But That is Not What a Ship is Made For
Starring Ramin Karimloo as Ramiel Lokni 😉 Any Phantom of the Opera fans?
“Alright, hello there all of you. We have half an hour before arriving at the Congregate. I have some housekeeping matters to attend to, so listen up please – Zita, wake Elora in front of you,” Tomokai commanded, pointing with a long rectangular box at a girl a few seats down the aisle from me. He sounded louder somehow, his voice ringing clearly even though I was further away, yet he did not appear to be raising his voice. I wondered if he was using some energy technique to amplify his voice.
I craned my neck over the seats to see who it was. Zita shyly shook the shoulder of the girl in front of her. Elora, whose head was lolling out of her seat, opened her green eyes. She rubbed her eyes and pushed her light brown hair out of her narrow, tanned face. Zita hastily pointed at Tomokai when Elora blinked blearily at her.
Senno, that girl was pretty.
“I’ve got here with me your access discs – they’ve been imbued with yin energy, so please don’t start fooling around with it, those of you who have had some basic training. You’ll probably harm yourself before changing anything in these discs. They are encoded to your Faculty-rooms and your private rooms. You need these to get into most closed areas, and of course, your own rooms, so don’t lose them. They are rather a bother to replace and will cost you a bit too.” Tomokai informed us, as he slid open the wooden rectangular box he was holding to unveil a row of white discs that glinted faintly. He must have been warning the few lucky ones who had Congregant connections in their hometowns. The very wealthy often did and used those connections to tutor their progeny and give them a head-start in the rat race.
“These are a welcome gift from the Congregate, so your first one is issued gratis. They’ve been very kind to engrave your name, room number and Faculty, so I can hand them out easily now. In my time, they used to get all the discs mixed up,” He smiled at some inside joke, and shook his head. “I’ll be going down the rows now to pass them to you. Forgive me if I’ve forgotten your name.”
It turned out that there was nothing to forgive, as I watched Tomokai glide down the rows, saying everyone’s name as he looked through the discs and matched them to their owners. The man seemed to have some kind of photographic memory.
“Here you go, sleeping beauty,” Tomokai teased, picking a disc from the box and handing it to the girl who had been sleeping. The girl received the disc with a fine-boned hand, a quirk of a sheepish smile on her face.
He continued down the rows, making his way toward me. “Aletheia,” he said, picking one of the three remaining discs in the box and depositing it in my hands. I thanked him as continued to the last two people.
I turned the white disc around in my hands, it was a uniform shape and thickness, almost like a cup coaster, except that it was glossy and sleek, much like the material of the Zidan. So this was similar to a swipe-card then, giving us access to certain areas. As Tomokai said, my name and Faculty were engraved into it, against a faint background of the Yin-Yang symbol. There was also what looked like a room number (zero-five-zero-eight), and a seemingly random string of alphanumeric characters. The disc gave off a faint luminescence, and it seemed to be emanating a cool – almost calming – feeling. I wondered distractedly if it would shatter if I bent it in half. I gripped two opposite ends between my index fingers and thumbs and tried to bend it gently, but it was solid. Maybe if I threw it...
“Some of you might notice a strange feeling coming from the discs – I’m told that it feels like a cold breeze. No need to worry, that just means you are more attuned to Yin energy than some of us here, myself included,” Tomokai paused, weighing his next words. “I’m not sure what you have heard from stories in your towns and cities, but I would just like to remind you all that Yin and Yang both have places in our world. And that disc is proof of the usefulness of Yin. Us Yang users will never be able to do something as intricate as that.”
Yin... Why was the disc white, then? It was well known that Yang was associated with white, and Yin with black. I wondered as a buzz of excitement frizzled through the vehicle.
“But sir, I’ve heard that Yin corrupts us humans if we use it too much. Only Senno and Neewa and the deities – bless them – should be able to use it?” a small girl questioned, voicing what must be running through many other’s minds.
“That has not been proven. Many of our Yin Congregants are as upright, if not more so, than our Yang,” Tomokai’s lips thinned. “You all will do well to study Yin and Yang theory in depth, and not let yourself be swayed by other non-Congregants’ nonsense speculations.”
“But sir – my cousin is a Yang Congregant, and he said ---” another girl started, before Tomokai cut her off with a wave of his hand.
“I will leave the proper theory to your Yin and Yang theory Advisors. Just know that I would trust my life to a Yin Congregant every bit as much as a good Yang’s,” Tomokai said with finality. Then clapped his hands together. “That’s enough idle chit-chat. When we reach the Congregate, there will be Congees arriving from other areas as well. The respective Faculties will have a representative to chaperone you to your Faculty. For the Healer and Combat Faculty, you guys are to follow me. For the Mechanics and Research...”
The blurring outside began to slow, and I could discern more shapes as we approached and passed through what seemed like the walls of a large fortress. My heart hammered against my chest in anticipation.
Finally. After so many months of waiting, I was finally here.
I smiled at the thought of the tour of the Faculty and introduction ceremony that Tomokai mentioned in his earlier explanation. This was where I would be living, breathing and learning about energy for the next eight months of the term!
Now that I was finally here, I could let myself feel the excitement I had been suppressing, for fear of it all being a dream too good to be true that I would suddenly wake from.
“Alright everyone. Get your things. I hope you’ve kept your discs securely. We’re here,” Tomokai instructed as the Zidan glided to a smooth stop in front of a vast courtyard. I patted the disc in my breast-pocket, then hurriedly stuffed my journal and writing material into my backpack. Tugging my backpack onto my left shoulder, I stood up and followed the queue to the door.
The twenty of us – I finally managed to get a proper count – filed out of the vehicle onto the granite pavement of the impressively spacious field. I realised a few other vehicles lined up, and other new entrants – congees, I reminded myself – were similarly crowded around their vehicles. There were a few other stragglers strolling around, but since studies were not due to start until the next week, the area still looked quite empty. Or maybe it was just because the midday sun was currently burning the skin off our bones.
“Come on. We’ve to get you lot to your Faculty in time for the noonmeal. Don’t worry about your belongings, I’ve got them tagged and they’ll be sent to your rooms shortly,” Tomokai beckoned us as he strode towards the centre of the courtyard where a group of six distinguished and stern looking men and women were waiting – the other groups of congees from other Zidans were heading towards them as well.
“Ramiel! I thought you weren’t coming back till the start of the term, old man,” Tomokai called affectionately to a slightly older, bespectacled man and quickened his pace. The man named Ramiel frowned slightly, the crow’s feet at the corners of his murky blue eyes deepening as he folded his arms across his chest. He didn’t look that old. Well, maybe the clothing he wore did age him slightly...
The attire he wore was called Qun and had two parts. The top was like what you might call a kimono, with buttons running diagonally from the collar bone to the right armpit, and was secured by a thick sash in the middle. The flowing robe ended around the knees for males, and around the ankles for females. The sleeves were loose but tapered around the wrists, with elastic bandages securing half the forearms. The bottom was just plain, loose fitting pants that did not restrict free movement. His top was black, while his trousers were white.
Typically, only the elder generation wore the Qun on regular days, as it was reserved for more special occasions. It was now more common to wear the easily fastened short sleeved attire, Tanzou. Besides, it seemed really hot...
I realised that all the other Faculties’ representatives wore the formal Qun, and Tomokai was the only one among them that looked slightly less formal.
“Tomo...” he said, letting out a huff of air exasperatedly. Tomokai grinned cheekily as he threw his left arm around the man’s shoulders.
“Keep frowning like that, and I’d be calling you granduncle soon,” Tomokai goaded, using his right index and middle fingers to poke at the crease between the man’s eyes.
The man seemed to blush slightly as he shrugged Tomokai’s arm off his shoulders and batted at the offending hand. “Stop it Tomo. The congees are watching.”
Indeed, the congees present watched the interaction with amused smiles.
A lady with a sharp face and shaved head clapped her hands together sharply twice.
“Alright those from the Politics Faculty, follow me.”
Again, her voice cut through the vast space clearly and loudly, and it had a different quality compared to when “Ramiel” had admonished Tomokai. I was quite convinced that the woman, like Tomokai earlier on, was doing something to amplify her voice.
There was a flurry of activity as the senior men and women called out their respective Faculties and the congees flocked to them. It seemed that Tomokai and the man he teased was the youngest among them.
I stood, shifting my weight from one leg to the other, waiting near Tomokai as the congees in the Politics, Agriculture, Arts, and Mechanics and Research Faculty sorted themselves out. Three others from the same Zidan seemed to be the same Faculty as well – Elora, the “sleeping beauty”, Xue, the white haired boy that Nachin pointed out, and another tanned girl with fiery red hair and purple eyes whose name I did not know. We eyed one another with the self-conscious smile of meeting someone for the first time.
“The rest of you lot must be with the Healing and Combat Faculty then. Come over here please,” Tomokai projected. He waited as the other congees made their way over. Their ages seemed varied, with the oldest looking to be in his thirties, and the youngest looking no more than sixteen.
Tomokai did a quick headcount – thirty-eight congees to our Faculty – and was satisfied that there were no lost sheep.
“Hello, what a handsome lot of you. For the benefit of those who did not arrive with me, I’m Tomokai, but you can call me Tomo or Kai. I’m apprenticing under Advisor Koehl for Yang specialisations. Fret not, you’ll probably still see my dashing face helping out old Advisor Lokni here with your Sento classes. He’s with the H&C Faculty as well,” Tomokai said, flashing a brilliant smile, his teeth pearly white in the noon sun as he placed a hand on Advisor Lokni’s shoulder. Senno, did I just describe his teeth as pearly white? What am I, writing a romance novel?
I looked at Advisor Lokni – the man Tomokai had called Ramiel. So he was our Sento Advisor then. Sento was the combat and defence class, and I was highly looking forward to it. I cracked my knuckles with my thumbs reflexively.
Advisor Lokni sighed, but looked more amused than actually offended, the corners of his mouth curling up slightly. He folded his hands behind his back and turned to us with a stern expression on his face. “Welcome, new congees. I’m Advisor Ramiel Lokni, you can call me Advisor Ramiel, or Advisor Lokni. I look forward to seeing all of you next week for our first Sento lesson.”
With that simple introduction, we followed Advisor Lokni and Tomokai toward the Healing and Combat Faculty. As we walked, I looked over to the other congees, wondering if I should try to make conversation. I bit the inside of my lips and took a deep breath. Here goes nothing.
“Hey – your name’s Xue, right? Nachin mentioned your name earlier on,” I said, turning to the white haired boy who was the closest to me. “I’m Aletheia.”
The boy nodded as his almost black (was true black an eye colour? I wondered) eyes settled on me. “Hi.”
Well, alright Theia. How do you continue this conversation?
“So... where are you from?” I tried, hoping to make some small talk.
“Minato. Why’d you choose the Congregate then? Gurnie has it’s own Academy right?” I asked. I’d heard of Gurnie’s Academy before, and it was on a similar scale to the Congregate, except it was a little less well known and was a younger constitution. There were several Academies scattered throughout the lands, but the Congregate was the oldest and most established learning institute.
“The Congregate’s more recognised. And I wanted to get away from home. What about you then? Why H&C?”
We continued with polite conversation as we walked, covering various innocuous topics like the reason for our choice, our hometowns and our limited knowledge of Yin and Yang. I felt a little optimism as Xue, who though a year younger than me, shared quite a few similar opinions, which made the time it took to arrive at the main hall of the H&C pass by quickly. Probably twenty minutes had passed though, considering the sizeable distance we had covered. I pondered about the full size of the Congregate. It was said to be almost a city on its own, with all the various Faculties and housing buildings.
Tomokai curled his right fingers slowly at a set of heavy wooden doors of the hall, and there was a slow groan as they moved open, revealing five long tables. The congees crowded into the entrance to take a look. Chairs lined the middle table, while the other four had benches on either side. The long tables seemed to be made of white oak, but the benches were made of a deep brown polished wood I could not identify.
A pair of couplets were hung on the wall in front of the middle table. I could not recognise all the characters of the language, as it was not native, but it seemed to relate to learning and hard work. A group of ten helpers was standing subserviently next to a small door near a square window.
“Tomo, really. Is that necessary?” Advisor Lokni tutted, frowning at Tomokai as he made his disapproval known quietly. I only heard the comment because I was near the both of them, and let out a huff of air in amusement. So, I was not the only one who thought Tomokai was a show-off.
I’d heard that it was generally seen as good manners and habit to refrain from using energy frivolously – not everyone could use it after all, and expending energy excessively could take a toll on your body. Though the tiny bits of energy Tomokai used were probably harmless – I was not sure yet. Yin and Yang knowledge was preciously scarce outside of the Congregate and lesser Academies, being guarded carefully as unfettered use of Yin and Yang could be dangerous for people who did not have the mental capacity or stability to control the energies. All I knew was from gossip that ran through the Minato grapevines, and most of them had dubious sources. Well, that and the preciously scarce scraps I had gotten from books.
“Well, what’s the point of knowing how to use energy but not using it? Ease up Rami,” Tomokai gave Advisor Lokni a self-satisfied smirk, and turned to address us.
“This is the Grand Hall of the Healers and Combat Faculty. As you will see, we take most of our meals here, unless you request for them to be taken away over there,” Tomokai waved at the little window, and the helper behind it waved back with a reserved smile. “The middle table is for the Advisors like Advisor Ramiel here, as well as Assistants like myself. The other tables are freely available for you to sit as you like. We encourage mingling around with other years here, and the older years should always be willing to answer your questions – though I’m not sure willing is quite the right word compared to having been coerced-” Advisor Lokni cleared his throat pointedly.
“Oh it was just a joke. Don’t be so uptight,” Tomokai grinned, flapping his hand. “You congees can sit at the middle table for the welcoming meal today. Advisor Tethys will be arriving shortly to brief all of you.”
We settled down on the benches – I ended up near the end of the table close to the door, next to the oldest congee and opposite Elora. Xue had somehow found his way to the other side of the table. Another group of congees were on our right, but they were already engaged in conversation.
“Sorry, I’ll probably bump into you during the meal,” I said to the man next to me, lifting my left hand.
“That’s alright. My name’s Enki. What’s yours?” Enki said, the corner of his lips lifting in a half smile.
He nodded and repeated my name, then turned to Elora who was quietly observing our exchange. “And you?”
“Elora.” She said, smiling modestly, her forearms leaning against the wooden table, one hand folded over the other. “Where are you guys from?”
“I’m from the Southern Area, what about you both?” Enki replied, looking at me.
“Minato. It’s a small town-” I started, since Elora was looking at me expectantly.
“Minato? Really? I’m from there as well!” Elora exclaimed. “Oh boy, I didn’t know there was anyone else.”
Ah, she must have been picked up just before me then. I nodded and grinned at her enthusiasm. Well, at least we didn’t know each other previously, I supposed it would be nice to have someone from the same town to talk to.
“Well, good for you both. I know for sure I’m the only one from my region. Say, are you guys Supplicants or self-supplied?” Enki asked. Supplicants were like scholars. Usually you were either a Communion Supplicant funded by the Communion, or a private Supplicant funded by wealthy families that needed Congregants for protection and other errands. Communion supplicants were either assigned to the Healer ward, the Battalion unit or as personal bodyguards to important Communion members. Supplicants usually had a Guarantor that watched over their progress and checked in with them.
I wasn’t one.
Elora nodded and pulled out her Communion token. “Communion slave for ten years after I graduate,” she said wryly.
Enki let out of a bark of laughter. “I know you Commie slaves are paid well, but I’d be an old codger if I had to serve ten years. I’m a private Supplicant – the terms are just five years of service. What’s your assignment?”
“Well... I’ve been assigned as bodyguard to the Alicanto – whoever that is in three years.”
The most important Communion members had positions named after the five mythical elemental creatures – Alicanto representing Metal, Ryo representing Fire, Satori representing Wood, Peryton representing Earth and Hydra representing Water. Communion Supplicants that were assigned to protect them must have strong leadership qualities and mental fortitude.
I shifted in my seat slightly, self-conscious. The two of them were probably quite outstanding to have secured their Supplicant status, especially Elora. Damn, girl’s not only a pretty face then.
Enki gave an impressed nod. “What about you then, Aletheia?”
“I’m not funded.” I said embarassedly, scratching my nose.
The two of them tried to arrange their faces into what seemed like polite acknowledgement, but I knew they were probably quite curious. Non-Supplicants made up a minority of the population at the Congregate, especially at the H&C. Usually the fees were a big enough deterrence that people thought twice before joining, and the exclusive society meant that most of the jobs were already taken by Supplicants. It was still an immense source of guilt for me that I’d had to rely on my parents – I’d nearly taken up a loan, but my mum had rejected fiercely.
“That’s alri-,” Elora tried to say, but she was distracted as a lady wearing the traditional Qun arrived through the doors. Tomokai jumped up from his seat on the other end of the table. The woman’s face was weather worn and deeply lined, but she looked kind and wise, and a quiet strength seemed to emanate from the way she held herself. Her Qun looked tailormade with a light grey material (silk?), and it rippled around her ankles as she walked.
“Advisor Tethys! I’ve reserved a seat here for you.” Tomokai said as Advisor Lokni rose gracefully from his seat. Advisor Tethys continued towards the empty seat at the opposite end.
“Tethys,” Advisor Lokni smiled warmly, the expression transforming his face compared to the exasperated frowns or even the gentle eye smiles he gave to Tomokai. The two of them – Advisor Lokni and Advisor Tethys, looked at each other intensely, and a barely discernible moment of silence passed. But I noticed, a small twitching of their mouths, as if their lips itched to form words. Then the moment passed, and Advisor Tethys turned to smile at us, though her eyes seemed slightly unfocussed.
Strange. I could have sworn something had happened between the two of them in the moment. Something deeply profound and almost intimate.
“Welcome, congees. You must be tired and hungry from the journey. I’m sorry for being late, I was held up with some administrative affairs. Let’s have our meal first, and then we can have the briefing and tour.”
Advisor Tethys beckoned the servants – though I preferred to call them helpers – waiting at the corner of the hall.
A/N: How are you liking the story so far? Leave a comment or vote! I’ll love to interact with you 😊