“Aww we hardly even got to get to know each other” Sania pouted with dismay. Rosa stood in the corner of the room with Ariel, the two of them looking like dark-eyed twins with their button noses and long black hair. Rosa regarded Vidanja with indifference.
“Well it’s not like she was here long enough for us to really make friends with her.” Ariel twisted her mouth with a little sadness, silent in the face of her best friend and apparent leader. “Well Sania it looks like you’ll be all alone again doesn’t it? I guess you can go visit her in her new dormitory, if they let common students like us in there. Do they, Vidanja?” Rosa stared pointedly.
The new girl bit her lip for a moment, struggling to deal with all that had happened in the past five days and her seeming inability to be acceptable to her soon-to-be former roommates. “I guess. Maybe Sania can walk with me over there to find out.”
She didn’t have a lot to carry. With her grey smock left on the bed she had only the basic items of clothing and hygiene given to her by the creche and some paperwork. Sana walked with her to Casa Negra, the residence hall and classroom building of Ayudantes in training.
“Wow I can’t believe you got chosen to come here. When I first came here my mother hoped very much that I would get chosen to become an Ayudante but I guess I never did well enough on the test. It just seems so strange, your country doesn’t have schools or anything but you’re really smart somehow.”
Vidanja didn’t really know what to say. She wished she felt smarter. She felt out of place and awkward and quite like she did not belong at Casa Negra, in the creche, or in the country of Karagad. She just wanted to go back home where she could speak her own language and adhere to her own customs and wear clothes that didn’t feel like a heavy costume. Within a few minutes the two had arrived at Casa Negra and Sania was delighted to know that she was allowed to visit Vidanja when both had free time. The girls hugged and then Sania turned and began the walk back to her room, where, she felt, the two vipers awaited her.
The woman who greeted Vidanja in the office at Casa Negra was so strange-looking that Vidanja couldn’t resist looking at her, wide-eyed. She introduced herself as Ayudante Baron.
“You must be looking at my tattoos,” she said. “These are the marks of the testamiento. If you satisfactorily complete your training you will someday bear these also.” Symbols appeared to be pouring from her mouth and spilling down her chin and neck before disappearing under her robes. Vidanja thought that must hurt. A lot. “Do you know what these marks mean?” The girl shook her head. “They are the words of men and women who have died in Karagad for their crimes. They told them to me, confessed and repented. When they died I told these words to the man who carved their names in the city’s wall so these criminals could be reconciled with La Nacion. When the name was carved in the wall thus also were the marks of the condemned’s words made on my skin. You may not know this but it’s very important that when we, citizens of Karagad, die, that our names are written on the Capital City’s walls. Not to have your name written is to be forgotten by the nation, which is perhaps similar to your country’s idea of Sheol. Do you understand?”
Vidanja nodded, realizing what she had seen that day as the wagon bearing her entered the city. “I saw a man writing in the wall when I came here. There was a woman and a child.”
Baron nodded in answer. “Yes. That woman’s husband had stolen from the Sovereign Home. I did not reconcile him but one of my colleagues did. Just today he is having that man’s testament marked upon him.”
“Is…is the tattoo the testamiento?”
“We are the testamientos. We are living testaments to the men and women who have wronged Karagad and lost their lives for it, but who have been given grace by La Nacion and have repented and reconciled, there receiving the chance to die and be remembered as citizens of this country and of the Sovereignty. It is a very hard job, but I have been told you have potential. This is very prestigious but it is also a dangerous undertaking in the first. Considering your background I assume you are familiar with poisons.” Vidanja knew what Ayudante Baron was referring to. The famed and dreaded Cari Arrow was known even off the continent as a potent weapon and feared by many. To be hit with one was to wish for death, it was said.
“I know a little bit. My family’s Ayah was instructing me. I can gather and mix the herbs.” The return of painful memories shut her down. Her eyes watered and her throat constricted but she held back with some effort and fell silent.
“Vidanja, learn to cry. Karagad is a strong nation and a strong Sovereignty but the vocation of testamiento is a job of tears. From the very beginning to the end of your career, you will weep for the condemned, for this nation, and sometimes for yourself. You may go to your room now, Luisa will take you there. Your classes begin tomorrow.” Ayudante Baron dismissed the sniffling girl with the ring of a small ball that brought a young woman in a grey robe.
The young woman smiled warmly. “This way, Vidanja.”
She didn’t have any roommates in her new room. It was spacious enough, with niches cut into the walls for books and other belongings. She had a trunk at the foot of her bed and a wardrobe to herself. Opening one of the magnificent wooden doors she saw an array of clothes: several grey robes, grey skirts and pants with white shirts. Not very colorful, she thought, but they were nice clothes and all fitted and new. She didn’t note any play clothes, but thought she could use the clothing she was currently wearing for that. Whatever became of the clothes she had worn over from Carisvel was a mystery. Looking around, she couldn’t help but smile a little despite her sadness. Her own room with her own clothes and they weren’t ragged or anything. She had a mirror, too, and her own wash basin! She felt a little like a queen. Worn out, she changed into the soft long nightshirt she found on her bed and went to sleep, completely missing dinner.
The next morning after having consumed more breakfast than usual Vidanja went to her first class. For several minutes she waited for more students to arrive, as there appeared to be only about twelve students in the classroom. Finally Ayudante baron entered, red robe making her appear to glide across the floor. “Buenos dias. Today we have a new student, Vidanja Rajiramon. She is young, only 9, but she has great potential to succeed as an Ayudante. She will be taking her prerequisite classwork in her own time, so I need a volunteer to tutor her.” She waited, but none raised a hand.
“Fine. You, Delfin, will tutor her.”
“Si, Ayudante.” He didn’t sound enthusiastic at all. “Come sit over here, Vilana” he indicated a seat at the otherwise empty table he was seated at.
Awkwardly she made her way across the room and sat a few seats away from the young man, who along with the rest of the class appeared several years older than she. “You don’t have to sit all the way over there, unless you’re worried your Cari fragrance will bother me.” The other students giggled. Embarrassed, she moved over until one seat remained between them. He leaned over and sniffed. “Oh you smell just like one of us. If you weren’t so brown I would think you were.” Titters again.
“Delfin Argyll! I do not care who your parents are. This behavior is not tolerable and I will not stand for it. If you get sent to Los Puros your parents will have no say in the matter. You will behave in the way expected for a resident of Casa Negra and you will treat this girl with the respect accorded any other citizen of Karagad.” Baron called Vidanja to her desk to give her class materials and began the day’s lesson on the history of Karagad’s class system.
After spending several hours in as severe and straight-backed a chair as Vidanja could believe existed, the class was over and the students broke for a midmorning independent study session. Delfin escorted Vidanja to her room and sat in the spare chair at her table, across from her. His cold blue eyes fixed on her, making her acutely uncomfortable.
“I don’t feel sorry for you.”
“An orphan from a backwards country in the desert. Boo hoo. You won’t get any sympathy from me so you better work hard. Ayudante Baron told me you know most of the prerequisites anyway and I just have to make sure you can pass the examinations at the end of this term. You got here kind of late, so you have only a few weeks. I hope you’re as smart as they say you are.”
“I don’t care about being smart. I…I don’t care about any of this. I just want to go back home to the rest of my family.” At this Delfin’s eyes widened and he burst into a guffaw, pounding the table comically.
“Oh, haha, you think you’re going to get sent back? You’re here, Viana. Your family, your whole family, is dead. You don’t have anyone except the people in this creche and since you’re just a Cari they only care what you can do for Karagad.” His words stung Vidanja to her heart and against her will tears leaked from her eyes.
“Get out of here.”
“Get out of my room!” She threw her head back and stared him in the face, her eyes locking to his. “You’re right I’m smart. I’m so smart I don’t need your help and I don’t need your attitude. I will ask Ayudante Baron for a new tutor in the morning. Thank you for having come here. Goodbye.” She rose and stood with her hand on the door, looking at him expectantly as she cried openly now.
“Wait, Vidanja…” He swallowed, losing his self-assuredness for a moment. “Look okay we don’t have to like each other but I don’t want Baron to have any reason to send me to Los Puros. Just, let’s just forget about all of this and you tell me what you know, okay?” His eyes pled with her and she sensed he was on tenuous grounds at the creche.
“No.” She sighed. “Fine.” She sat and showed him what she was given to learn, and to his surprise she already knew a lot of it.
The dregs of summer emptied themselves into the fall and Vidanja was excelling at her studies. She was tired all of the time but once examinations were over she would be happily finished with taking two courses of schoolwork at once. On her way from lunch to study during her afternoon break she passed the office of Ayudante Baron who was speaking with a couple she recognized to be Orgullosos, the proud upper class of Karagad.
“Really, are you sure such a companion is worthy of our son’s tutelage? I mean those people have no government, no law. They scrabble in the dirt for everything they have, and even eat insects! How can this girl even be here in Casa Negra? It’s the most prestigious college in all of Karagad.”
“Senora Argyll, if you please. She is not as ignorant as her countrymen. Through some stroke of luck she has been well-educated and is quite worthy of this course of study and of Delfin’s tutelage-”
“Is she trying to ingratiate herself with him? Surely she knows someone of her status could never hope to partner with him, no matter what she does for La Nacion-”
“Senora, please. The child is nine years old. She barely displays any emotion but sadness and I highly doubt marrying into your family is what she is thinking about. Your son is tutoring her and his period of tutelage is almost complete. Following the next term they will barely see one another, as she will be taking the path of the testamiento and Delfin will carry on his studies for military officer. You needn’t worry.”
“Well thank you for telling us. All we heard from him is that he’s spending a lot of time with a Cari girl and as you know, we have higher standards than that for him.”
Vidanja was morose for the rest of the day. She was in her room, not really concentrating on her schoolwork when Delfin knocked on her door.
“Hey, I just came to see how you’re doing with your mathema- hey what’s wrong?”
“Nothing” came the curt reply.
“Come on, you’re not exactly the exuberant type but you’re sulking. I can tell by the tone of your voice. What’s wrong?” He sat down across from her and looked at her earnestly.
She sighed and put down her pen. “Delfin, what did you say to your parents about me?” He froze, caught.
“I just told them that I finally made a friend in school.” Hedging. “Why? Did something say something to you?”
“I heard them talking to Ayudante Baron. They think I’m some kind of bug-eating savage that wants to marry into your rich family.” She didn’t seem angry, just defeated. She shook her head and went to sit on her bed.
“Vidanja, I’m sorry. I don’t even like my parents. They sent me here because they didn’t want the worry of me or of paying for someone to tutor me when they go out of the country. They don’t care about me, only their status. I told them that we spend a lot of time together because I knew it would bother them, but I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I never thought you would know.”
“I don’t want to be here any more. I don’t even want to be in this whole creche. I’m not good enough for Casa Negra or the Ayudantes or anything because I’m Cari. I’m not even good enough for you to tutor. What do I have to do to go home? I don’t care if I don’t have any family left. I’ll find another one and be their Ayah. I’m old enough and I know enough. I’m good enough for my people.”
“That’s not true. You are good enough. You’re one of the best students at Casa Negra. In a few years you will be one of the youngest testamientos Karagad has ever had. You can’t leave, Vidanja. You’re my only friend. I meant that.”
“You really mean that? Really really?”