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Ressa waited in the crowd, smiling politely at someone who accidentally tread on a toe, and apologizing automatically when she backed into someone to avoid a porter with a heaping luggage cart. The whistle announcing the train brought butterflies to her stomach, and she smoothed the new green robes over her shoulders nervously. She crowded forward as much as she could without being rude or dangerous enough to attract the attention of a monitor as the car squealed to a halt, and was waiting at the numbered hatch when the passengers were finally released.Author's Notes
"I want you to show us everything," Tedra insisted, before both feet were even off the railcar landing. She looked around in wide-eyed wonder, boggling at the high arches of the covered railway building and the bustle of the crowd that surged around them while Tosara flung her arms around Ressa and squeezed tight with no care for decorum. Thlam, trying to look nonchalant, kissed her cheek politely and went to collect their bags.
Ressa laughed and hugged Tosara and tried to catch Thlam for a hug also. It had been nearly two years since she'd last seen her family, and she was surprised to find that seeing them again was almost more painful than missing them. "You're so tall," she told Tedra with an embrace. "And Tosara, your hair!"
Tosara laughed and tossed her head so the short bob swished around her jaw. "Couldn't bear it another summer!" she said. "Look at you, in green robes."
Ressa could not help grinning, though it was a little hesitant. The robes were new enough to still be novel. "They'll be blue before you know it," she promised, biting her lip. Would they understand the implication? Would they approve of her choice?
"Oh, Ressa!" Tedra was bouncing on her toes. "You made it in the top forty?" The top forty percent of students in third form of the science track got paid tuition and board to fourth form. Tosara squealed in glee.
Ressa flushed, heartened by their reaction. "I did! I just got the letter yesterday!"
That earned her another round of hugs, including from Thlam, who had returned from the luggage car carrying two enormous bags. Ressa eyed them in surprise. "You're only here for two days, I thought?" she said wryly.
"We brought presents," Tedra trilled. She might have started ripping open the bags right then, but Tosara, rolling her eyes, told her not to be stupid. Thlam groaned, and might have perpetuated the fight, but Ressa stepped in and took Tedra's arm, tucking it into her elbow.
"We'll open everything when we get to the rooms I've held for you. Let's get out of the railsmoke now! We have to stop at the licensing office first," she said briskly, leading them through the crowd. "It's only a short walk!"
It was a short walk for her, used to the flow of crowds and the system of streets. With even only three of her many siblings in tow, it was a new kind of chaos. Tedra wanted to stop and exclaim over every sight, demanding a history and explanation for everything. Tosara insisted on staring at the street performers, and Thlam was trying so hard to look like he fit in that he nearly ran over a monitor at a street corner with the largest of the bags.
The main licensing office had a huge, deeply double-arched entrance, and both main doors were wide open to celebrate the fine summer weather. They could be closed in less favorable conditions, with smaller inset doors to allow entrance, but it was more impressive when they were open. A monitor waved them through, and inside, Ressa went briskly to the queue for picking up finished licenses at the end of the lobby.
There was construction in progress - scaffolding stretched from floor to high, arched ceiling, and a mosaic was in progress across the top of the arches. There were no workers on it now - Ressa guessed that they only worked at night, when there were no crowds to chance dropping tiles on. The Empire was very strict about safety.
"It's so big," Tedra said reverently.
"How did they even build it?" Tosara asked in wonder. "Quit staring at the floor, Thlam."
"I'm not staring," Thlam muttered.
They inched forward in the line at a regular pace, until they received a paper slip with a number and they went upstairs to the waiting area. Tosara and Thlam went immediately to the railing, where they could look down over the lobby they'd just been waiting in, marveling at the pattern on the floor, and the hanging lights. "How do they dust them?" Tosara wanted to know.
They settled into the last free couch that would sit all four of them and Tedra had to try one of the fancy pens that were available at desks throughout the balcony for people to fill out forms with, scribbling on the back of her hand for lack of paper until Ressa scolded her. A poor-looking man with a wildly bushy beard stared at them for several ticks before switching seats, and an old lady in meticulous scientist robes glared at everyone indiscriminately.
"Are we really going to stay at the Carnal Guild?" Tedra asked, once the shine of the magnificent room had begun to wear off and the boredom of waiting had set in.
Ressa had reserved visitors quarters at the Carnal Guild for them, deciding, after some consideration, that they would appreciate the luxury of the Guild to the austere quarters available for guests at the Cultural School where she had chosen to live. As a student at both, she had access to guest rooms at either for limited blocks of time to accommodate visiting family.
Thlam coughed and rubbed his face with his sleeve.
Ressa elbowed him in the side. "Don't worry. The novices won't bother you in the visitor's quarters. Everything is very orderly."
Tosara wondered, "How can you do both? Be in a guild and be a student, I mean? And as a clerk now, too!"
Ressa was sure this was an appropriate place for a good speech about discipline and hard work, but she couldn't resist saying slyly, "Oh, it's easy - the guild teaches you the skills to get ahead in the sciences," with a suggestive wiggle of her hips and a wink.
They stared at her in shock just long enough for her to doubt the timing of the joke, and then burst into blushing laughter, as they were supposed to.
"It's a lot of work," she said more seriously, when they'd smothered their chuckles in respect to the other people on the waiting level, who turned and exchanged amused looks at their expense (and glares, in the case of the old lady). "I study a lot in the mornings, before everyone else is used to getting up." She chewed on her lip, wishing she could explain how much more fulfilling she found her studies over the guild training.
"You'd be an amazing Scientist," Thlam said with unexpected approval. "The best."
Ressa smiled at him, and felt some measure of her apprehension lift. Their number was called, and they went to the license desk to collect all of the temporary licenses that they would need for their visit.
She had been considering the choice between continuing with the guild and following the science track, and had been dreading the displeasure of her family over it for tendays. It was a relief to think that they might support it. As they drew up to the broad counter, she could laugh when Tedra suggested, "You could always come work in the license office and make it work less slowly, when you're a Scientist."
Tosara giggled, but Thlam said solemnly, "I just bet you could. And then we wouldn't have to spend half our visit waiting for paperwork."
Ressa looked up at the ceiling, and at the mosaic coming to life there: a butterfly in front of a sheaf of wheat, sitting inside a geared sun. "Maybe I will," she said, hopefully. She looked back down and ruffled Tosara's hair. "But for now, I'm going to be the very best tour guide you've ever had."
Affamarg was laid out very logically, in a numbered grid system. The rail station was just a main block from the licensing office, and from there, it was three blocks through a government district to Lassati's Restaurant for supper. Ressa treated them to the special of the day, braised sandpig, and made them try the blended ice drinks that were all the rage in the city during the summer.
Tedra chose the meffirb flavor, Thlam the blackberry, Ressa the honey, and Tosara the deikeln. Tosara found the deikeln too spicy, and traded with Ressa after only a few sips, and they all agreed that Tedra's meffirb was the most delicious, Tosara with no little envy. Thlam was quite content with his, though he expressed surprise at the color. "Our blackberries at home are darker," he said thoughtfully.
Ressa gave them each the maps of the city that she'd procured at the licensing office with their temporary travel and resident licenses and cablecar passes, and pointed out the major points as they sipped the cold drinks.
"We're here," she said, showing them. "The river is that direction, and will be your best method of orienting yourselves, if we get separated. This red line is the cablecar route."
"Is this the rail station?" Thlam asked, pointing at his copy.
Ressa nodded. "The rail runs all the way through the city from west to east."
"What do these colors on the roads mean?" Tosara queried.
Ressa showed them the key, explaining, "Some of the roads are for pedestrians only, some allow bicycles and pedaltaxis, and these along here allow animal vehicles."
"Animal vehicles?" Thlam had always preferred the livestock barns over the fields.
"They have horsedrawn wagons and some Yasiluu dog carts."
Thlam's expression brightened at that - he was crazy about stories of Yasiluu dogs.
"Where is the Mojeveterk museum?" Tedra was trying to lick discretely around the inside edge of her glass, to capture every last frosty bit. Thlam kicked her in the shin. "Ow," she said, putting her glass down.
"The museums are clustered here, in the outskirts of the city to the south. We'll have to take the cablecar to get to them."
"Where are we staying?" Tosara oriented her own map on the table in the same direction as Ressa's, trailing a finger over the places in echo of her sister.
Ressa showed them. "The carnal guild runs all of these houses, along the river. The school is furthest south. The science schools are all clustered over here, in the east." She had to flip the map, to show them, and Tedra made a little noise of dismay.
"You're going to be so far away," she said in alarm.
"It's only a tentick on the cablecar," Ressa reassured with a gentle laugh. "I'll be at the guild by the time you roll out of bed every morning," she promised. She put a hand over Tedra's, automatically offering comfort. Tedra rewarded her with a quavering smile.
"What's this bit?" Thlam, perhaps wishing to forestall more girly panic, pointed at an area of the map where the rigid road grid gave way to smoother curves.
"The southwestern hills are higher class residential," Ressa explained. "We'll be going to see two of the public gardens." She pointed to the green patches. "And there are constructed waterfalls on the bluff here that we'll be visiting." She followed a thin blue line to the principal river. "We can take a boat down the canal here from the bottom of the falls to the river, if you want."
Tosara's eyes were wide. "There's so much to do in the city," she said, with none of Tedra's nervousness.
"Are we going to go do it?" Thlam asked impatiently.
"Yes," Tosara agreed. "Let's!"
Ressa settled their bill, and they all tromped back out into the late afternoon sunshine to catch the nearest cablecar towards the carnal guild houses. The cable car traveled on a cement rail that arched above the streets between the buildings, the cable that propelled it well out of reach and out of danger to street-level citizens. They climbed a set of wide cement steps and sat for a short time on one of the stone benches at the cablecar stop.
"Is it dangerous?" Tedra asked.
"Safe as a pillow," Ressa promised. "I ride it every day."
A whistle announced the arrival of the cablecar, and they all stood - the visitors a little alarmed at the fast approach of the long, windowed cablecar.
Ressa herded them swiftly on board. "Good afternoon, citizens," the cablecar driver said cheerfully to them as they boarded.
"Good afternoon," they chorused back. Tosara giggled.
"He didn't check our licenses!" Tedra said in concern, as they found free seats and crowded the bags onto their laps.
"No one could check every license," Ressa said. "So, they do it randomly, checking every couple of hours on different lines."
"What happens if you don't have the right license?" Tosara was looking out the window, down at the people busily walking below.
"The Monitors are the ones who do the check, and they can take you for a full license challenge if that happens. They can detain you for up to 20 hours, and fine you as much as 50 Imperials!"
Tedra's eyes got big, and she clutched her license pouch tighter.
Several stops later, Ressa herded them all out onto the cablecar platform closest to the carnal guild schools and down the steps to street level.
It was a few blocks from the stop to the dormitories, and Ressa had to remind them several times to stop slowing down as they stared around at the tall buildings and lush gardens and manicured trees. "We're almost there," she laughed at them, hauling one of the largest bags herself.
She took them around to the residence entrance, and showed her guild license to the monitor there while the others gravely showed their temporary residence licenses. Tedra bounced on her toes in place. Their tattoos were checked, and the monitor nodded them past.
"Oh, Ressa," Tosara said, breathless, as they walked down the carpeted hallway. There were time crystal settings above armslength, giving the hallway a warm reddish light. All of the doors and fixtures were ornately decorated, and every corner had carved accents.
"I knew you'd like it," Ressa said, pleased. "Here, this is Thlam's room."
They tromped in and put the bags down. Tosara immediately knelt and began to unlace the flaps. "Presents!" she announced, and there was a flurry of reveals and exclamations and at the end of it, Ressa was wrapped in a new handmade quilt, wearing a floppy straw hat adorned with stitched fabric flowers, stroking a stuffed, sheared fur skycat. A wooden bracelet joined the simple silver one on her arm and a pair of crocheted socks lay over her leg. Their parents (perhaps anticipating Tedra's sulks) had tucked in gifts for each of the siblings, and Thlam was wearing a fine new vest, Tosara had carved haircombs pulling back her short bob and Tedra was blissfully flipping through a blank book with a wooden cover.
"I can't stay too late," Ressa said apologetically, as the light outside the tall windows began to fade. "Let's go get the girls settled."
Thlam chose to stay behind to explore his own room, and the girls went across the hall and down several doors.
"Ooo!" Tedra bounced at the foot of the wide bed. "This is so... luxurious."
Tosara wandered the room, running her fingers over the polished wooden furniture and petting the soft velvety fabric of the chairs and the curtains. "You took student housing over this?" she asked, with a sharp look at Ressa.
Ressa, a practiced mild smile on her face, nodded. "I didn't like having better quarters than the other science students," she admitted. "It felt... weird." In general, she kept her guild apprenticeship from the other students; the divide between the science track and the guilds was not always a comfortable one to straddle.
"Where's the bathroom?" Tedra asked.
Ressa showed them the big, marbled room, enjoying their wide eyes of appreciation, and showed Tedra the tricks to the gleaming water fixtures. "I want to go first!" Tedra said, as hot water spilled into the tub.
"Take as long as you like," Ressa assured her. "And you can drain it between the two of you." It was an unthinkable extravagance, not to have to share bathwater, and she smiled at Tedra's squeal of joy.
"My own bath!" Tedra trilled, and she could not push Ressa and Tosara out quickly enough. "I'll see you in an hour," she said, and Ressa was not sure she was joking.
Tosara took her own turn bouncing at the foot of the big bed that the sisters would share. "Thank you for inviting us," she said for the first time, almost shyly polite.
Ressa sat down beside her and put an art around her shoulders. "I'm so glad to have you," she said. "I really wanted to share this with you..."
"While you still could?"
Ressa looked at Tosara sharply, and her sister looked back with amused eyes. They looked alike, but Tosara was plainer, with a broader nose and narrower eyes. She had the same hair, but cropped short, it looked very different against the same jaw that Ressa saw in the mirror. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"You aren't going to continue in the guild, are you?"
Ressa felt the tension in her throat return. "No," she said quietly. "I will have all of the classes I need for junior level in just 3 months, and I'll be of legal age a month after that, but..."
"You want to be a scientist."
"I do," Ressa admitted.
"Is it so awful?" Tosara asked curiously. "What they pay you to do?"
Ressa laughed, and it was a freeing laugh. "Goodness no," she said. She was of the intermediate age, where she was allowed to take clients from among those also in intermediate age, as carefully approved by her teachers, and carnal guild students were encouraged to explore their own personal boundaries with each other. "I quite like that part," she admitted with a sly, sideways look and a blush.
"Why, then?" Tosara's gesture took in the room, with its high, decorated ceiling, the curtains, and the scroll-carved furniture. There were even vials of fancy perfume and oils for the visitors, and Tedra could be heard exclaiming over the fine soaps. "Who wouldn't want this?"
"It's too fancy," Ressa said thoughtfully. "It's not who I am. I... want to do useful things, and live modestly. I don't want to be this person who lives in velvet and satin doing nothing and having Imperials thrown at me."
"It must be hard to give up," Tosara guessed. "Because you've spent so much time training at it now."
Ressa had been with the guild, juggling third form, for four and a half years now, and it was, perhaps, the hardest part of the decision she'd made - so much time and investment to turn away.
"It's still useful training," she said solemnly and honestly. "Most of what we learned was about how to deal with people, you know. What to say to put someone at ease, how to converse without offering unnecessary offense, and how to help your own body do what it already knows how to do. Sex is easy, you'll see," she laughed, with a elbow at Tosara, who giggled and blushed red. "I can't consider it wasted time, not really."
"Why go through those last classes, if you already know?" Tosara asked, when she could again.
"I intend to get my license," Ressa said firmly. "And pay to keep it current. It's important to have a fallback plan."
"In case you aren't in the top forty?" After the fourth form, only the top forty percent of the students got free tuition to go on to study to become scientists, even if they passed to become assistants. "Would you pay?"
Ressa considered, and then slowly shook her head. "I don't think so," she admitted. "But I don't know." She didn't want to think about not getting high enough grades in fourth form, not yet. She stood, gesturing out the window. The late summer evening was beginning to deepen into night. "I have to catch the last cablecar," she said reluctantly, with a kiss to the top of Tosara's head. "Have a beautiful night."
"In this beautiful room, how could it be anything else?" Tosara said with a chuckle. She looked a little sad, Ressa thought, and she impulsively hugged the younger woman.
Before she left, she knocked on the bathroom door and called a good night to Tedra, who promised to get out soon and have a good night.
The cablecar was barely a quarter full, and the sky was entirely dark by the time it pulled into the station that serviced the cultural schools. Ressa went briskly to her dormitory, smiling at the starlit sky.
Part 1 of 2...