Her drive is a bumpy one. The mud-slicked pathway that leads from the school is covered in innumerable tracks, the depressions slowing her pace greatly. She curses silently, angered by the invasion of the news crews.
The only good thing about the trial being suspended is the ban on more broadcasts on the incidents, she thinks as she leaves the muddy pathway behind for slick asphalt. Hopefully, they’ve left Vanis Town, too.
Professor Tameri enters the center lane to avoid risks of hydroplaning, then floors the petal. She knows this route so well that she could speed here in her sleep, knowing that between the hours of 4 and 7 am that the highway to Vanis Town is empty. Though her hometown is as small as a city can be, she appreciates that transportation to and fro is afforded with relative comfort.
She turns off the highway and comes to be surrounded by open grassland on both sides of the road. As usual, she thinks of how underutilized the land is and knows her later petition to Neth will again be met with stern refusal.
We’d have the funds to purchase this land if Neth would get over his government prejudice. But I suspect he’ll have to face it soon since Stark’s been acquitted.
Professor Tameri groans at the thought of Stark, but swiftly turns her mind back to the task at hand. She checks her mirrors as she sees the Vanis Town sign come into view, wary of any other surprise visitors, even inspecting the backseat with her rearview mirror, confirming it is still empty. More bumps in the heavily traversed muddy ground interrupt her broody investigation. She turns her gaze forward as she crosses underneath the sign.
Tameri puts the chip on her shoulder aside as she approaches the cordoned off perimeter of Jojen’s Dojo, parking just outside the yellow caution tape. She exits the jeep with her hand resting on the pommel of her spadroon, fingers ready to grasp and unsheathe it at a moment’s notice. She crosses through the tape without even bothering to lift it, the tape slipping straight through her waist as if she were a ghost. She pauses in the main corridor after stepping through the recently redesigned door frame, though the glass doors have yet to be reattached.
She takes a moment to look around and observes the changes. The floor is still comprised of wood, but the renovated section is brighter than the rest, and the once teal walls are now slate gray. The stairs are covered in small dunes of sawdust, but appear to also have been reconstructed entirely. She smiles but drops it when Jojen appears from the flight of stairs coming from the basement. She knew he called her here for a scolding, and his expression says it’s going to be a rough one.
“You asked to meet, sir. And since you know I have class today, I hope this remains brief,” she says in hopes to avoid lengthy preaching.
Jojen guffaws as he saunters closer. “I don’t know when you decided to act so recklessly, Tameri, but it stops here.”
“Recklessly? What are you talking about?”
“I’m going to take that as a joke and ignore it,” he says furiously. “Why on earth would you even risk revealing this town knowing what it could do to us! And what’s worse, you didn’t only put yourself on national television, but you somehow dragged Will into things, too. Have every single one of your brain cells died? And I know you used your power to cross that tape. You must be beyond certain that all those reporters have actually left the city. And before I commit to your same stupidity, follow me.”
Professor Tameri leers at him crossly before following his orders. They go down the same flight of steps to the basement and Tameri’s nose twitches when she fails to scent even the slightest hint of smoke. He hasn’t been smithing lately.
They enter the forge behind the large black stone door. Tameri peeks around and determines that the forge hasn’t been lit for over a month, and none of the other equipment has been touched since neatly organized and placed onto shelves or placed against the walls, further confirming her theory. She follows him to an aisle between shelves of iron ores of varying sizes and shapes. She pauses and stares back at the black stone door as he turns a metal wheel, grunting as he forces it to turn. The wheel clicks when it turns and a door camouflaged into the wall hisses open.
Jojen shuts the door right as Tameri enters and spins the wheel on this side to lock it back. They step into a very compressed, but wide room with six different tunnels leading out of it, and each of those tunnels is secured with doors with other wheel locks. The room before the duo is an emergency medical triage center, stocked with medical supplies and machinery. The floor and walls are bright white and all the tables and chairs are made of stainless steel. In the far back right corner is a closet full of patient gowns, medical scrubs, and blankets and stethoscopes.
“Thank the lucky stars that Stark’s lawyer wasn’t bright enough to ask where you were while Stark was chasing her mother,” Jojen says.
“To keep this a secret,” Tameri says, running her hands over one of the cold steel tables, “I’d have perjured myself. They’d have no way to confirm this exists, anyway.”
“Would you really have gone so far to send a colleague, a member of your team, to prison? And who’s to say this place can’t be discovered. It was no small task keeping them from coming down into the smithy for as long as they were here, no thanks to you.”
“So, what? I’m supposed to just let Stark get off scot-free when her mother’s member of The Pure? Would you? What if this had–”
“We’re not dealing in what-ifs any more, Tameri. We’re dealing in facts, and I have a few you’re not going to want to hear, but I don’t care. You almost ruined the safety of this town without consulting me. So, fact number one, Stark is not responsible for her mother’s crimes. Even Will could tell that and had the presence of mind to soften his blows.”
“Which is exactly why I told him to refrain from showing up to court during the following session,” Tameri argues. “We don’t need people like Stark around the students. Those here or back at Four Hearts.”
“Fact two,” Jojen says, ignoring her reasoning, “You should have more sense than the young lady who defended Stark. Even as young as she is, she could discern how unfairly that trial was conducted. And that’s enough out of you!” he shouts when Tameri tries to interject again. “You will be quiet until I finish speaking. Do you understand?”
Tameri fights the urge to bite her lips, but she nods.
“I know exactly what you’re thinking. What happens if her mother comes back when Stark does? What if she kills a student next time? Both outcomes would be a terrible stain in history, and I’m not talking just for the school. I know how hard it is for you to lose anyone, especially if you were tasked with their safety. That fear has always been a weakness of yours, and it’s not a bad one to have as long as you can make it a strength. But ever since it came to light that Stark may also be connected to The Pure, your weakness has been exploited to the detriment of the young woman. And not just in legal terms. You said yourself that the woman claimed to be after Stark. What if it’s not what you believe? What if she kills Stark the second she’s all alone without anyone to watch her back? How would you feel then to see her on the news? That she was murdered by her mother as her father was? I looked up the incident myself, and it’s not a pretty picture, Tameri. I suggest you do the same. You’ll see that there could be no way for her to ever work with her mother after that. Not if she loved her father.”
“I–” Tameri starts to say, but she chokes up when she imagines Stark’s body dumped into a gorge, slamming against rocks while at the mercy of powerful rapids. Shreds of skin from her face left on each subsequent rock, on occasion a lock of her hair is snatched off as well. Tameri shuts her eyes briefly, but the darkness chases away the mix of memory and imagination. “I don’t want her dead, Jojen. As angry as I am, I’d never wish that to befall Stark.”
“You have no right to persecute her unless you wish to persecute the two of us, as well. We failed to keep your freshmen safe as much, arguably more, than she did.”
“Even though that is the case, I’m not just going to forgive her. And what infuriates me is that she’s already campaigning to get her job back. Like nothing happened.”
“She’s forgiven you, Tameri.”
“What?” Tameri asks, stunned by the declaration. “There’s nothing I’ve done to require her forgiveness. I told the truth during that trial.”
“Yes, but the truth of your feelings. Your hurt feelings. You and the broody professor. Yet, she’s still willing to work with the two of you in support of those kids’ futures. To see past all that you said of her and put her duty to those kids first is no small feat, Tameri. And you’re going to rise to her level, too.”
“And why would I do that?” She stares grimly into his equally grave expression when he stops across the table from her.
“Because when you took the job as the Ohaida professor and left this place, you vowed to expand our values to lands far and beyond what you could ever do here. You are an example, Tameri, and those freshmen of yours are going to need extra attention after what’s happened to them this year. So, you focus on their education and leave the resolution of their safety to Neth and whomever he appoints to that position. Do you understand me?” he asks with a well-practiced stony gaze.
“Yes, sir,” she replies sourly. But I’ll keep my eyes on Neth’s decision closely. She turns and looks around the medical center. I do not want to have to rely on this room in the presence of my students again.
“This game sucks!” Pan shouts. She stalks away from the board and sits on top of a desk in the front row, but she takes a second beforehand to ease her back muscles.
Rum laughs at her as he erases the contents of the two side-by-side grids, each 9×9 boxes. “You’re just missing the point of the game.”
“What is the point?” Roy asks, seated a couple of desks to Pan’s right. Right next to Pan on her left is Shuri, seated at the desk properly, and he studies the grids intensively. Aven is lying down on four desks lined up together in the rear of the room, unmoving and uninterested in their games. However, all of them are dressed in athletic attire despite being inside. All of their weapons are hanging on a nearby rack.
“Nine Box is a mathematical and spatial awareness game,” Rum says. “The goal is not just to enter numbers close to each other in hopes of having the highest sum. Putting 7, 8, and 9 all next to each other is a sure-fire way to lose.” He gives Pan a pointed stare.
“Oh, shut up,” she snaps.
“You and your opponent have three blackouts to use on the other’s grid and the blackouts not only take out the numbers of those boxes, but erase those boxes so they can’t be used for cumulative sums horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.”
“I’m not following,” Roy admits.
“I think I do,” Shuri says as he approaches the board. “I’ll play you.”
“You’re on,” Rum states confidently, assured of another victory. He employs the same tactic he used on Pan, placing 8 and 9 on the outer columns of the middle row. At the top and bottom of the middle column, he writes 3 and 6, leaving his 1 in the center. He places 4 and 5 in opposite diagonal corners, same as 2 and 7. Perfect, he thinks, then looks over at Shuri’s grid. His grin fades immediately.
All down the center column of Shuri’s grid are the digits 6, 5, and 4 in descending order. His middle row from left to right houses the digits 7, 5, and 9. His 8 is in the top-right diagonal corner. Rum does the quick math, and if they both take out each other’s 7, 8, and 9 slots, Shuri wins by 2 points with a 32-30 score.
“I win, right?” Shuri asks after he makes Rum’s previous thought a reality. “If blackouts mean that row or column can’t be added vertically, horizontally, or diagonally, then I have more points.”
Pan whistles mockingly. “Damn. Shuri must not have been satisfied beating only your sister. He’s dominating the pair of your now.”
Rum narrows his eyes, agitated by her teasing. “Beginner’s luck applies to some more than others.”
“Aren’t the two of you supposed to be friends?” Roy asks.
“We are,” Pan replies, “but messing with Rum has been a thing since day one. He just doesn’t always take my bait. And no such thing as beginner’s luck. Shuri beat you once, he’ll beat you again.”
“You can’t bait me after literally saying you try to bait me,” Rum says with a smirk.
“But she’s right,” Shuri comments.
Rum turns his head to his competitor sharply. “What?”
Pan and Roy exchange cheeky looks when they hear the annoyance in Rum’s voice.
“Think you can prove Pan wrong? Raise your marker,” Shuri challenges, holding his own inches from a newly crafted grid.
The boys go three more rounds, and Pan and Roy enjoy the show as Rum loses his calm with each consecutive loss, the first one 26-25, the next 26-23, and lastly 30-20.
“Are you serious? You’ve never even played this before?” Rum whines.
“No, but this is up my alley. The way I trained myself in swordsmanship was by acquainting myself with my surroundings as fast as possible and learning to move around within that space as swiftly as I could. This is just a puzzle of a slightly different nature,” Shuri explains.
“If that’s all it takes, you must not be able to beat Nuria either,” Pan says. “That girl loves her grids.”
“True, but she’s less than excited about math. She beats me maybe two out of ten times.”
“Bring her here and prove it,” Pan dares him.
“Can’t. This is class time,” he says plainly.
“You see Professor Tameri here?” Pan asks.
“She’s obviously preoccupied. We haven’t had class all week. And even if we did, she hasn’t asked us to lift our weapons for anything all semester. Like we’re so fragile because some of us got hurt during that madman’s attack. We’re all Ohaida, so pain is an irrefutable life hazard. Raise your hand if you ever injured yourself while first learning to use your weapon.”
Rum raises his as the others do the same, then they all turn to see Aven still as he continues napping.
“I know you’re awake, Aven,” Pan accuses. “I can see your lips part slightly when you try to breathe in a slow rhythm. But go ahead and pretend all you want.”
Aven smirks. “Look at you, Eagle yes.” He stays on his back, but opens up one eye as he turns his head toward his peers. “I’ll pass on raising my hand, but I’m curious to see what you all consider a practice injury. Have any you’d like to share?” He stares directly at Pan when he asks, smiling fiendishly. Rum is agitated by Aven’s smile, but when he looks from him to Pan, he sees her gently scratching at her lower back.
“I sprained my wrists a lot,” Roy says. “I had to strengthen my arms to handle the weight of my broad claws. Took the better part of a year before I was ready.”
“I skipped that stage and just kept at my swordsmanship practice. I used a lot of dummies that Tameri provided for me and I got a lot of bruises from slamming into them.”
“Slamming?” Pan asks.
“It’s why I learned to read my surroundings and act swiftly. Wooden dummies are made dense enough to withstand sword strikes, so imagine how much it hurt to slam into them.”
Rum chuckles when Shuri’s tale makes him remember something. When the others turn on him like he’s being a jerk, he speaks up and explains himself. “My mom once tried to have me do something similar, but in a field of cacti instead,” Rum tells them. “Ended up with more needles in my arms than I could ever count.
“Cacti, huh?” Pan says. “So, your dummies actually fought back.”
“You could say that, yeah,” Rum says with a laugh. “Not to sound like I like pain or anything, but it’s hard to imagine training without it.”
“No, I get it,” Pan says. “It’s like I said, it’s an irrefutable life hazard. As long as the hazard doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.” Pan lifts her hands and wiggles all ten fingers. “My fingers weren’t ready to shoot when I first got my bow. My father didn’t care and worked me until my fingers bled. The cuts don’t really show anymore, though.”
“You’d probably always have on gloves if they did,” Aven says with a snort.
“What are you–”
“I’m talking about the scars you try to hide on your back. Having one myself, I can identify the way someone moves in an effort to hide it. When you climbed up on that desk, you tried to hide your discomfort by doing so slowly.”
“You have scars on your back?” Rum asks. “Are they from the dojo attack?”
Pan sighs and hops off the desk. She takes a step forward so she’s in front of all the boys, then raises her shirt so they can see the red welts on the small of her back. “There!” She tugs her shirt back down and whirls around. “Yes, I got them from the dojo attack. I would’ve had Tyra heal them, but she was exhausted by the time my turn came, so I spared her more of it.” She crosses her arms when she glares at Aven. “And since you know all about back scars, how about you share yours now.”
Pan fumes. “You dirty little–” Pan starts to race to him, but Rum and Shuri jointly restrain her quick enough.
“If it hurts, then get it checked out,” Aven says. “Just because it’s irrefutable doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be healed. Unless, of course, you’re fine with visible scars.”
Pan shakes off Rum and Shuri’s hands, but stays right next to them. “You know what? Maybe I am. And don’t think a little discomfort means I can’t beat you at now.”
“Who says we have to wait on Tameri? We’re allowed to open carry our weapons here, and there’s a sparring field for the taking. I saw we take our training in our own hands.”
“I’m in,” Aven replies, showing all his teeth with a mischievous smile.
“Me, too,” Rum says next, followed by Shuri and Roy.
“You’d leave me out of all the fun,” a flowery voice sails into the room from behind them as they grab their respective weapons. None are as excited by Professor’s Tameri return as she herself is, observing the initiative of her freshman class with inordinate pride.
“Who’s up for some star-sparring?”