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this is what it feels like to be young

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Susan looked down at the extra-curricular study requests handed to her. "That's a very wide-ranging list. And some of them are correspondence courses with Guild schools."

"Yes, my lady."

"Headmistress." She stared at the list again. "These are the extras your parents requested you study?"

"Yes, Headmistress." Esmeralda Margaret Note Spelling of Lancre had a thin face with watery blue eyes, surrounded by lank, wet-looking blonde hair, as if she had been designed by someone who had heard about Ophelia and hadn't quite got the gist. And had also drawn her on a very small scale. Height didn't seem to run in the Lancre royal family. Still, for a wet-looking girl in general, the kind of girl who looked designed to be bullied by hearty young women at boarding school, she was making a spirited attempt at glaring like a gimlet.

"Interesting," Susan said, meaning the girl as much as the list. "Especially as I already received a different list. Embellished with the Royal Seal of Lancre. And not written in crayon."

Those wet-looking eyes didn't falter, but Esmerelda blushed a little. That name. Susan knew all about parents with good intentions naming children, but at least her own name hadn't painted a target on her back. Her sympathy for the child increased.

She sighed and pulled the two lists towards her. "Let's see what we can do. Systems of government, that's not a problem, it's on both lists. It's a speciality of my school. The same goes for Diplomacy."

"Mummy and Daddy are hoping I can convince the people to want a democracy." The girl unbent a little, her small spine relaxing back into the chair, her box still clutched on her shoulder.

"And you?"

Esmeralda shrugged, somehow managing to indicate that she was open to the option of a democracy, as long as she would be the one running it.

"Homeopathy," she read from the formal list. "That's not on the other. Well, I think you can safely assume that I will inform your royal parents that I will not be offering homeopathy in my school. It has no efficacy at all."

"It does when Mummy uses it," Esmeralda said, a bit apologetically. "But Granny always said looking people straight in the eye and telling them they felt well was just as good, and Nanny says you need to listen to their troubles and show a kind ear, so it seems like a bit of a waste of time studying it." It was the longest sentence Susan had heard from her.

"Agreed. Deportment and Etiquette."

"Mummy says she wants me to learn to make friends." There was a world of something behind that, something dark and yearning that Susan, fearless as she could be, didn't want to look directly at.

"I am happy to excuse you from Deportment. On doctor's advice, if necessary." Susan's doctor was rather a pet, for all the girls were rightfully terrified of her.

"I don't mind taking Etiquette. After all, you have to know the rules to know how and when to break them." A surprisingly adult tone coming from a ten-year-old girl."

"Good. A spirit of compromise will get you far. Fashion." She eyed the girl appraisingly. Esmeralda was dressed in layers of frilly blue satin ruffles that were as unsuited to her general appearance and her personality as could be possible. She looked like she was drowning in them. Getting into a sensible school uniform would be, Susan sensed, a relief. "Someone in your family could stand taking fashion lessons, but probably not you." She crossed the item off. "I'll let them know, though, that I will personally offer you advice in dressing for effect, if that is something you want."

Esmeralda ran her gaze over Susan's respectable, slightly intimidating outfit, and inclined her head in approval.

"Right. There's a note here that you are to take absolutely no extras relating to music, storytelling or dance. You are agreeable to that?" The request had struck her as quite odd at the time. Both dance and music were seen as essential social graces by many of her students' parents.

A definite shudder at the thought. "Yes, Headmistress. No japing."

"Most of the other requests are fine." The list was much longer. Most of them were options that were popular in Susan's school, which had become a destination for young ladies who were expected to take up the mantle of rulership at some time, whether of businesses or countries. After all, where else could they be educated in rulership by a Duchess? None of them really seemed to question why Susan was ruling a school rather than her own duchy. "I do not usually facilitate correspondence courses from the Assassin's Guild, especially in the Dark Curriculum. Are you intending to take their final exam?"

"No, Headmistress."

"Are you intending to kill someone?" Looking at the scrap of humanity in front of her, Susan found it strangely easy to believe. Of course, she was quite familiar with looming Death.

"Inhume, Headmistress. No, Headmistress." Susan waited. She didn't believe in filling silences when someone else was there to fill them. "I want to know what may be used against me. I don't think," Esmeralda added reflectively, "I don't intend to be a very popular ruler. Not cruel, of course. Just. But feared. Respect is important."

Susan smiled. "I'll see what I can do. It's good to have clear career goals." She hesitated, and then said, "You don't have to be a ruler at all, you know. You shouldn't let your heritage define what you want." She felt like a hypocrite, but there she was.

"Oh, it's all right. I hope to be a Witch Queen." For a moment, Susan saw the girl, older, still small, but hips swaying, eyes glowing like a jellyfish underwater, a chainmail gown moving like fish scales over her body. She stretched her mind a little, an easy thing for a mind meant to see into all the kingdoms of the world thereof. Lancre was a postage stamp of a country, known for forests, cliffs and... witches. Well then.

"I think that's all. Go see Matron, she'll kit you out with a uniform. Ask her to assign you to the Blue Dormitory, with Nadezhda." Nada was a bit of a handful and finding a roommate for a werewolf with a proclivity for practical jokes was never a simple thing, but Susan, who had completely revised her opinion of Esmeralda's bully-ability, thought they might find a way to get along quite well.

If not, she was pretty sure Nada would not have things all her own way.

It was a purely practical decision, she told herself. She didn't admit to herself that she saw herself, just a little, in the small, unchildlike figure. She had found her own friends among the outcasts, and it had worked quite well. But she did hope that Esmeralda would find a way to be happy in her school.

The young lady paused at the door. "Headmistress?"

"Yes?" She picked up a quill, usual sign of being about to go on with things and a student in the room being unwelcome.

"Please call me Esme." Oh, the child could smile after all. And so, it seemed, could Susan.

"Thank you, Esme."

"I'm named after my Granny." Susan blinked, trying not to ask about the Note Spelling. People say I take after her, even though I look like my parents. But I have a Nanny, too. And she sent you this, with a message."

Esme tossed the small box across the room, and it arced flawlessly, falling perfectly neatly on Susan's desk. She opened it. Chocolates. Not expensive ones from a confectioner, but messily hand-dipped, with fingerprints on them. "I helped make them," Esme said, proudly and somewhat unnecessarily.

"Thank you. I'll have one after dinner." Even rustic towns could produce a perfect moment.

"Nanny's message is this: Eat the whole box at once. Remember what it feels like to be young, even if you never felt it at the time." Not only could Esme smile, but she could produce an impish grin, old and terribly young at the same time. "I always eat them all at once, even if I get a stomach ache," she added candidly. "Mind you, so does Nanny. She's the oldest young person I ever met."

The door closed behind her and, taken by surprise, Susan laughed and popped a sweet in her mouth. It burst open on her tongue, imperfect and full of promise.