Thursday, October 1st, afternoon
If we’d had the history class today, I’d have just asked Tess what this was about after class, and likely been much more comfortable than this cloak-and-dagger meeting. I put it mostly out of my mind as I went through the school day, but after our regular history class I had two free periods – reserved for PE, but it was rarely mandatory to attend since I was attending fencing practice after school.
Most of the class tended to stay in the classroom to study, although some people more serious about sports used it to work out, and others would head early to club rooms. Joel, Kai and Amy were staying in the classroom; Jack had one of his electives during this period. I tried to study with them but was too tense and decided to take a walk.
I went by the classroom where we were supposed to meet, and on other days we would have had the advanced honors history - it was in use by another class, with Ms. Calliot also teaching. It looked like mostly 3rd year students, and she had some battlefield maps taped up on part of the chalkboard. If I’d been in time for the start of class, I’d have been tempted to ask to sit in.
Since there was nothing to do there now, I decided to head to the library to try to find a few last sources for my paper. One document discussed the need for “martial virtue” to be a proper king. Something clicked – this paralleled something my dad had explained, about the Roman notion of virtus and how it applied to medieval feudalism in our world. That couldn’t be a coincidence, given the linguistic origins of the New Imperial from a world like ours.
It was a small point, but it gave a motive rather than just circumstance. I’d been trying to argue the “yes” side of “warfare was the first business of the state” mostly because at least some of the kingdoms were at war at any given point throughout the period.
This, in turn, led to some other points I wanted to read up on and the remaining time before afternoon homeroom flew by. I got back to the classroom a little late, but in time to get dismissed.
Afterwards, Joel asked. “Are you still going to see what she wants?”
“Do you need me to come along?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
I headed over to the room, taking the walkway over to the second classroom. On the top floor, I passed by the 3rd-year classrooms. The second floor had only elective classrooms; some were in use for club activities, but it was very quiet right now. The door to classroom where we had our history elective was closed, but the light was on inside, so I slid open the door and stepped in.
At the front of the room, near the head of the circle of seats – roughly where she usually sat – was Tess, with another girl seated next to her. As I approached, I recognized Violet. I’d seen them together on the streetcar a few times, and she’d visited our booth.
While at first glance, I would have simply described them both as “short blonde girls,” the resemblance ended there – where Tess was very pleasantly curvy, Violet was tiny, and not just in the sense Joel had teased me about with Tess. Tess’s hair was a darker shade of blonde, and she has a very neat and tidy hairstyle, cut a little above her shoulders, which gave her a serious look, as did her sharp eyes and their icy grey color. Violet’s hair was lighter, wildly curly and spilled down her back, with big hazel eyes. If I hadn’t already known they were both first-years, I would have assumed Violet to be at least a couple of years younger than Tess.
“Hi Mark, thanks for coming,” said Tess, while I pulled up a chair.
“No problem,” I replied, and then to Violet, “and your name is, Violet, right?”
Violet’s eyes went a bit wide, and she said, “l didn’t know you knew who I am.”
“My friend Joel told me about meeting you a while ago, and that you were in the same literature class.”
“Really? He mentioned me?” Violet said, her voice happy and high, and her eyes widened again. She was also a bit red, blushing strongly just as she had when I referred to her as “Joel’s friend” back at the booth.
I nodded. I had a pretty good guess at what this was about by then, but I didn’t want to say it outright in case my guess was wrong. Still, if I ever had to doubt that Joel was the protagonist of this story, and that I’m the sidekick, I think this is about to prove it.
Tess then said, “Let me get straight to the point of why I asked you here.” I shrugged, and after a moment she went on, “Joel Ross is a friend of yours, right? Violet said you were both from America and knew each other.”
“That’s right,” I said. OK, that about confirms it. Joel, buddy, if this is going the way I think it is you are so going to owe me one.
Tess nodded, her eyes straight on me with a serious look. “I’m curious, did Joel ever mention what happened to Violet when they first met?”
“Yes, I think his exact words that evening were ‘I just rescued a girl.’ That sounded a bit dramatic – if I understood right, he stepped in when some guys were hassling her?”
“I wasn’t there,” said Tess, “but the way Violet told me about it I don’t think ‘rescued’ was overstating it.” She looked over at Violet, who nodded.
“I see,” I said, not sure how to respond.
“I never got to thank him properly then,” said Violet. “I got to talk to him again at my club’s booth.” She looked down again.
“That must have been when he told you about our booth?” I asked.
She nodded. “Thank you again for the chocolate.”
“No problem,” I said. An awkward silence followed. OK, I’m still pretty sure where this is going, but I really don’t want to assume in case I’m wrong.
After a long moment, Tess broke the silence, and said, “OK, good. To get back to why I asked you here, Violet asked me if I had ideas for how to get to know Joel better. She wasn’t comfortable approaching him directly, so my next idea was to talk to one of his friends. You and I are in the same history class, so I thought you might not mind if we asked you about him.”
And it’s confirmed. I wonder, do I look as smug as I feel?
“I don’t mind,” I said, and then after a moment, “How can I help?”
“Thanks,” said Violet quietly, with a shy smile. Tess, meanwhile, was looking at me expectantly.
“I can tell you about Joel,” I said, within reason going through my mind but remaining unsaid. “We’ve been friends for a long time, so I’m not sure where to start. What specifically would you like to know about him?”
“What kind of things does he like?” asked Tess.
I thought for a moment. “The main thing he’s been into recently is soccer. He’s busy with the club and I think he’s serious about trying to play for the team. He was in the school band at our old school, and he’s still into music I guess.” Should I mention comic books? It’s kind of the main interest he and I had bonded over years ago, but I don’t want to make him out to seem like a big nerd. I decided to play it safe, skipping the details of what, and ended with “…and he reads a lot.”
“Oh, that last must be why he took a literature elective,” observed Tess.
“I think so,” I said, trying to sound a little confident – I’m pretty sure this is more about learning about his mom’s homeland, but I can’t say that. “English is one of his favorite subjects.”
“See, that’s something you two have in common,” Tess said to Violet. Violet smiled in response. Then back to me, Tess said, “Joel said something to Violet about it being ‘a long story’ how you two came to attend school here. Could you share a bit more?”
I gave them the standard version of why we’re here – folks in both governments wanted to encourage trade, Joel got selected, I decided to tag along. I omitted any mention of Joel’s family here, of course, as well as my reason for changing my mind – Anne’s death.
“So, you’re just here for the year?” Tess asked.
“I am, yes. Joel is planning to stay until graduation,” I said. Right after I said it, I realized that might have been saying too much. I wasn’t sure why she wanted to know. Unless, um, it’s somehow a way of seeing ‘is Joel someone who could be serious about a relationship?’ and if so, wow, that’s getting a bit ahead of itself.
“Do you know why that is?”
“Joel’s planning to stay for next year?” I asked, and when she nodded, I was glad this was something Joel and Dormer had already come up with an answer for. “Joel’s father runs an import-export business back in our world. Joel thought it might be a good opportunity for his dad’s business if he could learn more about this world.” OK, that didn’t really answer the question. “He hasn’t told me anything more specific, but my guess is he and his dad see a long term opportunity here.”
“That’s fascinating,” said Tess, now sounding a lot more like I’d caught her interest than just helping out her friend. “I’m surprised the Brotherhood is entertaining that, but once we have visiting students through the gate, I suppose increasing trade isn’t any weirder.”
“Do you know much about the Brotherhood?” I asked.
“A fair amount, I think,” said Tess.
“I don’t want to change the subject too much, but another time, can I ask you some more about it?”
She shrugged. “I guess so.”
“So, what else can I tell you about Joel?” I asked.
Violet gave Tess an expectant look. Tess responded with, “Go on, Violet. You can ask him.”
Violet looked down for a moment and then back at me, asking, “I hope this isn’t too forward, but does Joel have a girlfriend?”
Oh my god, this is such a stereotype. I had to work a bit not to smile too much, but I made my mouth stay neutral. After a moment to get my composure back, I said, “No, he really doesn’t.” After I said it, I realized that kind of didn’t make sense…. ‘really’ doesn’t? Oh well. I am so sick of hearing him say how much he wants one! I wanted to tell them what he often said, but it felt like it might reflect badly on him to repeat it outright.
“That’s good,” said Tess, giving her friend a look.
“Is there someone he likes?” asked Violet.
I thought about what to say before answering. I think Elise is just someone he’s interested in, not a full-on crush yet, but I’m not sure. I really don’t know that it’s appropriate for me say anything about that, but I don’t want to give her false hope if I’m wrong.
“I’m not sure,” I said, settling on the course of being vague. “Definitely not anyone who he’s serious about. We’ve only been here a month.”
I thought it would sound reassuring, but Violet looked… if not disappointed, then at least dubious. OK, I guess that didn’t come out quite right.
“We really appreciate you taking the time to tell us about Joel,” Tess said. “I know Violet is hoping she'll get another chance to talk with him again soon.”
Violet nodded eagerly at this. I wasn't sure if there was an implied request there or just how interested Violet was, but she seemed sincere.
"Would it help if I tell Joel about you wanting to talk more?"
As I made the offer to mention it to Joel, her eyes went wide, and she vehemently shook her head. "Oh no, I couldn't possibly ask you to do that," she said, looking mortified at the thought. "Please don’t say anything to him."
“It’s OK,” I said. “I should have realized that since you approached me rather than approaching him in the first place, right? Is there something else I can do to help?”
“Thanks, Mark,” Violet said. She gave a soft shrug and then looked between me and Tess. “Perhaps one of you two can think of something that wouldn’t be so direct?”
“We have midterms coming up,” I said. “Could we find an excuse for him to help you study?”
Violet shook her head gently. “We’re not in the same year, so it would be a big imposition on him.”
Tess was grinning. “I think we could make it work,” she said to Violet. “Not studying for midterms exactly, but you two are in the same literature elective. You’ve got that big paper coming up.” After that, she asked me, “Do you think Joel would respond well if she asked him for help on the paper?”
“I’m sure he’d be happy to help if she asked,” I said.
Violet looked uncertain. “I’m not sure I can.”
“I could ask him for you,” I said. I looked at Tess, sheepishly. “He saw your letter, so I’ll probably have to tell him something about what we talked about, anyway.”
Tess rolled her eyes at me as she thought for a moment. “It’s fine,” she said and then she grinned. “I think it would sound strange for you to ask it for her, but I see a way that this can work out to help Violet.”
“You do?” Violet and I asked at the same time.
“Yes, I do,” Tess said. Her expression went mostly back to normal, but a bit of the grin and a glint in her eye remained. “You are going to have to approach him directly, Violet, but what Mark can say about this meeting should help you out.
“We can safely assume Joel is going to ask you what this was about, and if not, I’d appreciate it if you do mention it. Tell him that I was asking for help with the upcoming paper for our history class.”
After I nodded, she went on. “If he knows I already asked you for help, it will make it more natural when a different first-year asks him for help. That should make him more receptive, right? If he’s got a little bit of a competitive streak, it might even make him a lot more receptive.”
“Would that count as psychological priming?” I asked.
“Now that you mention it, I think so,” said Tess.
“Interesting,” I said, “and that makes sense. I can talk to him this evening after he gets out of soccer practice.”
“Good,” she said. “Although in case you don’t get to talk then, their class is first period tomorrow, it might be too early.”
“Joel has a free period after homeroom on Saturday, maybe Violet can come by right after homeroom to ask him?”
“I couldn’t on my own, and Tess has history class then!” protested Violet.
“Got it,” I said. “So, I guess after class on Monday?”
“That’s a long time to wait,” said Violet, sounding disappointed. “Wouldn’t that also give him too long to put you and Mark working together out of mind?”
Tess patted Violet on the shoulder “I know it’s hard to wait, but you don’t…” and she stopped there, clearly thinking about something, and then she said, “if what we’re worried about is Mark not getting to talk to Joel this evening, maybe I should just call to check on that for you?”
So, this is what really outgoing people are like! I’d have found it a little intimidating to call someone I barely knew, but if she was comfortable with it, I wasn’t going to say anything. She must have noticed my hesitation, though, as she then asked, “unless it will be a problem with your parents…?”
“It’s fine. They’re back in New York, there’s nobody you’d bother by your calling.” I tore a scrap of paper out of my notebook and gave the apartment’s phone number to Tess.
“Thanks, Mark,” said Tess. “I really appreciate your being willing to help us.”
“Me too,” said Violet.
“No problem, or I guess, you’re welcome. You’re trying to do something nice for a friend of mine, after all.”
Tess and Violet headed out first; I stuck around a little lost in thought. This all seems like a lot of effort on Tess’s part, she must really care about her friend a lot. I wondered if I was ever going to be able to explain this to Joel, or if it would remain a secret. Violet seemed like a nice person, but terribly shy and maybe a little immature. I also wasn’t sure how much Joel had already built up his idea of things going with Elise. I remember how easy it used to be to do that with a crush, Joel might be the same way. I shrugged to myself. Even if it goes nowhere, I’m pretty sure Joel will appreciate the attention.
I was already late for fencing, so I headed over to the sports center.