Chapter Thirteen — The Mission School and Its Inhabitants

Djaren’s first real qualms began at the heavy, iron-bound school gates. The walls, reasonably tall and fortifiable, were guarded by a single gatekeeper, who closed and locked the doors behind them. The world inside the walls wasn’t terrible. Across a broad lawn, neat paths led uphill to a coral-colored stucco building with two wings, and east and west to stables, vegetable gardens, a banana grove, chicken coops, and low barns. Everything looked orderly, boring, and very neatly kept up. At the distant end of the main building, two boys stood guard under a tree, while a third one climbed lightly up into a school window. Once he’d ascended, the other two took the door in the normal way. Djaren frowned, collecting the memory. Kara should be able to get in here without any trouble. What else did?

The lines of children approached the main building. They passed through the central door and into a courtyard with a fountain that wasn’t running, and then the girls marched for the dormitory wing on the right and the boys for the one on the left. At the end of the lines, Djaren and Anna exchanged a worried glance.

“You lot will come with me, for placement,” Sister Agata informed the three of them. “You’ll be assigned rooms later.”

“Can’t we stay together, ma’am?” Djaren asked.

“Young man, that wouldn’t be at all proper. This way, all of you.” She led them through the arched door into the central block, past short, fat palm trees, incongruous in bright, round-bellied Cormuradan pots. Inside, the blue of the sky and the vivid greens of the outdoors vanished. It was cooler here, and very white, and it smelled damp. Djaren touched a finger to the wall, in passing, and it came away wet with fresh whitewash.

Around a corner, they came to an office. The place was in the middle of a transformation. The original coral stucco, brightly painted with murals of Cormuradan saints, still shone uncovered in high corners and across the ceiling, but whitewash had conquered the walls, up to a height of about eight feet. The culprits, ladders and empty buckets, stood ready to finish their work. The gilt script across the ceiling still read, in old Cormuradan, “All are gathered under the One sky, and One sits in judgment over all.” A series of hand-tinted engravings were propped along one wall, waiting to be put up. They depicted the deities of the Helianth pantheon in the dullest modern Levour style, with lots of flowers, scientific tools, and musical instruments. Djaren wondered how many gods the islanders had started with, and what they thought of all the new ones.

An old man with a fantastic mustache sat at a desk amid stacks of papers. “What, new children? And more girls?” He spoke in Levour. Most of his papers, Djaren noted with a quick glance, were also in Levour, though a stack of invoices off to one side were written in Cormuradan. A makeshift placard labeled him the “Civilizing Mission Chairman.”

Sister Agata coughed, and spoke in trade common. “They’re particularly promising, I believe. This little lady is suited to be a model student and an inspiration to others.”

Ellea looked up at the chairman and smiled. It was frightening. “Do excuse our appearances, sir,” she said, in a voice smaller than her real one. “Please, we’ve been misplaced. Once my parents come for me, I’ll be able to thank you for properly for your kind help.”

“Your parents? Oh, dear,” the old man sighed.

“The Blackfeathers,” Djaren put in. “Of Shandor. They should be back soon.”

“Blackfeather, eh? Native stock of that mountain country, are you?”

“Well, more or less,” Djaren said, exchanging a glance with Anna. She had K’shay tanna blood on both sides, while his own connection was more complicated.

“Sailor’s children, are you?”

“No, Father is a scholar.”

“A Shandorian scholar? Really? And you, girl, you care for this little one?”

“Well, yes, I mean—” Anna tried.

“There’s to be no class system here at the school. All are to be equal in their toil and strive equally for academic excellence.”

“That suits me, sir,” Anna said.

“You may be asked, however, to help in the education of some of the smaller girls.”

“I don’t mind that, sir.”

“You, boy. Can you do any sums?”

“Yes,” Djaren said.

“Do you speak Levour?”

“I do, fluently,” Djaren answered in Levour.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” the chairman said. “And how old are you?”

Djaren froze. Twenty-one last March. No one outside Shandor would believe that. He didn’t like lying to adults. Uncle Eabrey had to all the time, though. “Fourteen seems most likely, doesn’t it?”

The chairman gave him a dubious glance, up and down. “Thirteen seems likelier. You’ll sit with the sixth class today after you’re cleaned up.” He turned to Anna and Ellea. “You young ladies will attend on the art hour before lunch. All the girls take their lessons together under the tutelage of Sisters Agata, Marda, and Iulia.”

Anna smiled at Djaren as if to say, “There, you see we’ll be all right.”

Djaren smiled back to show that he would be, too.

“Try not to get beaten up or anything,” Ellea’s voice sounded in his head. “Don’t go trying to look too smart.”

Djaren didn’t try to answer, not with the chairman talking again.

“You’ll be provided with proper clothing and expected to abide by a certain standard of conduct. We do not tolerate rudeness, backtalk, or any uncouth habits. We abhor untidiness, unnecessary noise, and all the vices. We praise learning, humility, faith, and those who seek to better themselves. Is that understood?”

“I think so, sir,” Djaren said. The nature of Helianth virtues was always so vague, and got applied to many unlikely acts from mythology and history, but in this context he could probably pick them out.

“Then off with you,” the chairman said, and waved them all out. “Pelneor’s blessed rays direct your steps toward the right paths.”

“Pelneor’s the sun one, right?” Anna whispered, once they were in the hall again.

“Yes, so really, his rays would light pretty much everything up, especially this near the equator.”

“You will have proper catechism here,” Sister Agata cut in. “It’s time for you to go, little master.” She pointed toward a door at the end of one hall. “You’ve just time to get washed up.”

Djaren didn’t mind the cold water from the pump. He didn’t have to wait in a line for it, either, as all the others had been through just ahead of him. The starched clothes he had to get into, after washing, were uncomfortable and the shoes were very poorly engineered. He tugged at the collar, and held tight to Kara’s bag. He wasn’t about to let it leave his sight. She trusted him with it. From the glances it was beginning to attract, though, he felt that perhaps he shouldn’t carry it so obviously.

“This here’s yer,” the boy assigned to show him the way said. It was a long room of low bunks, with windows overlooking the grounds. Scuffs on one white sill confirmed that this was the room he’d seen that older boy climbing into.

“Who sleeps here?” he asked.

“Six, seven and eight years,” the boy said. “All the oldest.”

“What happens when they graduate?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

The boy shrugged. “Some get to go away over the sea for more school. Others take vows. Most get put to work.” He gestured vaguely at the fields and gardens.

“What do you want to do?” Djaren asked the boy. He was cream tea-colored and wiry-haired.

“I don’t want school.” The boy made a face. “I want to be a diver, like my Da. He’ll come back, and we’ll go out on his boat, and I’ll be done with this place.”

“You don’t like lessons?”

“No one likes lessons.” The boy looked as if he’d proposed liking jellyfish stings.

“I think I can find the classroom on my own,” Djaren told him.

The boy shrugged and left.

Djaren looked under the beds and atop the rafters, still holding Kara’s bag. The room was painfully stark and neat, devoid of hiding spots. He opened the scuffed window and smelled the city, the gardens, and the sea beyond. The nearby tree made a convenient ladder. Djaren climbed into it and searched for somewhere to stash the bag, but he evidently didn’t have Kara’s talent for finding hidden holes in trees. He did find a small, unlocked window just below the roof eaves and managed to squeeze inside, into a little attic room, full of crates and swathed statues.

There was no one there, and the door to whatever outer corridor lay beyond was locked. No surprise movement of breath stirred from under any of the sheets. He checked them to be sure. Cormuradan saints stared blank-eyed back at him. Saint Baridbas of the burdens made an odd shape, under the sheet, with the barrel on his back. Djaren was delighted to find the barrel was hollow. He shared his burdens with the saint, closing Kara’s bag up in the barrel and re-draping the figure exactly as he’d found it.

Slithering back down to his own windowsill, he found a tall, muscular, gold-skinned islander boy with a line of tattoo marks across his nose and cheeks opening the window from the other side.

“Um, hello,” Djaren said. “I’m new. Is this your window?”

“This is my door,” the tall boy said. “I alone use it.”

“Sorry, I’ll avoid it then,” Djaren said. “My mistake.” He hopped into the room as the boy stared coldly at him. “Look, I’d rather not make any more mistakes. Do you know where the sixth class meets?”

The boy just looked at him, snorted, and went out the window.

The next person he met in the hall was more helpful, and Djaren was directed to the room where class was already in session. Boys of about his own height all sat at desks facing a broad chalkboard, repaired in several places. The teacher, a harried-looking Levour man with a thin moustache, was writing arithmetic sequences on the board with an unfortunately squeaky nub of chalk.

Djaren waited for him to finish. The boys stared at him and whispered to one another. Djaren took note of their faces, similarities and differences, trying to make guesses. Paler children sat in front, darker in the back, and the gold-skinned boys sat near to one another in a group. He glanced down at his newly browned hands, wondering where they might place him. There were four seats free.

The squeaking finally stopped, and the teacher glared around the room at the suffused whispering that had broken out, then blinked over at Djaren. “What did you want?”

“I’m Djaren Blackfeather. I’m to join your class.”

“Oh, are you? Well, take a seat. You’ll have to share a book with your fellows. Your neighbors should be able to lend you paper.”

“Yes, sir.” Djaren walked down the aisle furthest from the window, the one with three free seats. Furthest from fresh air meant least wanted, he supposed. The first open seat was behind a pale, fat boy with dull eyes, and in front of a glaring tan boy who just shook his head slightly when Djaren touched the desk ahead of him.

Rather have me at your back, really? Djaren wondered, taking the seat behind him, across from a thin, dark boy with ill-fitting spectacles, and in front of a boy with some sort of rash. “May I borrow paper and a lead, please?” he asked the spectacled boy.

The boy squinted at him.

“I could write out the sequences on the board for both of us, if you like. It must be hard to see from back here.”

“What if you wrote them wrong?” the boy whispered.

“Why should I? I may need your help to read what’s in the book properly. My eyes are wrong the other way round, and I’ve lost my spectacles.”

“Kindly limit your conversation,” the teacher snapped.

The boy passed Djaren two papers and a pencil and Djaren hurriedly took down the sequences. He paused over one, and frowned. “Excuse me, sir, professor.”

“It is Master Pruell, and any pupils wishing to address me shall raise their hand and wait upon my attention.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Djaren said, raising his hand, “but I believe you may have made an error in line three.”

Master Pruell glared at Djaren, then at the board.

“That’s what’s in the book, what he has there,” a thin boy at the front of the class announced.

“Then I think the book must have a printing error. Try it for yourself, sir, and you’ll see,” Djaren said.

“You’ve had time to work out the sequence, then?”

“Did you want me to show you?”

“Please stay in your seat and refrain from speaking unless called on.”

Djaren was not called on again. The morning was spent in stony silence broken only by the shuffle of feet and the awful squeaking of the chalk on the broken board.

Only at the last was Djaren called to the front, where Master Pruell had written an especially long and, Djaren thought, interesting sequence for him to solve. It was so long and interesting that it took Djaren his entire walk to the front of the room to solve it. He evaded the trip attempt by the boy ahead of him and wrote out the lovely, neat answer without making the chalk squeak.

Master Pruell puffed. “Show how you solved it.”

“It’ll be noisy.”

“Show your work. By what path did you come to this answer?”

“I didn’t take just one, sir,” Djaren said, and tried to show him. A bell rang before he’d half covered the board in the small neat marks of his thought.

The class disappeared at an amazing rate. Master Pruell stood glaring at him.

“Should I finish?” Djaren asked.

“See Master Revellier after lunch, for exams. You belong in a different class.”

“Yes, sir, may I make an observation?”

“No. Class is out.”

Exams sounded interesting. He’d never taken any before. All his lessons had been with Uncle Eabrey, or Mother, or with other friends and family back home. He’d been thinking about trying university classes, but he’d never had the time free to commit to a full semester.

Lunch was taken at long tables in a room bigger than was needed for the small crowd. Three-quarters were boys, and the rest were staff and girls. Djaren found Ellea and Anna, scrubbed and in starched white, sitting at the end of a table of small girls. Anna nodded him to the next table across, all boys.

“Hello, how was art?’

“It wasn’t, really. Art, I mean.”

Ellea examined a hard roll with a critical eye. “We were to paint flowers in a vase, but mostly it was trying to get the little ones not to eat the paint, and the older ones to paint what they were supposed to.”

“Which I hate doing,” Anna said. “At that age, shouldn’t they be allowed to paint what they like? Anyway, how was your class?”

“Brief. I’ll have a new one, maybe, if the exam results put me higher.”

“Oh, Djaren, don’t test out entirely, will you? They might send you away.”

He hadn’t thought of that. “But aren’t lessons meant to be challenging?”

“That’s for normal people, Djaren.” Ellea sighed.

“Maybe you’ll find the maths challenging, anyway,” Anna said.

“I was just in maths.”

“Oh, dear.”

“There’s the seventh and eighth classes to try,” Djaren said. “I’ll likely fit in one of them.”

“You aren’t a very fitting person.” Ellea smiled her frightening smile. “I’m fitting beautifully. Everyone but the bitter old Cormuradan woman adores me.”

“Haven’t the Cormurada all left?”

“Sister Marda stayed.” Anna sighed. “She, ah, seems to care about the school very much. I gather she helped begin it.”

“She’s not dealing well with the transition.” Ellea nodded toward a dark-haired woman in severe blacks and browns, with a seamed face and intense dark eyes. She was glaring across at the newly displayed gods and goddesses in frames, and fingering Cormuradan prayer beads like an infantryman might finger bullets.

“That sounds awkward,” Djaren said.

“You’ve no idea,” Anna said. “How do you think Kara is doing?”

“Considerably better than Bulo, at a guess.”

After lunch, the exams began well enough. Djaren greeted the proctor, Master Revellier, in polite Levour, and the man seemed delighted with his answers to a long set of questions on five subjects. Helianth theology was odd, but Djaren had read a catechism once, and all the dusty rote responses were stored neatly in his mind, useless for anything but this. An old philosophy textbook in the royal library supplied the answers to the confining questions about ancient philosophers that didn’t give one space to argue with them. He solved the logic puzzles easily and found that the proctor was now beaming broadly. It all seemed much more promising than the morning had been.

“Where did you receive your education?” Master Revellier asked.

“I had a friend who tutored me, a professor from the Shandorian University.”

“Your grasp of the essentials is somewhat outdated, but how marvelously you have mastered the old texts!”

“Ah.” It was cheating, surely, what his mind did despite him.

“Are you of Shandorian mountain descent?”

“Yes, sir, mostly.” It was true, if complicated. Father had come out of the mountains as surely as Mother had been born upon them.

“Never mind your parentage. The poor souls here have little birth to speak of, and most can’t name both parents. You can stand as an example of how those from low native roots can excel, and elevate themselves through study to become useful and contributing members of civilized society.”

Djaren blinked. “What?”

“You are an example.” Master Revellier looked at him over his spectacles. “You might be our first to get into Cambriol. That’s a fine university in Arien.”

Djaren knew the name. Varden had gone there. He’d visited the library himself, once, and had an interesting discussion with some professors. Why anyone living on paradise islands would want to leave for gray, wet Cambriol, he could not imagine. But he didn’t speak, because he was still struggling with how to reply to “low native roots,” and whether it was even safe to answer. Duels were outdated, and illegal in most countries, and he’d promised Father not to go starting any.

“I’m so happy we were able to find and pluck you from obscurity, young mister . . .”

“Blackfeather.”

“Ah, a tribal name. Well, when you’re older you can choose a new one for yourself. For now, concentrate on your studies, and counsel your new classmates in the eighth year to do likewise. Perhaps you may assist us in bringing some of these young minds to enlightened civilization.”

Djaren found he had nothing safe to say, so he didn’t. He wasn’t given a chance, in any case, as he was shooed out into darkening corridors and ushered up to his room. He’d missed dinner, somehow, in the flurry of exams. He looked around the wide, lantern-lit room, and boys in classes six, seven, and eight stared back at him. Most of his classmates were considerably bigger than him.

I’m an example, he thought.

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