Ken was thinking about the Academy oath when the gown fittings ended. Just as Mrs McKinsey finished giving instructions, a well-dressed young man appeared in the doorway. Ken put him in his early twenties and admired both his waistcoat and flourishing moustache.
“Ricardo Arcos will be your class tutor.” Mrs McKinsey gestured towards the newcomer.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.” Ricardo made an elegant bow, which seemed less out of place than Ken would have predicted. “While I am eager to make your acquaintances, I expect that we will all enjoy that more over a meal. If you would follow me to the dining hall– ” He turned and swept out into the hall, his student’s gown and two hoods flaring out behind him.
“So he’s had two degrees conferred already,” Ken commented to the classmate he found himself alongside as they followed Ricardo down the wallpapered corridors of the students’ wing.
“How d’you figure that?” the boy — Ken was pretty sure his name was Jaxon — asked.
“Two hoods, right? I reckon he’ll get the full red mathematician’s gown next time. Although I have heard of cases where people just went on collecting hoods.”
“You can do that? Don’t they want you to get to actually being useful as quickly as possible?”
Ricardo must have heard them, because he slowed down to a comfortable stride beside them and said, “You think it takes a red robe to make someone useful, Mr –”
“Maike. Jaxon Maike. Um, I guess I thought, well, it’s not like we’re doing anything useful at school.”
Ricardo chuckled. “Fair enough, Jaxon. And your first few years will be largely along the same lines. But in most disciplines you’ll discover that after you earn your first degree you’re expected to something useful before you get any more.” He winked. “It’s not unlike the apprenticeship system, although it has its own quirks.”
“Huh.” Jaxon frowned. “And here I thought I was escaping that rat race, coming to the Academy.”
Ken laughed. “But we are! Mathematicians can work on anything that seems beautiful or exciting, as long as they’re learning new things. Not like lower echelon where everything is supposed to have immediate economic value.”
“The truth lies somewhere between those views, I think,” Ricardo said, “but I would lean toward your friend’s opinion, Mr Maike. The Academy is not, for the most part, a rat race. Or at least the rats are prettier than elsewhere.”
Ken giggled and interjected, “My name’s Ken, by the way,” before he went down in history as “Jaxon’s friend”.
“It’s my pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ken.”
“So is the dining hall where we’ll always eat, or is it just for special occasions?” Bryony bounced forward in her over-the-top gradient ball gown.
“The Academy aspires to impart a degree of civilisation to its students, so you will be expected eat in the formal dining hall for the most part. Some Mechatropolitans seem to be unaccustomed to the habit, but I expect you’ll come around to it.”
“Oh, I’m not complaining. It just seems like it could be a lot of bother. You know.”
“The nature of the Academy is to bother about things, Miss –?”
“Adams, but call me Bryony, please.”
“As you wish, Bryony.” Ricardo inspected her outfit and smiled wryly. “You prefer not to fit in, perhaps, Miss Bryony?”
“I, um, ah.” Bryony looked surprised to find herself with no response.
“There’s nothing wrong with that of course.” Ricardo smiled. “Just don’t let it interfere with more important things.” Ricardo, with his embroidered waistcoat and formal way of talking didn’t entirely fit in himself, Ken thought.
There was an awkward silence as they walked down the corridor; Ken stared at the floorboards until someone asked, “Say, Ricardo, you said Mechatropolitans earlier like you’re not from here. Is that true?”
“Most perspicacious. I was born on Arthaign, but my fondness for mathematics over poetry led to them shipping me over here.”
“Really? But you sound like you’d be good at that kind of thing.”
Ricardo chuckled. “Nobody gets through the Arthaign school system without learning to write a half-decent sonnet or appreciate a haiku, which is perhaps more than can be said for the schools here, but I assure you that my diction is not in the least unusual there. On the other hand, you may be surprised to learn that it’s possible to complete your high school education without achieving proficiency in solving linear equations.”
Someone gasped. Ken looked over his shoulder and grinned. “Hey, not everyone is good at maths, Melinda.”
“Yes, but, but,” she frowned. “How do they even think about things?”
“Entirely differently,” Ricardo said. “For instance, here is the dining hall.” He stepped through the double doors and, with a flourish, presented the room. “Suppose you give me a brief description.”
“Well, there are, um, eight table, arranged in two rows of four symmetrically about a kind of aisle, but only the one at the back left is set. There are quite ornate double doors here at the front and two smaller doors set into the side walls.”
“Characteristically mathematical,” Ricardo said, grinning, “but the Arthaignese would hardly think you’d described the room, for you have neglected to tell of the elegant carvings around the hall’s grand entrance and the polished wooden floors stretching across the room, bearing rows of dining tables; indeed one alone, in the far corner, is laid with a white cloth and silverware. This is a portent, perhaps, that the Academy’s full complement has not yet arrived.”
Ken sighed. “It sounds much more romantic that way.”
“But less useful,” Melinda said defensively.
“The principle export of Mechatropolis is technology — eminently useful,” Ricardo said. “The principle export of Arthaign is romance. I believe there is a place for both. Certainly the dining hall lends itself to either interpretation. One would suffer without the other. But enough philosophising! We will eat at the first year table: try to remember that we’re in the back left. The hall will be much busier at supper time, when the other students have arrived.”