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And I will fail miserably, as I so often do.
Best to let them be, then. I'd be a fool not to consider the urgency of our mission, but we still have plenty of time to take. "Shall we stop in the courtyard for a spell, milady? It's a lovely sight, and there are places to rest until the headmistress will have us." I've been told that she teaches here, on top of the clerical part of the job. I've yet to be told how she finds the energy.
"And I hear children. Perhaps the scurrying of commoners can entertain us for a while." Without even acknowledging that we would consider seeing someone else – which, now that I think on it, is a nice touch – she continues strolling along daintily.
The etched bricks that line the outer wall echo with our footsteps (Well...my footsteps.) as we make our way toward a great arched stone pathway. Each step, we pass by name after name of the school's friends over the years. At some point it became tradition for classes to carve their names in the bricks as they graduate, close friends often sharing the same plot. No matter how far the two might drift, the bricks never forget them. It's a silly, sentimental thought, but even I've been asked to sign a few. Rejecting them never gets easier, but I'm not a graduate. It's just not my place.
When we do reach the arch, it's quite a bit taller than it seemed from afar. It makes sense, though: It's tall enough to accommodate adults, exceptionally tall adults, people who enjoy flying at ground level, or horns, but wider than you'd expect such a passage to be, perhaps to accommodate a rush of bodies at the morning bell. As such, sunlight floods the two-room-thick tunnel despite its length. Similar ones are placed along the walkway, each one an entrance to the open-air yard and all that resides within.
At first it was behind the school entirely, but as time passed and the building expanded they refused to build over it. And why would they? The artisans charged with the school's expansion would have grown up on these very streets, played on these grounds with people they still know today. By now, most have even chiseled their names into these bricks. Who wouldn't want to watch their own children do the same? So the walls stretched and bent over the years, and greeted themselves when they met at the corners, and now every room has sunlight at almost any hour of the day. Even in the courtyard, there's so much space that you can almost catch the sunset if you stand in the opposite corner.
I'm beginning to sense a theme in the design.
From the moment we turn into the tunnel, color floods our vision. Small, delicate flowers of hot shades that inspire visions of summer run along the outer edge of the grass along the walkway, their pattern only broken by the stepping stones set directly in front of each passage. They pale in comparison to the yard's centerpiece, though. More varieties of plants than I could hope to name form a great mass of vines, leaves, and petals that seems to writhe with life each time the wind blows past it, and under the care of the botany department not a single one is left to wither. Flowers grab your attention first, as they are wont to do, but if you look between them even the stems are arranged. Their perfume is as impressive as their appearance; despite being apparent from even this distance, the aroma is gentle and nuanced.
Of course, the whole thing was almost cut down entirely a few months ago when a child went missing inside of it. There was quite the uproar, though when he wandered back out two days later he was as happy as he'd ever been. Surprisingly, that alone was enough to quiet the doomsayers, though they did end up digging a small moat around it. By now it's been turned into an attraction all its own, with colorful little fish swimming to and fro. Some even say they've dug a small tunnel from the moat to the lake, just to encourage larger fish. Patently absurd though the notion may be, it's certainly fun to consider.
A young couple silently admires them from a nearby bench (a generous gift among many from the townspeople), arm in arm and hand in hand as their heads nuzzle against one another. It almost makes me wanOff to the side, older children poke around in the dirt, occasionally holding up pinched fingers for the acting instructor to inspect. Another group is left to wander, sketch pads and pencils in hand, in search of a subject for a piece. Some have already settled, making light sweeps and bobbing their heads from the subject to their paper rapidly, and one has laid down on her stomach near the centerpiece for a close look at tiny details. Off far enough that they don't disturb (and aren't disturbed by) the students, another couple has spread out a blanket on the grass and simply lay together happily, pecking one another in between bites of pizza.
It's not unusual to see people coming here just to relax, even during the day. There's plenty of space for anyone who wants to be here, and it's a safe spot to enjoy nature, which is hard to come by for humans. It's warm, it's pretty, and it's quiet, aside from the fenced-in playground where toddlers are given their first lessons. There's a small swinging gate that opens into the rest of the yard, but there's also a direct entrance to their indoor classroom. Regardless of the weather, though, the teachers make a point to put singing, dancing, and playing into each day's lesson, keeping the young ones happy and enthusiastic about learning. Right now, the afternoon class is sitting down at a cluster of vibrantly painted tables.
Toward which Southpaw trots, fearlessly and wordlessly.
Okay. Okay! How hard can it be to keep up the act for a class of three-year-olds and a single—no, two. Two instructors. Another steps out of the building with a stack of plates in hand, and begins setting them down at the tables as Keine. Well, then. With their tables set, the second instructor sits to help supervise as the headmistress herself walks out of the classroom with enormous bowls of food balanced on a tray that takes a table to transport, serving each child what they ask for. The first has already run inside and returned with an assortment of juices, milk, and water. Right from the get-go, all three of them buzz about trying to keep a handle on all of the children. For the most part, the effort is a success.
By the time we reach the fence, the group has settled a bit. With the kids served, the instructors keep a close eye on them but don't seem to need to devote their full attention. One turns to us; a woman who couldn't possibly be over 17, her features smooth and round. She stands only at shoulder-height, but her wide, honest eyes hide how high she needs to look. Her lavender hair is pulled to the side and tied off in a loose bun that hangs at her shoulder, and an enormous, milk-white lily is tucked behind her ear. A soft, almost fuzzy shirt clings to her modest form, its sleeves ending just above her elbows. Flowers are strewn over its sky blue base, each different from the next. It seems almost like an arrangement. Under its hem is a cream-colored dress ending just past her knees that flows magnificently in even the slightest breeze. Along her left leg is the silhouette of a goldenrod, in – appropriately enough – a pale shade of goldenrod. Sandals are strapped to her feet well enough to run in, in a pinch, but still loosely enough to stay cool in the early autumn afternoon.
And run she does, if only for the second it takes to close the distance. "Hi! Are you here to volunteer?" ...No question about who we are?
A low, slightly raspy voice calls, "Down, girl!" from the table, earning a laugh from the others. This one has two long braids that fall all the way down her back, blue and white highlights separated into the strands of each braid. It's subtle, but it lends the style an interesting effect. A dark purple undershirt hides her modesty where her thick, white, unbuttoned blouse doesn't, and a pair of very loose black pants that ends in comfortable-looking boots lay underneath it. "Introduce yourself before you start shoving scissors in their hands." The joking tone never quite leaves her voice, but there's a hint of irateness that says this isn't the first time this has happened.
"Hey, at least I asked first." Without giving her time to respond, the flower girl's head whips back to us, sending her bun flying behind her shoulder. "I'm Akyu, of the Hieda. Are you here to volunteer?"
Southpaw regards her with no more than the appropriate amount of distaste as she replies, "I am Sako Kendou, daughter of Junya Kendou, heir to the Kendou estate, ruler of–"
"Yeah, yeah. Are you here to volunteer?" Rather insistent, aren't you. I can see why, though – even as Southpaw was rattling off titles, she would turn her head to look over the children. Can't blame her for working while she's at work.
"Assuming that at least your colleagues know their place." And when the lady volunteers, her governess volunteers. It would seem we have a day ahead of us.
"Awesome." Hearing the clatter of plates and a few high-pitched laughs, she whips her head back around. "Hey! No throwing food!" And back to us. "We can really use the help. Thank you so much, guys." And just like that, she's back at her table, cleaning up a spill while trying to keep one of the fast eaters seated.
The braided instructor is just as busy, but she finds time to shoot off a quick, "Thanks for introducing me, too."
"You're welcome. Fitzroy, let her eat." Is that what people are naming their kids these days? Seems like there's a new movement for every generation.
The gate has a simple lock, though it still takes a second of experimentation to figure it out. Extending from the top of the opening end is a short black pole, and perpendicular to that is a simple curved shape which hugs the end of the fence. Pushing the pole down makes the curved lock give in either direction, and when we push the gate closed it locks tight again. Nothing you couldn't do while, say, carrying supplies, but fence's chest height alone keeps children from escaping into the yard.
The mere act of crossing into their little section of the yard completely changes the feel of things. Observing from a foot away and being right in the center of the twenty-some children (by my estimate, anyways) is like the difference between watching danmaku and playing it. The moment we're inside, the braided instructor calls to us. "Hey, thanks for helping out. I'm Tokiko. You wanna take care of the dishes?"
Southpaw responds with a sneer almost instantly, her voice dripping with disgust. "That's far below me. What else can I do?" Tokiko seems a bit irritated by the quick rebuke, but she holds her tongue.
Well, if they need to get done... "I can take care of the dishes." Wait, is that supposed to be below me too? "...As it please Milady." She turns to me with a smile, and nods curtly.
"Great. There's already a couple over in the sink," And she points to it, a great silvery basin hanging from the wall, "If you wanna get started. They'll pile up fast enough." Turning to Southpaw with a smirk, she continues, "As for the lady, would you prefer to keep the finished children busy? They know where the toys are, just make sure they stay quiet and don't hurt anyone." A child's hand shoots in the air, and Tokiko's attention is immediately upon them. "You're done, Rogaih?"
Without wasting another moment, I make my way over to the sink as Southpaw makes it perfectly clear how little she wants to volunteer, despite having done so readily. I can't tell whether it's for the act or if she just can't stand being idle. Just like she said, there are a few dishes already waiting to be washed, and just like she said, they pile up fast enough. For the first few minutes, two dishes get brought over by tiny hands in the time it takes to wash one. There's only so many kids, though, so in time the flow stops and I catch up. With three dishes left, I hear the ring of a bell, and a chorus of children lead by Keine. "Stoooop, looook, and listeeen![i] Thank you, friends! Everyone to the circle, now."
Setting down her hand bell, Keine moves to take her place beside a small array of easels, each set with a different display. One has a half-written calendar, another has a board of facial expressions with emotions written underneath them, another has a tally of brightly shining suns, clouds, raindrops, and snowflakes. There are more tucked away behind them, I'm sure. Her deep blue eyes are normally as piercing as Hood's, but around the children they grow soft as a mother's. Her smile is as warm and inviting as a fireplace in winter, and her voice is trusting and strong in equal parts. It's not hard to see how the humans came to accept her.
Silvery blue hair runs down her back like a waterfall, but here and there small strands get caught in her blue-and-green sweater, hollow diamonds of color blending into one another over a field of white. The texture of the embroidery is as beautiful as the woman it covers, each knit lending to the image of azure tides flowing across her ample figure. Underneath it is a flowing turquoise dress that ends in sharply pointed frills around her ankles. Though it fits tighter than Akyu's it still leaves her plenty of room to move if need be, as is evidenced by the sleek white sneakers under it.
Her hat, though, steals the show...as it always does. Keine's become something of a legend for her hats, each new one just a touch more ridiculous than the last. Today (thankfully) she's chosen something a bit more subdued: A three-layered hat, so enormous that I have to wonder whether it's not glued on somehow. The corners of each square layer are upturned like spikes, and the bottom has tassels hanging from each. Sitting atop the third, smallest square is a perfectly spherical red jewel that seems to cover every shade in the spectrum as the afternoon light bounces through it.
As the children sit in a circle in front of her, each gives her their (mostly) undivided attention. "Now, we have some very special guests today! Would you like to introduce yourselves?" With a wave of her hand, all eyes in the room turn to Southpaw and me.
"Yes, thank you." Letting her eyes pass each face in the room individually, she puts on a grandiose air and sets about her titles again. "I am Sako Kendou, daughter of Junya Kendou, heir to the Kendou estate, ruler of–"
"I'm sorry, Miss Kendou, but the kids–"
"[i]Ruler of the Phantom Isles, former adjutant of the First Wraith Batallion, head librarian of the Depository, and part-time world explorer." With a look of satisfaction, she assumes her normal tone again. "You may refer to me as Mistress Kendou." Compared with the powerful voice she used before, the statement almost makes her seem demure.
Keine stares at her for a moment, shielding her thoughts with the same gentle eyes that shield the children. "I knew our company was special, but I had no idea you were that special. Thank you, Milady." Nothing she says hints at it, but I can't help but feel like she just insulted us.
Sako doesn't, though. Happy with the small amount of respect someone gave her, she gives a small curtsy before turning to me. "And this is my governess, Miss Haruka."
"It's a pleasure to meet you both. I hope you have a lot of fun today." As she speaks, Keine gives me a pitying look for only as long as it takes for me to reply with a strained smile, then looks over the class. "But we have fun every day, don't we?"
The chorus responds so enthusiastically that it draws a small gasp and a reserved laugh from Sako.
"All right! Now, it's time to do the calendar! Who's our helper today?" The teachers all glance at a board on the wall, decorated with yellow, orange, and red leaves made of paper and sloppily painted. It's pretty clear that the kids each did their own leaf. On each is a name and a drawing of one of the children, and next to each is a job – "Librarian", "Meteorologist", "Qalandar". I have trouble believing that last one isn't just made up, though. Even as they look for the name beside it, Edward stands from the circle with an enormous grin.
Leaning over to me with a smirk, Akyu (Where did she come from?) whispers, "Edward loves counting."
"Edward! Com-oh!" As Keine turns back to the calendar to find her helper already there, she jumps in surprise, getting a small giggle from a few of the kids. "Okay, the month is Sep-tem-ber," she slowly enunciates as the tip of a flashy, ribboned baton goes along the enormous print on top, "and yesterday was Thursday, so what's today?"
Again, the kids respond in chorus, "Friday!"
"Very good! Now Edward, can you help us find out what today's number is?" With a small flourish, she hands over the baton, which Edward takes eagerly. Almost as soon as it's in his hand, he begins pointing to the days that have already been marked and counting them aloud. I'm no expert in the field, but a three-year-old that can count to 19 is pretty impressive. The other children in the class count along, too, with Keine helping the ones that get a little lost. "Nineteen! So we make a ooone...and a niiiine. That means today is September 19th. It's going to start getting colder from now on, isn't it, Miss Hieda?"
"I'd say it's already been getting colder, Miss K. I've got my comfy shirt on, but I think you might have the right idea with that sweater." For effect, she crosses her arms and shivers a little bit.
"To be honest, I'm a little warm. This is my favorite favorite sweater, though, so I just couldn't wait to wear it. It looks like Miss Tokiko's got the right kind of clothes on, though."
Looking up from the pile of papers she's been sorting through, Tokiko smiles and replies, "I like the cold, but sometimes when I'm flying it gets a little too cold. That's why I like to be able to button up, if I want to. In fact..." Standing up for a moment, she takes off her blouse completely, setting it to rest on a chair, and flexes her...wings? She's a youkai? "Mm. That's more like it." None of the kids pay it any mind, thankfully. I'd have thought they would be more scared.
"Well, just be careful you don't get too cold. We don't want Miss Tokiko to get sick, do we?" Some of the kids respond with a 'Noooo', but others just shake their heads.
A girl dressed all in pink raises her hand, but doesn't wait to get called on. "I don't want Miss Tokiko to get sick, because she's nice, and I love her." Awwwww!
"Awwwww~! Come here, honey." Setting down her work again, Tokiko kneels with her arms open, and the girl runs to hug her. When she does, her wings close around her for a second, giving her back a quick rub.
Picking right up from there, Keine continues, "And we love all of you too. So make sure your parents pick out nice, warm clothes for you! Now, then..." Her voice drops a bit – oh! It's a song! After the first note or two, the kids are all singing along.
"What's the weather,
What's the weather,
Do you know?
Do you know?
Is it sunny,
is it rainy?
What's the weather?
What's the weather?" It's so simple that it's almost embarrassing just listening to it, but I can't deny that it's cute seeing 20 toddlers singing it. "Okay! So who's our meteorologist today?"
The meteorologist isn't so enthusiastic as Edward was. "Looks like it's Jasmine! Go on up, Jasmine."
Jasmine, another girl in a red sweater, a red dress, red leggings, and red shoes (Her name was on a red leaf, too, now that I look. Seems it's her favorite color.) stumbles to her feet and walks up to Keine, who pulls a small pair of binoculars from behind the calendar. "Okay! So what kind of weather do we have today?" As Jasmine puts the binoculars to her eyes, Keine turns her to make sure she won't stare at the sun.
After a moment's consideration, she shouts excitedly, "It's sunny!"
"Right! There's only a couple of clouds in the sky today, so it's still nice and sunny. Can you come draw a sun on the weather board?" As she speaks, she rummages through a pile of supplies to find a big black marker, which she uncaps before handing it to Jasmine.
She just looks at it hesitantly, though. After a moment and a 'What's wrong?', she asks, "Can I use a red one?"
The question brings a smile to Keine's (and my) face, and she trades it for an almost identical red marker. This time, the girl accepts it happily, and draws a circle that turns out as more of a spiral along with all the other interpretations of suns lining the board. Some are cleaner than others, likely from the older kids. She puts the cap back on the marker herself, this time, and runs back to her place in the circle. "Great job! Let's give our helpers a hand!" And on cue, everyone – Milady included – offers their applause.
"Now! I had a lesson in mind today, but when I met our special guests, I had a really fun idea. Lady Sako Kendou here said she was an explorer!" Among other things. "Does anyone know what an explorer is?" One of the boys' hands shoots into the sky, and he can barely restrain excited, 'Ooh! Ooh!'s. "Yes, Takuro?" ...Strange that the normal name would stand out. I guess this is where the next generation is going.
"A explorer is...they look at stuff!" It's hard to keep myself from laughing, but I'd hate to discourage the child.
Akyu jumps in this time, kneeling down beside him to talk. "And what kind of stuff do they look at?"
His face scrunches up for a second, searching for the words, but he finds them quickly enough. "Stuff...stuff that nobody's seen!"
Letting her face glow with excitement, she looks at everyone in the circle as she speaks. "That's right! An explorer is someone who goes around the world, looking for things people haven't seen before. Sometimes there's nothing really special, but sometimes there's really, really cool stuff! Miss K. and I are kind of like explorers, too, aren't we?"
Laughing softly, she waves her hand as though to dispel the thought. "That's a bit of a stretch. We just write down what other people see. Explorers do the real work." Akyu looks like she's ready to argue, but Keine doesn't let her. "So! I was thinking, if they'd like, our guests could share a story or two from their adventures. Wouldn't that be cool?" Some of the kids caught on faster than others, but by now every one of them has stars in their eyes.
An almost uproarious "YEAH!" rises from our little corner, drawing a few stares from some of the other classes. As the shout dies down, it gives way to a few lingering laughs from across the yard.
Keine looks up expectantly, and Sako looks right back at her. "What do you say, guys?"
"I'm sure we can think of something. We've certainly had our fair share of close shaves, wouldn't you say?"
[ ] Just let her tell the story. She's got this covered.
[ ] Throw in your account of things; it'll be more genuine.
[ ] This is a preschool class, and we're (ostensibly) outsiders. Let's make this story awesome.
In the past...Two months? Jesus. In the past two months, I've found (to my sorrow) that I do not deal well with changes. I have also found that when given a place to put nice things or money individually I can stick to a budget, but gimme both and my bank account empties like a clever analogy for something that empties itself very fast.
Lots of things have been happening, but after the first month or so I had absolutely no excuse for my speed (or lack thereof). My apartment has been settled, my friend has gone back to North Carolina, my body has stopped trying to destroy itself. I'm just very, very lazy, and I mean to do something about that. Updates should return to normal from here on, and those character background shorts that I may or may not have mentioned are starting to congeal in my head so I'm going to (attempt to) write them in between regular updates. With any luck, they'll actually get done.
I'm sure there was something else I wanted to say, but it's hard to remember it all over such a span of time.
I would thank you not to bring up that disgraceful excuse for a human being in my presence. There are very few things for which I have such distaste.