Jaxon squirmed in his seat when Ricardo asked, “So, how many of you have had any kind of etiquette lessons?” He wasn’t prepared for this kind of posh society where everyone was well trained and prepared for what to expect. He’d just figured the Academy would be like school, but maybe harder, and without having to go home.
It was something of a relief when the girl he’d sat next to in the hall session — Melinda — said, “Does me arguing with my mum about why it’s wrong to hold my fork in the right hand count?”
Jaxon snickered and then smothered it quickly, wondering if that was bad manners. He ducked his head when Ricardo looked around inquiringly.
“Ah, my mistake. Count yourselves lucky to never have been subjected to an Arthaignese etiquette master. There a few niceties that’ll become habitssoon enough, though. Like Melinda, said, it’s wrong to put your fork in your right hand. Start with the cutlery on the outside of your plate and work your way in — you don’t have to worry about that now, but you will tonight. Ask people to pass things rather than reaching across the table and don’t eat until everyone’s been served. This might seem all rather obvious or unnecessarily fussy, but it is the way things are done at the Academy.”
Jaxon didn’t think it was unnecessary as such — he could totally see the appeal of being a little fancier and doing things nicely — but he was pretty sure he was going to mess up embarrassingly. His mum hadn’t spent time arguing with him about right forks being wrong and what not. Although he guessed he had picked it up somewhere. That was something. “So if we eat our soup with the wrong fork, do we get kicked out or what?”
People laughed. “Of course not. But you risk the ire of your class tutor if you don’t make an effort.” Ricardo looked around the table. “We’ll get to business eventually, but for now, let’s eat.” He lifted a cloth from the centre of the table to reveal baskets full of bread rolls, a butter dish and big bowls of leafy salad with what looked like real cheese. Jaxon was impressed. The meal wasn’t impossibly extravagent, but the hydroponics systems under the city could only produce so much before meals had to be finished with processed soya. Sometimes they started with soya too, when the grocery money was going elsewhere.
Ricardo grinned. “Welcome to the Academy! You can expect real meat tonight too,” — one of the boys cheered at this — “but tomorrow will probably be soya again. Now, the foregoing notwithstanding, we don’t stand on ceremony too much at meals like this, so help yourselves.”
Jaxon ate more than he talked over lunch, but he paid enough attention to the conversation that he managed to get the other students in his class straight in his head. The quiet, willowy girl to his left was Quintessa. Left of her was Melinda, the chirpy one. She was sitting next to Bryony, who he thought he would recognise from the multicoloured hair, even when she lost the dramatic outfit. Bryony didn’t say a word to her other neighbour, Kelly Jean, all the way through the meal. That was remarkable given the number of words she said in total. Kelly Jean didn’t seem particularly perturbed, though. Left of Kelly Jean was Ricardo, making conversation like a pro, which Jaxon supposed he just about was. Then Mark, who, like Jaxon, seemed to be concentrating on his food, although next to him top-hatted Ivor more than made up for it.
Next was Verashni, who had been the first the raise the ire of the class tutor by dissecting the salt grinder on her side plate. Jaxon was relieved that all that followed was a sardonic remark from Ricardo about labs only starting tomorrow, and not in the dining hall. He’d been tensing himself for raised voices. Left of Verashni was Buhle, who laughed heartily when her neighbour was reprimanded and declared that she’d told her so. After Buhle, on Jaxon’s right was Ken, the boy in the hoverchair who’d started the conversation about hoods. He looked slightly worried all through the meal, which surprised Jaxon, since Ken seemed to know more about the Academy than anyone else. You’d think he’d be right at home.
“Lot of new stuff, huh?” Ken said quietly to Jaxon when he’d finished eating.
“Yeah. You seem to have a grip on things, though.”
“I do?” Ken’s eyes widened. If Jaxon hadn’t been wondering if he was going to throw up, he would have grinned at his classmate’s bemusement.
“Sure. All that stuff.” Jaxon waved his hands vaguely in the direction of the corridors. “You sounded like a pro.”
“Huh. I sure don’t feel like one.” Ken grinned weakly. “I hope it gets better once we’re through the induction and all these formalities.”
Jaxon swallowed hard, thinking about how far time stretched on after induction. He had to gulp again before he could answer. “Sure hope so. Guess you’re the expert.”
Ken raised an eyebrow. “Expert? Not I. But we’ll figure this out. Wouldn’t have got here if they didn’t think we could handle it, right?”
“I suppose.” It was an encouraging thought, although Jaxon wasn’t ready to commit to being encouraged.
Ricardo stood up and began speaking in an announcement-type voice. “Did any of you need to go back to Mrs McKinsey to get your gown adjusted?”
“I did,” Melinda said, Quintessa murmured something Jaxon couldn’t make out and Jaxon said, resignedly, “Me.” That’s what being short did for you. He needed his robes taken up, as if this whole thing wasn’t complicated enough already.
“Does any one of you know the way back to her workroom?”
“Not a chance.” Melinda shook her head, sending her ponytail whipping from side to side.
Ricardo looked enquiringly at Jaxon and Quintessa, who echoed the head shake, if less enthusiastically.
“Alright, I’ll take you down quickly. The rest of you, be ready to head back down to the Great Hall when I’m back.” There were murmurs of assent from the table.
“Mrs McKinsey will bring you down to join us when she’s done with you,” Ricardo explained as they walked out of the dining hall and through the wooden halls and stairways of the students wing. He set a brisk pace, and Jaxon was making an effort not to breathe heavily when they arrived. Willowy, long-legged Quintessa and energetic Melinda seemed fine, but remembering Ken’s unexpected fit of nerves, it occurred to Jaxon that they might be a little more tired than they appeared.
The fittings were over quickly and without any fuss. Mrs McKinsey hung their robes on a rolling dumb-valet, along with the seven already positioned there, and herded them out of her workroom. “Along with you, now. Ceremony will be starting in just a few minutes and I need to get you and your gowns there before things start filling up.”
Jaxon’s stomach clenched at the thought of being late, but it turned out that Mrs McKinsey’s idea of “just a few minutes” was a little different from the conventional one. Half an hour later they were still lined up alphabetically behind the back doors of the Great Hall, waiting for things to get going.