Chapter 2 Episode 2 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles

"I thought perhaps you might prefer it to tea, Professor," came a charming, dry voice from the main door. It belonged to a woman of his mother's generation; she stood ramrod straight and elegant in a rich, dark blue business dress, her silver hair piled atop her head. Pinchnose reading glasses dangled from a handsome beaded chain round her neck. Piercing blue eyes fixed themselves on the two men.

Adewole and Deviatka stood, the one hasty, the other languid. "Minister Cecile Faber, may I introduce Professor Oladel Adewole of Jero, current holder of the University of Eisenstadt's Mueller Chair in the Humanities," said Deviatka.

Adewole extended his hand; the woman took it in a dry, firm grip and gave it a decided shake. "Have you had coffee?" she said in Jerian.

Adewole laughed, delighted. "That is how we say 'how do you do' in Jerian, Deviatka--we ask one another if we have had coffee. No, Madam Faber, I have not had coffee in many a day."

"Then please," she said, indicating the couches.

They sat themselves down, Minister Faber on one side of the table and the professors on the other. Deviatka poured himself tea from a smaller, less honored pot the crisp man had brought in after the coffee paraphernalia. At Adewole's inquisitive glance, he said, "More for you, Adewole. I've never cared for coffee at any price."

"Professor, will you do the honors?" said the Minister. "Make it to your preference."

Adewole took a little golden cake from the bowl. Palm sugar! More than he could have hoped for, so far from home. The water had come to a boil; he set the copper pot on a trivet before him and grated the palm sugar cake into the water. Sweet, he must have his first coffee in months sweet and thick and dark. The sugar dissolved, he stirred in fragrant grounds spooned up from the enameled tin and put the pot back on the burner to boil again as the Minister and Deviatka engaged in small talk. Adewole took no part in the conversation, though he didn't wish to be rude; all his greedy attention focused on the foamy, ink-black coffee he poured into the two little cups.

He took in a savoring breath; coffee smelled of home and happier times. A sip: thick, strong and sweetened just right. He hadn't lost the knack. An ecstatic, un-professorial grin split his face.

Minister Faber smiled back. "So! The current holder of the Mueller Chair. I'm very pleased to meet you, Professor. I have spent much time in Jero--what person could consider herself well-traveled, well-educated, well-bred, without an extended visit to the Shining City? I hope to return to the Chano River's banks some day, to drink coffee and eat oranges among the palms."

The coffee and the woman's evocation of Jero brought on a deep homesickness; Adewole yearned for the warm banks of the Chano himself. He swallowed in determination and smiled again. "Your presence would surely grace and honor Jero. Perhaps one day we shall both find ourselves drinking coffee there together."

"Perhaps." She sat back against the sofa, her elegant, spare fingers balancing her coffee cup on her knee; a nod from her, and the crisp man marched off through the side door and snapped it shut behind him. "I always expect a little chime and a report on the weather or the phase of the moon when Trinke comes in and out of doors like that," the Minister said meditatively. "Now, Professor Adewole, let's get further acquainted. I have heard a great deal of your talents."

"I am not sure what you've been told, Madam Minister."

"Nothing I wasn't able to confirm on my own. You're a brilliant scholar, and under-appreciated both at your home University and here at Eisenstadt."

Adewole's face grew hot. "That is an exaggeration, ma'am, at least on the first part."

"And the second part?" Adewole kept silent. The coffee's surface rippled in the cup; his hand shook minutely. He put the cup down. "You were denied tenure," she resumed, "for reasons that seem to have more to do with academic politics than scholarship, and everyone knows Dean Blessing's attitude. In fact, he told me nothing of you even though he knew we needed your exact talents. Henrik never did like anything he couldn't count in coins."

Deviatka let out a short, barking laugh.

"I am very happy to be at the University, Madam Minister," said Adewole, shooting his friend a quelling glance that failed utterly.

"I'm sure you are. I know I'm happy you're here. The Ministry needs you, Professor."

"For what?"

"You are a master of many languages old and new--"

Even Deviatka sat up straight. "Translators? There are people on Inselmond, then?" exclaimed Adewole. People! People who would know the history, the folklore--and Faber was asking him to be among the first to speak with them! It was almost more happiness than Adewole could bear. "But the government must have translators of its own," he said, his hope slipping.

"None so esoteric as you. We have only the barest idea what we will find up there. Miss Goldstein didn't stay long enough to get acquainted. I need someone in the party who will have some chance at understanding the natives, however slight. You have made Inselmond a major component of your research, yes?"

"In part," the distracted Adewole said. He blinked himself out of his contemplation, rubbed the top of his head, and expelled a long breath. "No, well, study--it depends on what you mean by study. I have not studied the island itself. I have studied universal stories about it."

"In truth, it has been your greatest interest, no?" Faber leaned forward. "Why did it take you so long to come to Eisenstadt?"

"Why?" Adewole plucked at his bright tangerine kikoi's fringe. The University of Jero was the world's most prestigious institution of learning, in the world's greatest city-state. Why would he leave until he had to? "I had always intended to come, but I felt it too soon to leave my position at Jero."

"And then there was your little sister, no?"

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MeiLin's picture

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A few words on Jero: it is Paris on the Nile, essentially, a tropical country from which everything beautiful pours, the center of this world's culture and learning--except in technology. The Jerians rather turn up their collective nose at engineering; it's considered vulgar. They are poets, storytellers, fashionistas, historians, exceedingly fond of good food and are excellent cooks. (The loss of chickens is grieving them immensely; they are considering importing rabbits as a last resort, but are not happy about it and are cross at the avian invaders from the north.) Music is everywhwre. Even the lowest guttersnipe can recite poetry; literacy is high and so is the quality of life.

As Minister Faber says, no civilized (read: high middle-and-upper class) person can call themselves civilized without a stay in the Shining City. But the rise of technology at Eisenstadt is eclipsing Jero's dominance. This displeases the city's rulers. Something Must Be Done, and we may see that in future books.

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