Dinner with the Keepers

When it was time to leave for dinner, the girls took a lantern from the stand by the front door and headed to the caravan to meet up with Kavi and the professors. A boy of about eight had been sent to guide them all to the keeper’s home.

Keeper Shalynn’s home was more modest than the leader’s had been. What it lacked in size and potlatched ornamentation, it made up for in an almost aching tidiness. Everything appeared conscientiously proportional and intentionally placed so that, if she were to pull a painting from a wall and lay it atop an area rug across the room, she was sure all the corners would match and the edges would be flush. She closed one eye and sighted down the edge of a coffee table, and noticed it aligned perfectly with the outside edge of a window pane across the room.

The keeper’s house was meant to walk through rather than live in. It was devoid of finger smudges on door frames, cobwebs in corners, or threads fraying up from rugs. It was disquieting, like watching a gardener continue to pull out weeds long past the point of benefiting the flowers.

There were far fewer guests than had been at the leader’s banquet, and only a single long table to seat them. Keeper Shalynn sat at the head with Professor Parr on her right. Next to Parr was a man whom Reyan took to be the keeper’s spouse. He had a tidy little beard and dark eyes. His brown hair was shot through with gray streaks and was pulled back into a tight ponytail bound with a blue and gold ribbon. He smiled and nodded in the automatic and joyless way of the duty-bound. Around his neck, he wore a necklace with a large copper pendant. It was tarnished with age, but rubbed shiny around the clasp. It was decorated with an intricate pattern of holes to let out the fragrance of whatever herbs he kept in there. If asked, she guessed he would deny they were protective or medicinal. No one really thought such things worked, just that they didn’t hurt. Besides, it made for a beautiful necklace.

To Keeper Shalynn’s left sat Sevv and next to him was Rowe’s junior Keeper. Her brown hair fell to her shoulders. It was thick and had a dusty quality about it. It wasn’t wild or unkempt—underkempt perhaps—as though she brushed it faithfully each morning but in the dark and only then. Her angular face was nearly pretty, having the right shape of eye and turn of mouth to make her so, but all the bits were slightly mis-aligned like a birthday cake that had slumped a bit as it had cooled. So that, rather than peering confidently forward, her eyes tended to seek out the tabletop or the ground. She had never introduced herself to Reyan, but Reyan had overheard the formal introductions and knew she was Mariana.

A large centerpiece made of polished rocks, artfully placed twigs, and late-blooming low-land flowers erupted from the center of the table and formed a sort of conversational boundary between those whom Reyan considered “the kids” and “the adults”.

On the kids’ side of the divide, Reyan sat next to Kavi with Avalina and Tamura across from them.

A single attendant, a thin unsmiling man with perpetually arched eyebrows and half-closed eyes brought out bread, salted butter, cured meats, and pickled vegetables.

Tamura poured herself water from a sweating jug near the center piece, took a sip and leaned forward to fill Kavi’s glass. “So, Kavianhar, is it?”

He took a sip. “Just Kavi, mostly.”

“Kavi then. Professor Kavi soon.” Tamura’s eyes grew wide as soup bowls and caught all the light from the fire, the lamps, and the candles in the room. She was certainly pretty, but seeing her eyes sparkle back all that captured light made Reyan grind her teeth.

“That’s right. I’ll be graduating soon after we return to the University at Seal Tooth.” Kavi began to slice and distribute the bread.

“How exciting. I just realized, I have absolutely no idea what it takes to become a professor.”

“Well, you’ve never been to the University. You’ve never taken any classes.” She shook her head slowly, keeping her aggravating eyes focused on Kavi as she did so. “Well then, how could you know?” Kavi shrugged.

“But I’m fascinated to learn. Could you tell me?”

“But then we’d have to kill you,” Avalina broke in.

Tamura’s eyes narrowed and she sliced them over to Avalina who had filled her glass and was sipping water as though she had not said anything at all.

Reyan had already grown quite fond of Avalina, but she decided there was a little room left to like her more. Still, while she appreciated seeing her friend knock Tamura off balance, she also wanted to learn about becoming a professor. So, she spoke up, “The kids at dinner last night, they said that a professor’s training is a secret.”

“Kids love to come up with stories.” He shrugged. “The only reason there’s any mystery at all is because it’s so incredibly boring to talk about. You go to school. You learn things. You practice. You apprentice. There are lots of books, lots of professors asking you questions that you start off feeling like you know the answer to, and after a two-minute discussion you feel like the dumbest person in the world.” Reyan thought she saw Parr turn his head toward Kavi and smile a little at this. But the expression was fleeting, and may have been the result of a bit of unheard adult conversation. “You learn math. You learn systemic models. Through all that you develop an understanding of the System. Once you know the System you go out on circuit and learn how to explain the useful parts to other people and train the towns’ systemic keepers. That’s it. Now you know all the mysteries of becoming a professor.”

Tamura sat up straight, furrowed her brow and kinked her neck to one side. “That seems pretty straightforward.” She seemed a bit disappointed.

“I mean, it is as far as it goes. There are no blood rituals, or magic potions or anything like that. But it is extremely difficult. You do learn a lot of odd things, things that ordinary people…”

“You mean ‘nodies’?” Avalina smirked.

Kavi paused as though readying an apology or explanation but thought better of it and continued. “Things anyone who is not studying systemic theory would find hard to understand.” As a keeper’s acolyte, Tamura was technically studying systemic theory, so she leapt at the chance to include herself in the same class as the professors. “You can’t just tell folks everything a professor knows.”

“So, there are secrets?” Avalina popped a coin-shaped slice of cured meat into her mouth.

Tamura continued to speak for Kavi. “It’s not so much that things are secret, it’s just that they can be confusing if you don’t understand the context. That’s what we keepers are for. To help ordinary people make sense of it all once the professors leave town.”

“It’s true,” Kavi agreed, “there is a lot of useful information in the compendia. Those are the little books we give the keepers before we leave. They explain how to do things; take care of the sick, plant fields, cure meat, run processes, all of that. But if you want to understand why it’s important to do things exactly as described, if you care at all about systemic theory, then you need to head off to the University at Seal Tooth and become a professor.” Reyan found herself wondering, even hoping, that Kavi was talking specifically about her. “But even then, there’s only so much any one professor can know. The System is complex. It’s huge. Many lifetimes’ worth of huge. It’s a lot more than one professor can know, let alone express to your average fisherman in the far reaches of the circuit. People aren’t stupid. They intuit that there is a lot more to know. So, they assume we’re withholding information. We’re not. But rumors still crop up about professors and their ‘hidden mysteries’. But really, there’s only so much we can explain in the few days we’re able to spend in each town every year. There is only so much our printers can cram into an annual compendium.”

The servant arrived with the main course, a large roasted bird. Keeper Shalynn stood and raised her glass. “I wanted to thank the professors for being here. Thank you for allowing us the honor of hosting you in our home. Welcome friends both old and new.” Everyone joined her in taking a sip of their drink. “And I would also like to thank young Tamura for the bird.”

Sevv looked impressed, “You prepared the turkey?”

“No,” Shalynn corrected, “she provided it. She’s quite the shot.”

Tamura did her best to seem embarrassed and said, “I put an arrow through his neck at thirty yards. Accurate mind, accurate intent, accurate hand,” Tamura intoned.

“Impressive,” Sevv frowned and nodded.

Avalina rolled her eyes.

Once the toast and Tamura’s moment were over, she returned to asking Kavi about being a professor. “It seems like such an interesting life. Traveling around through the nodes,” Tamura was the only person besides the professor who Reyan had ever heard describe the towns as ‘nodes’, and the acolyte spoke the word as though it described a quaint thing far away and distinct from her. “You must get to meet all manner of people.”

Kavi smiled. “Yes, it’s nice. A professor’s business is people, and we certainly do meet a lot of them. And they have such diverse problems to solve for. It’s very satisfying work.”

“And this must be nice,” she smiled knowingly.

Kavi sipped his water. “What’s that?”

“This,” she said gesturing with an open palm to the room the table and the meal. Kavi cocked his head as though he didn’t understand her meaning. She smiled and huffed as though he were playing at being thick-headed. “Every time your caravan rolls into town, you’re given the royal treatment. You get all the best food, mix with all the best company.”

“I think you’re making more of it then it is. Caravan life is hard. Living out of the back of a truck is quite uncomfortable. When we arrive in town we are often invited into people’s homes to share meals, which is, I suppose, a nice side benefit.”

It occurred to Reyan, that Kavi had no idea what life was really like in the towns. Professors only ever came through in the warm abundant months. They only experienced generosity and celebrations in their honor, and so believed a node’s level was as high as the crests of its tallest wave.

“A side benefit?” Tamura scoffed. “A visitation might as well be a potlatch.” Her voice was raised in exasperation. It drew the attention from the other half of the table, all of whom had stopped talking and were now listening to Tamura. She glanced at keeper Shalynn whose eyes stared back at her, icicle sharp. Tamura cleared her throat, her gaze sought a place to hide and found the center of her own dinner plate. The keeper slowly turned her head back to professor Sevv to continue whatever conversation Tamura had inadvertently interrupted.

There were a few moments of silence while Tamura tried to recover. But then, just like a snail startled into its shell, she slowly and surely reemerged. Eventually she used her thumb to rub out some invisible smudge from the rim of her plate and asked, “And what about you? Reyankaiya, is it?”

Reyan began casting about for something to say about herself that might be interesting for dinner conversation. She must have taken too long, because Avalina stepped in to fill the dead space Reyan had left. “Reyan is a leader’s daughter. She’s come down from Orloton.”

“Orloton? You’re leader Rolf’s daughter?” Tamura marveled. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about your father. So that’s why the professors decided to take you in.”

The mention of Rolf soured Reyan’s stomach and Tamura’s assumptions made her tighten her fists until her forearms grew hot. “Benefactor. Rolf was my benefactor.” Tamura looked perplexed which pleased Reyan. “I was his ward.”

“Oh.” Reyan saw the bright image of herself reflected in Tamura’s big eyes, dim somewhat. “So how…” her question trailed off.

Avalina broke in. “Maybe there’s more to becoming a professor than social status, Tamura. Have you considered that?”

“That’s entirely the case,” Kavi said as though completely unaware of the tense turn the conversation had taken. “In fact…”

Tamura ignored him, Avalina’s challenge had hooked her. “Like what?”

“Kindness and generosity, for starters,” Avalina said matter-of-factly before taking a bite of food.

Reyan wasn’t sure exactly when it had happened, but she had been pushed out of her own conversation. Now, even though the words being spoken referred to her, they were no longer about her.

“Yes, there’s that. Plus hard work, thoughtfulness. Introspection…” Now Kavi was looking at Reyan and nodding every time he said a word. Maybe Kavi was talking about her, or at least talking to her.

Tamura rolled her eyes. “Well, she certainly didn’t get anyone’s attention with her riveting conversational skills.”

A chair scraped across the floor near the head of the table, and all eyes swung in that direction. Parr was standing as though he had been planted there. He calmly wiped at the corner of his mouth with a napkin. When he was done, he folded the napkin into quarters before placing it neatly beside his plate. “Because you asked, young acolyte.” His voice rolled out and blanketed the room. He did not sound angry, or even stern, though Reyan thought he may have put a bit of extra emphasis on the word “acolyte”. “The answer is this: Becoming a professor requires that one apply oneself entirely to the task of understanding the System. Applying yourself to such a task requires humility above all else.”

Tamura, flustered beyond caring, spoke her exasperation to the ceiling, “I have been puzzling over the compendia for years. Certainly the chief requirement for understanding the System is intelligence.”

Mariana, the perpetually downcast junior keeper whispered into the silent wake of Tamura’s outburst. “Perhaps that is why the girl is going to Seal Tooth and not you.”

Avalina held her wadded up napkin to her mouth and made a weak bark which sounded enough like a cough that she could claim to have choked on a sip of water. The sound was also enough of a laugh that Tamura would not mistake it.

Parr excused himself from the room. A few minutes later, he returned to his meal and the conversation.

The rest of the dinner continued without further incidence. The adults talked about whatever it was that adults found interesting. The conversation on their half of the table consisted mostly of Kavi and Avalina talking about life in Rowe during the three hundred and sixty-two days when the professors weren’t visiting. Tamura mostly answered questions with single words.

For her part, Reyan paid very little attention to what they were saying. Without knowing or intending to, the earlier conversation had put an idea in her head. Now she was turning it over and looking at it from as many angles as she could.

Later that night, as Reyan and Avalina readied themselves for bed, Reyan asked, “Did you mean what you said? Do you really think I could become a professor?”

Avalina stopped for a moment, then continued to shake out her dress. She hung it in her closet. While her back was turned she said, “Aren’t you a bit old to start?”

“Am I?”

“I don’t know, I sort of thought that professors were hatched or something.”

“Kavi wasn’t hatched.”

Avalina threw herself down on her bed and propped herself up on her elbows. “He sort of seems like he was hatched.” She giggled.

Reyan was defensive. “Not at all. Kavi’s very nice.”

“Of course. Little chicks are all nice.”

“So, what do you think?”

“About Kavi?”

“No, about me becoming a professor.”

“I don’t know, I hear becoming a professor can change a person. I sort of like you the way you are.”

“Everything changes a person.”

“I suppose. Have you ever considered becoming a stableman?”

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