Just Frances threw back her head laughing and nearly spilled her tea. “Can see why they’d choose you. You’re splendid.”
“Thanks. From what little I’ve seen, so’re you.”
“Thanks ever so much. Take another cake?”
“Wouldn’t mind if I did.”
“You’re a growing boy; of course you wouldn’t mind. You probably wouldn’t mind if you took another six.”
Angus was growing impatient with being left out of a conversation with a girl. That was Angus for you. “Are you aware you’re not the only person in the room who’s hungry, Wulf?” Angus asked in a whine.
Frances offered Angus a cake, or three. Angus took a cake (quite possibly four, but there might’ve been more he spirited away without Wulf, or Aunt Stacia and Aunt Maggie, observing it).
Frances tapped his hand after the eighth cookie. “Leave some for prof, won’t you Angus?”
Frances had eyelashes. Angus didn’t stand a chance. Aunt Maggie and Aunt Stacia seemed both delighted and appalled by this turn of events.
Wulf might have been mistaken, but he thought he heard Aunt Maggie whisper, “We never did that in my day,” which was an entirely unfair statement. If there had been a bigger flirt than Aunt Maggie in Wulf’s family, he thought he would probably have heard of it by now. Maggie was a maiden Aunt entirely by choice, and had had more proposals in the last year than Adeline, Wulf’s eligible nineteen year old cousin.
Adeline had received offers from a count (too old, apparently), a Duke (looks scurrilous, don’t you think, Wulf darlin’?), several landed knights (too straight-laced, not straight-laced enough, too pretty, downright stupid—he wrote sonnets to my nose, darling, who does that? It was positively objectifying!) and several other individuals Wulf had gotten mixed up on. Was the Milord the wincey one who would go bald within nine years (could you imagine, Wulf, me married to someone bald!) or had he been the one who looked like a horror novel villain? It was entirely possible that he’d been both.
Anyway. Wulf had lost track.
Frances was making conversation with Angus—how the subject had migrated to the state of Bonnie Marshall’s gossip column and the sentimental trash that Delaney wrote and passed off as philosophy, Wulf couldn’t imagine. Frances seemed to notice he’d returned from dreamland, or perhaps she’d asked the question before and he simply hadn’t heard her.
“Have you read any of Delaney’s recent junk, Wulf? He claims that—”
“—the mind is constructed by the brain in the course of childhood, and degrades so that the primary functions of the brain are all lost in old age, so that the only way in which an older person can formulate ideas is by processing old experiences. I mean, how stupid can you be? I mean, Cumtracey’s suggestion that the mind and soul are interconnected makes so much more sense—” Here Cor stopped, seemingly to realize that he had actually made an informed statement about prominent philosophers. “Not that I’d know anything about those people,” He finished.
“Aha,” Wulf said. “More than me, anyway. Stacy William Lancefield is all the philosophy I’ve ever stayed awake for. Socio-political morality’s his gig. Not the origin of the mind, but the origin of morals and the political-moral problem.”
“I couldn’t stomach Branburg, the more prominent socio-polit. Is Lance better?” Cor asked, unable to conceal his curiosity under the veneer of an uneducated pilot.
“Lance is far better. Branburg—you can’t read him before meals, or directly after them, unless you wish to be sick. Lance’s stuff makes sense. That’s a lot more than you can ask of most philosophers.” Wulf commented.
Angus looked confused. Also rather put-out. He was good at faking enlightenment, but honest opinion is a harder thing to fake. Although, Wulf wouldn’t have put it past Angus to read philosophy just so he could prove he knew things. Whether he had read philosophers actually worth reading was a harder thing to say.
Cor nodded, then grinned at Wulf. “D–n, you’re better informed than a bunch of the noble kids that come aboard. A lot of ‘em only know what they’ve been spoon-fed since ten, or what’s in the popular novels today.”
“I’ll admit to having read popular novels myself,” Frances contributed. “But I’ve never read the new Hearthmore novels. Don’t want to, either.”
Wulf shuddered. “You’re better off. Don’t. I read three pages by accident and wanted to wash my mind with soap.”
“What is the world coming to?” Aunt Maggie declared. “Innocent children can no longer be trusted in public libraries.”
“I think,” Aunt Stacia said, “that you mean public libraries can no longer be trusted with innocent children. Not the other way around. But if you mean our family’s current progeny cannot be trusted in libraries, I would have to agree with you. First of all, try getting Angus into one, and then try getting Wulf out of one.”
Frances grinned at Wulf. “Happiness consists in a good book.”
“A large cup of tea.” Wulf added.
“And an enemy in whose face you may throw the tea if you care about them enough to waste good tea on them.” Angus contributed.
“Fran. Where’re you, miss? Y’haven’t fed the cakes to everyone, have you?” The voice was so deep and rumbly that Wulf jumped and Angus made a squealing sound like a girl, and Aunt Maggie fainted. Again.
Aunt Stacia sighed with the air of a martyr.
The Professor—or the individual Wulf assumed was the professor—stuck his head up through the hatch. His face was very brown, like a sailor’s, with leathery, wrinkled skin, a long, hooked nose, overlarge mouth, and fierce, intent blue eyes. What color his hair had been Wulf could not tell, but it was now pure white, in a menacing stuck up halo around the old man’s face.
He was wearing a threadbare wool suit out of which his wrists and ankles stuck for inches, and he was very thin. His hands were strong and calloused, the tendons and muscles in them sticking out like the hands of a pianist.
“I saved you an entire plate, Professor.” Frances told the old man, turning toward him with a fond smile on her coal-dust stained face.
The Professor, once he was up the ladder, leaned heavily upon a carved cane, and stumbled slowly across the floor of the pilot’s room to sit beside him. Wulf started to get up to help him, but Frances gave him a warning look and shook her head.
“How are you, Professor?” Cor asked, surprisingly respectfully.
“Well enough, Cornelius. I have been inspired. These four days I have not slept. I cannot close my eyes.” The Professor sank, with a grateful sigh, beside Frances. “That is good. Thank you, miss.”
The Professor whipped his head around to study Wulf. His hands trembled slightly as he clutched his teacup. The blue eyes seemed to burn through the layers of skin and muscle to expose Wulf’s soul. The professor sipped his tea, still searching Wulf.
None of them said anything.
“How old are you, boy?” The Professor asked him.
“Fifteen, sir.” Wulf said, trying to keep his voice from cracking as it so often did when he was speaking to his elders.
“Young enough and old enough. In the fullness of time, perhaps, in the fullness of time. Have you been schooled, boy?” The Professor asked.
“According to some; not according to others.”
“Judicious enough answer. Diplomatic, you are. Bolder you must learn to be. Do not fear yourself, boy. Do not trust blindly. That is all.” The Professor looked away from him.
Wulf took a great breath, suddenly realizing he had forgotten to breathe under the Professor’s scrutiny.
The Professor took a purple cake, examined it, and set it back upon the plate. “Cornelius, send to the school and tell them I shall teach after all. But a year, only a year, half a year, until the leaves have fallen and grown new. Flowers will come. Roses will be finer this year than they have been since I was a child.”
“Are you alright, Professor?” Frances asked.
His fierce, attacking gaze turned on Frances, and softened a little. “But weary, child. Time has come for me to be abed. Wake me when we arrive. Take our lady up gentle.” The Professor struggled to his feet, met Aunt Stacia’s startled gaze, and bowed deeply. “Madam. I thank you for watching my charges so closely. You will find what you seek in Elerci, before year’s end. Before snow, after rain, in sun, in dark. Moon high and clouds hard.”
“God be with you.” Aunt Stacia whispered.
“And you, lady.”
The Professor stumbled off.
Wulf clutched the chair beside him for support, feeling drained and utterly exhausted.
“He is a great man,” Frances said in the silence.
“I’ve never met one like him.” Wulf said. Then; “Aunt Stacia, what did he mean, you will find what you seek in Elerci?”
Aunt Stacia did not reply. When Wulf looked up to see what was wrong, he found that her face was covered in tears.