Battles are lost by commanders who are too damn stubborn to retreat, and wars are won by generals who are too damn stubborn to lose.
-'Smiling' Bill Goodfellow, misquoting Tactonius
"…Vix Altorelli… Tizzie Drake… Shavish Levina… Mailyn Watt. Now… get moving!" I skipped forward to accept my new class assignment from Solomon, our bunk proctor. Other students approached with more trepidation. I was doing acceptably well in my Collegium classes.
To provide context: when I was five years old, my father arranged to have Elzie, our house stewardess, teach me my letters. By that point, I'd already taught myself to read, though I hadn't told anybody. Elzie found out soon enough. Perhaps my mother suspected already, because she would read me stories from the same book every night (Mrs. C.M.E. Caravelli's Illustrated Tales of Wonder & Disbelief), and I could recite each and every story ad verbatim. When a precocious child knows every word of a story and spends significant time flipping through the pages of said story and looking over the print, she doesn't have to be a genius to teach herself to read. But it helps.
Incidentally, I am very humble, too.
When Elzie revealed that I already somehow knew not only my letters but how to read at least as well as children two years older than myself, I was brought into my older sister Angelika's lessons. I was constantly frustrated by the fact that, no matter how well I did, my sister did better than me at arithmetic, recital, dancing lessons, and so on… until I started demolishing her at memory drills.
"I'm only letting you win," she would sometimes grumble after our memory recitation. At the time, I believed my sister was telling the truth. It turns out, though, that I have an uncommonly good memory. A very uncommonly good memory. And it turns out that this is very uncommonly useful for memory drills and learning new languages… though not so good for forgetting about the time two bullies almost drowned you in the Largotto.
On the first day of memory lessons, Mrs. Varizelli walked me through how to visualize my imaginarium, a sort of 'mind villa' for storing and organizing memories and then tasked me thus: "For each item you wish to remember, I'd like you to imagine putting it into a spot in your imaginarium. Try to put it alongside similar items that you've already put there to give yourself categories…"
The technique Mrs. Varizelli taught us was a bespoke variant of Euphemiso's 'Psychic Villa', the ancient Turan technique for superior memory through self-reference and context-indexing. Euphemiso's introductory exercises are very simple: throughout the course of the day, you pay special note to five items (they can be any person, place, or tangible thing). At the end of the day, write down the five items in order of experience along with two things you noticed about each object when you saw it and two things you remember about your environment or your own thought process at the time. Euphemiso recommended that the student visualize placing their memories as items in an imaginary villa, but that concept isn't introduced until later.
Most people without training have difficulty at this starter exercise, but an average student will work their way up to intermediate exercises after a few months' practice - recalling three things about twenty different items and three things about their surroundings or thoughts a full three days later. Eventually, if you progress to mastery of the practice, you can recall minute details about any item you've paid explicit attention to many months later. I reached this level of skill about two weeks before my seventh birthday. About seven weeks before the Lapis-Crowns enslaved my family and forced me into exile…
If we are being pedantic, it was forty-three days and thirteen hours before the Lapis-Crowns and twelve days before my seventh birthday. Convention dictates that we pretend not to have these nattering details at our beck and call, but I do and probably always will.
Mailyn waved her paper around excitedly. "What classes did you advance?" she asked. There was never a question of either of us backsliding.
We were both already tier five in our Memory class - Mailyn had already mastered Mr. Inglone's 'grid memory' technique, but it would be some time before she mastered Mrs. Varizelli's technique under my tutelage. I examined my own sheet before handing it to her. "Tier three in Perditalog, tier three in Religion, tier five in Languages," I said.
Mailyn frowned. "How come I'm tier four in Languages and you're tier five? I did great in our last language class…"
"Yeah, but we were learning Gionian for a month and you come from Gionia," I observed.
"Sure, but so do you." And, I had to admit, she'd learned a lot more Gionian than I had - she'd had quite a few errors to correct. Her yokel brogue was still present but had retreated to a respectable drawl and she rarely made grammatical mistakes in her native tongue.
I shrugged. "Who can say? You'll get it next time."
"Yeah, I will," Mailyn said with a frown.
The Languages class for Scamps consists of lessons in four separate languages that cycle every four months, one month per language. Thus, if a Scamp takes three years to progress to Sneak, she'll have taken nine months for each of the four languages: Gionian, Old Turan, Mouldevican Slartic, and Wext. Sneaks are expected to be conversant in all four languages (plus Perditalog) if not necessarily fluent, and most become quite fluent. Many of our Memorization classes involved memorizing new vocabulary for whichever language we were currently learning - the courses were designed to synergize so we could learn vocabulary quickly and hone our memories at the same time.
"I didn't advance in anything?" Aldo fumed. It wasn't that he never studied, but he studied less than the average student, and it was a credit to his own abilities that he remained stable rather than falling behind in his class tiers.
For the fifteenth time, I said, "You can practice with us…"
"…In the morning. Yeah, I get it," he sighed. "Thanks. But nope. I'd rather be average."
We headed out to our classes. I skipped along and Mailyn hummed happily, neither of us aware that we'd just kicked the hornet's nest. Hell, we didn't even know there was a hornet's nest to kick when advancing in our classes. However, in each class where I advanced, that meant another student had to drop back a tier since the upper-tier classes had limited enrollment. Most students didn't take this personally.
And most students weren't Tizzie Drake.
It wasn't until the next day, my first day in the tier three Religion class, that I understood the enormity of my change in schedule - I now shared a class with Oltzen, Thero, and Nima, three of the four members of my 'Tetrad of Terror'… and no Tizzie Drake. My advancement to their three had bumped Tizzie back to two. Honestly, why would she have expected otherwise? I studied three times as much as her.
It may not surprise you to learn that none of the Tetrad were especially enthused about studying. That's not to say they weren't bright - all Collegium students are - but there were no early mornings or late nights huddled under the ruddy light of a discount glowglobe to ensure they'd truly mastered their course material. What can I say? I was a suck-up to my teachers and reveled in their praise, while most Scamps just wanted to avoid trouble from adults. The Tetrad were very much in this camp - they were mostly middling in their classes, comfortably hovering around the third tier and occasionally bumping up or down one tier. And I'd just 'bumped' Tizzie Drake. The four had shared their tier three Religion class since they'd started as Scamps… and now they didn't. Apparently, Tizzie's poor scholarship was somehow my fault.
"This isn't over, princess," Nima snarled before our class discussion of altruism and noblesse oblige as taught by the Temple of the Darkstar.
"What did I do?" I asked meekly - though I quickly put two and two together. Since Tizzie and I had both been called for class reassignment that morning, it didn't take much imagination to discern the problem. "I didn't do anything to Tizzie!"
I feared reprisal that day, and yet reprisal never came… not until that evening, when Nima accosted me outside of Scamp Hall #5 as I returned for the evening. She didn't ambush me, not exactly.
She stormed over to me as my friends and I approached and started shouting. Feeling very on-edge from that morning, I'd returned with a group of friends, and any fight would have turned into a gang pile. Even if Nima brought her friends of backup, I had enough friends around to deter unprovoked aggression. Instead, she just berated me for being a 'fake Scamp', a 'Gionian princess', and a 'shifty Seelie'. That last one hurt the most because, while there wasn't any anti-Selenite sentiment in Floria, the small Kronojic contingent of Scamps was quite biased against us. I doubt there were more than three hundred of us in all of Floria, half of us rescued from the Auspicio, but that hardly mattered to the students from Kronoj, who still had very set opinions on my people.
"I'm not shifty, you… you dunce!" I shouted at Nima.
"I'm not a dunce, you rich Seelie snake!" Nima shouted back.
"I'm not a sna-"
My friends had to hold me back, or else I would have leapt at Nima and probably got myself bloodied up in the process. I was taller than Nima and we probably weighed about the same, but she had an innate scrappiness borne from living on the streets that I hadn't yet absorbed. Street kids usually know how to fight and, beyond that, they know how to fight dirty. Eventually, Nima and I calmed down, she stormed off, and that was that…
Of course, it wasn't just that - Nima had been serving as a distraction while her friends were inside. When we returned to our bunk, I found that the lock to my locker had been cracked open, my clothes scattered about, and my bunk pad stomped and spit upon. And my precious collection of books from my messenger work for Mrs. Choso? It was gone! I turned to see Tizzie Drake gloating over me with a self-satisfied smirk, and the look on her smug face shattered my veneer of composure.
"You stole my books!" I shrieked, and this time there was nobody to hold me back as I leapt at Tizzie.
As I've said before, Tizzie knew how to fight - and at the time, I didn't. Even so, she wasn't prepared for the insane fury of Alvixia Altorelli deprived of her precious books. I slammed into her, knocking the bigger girl back and clawing at her face, my little nails sharp and strong enough to draw blood. Tizzie cried out but soon regained her composure enough to push me back and sock me right in the mouth, hard enough to knock a loose baby tooth right out of my head and send me stumbling to the floor. She leapt on top of me, but I squirmed free and punched right back - though, from my poor position, all I managed to do was bloody her lip a bit. Then our evening sub-proctor, Hilaire, was on us, tossing the two of us apart, and shouting,
"Break it up - now!"
"She attacked me!" Tizzie shouted.
"She stole my books!" I screamed back.
"I don't care!" Hilaire snarled. "You want to act like little animals? Fine! Then you can spend the night outside like animals!"
"But-" I started.
"No buts! Out!"
And, with that, he grabbed me by the collar and dragged both of us right out of Scamp Hall #5, depositing us on either side of the front stoop before storming back in and locking the door behind him. And, at that very moment, lightning flashed across the deepening evening sky and it started to rain. I shot Tizzie the most hateful glare I could muster, she glared back, and then she flashed a bloody smile and tromped off into the evening.
And as for me? I was probably being foolish, but I followed her.