August 12, 2015 by Lyn
…we got fun and games…
Kailani left her door propped open that evening, as a number of the students in her hall had taken to doing, but stayed in her room, rather than taking her accustomed perch in the corner of the lounge.
She hadn’t forgotten Conrad’s “Rosetta Stone” offer – and she needed it now, more than ever! – but she had nearly convinced herself he wouldn’t show up. She still felt warm and foolish, as if she had been the butt of some elaborate joke – but, more than that, as if the joke was still going on.
The knock at her door startled her; she looked up from her scribbled notes to see Conrad standing just outside her threshold, his grin still set on “nervous” and his tail twitching slightly between his feet.
“There’s no pattern to it,” she complained. “Tail, pointed ears…” she gestured exasperatedly at her notes.
“Not enough data.” She looked back at him, startled; he elaborated. “You’re working from too small a set for one, and out of context. If you had a cheetah, a Siamese kitten, and, say, an elderly bobcat, and just a snapshot of each, no scale or background…” he shrugged. “Same problem.”
“Mmm.” She glanced back at her notes. If each example was a separate “breed,” maybe even species… She looked back up at Conrad, to see he was still standing in her doorway, watching her with a small, enigmatic smile.
“Come in,” she offered. “You didn’t have to knock, you know. You can just come in any…”
“Don’t,” he cut her off, more brusquely than she had yet heard him be. He strode into her room, pulling her door mostly closed, and pulled the second chair to her desk. He straddles it backwards and looked at her, unsmiling now, his blue eyes intense.
“Don’t ever give anyone, especially another – someone else ‘down here,’ open permission to enter your home. Not even me.” She blinked at him, befuddled, and he sighed. “I told you I was going to explain, and I will – as much as I can, right now. Okay?”
He searched her face, though she wasn’t sure what he was looking for; comprehension, maybe? She nodded, although she was nagged by the feeling she might be missing something.
“Okay.” He relaxed a little, and shifted in his chair, turning it rightways and sprawling, his bare feet a few inches from hers and his hands folded above his head. “I’m not much of a teacher, so bear with me.”
She nodded, although he was watching the ceiling, and he continued.
“To start with, there’s – let’s call it two societies – the one you and I grew up in, ‘out there,’ and the one that’s in place ‘down here,’ right?”
“Mmm-hmm.” She tried to make it sound encouraging.
“Okay. The one ‘down here’ is ruled by a different set of laws, what they just call capital-L Law. There’s a lot of laws in the Law, but there’s a couple you need to know right away.” He looked at her again, still looking worried, and she squirmed a little. He clearly thought she wasn’t taking this seriously enough.
“This is still a little overwhelming,” she explained, hoping that would be enough. He nodded, smirking slightly at her.
“You’re too smart to be overwhelmed. You just haven’t figured out quite where all the pieces go yet.”
Kai found herself blushing, and ducked her head to hide it, letting her hair fall in front of her face. “Something like that,” she murmured.
“I thought so. Okay, the doorway- the Second Law of Sanctity…”
“What’s the First?”
He chuckled, although she thought she could hear some regret in his voice. “All right. The First Law of Sanctity is the Oath: once signed and sworn, a contract is binding forever.”
“Forever,” he agreed ruefully. “Be careful with signing anything. The Second Law of Sanctity,” he rushed on, and this time she let him, “is Home – which is pretty much what it says. Your home – your dorm room, here – is inviolate. No-one will ever enter it without your permission.” He grinned wryly at her. “So don’t go giving away blanket permission.”
She found herself answering his grin with a rueful one of her own. “Yes, sir.”
Conrad chuckled. “Okay. Now, that whole musical chairs thing with Megan and Taro…”
“…That’s off a different set of Laws.” He took a deep breath then began rattling things off. “The Laws of Belonging say that a child belongs to its Mother, then its Mentor, then to itself – but that two ‘consenting adults’ can agree that one Belongs to the other.”
He glanced at her sidelong, and frowned as he saw the frown on her face. “Like slavery?”
“Sort of like slavery,” he agreed, “but both people have to consent to enter into it, and both have to consent to leave it. Essentially, the ‘Keeper’ agrees to take all responsibility for the ‘Kept’ and make all the decisions.”
“That sounds… horrible.” Civilized, organized, but horrible.
“I thought you might feel that way,” he responded dryly.
“But what does all this have to do with Taro?” Although she could see where this pattern was going, she wanted confirmation.
Conrad hesitated for a moment, his face looking thoughtful. When he started talking again, it was slowly, as if he was pondering every word before he let it out. “Their society… it’s very old, and sort of piecemeal. It’s always existed inside someone else’s society. So it has a thousand little rituals that let others… of them… know what’s going on without having to come out and say it.
“That first day, Taro sat you down to his left, and he said something, didn’t he?”
Kailani nodded slowly. There was a sort of intensity back in Conrad’s eyes now that made him seem more like himself. “He said ‘it won’t mean what they think it means, but it will keep them from bothering you too much ,” she repeated.
Conrad nodded. “The problem is, that Taro is really part of ‘they’ now.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “We both started here last year, but Taro sort of soaked it all up really quickly. So, even though he knows it doesn’t ‘mean what they think it means,’ in his head, it still does.”
“But what does it mean?”
He looked back at her – he had gone back to staring at the ceiling – with a slightly serious look on his face. He didn’t want to tell her. That alone confirmed her fears. “Oh…”
He seemed to take that as comprehension. “Two things are in your favor here. First: we’re still students, by the Law. So any agreement we enter into, anything but a signed and sealed contract, is just sort of… practice. It won’t last past graduation. Second, you have to consent, explicitly. So you just have to be really careful about phrases that involve the words ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’”
He was watching her intently again, and she knew she was frowning. “Wow. Okay, I think I understand. But Megan…?”
“Megan.” He sighed. “She snagged Taro really early into last year, when none of us really knew what we were getting into, and I don’t think that ended up really going the way he wanted it to. The deal ended when she ‘graduated,’ but she still tries to lord it over him.”
“Aaaah.” As with so much she was learning, it was a puzzle piece without enough other pieces to make an image. It explained one thing, two things, while leaving other questions still open.
One, at least, she could ask right now. “Why are you telling me all of this?”
He stared at the ceiling for a moment, clearly formulating an answer. “Because I like you,” he told the ceiling. “You’re smarter than most of the girls here – any of the girls here, and you’ve got this way of looking at someone like you’re really paying attention.” He seemed to be winding up as he talked, leaning forward and looking at her intently. Their knees were bumping now, and he took her hands in his.
“I love the way you put things together,” he smiled. “Watching your brain work is like watching some fascinating piece of machinery. And I can’t wait to see what you do if you get all the pieces, what you make out of all of it. I don’t want to see that stifled.”
She felt herself flushing a little bit. “You really think…” that I’m that impressive?, she didn’t say. She left it hanging out there unsaid, and, somehow managing to smile solemnly, Conrad nodded.
“I really think you could be the best of us,” he replied. He brushed his hand across her cheek lightly. “And I want to help you reach that pinnacle.”
It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to her. She looked up at his eyes, at his sincere and slightly cautious expression, and believed him entirely. “I think I’d like that,” she whispered.
He smiled, some invisible tension releasing from his shoulders, and closed the tiny distance between them, his lips meeting hers in a soft kiss. “Good,” he murmured.