by Serena W. Sorrell

The bus wound up the mountain road like a snake that had eaten too much. And no wonder.  It was the largest passenger bus able to make the steep and curvy climb up to the peak of the treacherously steep mountain; more than sixty students, anxious for their first day of classes at the University of Mount Ovi, bounced with every shuddering movement. It was, of course, a great achievement to be admitted to UMO, but even greater still was to reach the peak without any impending freshman losing their breakfast. The lingering stench of long lost scrambled eggs and curdled milk clung to the bus’s interior, making the feat even more impressive.

  Hair tucked beneath a black head wrap encircling her heart shaped face Vera sat with nothing to do, and no one to talk to. She managed to sway as slight as a praying mantis before its strike while other students were autumn leaves on a branch during a gale. With her hands folded on her lap Vera’s lips moved only a little and without any sound. She had repeated the words four thousand five hundred fifty‑two times since they had departed town. She would continue until they reached the university campus. Perhaps then she could trust her voice when it spoke the words aloud at last.

  “…and the girl from Pembridge makes the sixth this year.”

  Vera struggled to maintain her mantra, floundering over the syllables only a little as the chat between her soon‑to‑be classmates rushed up and down the aisle.

  “Bloody hell! It’s not even April yet; they’ll be finished before summer hits at this rate.”

  “It’s simply atrocious.”

  More students began to join in; a multiple of comments about the serial kidnappings cramped the rancid air inside the old bus. The conversation was not a hushed one. Why would it be? Children had been taken, without halt, for more than a millennium. No one really knew how far back the kidnappings went. The pattern and signs had only been accepted as truth some four centuries ago. Every year, thirteen children; each one of them from six to twelve years old. But once the quota had been filled no more would disappear until the next year began. It was neither surprise to hear of missing children, nor unknown who committed the heinous acts. And, after all, the kidnappings were only one symptom, and one reason all of them were on the bus to the University of Mount Ovi.

  Thinking of their shared ambition seemed to conjure the university’s tallest steeples and buildings. The stone edifice sprouted from behind the trees still hiding the campus grounds. They were close. Vera repeated the words more quickly. She had hoped to reach six thousand by the time the bus stopped; too lofty a goal she realized. But Vera was seldom in the habit of reining in her aspirations. She was, however, in the habit of remaining unnoticed. Vera wished to make it through the next four years without incident. To be completely honest, she would be surprised if she was still enrolled at UMO when she hit twenty-two, but she would do everything possible to ensure she stayed. That meant becoming invisible.

  The count ended at five thousand two hundred thirteen. The number and her failure to reach a more orderly number was unpleasant. As the bus lurched to a halt after its three and a half hours of swerves and curves Vera squeezed one more repetition in so as to avoid such a portent and ghastly number. She would draw no attention from her past, avoid the present, and smother hope for a future. Hopes and dreams did not provide results. It was up to Vera to do that. And this place was her best chance of success. The grandness of the University of Mount Ovi towered around their party. A marvel of architecture when it had been built over three centuries ago, and still so. A straight, undecorated pillar stood guard in the courtyard: name of the university, founding year, and Latin motto engraved in its marbled face. Order is the Key. A fitting motto, albeit surreptitiously ironic.

  Outside the chilly March wind of the high mountain nipped at noses and chilled toes all around. The university chatelaine was already calling out names as the chamberlain and bus driver unloaded luggage from the underboard compartment. Clipboard in neat manicured hand the chatelaine checked off students from her list as they came forward to collect two suitcases to one person. Each student had been allowed one suitcase of personal items from their homes as they would not be returning until they had graduated the university. The other suitcase had been purchased in town that very morning (gruesomely early morning) and contained everything they would need for the first six months of life at UMO. The bus made two trips to town a year. Those were the only university approved times for students to leave campus.

  At last the luggage had been sorted and claimed. A deep sigh threatened to escape Vera. She approached the chatelaine and at last said the words she had practiced over five thousand times.

  “My name is Vera Blackwyne.” The chatelaine gave her a look like cold oatmeal; Vera had to press on, “My name wasn’t called, miss. And my suitcases—”

  The chatelaine had caught on at ‘wasn’t’ and had already flipped through the pages of names. She offered Vera a forced smile of professionalism and tapped the end of her pen to the board.

  “There was no luggage boarded under your name, Miss Blackwyne. Do you have the numbered receipt tag we would have given you?”

  Even before rifling the pockets of her cardigan and coat Vera knew they would be empty. She skipped the whole spectacle altogether and simply said: “No, ma’am. I must have been mistaken. Apologies.”

  The chatelaine offered that humorless smile, unchanged, and Vera saw the words pushing against the back of the woman’s teeth. There was quite a bit she would like to say to Vera for wasting her time and keeping her from the warm office and hot tea. Instead the chatelaine exhaled the words as a steamy breath out her nose.

  “Yes, well, this being the first day of term you will have to attend classes with insufficient supplies. I’m afraid some marks will be struck against you by the professors, as is their right.”

  Vera understood the meaning perfectly: Don’t complain, you brought this on yourself. She wouldn’t have complained anyway. There was absolutely nothing surprising about the situation or outcome. In fact, she should have expected something like this from the start. Her insistence to attend UMO had been met with resistance; a resistance that would, it appeared, not be ending any time soon. Just one more bother to tuck away in her memory. Perhaps if she brought it up to mother later… She was wandering. Vera ordered her thoughts and offered a perfunctory curtsy to excuse herself from the chatelaine. It was a six to seven hour round trip to the nearest town at the bottom of the mountain. Vera’s pocket watch clicked open, the second hand’s soft ticking barely audible over the hum of excited first years. Classes began in forty‑three minutes. She would have to endure, purchase everything once more, and hope for the best. It was unfortunate to lose so many effects from home. But there again, it was her fault for packing anything. She knew better than most that stealing children was not the only crime they were capable of.

***

Students were given an official university handbook with their schedule and a detailed map. The chamberlain lead them all to their first class as all incoming freshman shared the same first course regardless of their individual specialties. The classroom was shaped like a half bowl. Six aisles cut the room into five slices. In each part waited the empty chairs and long tables the students would occupy. at the base of the tiered room were chalk boards and glass holo screens, the professor’s podium, and a standing dais. The chamberlain announced their professor, who would introduce herself, would be along in fifteen minutes, and they would receive a proper tour of the campus and facilities at the end of first bell.

  Vera took a seat in neither the center slice, nor the one against the wall. She sat neither at the back, nor front. She would be one face in the middle of a sea of faces. She would sit where it might be safest, if determining safety were as simple as choosing where to sit. The rest of the seats filled and chatter filled the air above. To her right sat a boy, unshaven and messy haired; bulky headphones over his long, black fringe. He looked utterly out of place in the university cardigan. Worse still, he drew attention. A quick scan showed Vera had no other seat to run to. On her right was the boy’s opposite. In every way the girl on Vera’s other side was the vision of a model, student or otherwise. She was perfectly powdered and her coif perfectly preened, honey gold curl perfectly centered on her forehead. Already the girl had laid out her textbook, supplement text, a pen, a pencil, and notebook.

  The girl seemed the safer gamble of the two. If for nothing else than the table in front of the boy was as barren as Vera’s. Vera repeated her name three times inside her head before fully turning to the girl.

  “Pardon me. I’m Vera Blackwyne. This awfully embarrassing but I’ve no supplies for class. I’m sorry to trouble you like this, but might I borrow a pencil from you… and a sheet of paper?”

  The perfect face and all its perfect features cracked at the request. The girl’s lips frowned only just, and her chin lifted ever so. Golden‑green eyes stared down the thin bridge of a perfect nose with such a hissing spark Vera heard their words plain: How dare you speak to me.

  “Tenniel,” came the actual retort. “Bedelia Victoria Tenniel. Remember to return my pencil or I shall be very cross. And do be more responsible for yourself in the future. One can hardly expect to sail through life on handouts.”

  Bedelia set the pencil in front of Vera with a harsh clack, and ripped a piece of paper from her notebook with such distaste a large corner of it remained on the spirals. Pentagonal paper and sharpened pencil before her Vera bowed her head thanking Bedelia for her kindness, along with an agreement to take proper care of her duties in the future. Bedelia turned without acceptance and began a conversation with the girl to her right. Vera wrote a reminder to return the pencil at the top of the mangled page just as the door on the speaker’s floor opened. A woman in deep emerald robes, collar and tie exposed at her throat, stepped into the room. The robes swished with her even steps and the flash of tawny slacks could be seen in the shadows of billowing folds. A murmur of scandalized gasps made their rounds. Vera had seen worse than a woman in trousers. The professor set her bundle upon the podium and table beside.

  “Stand.” Their professor trumpeted, and the room rose in portions and pockets. “Sit. Unacceptable, even for first years. Again; and as one, stand.”

  It was a better effort though this time some of the more eager rocketed while the slower to comprehend were nothing but contrails. The professor offered only a disappointed sigh this time. She strode to the front of the podium with the same even steps she had crossed the room with. A smattering of students began to sit.

  “Did I say ‘Sit’?” The guilty straightened and reddened. “I am Professor Louise Bloomfield. You are a room of out of sync first years. Yet you find yourselves in Introduction to Line Reading I; a class that demands command of rhythm.”

The professor wore a high knotted bun of brown hair threaded with gray. From her temples shot thick streaks of silver, like comet tails. Her cool blue eyes scanned the room from behind horned turtle shell glasses.

“We will try once more, and only once more.  Sit.”

As the class sat, still decidedly disorderly, Professor Bloomfield turned to the table at her back and uncovered a brass metronome fitted on a polished wooden body. She loosed the needle and clear steady beats filled the room.

“On the tenth beat stand.”

  Each word with a beat of the metronome. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. The classroom of sixty‑seven students rose as one. A delicate nod of approval from the professor was all the praise they were offered.

  “Sit on the fifth.”

  The mass sat with some haste. Again the professor nodded.

  “Let us begin.” Vera decided at once she liked Professor Bloomfield; she was strict but not beyond explaining the simplest things to her students. In a word, fair. A trait Vera admired immensely. “You all know why you are at the University of Mount Ovi, and I congratulate you on being admitted. However, as demonstrated, admittance into our fine academy will not be sufficient if you do not hone every skill you have at your disposal. Line Reading, though seen as a tedious course by many, is mandatory for every term of your career here. In autumn you will enter Introduction II and continue through the first and second installments of Intermediate, Advanced, and Master.

  You may come to hate the coursework, or me if you like. I only demand you learn the lessons without flaw. And you will. Line Reading is the most basic skill required for all of the courses you will enter here and will become the very solid foundation you will all stand upon. Beginning today we will cover scansion, punctuation, diction, rhyme, line breaks, and spelling. You will be self‑correcting errors in class work and assignments. The midterm and final exams will be scored by myself. The two tests, attendance, and participation will determine your placements.” Bloomfield looked over the wave of students, discern for any confusion in her gaze. Not finding it she nodded, “Very good. Open your textbooks to page twenty-three; as the first chapter is absolute rubbish we will be skipping it.”

  A rush of paper against paper flapped as students raced to reach the announced start. Vera wrote ‘p 23’ under the reminder to return the pencil. She would have to self study when her textbooks arrived. Until then she would do her utmost not to fall behind. Professor Louise Bloomfield began at true base zero. This too, Vera admired. Though it was likely ninety‑nine percent of the class had at least some form of tutoring and basis in line reading there was undoubtedly the one percent who had not had the gift of a thorough education. They would learn everything from the most basic of basic. As the lecture continued Vera caught glimpses of the professor’s passion for the subject, though quickly snuffed out. It was good to be taught anything by someone who loved it. That too would ensure a thorough and deep understanding of the lessons. Vera was determined to put these lessons to work, though the subject was the antithesis of her strengths in every way imaginable.

(part two) (part three) (part four) (the end)

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