Work Header

Chapter Text

From the Superintendent of the House of Transformation to Comrade Benjamin Carruthers:

This House has been for a number of years in many of its necessities crippled by a lack of sufficient funds to properly carry on the work; and particularly this is noticeable in the sanitary and heating plants, which are both antiquated and insufficient. In my judgment, the Second Landstead has not given this Institution the encouragement which its work deserves.

The Institution is run on the most economical plan; not a solidus of the money is squandered or wasted; its accounts are audited regularly every month; the salaries paid to staff are meager – in fact, penurious; but I have been confronted constantly with a lack of funds.


They were standing in a schoolroom. Most of the room was filled with three neat lines of desks, with only a pot-bellied stove blocking one of the aisles. They were like desks that Bat had seen in the wordless comics that servants bought: a wooden top held up by elegantly patterned cast-iron legs, with a wooden bench jutting beyond the front of the desk for the student at the next desk.

The room, well lit by tall windows, was sparsely furnished otherwise. There was a desk and chair on the platform at the head of the room for the instructor, and behind that a chalkboard. At the back of the room, a map of the Dozen Landsteads hung on the wall.

The only other objects in the room were potted plants.

"Plants!" exploded Joe, as though he had reached the limits of his capacity to take in any more of this absurdity.

Trusty seemed unconcerned by their reaction. "You'll study for four-and-a-half hours here, each morning."

"We're going to learn to read?" With wide eyes, Slow stared at the desks, as if expecting storybooks to appear on them.

That broke the dreamlike state from all of the boys. They laughed good-naturedly, and Joe reached up to tousle Slow's hair.

"No reading," Trusty clarified. "That's against the high law, teaching servants to read. But you'll be learned arithmetic, bit of geography, bit of history . . . Things you might need in your work. Teacher'll guide your studies in the schoolroom, then take you to dinner, then hand you over to your Department Head for the afternoon's work. —Over here, now."

Though reluctant to abandon the schoolroom, Bat followed Trusty and the others to a short corridor whose main purpose seemed to be to lead to a set of stairs. Trusty paused, though, in front of a door that was open a crack. "That's the hospital room. Family Cottage Mannerly – one of the cottages for journeymen – used to be the hospital, but Super ran out of space for the new boys, so now each cottage has got its own hospital room. —No, don't go in." He caught hold of Joe, who had been about to slip inside. "We got a consumptive boy in there now. You don't want to catch nothing from him."

Sobered by the image of the dying boy, they all followed Trusty up the broad stairs to the top floor. The steps led to a corridor, lit at their end by another of the tall windows. Trusty made his way down the hall, pointing. "That's the door to Teacher's toilet. It's locked; boys don't use that toilet, except with permission. Door beyond that leads to Teacher's sitting room and bedroom. This here's the cell."

He said it so abruptly that it was a moment before they all flinched. They had forgotten, almost, that they were inmates.

This time it was Frank who took Joe's hand. Mordecai cuddled up to Bat's side. Slow wrung his hands as Trusty took out a metal ring from his pocket and carefully sorted through the keys on it. Bat spent the time staring at the door. It looked like the prison doors he'd seen in servant comics. All solid metal, without even a slit in it to push through a meal tray.

Trusty found the proper key, turned it in the lock, and took hold of the door. It opened with a creak.

The cell was very small. Bat, who had measured many a boat with his eye over the years, thought it couldn't be much bigger than a man lying down: maybe three feet by eight feet. It had no window. Most of the space was taken up with a very narrow metal cot – nothing more than a metal shelf on legs. The cot had a thin bed-tick on it and two gossamer-thin blankets. No pillow. The only other object in the room he immediately recognized as one of the infamous night buckets that inmates used in place of a seat in an outhouse: just a pail with a board over it, prone to stink. There didn't seem to be any water in the cell. Nor any source of light or heat.

Slow's wail broke the silence. "You ain't going to put all of us in there, are you?"

Mordecai was shivering now. Bat put his arm around the young boy.

Trusty said phlegmatically, "It's the punishment cell. You only go there if you're punished. One month, bread and water, and you're flogged each day if you're right bad. Don't break no rules around here, and you won't never see the inside of this." He closed the door with a determined slam.

Everyone looked at each other. No one seemed inclined to speak. Mordecai was still shaking. Bat found he couldn't swallow.

Trusty glanced at them and said, "Dormitory's down this way. Come on."

The room he called the dormitory was well lit, with windows open except for their metal bars. A spring breeze made the room smell fresh. It was just as crowded as the punishment cell had been, though. The beds were crammed so close to one another that there was barely room to walk between them. Shoved in next to each bed was a chair. The beds consisted of the same metal shelves as in the cell, with the same thin bed-tick, but broader, and they were covered with pillows and what looked like reassuringly thick feather comforters. Bat, whose previous sleeping places had been an offshore shanty and a bunk in his master's boat, ran an assessing eye over the room. It was a lot cleaner than the boat.

"Fifty beds," declared Joe, who had been counting under his breath.

Trusty nodded. "Supposed to be thirty. Courts keep sending us boys, even though the transformatory's well past the number of boys it's meant to take. Super won't turn away any boy who he thinks needs this place. . . . That's the inmates' toilet." He pointed to a door leading off from the dormitory. "You're lucky; we had night buckets and outhouses through the whole transformatory till a sun-circuit ago. Super is eager to make this House all modern; he's trying to get funds right now to steam-heat the buildings. Till then, it's cold in here at night. Super don't allow stoves in the dormitories, 'cause he's worried about accidents."

Bat eyed the comforters again. They might be just thick enough.

"What's that door?" Frank asked, pointing to a door at the other end of the room. It was slightly ajar, enough to show a stove.

"Teacher's bedroom. It's right next to the dorm so Teacher can check on the boys, any time of night. That's where I sleep."

They all turned to stare at him. Bat began to speak, then thought the better of it. Mordecai looked terrified, as though a playmate he'd just roughhoused had turned into the High Master.

Trusty took no notice of their looks. "Not enough room here for you new boys, so you'll be sleeping down the hall. Come along."

They all trailed behind him. Joe looked furious, the way he always did when he couldn't figure out what was going on. Bat felt his own temper rising, but he kept it in check, mainly by thinking about that punishment cell.

The room they were led to was at the very end of the hall, in an annex all its own, with windows on three sides. In size, it was somewhere between the dormitory and the punishment cell. Six beds were pushed against the windowed walls, with a generous amount of walking space in the middle of the floor. Trusty said, "This used to be the playroom, for when the weather was too bad to go out during playground hour. You'll sleep here."

"There's no lock," announced Frank, examining the door. Joe glared at him, probably because he'd hoped that omission wouldn't be commented on in Trusty's presence.

Trusty nodded. "Room wasn't made as a dormitory. Now, listen, boys." His voice grew sober, and Slow, who had been examining the comforter on one of the beds, looked up. "We'll lock you up if we got to, but that means night buckets for you if we do, 'cause there ain't no toilet here. If you're not locked up, I'll leave the Teacher's toilet open for you to use at night. Which one you want?"

There was a moment when they all exchanged messages with their eyes – they'd become used to communicating that way during the long wait for the police wagon to arrive, when they'd been chained together but had been hit by the policemen if they attempted to talk. Then Joe said, "We won't try to escape at night. Promise." He drew a ring of rebirth on his forehead. They all followed suit. Bat noticed with amusement that Joe had made no promises about the daytime. With the gate to the transformatory grounds wide open during the daytime, and only a low fence around the grounds, it must be easy as a summer's swim to slip out of this place . . .

. . . but Bat was in no rush to do so. Beautiful campus, sitting at school desks each morning, afternoons spent on farm-work that couldn't be harder than pulling up heavy dredges full of oysters in the bitter cold, and so far no guards had beaten him over his head, like his master had been in the habit of doing.

Bat was almost looking forward to his time here.

Trusty looked them all over, slow-like, before he nodded. "All right. Take these."

He fished something out of his pocket and tossed it at them, one toss at a time. They all grabbed for the black cloth badges.

"That's your numbers," said Trusty. "Staff will call you by them; don't forget to answer when you're called. You can all read numbers?"

Bat stared with dismay at the line of numbers. "Only up to nine."

Trusty sighed. "Any of you had proper training in math?"

"I have," said Joe unexpectedly. "My daddy was training me nights to work beside him as a cash-counter at our master's packing house."

"Then you remind the others of their numbers if they forget," Trusty instructed. "The rest of you: just read the numbers one by one. Don't need to know more than that. Make sure you got your numbers all in mind by the time you meet Super this evening, 'cause he ain't going to know you by name."

"We wear these?" suggested Frank, trying one out on his shirt. Like all of them except Mordecai – who was clad in the neat clothing of a young domestic boy – Frank was wearing the same ragged clothing he'd worn before his arrest. Frank and Joe were barefoot; Bat and Slow wore watermen's boots.

"On your uniforms. You'll get those later, after you've all had baths. In the creek," Trusty clarified. "Unless you want to haul up the water to the cottage and bring out the tubs from the basement."

They quickly shook their heads. Slow smiled. "Like swimming."

"You won't like it quite so much when the weather turns cold," Trusty said drily. "Super's planning to build a bathing-house too, but he don't got money for that yet." He reached into his pocket and tossed them more cloth badges, stripe-shaped. These didn't have any numbers – just colors, like the stripe on Trusty's uniform. "Merit-grade badges," he explained. "Shows what rank you are among the servants. Badges have the heliograph code colors. Green is one, green and red is two . . ."

"Ten," said Frank, looking down at his green-blue-green badge with awe.

Joe sighed. "One is highest, right?"

Everyone swerved their heads around to stare at Joe, but Trusty nodded at this counterintuitive suggestion. "You do your jobs well, without complaint, and you'll be raised a merit-grade. You get to merit-grade one, and you're paroled after another month of good behaving."

They looked at each other. The Solomons Island court had given them indeterminate sentences, but they'd assumed that meant they'd have to stay here till they reached full adulthood. To have a chance to leave before then . . .

"What about those badges the young masters on the lawn were wearing?" Bat asked.

"Those are Teachers' badges," Trusty replied, still standing straight in the doorway. He didn't look like the sort of young man who slouched against doorposts. "Shows what family cottage the Teachers watch over. Cottage Obedient is circular, Cottage Mannerly is square, Cottage Honorable is rectangular, Cottage Cleanly is an oval, Cottage Industrious is triangular, Cottage Trustworthy is pentagonal. Recite them back to me, as well as the merit-grade colors."

It took much longer this time, mainly because Slow had never learned his colors or shapes. Trusty fetched colored chalk and a slate from the schoolroom, and they all crowded around a bed, eagerly spurring on Slow until he had at least mastered the Teachers' badges. Colors seemed to come harder to him; after a time, Trusty said, "Don't matter; I'll tell you all what your merit-grade number is when I give you your badge."

Slow, however, was still puzzling out the mysteries of the numbering system. "What comes above one?" he asked.

"Zero," Joe replied promptly and gave a cheeky grin at Trusty. "When do we get our zero badges?"

Trusty – perhaps recalling that zero symbolized transformation in the Dozen Landsteads' alphanumerical system – offered a hint of a smile. "Maybe when you're released outright from parole. I wouldn't know." His incipient smile faded. "Right, then. The three of you stay here." His gaze travelled from Bat to Joe to Frank. "Harry, you're a journeyman, but the Super has decided you'll be staying here for now." Slow nodded, contented. Trusty beckoned with his finger. "Mordecai, come along. You'll be sleeping in Teacher's room."

Bat went rigid.

Joe – though he could not know the nature of Trusty's earlier conversation with Bat – must have had enough street-sense to be alarmed. Joe's way of being alarmed was to be furious. As Mordecai began to step forward, looking uncertain, Joe pushed his way in front of the young boy and stood there, folding his arms and glaring at Trusty.

Within seconds, Bat and Frank had lined themselves up on either side of Joe. Slow was standing behind Mordecai, guarding his back. Bat's heart thundered. They were in prison. Under the control of men who had the power to punish boys. There was no way this was going to end well. The best they could hope for was the possibility that the Superintendent didn't much care for the idea of Trusty bedding young boys, so the Super would save Mordecai from Trusty's rapacity. But even if that happened, it was likely that Bat and Mordecai's other defenders were headed for the punishment cell. Trusty would see to that.

Trusty seemed to be taking his time about turning them over to the Super. His gaze travelled slowly over the five of them. Mordecai, clearly confused but grasping that the other boys didn't want him to leave, peered around Joe, saying, "Could I stay? Please? I'd like to sleep here, with my friends."

Trusty's gaze remained hard upon the other boys. He seemed to be scrutinizing them. And then – with a cold chill of relief, like a refreshing breeze entering the room – understanding entered Bat.

Trusty wasn't trying to take Mordecai away from them to harm him. Trusty was trying to stop them from harming Mordecai.

Joe must have reached the same conclusion, for he unfolded his arms, reached back, and slung his right arm over Mordecai's shoulders. "He'll be fine here. We won't let him be hurt."

Bat and Frank nodded their agreement. Slow said in his most emphatic voice, "He's our pal."

"All right, then," said Trusty at last. "No point in moving him out if you're already a team. But if you got any trouble in the night, Mordecai, you come to me or call for me. I'll leave the door to the Teacher's room open."

"Don't worry about him. We five are going to have good times here, aren't we, lads?" Joe grinned at the others.

Trusty gave a short nod. "You five stay here. I got to get something."

And he departed, leaving Bat to revise in his mind the nature of his previous conversation with Trusty.