Gracia has always seen the shape of things, ever since she was young, in the farmland outside of Riviere. Not just physical shapes, though she could see those too – where the spare room must be in a house, or how the field boundaries ran across the dipping hills. But when people speak to her, she often understands them. Sometimes too well, often not as well as she would like. It isn’t a gift, really, or a burden; it’s just how she sees the world.
But her teachers thought it was a talent, even as a child.
When she rolls soft pastry dough under her hands, spreading it and gathering it, dusting it with flour, she thinks of the harvest-seasons she spent at home on leave from the advanced boarding school in Riviere. She’d help her mother make preserves, pickle carrots and peppers (and some eggs, for her father), store potatoes to last the winter; there was always a sense of urgency she felt, then, to learn as much as she could while she was home. Riviere city was not really far away from Gourby, but it had felt entirely foreign to her as a young teenager, as if she’d stepped from the real world into one with different and shifting rules. Cooking helped to ease the strangeness.
It’d been harder to change to the rules of West City, she remembers, as junior worker at sixteen under one of the military designers; a connection made by her school to be his secretary-cum-accountant. Her hands press the dough into the pan with something matching the exactness she remembers of the temporary military housing. Her boss, Mr. Lefevre, worked to replace it with permanent infrastructure during the abnormally long lag between violence. No one actually believed the fighting would stop forever. (The patient waiting for war had shocked her; Riviere had been peaceful for centuries. It took her years longer to realize that she was from one of the few parts of the country that was at ease.)
Her math and her observations had served her well, though. It had been a small firm with Mr. Lefevre and two draftsmen, Miss Berta and Mr. Philippe, who had been there years. She’d been there a bit over a year, listening in their open-air office to their occasional bursts of jargon-filled conversations but not much participating, when they’d hired on a junior draftsman. He was friendly, and smart; a few years older than her, and able to draw in quick straight lines the images he pictured. Despite all of that, he seemed to be more confused by the silence-and-jargon than she was, and at a loss for what the boss wanted. So she spent more time translating for him when the boss wasn’t there, both pleased by the attention and somewhat bothered by it as well, though she wasn’t sure exactly why. Maybe it was because it distracted from her work, or maybe it was because he was the draftsman, and she felt like her helpful sketches on sheets of paper were almost like cheating in class.
Now, years later, as she stirs together the ingredients for the quiche (egg – cream — cheese – onion – salt – pepper – nutmeg – sausage), she can put words to the feeling: being used, even if it was by a friendly and smart person. She had known the feeling from classes, but hadn’t learned how to define it beyond helping someone else cheat. Sometimes, being used felt inevitable: someone would take credit for Gracia’s work, and all she could do was hope that someone would notice. She knows how to stand up for her ideas now, but when she was a young secretary she wasn’t entirely sure if it was right to.
That time, at least, it had worked out. Miss Berta had noticed after all and brought it up to the boss, and he allowed Gracia to sit in and learn the basics of drafting a few hours a week, as long as she kept up with the rest of her work. She wasn’t forbidden from helping the junior draftsman, but he seemed embarrassed and stopped speaking to her as often — and Miss Berta kept a steady, suspicious eye on him when he did. She learned a good deal that year, and as the expiry of her junior worker contract approached, she spoke often to Miss Berta about drafting colleges.
She was accepted to the Central Drafters School in Central City, after returning home until her letters came. She’d only applied there with the breathless expectation of a rejection; she’d promised herself she would go if she got the chance, but she was almost hoping to go to the Riviere Drafting Union’s small school so she’d be near home. But as she packed for Central City, her excitement grew. Her siblings clamored for postcards, except the youngest, who barely knew her (Gracia regretted that, but she ruffled his brown hair when he came to sit on her bare bed). Her mother gathered the papers she would need leaving the West Area, and her father helped to pack the bigger items and spoke with the station master to make sure that everything would make the train transfers to Central City.
Gracia puts the quiche in the oven, closing the door carefully and setting a wind-up timer. It’s an old oven, though the one in her shared housing at the Drafters School had been older. There hadn’t been that many women in the school, so they had only had two floors of one wing to themselves for dormitories, and only one kitchen. After a brief period of irritation and wrangling, primarily focusing on the fact that the women on the first floor overwhelmingly were the ones dominating the space, they’d reached an agreement of having a written weekly schedule interrupted by biweekly community dinners -- everyone who ate chipped in, either planning, shopping, cooking, or cleaning.
Gracia had loved that school; she loved learning, and figuring out how to take what she understood instinctively about what architects’ ideas meant and translate them onto paper. She loved hearing about the different disciplines she could work in, or looking at a bed or a building and simplifying it down to its design lines. But she also loved that somehow, quietly, she became socially important. She had never been a social outcast, but she’d always held herself carefully and uncertainly to the side, except when she was approached. People would come and ask her opinions, instead of trying to wheedle them out of her. She was one of the main cooks for the community dinners, though as regularly she headed the cleanup crew with those who cheerfully weren’t interested in cooking. She felt like she knew everyone, like she could meet anyone and get to know them and that would be all right. It was like breathing easily after too long in the city; unexpected, but a relief.
She’d carried that confidence with her into the offices of Central’s premiere architectural firm Harmon & Carrère, as their new junior draftsman at 20. She knew she had a lot to learn, but she was excited instead of scared, and knew she could do it.
Gracia finishes cleaning off the surface of the counter, going to sit down at her desk with its neatly stacked papers, several of which are letters from old coworkers. She's been sending out queries recently, and the replies are starting to come in. She’d been working at Harmon & Carrère when she met Maes -- a few years younger than her and eager to help anyone he knew in any way he could. They’d lived in the same young professionals' apartment building for a few months, before Maes was assigned to Ishval (the military housing in Central was scarce, and he supplemented his income with funds from his late parents – though he tried to pretend he hadn’t come from wealth). She’d seen first hand his attempts to help some of their fellow apartment mates, and the trouble it’d gotten him into; at first, it annoyed her, how he seemed to not pay enough attention to what was going on – before she realized, with a start, that he knew exactly what was going on, he just wasn’t terribly good at interfering with it. He matured, eventually; they all matured. But she was drawn to the young man who thought she was brilliant, even when she tried to hide it, even though he had nothing to gain from listening to her observations about her work.
Gracia feels an upsurge of grief, and tightens her lips against it, smoothing the letter she’s been crunching under her fingers. One of her fellow draftsmen, Dierk, several years her senior at Harmon & Carrère, has formed his own consulting firm with a lawyer who specializes in zoning and realty. Now that fewer taxes are being levered to pay for the war movement, they expect an increase in growth in the personal automobile and other industries, which need warehouses and new factories. They’re offering to hire her part-time to help.
Her sister’s been considering moving in to help with Elicia, who’s at a neighbor’s apartment right now, and maybe start teaching music if she can find students. They invested most of Maes’ parents’ money into this apartment, in the hopes of being able to fill its too-big space, someday. It will be good to have her sister here. Soon enough Elicia will be starting school; soon enough there will be little do to at the house, and even the widow’s pension from a brigadier general doesn’t give much leeway for spending. Anyway, what Gracia loves – besides being Elicia’s mother, besides her short time as Maes’ wife, besides cooking – is translating ideas into pictures, and watching the pictures translate themselves into buildings. The timer goes off; she rises to get it. She sets the quiche on the rack to cool off slightly before she’ll take it to the neighbor’s for late lunch and to pick up her daughter.
While she has the time, she walks into the other room with the letter in her hand, and calls Dierk. The position sounds interesting, and it can’t hurt to see what it would entail.