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"Denel." Emeroma greeted her with no warmth on her stern face, looking up at the sound of the scientist's tentative knock on the open door. Author's Notes
Denel crept into the room; Emeroma had always been intimidating, but lately, she had been downright draconian. Lesser scientists fled her offices in tears, and even Oranaan had been verbally flayed several times in the months that followed their return to Affamarg. Strangely, the eccentric science master had taken his scolds without protest or pouting, demonstrating a restraint that was out of character. Denel didn't have to look hard for the cause of either strange behavior.
The major project of her science master schooling was in crumbles as surely as the old year: the City of Lights was folding.
She, Oranaan and Emeroma - scientist, science master and science leader respectively - had made no headway on the mystery of the anomalies that were harassing the building site, causing destruction, mayhem and even fatal madness to the inhabitants. Five fruitless years of investigation and experimentation, while the citizens of the city gradually fled - or died - leaving the graceful shells of half-built buildings, hung with permanent time crystals that hadn't yet been salvaged, and taking with them stories of horror and devastation.
Finally, even the engineers and scientists had abandoned the city, retreating back to the science schools at Affamarg as winter settled over the city, and labor shortages caused by the panic meant that even basic services were impossible to keep running.
"Must you look like a kicked puppy when you visit my office?" Emeroma asked in exasperation, and Denel did her best to stand up straight and compose her face as she came the last steps to Emeroma's desk.
"You sent a card for me?" she asked, rather than rising to the bait. She recognized the stack of papers on Emeroma's desk; it was the paper she'd put together with their lackluster results; the pitiful analysis of five years of work, summed up in a novel-length dissertation. Oranaan's paper, slimmer by half, unbound and rumpled, lay beside it.
"Sit," Emeroma directed, and Denel did so, obediently. "I've applied to teach a full load of classes next trimester," she said, with unexpected candor.
Denel was surprised, though she didn't allow it to show on her face. Emeroma's loathing of teaching was well known, and it was unlike the woman to chat generally with Denel. A moment of thought made Denel suspect she was about to receive a directive for which classes to attend; the scientist was nearly through the curriculum to achieve science master rank, with a few trimesters of administration points still to achieve. She wasn't sure what kind of conversational response Emeroma's statement required, so she remained quiet and waited.
Emeroma picked up Oranaan's paper, rather than Denel's. "Your mentorship under Oranaan has worked out well for him. His record keeping has improved markedly, and none of his licenses have been revoked in the last three years. This paper was on time, and has no notable errors." She put the paper down, and chose not to lift the tome that was Denel's paper, tapping it instead. "I'm not sure that you got as much out of it as he did."
Denel tried to keep herself from flinching and wasn't sure she entirely succeeded.
"You've spent the last five years working towards your science master rating, choosing as your primary focus the city of lights construction project. You've been with the project since its start, working closely with the designers, with construction paperwork, the investigation..."
Denel let the words wash over her, a hot hum rising in her ears. Was Emeroma dismissing her as advisor? Was that why she had alluded to taking on a full class load the following trimester? Denel had a load of leadership classes still to take, and a few classes of administration; two trimesters worth, or perhaps a full year, at the rate she could fit classes in around raising two boys. She shouldn't have trouble finding a professor in Affamarg willing to mentor her for the remainder of her studies, but it would be greatly shaming to be cast off from Emeroma's elite selection of students. She bitterly reminded herself that with the City of Lights investigation officially ending, she would have more time for classes, at least, and hopefully not embarrass her next primary advisor.
"You and Oranaan did as thorough a job on the investigation as possible," Emeroma said stiffly. It was as political a statement as Denel had ever heard from her; the science leader did not often concede that there were limits on possibilities, and rarely offered praise. In that way, she was a good match for the far less disciplined Oranaan. It suddenly occurred to Denel then that Oranaan was at question here, and that it was far more likely that Oranaan was being promoted to Science Leader, and his mentorship of Denel was the one being dissolved, not Denel's to Emeroma. Relief made her knees feel like jelly. She liked Oranaan, a great deal, but he was as much of a drain on her time as the City of Lights had been in entirety. A new mentor might be a good change of pace.
Emeroma had gone quiet, waiting for some response, and Denel searched for one. "I... er... it's unfortunate that we weren't able to find more... concrete results," she said diplomatically.
Emeroma's sharp glance said she didn't appreciate the diplomacy.
"I'm passing you up to science master," Emeroma said abruptly.
"What?" was the only response Denel could come up with. "I... what?"
Emeroma actually looked a little embarrassed, and even slightly pleased. "I'm using your experience in the paperwork for the City of Lights to waive your administrative classes - you'd have been bored stiff in them anyway - and your partnership with Oranaan is being applied as the mentorship requirement, since you clearly taught him as much as he taught you. Your paper on the City of Lights investigation is more thorough than most science leader final reports, and twice as well done." She pushed a copy of a stamped justification form across the desk at Denel, who took it with numb fingers. "It will take a few tendays for the paperwork to clear, but the necessary approvals are in, and you should be able to pick up a temporary license before the next trimester."
Much to her shame, tears pricked at Denel's eyes. She blinked them away. "Thank you, Science Leader," she said, overly formal. "I... appreciate that you've done this."
With unexpected gentleness, Emeroma said, "You deserve it, Denel. You've worked hard over the past few years, and if you choose to pursue Science Leader, I will continue to sponsor you."
Denel had to swallow hard, several times, before she could answer, weakly, "I'd like that."
Emeroma harrumphed. "Well, if you're serious about that, I'd like you to take a role in the experimental time crystal generators being built outside of Tifiranir. Oranaan has been looking at their design and has some suggestions about the alignments. His notes need to be deciphered and double-checked, and I'd like someone to oversee the hazard paperwork."
Unable to keep the smile from her face, Denel nodded. This project, if not as prestigious as the City of Lights assignment had initially been, was a tremendous honor, and she'd been reading about the generators with some interest in the rags.
"It's settled then," Emeroma said with finality. "I'll draw up the paperwork to assign it to you, and arrange for your travel licenses."
Denel, knowing a dismissal when she heard it, stood. She fumbled for appropriate thanks, and finally settled on a simple, grateful, "Thank you."
Emeroma's grunt was her only answer.
Denel knelt and opened her arms to the boys who ran to meet her. Amanel, laughing, released her after a swift hug, but Kivegei clung to her longer. "I don't want to go to first form," he confided in her ear. It was a familiar statement from him lately; shortly after the turn of the new year, he was enrolled to start in school, and it was making him more clingy and needy even than usual.
Denel kept a grip on him as she stood. He was getting big enough now that it was a struggle to straighten with him in her arms. "It's alright, skykitten," she soothed him. "You'll like school just as much as Amanel does."
"Can't you teach me?" he pleaded. "You're smart and know lots of things. Amanel's teacher is dumb."
"He's not dumb," Amanel defended. "He's just not as educated." His lofty tone made Denel stifle a giggle; it was exactly the way Jerumal would have said it, and Denel felt a flush of pride as she remembered the news she brought home. Science master! At last!
"The teacher will be able to teach you all kinds of things that I can't," Denel assured him. "You'll get to learn art and games and..."
"Social skills," Amanel said, sounding like his father again. Then he laughed, in a way that was his entirely. "You'll like it," he assured his younger brother. "It's almost as much fun as the circus!" He reached up to tickle behind Kivegei's knees, and the littler boy giggled despite himself.
"The circus is in town?" Jerumal said drolly, coming into the room. "And it's in my company room? I see the clowns, and the pretty lady who takes the tickets, but I don't see any Yasiluu trick dogs, or the rare Ibabesh steppe yak!"
Denel felt a rush of pleasure that was keen and unexpected; Jerumal almost never called her pretty. She put Kivegei down, giggling even harder, to greet her husband with a kiss on the cheek that was not as solely dutiful as it usually was. The delight of her news was fresh again, and bubbled up in her throat. "I have a surprise," she started.
"I have one, too!" Jerumal said with delight, lifting Kivegei himself for a hug
"Not like mine," Denel said, before she could stop herself, grinning. A whole year off of her studies for Science Master; she itched to share the news.
Jerumal laughed, and insisted confidently, "Oh, my surprise tops yours."
Denel's enthusiasm was immediately dampened with irritation, though she steadfastly kept a smile on her face. Why would he assume that his surprise was better? She doubted it could be, then made herself mentally shrug. It wasn't a competition, she reminded herself. "What is it, then?" she asked, trying to sound enthused. The boys had certainly caught onto Jerumal's energy, and were romping around the room, laughing and singing "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"
"Not here," Jerumal said. "Not now. This deserves a celebration!"
'So does mine,' Denel thought, but she didn't say it.
"We're having dinner out," he said expansively. "Somewhere fancy."
"Lassati's?" Denel suggested. It was their usual treat, for those nights that the househelp was away, or the cook indisposed.
"Fancier," Jerumal insisted. "My news deserves gold platters and crystal decanters." He seemed to have forgotten about Denel's news entirely. "I sent a card to The Gleaming Goblet to reserve us a table."
Denel felt her mouth move into a little 'O' and her eyebrows rise.
"Can we go, too?" Kivegei asked wistfully, panting from their skipping and singing.
Jerumal knelt to him. "I'm afraid not, little scientist," he said regretfully. "The Gleaming Goblet is only for grown ups."
"I want to be a grown up," Kivegei said, instantly pouting.
"Grown ups have to get through first form," Jerumal reminded him, and Denel watched the conflict pour across the little boy's face at that restriction. It was thoughtful, at least, seeing some new benefit in the dreaded first form. She looked at Jerumal's face with her own thoughtfulness; he had been getting increasingly good at knowing the right thing to say, and guessing at the emotional motivation of the people around him. It was a skill he was clearly learning from his mentor on the council, Dramanar. She wondered wistfully why it didn't apply more to her; they always seemed a beat out of step with each other lately.
He looked up at her with a warm, excited smile, and Denel's chest ached. He was so handsome and effortlessly charming; some days she struggled with the idea that he was married to her, and wondered why he was.
"You should get dressed," he reminded her. "Have the housekeeper do something lovely with your hair."
Denel nodded absently and turned away. Was that a reminder that she didn't do enough with her hair usually? She chided herself all the way to her rooms for being a stupid, sensitive dairy sow and went to prepare for the dinner.
Denel knew that some women found confidence in wearing jewels and silks and velvets, but she always found it rather awkward, as if she'd been caught dressing up in someone else's clothing. There weren't enough gold and gems in the Empire to make her feel like she belonged in a place like The Gleaming Goblet, and it felt like she was being forced to put on airs more and more often as Jerumal mentored under Dramanar for the council.
She kept her expression carefully neutral, conscious that she didn't want to embarrass her husband in public, and sat gingerly across from him in the padded throne of a chair at the richly laid table. The decadent time crystal lamps and fixtures throughout the room reminded her of the City of Lights - once so full of hope and luxury, now snuffed out and little more than an embarrassment to the Empire... and to her.
People already seated looked at them curiously, and Denel wondered if she imagined that they were whispering to each other. Was the official closure of the City of Lights still so fresh in their minds? She wasn't interesting enough to figure much in the gray rags, but the white rags sometimes mentioned her name, and there were even occasional etchings of her face, though Oranaan and Emeroma figured more prominently.
She picked something from the available choices without thinking about it much, and Jerumal selected his with more care, joking with the pretty server in a light, flirtatious fashion. Denel fussed with her napkin and toyed with the cut glass goblet that the restaurant derived its name from.
After their first course, Jerumal, grinning in excited delight, finally told her, "I've been elected to full council member."
Denel stared. Jerumal was mentoring under Dramanar, yes, but the councilor wasn't expected to retire for some time, and there were two other older, more experienced mentees that were more likely to take the role. Council member, at Jerumal's age... Denel realized she was still staring, and made herself dredge up a response.
"That's... wonderful!" she said, because it was expected of her. In truth her heart sank a little. It meant more attention, more duties away from their family, and... more of a gap between them. A gap she thought that becoming a science master might start to close. "What an honor," she said weakly. And, because she couldn't help it, "What about Tulein and Unaren?" It sounded a little less bitter than she feared, but not as happy as she ought to. "I mean, I thought that Tulein was the favored candidate, not that..." she trailed off, not wanting to make things worse.
Jerumal didn't seem to notice, or was savvy enough to ignore her awkwardness. "Tulein was expected to receive the position," he agreed without offense, "but at the last moment asked not to be considered. Something about family things or other duties."
"And Dramanar, retiring? That's unexpected!"
Jerumal nodded, smiling cheerfully at the server who came to refill their drinks. "Caught us all by surprise," he agreed bouyantly. "And the old coot enjoyed doing it, too. You should have seen his look of glee."
He chatted for some time with Denel's minimal help, enthused as a boy about the promotion, and proud as could be. He reminded Denel of Amanel, all cheerful, youthful energy. She sipped at her wine and ate her food with automatic motions, smiling and nodding as required.
It wasn't until after dessert had been cleared and was sitting in the bottom of her stomach with the rest of the over-rich meal that Jerumal asked, "What about your news, darling? Did you have some to share, too?"
Denel was surprised that Jerumal even remembered. "It was nothing," she said mildly. It seemed so inconsequential now.
"It wasn't nothing," Jerumal scolded. "You were really excited about it!"
Iritation bloomed in Denel's chest. She had been excited about it, until Jerumal, like usual, managed to make it seem like nothing. "I was promoted to science master," she said sharply, and when Jerumal, in perfectly warm, solicitous tones started to praise her, she snapped, "It's not as important as your news."
He was wisely quiet for a moment, and Denel felt worse. She sighed. "I'm sorry," she apologized.
"Of course, you feel like I outshone your news," Jerumal said easily, and it did nothing to soothe Denel's irritation. He always had a reasonable explanation for her - as if she were some scientific study in human behavior. She kept her eyes on her empty plate, using her fork to push around a few last unappetizing crumbs. "Maybe... we shouldn't do surprises," he said softly.
Denel didn't look up; she knew too well what his face would look like - that familiar expression, perfectly balanced between sympathy and superior kindness. Her chest ached. Their marriage had been a surprise, too - did he intend to reference that? Maybe if she'd been a cultural scientist, she would know what tricks of speech or body language would ease this situation and make things right between them, but none of the engineering skills she'd learned to become a science master did her any good now. She didn't have the tools to try... so she let the moment stretch between them, until Jerumal was distracted by their bill, and it was finally time to leave.
The winter night outside the Gleaming Goblet was chilly, with a biting breeze that drove the snowy air under Denel's coat. They walked in silence, and though she was shivering, Denel didn't want to ask for conveyance. She thought about the posting Emeroma had offered her, and realized she hadn't told Jerumal about the generator project she had been invited to participate in.
Would this only be another City of Lights project, doomed to failure? As hard as Denel tried, she could not shake the feeling that the demise of the project was her own fault. They could find no reason for the destruction and madness, no logic in the building failures, and no sense in the pattern of devestation.
"It was a good idea, at the time," Jerumal was saying, and Denel realized she had lost track of the conversation entirely.
"It was," she said quietly, ithoi. She wasn't sure what Jerumal was referring to specifically, but it was true of many thing, the City of Lights included.
This story changed a great deal as it was written... it managed to surprise me many times.