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The Mansit Blade
by Bob Nelson
by Bob Nelson
The Mansit Blade … a novel by Bob Nelson
….. Teacher Mikkel glanced over his robe, flicking away several more or less imaginary bits of lint, before knocking on the Magister’s door.
He heard “come in” and entered. The old man sitting behind the desk had been old when Mikkel had first arrived at the College a decade earlier. He had been terrifying for a thirteen-year-old Student, and was now only slightly less terrifying for a twenty-four-year-old Teacher.
The Magister’s Office was intemporal. It seemed dim, but as Mikkel glanced around, he saw nothing hidden in shadow. The room looked exactly as it had the first time Mikkel had been there, a dozen years earlier, although Mikkel was certain that most of the furniture had been renewed. Perhaps there was a magical aura about the room that instantly transformed “new” into “ancient”. The two leather-upholstered chairs that fronted the desk were of a burnished chocolate brown so deep one might fear to fall into it. They could only be two or three years old, but seemed to command the kind of careful handling associated with antiquities.
“Ah, Mikkel… yes, yes, please do come in.” The Magister gestured to one of the chairs. “I am amiss. I have not taken the time to chat with you in a long time. Far too long a time. We need to catch up.”
“Yes sir. Of course sir.” Mikkel wondered what the hell the old bastard was up to. “Chatting” was most definitely not among the preferred pastimes of “Old Mags”.
The Magister let the silence stretch just long enough to become uncomfortable. “What makes a “good” teacher, Mikkel?”
So… a test of some sort? wondered Mikkel.
“Well, sir… a teacher must know his subject matter. That is necessary, but not sufficient. More importantly, he must have the skills to transmit that knowledge to his students. Part of that is oratory: using one’s voice so as not to put them to sleep… but more important is ‘reading’ the students: knowing when to deliver a lot of information, and when to go lightly. They aren’t always equally receptive, and it is up to the teacher to act in consequence.”
“That is a very ‘standard’ answer, Mikkel. I would get the same from any competent Student who has never even considered teaching as a career.”
“Yes, sir. I believe that this is a case where the standard response is the right one.”
“Mmmm,” said Old Mags. “And continuing in the standard thinking around education… How am I, poor administrator of this wretched institution, to know which Teachers are ‘good’?”
“You must observe the Students, sir,” answered Mikkel, feeling like a first-form parakeet. “Their performance shows their Teachers’ performance. If the Students learn their lessons, then the Teachers are doing an acceptable job. If the Students are enjoying their learning, then the Teachers are better than acceptable. And if the Students are learning to love the act of learning, then the Teachers are doing very well indeed.
“And yes, sir, that is again a very standard response to a very over-worked question… But as a Teacher myself, I cannot help but feel that those questions, however over-worked, are essential; and the responses, however consensual they may be, are critical for my calling.”
Mikkel wondered briefly if the Magister had heard of some problem in one of his classes. A parent who might have lodged a complaint of some sort… But in fact, Mikkel was quite confident in his own competence, and in the resulting studious good humor in his classes. No… this was not a preamble to discussing an existing problem… Patience…
The old man remained silent a moment, before taking a different tack. “Were you a good Student, Mikkel?”
That brought the young man up short. Now what? Where is he going? Best to stay very simple: “Yes, sir.”
“Were you always the top of your class?”
Mikkel relaxed. He still didn’t know what Old Mags’s purpose was, but he could see the next few steps in this dance, and they were innocent enough.
“No, sir. Each time I came near the top of a class, I was promoted to the next superior. So I was never ‘top of the class’… but I graduated two years ahead of my age-group. I was a Student who responded well to being loaded as heavily as I could bear, so my Teachers put me on that path. They were, according to what we have just discussed, ‘good teachers’.”
The Magister let some time pass before continuing. “I verified that, by happenstance, you have not had the occasion in your two years as a Teacher, to participate in a ‘promotion jury’, but you obviously understand the idea.” He paused.
Here it comes, thought Mikkel… whatever “it” is…
“I want you to take on a very particular mission for the College, Mikkel. We have a new Student, whose previous education has been… … uneven… There is a great deal of remedial work to be done, and at the same time, there are a few domains – mathematics, for example – where she is quite a bit beyond what we expect from a new Student.”
“Yes. Wubi Hollis of Fridifree, Caldwood, Tashir.”
“Tashir? Isn’t that way out west, in the desert? Endless farms, and having a drought this year?”
“That is correct. Wubi is a farmer’s daughter.”
Old Mags let that sink in a moment. A farmer’s daughter. Mikkel did not know the details of the College’s history, of course, but he wondered if there had ever before been such a Student. A farm girl… Mikkel did not know what to say, but the old man was manifestly waiting for a reaction. Again: stay simple!
“Well, sir, I suppose that it is no surprise that a farm girl would need some remedial work. Her previous studies were probably rather… spotty…”
“Indeed.” The old man’s eyes twinkled. “And then there’s her age.” He paused, stretching out the wait until Mikkel almost let himself lean forward in anticipation. Almost, but not quite. The old bastard!
“She is ten,” said the Magister.
Mikkel’s determined reserve exploded into nothing. “What?! Ten years old? That’s ridiculous. I was young, at thirteen. The youngest I have ever heard of is twelve. Maybe eleven, somewhere in the distant past, but… ten? That’s absurd.” … His face went white as he remembered what Mags had said: “I want you to take on a very particular mission…”
“Oh, please, Mikkel. Don’t take it like that. This is not punishment. On the contrary. This is an opportunity. You will work with a very, very bright Student. One single Student, and a very, very bright one. This is a Teacher’s dream, I should think.”
Mikkel sat back, trying to think. He was just at the start of a nicely promising career. He had dreams of… of… And now he was to be hitched to a ten-year-old farm girl… He had to get out of this, somehow. How? First things first, as in any negotiation: shift the subject, open a door. “What will be the curriculum for a ten-year-old farm girl? What subjects would I, particularly, teach this girl?” If there were subjects in which he was not competent, he might be able to wriggle away…
“Oh… all subjects, for starters. Until she advances far enough to integrate the College’s regular classes. Of course, your first task will be to determine her priorities, but I suspect that the most urgent subject will be learning to read…” The old man’s eyes gleamed with mischief.
Mikkel couldn’t breath. “She… can’t… read… ?”
“Well, of course not. Most farm children cannot read, whatever their age.”
“Sir… please… I have never taught elementary school. I have never taught anyone to read. Please… I don’t… … ” His voice choked off, as his mind’s eye observed the crashing collapse of his life.
The Magister half-filled each of two tumblers from a carafe of clear brown liquid. “Drink,” he said, handing one to Mikkel. Mikkel drank, the sweet fire coursing down his throat, provoking a deep and calming inhalation/exhalation.
The Magister’s voice changed, from banter to almost martial rigor. “Now, listen, Mikkel. Listen very carefully.
“I received a note from the President of the College the day before yesterday, requesting that I do ‘everything in my power to facilitate the integration of Wubi Hollis of Fridifree, Caldwood, Tashir into the College’. Yesterday, I received a request to meet this girl. I met her earlier this afternoon.
“She came with a man who presented himself as ‘Geeselt Ulis, recently retired courier of His Grace’s Messenger Service, acting as sponsor for Wubi Hollis’, and a woman, Dame Katrin Klazius, whom he presented as the girl’s ‘lady companion’ and future contact for the College whenever he was unavailable. He gave me a card with his Galdiff address, a townhouse on Saler Street, between the College and the Palace. This Ulis person was perfectly matter-of-fact, as though what was happening was nothing out of the ordinary. He signed all the necessary papers, although I am not at all sure of his legal standing to do so.
“The woman was observant, but said nothing. The girl was clearly nervous, but followed every detail of our conversation attentively. The only time she spoke up was when I produced the usual map of the campus, pointing out that it showed the First-Year dormitory, the Dining Hall, the Library, and so on. I saw her fists clench, and her eyes well up. Her teeth clenched. She hyperventilated. She was staring at the map with something akin to terror. And then, quite suddenly, her chin lifted and her eyes cleared.
” ‘Please, sir,’ she said. ‘Could you write numbers on the map, for those places? One for the Dormitory, two for the Dining Hall, three for the Library, and so on, for whatever I shall need in the near future. I cannot yet read the text, but I can read numbers, so that will do until I learn to read words.’
“That is a near-perfect restitution of the scene, Mikkel. That was a ten-year-old farm girl speaking. I insist that the diction I used was hers. Making a suggestion to resolve a problem, in the midst of events that had to be utterly new to her.” The Magister paused.
“Do you speak Lorensin, Mikkel?”
The sudden change in subject again left Mikkel dazed.
“Um… er… a bit, sir… I read it decently, I think, but I never really have the occasion to speak it.”
“Well… if yours isn’t good enough to keep hers from degrading over time, then you must find a solution. And how is your Wathou?”
“About the same, sir… Are you saying that this girl from the middle of nowhere can speak Lorensin and Wathou, sir? How is that possible?”
“She learned Lorensin from this Geeselt Ulis person, on the road from her home village. I asked her a few questions, in Lorensin. She answered easily and comfortably. According to Master Ulis, they had only begun on Wathou… but I tried a few words, and she probably speaks it as well as I. It seems that the two of them spent their time on the road very productively, from a scholarly point of view.
“She also learned her numbers. And to add. And to subtract. And to multiply… three-digit numbers… in her head. And to divide… which implies that she also learned fractions and decimals.
“They were on the road, so they could not use paper and pen. Everything had to be strictly verbal. So they stuck to math and languages. And history, which Master Ulis recounted in Lorensin or Wathou. She can speak Lorensin fluently, but she has no idea where the Kingdom of Lorens may be. She understands the idea of a map – the campus map is proof of that – but she does not recognize a map of Gal or of Lithia.”
Mikkel sat back in the chair. He felt like he had been pummeled by a band of brigands. “How long?…” He was having trouble expressing a coherent idea. He took a deep breath and pulled himself together. “How long were they on the road?”
“A little less than two months.” The Magister let the silence stretch while Mikkel absorbed the implications. He refilled their glasses. He gave Mikkel time to recover, and gradually the young man sat forward again.
“All right, then. The girl is brilliant. But… still… what in the world is she doing here? Here at the College? I don’t care how brilliant she is, I cannot imagine how a farm girl comes to be at the College, much less a ten-year-old.”
The old man’s eyes were mischievous again. “I told you: I got a note from the President.”
Mikkel grimaced. “That means nothing. I have never heard of the President doing such a thing before. It must be a very, very exceptional event. So my question has just shifted focus: what in the world caused the President to write that note?”
The Magister nodded approvingly. “Very good, young Mikkel! That is indeed a fascinating question. And I honestly do not have even the beginning of an answer. I cannot imagine any connection between the President of the College and a courier of the Duke’s Messenger Service… so I must imagine a chain of relations much more complex. This Geeselt Ulis person must know someone who knows someone… who has enough leverage to press the President to do something which, I confirm, has never happened in all his quarter-century of service. And that, my young friend, is a great deal of leverage, indeed!”
“And I suppose,” said Mikkel, sitting back again, with a faint smile, “that there can be no harm to the career of a young Teacher, in assisting with that kind of leverage.”
“Not even for an old Magister,” agreed the old man. …..
Watho … a novel by Bob Nelson
As Hawk passed the latitude of County Howalt, eight days out, the oblique swells on the starboard bow deepened steadily, to three and four rods, while the wind remained firm and constant. The ship canted skyward, leaped from the crests and then dived into the troughs. Most of the passengers were at least queasy, and even the sailors used safety lines.
The sky was now a solid gray, and anyone on deck was sure to be drenched as spray crashed across the deck. I had my head up, eyes studying the sails almost constantly for any snapping that would add strain to the masts, so I was more than a little surprised to hear a woman’s voice shout from just behind me, “It’s marvelous, isn’t it, Garid?”
I spun, terrified that I would see her fall, slide across the deck, and disappear… But no…
Lady Mansit wore a Guard uniform with a colonel’s twin lozenges, as she had done during arms training, and a proper safety harness, with a line running neatly to a ring near the aft ladder. She had the jugular strap of her broad, floppy Guard hat drawn tight under her chin. She knew how to dress for a storm.
She was grinning from ear to ear. The two Guards who accompanied her did not look so happy.
“Good morning, Ma’am!” I shouted against the wind. The word had gotten around that she was “Ma’am” when in uniform and “my Lady” when in civilian clothes. “Yes! It’s wonderful!” I gestured up at all the billowing sails and the straining rigging. “Isn’t she beautiful?” And then I roared with laughter as Hawk rolled out from under us, making us stagger. “She is glorious!” I cried, soaked to the bone and joyous.
I had realized early on that the Lady often came on deck when I was on duty. We would exchange pleasantries, and I would tell her what I was observing and why.
“What are the men doing, Garid?” she asked, gesturing at the sailors scattered around the deck.
I began to answer, but then thought better. “See the fellow over there with the bandanna? That’s Bosun’s Mate Potren. He’s in charge of these men when I don’t need them for sailing. He has them doing various maintenance tasks. Why don’t you talk directly to him? He knows his job better than I.”
The Bosun’s Mate was tongue-tied at first, but warmed to the task of explaining things to this pretty young woman. Well… not really very pretty, he would say later, but kind of cute, and very nice to chat with… Not posh at all…
The next day, “Master Potren” as the Lady called him, presented his sailors to the Lady, so that she could ask questions directly. Then they began showing her the ship, right down to the keel. The sailors were somewhat disturbed by the ever-present men in tan, but the Lady said, “Oh don’t take notice. They’re all very good fellows – they pay no attention at all to anything we do or say… as long as they see no danger for me…” The sailors exchanged glances among themselves… and with the Guards… and went on showing her the ship.
§ § §
The combination of dry skies and deep swells was not going to last, of course. Eleven days out of Bandar, the skies darkened to near black, and the wind began to gust brutally. Hawk took in canvas, down to tops’ls only, and much reefed, and continued south.
Hawk was now slower than the following swells, so she lifted from aft, then lurched forward, accelerating down the swell to dive into the rear of the preceding wave, stall, wallow, begin to move again… and once again be lifted from aft.
The Lady was seasick. Lord Brantwall was seasick. In fact, among the Lady’s household, only Willen Lodant was not seasick.
Five Guards were not seasick.
The storm lasted four days.
From my point of view, it was a wonderful storm! It was violent, a bit cold despite the season, and miserable… but at no moment did I ever have the feeling that Hawk was in danger. Lieutenant Kolenter rarely left the deck when we were on watch, but he often retreated to the binnacle, leaving to me the constant observation that was expected during rough sailing. He closed his eyes, as if cat-napping, but I doubt he actually slept very much.
At first, I was nearly frantic with the need to be doing something. Anything! Here we were, careening through insane water, and I was just standing there, doing nothing! It felt so wrong…
The wind was strong, but very constant from the northwest. I was accustomed to Southern Sea storms, where the wind shifts around because it and the ship are on different routes at different speeds. But not this storm. Perhaps it was so immense that it simply seemed to be permanent. Navigator Willder, who often came up on deck “to sniff the weather”, told me that weather was different out here, east of the continent. Ever since Captain Idanty’s legendary circumnavigation over a thousand years ago, seamen have occasionally wandered considerable distances from the continent… but have never found land. Idanty followed the equator, and demonstrated that empty water extends two-thirds of the world’s circumference. There may be islands, even big ones, to the north or south of Idanty’s route, but no one has ever discovered them. Navigator Willder says that all that empty water creates weather that is “different”, including storms that are much, much wider across than anything on land. Not necessarily more violent; just broader across.
We were steering due south, but the wind and swell were headed southeast. The waves were moving faster than Hawk under her light canvas, so we were lifted from behind, we slid down the swell, and we crashed into the trough. Each repetition was different: the waves were of different heights, and they caught up with us at different stages of their passage. Once in a while, Hawk would just be getting some good headway, when a wave neared its crest. The ship would almost fall forward, accelerating suddenly to a speed greater than the swell, racing down and across the forward slope of the wave.
I watched the helm. Three helmsmen were needed to manhandle the wheel against the surging wind and water. They were constantly adjusting the orientation of the ship, anticipating the deviations that came with each swell. A few paces away, leaning against the binnacle much like Lieutenant Kolenter, was either the Quartermaster or one of his Mates. They rarely intervened, leaving the helmsmen to their work. But like anyone, the helmsmen would gradually become less attentive to their task; their steering would become less precise; Hawk would “wander” a bit more. Then the Quartermaster’s Mate would stir, and make some remark. Vehemence was not needed. The helmsmen were not shirkers, just normal people who gradually got sloppy over time…
After one such recall to order, a Mate caught my eye. I smiled very lightly, and nodded very slightly. He returned the gestures, and we both went back to our business: him watching the helm, and me watching… him.
That storm was something of a minor epiphany for a newly-minted officer. As a midshipman, I had always had tasks to accomplish. I ran errands. Some officer was always sending me here or there to do this or that. I climbed the masts to assist the lookout. I carried messages. I carried a lot of messages…
Now, as an officer, I would not be running errands. I would be observing others at their tasks, and seeing that they accomplish them correctly. I had no instructions directly for the helmsmen… but it was good that the Mate knew I observed his control of them.