Entire Fiction (2008)
Mirrors into Windows
Edgar was half-asleep at the table, his hand on his chin the only thing keeping him from falling face-first into the book he'd been reading, when the tea kettle whistled. He shot up from his seat and blinked. The room was empty except for the whistling tea kettle and a green haired girl.
Terra Branford, the half-Esper half-human girl recently liberated from the Empire, looked mortified as she snatched the kettle off of the stove. "Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't know that it would be so loud."
"It's okay," Edgar said, now wide awake. "I can't fall asleep tonight anyway. I'm watching the door."
"I couldn't sleep, and I saw that you were dozing. I kept look-out for you," Terra said as she poured two cups of tea. "It's almost dawn. When is Arvis coming back?"
"His shift in the mines ends an hour or so after daybreak," the king told the girl as she handed him the mug of tea. "In a little while, then. Thank you."
Terra sat across from Edgar and looked curiously at the book on the table. "What were you reading?"
"The Ars Mechanica. It's a machinery manual."
"Oh." Terra looked at the book warily. "Looks complicated."
"Not really. Want to read it?"
Terra shook her head and her cheeks turned bright red. "No thanks. I'd probably get lost."
"I could explain it to you if you run into trouble."
"I, um, I can't read."
Edgar gave her a puzzled look. "Can't read? Really?"
"Did you forget due to the Slave Crown, or were you never taught?"
"I don't think they ever taught me anything in Vector. Nothing of use, anyway."
"You can't do figures either?"
"Mathematics. You know: add, subtract, multiply, divide, percentages - any of that?"
This was a completely foreign concept to Edgar. He couldn't remember not being able to read or add anymore than he couldn't remember not being able to walk. He was a very bright man, gifted with the ability to understand highly technical concepts and parlay them into clever inventions. He was also highly logical and had been an exceptional student; well, he'd never gotten the hang of navigation and the court musician had declared him hopeless on the mandolin, but...
"Hmm? Oh, I'm sorry. I must have gotten lost in thought again."
Terra just smiled. Edgar did have a tendency to do that.
"I have an idea," the king told her as he shut his book. "Banon won't be up for a few more hours. We're both just sitting here waiting for the others. Why don't we use our time constructively..." He smiled and Terra gave him a suspicious look.
"Want me to teach you how to read and write?"
Edgar dug inside his bag and found the books he'd stashed away. He had always been a voracious reader, and it had seemed natural to throw a few of his favorites into his bag of tools. Unfortunately, none of them were suitable for teaching literacy to a young woman.
He looked over them again. Ars Mechanica, Simple Machines, Welding and Soldering, The Engineer's Guide to Alloys, a treatise on gunpowder, and The Insatiable Countess. Nothing Terra would find useful. He scratched his chin and looked around Arvis's tiny house. There was a small bookshelf near the table – maybe that might hold something.
"I've been around Locke too long," Edgar muttered to himself as he rifled through the books. Most of the books were cheaply bound and dog-eared. There was a cookbook that looked like it had seen its fair share of kitchen mishaps, a religious text, a small novelette about the War of the Magi, and a book of common home repairs. Almost hidden next to the cookbook was a small slateboard and a stylus attached to it with a string. Edgar pulled it out and saw that it would serve their purposes nicely. It had probably belonged to Arvis when he had attended the local dame school.
"Let's start with the basics," Edgar said as he set the slate down on the table in front of Terra. "I'll write down the letters, and you copy them. Letters are building blocks of words, and you can't read or write without them."
The dismayed look on Terra's face when Edgar finished writing almost made him laugh. "Don't worry," he said as he handed the slate to her. "it's easier than it looks."
"I hope so."
Terra took the stylus in her hand uncertainly and began to scratch on the slate.
The next day, Terra held out the slate with pride. She had copied Edgar's elaborate handwriting in a shaky script. "I practiced while I was keeping watch," she said, watching her friend's face for signs of praise.
"You're a natural, Miss Terra. When you get more familiar with holding the stylus, we'll try ink pens. Do you think you can write the letters down without looking at the example?"
"Maybe in a few days," Terra said, sounding doubtful.
"No rush," Edgar said with a wink.
"I'd like to know how to write my name."
"As soon as you get used to the alphabet, that'll be the first thing we try."
"Can you write anything?"
"I can indeed."
"How long until I can write or read like you?"
Edgar thought for a moment and then shrugged. "It takes time to turn a mirror into a window."
"Something my tutor used to say. Learning a new skill turns mirrors into windows. You become more aware of the world and less focused on yourself." Edgar smiled as Terra still looked confused, as though what he was saying was in a completely foreign language. "In other words, it's an acquired habit, so it might take some time. Maybe even years. But don't get discouraged – I'll help you."
Terra sat down at the table and wiped off the slate. She looked completely focused as she scratched out the letters of the alphabet.
Two days later, Edgar woke up to see that Terra had fallen asleep holding the slateboard. He smiled as he pried it loose from her arms and looked at her work. With the exception of where she had smudged the writing by holding the board close, she had copied his script almost exactly.
The king was completely puzzled. How could she have done it so quickly? Perhaps her half-Esper blood gave her savant-like powers when it came to learning new things. In that case, Terra could learn things much more quickly than any average human with a fraction of the practice and...
It hit him then.
Her personality was completely innocent and maybe even naïve, but she had been a ruthless killing machine with the Slave Crown on.
She had obviously demonstrated her aptitude for magic while under the Empire's control and had somehow learned a little even then.
They had to have noticed. And if they had begun sending her out on combat missions, then...
The Empire had been training her to be the ultimate weapon.
Edgar dropped the slate to the floor. It made perfect sense: the Empire hadn't figured out how to give their soldiers the power of magic. So they turned the concept upside down and sent their most powerful magic user out to learn how to be a super solider. The generals Celes Chere and Kefka Palazzo aside, Terra was the only living person who could command magical powers – even then, she was more lucid than Palazzo and more powerful than Chere.
When the Returners had saved Terra, they had quite literally saved the world.
Terra opened her eyes and yawned. She looked at Edgar's expression and felt dread creep into her stomach.
"Edgar? Is something wrong?"
"No," Edgar said, sounding mechanical and faraway, "everything's fine. Sorry to wake you up."
"You don't look well."
"I just realized something."
"Your letters are nearly perfect."
"Thank you. Can we practice my name now?"
Edgar looked down at the slate on the floor and then up at Terra's smiling face. This had to be kept to himself. He wouldn't even tell Terra. He'd just protect her, because if she fell back into the Empire's clutches...
"Of course," Edgar said, forcing a smile onto his face and a cheery tone into his voice. "I told you that you'd be a natural."
Terra squinted at the slate board as Arvis opened the door and stomped the snow off of his boots. "Good morning, Miss Terra. Oh, and you too, King Edgar. What are you two doing up at this hour?"
"Banon has a cold," Edgar said, "so Terra gave him the bed."
"Kind of you," Arvis said as he hung up his outerwear and reached for his pipe. He lit it, savored a few puffs, and then checked the hot breakfast cooking on the stove.
Edgar turned his attention back to Terra and the board. "You probably don't know how you spell your name, do you?"
"No. Can you spell it?"
"If you want me to try, I can do that."
Terra handed the slate over to Edgar and he thought for a moment. He tried a phonetic approximation of Terra's name in the Figaro fashion, but it didn't look right. Something about ‘Tera' didn't fit the girl. It needed something. He tried it in the standardized Imperial way, but ‘Terah' didn't fit his friend either. He erased the name and tried it in the Doman fashion, with a double consonant. Figaro's writing system was more streamlined than the Doman system and was considered the more practical if less elegant method; no one outside of the Southern Continent bothered with or paid attention to the Imperial spellings or pronunciations since it was generally seen as cultural treachery. Edgar looked at the Doman spelling of his friend's name again.
"I think this is about right," he said as he handed the slate back to her. "But you should play around with the spelling until you find something you like."
"I like it like this," Terra said. "It looks pretty as it is. T-E-R-R-A. It's graceful."
"How about your last name?"
"It's ‘Branford.' I don't know how, but I do know that for a fact."
Edgar spelled it for her and handed the slate back to her. Terra looked at her own name for the first time.
"That is indeed your name."
"I have a written name now."
"Well, you always had one, you'd just never seen it before."
A tear ran down Terra's face as she stared at her name on the slate. "I'm a person," she said softly.
"Of course you are," Edgar said as he handed Terra his handkerchief. She stared at it for a moment and he reached up to her face with it. "For your eyes," he said dumbly as he blotted her tears.
Arvis watched the scene from across the room and puffed again on his pipe. Those two made quite a pair.
Terra looked at her name in Edgar's handwriting. She couldn't stop looking at it. It was like it was confirmation that she was something real. She was some person, not just a tool to be used. It was the embodiment of her personality.
"Can you show me your name?"
Edgar wrote down his full name, the familiarity of the letters causing him to write it a little more sloppily than he had Terra's. He showed it to her and grinned as she looked at it, puzzled.
She pointed at his middle name. "You have two last names?"
"No. That's a middle name. Tradition in my family."
"Do I have a middle name?"
"I don't know."
"If it's tradition, then Sabin has a middle name too."
Edgar wrote out his brother's name. "It's similar to mine on purpose."
"It shows that you're related."
The thought of Sabin and his unknown fate made Edgar uncomfortable. He decided that it was time for a change of subject.
He wiped off the slate and handed it to Terra. He got up and went over to Arvis's bookshelf, grabbed the novelette about the War of the Magi, and returned to Terra's side. "Want to practice writing what you hear?"
"All right. I'll read the introduction of this book, and you write it down."
Edgar cleared his throat and began reading.
" ‘Long ago, the War of the Magi reduced the world to a scorched wasteland, and magic simply ceased to exist...' "
‘School,' as Arvis jokingly called it, ended abruptly when a messenger brought word that Narshe's elder wished to meet with the Returners.
"Finally," muttered Banon, puffing on a pipe despite his head cold. "I was wondering when that old coot would open his eyes."
"Banon," Arvis said in a cautioning tone, "remember to be polite to him. We need Narshe's support should we have to fight the Empire."
"These people wouldn't fight if their lives depended upon it."
"Their lives do depend upon it," Arvis said, piqued at the insult to his countrymen, "and so do ours."
Banon made a gesture of apology and let the matter slide. "Are we all going?"
"I don't see why not," Edgar said as he buckled his swordbelt. "The Elder should meet Terra."
"Indeed," Banon said as he narrowed his eyes while staring at Terra. He looked like a predatory lion staring at a wounded gazelle. Terra shrank back and Edgar glared at the Returner leader.
"Shall we be off?" he asked, helping Terra into the coat that Arvis had found for her.
Arvis and Banon nodded, and Terra looked at Arvis. She still held the slate and stylus, with Edgar's dictation written in her still-learning scrawl.
"What should I do with this?"
"Hold onto it, Miss Terra," Arvis said as he held the door open for her. "My children grew up a long time ago. I don't need it anymore."
Terra wrapped the slate in Edgar's handkerchief and slid it into her bag.
"Now, Miss Terra," Edgar said as he walked with her down Arvis's rickety stairs, "I fully expect that you'll keep practicing."
"Good." Even by the dim lights of Narshe at night, Terra could see the mischievous look in Edgar's eyes. The king held his head high. "Now I can write you love letters!"
Terra laughed and behind the two, Arvis and Banon rolled their eyes.
Terra had assembled the children in the main room of their hideout. In the back, Katarin rested a hand on her soon-to-be-born child and Duane crossed his arms in a mixture of skepticism and wary interest.
"Mama," said one little boy, speaking for the entire group, "what's going on?"
"Just because everything has changed doesn't mean that you don't need to go to school," Terra told him. As the children groaned, she smiled. "Don't worry. I'm going to be the teacher, and I'll help you as much as I can."
"Mama," the little girl farthest to the right said, "I can't read!"
The girl's protests were joined by most of the other children. Terra held up a hand for quiet.
"That's all right. You don't have to know yet. I'm going to show you."
"Is it hard?"
"Not at all. It just takes practice, patience, and time. We can handle that, can't we?"
Slowly, one by one, the children nodded. Terra smiled and took her old slate and stylus off of the table and saw that it still had Edgar's last lesson on it. She felt a pain in her chest as she remembered how he had been such a patient teacher. She looked back over the sea of children watching her expectantly. With a newly steeled will, she took Edgar's handkerchief out from her pocket and wiped her slate clean.