School of Light Excerpt

Chapter 14

“Turn a little more this way, dear,” Rutaro said, peering at Juele past his upraised thumb. Obediently, Juele swiveled on her heel, trying not to drop the brimful basket of acorns she had balanced on her hip. “That’s it. Now, think immature, tender, young thoughts. You are the symbol of everlasting life. Renewal. Springtime personified. Perfect. Now, hold it as long as you can.”
The sunshine played on Juele’s face and bare arms. She was wearing a pale green, gauze tunic bound with a tie that crossed between her small breasts and tied around her waist, and left her shoulders bare. The light skirt was barely long enough for modesty, and she worried about playful passing breezes lifting it. On her head was a crown of rosebuds that went well with that day’s pink-and-white complexion, and her hair, strawberry blond, fell down her back almost to her knees. Rutaro, dark-skinned as a woodland god, kept rearranging the mass of hair so it flowed loosely, draping along her body, but not concealing anything. She thought she looked very pretty that day. From the life-sized sculpture rising on Rutaro’s stand, he was exaggerating even that natural beauty to a higher degree than she’d ever look on her very best day.
“Very nice, darling,” Callia said, studying Juele critically from her prone position in a wooden lounging chair. “But don’t you want her eyes rounder?”
“No, I do not,” Rutaro said, with his teeth clenched. “They are fine the way they are.” He transfered the glare to Juele. “And don’t you change them, either.”
“No, I won’t,” Juele said, shaking her head vigorously. A few of the acorns hopped out of the basket and landed next to her feet. A white kitten, one of the many animals that posed on the school grounds, pounced out of the shadows and played with them. Rutaro’s eyebrows flew up, and he grabbed another glob of shapeless matter and began to knead it into the shape of the cat. Working with nebulosity, he had explained, was a hobby of his. He didn’t need it to make durable illusions, but he liked the feel of it. He was as skilled with it as he was with pure light.
“What is all this stuff for?” Juele asked, feeling the kitten roll over on her foot. Behind her, hovering cherubs held up a swag of ivy, and a table at her elbow held a glass of May wine.
“Prefigurative symbolism,” Rutaro replied, with a few birdlike glances between her and his model. “It’s important to inform the viewer of the eventual outcome of the image they are viewing. For example, I have you looking off into the west, which may denote that you will be going either that direction, or toward maturity. You are young, so I have adorned you with symbols foretelling your future as a generative force, whether that be children of your brain or your body. The kitten is a serendipitous addition, but is only a symbol of your energy as a young animal. I mean that in the nicest possible sense.”
“Oh. Thank you, I think.” This was more complex and profound a notion than anything she was learning in Symbology class. Juele listened with all her ears, trying to commit his words to memory.
“Such foreshadowing is most important in static art,” Rutaro continued, turning out a series of rosebuds with practiced hands, “but you’ll find it has its place in moving images as well. Most satisfying, to have the alpha and omega of meaning all in one place. Try it yourself.”
“I will.”
Juele had been flattered to be asked to join the Seven for a day out. For Them, that meant going as far as the courtyard near the tower. The garden had grown to nearly meadow-size overnight, leaving plenty of room for each of Them to pursue their own activities. Von and Helena were off to one side of the green field playing badminton over a net strung on skyhooks. He, in white pants and a flannel blazer, and she, in a long flowered dress with a lace collar, were in elegant contrast to everyone else on campus, who today were clad in blue jeans and T-shirts. Soteran, in a collarless white shirt, acted as referee. Helena’s protege, a dog once again, ran up and down the sidelines, retrieving errant birdies. Mara, wearing a sailor dress too small for her and a bow in her hair, sat nearby on the grass sketching them. A couple of lucky students sat with her, quietly working in their own notebooks.
The group was not alone. Lining the perimeter of the field were hundreds of onlookers, two to three deep in places. Juele saw her classmates, some of the younger instructors, and a host of people, animals, and things Juele didn’t recognize. All stared hungrily at the activity going on in their midst. The uninvited crept closer from time to time, but they were always driven back to the edge like shadows by the brilliant sunshine of the Seven. Not a few harsh glances were thrown her way. Juele was embarrassed to be the center of envy by so many. Rutaro, and Helena, when she noticed, told her to ignore them and just pay attention to enjoying the beauty of the day.
“Yes, true promise of things yet to come,” Rutaro said, almost muttering to himself, rolling a ball of nebulosity between his fingers. “Appropriate, you know. You do have the talent to make a name for yourself. You could even aspire to join our number one day,” he added. Juele quivered with pleasure, but her delight was short lived. “Or perhaps not. I don’t know.”
“Promise is not completion,” Peppardine said. He lay on his back with his hat shading his eyes from the sun behind him. At first Juele thought he wasn’t doing anything, until a cloud passed overhead, dropping a shadow on her shoulder.
“Please, will you move that,” Rutaro said, standing back from his work for a moment. “It’s in my light.”
“Sorry, old sock,” Peppardine said. The shadow vanished.
Juele looked upward. The clouds floating above the school had been shaped into nebulous figures of classical gods. She of Love and Beauty lounged on a celestial couch near the horizon. The Warlike One stood guard beside her. The outstretched arm of the Thunderbolt Thrower had drifted directly between the field and the sun, but the figure was moving back again towards the group. Juele was amazed.
“Was that illusion, or influence?” she asked.
“Illusion, of course,” Peppardine said, sternly. The hatbrim moved, and he sat up, looking stern. His eyes today were a pale green, good for glaring. “I never use anything but visual illusion.”
“I’m sorry,” Juele said, with a gulp. “I just wanted to know.”
Peppardine never seemed to remain upset for long. He gave her another one of his heartbreaking smiles and settled back again on the grass. Juele sighed. She desperately wanted his approval. He went from cold to warm and around to indifferent so easily she truly didn’t know if he liked her or not. Sometimes she wondered if she had imagined the smiles. On the walls of the Ivory Tower were several images of each of the Seven, including Peppardine, but none of his portraits showed him smiling.
“Von twits me about not producing more,” Rutaro said, conversationally, tapping his easel with a fingernail to make Juele turn around and face him again. Carefully, she rotated back, steadying her basket, which was now full of peeping baby chicks.
“But my dear friend here could sell his time a dozen ways from next week and still not satisfy all his patrons.”
There came a snort of laughter from underneath the hat. They must be very good friends. Sometimes Rutaro seemed jealous of Peppardine’s extraordinary talent, but the rest of the time he bragged about it as if he’d invented it himself. The seven were full of contradictions. She tried not to be impatient with herself for failing to understand Them. They’d had years, maybe even centuries, to form relationships too complex to be learned in only a week.
Rutaro let his hands drop. “There, that’s done,” he said. “You can move now.” Juele was grateful for the release. Her flesh had started to turn to stone from holding the pose so long. She set the basket down and rubbed her arms with marble fingers until the skin softened to life again. Rutaro set the idealized image of Juele aside.
“That’s too pretty to be me,” Juele said, waiting as her costume metamorphosed back into everyday clothing. Because she was close to Them, and in their sphere of influence, she found herself in a pale green, knee length dress. The golden-red hair stayed long, so she pulled the tresses around and plaited them.
“Not at all,” Rutaro said. “You inspire me, dear Juele, with your youth and energy. But if you prefer a more prosaic image…” He caught a falling beam of sunlight and, molding it between his long hands, created a simulacrum of Juele in her dress.
“I think you are very pretty indeed. Isn’t she, Peppardine?”
“Oh, yes,” the figure on the grass said, without moving his hat.
“And graceful as a gazelle,” Rutaro went on, suddenly playful. He took the image by the hand and spun it around. It went skipping about the field, throwing blossoms out of a basket hanging from its wrist. Juele was torn between flattery and embarrassment. The watching crowd stared and oohed.
“Oops,” Rutaro said suddenly. He clapped his hands together, and the image vanished in mid-skip. Juele looked around to see why. The chancellor of the School had come out of a building and was walking through the greatly extended courtyard toward them. His red-banded, gray smock flapped in the breeze behind him, making him look like a parrot with ruffled feathers. He wore a flat black cap that shaded his eyes from the sun.
“Good afternoon, chancellor.” Rutaro said respectfully. Peppardine sprang to his feet and took off his hat.
“Good afternoon, sir,” he said. “Sir,” Juele added, timidly.
“Afternoon, lads, lass,” the chancellor said. He was a stout, old man with a long nose and a long chin that formed the letter ‘C’ in profile. “Staying out of trouble, are ye?”
“Yes, sir,” the two men responded in unison. Juele waited until the chancellor had disappeared over the crest of the rolling field, then turned puzzled eyes to Rutaro.
“You look surprised,” he said. “One must always recognize authority when one meets it.”
“I thought you were the founders of the School,” Juele said. “Why would you have to show deference like that?”
“For all our influence, we must still have structure and organization. The administration of the School gives us that. We respond well to structure, like a painting does to a frame. There is great beauty in well-exercised authority. By the way,” Rutaro said, upending the container he’d been working from to show that it was empty, “I’m out of nebulosity. Would you run upstairs and get some more for me out of the cabinet?”
“Of course,” Juele said. She set out at a run for the shining building, about a quarter mile away. The rolling grass added a little spring to her pace. She still wasn’t one of them, but she was among them. That made her feel happy.
Nebulosity was notoriously changeable in its shape. Juele had to coax a mass of ball bearings into a box, where it promptly turned into a stuffed octopus that overspread the container in every direction. Impatiently, she wrestled it down the spiral staircase and outside.
She blinked up at the glare of orange light that met her as she emerged. Two identical, handsome, dark-haired men in tuxedos stepped forward. One of them took the box out of her hands, and the other hooked his arm through hers. He had a microphone in his hand, and a spotlight illuminated him from high above their heads. When he talked, it was not to her, but to the shadowed crowd behind the forest of equipment and the camera pointing her way. She couldn’t see the Idealists anywhere. He aimed two rows of dazzling white teeth at her.
“This way, young lady, and get ready for the chance of a lifetime!”
Juele stumbled on the steps of a dais and was helped to stand behind a small fuchsia desk beside two other students. Dozens of men and women in work clothes swarmed around her, plastering makeup on her face, straightening her dress, and pinning a huge name card in the shape of an artist’s palette to her collar.
“Now!” said the man with the microphone, pointing to the girl at the far end. Juele squinted and recognized Soma. “Tell me… the correct term… for a polite nuisance.”
For once the young woman had lost her aplomb. She was jumping up and down in ecstasy. “Oh, I know, I know! It’s a Fortunate Circumstance!” she shouted.
A huge buzzer went off somewhere, and the audience groaned. The master of ceremonies tilted his head in mock sympathy and shot his arm into the air.
“I’m sorry, but there is no such thing as a polite nuisance! Thank you for playing!”
A beautiful, blond woman in a blue, sequined dress took Soma’s arm and pulled her off the stage. Juele lost sight of her. The man moved on to the male student beside her. “Manolo,” he said in a low, intense voice, and the young man trembled. “Give me… in order… the correct sequence of the color wheel.”
“Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet,” Manolo recited. The buzzer went off, and Manolo looked shocked. So was Juele. That’s how she had always known it.
“Too bad! That’s the sequence of the rainbow! The color wheel is a circle and has no correct starting point! Juele!” the master of ceremonies said, coming to loom over her as another young woman led Manolo away. He put an arm around her shoulders, and huddled almost cheek to cheek with her. The spotlight beamed in her eyes, dazzling them. “Juele, it’s all on you now. What… was the name… of the First Sleeper?”
Juele looked at him in despair, and moistened her lips when he shoved the microphone in front of her. “I… I don’t know.”
“That is absolutely correct! You don’t know! No one does!” The crowd began to cheer, and perky organ music started playing. More lights swung, illuminating a blue and yellow box the size of a small house, and an orange curtain. “And now, the time has come,” the MC whispered confidentially into his microphone. “Choose your prize. Will it be the box? Or the curtain?”
The crowd began to chant, some for the box and some for the curtain. Juele was bewildered by the noise, and couldn’t make up her mind what to do. She’d never fallen into the midst of a Game Show Dream before. “Curtain!” shrieked a high female voice she thought was Bella’s. “Curtain!” boomed a voice that sounded like Peppardine’s. Her throat went dry.
“The curtain,” Juele said, quaking with excitement. More music played, and the curtain swept open to reveal the gleaming white towers of the Castle of Dreams. The MC stepped into the widening stage and pointed.
“You have won… a commission for the portrait of Queen Harmonia of the Dreamland! Come down, Juele, and claim your prize!” Dazed, Juele barely held herself up as the two women in sequined dresses pulled her down onto the stage. She had won the commission? She, the least experienced student in the school? But it must be true. The master of ceremonies, never stopping to take a breath, told his cheering audience all about it, and handed her a square envelope with a gold seal, a key, and a small velvet bag that jingled. “Here you are, Juele, and remember us all when you’re at the top of your profession. This is the first step on the staircase to the stars! Congratulations!” He shook hands with her. There was more mad applause, and the spotlights went crazy, wagging their brilliant beams all over the sky. Juele held up her hands to shield her eyes from the glare of it all.
When she lowered her arms, the meadow was empty and silent except for the ‘pok’ of a badminton racquet hitting a birdie. An elderly telegraph delivery man was wobbling away down the gravel path on his bicycle. Juele was still holding an envelope, a key, and a velvet bag.
Juele watched him ride off, then tore open the envelope. Inside was a square white card beautifully calligraphed in gold: “Please come tomorrow morning at half past ten,” and it was signed over a gold crown and cloud with a single name, “Harmonia.” It was true. She had really won the commission.
“Rutaro!” Juele shrieked.
Rutaro abandoned his easel and came running. The rest of the Idealists followed, curious about the uproar, and with them the entire crowd of spectators. The whole meadow seemed to contract about Juele until it was the same size it normally would be, but with ten times the people all peering over one another’s shoulders. The crowd pushed apart to form an aisle to permit the Idealists to come through without touching them. The mass spread out to make a ring, giving Juele a little breathing space. She was so overwhelmed she couldn’t speak. Shaking, she held the card out to her mentor, who read it with raised eyebrows.
“Very nice, my dear, very nice,” Rutaro said. He passed it to Peppardine, who smiled at her through his eyelashes and gave it to Helena.
“But what should I do?” Juele wailed.
“What you do best,” Rutaro said, blandly, retrieving the embossed card from Von and handing it back to Juele, who clutched it. “Keep on as you have. The queen knows you’re not a master illusionist yet. But she sees something in your work that she liked. Concentrate on that.”
Juele was not comforted. What was it the queen liked? And what if she couldn’t do it again?