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Rai woke to the familiar smear of colors that made up his bedroom, the window showing the dim gray light of a cloudy day. He didn't care; excitement fizzed through him and sent him scrambling out from under the blanket. Today was the first day of school!Author's Notes
"Bai, get up!" said Rai. He pounded his small fist on the upper bunk overhead to wake his twin.
The round blob of Bai's face appeared over the edge, surrounded by a fringe of dark hair. "Go back to sleep, Rai," said Bai. "Nanny's not here yet to wake us up."
Just then, a brisk rap echoed through the door. "It's time to get up, young masters!" Their nanny, Larama, bustled in.
Rai groped along the edge of the bed for his slippers. He'd forgotten exactly where he left them last night, and he couldn't see well enough to spot them. Then his bare toes touched one of the slippers. Rai had his slippers and robe on in time to beat Bai to the tidy room.
When he came back out, Larama said, "Your school uniform is on the foot of your bed. Get dressed and then I'll comb your hair for you."
Rai giggled. No amount of combing ever seemed to make his unruly golden hair lie flat, but both his nanny and his mother sure kept trying.
No sooner had Larama finished with the comb than a demanding wail rose from the nursery. The nanny sighed. "Your baby sister's hungry. Rai, do you think you can get down the stairs without tripping?"
Rai tipped his head in thought. He couldn't see his own feet clearly, so if he ran downstairs -- as he often did when excited -- he tended to stumble. "I'll go slow," he said. He didn't want to rip his new uniform.
Breakfast turned into a busy jumble of Larama trying to get the baby settled so that Jenorv could nurse her daughter and still see her sons before they left for school. The cook wove his way among the bodies with pans full of hot fragrant sausages and eggs and toasted bread, grumbling all the while. Their father Denald came in with his hands full of rustling license papers and talked to Jenorv about a new shipment of goods. Rai sat with his brother, eating carefully and trying not to spill anything on his clothes.
Then it was time to go. Rai kissed his mother goodbye, her perfume mingling with Alikara's yeasty baby smell. He kissed his father on one stubbly cheek. Larama took one boy on each hand and walked them to the corner where the carriage-bus would pick up the children from this block. Rai could hear the horses stamping their hooves and jingling their harness bells.
When the carriage-bus started to move, Rai pressed his face to the window. Beside him, Bai chatted with another child. The city went by in a river of colors, all its detail washed away by distance. The light brightened, sunlight warming Rai's face. He laughed. This was sure to be the best day ever!
* * *
Rai clung to Bai's hand as they climbed out of the carriage-bus. The schoolyard sounded large and noisy. Everything seemed to be the same brick color. The teachers sorted students into their year classes.
Teacher Frem, in charge of the first-year class, lined up her students in something she called "alphabetical order." Rai tried to stay with Bai, who was already making friends with his neighbors in the line. Teacher Frem pried the twins apart, ignoring Rai's tears.
"I'm supposed to stick with my brother," Rai protested. "I can't find my way without him!"
Teacher Frem dragged Rai down the line and pushed him into place. "You belong here, between Ralken and Srarus. Just keep your place and you'll do fine," she said in that no-nonsense adult voice.
Moments later the line began to move. Rai wiped his nose on his sleeve and tried to keep up. The other children moved faster than he could, though. Rai put a hand on Ralken's back for balance.
"Don't grab me," the other boy snapped. Rai dropped back.
Srarus stepped on Rai's heels. "Hurry up, slowpoke!"
Rai scrambled ahead, only to bump into Ralken again. "Get off me, you clumsy ox," said Ralken. Then Srarus shoved Rai, who lost his balance and fell. Rai couldn't find the line again. By the time he stood up, they were out of his arm's reach of sight. The sound of footsteps bounced off the walls in confusing echoes, mingled with fading children's voices.
"Hello?" Rai called. "Teacher Frem? I'm lost!" The school hallway swallowed up his small voice. "Anybody..?"
No answer came. Rai sat down on the floor, as he'd been taught to do when he got lost. He wrapped his arms around his knees and began to cry.
* * *
Brisk footsteps clattered down the hallway.
Rai lifted his face from the pillow of his arms. "Hello?" he called.
"There you are! I've been looking all over for you," said Teacher Frem. "Why aren't you in class with the others?"
"They pushed me and I fell down and then I couldn't find the line again. I didn't know where you were going," said Rai. "I sat down like I'm supposed to when I get lost."
"How could you possibly get lost?" the teacher said. "We were right there."
"I can't see that well," Rai said in a small voice. "Didn't anyone tell you? It's in my licenses and stuff."
"Well, no matter now, we need to get back to class," said Teacher Frem. She took Rai by the hand and tugged him along with her, as people often did, and which Rai hated. "Why your parents sent you to school if you can't manage is beyond me."
Rai frowned. "But everybody has to go to school. It's the law."
"Children who can't manage in the public schools have other places to go," the teacher said.
"I'm smart," said Rai. "I can go to school. I just need a little help finding things sometimes. That's why I'm supposed to stay with my brother Bai, or with a grownup."
Teacher Frem turned a corner without warning, and Rai stumbled. "Rai, the Empire is a big place. It can't afford to make allowances for people who can't manage on their own, or everything would get all tangled up. Look at the trouble you've already caused -- I had to leave my class to come look for you. That's bad for the other students," she said. "You'll have to keep up or get out of the way. Nobody is going to help you do the things that are your responsibility to do."
"I didn't mean to get lost," sniffled Rai. "I'm supposed to stay with Bai so that doesn't happen."
"Here we are," Teacher Frem said briskly, pushing Rai through a door. The classroom sounded big, noises bouncing off its walls. Brightness on the back side suggested windows.
"Rai!" cried Bai from somewhere nearby. Rai started forward. "Desk in front," warned Bai. Rai put out his hands and groped until he found it.
"This is my desk," said a girl's voice. "Yours is back there."
"Danya, move one down -- everybody else move one down too," said Teacher Frem.
"But you said this is my desk," the girl protested.
Teacher Frem whispered, but Rai's keen hearing picked up the words anyway: "Do you want to deal with this little blind boy? No? Then I suggest you move so his brother can do it."
"Bye, Danya," said Bai. "We can talk more later."
Rai settled into the desk and tried to make himself as small as possible. School, which had seemed so warm and promising this morning, was turning into just another obstacle for him to trip over.
* * *
As the school day wore on, Rai's mood rose and fell. The class practiced their words -- calling out the names of animals, colors, and feelings. Teacher Frem told them the ranks of grownups who were allowed to ask for someone's licenses. The children dutifully repeated the list. Then they did numbers for a while, counting big beads on a little wire stand. Rai liked the clicking sound of the beads and the way he could just run his finger across the line to count them.
When they went outside for playtime, Rai clutched his brother's hand so he wouldn't get lost again. Bai and Rai stayed together for a few minutes, but then some other children called out and Bai ran across the yard to play with them. Rai stood in the corner, scuffing his toe against the ground as he listened to the games. Sometimes people bumped into him. Twice someone shoved him hard enough to knock him down. It seemed like a long time before Bai left his new friends and came to lead Rai back inside.
For art, Bai had to help Rai set up the paper, paint pots, and water cup. After that, though, Rai enjoyed himself. The bright creamy smell of the paint made him happy. He got paint on his nose from trying to see the page clearly. Still, he covered the paper with his best memory of a flower garden, broad curves of red and yellow and orange. Rai knocked over his water cup, but he was the third student to do that, so he didn't feel too bad. Teacher Frem was right there with a towel, and she even scrubbed the paint off his face and hands.
"Art is always messy if you're doing it right," she said. "What a pretty rainbow you've made!"
"It's a flower garden," Rai whispered, but she was already gone.
Reading was the worst, though. Teacher Frem walked toward the front of the classroom, her shoes clacking against the floor. Then she did something that made squeaky sounds.
"What's she doing now?" Rai asked his brother. At that distance, he couldn't see Teacher Frem unless she moved a lot. The front wall was just a darkish blur to him.
"She's writing on the slatewall with chalk," said Bai.
"Let's practice our letters," said Teacher Frem. She read off all the letters in order. Then she called on the first student. "Adessen, what's this letter?"
"Fa," said Adessen.
"Bai, what's this one?"
"Vo," said Bai.
"Rai, what letter am I pointing to now?"
"I don't know," said Rai. "I can't see it."
The other students giggled. Rai slouched lower in his desk.
"Rai, can you see the slatewall at all?" asked Teacher Frem.
"Not really," Rai admitted.
"Do you know your letters?" Teacher Frem asked.
"No. I can't see letters," said Rai.
"Well, you certainly can't manage reading, then. Just sit quietly while the rest of the class does this lesson," said Teacher Frem. "I'll talk to your parents later about this."
So Rai had to sit there and listen while other children practiced their letters. He knew it was important to know the letters. He just couldn't think of a way to get at them. They belonged to a world he could not find. The whispers and titters of his classmates burned in his ears. Silent tears trickled down his cheeks.
* * *
The rest of the day went no better. Rai escaped to the carriage-bus at last, clinging to Bai's hand. By the time they reached their own stop, Rai was crying out loud.
"Here, now, what's all this fuss?" asked Larama, who was waiting for them at the stop.
"Nobody wants to teach me anything," Rai wailed. "They don't want me in school at all! The other kids are mean. The teacher is dumb. I want to go home!"
"Well, we are going home, so dry your tears," said Larama.
Rai tried, but the misery just filled him up and leaked out the top. Finally Larama picked him up and put him on her hip. Rai sniffled into her soft shoulder.
"What about you, Bai? How did you like your first day of school?" asked Larama.
"I made a lot of new friends! I love spending time with so many people," Bai said. "Rai is right about the teacher, though. She is dumb. She lost him in the hall!"
"Oh, now, that can't be so--"
"It is too," said Rai. "The mean kids knocked me down and I couldn't find the classroom."
"I told her to go back for him," said Bai. "Then she got mad at me and wrote a bad note for my parents, and now they'll be mad at me."
Rai felt a hitch in Larama's step, then she swung him down.
"Baison, are you telling me the truth? You didn't just let go of Raivan and lose him yourself?" asked Larama, kneeling in front of him.
"She wouldn't let us walk together," said Rai. "I told her why I need Bai but she didn't care. She's really dumb!"
"Mumorg yomarg," Larama muttered. Stupid cow.
Rai giggled. "Muuuu!" he said.
"Your little ears are too sharp for your own good," said Larama. "If you're not careful, one of these days I'll steal them to peel the carrots!"
Rai covered his ears with his hands. "No, no!" he squealed.
"Come on, you two, let's get you home," said Larama, tugging them into motion again.
As they walked, Rai's brief cheer faded, and when they went into the house, he was sniffling again.
"Rai, sweetie, what's wrong? Did you fall down?" said his mother.
Rai flung himself into her arms and cried. Faintly he heard Bai and Larama repeating the story. Rai didn't care. He just wanted to stay in his mother's lap forever, and not have to worry about the scary school or mean kids or his stupid teacher ever again.
A door slammed, hard.
"Oh dear," said Rai's mother, putting him down. "Stay here a moment, Rai. Your father's very upset."
Rai could hear his father yelling and stomping, and didn't even remember when he'd come into the room.
"That overblown Head--" slam! "--all those license fees--" stomp! "-- tell MY son it's his fault--" SLAM!
Alikara started crying.
"That's quite enough, Denald," their mother said firmly. "You woke up the baby and you're scaring the boys. Larama, get Alikara, would you please?"
Their father sighed. "I'm sorry, Jenorv, this just makes me so angry."
"It makes me angry too, but tearing our doors off the hinges won't change anything," she said.
"I'm going down to the school and have some words with the Head," he said. Rai heard his father close the
outside door, quietly this time.
Larama brought the baby in, humming a lullaby. Alikara stopped crying.
"Here, give her to me and I'll feed her before supper," said their mother. "Boys, you can come sit with me on the couch if you're quiet." Rai curled himself into a tiny ball beside his mother. He pressed himself against her large warm body and tried to forget the whole terrible day. Bai started telling about his new friend Adessen, keeping his voice low. Finally Rai fell asleep.
Rai woke when his mother got up. Savory smells came from the kitchen, beef pie and fresh-baked bread and spice cake. Rai's mouth watered. He followed his nose into the kitchen. The bread should be right about ... there ...
"Rai, don't get into that," said Larama. "Wait for everyone else to sit down."
Rai stuck his hands into his pockets and sighed. "I'm hungry," he said.
"We're all hungry, son," said his father, coming up beside him. "Take your seat now and we'll eat."
Rai scrambled into his chair. Bai filled both their plates. "Beef pie at the top, bread at the bottom," Bai said, so that Rai would know what was where.
"Boys, I spoke to the Head of your school this afternoon," their father said. "I'm sorry there was a misunderstanding about Rai's needs. Both of you will be staying home for a few days. I need some time to find a special servant for Rai. Then you'll return to school, and that should be the end of this."
Rai hid his smile by leaning over his plate. No school tomorrow!
* * *
Their father spent the next day searching for a suitable helper for Rai, and the day after that interviewing people. That night Denald came home and announced, "I've hired a nice young Clerk named Methlen to help Rai in class. Boys, you'll be going back to school tomorrow. Mind you get to bed on time tonight."
"Yes, Papa," they said.
* * *
Morning came with a slow shift of light and shadow. Rai turned his face to the window and tried to imagine clouds moving slowly across the sun and then away into the distant sky. Larama got him ready for the day and then sent both boys downstairs. Voices floated up from the kitchen.
"Come here, Rai; there's someone I want you to meet," said their father.
Trailing a hand along the furniture, Rai followed the sounds. "Beautiful morning," he said.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Rai. My name is Methlen," said a cheerful voice.
Rai smiled. He could listen to that voice all day. It sounded like birdsong, light and quick and exciting. She smelled of mint water. He hurried through breakfast so they could get to school and start learning. Surely it would be better now that he had someone just for him, who would help him with all the things he couldn't see for himself.
In class, Methlen sat in her own chair right beside Rai. Teacher Frem was presenting plants today, holding up picture cards for the children to name. Methlen described each one to Rai so that he could name it -- though he didn't know very many of them. "Don't worry," said Methlen, "you'll know them all someday. School is for learning."
Then Teacher Frem asked the students to list the grownups allowed to ask for a person's licenses. Rai tilted his head, concentrating. "License Master, License Clerk ... Monitor ... umm ..." he said slowly.
"Those three are correct," said Teacher Frem. "Keep studying your list."
"I don't have a list," said Rai.
"Give me the list and I'll copy it down for him," said Methlen, so Teacher Frem gave her the list. Then Methlen helped Rai study it for a while.
Next they worked on numbers. Rai liked numbers. They always came out the same if you were careful. They didn't yell at you. They could fit in your hand as beads, or coins, or pebbles.
"The small ones can," Methlen said, and Rai realized that he'd been thinking out loud.
"How big do numbers get?" he asked.
Methlen giggled. "As big as the whole world, silly!" she said. "There's no end to the numbers. They go up and up forever."
When Teacher Frem announced playtime, Methlen walked with Rai so that he wouldn't get lost. Then she paused, placing Rai's hand against the wall. "Rai, I need to use the tidy room. Will you be all right for just a minute?"
"Yes," he said. "I have to go too."
"Your door is a few steps ahead of you," she told him.
Rai had no trouble feeling his way along the wall and making use of the facilities. But then he heard boy-quick footsteps and unpleasantly familiar voices.
"Look who's here," said Ralken.
"It's little Mole-Eyes," said Srarus.
Hands shoved Rai hard against the wash basin, bruising his hip. He tried to get away, but Ralken and Srarus pushed him back and forth between them. "Leave me alone!" said Rai.
"Rai, are you done?" called Methlen.
"I'm done," said Rai, and this time the other boys let him go. He scrambled along the wall until he felt Methlen take his hand again.
"Rai, are you all right?" Methlen said.
"I'm fine," Rai lied. He tasted blood where he'd bitten his lip during the scuffle. If he said anything, though, Methlen might decide he was too much trouble and quit -- or his father might just fire her. Rai couldn't let that happen; he needed Methlen. He swallowed hard. "Really, I just bumped into some stuff. Will you help me study that list of license people while we're outside?"
"If you like," said Methlen, "but I thought this was supposed to be playtime."
Rai shrugged. "I guess. I think they mostly just run around. I'd trip if I tried to do that, and they don't seem to have any sit-down games outside."
"Well, you shouldn't have to sit still all day. I'll just hold your hand and we'll walk around the playground. You can practice the list while we're walking," Methlen said firmly. So that's what they did.
When they came back inside, Teacher Frem opened some cartons of clay. "For art today, we're going to make trees," she said. "Everyone come take a handful of green and a handful of brown. Build your tree on one of these little boards."
Methlen helped Rai get his clay and board. "What does a tree look like?" he whispered as he squeezed the stuff between his fingers.
"Haven't you ever played around the trees in the park?" she asked.
"Yeah, but I can't see the whole tree -- only the bark, and only if I put my nose on it," said Rai. "I know some of the leaf shapes, I guess, but leaves aren't trees either."
"All right, let me think how to explain it," said Methlen. "I know! Rai, do you eat broccoli?"
Rai wrinkled his nose. "I do when Larama makes me."
"A tree looks a lot like broccoli, with a thick trunk and thinner branches and sort of a fluffy top," said Methlen. "Use the brown clay to make the trunk and branches, and the green clay for the top."
"I can do that," said Rai, thinking about the shape of broccoli and the texture of the clay in his hands. He rolled the brown clay into ropes and stuck them together, twisting them into trunk and branches. Then he rolled the green clay into little balls and pressed them carefully onto the branches. His fingertips brushed delicately over the finished tree, comparing it to the shape of broccoli.
"Rai, that's quite a handsome tree you have there!" said Teacher Frem.
"Thank you," said Rai.
"Everyone set your trees over here to dry then clean your hands," said Teacher Frem. "We'll practice our reading next."
"I'll take that," Methlen murmured, and carried away Rai's tree on its board. When she came back, she helped him get the thin film of clay off his hands.
Once again, Teacher Frem wrote the letters on the slatewall. Methlen read each one to Rai as it went up.
Rai fidgeted. "This isn't helping," he said. "What do the letters look like?"
"Well ... they're letters, they're patterns of lines, and ... hmm," said Methlen. "I'm not really sure how to describe them for you. You can't see them to recognize them anyway, Rai. Just let me read to you."
"No," said Rai. "I have to know the letters myself! I want to learn how to read, really read, even if I can't see the letters. I don't want to stay Unlettered for my whole life!"
"Rai, if you can't see the letters, then you can't read," Methlen said gently.
Rai kicked the legs of his desk, frustrated that he couldn't explain what he wanted well enough for Methlen to understand. The vibrations traveled up the legs, through the top of his desk, tracing out the shape of the desk in his mind.
"Settle down, Rai!" Teacher Frem scolded. "Other children are trying to work."
"Methlen, I know what to do," Rai said suddenly. "You can write the letters on my hand. Then I'll know what they look like!"
"That would get ink all over your hand," Methlen pointed out.
"I don't care! I want to read," said Rai. "Please, please -- you're supposed to help me."
"All right, we can try it," said Methlen. Slowly she began to write on Rai's hand. He could feel the scratch of the nib, the thin lines of wet ink cooling his skin. The letters took shape in his mind, and for just a moment he could understand them. But then the ink dried, and the sensation faded, and Methlen kept writing more letters. Rai could not hold onto the earlier ones as the later ones tickled their way across his hand.
"It's not working," Rai said, his face crumpling. "I can't remember them all."
"Give it time, Rai," said Methlen. "Listen, the other children don't all know their letters yet either. We'll just keep practicing. You'll get better at remembering things eventually."
Rai whuffled, his breath blowing his hair out of his face, only to have the fine tendrils of his bangs float back down a moment later. "All right," he said. "Do that first one again." He concentrated on the pattern of lines as they went down, scratchy and cool. He would remember. Somehow, he would.
* * *
By the end of the day, Rai felt exhausted but still hopeful. With Methlen to help, he could do most of the things that the other students did. She made it possible for him to keep up. He just needed to work harder to learn things. As long as Rai stayed right beside her, Methlen's presence even discouraged his classmates from picking on him.
Rai chattered to Methlen as they rode the carriage-bus home. He tried talking to Bai, too, but Bai was busy with something or other from school. They walked back to the house together, where Larama greeted them at the door. Warm, delicious smells of cooking supper wafted out of the kitchen.
Their mother came to hug them, shifting Alikara out of the way. "How was school today?" she asked.
"It was better," said Rai. "Methlen helped me a lot."
"I'm happy to hear that. Here are your notes, Rai," said Methlen. She handed him several pages.
"Will you read me the plants again before supper?" Rai asked.
"No, Rai," Methlen said gently. "I have to go home now. This is family time, not school time, and my own family needs me."
Rai wrapped himself around her leg. "I don't want you to go!" he whined. "I need you to help me with my schoolwork."
"Rai, don't make a pest of yourself," his mother scolded. "Methlen needs to leave so she can catch her cablecar."
"It's all right. He's not bothering me. He just needs to learn our schedule," said Methlen to Jenorv. Then she turned to Rai and carefully pried him loose. "Be a good boy and practice in your head tonight, Rai. I'll see you in the morning."
Rai sniffled as Methlen left. When the door closed, he burst into tears. Startled by the noise, Alikara started crying too.
"Here, now, what's all this fuss?" said Larama. "Rai, you're upsetting your mother and your sister. You know better than that." She scrubbed his face with a corner of her apron.
"I need Methlen to help me study, but she went away. I can't do it by myself," said Rai.
"Well, Methlen is just a day-servant, Rai. You can't expect her to spend all her time with you," said Larama.
"But who's going to read to me?" said Rai.
"Bai can do it," said their mother. "You two are in the same class anyway; you must have the same work to do."
"That's not fair," whined Bai. "I already did mine on the way home. I shouldn't have to do extra just because he didn't get his done yet. I want to go outside and play!"
"You can play later, Bai," Jenorv said firmly, steering both boys to the couch. "Brothers are supposed to look out for each other."
"I already do a lot of that. I don't want to do more! Schoolwork is hard, and I want to have time for friends and games too," said Bai.
"Well, Methlen is taking over some of the things you used to do for Rai," Jenorv pointed out. "Now that you know you need to help Rai with schoolwork in the evenings, you can plan for it. Either socialize with your friends on the carriage-bus and do the work when you get home, or you and Rai can do your schoolwork together on the way home and then have free time when you get here."
"All right," said Bai. "I guess I didn't think of those things."
"Fair enough," said Jenorv. "Rai, give your brother the notes that Methlen made."
Silently Rai held out the pages. Bai took them.
"Firebell," Bai read from the plant list.
"It grows in wet places. It has long strappy leaves and red flowers. People eat the roots," said Rai.
"No we don't," said Bai.
"It's a peasant food, boys," their mother said.
Rai missed Methlen already. It seemed like a long time until supper, with only Bai's assistance as a study partner. They could plan ahead next time, though, and that should make Bai happier. Rai didn't want to bother his twin too much; he wanted to find ways of doing things himself. Rai wished that he could remember things after hearing them just once. Then he wouldn't have to ask anyone to read them over and over again.
Finally it came time for supper. "Let's go wash up," said Larama. She took Rai's hand and then exclaimed in surprise. "Rai, you're filthy!"
Jenorv came and turned his hand over in hers. "How in the name of all that is licensed did you manage this? Were you washing your hands in ink?" she said.
"No," Rai said in a small voice. "I asked Methlen to write on my hand so I could feel the shapes of the letters. I don't want to stay Unlettered forever!"
"You won't," his mother said firmly. "We'll need to figure out another way for you to practice your letters, though." She pushed Rai into Larama's care again. "Go get cleaned up for supper."
Larama tried the nice hand soap, but it didn't help much. She wound up scrubbing Rai's hand with the gritty soap powder meant for cleaning the sink, and even that didn't get all the ink off. At last she gave up, saying, "That will just have to do for now, I'm afraid. The rest of it will wear off in time."
Rai slunk to his place at the table. Bai filled a plate and named the contents, but it landed in front of Rai with a noticable clatter. Rai didn't say anything. He understood how his brother felt -- he had wanted to play outside too. They would just have to do most of their playing on the tenends now, like other schoolchildren.
After supper, Bai and Rai played with their toys for a while, and then they studied the list of who could ask to see licenses. At least Bai seemed to find that one interesting -- he kept asking their mother why people needed to do that, and the reasons were different for all the people.
"Thank you for helping me study the license people," Rai said to Bai.
"That's all right. License stuff is kind of fun," Bai said. "I guess we should go over the letters again, though."
"Yes, but I don't want ink on me again, and I can't think how else to learn the stupid shapes," said Rai.
Then Jenorv said, "I have an idea," and she left the room for a few minutes. When she came back, she handed Rai something. "Here, try this at school tomorrow; you boys have studied enough for tonight. It should help you learn your letters without covering your hands in ink."
Rai ran his fingers over the smooth wooden handle. At each end he found a thin, stiff wire tipped by a tiny ball. "What is this?" he asked.
"It's a craft stylus. You can push it against things to make lines or dimples in them," his mother explained. She demonstrated by tracing the alphabet on Rai's hand, one careful letter at a time. Then she handed the stylus back to him.
Rai hugged her. "Thank you, Mama. I'm sorry I got all messy today."
"That's all right, dear. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out the best way to do things," she said, hugging him back.
* * *
The next morning, Methlen appeared as promised. Rai showed her the craft stylus, and she agreed that it would serve the purpose nicely. They walked to the carriage-bus together, with Bai nattering on about his new friends and something he wanted to do with them. The sunlight warmed Rai's face, now and again obscured by the cool distant passage of a cloud.
Rai fingered his stylus. He would learn his letters, whatever it took. He would stay in school, no matter what his classmates did to him. He would not let them push him aside into whatever shadowy place was kept for those who could not measure up to the Empire's standards. He would study hard. He would practice and practice until he could remember everything he heard. He would become the best student ever, and then they'd see, all right.
Rai lifted his chin and strode boldly at Methlen's side, through the warmth of the sun and the chill shadows of the clouds.
This story introduces one of my main characters, Raivan (generally called Rai when he's not in trouble), paired with his fraternal twin brother Baison (Bai, owned by Ellen Million). Ellen and I outlined this story together to establish some background for our characters, who will feature strongly in the storyline that introduces the Northern and Southern cultures.
Yes, the school's treatment of Rai is pretty callous. The Empire makes few allowances for disabilities, preferring to shuffle people off to welfare instead. Over time, you'll get to see how Rai learns to cope with his visual handicap and the Empire's tendency to shortchange him.