Chapter 3 Episode 1 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
Adewole's last trunk—the one bearing the precious green coffee beans—had still not arrived. He should have put them in the one with the tricky new combination lock, the one full of books he might just as easily have left behind in favor of the coffee. How was he to face Dean Blessing this morning without coffee? He drank tea at breakfast instead, politely keeping himself from making faces in front of his landlady Mrs. Trudge, whose outline mimicked the teapot’s. Eisenstadters believed tea to be more refreshing, altogether more restorative than coffee, but Adewole couldn’t figure it himself.
Mrs. Trudge set a good table otherwise, including on this morning: mushrooms fried in butter; fresh little fish straight from Lake Sherrat; toasted bread; and an oaten porridge—something he’d never eaten before, millet or rice porridges being preferred in Jero. “Eggs?” Adewole said hopefully.
“Eggs, sir!” said Mrs. Trudge in a whispered shriek. She took a calming gulp of tea. “You’re a foreigner, Professor Adewole, and as such I can’t expect you to know all our ways. Dear Professor Deviatka,”she appealed to Karl, “please, make sure he doesn’t ask for—eggs–in front of strangers.”
“Don’t ask for eggs in front of strangers, Ollie,” admonished his friend.
“I am very sorry, I did not mean to upset you,” said Adewole. “It is just that in Jero, our chickens do not talk, and—”
“That’s very well for Jero, Professor, but it won’t do here! May as well ask to eat a baby as a bird’s egg! I’m just glad the other lodgers are already gone for the day and didn’t hear you. I’d never call a foreigner a ‘bird-eater,’ but really, sir, do watch your tongue. Not everyone’s as live-and-let live as I am.”
“I am very sorry,” he repeated lamely. “I just thought perhaps you had imported...normal chickens or ducks from some other place.”
“Some people have tried, but then a local rooster or drake hops the fence and there you are,” said Deviatka. “It’s not worth the bother.”
“Besides, our chickens are the normal ones,” Mrs. Trudge added under her breath.
Deviatka changed the subject. “We’re late.” Adewole swiveled in his chair; the wall clock said it lacked but half an hour to their meeting with Blessing. “Nothing for it now,” said Deviatka. “It takes a solid hour to walk there, even on legs as long as yours.”
The water taxi cost twenty pfennig; Adewole had to borrow it from his friend. “There goes our tickets for tonight,” said Deviatka. It took fifteen minutes to cut a chord through the circular lake to the University of Eisenstadt’s pier, a trip which would have been pleasant if the engine hadn’t made too much noise to talk, and if the spring wind off the lake hadn’t been so very cold.
Adewole wondered if he should grow out his hair again for warmth. These days, he kept his tight curls in a bare stubble, not wishing to bother with braiders—if he could even find a braider this far north. He’d never liked going to the braider, anyway. Ofira had always done it at home; she had such nimble little fingers. They would sit in the garden, him on a cushion on the tiled floor, and her up behind him braiding away, trying to decide where to add her special pink and yellow bead—not the most manly ornament, but when she kept sneaking the bead into his back braids where he couldn’t see it, Adewole let the little girl do as she pleased. He’d often fall asleep; when she’d finish, she’d tug on the beaded braid: “Brother, wake up!” Ofira said the bead brought good luck. Perhaps he should have insisted she braid it into her own hair.
Adewole fingered the good-luck bead in his pocket, now attached to his watch fob; he would have taken out Ofira’s photograph, but the wind was too strong and he didn’t wish to lose it. No, he decided as he pulled the bright yellow and blue striped silk kikoi over his shoulders closer round his neck, he would invest in more local clothing somehow. A thick woolen scarf. Gloves. Something perhaps to cover the ears. The water taxi bumped against the University pier, and the professors fidgeted their way through the debarking passengers into the campus.
A series of courtyards made up the University of Eisenstadt. The more modern buildings sported verdigris’d mansard roofs and brick walls faced in white stone; they huddled close round brick squares paved in red and yellow geometric patterns. The tightly-packed buildings funneled the cold air from the lake into Adewole’s face. By contrast, palm-shaded, graceful, open, low-slung buildings and exquisite, cooling gardens filled the University of Jero’s campus. It was infinitely older than this place—the whole city-state of Jero predated Eisenstadt by at least two thousand years—and was the most prestigious university in the world, as even the proud Eisenstadters admitted, but warm, familiar Jero was closed to him now.
The further they penetrated into the campus, the older the buildings became and the more open and graceful the courtyards, until they arrived at huge iron gates. Beyond them, precise sidewalks quartered a velvety lawn in the hard, geometric precision these people favored. Must everything be an engineering schematic here?
An enormous fawn stone building embraced the courtyard; its two wings met the gates, and its many small square windows stared down at the students milling back and forth through the gateways and along the paths. Directly ahead, a wide staircase marched into the main hall. A squared-off tower rose above it. Its crenellated top always made Adewole wonder if it had ever been used for actual defense; it didn’t seem likely. In they went through the gates, down the precise pathways and up the wide stairs. Adewole and Deviatka entered the tower’s dark, paneled lobby and trod up the wide, balustered staircase to Dean Blessing’s office.
At the top stood two majestic doors, their brass polished to brilliance. A dessicated man waited behind a standing desk in front of them: Blessing’s secretary, though the desk and the expectant man behind it reminded Adewole more of a headwaiter at an exclusive restaurant. The secretary greeted Deviatka by name, but looked at Adewole askance. “Professor AAA-dee-wole, isn’t it?”
“Yes, just so, of course. One moment,” said the secretary, unabashed. He opened the doors, slipped inside and announced the new arrival in hushed tones. A rumbling, discontented throat-clearing ended in an older man’s loud, irritated demand for tea: “I suppose the Jerian will want coffee, but he won’t get any here.” Adewole winced.
The secretary emerged to take the professors’ coats; he fumbled with Adewole’s unfamiliar kikoi until Adewole folded it himself and stowed it neatly inside his hat alongside his gloves. He tugged down his waistcoat, straightened his back and followed Deviatka into the office.