My Name is FETCH [updated]
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In which our unnamed heroine meets a mysterious young girl.


[[[This fourth story makes sense as a "standalone", but it's much more interesting if you click on the author's name and read this tale from the beginning.]]]



"Do you see them yet, Nandi?"

"Shh! I told you, when I see them I will let you know!"

On the other side of the podium, Tweeny spotted Recorder, ready with quill and book. He felt her gaze, found her hopping excitedly between Sheydra and Nandi, and winked at her. Boldly, she winked back.

They -- and all the rest of House Madrassa -- were waiting for the "fledglings", the new arrivals, who would begin their lives here in just a few more minutes. It would be the first time that Tweeny would meet girls her own age, and her anticipation refused to allow her to stand still.

"Are they there? Is the train here?"

"No, Tweeny. Settle down or I'll send you back to the dorms. You're drawing too much attention." Nandi glared suspiciously at the soldiers standing at the House entrance. The extra security this year was due to the War, which had begun not five months ago -- the rebellion hadn't reached this far into the Core, so far, but the House was taking no chances.

Tweeny had been Nandi's personal "bodyguard" now for a little over a year. So far she hadn't been asked to do any actual fighting; it was understood between the two girls that Tweeny was more of a go-fer, and a prize possession of Nandi's. On occasion Nandi would "show off" Tweeny to the other girls by making her do silly things, like bring her brunch in the middle of a class. The instructors paid no attention to her. She was a pet, but she was learning not to mind too much.

"Nandi? Sheydra? Have the girls come?"

Nandi turned to scold, but the cry rising from the crowd stopped her. Sheydra smiled at Tweeny, and let her climb on her strong shoulders to get a better view.

The fledglings were young -- twelve and thirteen, she knew -- and looked absolutely terrified at their surroundings. They seemed unsure of where to step, and watched in wonder the proud and elegant ladies awaiting them at their new home. Eunuchs poured in from every side to gather bags and usher those too frightened to move. From a distance Tweeny saw a short, squat girl shove her way forward, huffing and puffing. "Nandiri che Ren?"

Nandi looked down. "Yes?"

The girl's exhaustion disappeared in a broad, enveloping smile of white, white teeth. An image of fangs flashed through Tweeny's mind.

"I am Barbara Chen Courtland," she announced, loud enough for those around to hear. "I believe my father, William Ferrous Courtland, knows your father."

Nandi raised an eyebrow. "Does he," she said, amused.

The smile grew wider, somehow. Tweeny seriously wondered if the girl's face might crack. "Yes! They have played wei qi together many times. Lord che Ren is the better player, of course." Tweeny held back a sneer. Nandi's father was a sore subject for her, and using him to butter up was going to have the opposite effect. "I hope we can be equally good friends, my dear Lady Nandiri."

At this Tweeny couldn't help but snicker; the girl, still smiling, shot her a look of pure venom. Nandi had to work to hide her own grin. "Nandi. Everyone calls me Nandi."

"And you must call me Bibi." She bowed, so low that her forehead was in danger of scraping the ground. "We will see much more of each other, I hope?"

A whistle blew; Diana was calling the fledglings in to be introduced to Mother Ganna. Bibi bowed a few more times before joining the group.

"Ugh. I hope she's wrong about seeing more of her."

"Hush, Tweeny. What a thing to say! You must give these girls a chance." Sheydra always believed in seeing the best in people.

Nandi shrugged. "There's certainly enough of 'em here this year. I'm sure we can avoid her if we put our minds to it. Can you see, Tweeny, if they're all off the train?"

Tweeny, still perched on Sheydra's shoulders, searched above the crowd for the boarding deck. "Looks like ... no, still one left. Here she comes." A mass of dark, almost black ringlets crowned the head of the last passenger, who looked from side to side before accepting the hand of a porter.

Nandi grabbed Sheydra's arm. "Oh, my God! Do you see what I see? Is that -- "

Sheydra nodded. "Inara Serra."



Nandi hunched over her wave screen -- the one she had so far kept hidden from room inspections -- and skimmed over old news feeds.

"I know I saw it somewhere ... Ah! Here it is! Monren Serra, Prefect of Xian Wo, and wife Veta proudly announce the imminent engagement of daughter Inara to Alphonse Bandi, son of Governor Talba Bandi. A celebration for the happy couple will be held sundown Wednesday. Here's a photograph."

Tweeny stood on her tiptoes and peered in. "Yep, that's her all right. No mistaking."

"But what's she doing here?" Nandi insisted. "Trainees aren't allowed out of their House for the first year; so they're having the engagement party without her? And a governor's son married to a Companion?"

Sheydra leaned over and shut the screen off. "It's really none of our business."

Nandi narrowed her eyes. "You can't fool me, Sheydra. I know you're just as interested in rotten dirty gossip as the rest of us."

"I'm trying to break that habit, you know." Sheydra blushed furiously.



A small sound woke Tweeny. I've gotta learn to sleep deeper, she groaned. Something was wrong.

The door was shut.

The door was never shut.

Stumbling to the light pad, she shaded her eyes when illumination flooded the room and opened the door to its normal halfway mark into the spare room on the other side. She turned the lights off and hopped back into her cot at the foot of Nandi's bed, pulling the covers up to her chin.

Creaking softly, the door pulled itself closed.

Tweeny sat up. What the...? Stepping quietly on the carpet, she pushed the door open again, and waited.

When the door moved to close, Tweeny grabbed the knob and shoved it as hard as she could -- and received a satisfying "Oof!" for her efforts.

Tweeny peeked around the door and looked down. Sprawled on the floor, clutching her head, was Inara.



"I don't like closed doors!"

"Well, I happen to like my privacy!"

The shouting woke Nandi, and most of the girls in Dormitory Five. "What is going on?" Diana demanded. "Do you have any idea what time it is?" She grabbed the collar of Tweeny's nightgown and lifted her a few inches off the ground. "Miss che Ren, I suggest that you get a leash for your dog!"

The other girls laughed. Tweeny fumed, but the struggle went out of her. When Diana let go she ran back to her cot and pulled the covers up over her head.

"My apologies, Madame Diana," she heard a soft voice say. "The door was open, and I simply tried to close it. I did not realize..."

"Tweeny is claustrophobic," Nandi explained. No, don't tell HER! It's nobody's business but mine!

More laughter. The soft voice continued, "I would like to request a change of dormitory, if that's possible."

"Not likely, Miss Serra," Diana said, "and certainly not tonight in any case. All right, all of you! Get back to your rooms!"

Footsteps ran; doors slammed. Diana's voice, low now and sinister, murmured, "Nandiri, if you can't control that little beast, she'll have to return to the kitchens. You know that."

"She'll be fine, Diana."

Tweeny peeked out from under her blanket. Diana left, closing the door firmly behind her with a last warning look. Nandi hung her head, sighed, and got into her own bed. "We'll just leave the lights on tonight, Tweeny," she said. "It'll be okay."



Nandi was uncharacteristically gentle with her for the next few days. For her part, Tweeny tried to avoid Diana and Inara, and was on her very best behavior. The door remained closed every evening, and the lights stayed on; Nandi purchased a little black mask to put over her eyes when she wanted to sleep.

Tweeny came in early one afternoon when Nandi was still in class and could not stand a closed room one more minute. Steeling herself for the battle to come, she turned the knob, and threw open the door.

Inara's room was empty. The bed was impeccably made; corners straight and duvet even all around. Pillows had been perfectly fluffed and placed in neat rows along one side. Not a speck of dust or dirt anywhere. Only one thing was out of place: a book, turned upside-down on the floor next to Inara's desk.

She'll think someone has been in here, Tweeny thought, and moved closer. I'd better put it away.

The book was thick, with words Tweeny didn't recognize and an illustration of a dancing girl on the front. Inside were drawings of faces: men, women, and children looking happy, or sad, or frightened, or excited. There were several copies of the same sketch on each page, with very slight differences in each, and notes scribbled in the margins. A bookmark fluttered to Tweeny's feet and made a loud thump as it hit...

-- no, that was a foot stomping behind her --

"What are you doing in my room?"

Tweeny, unable to think of a good reason, simply shrugged. "You weren't here." She leafed through a few more pages. "These drawings are good. Did you do them all?"

Inara snatched the book out of Tweeny's hands. "Get out. Now."



For the rest of that week Tweeny waited for Nandi to give her a punishment for breaking into Inara's room, but nothing was ever said, and finally she had to admit to herself that perhaps her new neighbor was not all bad. Or perhaps Tweeny was just lucky.

"Tweeny, I have something to ask you."

Here it comes. "I only went in because --"

"I left my embroidery in Madame Yewel's class. Fetch it back for me, won't you?"

Tweeny groaned. Madame Yewel had a rather embarrassing admiration of broccoli, which naturally led to an even more embarrassing tendency to break wind in her classroom. Worse still, she hung fabric over all the windows; blocking the one path the stench could take out of the room.

"Now what were you saying, about going in somewhere?"

"Oh? Er, nothing," Tweeny said, all innocence.



Classes had ended for the day, and Madame Yewel had already returned to her cell by the time Tweeny reached the classroom.

Nandi sat in the back -- as she did in most of her classes -- and it took little time for Tweeny to locate the half-finished embroidery piece.

"A red-headed dragon," Tweeny noted drolly. "I should have known."

Footsteps warned her that she would not be alone in the room for long. She stuffed the sewing under her cloak, checking to make sure it didn't show.


She looked up to find Inara's surprised face. Not far behind her, Bibi Courtland entered, two giggling comrades in tow. Bibi stopped short when she saw Tweeny.

"Look girls," Bibi cooed, smoothly stepping around Inara's skirts. "It's Nandi's pet poodle. Arf! Arf!"

The girls barked softly, laughing harder.

Bibi stood inches away from Tweeny's face. "It's one thing for you to stink up your mistress's dormitory, Poodle," she said in a low tone, "but now you're trespassing on my territory, and that demands payment." She looked Tweeny over. Tweeny hurriedly pushed Nandi's embroidery further under her arm. Her bracelet caught the warm light filtering in from the fabric-covered windows, and sparkled in the early dusk. "Ah!" Bibi said, grabbing Tweeny's arm before she could protest. "What's this, then?"

Tweeny pulled back, nearly tripping over a floormat.

"Leave her alone, Courtland," Inara said. "If she gets hurt you'll get us all in trouble."

Bibi pulled harder on Tweeny's elbow, bringing the two girls closer to each other. "This is too pretty for someone so ugly," she hissed, spraying spittle into the air. "It would look much better on me. Let me have it."

"Bee-BEE! Bee-BEE!" her friends chanted, delighted to be witness to the spectacle. Egged on by their cheers, Bibi gave the bracelet one good yank and grinned as it broke free of her adversary's wrist.

Tweeny watched dully as two gold chain links fell to the floor with soft tiny pings. She kept her eyes on them as she brought her hand back, rolled it tightly into a fist, and smashed it into Bibi Chen Courtland's smug face.



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