The first day I was there, Headmistress Inth brought me into class, and said “Students, this is your new classmate Jyothky. Please show her absolutely the best that Drumet Academy has to offer. Miss Jyothky, I hope you will enjoy your time at Drumet, and if there is anything that needs improvement, please do not hesitate to call upon me.” She smelled utterly terrified. Of course, mhelvul tongues are barely worth being called tongues … actually, I think they smell through their noses. In either case, they’d be hard-pressed to smell a live cat from across the classroom, much less someone’s fear.
I smiled at everyone — thirty students in the class, and a teacher, and a room-servant. They stared at me the way I’d stare at a bracelet I was considering buying. I shrugged, and sat down at the end of the bench in the second row, where there was some space. I didn’t wobble a bit, even though I had only half as many feet as usual. I had been practicing walking as a biped. For years, on and off.
The subject of the day was pairs of linear equations: 8x+3y = 14; 3x+8y = 19 sorts of things. The teacher called the students up one at a time, going across the first row, across the second — and skipping me. Which I thought was quite unfair, at the time. In algebra, of all things, small people may contend evenly with dragons. In retrospect, I think she was afraid of what might happen if I got the problem wrong and wanted to learn my temper. Which is sweet!
After the morning’s classes — algebra, then history, then comparative dancing — was a break for lunch. The teacher sat down behind her curtain. The room-servant brought out small tables, white napkins with the school’s insignia on them, and bowls of water with a dash of cheap rose perfume. The hall-servants came in bearing baskets of grilled root vegetables and egg pies, and served them out with quiet politeness.
The girl next to me said, “Hallo. I’m Bdresia, daughter of Thunes and Hascrinet of Clan Prelret, from the Herringray district of Pdernuz. And that is Gunthet, daughter of Sdecca and Carnaret of Clan Prelret, also from Herringray.”
I smiled. “Good to meet you both! I’m Jyothky.”
She looked at me expectantly, and the dozen closest girls as well.
“Well,” Bdresia said after a bit. “Will you tell me the rest of it?”
“Nope!” I said.
“Well, how are we supposed to know your caste and status, then?” asked another girl.
“If Headmistress Inth didn’t have anything to say about it, I don’t suppose I should either,” I said.
The teacher rushed out from behind the curtain, quite stinking of her panic. “Oh, girls, girls, girls! You mustn’t pester your new classmate like that!”
The girls looked more than a little perplexed, and they left off trying to chat with me altogether. Which was fine with me; I didn’t know what to say to them. I nibbled egg pies and listened them discuss matters of great importance: possible marriage contracts, clan politics, geometry, raising ornamental trout, and high-quality fabric.
After lunch, the teacher left for the washroom for a moment. Someone — Idrut, her name was — halfway across the third row threw an inkwell at me.
Well, I had these odd floppy soft mhelvul-style hands on the ends of my arms, and all the kineception and aeroception and speed of a clumsy dragonet slightly hampered by being in the wrong body. So I caught the inkwell with one of them, with, according to all witnesses, consummate grace and skill. It was an open inkwell, and I got a lot of blue-black spots all over my uniform and face. All the other girls laughed.
I had no idea what the etiquette of the situation was. It wasn’t an attack really, so I wasn’t obliged to kill Idrut. But it seemed to call for some kind of response. I had no idea what.
While I was standing there with a dripping inkwell in my hand looking fearsomely stupid, the teacher returned in a rush. “Oh, no! Girls, what has happened here?”
“Oh, not so much,” I answered her. “I had asked Idrut for an inkwell, is all. It splashed a bit.” All the girls laughed some more.
The teacher rushed me to the washroom. (I don’t like mhelvul washrooms a bit; they stink horribly. Even mhelvul sometimes can smell them.) She scrubbed at the ink on my face and clothes, which didn’t help all that much. She apologied and babbled and promised that Idrut would be punished for ruining my uniform. So I turned into a parrot, then back into a mhelvul schoolgirl with a clean uniform.
I kept the spots on my face. Well, sort of. I rearranged them into triangles, in a regular sort of pattern, with the biggest spots in the middle. I kept those spots for my whole time at school.
The teacher begged and pleaded that she accept Idrut’s coming whipping as sufficient. I told her not to whip the girl. The teacher asked me to add to Idrut’s punishment until I was satisfied. After I told her three or four more times that I was satisfied already, she rather nervously decided to believe me. She was very cruel to Idrut whenever she thought I was paying attention, after that.
The girls called me “Spotty” from then on. They never had any good idea how to treat me. I mostly avoided situations where caste made a big difference, and never pressed for status, and the real mhelvul mostly figured out not to press me for status either. I wasn’t going to get favors in any case, which top-caste girls sometimes demanded from bottom-caste ones. (That’s an euphemism. It starts with the one girl helping the other take her clothes off, and gets disgusting from there.) Twice or thrice a top-caste girl made as if to demand it of me, but a flick of my hukuchô scared her off. (The astral bits of our body don’t shapechange, so, yes, I had my regular hukuchô even if I looked like a mhelvul to material eyes.) Lacking a clan, I didn’t have any clan chants to perform in the pagents, so I just sat that part out and shrugged if anyone asked me. At dinnertime, I stayed indistinctly around Bdresia and Gunthet and their artisan-class cohort, the lowest at Drumet Academy. Nobody challenged my right to eat with them instead of after them, and I didn’t need to press my caste rights to eat earlier.
(I was hungry a lot though. (I can tell that, by the way. It’s not exactly feeling. Also I get more cross and find things more annoying when I’m hungry. That’s not really very reliable, so I sometimes use analysis spells to know for sure. (Oh, and food tastes better when I’m hungry, but it tastes pretty good all the time so that’s not very reliable either.)) Each session was five days long, and then we went home for three days. The refectory set a generous table at dinnertime, and again at midnight. I filled my plate as full as I could, and it was a running joke with my schoolmates about how much I ate. But a plateful is only a small mouthful to me really, barely a snack. Even if it’s dozens of mouthfuls with the mouth I had then. By the time I got home, I usually would eat a whole cow and never mind cooking it if it’s not already cooked.)
And that’s how two years and more went. Six or seven girls did figure out what I was. Three of them at once, when I forgot which side of my face had the spots on it and shapeshifted it from one side to the other right in front of them. The others were clever. Everyone knew that I was very strong, but Verimet realized that I was impossibly strong for a mhelvul, for one discovery. They all kept quiet about it, until later, being sensible girls. Well, maybe some weren’t so sensible — I don’t think I was — but they weren’t so reckless as to annoy a dragon.