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A Dice Roll Away...

Chapter Text

They went out the front door of the Faithful Hound and headed a short distance to a crossroads. It was raining heavily, which made the streets dark and quiet if not at all comfortable. Perfidy took Leo's hand as they arrived at the crossroads and lead him off in one direction while Amity and Eadgar went the other. They were walking along the Highway – the closest thing there was to a road that ran through Ongus. Despite its name, it was a rather narrow road – building had been allowed to encroach right up to its edge and sometimes beyond it. Most of the building were two or three storeys tall, and their upper floors came rather close to the upper floors of those opposite. This was good in terms of keeping the rain off and in keeping things very dark. As they crossed Cutter's Lane into the wealthier part of the city, things began a bit more open, but it was still a surprise – even though he knew it was coming – when they suddenly stepped into the Grand Plaza, the largest open space in Ongus. Despite the rain, there were still quite a few people in the plaza mostly hanging around three or four huge covered braziers where fires burned strongly enough to stay alight even in this rain. On the eastern side of the Plaza stood the Council and Guild House, the centre of city life in the opinions of those who considered themselves to be the centre of city life. There were guardsmen in front of it. The Council and Guild House was the largest building in Ongus – it might have occupied a little less land than either the Cathedral or Oldfort, but it was taller than Oldfort, and taller than all but the spire of the Cathedral. It seemed to loom in the darkness.

The cobbles were slippery and Leo was glad he had lost his boots somewhere – he must have left them in the Marshal's office, he supposed – and he wondered where they were going. Straight to Oldfort? He supposed they would let him in and wake the Marshal if he needed to be woken, but Leo was not entirely sure that was a good idea, but abruptly, Perfidy lead him down the road from the Plaza towards the river, which was definitely not in the right direction.

“Where are we going, Perfidy?”

She stopped suddenly. She had been holding his hand across the city, but he actually wondered if she had forgotten he was there until he spoke. She released his hand, and bent down so her head was near his.

“I know you trust me, Leo, so I need you to trust me, now. There are some people I need to see. It won't take long, but it might be better if you waited at St Deniol's.” The church was not far away.

“All right,” said Leo.

They came to a six way intersection – and Leo took the turn towards St Deniol's. He looked to see where Perfidy was going. The road she took lead closer to the river – the only thing he knew of in that direction was the River Baths. For a moment, he considered following Perfidy to see where else she might be going – but he was trusting her, and she would be trusting him to go where he needed to go. He didn't always obey her when she told him to go somewhere, but tonight it might be important.

He went into the Churchyard and tried to find some shelter from the heavy rain. He was soaked through and freezing cold. He had certainly not lived a life of comfort, but he had rarely had to sleep on the street, thanks to Perfidy. Other children sometimes did – you saw them sometimes in the early morning curled up in whatever shelter they could find, before they went off to spend the days begging for food – he hadn't had to do that either. Sometimes in the winter, they just continued to lie there, until eventually a guardsman checked on them, and the frozen body was taken away. He had a life because of Perfidy. He was alive because of Perfidy. And now it seemed to him that she had taken risks in keeping him alive – her life would have been much easier without him. He wondered if he should leave, so she could have her life to herself, but where would he go? He didn't have anybody else. Except perhaps the Rooks. Or whatever it was that the Earl of Mancaster could arrange, if he did.

The sky was becoming lighter when Perfidy came into the Churchyard, but the rain was getting heavier. Leo ran to her, and she looked at him. “I'm sorry, Leo. I didn't think. You're soaked through.”

“It's all right.”

“It isn't. It's unforgiveable – but I ask that you do forgive me. I've been selfish – but I think for once I had to be. Let's go home.”

“You need to see the Earl soon.”

“I've seen the Earl.”

“How? I didn't tell you how to see him, or the password, or anything.”

“I went to Oldfort and knocked on the door, and told them my name and that the Earl of Mancaster wanted to see me. I finally got to speak to a Sergeant who was willing to wake the Earl and check, and then I spoke to him. Come on. Back home. Before you die of lung fever.”

When they walked into their small home, the sun was just beginning to rise behind the clouds – you could tell by the light rising. Jobet was lying stretched on Perfidy's sleeping area. She came awake as they came in.”

“Oh, thank Goodness, you're back. You owe me, Perfidy. You owe me an awful lot. I just hope I still have a job to go to, and that Arkamus doesn't decide I've been off with a boy. I told I needed a couple of days off to go to my Uncle Handag's funeral, but when I think about it, I think I did that last year as well. Anyway, they are all alive, and... why are you dressed as a boy?”

“It's a long story.”

“You'll have to tell me, later.”

She left in a hurry. The others were waking up. Perfidy handed around some soft bread rolls, and said “I have some... good news for you all.”

“Oh?” said Nodar, through a mouthful of bread.

“Yes,” said Perfidy in an unusually – unnaturally – happy voice. “All of you are going to go to school.”

“What?” they all said in unison. There were schools in the Docksides area – elderly women sometimes ran a dame school – and some parents did scrape together the pennies to send their children to them. But orphans didn't go and none of them had ever thought of going.

“Yes,” said Perfidy. “A fine gentleman has arranged it for me.” She saw the looks on Jarrow, Roalf, Nodar, and Baltar's face. “Leo helped. In fact he probably did more than I did. From today, you are going to go to school.”

“Which school,” asked Leo. “Not Dame Tolands?” Dame Toland – she insisted on the Dame rather than the mistress – also taught the Haligdae school that Perfidy had tried to make him go to a few times, and he and she did not get on. Partly because she knew he was a thief – and didn't like it – but mostly because she was far, far too handy with a willow rod she carried. Leo accepted that if God or whoever it was put an adult in charge of you, they had the right to give you a hiding, or a whipping, or whatever else took their fancy if they felt you deserved it, but Dame Toland had whipped children simply because they were not fast enough to answer their questions. That was unfair. Her school was the nearest to their home.

“No,” said Perfidy. “Dame Marta's school.”

“Where's that?” asked Leo. It could not have been that close.

“Down southern sides. You'll be able to find it – I need you to take the others down there – it's a big building across the road from St Lucart's Church. Only big building there. You'd better go pretty soon – you don't want to be late. Just go down there and when you get there ask to speak to Dame Marta.”

Roalf spoke, “If we have to go to school, when will we have time for thieving?”

“You won't. You don't need to. I've also got myself apprenticed. And I can come home in the evening, and I'll be earning enough to – well, we won't have a lot of money but we'll have as much as we do now. None of you need to steal anymore.”

Leo looked at Perfidy, “Apprenticed doing what?”

“I'll tell you when I'm ready. Now, all of you – up. Get going. You don't want to be late.”

Nodar shook his head, and folded his arms. “I don't want to go to school. I like things the way they are.”

Perfidy looked down at him. “Well, I don't. And that matters more than what you want.”

“You can't make me go to school.”

Perfidy looked at Leo. Leo nodded to her, and ushered Roalf, Jarrow, and Baltar out the door. None of them were stupid. They went willingly. They stood outside and listened with a sense of interest and relief to the sounds coming from behind the door. Before Nodar came out crying.

And Leo lead them off to school. It was quite a long way – the width of the city, which was better than the length of the city, but not by much. The rain was still falling, and Leo was just getting wetter and wetter – the others were starting off a bit drier, and so it wasn't as bad.

He found St Lucart's Church fairly easily. And there was a large building across the road from it. An old warehouse. He lead the others up the steps. There was writing above the door, which he could not read – the last part though was OOL and the first part was S with two more letters between. If this was the place, it probably said school, then – but why would you have two letters to make one sound. The door was open and he lead the others through it. He found them all in a small room, with another door opposite and a couple of wooden chairs, and a string hanging down from a small bell, with writing next to it. Too much writing to have a clue. He rang the bell. And a few moments later, the door opened and a girl of about fourteen came into the room.

“Yes?”

“We've been sent to see Dame Marta.”

“Mistress Marta. Don't call her Dame. She doesn't like it. I'll see if she is free.”

That seemed odd – Dame was regarded by most people as a step above Mistress.

A tall, thin, old woman – no... well, she was old, but she was certainly not feeble or weak or any of the other things that went with old – in a dark blue dress came through the door. She had almost white hair, done up in a bun and piercing brown eyes. She had a stern face until she looked right at them and seemed to very deliberately smile. It was a pleasant smile, but somehow a bit... frightening too. More frightening that her stern face.

“Which one of you is Leo?”

“I am, Mistress.”

“You will come with me. Colen, take the others to the first class, until we can work out if they are ready for anything better. Keep an eye on that one,” she gestured towards Nodar. “He looks like a runner. Teach him the word truancy and explain to him in detail what happens to those who engage in it.”

Colen lead the others one way down a hallway, Leo was taken into a room just a short distance the other way. It was a nicely furnished room, with cushioned chairs and other fine furniture, and a decent sized fireplace with a fire. The woman – no the lady, he decided – who he assumed to be Mistress Marta pointed him towards one of the cushioned chairs, but as he took a step towards it said 'Stop'. He watched as she moved it to near the fireplace, then moved a heavy looking table in front of it, and then moved another chair to the other side of the table from the first. “Sit down now, next to the fire, and we will see if we can get you dried out a bit, Leo – is Leo your entire name?”

“As far as I know, Mistress,” he said as he sat down.

“I am Mistress Marta. Do you know what the word truancy means?”

“Yes – being away without permission or excuse.”

“Do I need to tell you what will happen if you engage in it?”

“I can guess it won't be pleasant. But I won't. I want to go to school.” He could not believe he had just said that – but he suddenly knew it to be true. He had wanted it since he knew what a school was. It had just never been possible enough to even think of it.

“I am glad to hear that. I will not promise you will always be happy in my school, Leo, or that you will always like it. But if you want to be here, you can be happy much of the time, and like it much of the time as well.”

She placed a number of items on the table, as she said this. Two... he was not entirely sure what you would call them – like little shovels, he had seen bakers use something similar in their work, but these had writing on them. Two books as well, and a bundle of twigs tied together with string near their base. He stared at that – he could guess what it was used for and he considered her statement, that he might not always be happy here, or always like what happened.

She sat down opposite him.

“Can you read, Leo?”

He shook his head, still staring at the bundle of twigs.

“Do you know your letters?”

“Some of them.”

“Can you write your name?”

“I think I could. I can read it. I've never tried to write it.”

“Can you count?”

“Yes.”

“Please count as high as you can for me.”

“One... two... three...” She waited until he counted to one hundred and then “One hundred and one, one hundred and two...”

“Stop. How high can you count?”

“I don't know.”

“Can you count to a thousand?”

“I never have, but I could. And I could keep counting after that. I could count forever, I think...”

“How?”

“Well, it doesn't stop. I can count to one thousand, so I can count to two thousand, I can count to ten thousand. I can count to one hundred thousand. I can count to one thousand thousand.”

“One million,” said Mistress Marta?

“What?”

“One thousand thousand is a million?”

“Well, I didn't know that. So I suppose I could count to nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine. Before. Now I know the next number is a million I could keep going, until the next time the names changed to ones I don't know.”

“You'd be dead first. What would you get if you added one and one together.”

“Two.”

“Six and six together.”

“Twelve.”

“Five and seven.”

“Twelve again.”

“Fourteen and twenty three.”

“Thirty seven.”

“Hmm... three hundred and forty one and seven hundred and eighty six.”

“One thousand.... one hundred and twenty seven.”

“Seventeen thousand, six hundred and forty nine added to forty nine thousand, seven hundred and six.”

“Sixty six thousand... I'm sorry, Mistress, I've lost it.”

“A little more than that, but let's not worry about that... are you sure you can't read?”

“Yes.”

She pushed over one of the pieces of wood with writing on it. “Try and read this.”

He started at it. There were some letters he knew, but only some, and none of them made words he could read. He shook his head, and Mistress Marta picked up the bundle of twigs. He stiffened.

She spoke in a stern calm voice. “Leo, I will not birch you because you cannot read. Nor will I do because you make mistakes. I might if you do not try.”

“I am trying, Mistress. But I only know a few letters and... I'm sorry.”

“Very well.” She put down the birch rod, and picked up the other piece of wood and handed it to Leo.

“The first letter you see here is A. It makes more than one sound but for now, just worry about the Ah sound. The next is B. It makes a Bah sound...”

“Like the start of boys. I can read the word boys.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“And the next one – I think it makes a Cah sound. I saw it on the sign outside that says School.”

Mistress Marta smiled her deliberate smile again. “Leo, by the time you leave this room today, I will have you reading. I promise you. Not well. It's not like I'm a sorcerer, or anything....”

Leo thought. She had picked up the rod with her left hand. She had handed him the pieces of wood with her left hand. When she had moved the furniture, she had favoured her left hand. He raised his own left hand and touched his nose in one of the signs of the street that revealed something understood that could not be said out loud.

“Clever boy.” said Mistress Marta. “But it will still take you a little time to learn to read.”

“May I ask a question, Mistress?”

“Always, but I may not always give you an answer.”

“What are these wooden things called? I've never seen them before.”

“Hornbooks. We use them for teaching.”

“Only for teaching?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” He looked at the birch rod. “I didn't think you needed any more weapons.”

She looked stern. “Leo – I also might birch you if you get too cheeky. In fact, I think it's probably the most likely reason for me to do it.”

Did she mean it? He decided she probably did – but he would have to push things a lot further than he had. He was not sure whether exploring those limits was something he needed to do.

When two hours later, and an hour after he thought he was ready, she handed him the first hornbook again, the one that had made so little sense, he looked down at it and read. “T-he capital of Albion is Ongus. The capital of Thuland is Katorheim. The capital of Cornumbria is Criggen Varras. The capital of Cowbrette...”

“Chaubrette.”

“You said CH made a Cah sound.”

“Yes, it does in school. But in Chaubrette, it makes a different sound.”

“Why?”

“I do not know. But it does.”

“How do you know which one to use.”

“Well... what is the country we live in called?” asked Mistress Marta.

“Albion.”

“Have you heard of a country called Thuland?”

“Yes.”

“Have you heard of a country called Cornumbria?”

“Yes.”

“Have you heard of a country called Cowbrette?”

“No.”

“But you have heard of Chaubrette?”

“Yes. Oh, I see, I think.”

“I know you do.”

She stood up and handed him a book. “I want you to take this home with you – it is expensive and I need you to take care of it. If you do not, I will be extremely angry with you and you can guess what that might mean. I want you to try and read it. You won't be able to read it yet, but practice everyday, and it will become easier.”

“In a moment, I am going to move you into my Second Class. It's taught by one of my older boys. Don't tell the others you've just learned to read – they won't like hearing it's only taken a morning. You won't read as well as most of them yet, but you will soon.”

“Are you going to teach me more?”

“Yes, I will. I teach all the classes on occasion – but I also teach some students myself. You will be one of them, I am sure, when you are ready, but I can't do anything until you are ready. You need to be reading well. Now come.”

“Before we go, can I ask another question?”

“You just did, but you may ask another one. You may always ask, but I hope you are not just drying to delay leaving. You are dry and I am busy.”

“What is an elf?”

“Why?”

Leo wasn't ready to tell her. “I just wondered, I heard the word.”

“Well, for now, you can continue to wonder. It will do you good. I'll tell you what – when you can read the book I have just given you – read it properly, I mean – I will give you another that will have something about elves in it. Now, come. There are two more hours of lessons until lunch.”