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The Sorceress of Karres: Chapter Fourteen

       Last updated: Friday, November 20, 2009 00:26 EST



    “Your daughter Vala has a very impressive scholastic record, Lotl,” said the Chief Administrator of the Nikkeldepain Academy for the Sons and Daughters of Gentlemen and Officers. His tone was doubtful.

    Goth, lightshifted to appear like her mother Toll, tried not to look affronted at the tone. She’d put a great deal of effort into faking those results. It had meant a late night visit to this very office, and a painstaking and confusing dig through the papers in the filing system. And she wasn’t claiming any abilities she didn’t have. True, her math was skewed toward astrogation, and she was a little wary about the essay-writing, but…

    “What is the problem, then?” she asked.

    “It’s the subject choices she wishes to register for here.” He must have read the militant look in Goth’s eye. “I see she’s done them before! It’s just that she’ll be the only girl in several of those classes. And some of the teachers have complained that she’ll be a distraction to the boys.”

    “Oh.” That idea was so alien to Goth that she literally had no idea what to say.

    “So… if you could prevail on her to do Housecraft instead of Advanced Mathematics…?”

    “I really don’t think so,” said Goth. She hadn’t known before that frost could actually form on words.

    The administrator tried one more time. Nikkeldepain’s parents must be a browbeaten lot. “It’s not going to be pleasant for her, you know.”

    Goth raised her eyebrows “Really?”

    “Well, she’ll have to keep up or we’ll transfer her out,” said the administrator, irritably. “Now, about tuition and fees…”

    By the time she walked out of the office, Goth knew two things. First, she needed to make sure that her math was as good or, preferably, better than the class, and secondly, she was going to need quite a lot of money soon. The stock of cash from Mebeckey’s wallet was running out.

    Goth started to cast her mind around, looking for ways of making sufficient money to fund an education that was beginning to look more like a war zone. The obvious and simple answer was to loot the law-abiding citizens of stuffy Nikkeldepain. But she knew that the captain would not approve, no matter how deserving some of the local citizenry were of being looted. So she’d have to turn to money that actually belonged to her. Well, money that belonged to her father. She was going to have to take steps.

    Yes, it would mean that Pausert’s mother got a little less. But at the rate she was going, she’d be glad to get anything at all. And the captain was going to need that money to get some pilot training and a bit more food and some new clothes.

    But that would take a little time. Walking past the windows of the expensive furriers on the high Street, Goth had seen the prices of the miffel fur coats displayed there. Of course, to a citizen of Karres, a miffel fur coat was hardly worth owning. Tozzami and gold-tipped lelaundel were much finer quality. The miffel coat that Goth was wearing when she came down the Egger route had been chosen for practicality, and Goth had been quite cheerful about the idea that it might get scratched or damaged. It had a rather fine gold-tipped lelaundel collar.

    She would have to go and fetch it from the botanical Institute. She could find somewhere to sell it, but she hardly knew where to start. The logical place seemed to be with young Pausert.

    But when she found him it appeared that it would not be quite so simple. “You’re coming to join our class!” said Pausert. “It’s almost causing a riot. Half the boys said they shouldn’t let a girl join the math class.” He was grinning from ear to ear. “Rapport was really quiet, though. His face is still purple.”

    “They’ll get used to it,” said Goth. “Or I will make them used to it. Huh. Look, I need to go and collect that coat of mine. ”

    His face fell. “That could be difficult. They’ve upped security a lot since then.”


    He nodded. “My mother told me. I think she suspects I may have had something to do with last time. It was a sort of warning, I guess. She took the key.”

    Her face betrayed her. He smiled. “We’ll just have to take a chance, I guess. Get in somehow, although I just can’t think how.”

    “Tell me about it. Maybe we can work something out.”

    He did. It wasn’t very high tech. New patrols, and some infrared sensors. Still, she had fairly limited resources. She could bend light. She could even go in no-shape. But they’d still show up on infrared. She hadn’t figured out heat yet. Of course, to bust up the machinery by teleporting bits out of it or into it, was doable. But that didn’t seem fair. The Institute was her father’s legacy too, in a way, and Pausert’s mother’s job. Goth didn’t want him caught there.

    In extremis she turned to every young Karres witch’s first resort: go up. “What about the roof?” she asked.

    “The roof?” Pausert looked puzzled. “It is quite high. I don’t think you can get onto it.”

    But after they’d been to look at it, Goth realized that he just didn’t think of heights the way she did. “I need that coat back,” she said firmly. “I can go up that pipe. Then there are those skylights. I’ll get me some rope.”

    “But that’s burglary,” said Pausert, shocked. “I don’t think we can do that.”

    “It’s my coat. I’m not stealing anything. And your great uncle left the key. Therefore he must have meant that you could go inside.” Goth was already rather fancying the idea. She’d always liked the excitement of the hunt, and this was similar.

    Pausert was less morally certain than he had been as an older man. “Are you sure? I mean, it seems wrong.”

    “There’s a don’t walk on the grass sign. There’s no don’t climb onto the roof sign.”

    “That’s because nobody would,” he said grinning. “Anyway, I am not sure I can climb a rope.”

    “I can. You’re not coming with me. You could get into trouble.”

    “Ha, and you? Anyway. I am not letting you do it alone,” he said determinedly.

    In some ways, he was already just like he grew up to be. Knowing the captain’s obstinacy about these sort of things, Goth didn’t even try. She let him show her where to buy rope. She was pretty sure the local police would take a dim view of it all if they were caught. She took extra care, therefore. She made sure to leave him outside and the person who bought that rope looked nothing at all like the young woman who had just been enrolled at the local Academy.

    They found a tree with a convenient branch. Rope climbing lessons followed. And very shortly after those had not succeeded, rope knotting. That did make it easier. By now, Pausert was entirely carried away by the excitement of it all, and Goth was feeling guilty. She tried to call it off, planning to come back quietly that night. But Pausert read her too well. “You’re not going without me,” he said.



    So they walked around to the back of the building. Goth was now really quite nervous. She would have done this in no-shape or light-shifted to look like something that belonged here, but she couldn’t do that in his company. The “close your eyes” trick would never work twice.

    She found herself appealing to the Toll teaching pattern in her head. And yes, there was an answer. Not quite as good as no-shape or a light-shift, but it would make them a lot harder to notice, without being obvious to young Pausert. He could go on imagining they were just incredibly lucky. She’d bent light around herself and others before. Made refractory illusions of light-shifts. She could also bend light around the air. It was tricky. Air was not co-operative about staying in the same place. The molecules moved unpredictably. But an illusion could be created in it.

    Goth tried to trace the klatha patterns in her head, but it was like herding smoke. The best she could do, unpracticed, was to create a greenish haze around them. And that made her sweat.

    “Guess we just hope no-one is looking out of the window,” said Pausert, his voice sounding a little uneasy.

    “Nothing to stop us walking here. You said the gardens are open to the public. Try to look like you’re having fun.”

    “Oh, but I am. Really. I haven’t made a lot of friends here.”

    “You don’t fit here too well,” said Goth. “Don’t worry, eventually you’ll find a place and people that you do fit in with perfectly.”

    “You sound like you know,” said Pausert, half-smiling.

    “Do, I guess. I’ve been a lot of places.” She did not add that quite a lot of them had been with him.

    By this time they had reached the down-pipe, in among some bushes. Here, at the back of the institute, the gardens sloped away to open land beyond the city edge, and scattered small-holdings and farms. There was nothing that close at hand that they were likely to be seen, unless it was by someone wandering in the slightly unkempt gardens.

    “You first,” she said, pointing at the pipe. That way she could hide him in a light shift while he climbed. He stood just a little straighter at what he plainly perceived as a responsibility, and set off up the pipe. Goth hid him in a light shift, merely patterning his back to look like the wall and pipe. By the way he huffed and puffed, she thought critically, he was not as fit as he could be. About time she got to work on that! She wondered if there was some local equivalent of the mountain bollem she could talk him into hunting with her. There was nothing like that for getting you in shape.

    When he was up, she followed him, climbing the pipe as easily as a staircase. Soon they were both on the roof tiles, moving to the rows of skylights. The institute roof was taller than any of the other buildings in the area, and so not overlooked. It was gently sloping and not difficult to move on, just a little hot. Goth was glad it was winter. Pausert was sparkling with the sheer adventure. It was Goth’s turn to be wary now. She was learning a great deal by being responsible for him, for a change.

    They peered down through the first skylight. The plants looked quite different from above and Goth couldn’t be sure just where her patch of maroon leafed markers were. But Pausert had a good sense of direction — or just knew the place very well — and had them move on. At the third skylight he tried found what he was looking for. “Okay, now if we tie the rope to that bar…”

    “If we just sit still and watch for the patrols,” said Goth firmly.

    “Well, all right. It’s just that I have math homework to do. You will tomorrow, too.”

    Goth had not previously encountered “homework.” It didn’t sound like she was going to enjoy it, though. They watched. After about twenty minutes they had the patrol schedule sorted out. It seemed that orders had come down for more patrolling, and maybe even IR beams, but the security patrol had had many peaceful years of drinking tea and occasional saunters through the beds of plants from a hundred worlds, and weren’t about to let a bunch of kids change that.

    They tied the rope securely, after a short but fierce debate about who could tie the better knots, and dropped down into the dense foliage of a makemake tree. At least, that was what Goth thought Pausert said. It seemed a strange thing to call anything. After another heated debate both of them went down. Goth did put her foot down little this time and went first in spite of his protests. She soon wished that she hadn’t. Makemake was obviously “make you itch,” but after her first brush with the leaves she carefully avoided them, ‘porting some out of the way, rather than touch them. She could think of no way of telling Pausert about it, so he just had to find out for himself.

    Once down onto a narrow little walkway, they stood and scratched their arms and legs, until, avoiding any more leaves, they made their way to the edge of the bed and down into the corridor between the botanical beds. It had all seemed quite easy so far, but a few yards from the locker below the planting of maroon leafed Mularina tremblence from Coolumns world, they must have walked through one of the infrared beams. Goth had forgotten them.

    A siren sounded. “Back to the rope, quickly,” said Goth. They ran back and crawled under the stinging foliage. Goth did a light-shift on the rope, just where it was visible above the tree.

    “It came from here. From this sector,” said the lead guard.

    “Probably a bird or something,” said the second security guard. “They keep getting in.”

    “Someone could be hiding in the bed. It’s one of the ones with a sampling walkway.”

    “Don’t be crazy. That’s a makemake tree. No-one would go near it. You itch for days.”

    Goth knew all about that. It was hard staying still and not scratching. She still didn’t have her coat.

    “I think we’ll just have to keep watch here for a bit. Radio in and have them activate the beams again. That way we’ll know if whatever it is decides to go anywhere.”

    After a while Goth decided to risk a peep. And a quiet scratch. The two guards were sitting on the edges of the plant beds, right next to the locker that held her coat. It was probably too big to ‘port, but she tried anyway, out of sheer frustration — and was rewarded by her miffel-fur coat. Her teleporting abilities must be getting better with practice and age. And so they need not have come down here, and had the encounter with the makemake tree. Now, would patience serve? The itching was something fierce.



    “I’ll have to get back,” whispered Pausert. “I have math to do. I need to have it done before Ma gets home.”

    “Give it another minute or two,” whispered Goth

    “You got your coat. Great!”

    “Yes, it would be nicer if I wasn’t itching like mad,” said Goth, scratching.

    “I just knew the name of the tree,” he said, defensively. “Didn’t know what it did. Or at least I didn’t remember.”

    “Well, at least I’ll have a coat to protect me, climbing up.” Goth concentrated on thinking about the air just a bit further down the corridor. Making the image of something in the air, not just a refraction, was going to be tricky. But making the air opaque…

    “That looks like smoke,” said the guard.

    “It does. Better go and look.”

    The alarms went off again. Goth realized they’d forgotten to radio in, in their haste and surprise.

    “They’ve got enough problems,” said Goth. “Let’s go.”

    “Vala, you’re amazing,” said Pausert quietly. “How did you do that.”

    “Do what?” asked Goth innocently. “Now climb.”

    So they did. Goth had to leave the rope visible — but from below Pausert looked like a piece of roof. An itchy piece of roof. She followed. Even if the security men had not been busy explaining what they’d seen and done, they could not have seen her. Once they were on the roof they hauled the rope up, and then closed the skylight. Except for the rash on her hands and Pausert’s legs, they’d come away without a scratch, and with her coat. They dropped back down the drainpipe and into the bushes and headed out of the park.

    “We will stop at the drugstore and get something for the itch,” said Goth, firmly. And Pausert didn’t even argue with her.



    The pink goo helped for the itch. It wasn’t beautiful. A sort of payback for the purple they’d covered Rapport and friends with, Goth decided. She’d talked Pausert into letting her join him in this math homework at his spartan house — so that she could see what level of work she would be expected to do. The answer was a combination of very frustrating and quite simple. She was used to harder problems — but not at all used to having show how she derived her answers.

    “What’s the point?” she demanded crossly. “If it’s right, it’s right.”

    “But if it’s not right, they can’t give you any marks for the part you had got right.”

    “If it’s not right, your ship is a crater.”

    “There are other uses for math besides astrogation,” said Pausert, defending for the sake of it.

    “Oh. Like what?”

    “Like biology for starters,” said another voice. It was Pausert’s mother. “But getting it wrong there can actually be just as bad.”

    Pausert leapt guiltily to his feet. “I didn’t hear you come in, mother. Vala’s joining my math class and…”

    “Glad to see you have brought her home. I think she’s right, though. My uncle was apparently forever in trouble for not showing his work. He always said he could tell which answers were right. Nearly drove his teachers mad. He never learned the method as prescribed.”

    It had never occurred to Goth that other people might not know when their math calculations were right. “He sounds like a good man,” she said, gruffly.

    Pausert’s mother laughed. “Depends on who you ask. Growing up, I thought he was pretty wonderful.”

    It was all Goth could do not to agree with her. She stuck to nodding.

    “So: A girl doing advanced math — and who believes the only purpose of it is astrogation. I wonder if the Nikkeldepain Academy for the Sons and Daughters of Gentlemen and Officers has any idea of what is going to hit it. They’ll give you a rough time, my dear.”

    “Huh. I’ll give it right back.”

    “You could. But it is probably not how you’ll win the fight, Vala.”

    “I’ll be there too,” said Pausert, staunch and solid as ever.

    “I am sure you will, son,” said Pausert’s mother, proudly. “But seeing as I did it, long ago, without any supporters, maybe you should go and get us some fresh bread, and leave me to chat to Vala about it.”

    When Pausert had gone, Pausert’s mother smiled. “First let me get you something better than that Darmin lotion for the makemake stings. So it was you two, was it?”

    Goth blushed to the roots of her hair. “We didn’t do any harm. I was just fetching something of mine I had left behind last time.” She took a deep breath. “You ought to do something about those boys. They’re making his life a misery.”

    Pausert’s mother smiled sadly. “I know. But it’s actually quite difficult not to do something that would make it worse. He is a good boy. But not very popular. Nikkeldepain’s not a bad little place. But they don’t like incomers here. I wanted to give you some advice on how to deal with it best. Being a tom-boy and trying to punch your way through all of it is just too difficult. Ask me. I found out the hard way. Of course I was a little younger than you, and it took me a while to learn to be a social chameleon. I didn’t like the idea at all. And I was delighted that that Rapport boy got what was coming to him by the way. But I can’t tell Pausert that.”

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