by J.S. Downing
Tess begins her Patronage, and learns of a wider world she never knew existed.
The antechamber of the Agoge was a vast cylinder of ivory columns that held a gilded dome high above. Twelve pillars encircled the central dais, with twelve braziers burning between. Vaulted hallways stretched out in a half-crescent before me, carved out of the mountain itself and lit by a trail of fluorescent fixtures that spanned their length. The air was surprisingly warm throughout, and there was a faint scent of lavender. The same maroon tapestries hung from the walls themselves at regular intervals, with small statuettes displayed on stained wooden stands.
My uncle turned to me. “Each brazier represents a lesson within Agoge.”
“Lessons of what?”
“Growth,” he began, “There are things you are going to have to know how to do if you are to survive in the world. Here is where you may learn them.”
I studied the room as he spoke to me, feeling entirely overwhelmed by the architecture. “This is a school?”
Jory laughed. “No, that….” He gestured the outside world beyond the door. “Is the school. Agoge is the syllabus. It is the method for obtaining knowledge. Here, you are going to be given an opportunity to learn more in a few years than many learn in their entire lives. The schools you have attended teach abstract and theoretical forms of information, disconnecting you from its practical and concrete applications. Agoge is directly connected with the real world, and wastes no time on theory.”
“I don't understand.”
“I know. And I am not the type for long-winded explanations. Follow me.”
We started down the rightmost hall, passing several chambers and adjoining corridors. The place was straight and orderly; clearly conscious thought had been put into its design. I remember the sense of wonder it gave me, and the irrational fear that I was insignificant before it. Even now it's hard to explain the way the halls of the Agoge made you feel. It had a presence like a person that you always look up to but can never equal. It challenges you to be better than it.
Finally we entered a chamber with long panes of windows casting the first natural light I had seen. I had almost forgotten that it was still morning. Rows of old, rustic-looking planters spanned more than half the room, overflowing with lush leaves and vines. There were tomatoes and berries, a few budding flowers, clove, basil and thyme. A large black desk on the far side of the room sat with stacks of papers covering it. Two men were opposite of it, deep in conversation. As we drew closer, I realized that one of them was Blaine.
He turned to me, and smiled. “Welcome to your first day, Tess.”
“I take it a decision has been made, then?” Jory asked when we at last closed the distance.
The third man was an older, scholarly-looking type. He wore a brown English-cut jacket with a plaid vest beneath, and stood with the posture of an absent-minded professor; slumping in a distracted kind of way, as though he was lost in his thoughts and had forgotten he was there. He had gray whiskers and bushy eyebrows, and his hazel eyes were magnified to look gigantic behind a black-framed pair of glasses. Jory's inquiry snapped him from his thoughts.
“What? Hmm, yes. We were just discussing it,” he said awkwardly before Blaine had a chance to respond. Examining me for the first time, he let out a noise that could have been a snort or a laugh. “She's rather skinny. Has she been fed?”
Blaine shared a look with Jory, and then spoke, “She's not a dog, Charles.”
My uncle let out a sigh. “Tess, this is Mr. Abbott. He coordinates between Ithaca's networks and organizes new arrivals.”
The old man stood up straight, and then took a bow. “Charles Thomas Abbott.” He rose. “I handle much of the administrative work an enterprise of this magnitude requires. We have a room set up for Blaine at the home you and your uncle will be staying at in Colorado, once his business is concluded. Once you are there—”
“Blaine is coming to live with us?” I interrupted. The look Mr. Abbott gave me was reprimanding.
Jory shook his head. “Charles, we have not discussed the Patronage yet. Let Blaine and I handle this. You and I can have a word later.”
“My apologies young lady. Very well.” He walked to the door and turned back, bowing before his departure. “Mr. Kedrov, Mr. Thompson.”
Blaine shrugged dismissively. “You might as well fill her in, Jor.”
My uncle nodded, gesturing to the seats in front of the desk. We sat, and Blaine stepped into the next room. “The way we do things is going to be very confusing for the first while, Tess. You've been led one way your entire life. I am going to take you on a completely different path. This first part is easy; right now you are in another world, and the laws and regulations are our own. The people you see here, one and all, have a similar way of thinking. When we get back to Colorado, things are going to be difficult.” He emphasized his words. “Much more difficult.”
I shuddered at the intensity of his voice. “Difficult, how?”
“Essentially, we're our own people. We have our ways of doing things, our own standards of what is right and what is wrong, and we do not accept the authority of any other person trying to enforce their beliefs upon us. This is Primary Living; it is much easier to do outside of normal society, because out here we seldom need to butt heads with anyone who has conflicting beliefs.”
“What do you mean by Primary Living?”
Jory took his gloves off and set them neatly on his lap. He held his palms facing up. “There are no shackles on my wrists, little wolf. I am free. The same as every other animal on the planet. If I don't let any outside circumstance stifle that freedom, it is mine to do with as I please.”
I thought about it for a moment, but it made no sense. “I don't understand. Who would try to shackle your wrists?”
“In short.” His blue eyes pierced me. “Everyone.
“The shackles are a metaphor for what people do to other people. Everyone is always vying to control everyone else, through bureaucracy, laws, and misguided moralities—all backed by force. These are invisible chains. They control your movements and hold you in place better than any shackle ever could. You have to do whatever they want you to do, or they will kill you in one way or another. Children are raised to believe that their only option is to follow, and if they don't, they've failed somehow. No one is ever given the option to agree to their terms; when you are born, they sign you up and your life is theirs.
“People in Ithaca, and myself, have opted out.”
I watched him, trying to take it all in. Much of what he said did make sense, but not all laws were bad, and not all people were bad. It was a lot to swallow for a child. Part of me, though, had awakened in the wake of my parents' death. A part that doesn't exist in children that young. I had felt the strings to my childhood severed that night, and the warmth of knowing that I had people to take care of me had been replaced with a more realistic understanding that, if I was going to survive, the responsibility was my own.
“I want to learn,” I found myself saying.
Jory nodded. “That's why you're here. There will be no more classrooms for you; starting today everything you learn will be out there, in the real world. That is why Blaine is coming back with us to Colorado. He has agreed to be your Patron, to teach you everything you will need to live as a free person. As of today, he will be with you until he feels you are ready to be on your own.”
“Why not you?”
The words came out before I knew I was saying them. I hardly knew my uncle any better than Blaine; and he was not the warmest of people. In that moment though, I felt hurt that my own family didn't want to be responsible for teaching me. Scary as he may have been, Jory was all I had. The thought that he felt burdened by me twisted my stomach in a knot.
To my surprise, he put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “It would be my honor to be your Patron, Tess, but I am no instructor. I need to be able to come and go, and there will be times when I'm gone for weeks or even months at a time. Trust Blaine. He will be your link to me”—he slowly rose, offering his hand—“and my link to you. Are you ready?”
I took his hand and nodded.
* * *
After a time Blaine returned. They shared a glance, and my uncle came to his feet, straightened his clothes and left without a word. It was his style; use no words where no words are needed.
Blaine gestured me over. “The first week of being a Patron is always the most difficult,” he began, smiling with a glint in his eye, “You are going to have a million questions for me, and it's my job to answer every single one of them. It's easiest, I've found, just to jump right into it. Let's take a walk.”
I followed him back through the halls and out onto the avenue. The day felt incredibly bright after my time inside, and it took a while to stop squinting against the sun and the snow. We didn't speak and he took the lead, bringing us to the northern gate and then out into the wilderness. It felt good to be walking; the air was refreshingly brisk and smelled of juniper. It didn't take long and we were immersed in woods without a soul in sight.
We followed a path parallel to the lake that used to be a game trail. The snow had been packed down by a plow, and crunched underfoot with every step we took. I could hear the wind on the lake, and was thankful that the trees and brush protected us from it. Squirrels and rabbits were our only company for hours, and after a time I could not stand the silence.
“Where are we going?”
Blaine looked back, smirking. “You lasted a mile longer than anyone prior.”
“A mile longer before starting with your questions. You have a lot of patience for someone your age,” he began, “We're going nowhere in particular. I just find that walking helps fuel conversation. I know you have a lot of questions. Ask me anything you'd like.”
I picked up a handful of snow and started packing it in a ball. “What are you going to be teaching me?”
“What subjects were you already learning?”
“Math. Science. History. Geography. Social Studies….I think that's all.”
Blaine nodded. “Why were you learning those?”
Frowning, I crushed the snowball down until it was packed tight. “What do you mean?”
“Just what I said. Why were you learning those subjects?”
“I don't know. It's just what we did.”
“I know it's just what you did. You were expected to learn all those things, and you had no choice in the matter. But now you’re here, and you are expected to think for yourself. So tell me, why were you learning those subjects?”
It took me a while to answer him. We had stopped walking, and I was just standing there fidgeting with the snowball, trying to work out what he wanted from me. I was not used to being addressed like an adult; nor was I used to analyzing why we do anything.
“They were things I need to know when I grow up.”
Blaine raised an eyebrow. “Do you believe that?”
I shook my head in answer. We resumed walking.
“It's hard to explain to you all the whys behind the school system. It is not as though there is nothing of merit that comes from it. Reading, writing and math skills are essential. Science is understanding, and fundamental to surviving. History and geography will tell you a lot about the world, and you will need that knowledge eventually. But as for why they teach you the way they do, the simple answer is because they don't know a better way.”
“And you do?” I asked, not realizing the venom in the question.
He laughed. “You're catching on. Question everything, Tess.
“I do. That is why I am here with you. One-on-one training. You are going to learn every one of those subjects, better than from a textbook; from theory; from repetition. You will not simply learn that heat creates a vacuum—you will create that vacuum. You won't write a paper on a combustion engine—you will construct it. You will erect houses, grow crops, build fences, and learn to treat injuries.
“The system you know works for money. They train children to pass tests to earn more money for their school. They sell children on the notion that they need to go to college and spend their souls in order to get a degree that will get them a career—to earn money. And when all is said and done? Many are left without a job and, worse yet, no practical skills to help them survive—not to mention debt.
“When I am done with you, you will be an apprentice Carpenter, Electrician, Plumber, Mechanic, and EMT. You will have a knowledge of agriculture and self-defense. You will learn math and science through their practical applications, instead of being left wondering why you ever needed to learn them.”
I threw the snowball, hitting him in the shoulder. He frowned, then laughed. “All right, too much explanation. We'd best start walking back. You don't want to be out here after dark.”
Smiling, I fell in behind him. “Can you teach me to cook food?”
He chuckled. “I can teach you how to burn it.”
We made our way back through our old tracks. The wind had died down, and I could hear fish jumping in the water. The crunch of our boots echoed across the water. I saw a bald eagle cross the treeline, and heard it swoop down and catch a fish. There was a calm serenity to the place; I would return there many times in the years to come when I needed to think on things.
“Why do you want me to learn everything you said?”
Blaine shrugged. “I want everyone to know. It's what we do.”
“No. Everyone in Ithaca. We want to save the world from itself. Part of that is teaching people.”
“How do you save the world?”
This time when he looked back, I could see the determination in his eyes. “By example.”