Before starting with that promised training, however, we had to eat. After everything that we had been through, I was seriously starving. I had to think back to the last time I had eaten something, which made me remember just how much had happened. Everything, from getting to the Kenkean planet, tracking down and fighting Isaac, fighting that delaying action against the Seosten army until Radueriel had shown up and then getting myself stranded there, only for Athena to show up and end up bringing me here had all been… just a couple hours, really.
Generally speaking, if describing everything that happened to you in the course of a couple hours turned into what looked a run-on sentence, there was probably entirely too much happening in your life. I needed a break, badly. Actually, what I really needed was Valley and Shiori, my dad, the rest of my team, my new (much older) brother and sister, and while I was throwing dreams in the air, my mom. But I was going to have to settle for lunch. Or dinner.
With the class ended for the time being, Athena stepped back and let all those Alter kids lead Tabbris and me out of the room and down the corridor back past Miss Handsy’s office (she called out greetings to us and everyone else as we passed) to the opposite hallway where there was a door leading into an open cafeteria that could have been in any middle school on Earth, if a bit outdated (and honestly, what schools weren’t?). Clearly, Mr. Reinswield had had a big say in how the school was set up. I wondered what his story was, how long ago he’d ended up out here and why. Actually, I had lots of questions in general. Which was pretty par for the course.
Actually, looking closer, there was a bit of a difference in this cafeteria compared to others. This one had tables and chairs of many different sizes. There were big stone-looking seats that looked too heavy for even me to lift, all the way down to tiny doll-sized seats for the pixies.
The whole time we were walking, Tabbris stayed right next to me, her hand in mine. She looked around a lot, continually peeking at the other Seosten kids. They, in turn, kept looking over at her. But they didn’t push or anything. They did, however, point to a table in the corner as we entered the cafeteria. “Come on!” the oldest boy, Richton, called while hurrying that way. “First to silence, first to order!” It sounded like he was quoting an often-repeated phrase. And sure enough, I could see all the other students, including a bunch more who had come out of other classrooms, all hurrying to their own various tables and getting seated as quickly as they could.
It wasn’t just the four Seosten that came with us. The magma kid with the pretty voice and a girl with sleek, dark red fur with a little bit of white mixed in, bunny ears, and a fox-like face accompanied us as well. The magma Alter reached out as we passed one of those big stone chair, hefting it up to carry with before setting it at the table while everyone else took the regular seats. All around us, I could hear other students shushing one another as they sat down.
With a shrug at Tabbris, I promptly sat at the table just to the left of the red fox girl, with Tabbris to my left and Kisea, the vaguely Asian-looking Seosten kid sitting to her left. Going the rest of the way around the table in that direction were Richton, his little sister Meley, then the magma kid, and finally the miniature viking-looking Seosten kid, Demeas, right next to the fox girl.
Once we were all seated, the rest of the kids put their hands flat on the table, sitting up straight in their seats while staying quiet. I saw several of them casting pleading looks our way, so I took the hint and did the same. Laying my hands on the table, I sat up in the seat while Tabbris followed suit. As soon as we did, a small green light appeared in the center of the otherwise white table. It blinked twice, then turned into the number three. Seeing that, the rest of the kids around the table smiled, but didn’t make any other noise. They stayed as still as possible.
A couple tables away, I heard a kid whisper, “Two.” That was followed by a couple frantic hisses for silence, before there was a quiet buzz. Our three promptly turned into a two, and there were even more smiles around the table. Meanwhile, over at the table where the whispering had happened, I caught a glimpse of their former two becoming a three in return.
Right, so obviously the numbers were the order in which tables would be served (or rather, allowed to order, as Richton had said). As soon as everyone got to a table and sat silently with their hands on it, it gave that table the next number in line. But if you made noise after that (I was assuming up until everyone in the room was seated or something), your table switched spots with the next table after you. So if your table was originally fourth, making noise would make the fifth table become the fourth and yours would become the fifth. Fair enough, if kind of strict. It did neatly encourage everyone to get to their tables quickly and quietly, at least. Though I wasn’t sure which aspect of it did so more, the idea of getting food sooner, or competing with the other tables to do so. Whoever had come up with this whole thing had managed to find a way to gamify getting kids to be quiet and respectful. That took some serious talent.
Eventually, everyone seemed to be seated and ready. It looked like there were about three or four hundred students in here, all of them between ages nine up to about twelve or thirteen.
Almost the very second that I noticed that the tables were all full, a door at the back of the room opened and a portly man emerged. His body was as round as a beach ball, with dark green skin, four arms, and a long, luxurious mane of black hair. His eyes were bright red, and were almost all pupil with very little visible white to them. He wore black slacks and an almost blindingly pink, frilly shirt. “Yes, yes, children!” The round man called while making his way through the room, slipping between tables with surprising grace considering his size and shape, “very good, very quiet. Let’s not make you wait long, hmm? Just a little patience, my troopers!”
He reached the middle of the room then, clapping two of his hands. “Okay, number one!”
A bright green light appeared right over one of the tables in the distance, and everyone’s attention turned that way, including the round man’s. As soon as his eyes turned to them, each of the kids there began to take turns saying words that I didn’t understand at all. Belatedly and only through context, I realized that they each naming foods, telling the man what they wanted. He just stood there, nodding after each one without writing it down or saying anything else before he would turn his gaze to the next student.
Beside me, the little red fox-bunny girl whispered, “We’re allowed to talk very quietly while other people are ordering, as long it’s not too loud or disruptive.” She looked at me with these adorable amber eyes, snout twitching a little bit as she introduced herself. “My name is Bandy.”
“Hi, Bandy,” I whispered back. “I’m Flick. And-” I started to introduce my partner before pausing. Given how little chance she had out on her own, maybe giving her a chance to speak for herself would be good. So instead of actually speaking, I just nodded to her and smiled.
“Uh-um.” For one brief moment, it seemed like the poor girl had actually forgotten her own name. Which was doubly bad when the Seosten perfect memory was accounted for. She froze up, looking like a deer in headlights for a second before managing, “T-Tabbris. I’m Tabbris.”
“And I’m Reft,” the magma kid put in. There was a bit more visible lava around the lower part of his face, which I belatedly realized was his version of a smile. “How’re you doing?” As he spoke, the boy extended his hand. When I hesitated, he chuckled (a noise that sounded like softly ringing bells) and shook his head. “It’s alright. I can control how much heat I’m giving off. They just have me sit in the rock chair because it’s more comfortable. Doesn’t feel like I’m about to break it with my big fat butt.” Even as he said that, Reft gave another melodic laugh while all the visible lava on his hand was sealed over by the black rocky shell. That was his body, a mixture of semi-solid lava that stayed in place, and a dark, rock-like substance. Both seemed to shift almost randomly most of the time, the lava almost… flowing along the shape of his body.
Deciding to take the boy’s word for it, I accepted his outstretched hand. It was definitely warm, right on the verge of being uncomfortably so, but not quite. As I shook his hand, I pointed out, “I’m surprised you guys have this gesture all the way out here. I thought it was a human thing.”
It was Demeas who answered. “Mr. Reinswield taught us about human gestures and expressions.” The boy’s eyes grew a bit wider then, as he added excitedly, “He told us all about football too. Have you ever seen Liverpool play? They sound amazing.”
“Liver–” I echoed before realizing, “Oh, British football. Sorry, I haven’t really–”
I was interrupted as the round man stepped over to our table. “Second! Aha, tis my favorite little Reusfeil.” As he spoke, the man reached out a hand to rub the top of Bandy’s head, making the fox-bunny girl giggle. “And our newest galtrosi,” he added with a look toward Tabbris and me. “What would you like to be eating today, hmm?”
“Uh.” I hesitated, uncertain. “I’m not really sure what… um, the choices are? I don’t–”
“Choices?!” The man sounded almost offended, though I was pretty sure a big part of it was an act, meant to amuse. “You think I would cheat by forcing my galtrosi to choose from a list? No, no, this is not so. Not so at all. You must be choosing something you like, not what I like.”
Meley leaned over closer then, whispering, “Chef Gisby will make anything you ask for. He has a perfect memory, even better than Seosten, and he uses it to memorize every recipe in the universe. And if it happens to be something he doesn’t know, he can usually make it pretty close if you can describe it well enough. Oh, and he really likes it when you make things a challenge.”
Bandy was bobbing her head up and down, her ears bouncing. “Uh huh. He has a machine that can replicate almost any type of meat or vegetable. It tastes just like the real thing!”
“Oh. Uh.” I blinked, shifting a little. “Well, in that case, how about umm… Shrimp Scampi with angel hair pasta and alfredo sauce?” I would have been happy with a plateful of sandwiches at that point, but if he wanted something more challenging than that. “Oh, and garlic bread?”
“Yes, yes, that we can do.” Chef Gisby grinned brightly, looking toward Tabbris. “And you?”
“I… I like that too,” the girl answered after a second, her face flushing a little bit at the attention.
The round man took everyone else’s order, moving on to the other tables. Eventually, he had everyone and disappeared into the kitchen. Once he was gone and the ordering was over with, people started talking a little louder, conversations carrying between tables. Apparently being so quiet and still was only a temporary thing. They still weren’t exactly wild the way I’d seen in public school cafeterias on Earth, but they were at least having normal conversations.
In the case of our table, ‘normal’ apparently meant that the four Seosten kids were focusing on Tabbris, asking her all about what she’d been doing with me on Earth.
“Wait, wait,” Richton blurted, “you mean you were secretly possessing her for years and she didn’t know? I mean you didn’t take control or anything?”
Flinching, the girl hesitantly nodded. “I, um… I did a tiny bit, when… when I had to stop the spells that the um… that the other Seosten were trying to use to spy on her, or… or worse.”
That made Kisea straighten up. “Hold on, you mean you were disabling spells from adults? Like, trained adults? They were using magic and you just… countered them?” Her voice sounded awed in a way that made me reflexively smile with pride despite myself.
“Mama, um, t-taught me how to use magic…” she slowly explained, shifting closer to me while clearly finding it hard to look the others in the eyes. “Well, the memory she implanted in me did, anyway.”
That raised even more questions, but after a couple of them, it looked like Reft realized that Tabbris looked uncomfortable being the center of attention. The magma boy quickly said something to Richton about some game they had been playing. Judging from the quick look at the oldest Seosten shot back and forth between us, he knew what was going on. But he also didn’t object, taking Reft’s hint and letting the subject change. The others seemed to understand too. They still asked Tabbris and me questions, but not quite as intently. They kept moving the subject around the table so that Tabbris didn’t have to feel like she was under a microscope.
It clearly helped, as the girl slowly started to ask questions of her own. She wanted to know about their parents, and how they had all ended up out here.
As it turned out, the answer only made me hate the Seosten in general even more. Basically, the Seosten didn’t actually raise their own children, generally speaking. Instead, children were sent to what amounted to private school/orphanages and raised there. At a certain age or whenever the orphanage in question thought they were ready, the child would be added to the list of potential recruits. Every Choir took turns looking at available recruits and choosing the ones they wanted. It was like the draft in professional sports, only if the players ranged in age from five or six all the way up to their late teens in some cases. Or some really fucked up version of adoption.
In any case, these four had been on their way to one of those ‘drafts’ when Athena’s people had ambushed the ship in question. Most of them had gotten away, but these guys and a few of their older peers were brought here to be raised and taken care of. There were others like that, young Seosten that Athena and her people had begun to rescue and raise differently. It was… encouraging. Especially for Tabbris. I really wanted her to have as many good examples of her own people as possible.
Eventually, our food came, floating in on these small hovering trays that went straight to the right spots before landing. The others quickly dug in, so I followed suit. And they were right, it tasted delicious.
“Bleh.” Beside me, Tabbris was staring down at her own plate, which looked almost identical to mine. She tentatively took another bite, before her head shook. “Gross. What is that?”
“Um. Shrimp?” I offered, a little confused as I tasted one off her plate. “Mmm, good.”
“But–but–I like shrimp too. I mean…” The girl frowned, staring down. “I think I do. Don’t I? I did.”
“Oh.” Meley cut in. “You never tasted it on your own, just when you were possessing her.”
My head bobbed quickly in agreement. “She’s right. You only tasted them through my taste buds, not yours. I guess you don’t like shrimp after all.”
Blinking a few times, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Oh. Um. What do I do?”
Before I could answer, Chef Gisby suddenly spoke up from behind us. “You come with me!” As everyone jumped, the round man smiled. “Apologies. But come.” He offered his hand to the girl. “I will let you taste all of the wonderful things I can make, until you find what you do enjoy.”
“I’ll go with you, if you want,” Meley offered, gesturing to her own plate. “I’m done anyway.”
Tabbris looked to me uncertainly, and I quickly nodded. “It’s okay. Go ahead. I’ll be right here.”
She still looked a little uncomfortable about leaving me, but slowly got up from the table. “O-okay, I’ll be right–” As she was standing, the girl suddenly pitched over backward, her feet somehow having gotten tangled in the legs of the chair. Just before she would have hit the floor, my hands snapped down to catch her, and there was a clatter as her chair landed on its side.
“You okay?” I asked, helping Tabbris back up.
Her face was red, dropping her gaze to the floor as she nodded, mumbling a little about her legs being different from mine. Once she was definitely alright, the girl went with Meley and Chef Gisby to find something that she actually liked to eat.
“I hope she’s okay,” Bandy offered, her ears drooping a little bit as she watched the door that the three went through. “I don’t think Seosten really grow up like that very often, possessing someone else the whole time they’re… um, you know, getting bigger.”
“She’ll be okay,” I assured the bunny-fox girl. “She just needs some practice being out in her own body.”
“Good thing you guys are here, huh?” Kisea put in. “I mean, she doesn’t have to hide or anything. And…” The girl hesitated briefly before adding, “It’s kinda nice to have another Seosten kid around.”
“Yeah,” Richton agreed. “There aren’t very many of us. They’re mostly adults.”
“You are staying here for awhile, right?” Bandy pressed, looking up to me urgently with eyes that made me think that someone had copied them to create Puss in Boots’ adorable pleading eyes in those Shrek movies.
How could I do anything but nod? “Yeah,” I promised. “We’ll be here for awhile. I have to wait for Athena’s people to get hold of my friends, and they’ll use Tabbris’ blood to find Kushiel’s lab.”
As soon as I said the name, the others hissed a little, looking like I’d just said Hitler or something.
“She is a bad woman,” Reft explained. “A very bad woman.”
I nodded slowly, “Yeah, I’ve kind of been getting that impression. She sounds like a real piece of work.” And the thought that Tabbris’ mother had been in her hands… I swallowed hard, forcing that thought back. “We’re gonna find her. We’re gonna save Tabbris’s mom, and all her other prisoners. She’ll pay for the things she’s done.” For emphasis, I stabbed my fork hard down into the next bite of shrimp.
“She’ll pay for all of it.”