by Catherine Rain
Apple had trouble staying calm. Her eyes wandered across the page without picking up any information, so that she had to read the same paragraph five times. Frustrated, she closed the book and stared at the chalkboard.
No, being nervous was not going to help. It was out of her control now anyway. She opened the book again and tried to force herself to read; if she could only distract herself, all would be better, but it was to no avail.
It was probably pointless for her to wait around in school. Even if the results were posted, the schoolmasters would probably not let her in to see if she’d passed. She would be forced to wait until tomorrow morning with all the other students who had taken the exam. Perhaps it was better to prolong her hopes, in case of defeat? No, it would be better to know; then she could simply deal with the failure and go on, without wasting any more time agonizing over something that would not happen. And if she did get in, though it seemed too good to dare to hope for, then she would rather start being happy now.
Either way, she was not going to manage to read. She pushed the book inside her desk and turned restlessly in her chair. Going home did not seem attractive. Her foster sisters, blonde and precious, would only laugh at her if she dared show the slightest hint of nerves. She knew her family only let her go to school because she had been going for so long; they didn’t think it a girl’s proper place, but then, with daughters like that, it was no surprise. But Apple knew she was not as unusual as her adoptive family seemed to think. She was not the only girl to have taken the exam, nor was she even the only girl in her school; she was just the only one at her grade level. If she passed, her foster parents would at least have to admit that she was as good a student as the boys. They might not like the fact, but they were reasonable people for the most part.
On the other hand, it would be humiliating to let them see her get worked up over the exam and fail. They would think her a fool if she dared show that she actually thought she might pass. The test hadn’t been that hard—or had it? Many of the questions had been ambiguous, and others were really judgment calls. What she had thought was right could be very wrong. It had turned out to be a test based on decisions, and all she had done was make them; were they good enough?
Agonized, she stood up and paced across the room. So familiar during school hours, it was so alien today. The exam had drawn other kids from far away, many with strange dress and accents. They had come to her own tiny hometown as though it were an important place, traveling great distances just to struggle for a chance to study here, because somehow, this was the place where the famous Mathiu Silverberg had chosen to teach. Apple, by contrast, would never have been allowed to take the test if it were not administered at her own school.
Even now that the strange students had gone home, the room was eerily silent. She knew that Master Jamus was shut in the back room, conferring with Mathiu Silverberg. That was strange to think about, her own teacher talking with a Silverberg. She wondered whether there were any chance of hearing the results today, but she dared not disturb them. Was anyone else around? She peeked into the antechamber warily, just to see.
An older boy was seated at the desk in the corner, writing slowly with a tapered pen. She had not really expected anyone to be there, and, startled, she nearly backed out of the room, but he looked up and saw her; it was too late. Backing out now would look twice as foolish.
Trying not to disturb the teachers conferring in the private room, she tiptoed towards the older student. He had lovely slanted eyes, and long black hair that dripped into his face; he seemed the pinnacle of elegance. Even his movements were smooth and graceful, but their clipped efficiency saved them from being at all feminine. He really is something special, she thought, warmth spreading into her cheeks.
“What are you doing here?” she wondered quietly. “Waiting for results? I am…”
“No, I’m in detention.” He sounded unapologetic.
“How—You don’t even go to school here!”
A hint of a smirk graced his lips. “I pushed the issue.”
“Well.” She tried to train her gaze on him in the most objective possible manner. “I guess you had your reasons.”
“What did you do, to get detention in one day? From someone else’s teacher…”
He set his pen in the inkstand and looked levelly at her. “I was ‘insubordinate.’ Actually, I just didn’t feel like bothering with their silly rules…”
Apple was sure that the rules were mostly in place for good reasons. And if they were not, were they worth the price of defying? Yet she did not want to disagree with this wonderful boy. “Well, it probably wasn’t that terrible.” A thought crept into her mind that widened her eyes. “You didn’t… cheat or anything, did you?”
“Of course not. What good would it do? If I got caught at a thing like that, it would be all over.”
“Oh, okay.” She relaxed. So long as he hadn’t cheated, she could think of nothing she wouldn’t forgive him for. Cheating was incredibly bad, but the other rules were probably expendable.
He smiled at her, causing the blush to flare into her face again. “I’m sorry; I didn’t catch your name.”
“Oh, I’m Apple.”
“Apple, hm? You’re turning red enough.”
She stared at him, at an absolute loss for what to say.
“I’m Shu.” He extended a hand to her.
She took it, staring back at him, and stammered without thinking, “A-are you one of a pair?”
What a thing to say! Her blush deepened. It wasn’t even funny. But miraculously, he laughed as he shook her hand. “I think I’m one of a kind, but you had every right to say that, I suppose.”
“Well—well, if the ‘Shu’ fits…”
He laughed again! “That one was better.”
Defensively she explained, “I’m sorry. I’m nervous. About the test, that is. My insides are in awful knots…”
“Breathe deeply,” he suggested. “Don’t think about your future being on the line. Think about what you have to do right now. If that’s just to wait, then you can’t mess it up no matter what.”
“That’s the worst part. I can’t fix it, either. I feel like I’m being held in the hands of fate… casually, and about to be dropped, at its whim…” She followed his directions, slowing down her breathing, and began to relax.
He watched her for a few minutes. “You’re that nervous, huh?”
“Well, school is all I’m good at… What else can I do? It’s my whole life…”
“Somehow, I doubt that’s true.”
She stared closely at him, surprised, and wondering what he could mean. “Thanks, but you’re flattering me, right? I mean, you don’t know me…”
“Why should I bother to flatter you? Seriously. I think you seem intelligent.”
The compliment pleased her, though she knew it to be true anyhow. “I thought I sounded foolish. You, on the other hand… you seem so reasonable, I’m sure you passed the exam. You’re a ‘Shu’-in.”
“That’s enough of those.” He gave her a warning look that didn’t seem genuine; his eyes were stern, but he smiled.
“I’m sorry.” She laughed, dissipating a bit of her tension. “They just keep coming into my head.”
“Well, you can send them right back.”
“Are they really that bad…?”
“No, not except for the first one. But don’t push your luck.”
She assented, and glanced over at the closed door, distracted by the unease that kept creeping back into her heart. “Hey… you’ve been sitting here since the exam, right? Did you get to see Mathiu Silverberg?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What’s he like? I bet he’s terribly important…”
“Well, he seems as if he’s used to being obeyed, if that’s what you mean. Not that he demands it, but expects it, so he doesn’t make it a big deal. It’s like he’s very secure, not flashy at all. Kind of odd, because he’s younger than I thought he would be… but I guess it comes with being a Silverberg.”
Apple stared thoughtfully at the door. “I wish I could just get a look at him, or listen to him talk… But you can’t spy through this door. It’s really good at blocking sound.”
“You’ve tried, hm?”
She stammered, eyes wide, “N-no, not me!”
“Ah, so you haven’t tried, but now you’re considering it.”
“Well, this isn’t anything I ‘shouldn’t’ hear. I just want to hear what Mathiu Silverberg sounds like, not find out gossip.”
“You’re a strict little girl.” He smiled, softening the impact of his assessment. “Are there any windows?”
“You know, I’ve never looked. I haven’t been in there all that much. I guess I’ll go out back and check…” She turned towards the door, anxious to find her answers, but also reluctant to leave Shu behind. “Hey. I really hope you pass.” She sincerely wanted to see him again.
“I hope the same. Good luck!”
“Hey, and advice for your studies,” he said as she opened the door, “Apple… concentrate!”
She smacked her forehead with the heel of her hand, and sputtered with laughter on her way out the door.
Buoyed by sudden good spirits, she walked along the back of the school building, estimating the place where the teacher’s office would be. Although she’d never paid attention to its layout before, the back of the building was a familiar impression in her mind; the thick concrete walls were individuated with cracks and the occasional splash of rooftop-paint or unidentifiable black mark. She often took books outside to read after the school closed down in the afternoon, preferring to stay here in the comfort zone of the one place she was still valued rather than harassed for her bookishness. Yet for all the time spent in this place, had she really ever noticed whether there was a window?
There was one indeed, high up on the wall near the ceiling, but she couldn’t even reach it when she raised her hand towards it. With a soft sigh, she backed up and glanced at the wooden crates stacked against the wall. They were huge and probably heavy; could she push and climb them? And if she did, would it do any good? The window was tiny, a barely noticeable vent for light, but Apple was a small girl. She might be able to squirm through, provided she could get up there.
An image of Shu’s beautifully confident smile flashed into her mind. She hardly wanted to admit to him that she’d found a window and hadn’t even bothered to try getting up there, and if he saw her again he might ask. It was ridiculous for her to come all the way back here and not even try; that would be embarrassing now that she had declared she would make the attempt. Besides, she wanted so badly to get in… Nervousness seized her again. If she had to wait all night, worrying about what the new teacher might be like, and then get up the next morning only to discover that she hadn’t made it into his class anyway, she would go insane. She wanted to know one way or the other, to end this agonizing wait.
She laid a hand on the pair of stacked crates and gave an experimental shove. It did not budge. All right, she thought, if I can push these at all, I can’t let the top one fall off. If she climbed on both, she might be able to kneel on the top one and see inside the window. She crouched down on the ground and pushed, but of course she had no leverage, and merely pushed herself over backwards.
Sitting on the moist ground, her knees pulled up to her chest, she glowered at the boxes. She might be small enough to fit through the window, but was she big enough to move the crates? They must be full of something awfully heavy. There were no lids or openings that she could pry at, and even with a crowbar she might not be able to pull out the nails with her limited strength. She would have to try better leverage.
Placing her hands behind her, she straightened her legs halfway and shoved at the boxes with her feet. They moved a small distance. Thank goodness, she thought, and scooted forward to push at them again.
Bit by bit, she scraped the boxes against the ground towards the window. Her clothes were going to be dirty; she would have to make up a story about getting pushed into the mud by big kids. That would be plausible, though it made her terribly nervous to have to lie. Maybe she could sneak in when she got home and clean it off before anyone noticed.
At last she had the boxes centered under the window. She stood up and shoved at the top crate with her shoulder, turning it just the tiniest bit so that the lower box had one top corner exposed. Placing one foot on the box, she sprung up, flinging herself on top of both—barely—on her stomach, her legs dangling behind. Her hands locked around the far edge of the crate, she shifted her weight, dragging one knee up over the box, followed by the rest of her body. She rubbed her ankle, which bore a stinging red dent from her efforts, and glanced around nervously. Descending was going to be a leap of courage, though she knew she was actually not that high.
The window was a simple mesh screen, through which she could see only the top of the cabinet in the teacher’s office. Of course, she’d forgotten the cabinet. She unlatched and raised the screen, cautiously sticking her head into the room. She could hear voices, though she could not see.
“…scoring the results. Of course, you’ll want to look at the students’ records?”
“If it’s convenient.”
That voice must be Mathiu Silverberg’s! It was quieter and calmer than she’d imagined; hearing it soothed her nerves despite her excitement. Shu’s description notwithstanding, she had expected someone sterner, some aristocratic commander. His accent was fine, but his voice was not harsh at all; could it really be that a former Imperial strategist, used to pomp and rank, treated her town schoolmaster as an equal? Suddenly, catching a glimpse of this new teacher seemed imperative not as an insight into her possible future, but simply because she had to discover his identity, and how many opportunities would she have if she did not pass?
She poked half her body through the window, balancing on the wide cabinet top with her forearms. She would have to stay back from the edge to avoid being seen, but neither could she see. Perhaps if she crept forward a tiny bit, she could turn enough to pull the rest of her body through the window; she would only have to be near the edge for a moment. If she kept herself low, perhaps she could pull off the maneuver without being noticed—silently.
“…wanted to select four or five for your class, but the highest marks were far above the rest.”
“I’d prefer to select the top five, regardless of the distance.”
Apple shifted closer to the edge of the cabinet, turning her head to see how her foot was caught on the window frame. She pulled back her leg so that her whole body was inside the room.
“Well, most of these are very good students…”
As Apple turned her head again towards the room, her glasses fell loose and dropped away. She froze in terror as they fell to the ground, plinking once, very softly, against the front of the cabinet, before landing with a tiny click on the hard floor. She crouched back towards the window, terrified.
“I see,” said Mathiu Silverberg.
Had either of them heard the noise? She tried to breathe as quietly as she could, hoping desperately that they could not see her. She could not see anything beyond the edge of the cabinet except a vague room-colored blur. The shapes on the other side of the room could be the teachers, or they could be the coat rack. They were still talking, however, so presumably they had not heard the noise.
Miserably she realized she would have to crawl back out of the window, jump down from the boxes, wait until the teachers had gone home, and go back through the front door to get her glasses. Even finding the front door sounded like a difficult task, let alone locating her glasses on the floor at the back of the office, and for all she knew, they could be broken. This was the worst dilemma ever. She would fall off the boxes and hurt herself. She would step on her glasses. She would get caught and get in trouble. Panic flooded her heart.
Trying not to make any noise, she turned herself around steadily, trying to put her foot back through the window at the same angle she had just put it in. Instead she hit the wall.
“One of the two highest scores is the young man sitting in detention outside.”
“I can handle that.”
Apple’s left arm, on which she was leaning, slipped over the edge of the cabinet.
She flailed wildly, her center of gravity tipping over into empty air, and the whole blurry room whirled crazily. The surface of the cabinet twisted sickeningly upside-down. Shrieking, she plunged over the edge towards the unyielding ground.
But the ground was not where she landed.
Still screaming in terror, she twisted, clinging reflexively to the man who held her in his arms. She huddled into him as though her safety still depended on how tightly she could clutch him, though she was no longer falling and the physical danger had passed. She stopped screaming as she realized this, and looked up at him, still quivering in shock. She could barely see his face, strain as she might; the impression was that of an unclear silhouette haloed by the soft light behind him.
“You’re safe,” he said.
“I… I know,” she whimpered, shaken, and clung to him like a far younger child, too fearful to be embarrassed.
“Are you afraid?”
About to say yes, she paused to reconsider. It seemed as though he were asking not whether she was still afraid of falling, but whether she was afraid of him. Curiously, she was not afraid at all. “No,” she said in wonder. He was a stranger, but somehow, he did not frighten her the way any other stranger would.
He glanced over his shoulder momentarily, and seemed to find his answer, for he addressed his next question to her again. “Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Master Mathiu—I mean, Mathiu Silverberg—“ Horrified, she trailed off. She wasn’t his student. How could she presume to call him her master? “I’m sorry… I slipped… I mean…”
“No, ‘Master Mathiu’ is fine. As for slipping, that’s the second time you’ve done it in two minutes. I’ll expect better work in the future.”
She stared at him, hardly daring to formulate the words of her question. “Does that mean… I passed…”
“Yes, as you were about to hear anyway.”
“I’m so sorry!” she cried, flushing bright red. “I didn’t mean to spy on the gossip about us! I just wanted to see what you were like! Because you’re… You’re so famous! Oh, I’m so, so, so sorry… please, please, don’t be angry…”
“I’m not angry. You’re forgiven, but I will tolerate no further dishonesty from you, is that understood?”
“Oh, yes! I didn’t mean to be dishonest, I promise… I just wanted… Well, I shouldn’t have done that,” she admitted, her voice lowering to an almost-whisper as her throat closed in sorrow. Had she disappointed him already?
“Well, then, Miss…”
“Apple, I’m going to put you down now.” He set her gently on her feet. “Stay there.” In a moment, he took her hand, and wrapped her fingers around her glasses. “They aren’t broken, so no harm is done.”
She put her glasses on and looked at him for the first time, cringing as she did so. Harm had been done; she had let him down before he even knew anything positive about her. “I really mean that. When I say I’m sorry.”
He nodded, watching her calmly. “I believe you.”
“I really, really, really… I wish I hadn’t…” Staring at him, she wondered how she could ever have considered doing something he would disapprove of. Never mind that she had not known him; somehow, it seemed incredible that she had not understood, five minutes ago, what not to do—or ever considered doing wrong. “I want to go back in time and undo it…”
“That’s impossible. You’ll have to live with the consequences of what you do.”
“Even if the consequences are disappointing you?” she cried in anguish.
He chuckled—oh, no, she realized, she was overreacting!—and said, “Apple, I’m not disappointed in you.”
She blushed yet again, feeling foolish but much more hopeful. “Really?”
“Yes, really.” He glanced at Apple’s old schoolteacher with a smile, as though inquiring as to whether it was her character or his that caused such a scene. She surmised that he had this effect on anyone. How could anyone possibly manage to look at him without feeling ashamed? How could he be so wonderful that she knew, within a few moments of meeting him, that she would follow him anywhere?
“Thank you… Thank you!” She flung her arms around him and gave him a giant hug. “I swear I’ll try to never, never disappoint you again!”
“Just do your best,” said Master Mathiu. “That’s all I ask for.”
Apple couldn’t stop smiling. It was the first time in ages that she had felt completely comfortable. All of her unhappiness and strain from the horrors of last year felt lifted, for once, from her shoulders.
For once, the world seemed right. For once, she felt at peace.
- fin -