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Survival School

Chapter Text

As the wagon that had carried them here from the capital made its way back down the tree-lined lane – its motor startling a buggy's horse as the two vehicles passed each other – Bat turned himself about, assessing his surroundings. They were standing at the curve of the lane, in front of an elegantly proportioned, three-story brick building with shaded porches. The building's two wings flanked a central tower. If he turned back toward the lane, he could see that within the lane's curve lay a field of grass where horses grazed. To the left of the curving lane stood a farmhouse and barn and various work-buildings, while beyond them shone fields ripe with spring vegetables. There was also a poultry yard and a pond. To the right . . . Bat could not see past the wildflower meadow and shrubbery, but he could hear a creek singing as it ran over rocks.

Beside him, Joe gave voice to Bat's thoughts: "This is a prison?"

"It's easy on the eye, ain't it?" Their guide stepped back into view. He was older than the five of them – even older than Slow, who was nineteen. He looked as old as Bat's father, but Bat, who had worked the boats since he was old enough to cull an oyster, automatically subtracted half that number of years, knowing what weather and hard hours will do to a man.

Their guide continued, "Officially, this ain't a prison. It's the House of Transformation for Servant Boys – an institution to transform delinquent servant boys into good, law-abiding citizens."

He sounded as though he were quoting someone. Bat eyed him warily. The young man was wearing an ill-fitting grey uniform with a military-looking stripe on his left shoulder. His cap shadowed close-cropped hair, and his buttoned coat held a black cloth badge, with something written in grey letters across it. Bat couldn't get near enough to see what it was – not that it was likely to be anything he understood.

Their guide talked like a servant . . . but he was acting like a master. First thing he'd done, after he'd helped the boys out of the police wagon where they'd been locked up for hours, was to toss them the keys that the policeman had handed him. The young man had told them they could unlock the handcuffs and anklecuffs that bound them together.

Bat was inclined to like him for that reason alone. It had been weeks since he'd been allowed to do anything that brought him a little closer to freedom.

"Now, then." The young man swung around and pointed to the cluster of buildings near the farmhouse. "Farmhouse, chicken house, laundry-room, boiler house, blacksmith, carpenter shop, tailor shop, shoe shop. You'll get to know them all, in time. Chapel clock-bell in the tower has a high chime, like a bird. Fire bell's over there; it tolls real deep. It gets rung when there's a fire or other bad emergency." Joe narrowed his eyes at this point, staring at the bell and its rope that stood on a metal frame nearby, where the curve of the lane reached its apex. "Bakery, kitchen, and dining hall are in the north wing of the Administration Building." He pointed toward the north end of the building, in the direction of the farmhouse.

They all turned round to stare again at the elegant, towering building where they'd been deposited. It was fashioned in the usual tripartite manner of mansions in the Dozen Landsteads: a central building flanked by two wings, connected by "hyphen" passages. The columns were in the ancient style that had been in fashion when the New World was discovered over twenty centuries ago, then again when the Old World was rediscovered, over five centuries ago. There was a ring of rebirth carved atop the central tower; the tower must be where the chapel was located. The idea of eating and worshipping in such a building was amazing.

The idea of doing so while wearing prison uniforms made Bat's eyes widen.

Their guide continued, "The House of Transformation takes in apprentices and journeymen: boys from ages eleven to their twenty-first birthday. You'll work in the afternoons—"

"What is that?" It was Frank, usually the quietest of them when they were around authorities.

They all turned to look. The buggy that Bat had seen on the lane had stopped near the front of the Administration Building; the driver was helping down a young woman of about thirty. Although not richly dressed, she had a beautiful face and a graceful swing to her hips. Seemingly unconcerned at finding her way blocked by a group of young delinquents, she smiled at their guide, said a soft word to Mordecai – who was gaping up at her – and lifted her skirts in preparation to ascend the stairs to the central tower of the Administration Building.

"Eyes down!"

The command was so sharp that Bat immediately obeyed, only belatedly realizing that the command had been issued by someone who sounded suspiciously like a fellow servant.

"Why?" demanded Joe with a scowl, but he had obeyed the order too, Bat noticed in the edge of his vision. So had Frank and Mordecai.

Slow had not. His real name was Harry, but the boys had dubbed him Slow on their long trip from the city, for obvious reasons. He was staring in awe at the vision that had just passed them. He protested, "But she's pretty."

Their guide said nothing; he simply took Slow by the shoulders and turned him around, so that he was facing in the opposite direction. Bewildered, Slow tried to look over his shoulder, but their guide took firm hold of his head to prevent that.

There was the soft sound of a door closing; then their guide said, "All right. You can look up."

Bat raised his eyes. The young woman was gone, while the buggy was making its way along the lane, in the direction of the farm. Joe folded his arms and demanded, "What the bloody blades was that about?"

Their guide gave him a look, saying simply, "Try that question again, without the swearing."

"Who was she?" The awe had not left Frank's voice.

"And why did we have to drop our eyes?" Bat asked. He was attempting, with all his might, to keep anger out of his voice.

"Because she's a mastress?" suggested Mordecai tentatively.

"Super's rules," said the guide. "That's Mastress Bennington, the farmer's wife. Superintendent wants us to lower our eyes any time she goes up the steps. Says it's rude for servant boys to stare at her then."

"I don't see why," complained Joe, scowling. "She's just a farmer's wife."

Their guide gave Joe another look. "Her maiden name was Duncan."

Everyone took that in; then Bat said, "Oh."

Their guide nodded. "So don't stare at the Super's daughter, or you'll get fifty on the bare back."

Frank dipped his eyes in a sign of obedience. Mordecai said in a small voice, "Sir?"

For the first time, their guide smiled. Looking down at Mordecai, he said, "You don't have to call me 'sir.' Folks call me Trusty."

Bat exchanged looks with Joe. Mordecai said, "She spoke to me. Does that mean I have to get fifty whatevers?"

Immediately, without need for thought, all the boys glared at their guide – even Slow, who could be quick in times of danger. Ignoring this, Trusty said, "No, if staff talks to you, you should reply. And you can ask questions, if it's about your work or something important."

"Who's staff?" asked Frank, his eye on the Administration Building. Bat could guess that he was envisioning dozens of pretty girls inside, all ready to talk to him.

"Officers and employees." Trusty started walking forward in the direction of the Administration Building, and they all followed him. "Officers are the Super, Teachers, Watchmen, and Department Heads. They give you orders, and they can punish you. Employees are the rest of the staff: Mastress Bennington, who works as secretary for her father; the carpenter; the painter . . . Anyone who works here, but who ain't training you. They can't punish you, but you'd best follow their orders—"

"—because they're masters," Joe concluded wearily. "We've known that since our cradle days, right?" He held up his wrist. Like the wrists of every person in the Dozen Landsteads, it was tattooed with a rank-mark. The five boys all had the same rank-mark: a black S, showing they were servants.

Trusty, whose own rank-mark was hidden by the overlong sleeves of his uniform, gave an abrupt nod. "See you remember. They'll remind you, otherwise."

Bat, who'd received a few "reminders" since his arrest, looked again at the grazing field and the farm and the meadow filled with butterflies. It made no sense. This could not possibly be a prison or transformatory or whatever the staff wished to call it. Prisons were for punishment. This . . . this was a holiday in the countryside.

He had no real idea where they were. The police wagon had held no windows. He was somewhere inland, somewhere far enough from the Bay that he couldn't hear the perpetual whoosh of water that he'd heard every day since he was born.

Somewhere far from home.

Joe was eyeing the lane, as though wondering whether he could safely make a break for it now. As far as Bat could tell, there were no guards in sight, nor any of those dangerous creatures that had been spoken about: Teachers and Watchmen and Department Heads. But Trusty was beckoning them, and Joe had evidently decided that obedience was the safer road, because he joined Bat in hurrying forward.

They travelled far enough along the path alongside the Administration Building to see the door-porch on the south end. Under the porch was a second door leading to some sort of basement. Trusty pointed. "That's the broom manufactory. You're most of you apprentices, so you'll start work there. Journeymen mainly work at the farm."

Joe groaned loudly. "I'm not a manufactory worker. I've been training for months to be a waterman. Now I'm supposed to give all that up to learn how to make brooms?"

"Broom-making is a useless trade," Bat argued. "There can't be more than a couple of broom manufactories in the Second Landstead – maybe a dozen in the entire Alliance of the Dozen Landsteads. Why should we learn a useless trade here?"

There were nods from the others. Trusty said nothing for a moment. His gaze travelled past them toward the lane that led to the road that led to the highway that led to the city. Finally he said, "If you'd been sent to the Men's Penitentiary in the capital, what kind of work would you have done there?"

Everyone stiffened. Mordecai reached out and took Slow's hand. Trusty looked them over, long and careful. He said bluntly, "Hard labor. If you'd been lucky, you'd have been sent to hammer rocks in the prison yard. At least that way you'd have seen the sky. More likely you'd be working down in the bowels of the dungeon. They say that, every now and then, an old skeleton from the middle centuries is found there – a prisoner who died at his labors, and no one noticed."

Mordecai was biting the nails on his free hand now. Bat reached over and gave him a quick squeeze of the shoulder. Frank said, "Brooms. I could get to like brooms."

The tension broken, everyone laughed. Trusty gave a brief smile, so fast gone that it nearly wasn't there. He said, "Broom manufactory to start with. If you show aptitude for other work, you'll be transferred. You came here from the capital; you're watermen's sons, I'm guessing?"

They nodded, except for Mordecai, who was staring at the horses. Frank looked around quickly, as though expecting to see a boat-yard. Slow, still following the conversation that had taken place several minutes ago, said, "I like animals."

Bat winced, but Trusty merely said, "You might be able to work in the stables, then. I'll talk to the Super."

"Let's go see this manufactory," urged Joe and hurried forward. After a quick look at Trusty – who didn't seem inclined to stop Joe – Bat followed suit.

All that Trusty said as they went was, "Keep your voices low. Super's bedroom is above the broom manufactory."

Not bothering to respond, Joe and Bat knelt next to one of the basement windows. It had iron bars across it, and the panes were dirty, but there was no problem seeing inside, because several panes of glass were broken. Bat found himself wondering how cold the manufactory got during oyster season. For certainly there couldn't be any stove inside; the entire place would have gone up in flames.

It was the filthiest manufactory he had ever seen, and he'd been inside many a filthy packing house. Broom-twigs were everywhere, on the tables and on the floors. The only light came from the basement half-windows. In the dim, dark manufactory, boys stood at the tables – there were no chairs – and tied brooms together. A master in an officer's uniform watched them from the stone wall at the north end of the room.

Nobody spoke. The boys performed their duty in a monotonous, mechanical fashion, as though they had little cogs inside them, controlling their movements.

"Can't talk at work, I guess," whispered Joe.

Bat nodded.

Joe looked over his shoulder. Bat did the same. Trusty was standing a few yards away, quizzing Slow about his past experience with animals, while Mordecai listened silently. Frank hovered halfway between that group and Joe and Bat, clearly wanting to join the searching expedition but uncertain whether he should do so.

Joe said softly, "Eleven?"

Bat looked back at him. "What?"

Joe pointed his thumb at Mordecai. "That fellow Trusty said boys here have to be at least eleven. That boy's never eleven. He can't be more than ten."

"Seven," said Bat. He'd been handcuffed to Mordecai on the trip down. They'd spent most of their time talking to each other while the other three boys speculated on what terrible fates awaited them at their new prison.

"Seven," said Joe in disgust. "What's a seven-year-old doing here? You have to be apprentice-aged to be charged with a crime."

"Dependency," Bat explained.

Joe looked blank for a moment, then said, "He's an orphan?"

Bat nodded. "His parents died in that ferry accident last month. No family left to take him in, and his parents' master wouldn't care for him. Court didn't know what to do with him, so they sent him here."

"You talking about Mordecai?" Frank flopped down onto his knees beside them. "Why's he got such a fancy name? And why does he talk like a master?"

"He's a domestic." Then, seeing that Frank didn't understand, Bat elaborated. "Masters pick the names of the newborn sons and daughters of their domestic servants. Like Comrade Carruthers's manservant – I've heard he's called Variel."

"Domestics are born to their jobs?" Clearly fascinated at this bit of knowledge, Frank sat down in the dust, crossing his legs.

"Have to be," inserted Joe. "The masters like their domestics to talk all proper. Domestics grow up speaking that way. That's why you can't get a job as a domestic, unless you've been born that way. It's like being a servant," he added, seeing that Frank still didn't understand. "Masters are born masters, servants are born servants, and domestic servants are born domestic servants."

"It's not quite that way," said Bat, frowning. "Being a domestic isn't a rank, like being a servant is."

Joe shrugged. "Amounts to the same. Domestics have to talk proper, so they learn that from their daddy and mama. I heard my master say that it's hard to find domestics to hire, 'cause there's so few of them. Some of the boys and girls born domestic prefer to work in banks or other places where you're supposed to talk like a master."

Frank sighed. "I guess he's lost all that now. Mordecai, I mean. He'll learn to make brooms, and he'll forget everything he ever knew about serving in a home or a bank."

They all contemplated that for a moment, Bat thinking hard. Then he got up, brushing the dirt from his seat. "Show Frank the manufactory," he suggested to Joe and walked back to the other group.

"The manufactory's right interesting," he said to the other boys. "You should look."

Slow, of course, did not take the hint, but after a look at Trusty for permission, Mordecai tugged Slow forward, leaving Bat alone with Trusty. Trusty cocked his head, waiting.

Bat took a deep breath. "You said we'd be given jobs in accordance with our apt— Our apti—"

"Aptitude," Trusty supplied.

"I'm better working in the outdoors. It's where I've worked all my life. Maybe I could be transferred to the farm, someday soon?"

He hoped he did not sound as pleading as he felt. Trusty considered his question for a long moment, running his eye over Bat as though looking for something there. Bat couldn't imagine what Trusty was seeking. Bat was wearing the same clothes he'd been wearing on the day he was arrested: some patched trousers and a shirt and jacket and cap. They'd taken away the waterman's smock he was wearing, but that was all.

"Maybe," said Trusty slowly. "You're big enough. Could talk to the Super. You might not want to be with the journeymen, though."

"Why?" said Bat, stung. He'd been looking forward for years to the day when he reached his journeymanship. The day when he was old enough to marry without his dad's permission, the day when he could choose a job without his dad's permission, the day when he would work with minimal supervision.

The day when he could leave his dad.

"Your looks," replied Trusty.

"What's wrong with my looks?" His fists were in balls now.

"Nothing's wrong with them. That's the problem." Then, when Bat stared at him bewildered, Trusty sighed. "Some of the journeymen are going to want to sleep with you," he explained.

Bat's mouth dropped open. Sleep with him? He knew well enough what Trusty meant. It was the sort of thing young masters did – liege-masters and their liegemen, playing in bed together in the years before they found women they wanted to marry.

But masters married late; servants married as quick as they could, so that they'd have plenty of kids to care for them when they got too old to work. If any unmarried servant played around in bed with another servant, Bat had never heard of that. Not male servants together, anyhow.

Trusty was still waiting for him to respond. Bat said faintly, "I got any choice in that?"

"Depends." Trusty cocked his head again. "Depends on the journeyman."

He was looking steadily at Bat now, in a way that started Bat's skin flushing hot. Bat remembered the long, slow examination of his body.

He had only a moment to decide. He said quickly, "If I got a choice, I ain't wanting it."

"Oh?" If Trusty was offended, he was hiding it well. "Why's that?"

"I'm here to serve my time and get out, quick as I can. I don't want no ties here to bind me fast." He heard the conviction in his voice. What he'd said was true, after all.

Trusty laughed. He actually laughed. "Good lad," he said, thumping Bat on the back. "I'll see that none of the journeymen bother you at work. You'd best stay housed with the other apprentices, though."

Feeling relieved, Bat followed him to the other boys, who were listening to Joe explain how one match – just one match – could put the whole manufactory in flames, and the boys would all get burned up, 'cause there was only one exit and those barred windows. . . . Apparently not caring for this line of talk, Trusty said sharply, "All right, that's enough. I got to take you now to where you'll be living, when you ain't at work."

All five boys exchanged looks. Bat could guess what the other boys were envisioning. Like them, he'd grown up in the capital, where the Men's Penitentiary loomed, a dark mass shadowing the servants' houses. It had been the main prison of the Second Landstead since the middle centuries, when prisoners were tortured in its dungeon. Then, after the ships of the New World sailed to the Old World, and started colonies and brought back treasures, the prison had gradually turned into a modern penitentiary.

No racks any more. But grim walls and stifling, narrow cells and guards on the turrets, ready to shoot any prisoner who looked likely to cause trouble.

Was that what lay behind the Administration Building?

Mordecai took Slow's hand again. Joe took Frank's. Bat simply balled up his fists again, though he didn't know who he'd fight when he saw the gate to those grim walls. Maybe Trusty, for showing them all the beautiful parts of the prison grounds first, to soften up the new prisoners.

Trusty was beckoning them now, from the left side of the Administration Building. With stoicism, the five boys stepped forward till they could see what lay beyond.

They stepped into a dream.