects from home. I could even give you a sketch pad and pencils and stuff to carry around—we could say I give you sketching classes…. But for the operation gear, I’m not sure. I need to do a better job at hiding it. Like the lock-picking manual and the books on electronic detection and that kind of stuff. All the books I need to train you…. What a piece of rotten luck!”
Miona closed her mouth, which had dropped from hearing Selke’s list. “At least we’ve been lucky to escape whoever was in the corridor,” she offered as a comforting thought.
Selke smiled for the first time since the underground. “Yes, we did.” She threw a questioning look at Miona. “Thanks to your good ears. I couldn’t hear a thing on the stairs. You do have some very good ears.”
“You don’t know how to listen, that’s all,” Miona said with a short laugh. “I had to learn.”
“When I played hide-and-seek with Darveena and a few Pyrwondu kids. Mostly Darveena. I had to learn, or I’d have gotten a very sore back from her saber.”
They got to Krandlinohr’s wall without any more problems. They decided to find a place where Selke could hide messages, so she could tell Miona when to call her. They explored the thicket by the wall and found an old tree with many exposed roots forming sorts of caves. Selke buried a small cylindrical pill box in the dirt behind the root that was the easiest to remember. That way Miona could also leave her a message, in case she could not call from school
They wished each other good luck and Miona climbed the wall, keeping the hook and rope, and the can of de-scent. She hid everything in the same bush her collar was in, until she found a better place.
She was just done when a clamor told her that the first kids of the second sitting had finished eating and were running her way. She double-checked her metallic collar and brushed some dirt and leaves off her cape, walking fast to beat the first wave to the study hall.
She did beat them, barely, by two seconds. She had just stopped in front of the big door to the first to third years’ study halls when a half-dozen kids came running in and slid to a halt behind her, talking louder than they were supposed to do at this hour. In fact it was her friends. She ate at the same table, and they were talking about her as they were running. They all stopped talking at once when they saw her, to resume speaking all at once the next second, all asking the same question.
“Where in the world were you?”
With the Renaissance, climbing walls and service ladders to escape secret police, Miona thought of saying. “In the Infirmary. I wasn’t feeling well. Stomach.”
“I checked the Infirmary,” Soumaya Trollorf said, still puffing from her race. “The nurse said she hadn’t seen you.”
Miona’s alarms went off. She searched for a more satisfying answer. “What time did you go there?” she asked, feigning surprise.
“In the middle of the last study, just before dinner,” Nandi Purrimor jumped in. “We were kind of concerned, because we couldn’t see any of P’s gang around.”
“Oh, I tried to walk a little first, to see if that would pass,” she offered, hoping the argument wouldn’t seem as weak to her friends as it felt to her. She thought of saying she was in the dormitory, but they most likely checked there also. “And obviously I didn’t feel hungry at all.” Which was a gross lie. At the moment she felt she could eat a full table worth of dinner.
Another table of kids came sprinting along the peristyle, and everyone went silent. The children stopped behind the group of friends. They were all boys and Junor Kendrar was one of them. He saw Miona and asked, puffing as well, “Hey, Miona, where’ve you been?”
“She’s sick,” Carmela Tandirl said, her medium-length black hair flipping as she turned to face the black-furred boy. “She was in the Infirmary.”
“I thought she wasn’t,” Junor replied.
“She went after we checked,” Pera Marhao said, next to Carmela.
The study hall’s heavy door opened at once, and all children turned to face it. A tall last year blocked it open with a hook. “Quiet!” he ordered in a displeased tone. “If you guys can’t understand this word, you can just as well stay outside in the cold as far as I’m concerned.”
“He’s the one who should go to the Infirmary,” Junor Kendrar whispered behind the two girls, setting off a few muffled snickers.
“What was that, you with the black fur, there?” the last year said. Prefects didn’t know all children by name, especially first years, and especially if they were good students like Kendrar. They knew troublemakers, though, so most knew Poisonohl’s gang. And Miona of course, for having monitored her often during detention.
“I said they’d better behave because I have loads of homework to do,” Junor said without flinching. Both Pera and Carmela had to look at their shoes, having trouble keeping a straight face. A third wave of children scampered their way, and the prefect switched his attention to more urgent matters. “Form two deep!” he said, watching as they lined up two abreast, the new table falling in behind them. “Walk in slowly and take your seats in silence. The first sitting is busy trying to work.”
After fifteen minutes of trying to concentrate on her homework, it became evident to Miona that she wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything before putting something in her stomach. She excused herself to go to the bathroom and ran towards the kitchens.
She walked up the stairs to the dining hall and pulled the door ajar by just a crack. Four kids were busy cleaning the tables and mopping the floor. None seemed to be a first year, and she didn’t know them. She couldn’t have asked them to help her anyway, because Miss Bertahrat was there, overseeing them. The imposing woman made sure students could expect her to walk up on them anywhere, at any moment, but her sense of duty seemed to bring her to the kitchens fairly often. She said that Shayrome, the Human chef, needed all his attention kept on his cooking and couldn’t supervise the students setting and clearing the tables. Of course she never failed to sample Shayrome’s cuisine on these occasions—and to yell at students and bestow a few lashes to justify her visits.
Shayrome liked Miona. The same way Ruhul and Kalinda were her only true allies at home, she knew she could count on Shayrome. He always had something extra to give her when she was on kitchen duty. And whenever she hadn’t had enough to eat, he would sneak some leftovers to her.
That happened more often than not, because Miss Bertahrat liked to make sure no one ate more than their share. To that effect, she used one or more tables to fill all the gaps made by missing students. And somehow she always used first-year tables, and most of the time Miona’s, perhaps because it was the last one. Of course, filling-in students always sat at the end of these incomplete tables, and dishes arrived to them last—usually with little food, or with the smallest portions.
On top of that, prefects made sure that first years were also the last ones in and the first ones out, so even if there weren’t any students missing in the other tables, Miona and her friends were often still hungry when leaving the dining hall. That was when Shayrome’s fondness for Miona came in handy. Sometimes she managed to bring back enough for all her friends. But that happened only when Miss Bertahrat was busy in another corner of the kitchens.
That’s why Miona stayed several minutes spying at the door. Miss Bertahrat was too close to the ovens. Eventually she walked slowly towards the end of the dining hall, waving her switch, and started yelling at a poor second year who wasn’t mopping to her liking. Miona scooted around the building and stepped through the kitchens’ back door.
Three older students dressed in cook attire were cleaning the ranges and counters—all the chef’s helpers were pulled from the school’s cooking classes. Miona smiled at one Maruwan girl that she knew, and walked carefully toward Shayrome’s desk, where he was busy preparing the next day’s meals. “Hey, Miona, how did you like tonight’s dessert?” the rotund chef exclaimed in a contained voice when he spotted her, beckoning her to come fast but cautiously.
He and Miss Bertahrat had had several arguments about feeding students between meals. One had been particularly heated, when she had seen him one day giving a group of slave students some leftovers from the faculty table. Teachers and administrators had a better menu, as well as prefects—with chosen meat cuts and elaborate sauces—and both Miss Bertahrat and the Headmistress believed that students should eat blander food. They said boiled food and lean desserts helped them be ready for study hall right after dinner, and made their after-lunch naps more resting. They especially argued that good food had a weakening effect on slaves, who should be accustomed to being treated harshly.
Shayrome had managed to spare slave students too harsh a food treatment, by arguing that he couldn’t sustain three different menus. That way at least slaves were saved from bad quality food, which couldn’t be given freeborns. And he always managed to find the right spice or fruit to give life to what would have been otherwise a bland and boring dish.
Of course it was difficult to make a good dish smell bad, and Miss Bertahrat had soon found out about his culinary tricks. That day, she told him with a sorry face that she would have to report him to the Headmistress, and he had braced himself for the Dargoness’s backlash. But the rebuke hadn’t come, and later he heard that an important parent had congratulated her on the school’s good food just a few days earlier. Since then, Miss Bertahrat kept an even closer watch on his affairs, checking the cleanliness of his kitchen or the arithmetic of his grocery bills—without cutting down on her food sampling.
He had tried several times to get her off his back, but his slave status and her freeborn one put him at a disadvantage—as well as her special bond with the Headmistress. Only the strong support he got from the teachers allowed him to stand his ground, so he tried to avoid unnecessary conflicts with the Dean.
Miona threw a quick glance at the large dining hall doors. They were open for cleaning and she saw that Miss Bertahrat was busy berating the poor second year. As she had her back turned, Miona hurried to pass by and ran to Shayrome’s desk. “I haven’t eaten tonight,” she said in the same low voice. “I wasn’t feeling well. Now I’m really hungry.”
Shayrome raised bristling eyebrows. “Not eaten?” he asked with a tragic expression. For him, there was no condition more dire than that of an empty stomach. He jumped from his chair and went to the school’s big refrigerator, picking a small sauce pan off a wall on his way. Seconds later he was at the range, swishing a spoon around in the pan. Miona stared at him in fascination, as she always did whenever she saw him cooking.
She couldn’t understand how he moved so fast. The speed he showed in his kitchen seemed at odds with the shape of his body. All about him was round, and not built at all for speed. His stomach was how you would expect a chef’s stomach to be—large and bulky, in other words well-suited for tasting lots of sauces all day long. But the rest of his body fell in the same line. His face was round, with two high and round cheeks, his nose was short and upturned, his fingers were stubby. Even his arms and legs were so short and squat that with the loose fitting of his chef’s uniform, they seemed somewhat roundish.
Less than a minute later he gave Miona the sauce pan and a spoon, and pushed her out of the kitchen. “Hide outside and eat,” he said, hushing up her thanks.
She did so, hiding between two garbage crates. She wasn’t sure what the dish was—grains and veggies, but which?—because Shayrome seemed to have mixed the appetizer and entrée dishes. But with the sauce, it was delicious. And anyway she’d have eaten anything at this stage. She finished quickly, and got up just in time to avoid some debris that one of the student cooks was dumping close to her, a wide smile bristling up his whiskers.
She couldn’t see Miss Bertahrat, but she could hear a few swishing sounds from her crop coming from another corner of the dining hall. She prepared to cross the kitchen again, but Shayrome came to her to take the pan away. He slipped a delicious-looking custard in her hand, perfectly warmed up. “Leave the dish by the door. She’s in a nasty temper today,” he said with a knowing wink.
Two minutes and a full stomach later, she was walking through the peristyle towards the study hall, reconciled with life. As she turned one corner, she noticed a tall figure coming out of another alley, which lead to the classrooms, labs, and administration. She recognized Professor Slimvalsat’s long, swinging gait, which made her cape sway behind her in a very distinctive way. What should she do?
She had been waiting for an occasion to speak to the Srilissi teacher since they’d been back from vacation. And pondering on how she should present the issue. Now was the perfect place—no one would overhear their conversation, as was always possible in a classroom. She might never have such a good occasion again. She sped up her pace, slowing down almost immediately. There was still one point that bothered her. Would Professor Slimvalsat try to probe her mind to make sure she was telling the truth on Poisonohl? Would she then be able to make her talk of the Renaissance? That thought had been nagging her since vacation. In fact that was mostly what had held her back from talking to the teacher—apart from being mildly scared of her, like all the other kids. But the professor really needed to be warned. Perhaps she could hide the Renaissance in one corner of her mind, if she really concentrated hard?
She hadn’t managed to make up her mind when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. She threw herself behind a column. Two shadows had just crept out of the same alley the teacher had come from. She risked a glance. The two figures were now following Professor Slimvalsat, running from column to column. They had their hoods up, but Miona was ready to bet that they were part of Poisonohl’s gang. She tailed them at a good distance.
Unless Poisonohl’s father had changed his plans? What if he’d decided not to wait to do whatever it was that he wanted to do to Professor Slimvalsat? What if the two shadows were killers who had stolen Krandlinohr’s capes? They were already in the middle of the lawn, running to catch up with the slender figure of Professor Slimvalsat, who had turned the corner of the first teachers’ cottage. Miona turned toward the bush where she’d stashed the slingshot and the grappling hook. Should she take her collar off? She turned around, just in time to see the shadows disappear around the same corner. No time to mess with the collar! She leaped out of the protection of the alley.
She dropped to the bottom of the first cottage’s hedge and peered around the corner. Two capes disappeared behind another hedge. She bounded towards that corner and dropped on her knees again. This time the two capes were at the next corner, motionless, both hoods turned in the same direction. Definitely Bludjan, she thought, sniffing the shrub next to her. It had Bludjan’s distinctive scent all over it—the strong cologne he used to cover his bad grooming habits.
She sniffed further, to see if she could pick up the smell of the second figure, but Bludjan’s scent was covering everything. But if Bludjan was one of the cloaked shadows, chances were that the other was one of his friends indeed. So they were just here to spy on Professor Slimvalsat, not to kill her. Miona turned around, ready to get up and leave.
She threw herself deeper in the hedge. Someone was coming her way. Someone tall, broad-shouldered, and who walked in silence, very slowly—a guard. He was coming from the opposite way she had, from the front gate or the administrative building—the two guarding posts. Miona sank deeper in the hedge. There was just no way she could escape without him seeing and catching her. Guards at the school were all very tall and fast: two were Maruwans, the other was a Human, but nearly as strong and tall.
Very heavy too. A twig snapped under his foot. The noise was immediately followed by a brief exchange of voices coming from where Bludjan and the other figure were hiding. Miona heard them getting up and taking off, slowly at first, then running.
The guard must have heard them too, because he too broke into a run, and threw himself on the two friends’ trail. He turned the corner barely one stride from Miona, but too fast to be able to see or smell her—it was the Human: she got sight of his very blond and shortly cropped hair. Two seconds later he was turning the next corner. Miona forced herself to wait until she couldn’t hear the guard’s steps anymore, then she walked carefully out of her hedge, and retraced her steps on tiptoe.
Two minutes later she brushed her skirt and cape and pushed the door to the first years’ study hall, blessing her good fortune. Had Bludjan and his friend not taken off running, the guard would have found her. She wondered if he’d been there on a regular patrol, or if she’d brought him with her collar. She strode to her place between Soumaya Trollorf and Pera Marhao, forcing her breath to calm down. Everyone turned around to look at her.
“It took you some time to go to the bathroom,” the prefect said in a suspecting voice.
“I was sick,” she answered, putting a hand to her stomach. The prefect stared at her for a moment, but he might have believed her, because he didn’t insist. She sat down, hushing her friends’ questions.
The next second there was a stampede on the other side of the door, and Bludjan and Furriahr sent it crashing against the wall. Everyone turned again. The two goons were out of breath and their fur and whiskers were all bristled up. They collapsed on their seats and opened their briefcases noisily.
“Perhaps you two could tell me where you’ve been?” the prefect asked in a half-mocking, half-bored tone.
“We were helping Professor Nogarol carry heavy books to his cottage,” Furriahr said, with an equally bored voice.
“All right,” the prefect said, now looking irritated. “But try not to make so much noise next time you come into a study hall in progress.”
“Yes, sir,” Furriahr said in his bored voice.
“Yes, sir,” Bludjan said, sounding even more blasé than his colleague. He was slouched on his seat and was staring blankly at his briefcase, unable to make up his mind on which homework to start with. Finally he pulled a hoverer magazine and started flipping the pages.”
“What kind of homework is that, Bludjan?” the prefect asked in an irked tone.
“I’m doing a paper on hoverers for my physics class,” Bludjan said, not lifting his gaze off the magazine.
“I see,” the prefect said, weary this time. He didn’t ask any more questions and went back to his own work, pretending not to hear the rest of the gang’s snickers. Miona could see that they were all smiling broadly at their cohort’s show of power. Most prefects were very cautious not to cross Poisonohl and his gang. The four boys knew several of the nastiest later years and prefects, and it seemed to make them untouchable. The worst part was that some teachers and the Headmistress herself were hesitant to discipline them. Everyone in school knew how influential Poisonohl and Ratmatuhr’s fathers were, so even the children avoided crossing paths with their sons. Miona wondered if she was the only one who dared standing up to them. And the Rittress’s words about her master getting in trouble because of her were nagging her more and more.
She tensed up when Maltor Poisonohl looked at her after he’d been whispering with Furriahr for a minute or so. She didn’t like the way he was staring at her. She hoped he hadn’t understood what had just happened in the teachers’ quarters. She started planning her exit to the dorms, while pretending to read her history book.
When the ten o’clock chime rang and the prefect told them to put their things away, she didn’t bolt out. It was no use anyway, because the gang was getting up already, like they usually did. Instead she waited patiently for the prefect to tell them to leave, and stayed close to her friends. When she came close to the big doors, she walked up right behind the two Maruwan girls that were in her batteryrun team. She wasn’t sure the Maruwans would stand up to the P gang, but their presence might keep them from trying anything uncivil.
She was hoping ever more so when Poisonohl and Bludjan slipped in front of Carmela Tandirl. Miona scrunched her nose at Bludjan’s aggressive cologne and stepped closer to the Maruwans.
“You shouldn’t roam around the grounds at night,” Poisonohl whispered in her ear.
She turned around, shielding herself with her briefcase, but kept walking backward. “I don’t roam the grounds. Do you?”
“Especially not by yourself,” Poisonohl continued in lieu of an answer. “It is very unsafe.”
“Very,” Bludjan added with a sadistic smile.
“You leave her alone, you jerks!” Carmela Tandirl shouted.
Poisonohl stopped and turned around. “And what would you do, little slave?” he asked sarcastically.
At this point Miona stopped, ready for the worst. Her four friends were all around Poisonohl and Bludjan, but Furriahr and Ratmatuhr had closed in too. She feared what would happen if the gang decided to pull their gloves off again.
“Why don’t you leave people alone, Poisonohl?” a calm voice said behind Miona. It was Torri Trobolihr, one of the Maruwan girls. She had stopped also and was looking down at Poisonohl in a menacing way.
Poisonohl looked up and hesitated a second. But the next he was rating her with a finger. “And why don’t you stay out of this, big fluffy? I just have to arrange one phone call to your master to put you back in your place.”
“Or you’ll ask your daddy to do it for you, perhaps?” said the little voice of Pera Marhao right behind him.
He spun around and raised his hand over Pera’s head.
But he didn’t strike. Torri Trobolihr was squeezing his wrist in her powerful grip. When he tried to pull his left glove off with his teeth, she seized his left wrist around the glove and he couldn’t do that either. He called his lieutenants to the rescue, but the second Maruwan girl blocked them, with Miona’s other friends, all forming a circle around Poisonohl and Trobolihr. Tension filled the chilled air, as other students had stopped and were gathering around the group.
“What’s going on here?” the voice of another prefect called. He was coming out of the third years’ study hall, with third year students behind him. Trobolihr released Poisonohl’s wrists, pushing him into his lieutenants. “His Majesty Poisonohl again, how surprising!” the prefect said, walking briskly towards the feuding group. “And Miss Fortvallor, of course. How come whenever there’s a scuffle, you two seem to be part of it?”
“She brought her big slave friends to create trouble, sir,” Poisonohl said, pointing at Miona.
The prefect looked in turn at Miona, Poisonohl, and all other participants. “It looks to me that we have equal fault tonight. All right, everybody walk calmly to their dormitory.”
“But, sir,” Poisonohl started.
“Or else I keep you to clean my room, Poisonohl.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Poisonohl said menacingly after a moment of shock. “It’s a slave’s job.”
“Want to try me, Poisonohl?”
Poisonohl opened his mouth to answer, but checked himself and turned around. Unlike his colleague, this particular prefect didn’t seem to be too scared of him. He brushed past Miona and hissed a last warning before taking off towards the dormitories. “You better stay close to your big friends, Fortvallor. Don’t let me catch you roaming around.”
“This is big,” Nandi Purrimor whispered in an awed kind of voice.
“We need to warn her,” Soumaya Trollorf added. “Have you talked to her?”
They were all on the two Pyrwondus’ beds, which were closest to the wall. Miona had crossed the aisle of their cubicle and was sitting on the floor between the two beds. The two Maruwans had crossed the main aisle from their own cubicle, and were lying on the bed ends, trying not to squish Humans and Pyrwondus too much. They were all hunched down, so as not to be seen over the cubicle partitions where a prefect could pass, and spoke in a whisper, loud enough only to cover the noise of the other children getting in and out of the showers, readying for bed.
After the stand off with Poisonohl’s gang, Miona had been subjected to a more intense questioning by her friends. And this time she hadn’t tried to evade their questions. She could see now how much she needed their help.
“I tried several times, but there was always someone around,” lied Miona. It wasn’t a complete lie. Even if she hadn’t been worried about being forced to talk of the Renaissance, it would have been difficult to speak to the teacher without Poisonohl or Ratmatuhr to know, as they were both taking Srilissi too.
“What are you going to do?” Soumaya Trollorf asked.
Miona hesitated. As she was the only one taking Srilissi, it seemed right that the job of warning her teacher would fall on her. The problem was, she hadn’t resolved the problem of risking unveiling her involvement with the Renaissance. “I’ll speak to her as soon as I have an opportunity. In the meantime, I need to keep an eye on Poisonohl. Only, I can’t always be behind all four of them.”
“We’ll help you!” Pera Marhao said, a little too loud, so everyone hushed her down, ducking and looking all around them.
“Of course, we’ll help,” piggybacked Carmela Tandirl. “But how can we do that? We don’t know where they are all the time. We are not in their class like you.”
“Right,” Miona said, as loud as Pera, but this was to cover a loud noise coming from the showers. Someone had left the door open, and the drying stalls were extremely noisy. “That’s an advantage you have on me….” She eventually had to stop talking.
“Someone go and shut that door!” yelled Torri Trobolihr.
They all cranked their neck up and looked in the direction of the showers. The prefects’ door was flung open and a last-year crossed the main aisle to the shower room and yelled something before slamming the door shut. The seven girls ducked back, lowering themselves on the beds. “If you girls can’t close your doors, I’ll shut down the water!” the prefect warned before she stamped back to the prefects’ room and slammed the door. All the girls looked at each other and laughed silently.
“They must have used hoverer engines for those dryers,” Nandi Purrimor said after a few seconds, when some whispering had resumed in other corners of the dormitory.
“You girls don’t know their schedule, but they don’t know yours either,” Miona resumed. “And they can’t keep an eye on you like they do on me…. Wait!” She got up and rushed across the cubicle aisle to her locker, and started digging through her papers. A moment later she was back with two sheets of paper. “That’s my schedule,” she said, dropping one sheet on the floor in front of her. “Poisonohl and Ratmatuhr have about the same one, except they don’t take Maruwani. Bludjan and Furriahr don’t take any language at all, so they are the ones freest to watch Professor Slimvalsat. Still, they’ll do most of their spying after class.” She started drawing lines on the second, blank sheet. “We can make our own schedule, so that we always have someone watching their backs while they spy on her.”
Twenty minutes later they had set turns of guard, mostly in pairs, the Humans always teamed with one Pyrwondu or one Maruwan, to benefit from their superior senses and so limit the risks of being caught. The lights went off like usual at eleven o’clock. “We can start tomorrow,” Miona said triumphantly, taking her papers with her as they all sneaked back to their beds.
“Miona, Miona, we’ve lost her!”
Miona looked up at a breathless Pera Marhao, before checking the dining hall around them. There was only one other kid setting the tables with her in the teachers’ dining hall. It was a second-year boy, and he had stopped working and was staring at Marhao with a questioning look.
“Not so loud, Pera. What happened?” The small Pyrwondu looked at the second year and turned her back on him so he couldn’t see her lips. Miona resumed setting the silverware on the table she was working on, as noisily as she could.
“I was with Carmela, right,” Pera started again in a whisper. “Watching the gang. When you started your kitchen duty, they were on the field playing batteryrun, right?”
“Yes, I saw them.”
“Well, after that they all left for town, except Ratmatuhr. Instead he went to the teachers’ quarters, and so we followed him, and he hid inside a hedge near Professor Slimvalsat’s cottage.” She looked over her shoulder, but the boy had stopped trying to listen and had resumed his work.
“So, what happened?” Miona said impatiently, picking up another handful of silverware.
“Professor Slimvalsat went out. She took a bike in the teachers’ garage and she went through the back gate. And Ratmatuhr did too.”
“How did he do that? Did he have a key?”
Pera nodded her dainty head.
“And the video?”
“I saw him point something at it. And then he just went to the gate and opened it with his key.”
“A scrambler,” Miona said, knitting her brows. “So they’ve got one.” She pushed her service cart around the next table, so she could see the communication door to the students’ dining hall. “You didn’t see Miss Bertahrat when you came in?”
“I came through the peristyle door,” Pera answered, glancing at the students’ hall door. “She’s here?” She ducked a little more behind the chair she was already using as a shield, and disappeared completely behind its back.
“Of course she’s here. In the students’ mess.” Miona pulled a tablecloth out of the trolley and unfolded it over the next table. “What did he do next?”
“He rode off behind her.”
“He had a bike?”
“He took it from the teachers’ garage.”
“So what happened after that?” Miona asked, looking nervously at the communication door. It had been a while already since Miss Bertahrat had last checked on the boy and her.
“What do you mean, what happened? We couldn’t follow because of the video, so we lost them. Carmela’s still over there.”
Miona thought hard for a few moments. “You couldn’t have done much more anyway. It would have been dangerous to follow them. Not just because of the video. Security could’ve seen your collars on their screens, leaving the grounds…. They might still be able to see them in the teachers’ quarters—be careful.” She thought for the umpteenth time of using Selke’s key on her friends’ collars, but once again decided against it—she couldn’t come up with a good enough explanation on how she could’ve gotten the key.
“So what do we do now?”
“Go back to Carmela. She needs you in case Security checks the area—it’s better if you’re two. Torri and Soumaya will relieve you after dinner’s first sitting. We need to be there when Professor Slimvalsat returns. Perhaps she’ll give us a clue as to where she was, you never know. Maybe she’ll have bought something that you can see.” Miona threw a worried glance toward the student hall. “Hurry now. Miss Bertahrat won’t be long anymore.” She watched tensely as Pera made her exit, the little Pyrwondu making herself even shorter that she actually was.
Miona flattened herself on the top of the wall, scanning the park below for strollers. They could always be expected in a park at nap time on a nice day like today—the wind had turned south. Stores and offices were closed between noon and three, and there were always some people who decided to take their nap outside rather than by their desk or in companies’ nap rooms. Some sports buffs sometimes even decided to skip their nap altogether and to run all the way to the lake, which Miona could see glistening in the distance over the tree tops.
But today all was quiet and she couldn’t see anyone near. She moved the hook on the school edge of the wall and dropped the rope on the park side. She should have been sleeping now with the rest of the dorm, but excitement kept her wide awake. She crouched on the top, her feet on the wall edge, and descended carefully to the park side.
As soon as she touched the ground, she freed the hook and hurried towards the thicket, putting the line away in Selke’s bag. She checked the cache and found the message box easily. There was a message inside, as Selke had promised.
Found nice spot. 42 steps along east wall.
then right angle into forest.
Big bowl tree.
She rolled the message and pocketed it, making a mental note to destroy it later, and hid the box back in the cache.
The eastern wall passed behind the dorms and some of the game fields. There was a dirt trail running along it, which came from the park’s river trail and ended on a small road. That road bordered the grounds on the south and lead west towards downtown. Miona stepped carefully out of the thicket, and started walking briskly towards the trail.
When she had called this meeting, Selke had decided it was better for them not to use the vault. Her contact found that there had been a police raid near the docks, to bust a drug ring. It was supposedly safe now, but Selke preferred not to bring Miona there until they’d gotten her an ID bracelet, in case the police made other controls. She’d in fact become warier about police patrols, and preferred Miona to avoid town altogether for now. So she’d decided to look for another safe meeting spot.
Miona had called from town, escaping school at dinnertime, and she’d been really tense on her way back, expecting a police car to stop by her side at any given moment. It was the previous night, Oneday night, the night after Professor Slimvalsat had gone on her bike ride. She’d been out for over two hours, and by that time Torri Trobolihr and Soumaya Trollorf were doing the watch. The teacher had indeed bought something, but they couldn’t see what was in her bag, besides that it seemed heavy.
That was why Miona had called the meeting. She wanted to know Selke’s opinion on how better they could protect Professor Slimvalsat. And also if she knew how to block her thoughts from the teacher, so that she could warn her about Poisonohl. She arrived on the trail. Forty-two steps, Selke had said. She put all other thoughts aside and started counting, trying not to make her steps too small or too big.
She stopped on the count of forty-two, and looked around. Thick bushes prevented her from leaving the trail. She went on another five steps and found a passage between the brush, most likely made by wildlife rather than walkers. After a good minute of uneasy walking, the brush parted into a tiny clearing, and she saw the bowl tree on the other edge of it. It was a big tree indeed, with long, flexible branches sweeping the grass underneath, giving it the shape of an upside-down bowl. They were so many and so close together that she couldn’t see the trunk. She walked to it and stood by, hesitant to proceed.
“Selke?” she whispered finally.
“I’m here,” Selke’s voice replied, to her relief. “Come quick.”
Miona looked around the clearing, then parted the twigs. It didn’t help. She still could not see either Selke or the trunk. She parted more branches and made one step. Eventually she had to make two more steps, parting the twigs as if she were swimming in them, before she emerged on the inside.
“Welcome to our new training facility,” Selke said proudly.
Miona turned around and looked at the wall of twigs closing back behind her. Its thickness was truly impressive. Nonetheless it let some light come through, diffuse but enough to see, or even read, which was what Selke was doing at the moment.
“What’s the book?”
“Locks. I’m going to teach you how to pick locks.”
“Cool,” Miona said, sitting across from Selke. “It might come in handy.”
“You bet it might.” She put the book on Miona’s lap and started rummaging inside a new canvas bag she had by her side. “This,” she said, setting a small box on the book, “is the scrambler. It might come in handy too. Especially if you get good with locks. You could use it to open the back gate and follow your teacher the next time. Just remember what I told you about the dangers of using it too often…. But if you need to borrow a bike to tail her, you’ll need to open the gate—you’re not going to pull the bike over the wall, certainly.”
“Borrow a bike?”
“Well, yes. Did you plan to run behind her all the way to town?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Miona said, knitting her brows. “I don’t like the idea of…borrowing someone else’s bike. I don’t want to be accused of stealing.”
“You won’t be stealing. Just borrowing, like I said. For a few hours, or less.” She smiled at Miona’s worried face. “Of course, if you think you can get in trouble, it might be better to call off your watch and simply warn your teacher.”
Miona held her breath. The question that had been nagging at her since the vacation was coming back. She’d delayed putting it to Selke for too long. Now was the time. “Hem…do you think it’s safe to warn her?… I mean, what if she reads in my thoughts about the Renaissance?”
Selke stared at her in shock. “I meant in writing, of course.”
“Oh. You don’t think it’s possible to hide a thought in a corner of my mind?”
“I wouldn’t try it. Not with a Sriliss.” Selke seemed worried now. She wasn’t smiling anymore. “Write her a note, and make sure she can’t trace it back to you.”
Miona frowned. She didn’t find that answer very satisfying. “Somehow I don’t think she’ll believe a note that is not signed. I heard that teachers receive all kinds of prankish notes. Poisonohl’s gang, for one, keep bragging about putting bugs or fake admin notes and such in teachers’ mailboxes.”
“Forget about warning her, then. You might have to keep on protecting her forever.”
It was Miona’s turn to look shocked. “We can’t do that forever, either.” Even if they took the best precautions, they’d end up being caught if they kept the game up too long, she knew it.
“What you need is proof to show your teacher. I’d be surprised if Poisonohl doesn’t have some notes on your teacher somewhere. Could you get to his things?”
Miona blanched. “That would be risky. Really risky. I’d have to get into the boys’ dorms.”
“Then maybe again you shouldn’t do it. Maybe you should just wait. Poisonohl might make a mistake and get caught all by himself. Then your teacher might believe you.”
Miona thought in silence for a moment. She looked at the book in Selke’s lap. “Can I see your book?” Selke handed it to her and she began flipping the pages. After a few moments she resolved to take her glasses off—the branches were blocking too much of the light. There were a lot of photos and drawings, most of which she understood more or less, but after leafing through half the book, she wasn’t more advanced as to how she could pick any of the locks described. “It’s more complicated than I thought,” she said with disappointment, handing the book back.
“It’s not complicated,” Selke said with a broad smile. “You should see the physics book I’m reading now. Now, that is complicated.”
“Physics? What do you need physics for?”
“You need physics for loads of things,” Selke said importantly. “For most things, actually.’
“I don’t need physics to learn Srilissi or to beat up Poisonohl at battery,” Miona said, irritation showing. “What things in particular?”
Selke rolled her eyes. “Perhaps not battery or languages. But loads of other things.” She thought a moment. “Like machines. Electronics also. If you don’t understand the basic physics principles, you’ll always depend on other people to show you how anything works. And if you want to work for the Renaissance, there are loads of things to learn how to use, believe me. You said you wanted to be a pilot. You need—”
“…to know physics to be able to pilot, I know,” Miona cut her off with an annoyed tone. “Ruhul doesn’t pass an occasion to tell me so.”
“What bothers me is the experiments part,” Selke went on, smiling at Miona’s temper. “I don’t have the material to reproduce them. That’s one good thing about schools. They have plenty. And it’s easier to learn with a teacher than all by yourself.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying that. I thought you liked being out doing what you liked instead of learning boring subjects.”
“True, I wouldn’t want to waste my time learning massage or gardening,” Selke said, laughing.
“Massage is fun, I heard.” Miona clammed up, regretting her words and waiting for Selke to laugh even more at her.
“Maybe. But it won’t help me for what I want to do. I’d rather learn Maruwani or Pyrwondi.”
“I could help you there,” Miona said, growing ill at ease in front of Selke’s talk. “I’m rather good at those. I could help you with Srilissi too.”
“I know Srilissi.”
“Oh, where did you learn? Very few schools offer Srilissi.”
“Your parents speak Srilissi at home?”
“They used to—a little.”
Miona noticed that Selke’s smile had vanished. She didn’t seem to want to expand on the subject. “Why don’t they anymore?” she pushed nevertheless.
“Mother never spoke it much. It was mostly my father.”
“So you could practice with your father, then.” Miona dug further.
Selke looked down at the book, not speaking for a few seconds. “My father isn’t with us anymore,” she said finally.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Miona said, truly surprised. “I thought you said he was…. He wasn’t freed with your mother, then?”
“He left us before that.”
“Oh.” Miona felt really bad now. “You don’t mean to say that he is…dead, do you?” she risked.
“Oh, no.” Selke smiled briefly at Miona’s mistake. “He’s gone away, that’s all.”
“Do you know where he is now?” Miona asked, relieved.
“No, and I don’t care,” Selke said sullenly. She started rummaging in her bag.
Miona stopped her questions. She remembered Kalinda’s words. Perhaps Selke was like her and many other slaves—just not interested in their father.
“Here,” Selke said, her smile back on her face. She handed Miona a big, heavy lock. “Practice time.”
Miona looked at the cloister behind her. Running steps were ringing under the vaulted ceiling—kids racing to the dining hall for breakfast. No one seemed to have seen her turning the other way, between the chapel and the library. She looked out on the open lawn, in direction of the teachers’ quarters. Not even 7:30 in the morning, dawn hadn’t arrived yet, and darkness and fog were still ruling the grounds. The two lampposts were too weak to challenge them, so Miona could just see one cotton-like ball of light, and nothing beyond. She took a deep breath and left the protection of the alley, squeezing an envelope in her cape’s pocket.
It was a letter for Professor Slimvalsat. Back from her training under the weeping tree the day before, she’d thought hard about Selke’s suggestion. She’d decided not to wait for a mistake by Poisonohl’s gang. With some luck, the words she had chosen—with Nandi and Pera—would prompt the teacher to be careful outside the school. With even more luck she would stop leaving the school grounds altogether, although Miona doubted it. But at the very least she would take notice if she saw the gang wandering around her cottage.
They had argued eagerly on which words to choose, and she hoped they were striking enough. But because they had to make sure Professor Slimvalsat wouldn’t recognize their handwriting—or another teacher if she decided to show the note around—they chose to use printed characters, and this had limited them in how clear the message could be. She hadn’t found a newspaper in the kitchens—often Shayrome brought one and tossed it aside when he’d read it, and she checked it out if she had time and if none of the cooks had done so before her. This time, no newspaper. So she’d smuggled out a food wrapper instead. They hadn’t been able to work on the letter during study time, so they’d had barely fifteen minutes before bedtime to write it. Hidden under Nandi’s and Pera’s beds while Carmela played lookout—her bed was by the central aisle—they’d had to work fast, Soumaya and her, with bad scissors and weak paper glue—Humans were better with glue. This is what they had come up with:
Nandi had said they should mention Poisonohl’s father, but just at that moment a prefect had turned the lights off. They hadn’t had time to work on it in the morning, and they’d been missing an “H” already, so they kept it at that. All she hoped now was that it didn’t sound so dramatic that Professor Slimvalsat would dismiss it as a bad joke.
She turned the corner of the first cottage’s hedge and stopped, listening. Only muffled sounds reached her ears: kitchen noises (very few teachers actually took their breakfast in the teachers’ dining hall), shower and dryer noises, and several radios, all very dampened. No steps. She strode among the cottages, slowing only when she approached Professor Slimvalsat’s. She stopped again and scanned the area for one of the gang’s. No one was hidden in the hedges anywhere that she could see. She pulled the envelope from her pocket and walked briskly up to the mailbox, slid the letter in, turned around and strode off.
Only when she was back in the cloister did her heart start slowing down, but she felt a mixture of relief and accomplishment. They had taken a decisive step. Now the scepter was in her teacher’s hand. Hopefully she would take their warning seriously. She ran up the dining hall’s steps. She had less than ten minutes to swallow her breakfast.
Borant Furriahr was walking fast, ears pricked up and whiskers out, sniffing the cold, foggy air. He had entered the teachers’ quarters from the dormitories side. There was more open lawn to cross that way than going from the chapel, but there were much less chances to cross a teacher. Most were using the path toward the library or the one that went directly to the classrooms and teachers’ room.
It had been decided that he would start the watch for the day. Professor Slimvalsat didn’t have class before 10:00 this morning, so there was a chance that she would go out before that. Furriahr didn’t have class until 9:00, so he was taking the first watch. Bludjan would relieve him from 9:00 to 10:00. They had Ethics and Civic Values at that time, and Furriahr hadn’t decided yet if he’d go or would stay with Bludjan. Ethics bored him to deep sleep.
Turning one hedge corner, he froze and jumped back. Someone was in front of Professor Slimvalsat’s cottage. Someone with a girl cape. He risked another glance. The girl was putting a letter in the teacher’s mailbox. The next second she was walking away. He hadn’t been able to see her face, what with her hood. He couldn’t make out her gait either, because she was nearly running.
Now she was gone, and he had to decide what to do. If she was who he thought she was, he couldn’t leave the letter in the box. Did Professor Slimvalsat hear the noise of the letter falling in the metal box? He’d barely heard it himself, and Srilisses’ hearing wasn’t particularly good. But had she seen the girl? After a few seconds, he decided that if she had, she had decided not to pick up the letter right away. Perhaps she wasn’t dressed yet?
He stepped decidedly around the corner and strode towards the cottage, listening intently. Getting closer to the mailbox, he could hear shower noises coming from upstairs. Since the teacher lived by herself, he had some time to do what he had to do.
Nearing the mailbox, he threw his hand in his pants pocket and pulled a small key from it. He glanced at the upstairs windows and noticed steam coming out of the small bathroom window. He inserted the key and the box door opened without effort. There was only one envelope inside. He took it, locked the box back, and turned around, hiding the letter in his cape, all in one swing. Five seconds later he was in the hedge by the next corner, just far enough to be able to leave if Professor Slimvalsat turned his way—which she had no reason to do—and close enough to see her coming out of the cottage’s unique door.
He pulled the letter out of his cape and turned it in his hands. There was no address on it, and no name either. In fact, it was totally blank. He sniffed it all over, carefully. There were several scents on it, and he isolated quickly two that he knew already: Fortvallor’s and one of her Human friends. He knew it! He looked at it one last time before putting it away in his cape pocket. A satisfied smile lit up his face: that catch would silence his friends at last. Seven days ago Bludjan had run behind the teacher—the first time she left the grounds. Since then he kept boasting about it, even though he’d lost her. And three days ago it was Ratmatuhr’s turn: he had time to take a bike, and found where she’d been going…. Now these two would stop putting on airs.
(A short overview of Miona’s world)
Omnieya: Miona’s planet (in Trowan language). Three main continents are inhabited by three prominent races: the Trowans, the Srilisses, and the Humans.
Trowans: A catlike species and nation ruling the continent where Miona lives. Have enslaved two other catlike peoples of their continent: the tall Maruwans from the northern part of the continent (like Ruhul, the chauffeur of Miona’s master), and the short Pyrwondus from the south (Miona’s friend Pera is one).
Srilisses: A reptilian species with a greenish, smooth skin, the Sriliss nation rules the continent where Miona’s Srilissi teacher is from. Very few Srilisses can be seen in Landran, the Trowan capital. Diplomatic relations were recently re-established between Trowond and Srilissia, after a painful war that stopped Trowan military expansion.
Humans: The Human continent is very close to Srilissia, which gives them good protection from the Trowans (who are not keen on risking a new war with Srilissia). Because of this, Humans from Humond are still a free people.
Humans on Trowond: Most of them were captured by poachers on Humond, or when traveling too close to Trowond, and became slaves. A few were set free, but most of these are poor or struggling in an economy mostly based on slave labor.
Well, unfortunately for Miona, she won’t learn how to stay out of trouble any time soon. There are more scary situations and mischief ready for you in Shadows on the School Grounds. Look for it on your favorite online store.
You can also check on Miona at her website:
lives on 21st century planet Earth, in a country house much smaller than Miona’s. When he doesn’t do research on Miona’s world, he does chores for the cat people who rule the house. You can drop him a line here: or on Miona’s website: .
In this opening to A Charmers' World, Miona shows how easily she can get in trouble and wreak havoc in her masterâ€™s house. A New Day is the prologue to the series, with an extensive sample of Shadows on the School Grounds, book 1 in the series, where Miona gets trapped into playing a spying game against an unsavory boy from her class, and his just as unsavory friends. When the game turns more dangerous than she expected, she finds herself at risk of ruining her master's career and derailing a fragile peace between the planet's main species--without mentioning just getting killed. Excerpt: She couldnâ€™t make any more mistakes. The last one had cost her a painful blow on her right arm, and sheâ€™d barely managed to disengage and run away. She only owed her life to the pond, which Darveena hadnâ€™t dared follow her into. It was only knee-deep where she had crossed it, but that was too much for the water-wary Trowan girl. Now her only way to capitalize on her advantage was to circle her opponent and attack her from the rear. And the only way to do this without Darveena seeing her was to leave the park and go through the house. If she made her move now. The kitchens were right behind, just a few trees away. Without further thinking, she ran to the last tree, looked around one last time, and jumped behind a large garbage crate. Then she rushed through an open door that let out the usual clatter of pots and kitchenware, as well as the shouts from the chef. â€œHey, what are you doing here? Youâ€™re not on kitchen duty yet!â€ â€œJust going through, Paolo.â€ â€œAnd youâ€™re wet!â€ More red came to the cheeks of the rotund chefâ€”they were always a little red, what with the heat from the cooking range and his frequent outbursts. â€œOut!â€ Miona sidestepped the large man and ducked under his outstretched arm, narrowly avoiding a big spoon coated with sauce.