The halls of the temple were a maze of dim and twisting passageways, very alike and none of them familiar to Lulu. It was only with some difficulty that she managed to follow the directions she had been given to find the girls’ dormitory. The walls were stone, and seemed very old, older even than the walls of the forgotten temple in the village that had been her home. She supposed they had stood for a thousand years or more, maybe even since before the Machina War long ago.
Upon finding her way to the dormitory, she lingered in the doorway, feeling suddenly and unreasonably timid as she was approached briskly by a tall nun holding a broom. Her face, voice, and mannerisms all conveyed an angular kind of sharpness, and she addressed Lulu in clipped, quick sentences, as though talking to her was wasting her time.
“You must be the new orphan. Sister Betony told me you would be arriving. Lulu, was it? Is that your full name?”
Lulu nodded. The nun briefly arched one eyebrow as though in disbelief, then continued.
“Very well. I am Sister Meena. There is a spare bed for you here, on the end.” She led her down a row of bunkbeds, of which there were many. The top bunk was made up somewhat clumsily, with one corner of the sheet hanging down, and occupied by a stuffed toy shoopuf. The lower bunk was bare. “You’ll find a trunk underneath to keep your belongings,” continued the nun. Her gaze lingered momentarily on Lulu’s moogle doll, carried as was its habit in the crook of her arm, with an expression of apparent distaste. “Toys are restricted to the dormitory and the playroom.”
Lulu was about to set the moogle down on the unmade lower bunk, but considered that since she was presently in the dormitory, there was no need. She responded by wrapping both arms around it and holding it tighter against herself. Sister Meena’s expression darkened fractionally, but she made no comment.
“We abide by a strict schedule here. Everyone else is at morning lessons, but Sister Constance doesn’t abide tardiness, so it won’t do to intrude on them now. You had better get on with your chores, in the meantime. We expect all children to contribute to the upkeep of the temple school and dormitories in some way. You can start by cleaning, unless you have some other useful skill, such as cooking, gardening, sewing –”
Lulu nodded hastily to stop her there, and spare herself a worse assignment. “Very well,” said Sister Meena, “you can take on the task of mending clothes. I will show you to the workroom.” She started for the door, then stopped with a stern and pointed glance towards Lulu’s moogle. “As I said, toys are to be kept in the dormitory.”
Reluctantly, Lulu laid her doll against the pillow of the lower bed. She had carried it with her for so long, first as a companion when she had been a child, then as a tool when she had been learning the art of magic, and finally, when she became a guardian, as a weapon. Her arms felt strange and useless without its familiar soft, warm weight. Defensively, she folded them against herself.
The nun led her to a small room where there was a worktable set up before the tall window that was customary of the temple. One wall was lined with shelves upon which were stacked bolts of fabric, most of them of the green, orange, and white of the habits of the Bevelle clergy, along with bundles of gold trim and little bins containing buttons and fasteners. Spools of thread and embroidery floss were arranged on rows of tiny pegs on the wall, and a wooden rod mounted beneath them held ribbons in reels of many colors. It was a not-unpleasant little room, well-organized and quiet, and Lulu thought it would be nice enough to work in, but as she took it in her gaze was quickly arrested by the sight of the contraption standing in one corner with a wooden stool pulled up in front of it, being operated by a novice nun.
It was built upon its own table, and there was a spool of thread on a spindle on top of it, with the thread running along the top and wound about an intricately weaving series of hooks over the side, down to a needle held in place by a metal arm. Attached on the other side was a wheel with a crank handle, which was turning as the needle moved up and down with a soft whir and clack. The novice, her back to them, was intently feeding the edge of a length of fabric beneath the bobbing needle. Judging by the needle and thread, Lulu supposed it was some kind of automatic stitcher, but she had never seen anything like it before. It was a very pretty thing, painted in glossy green enamel with embossing showing the brightly polished brass underneath in a dainty spiral pattern. But it was strange and discomfiting to see a machina in that holy place.
Sister Meena saw her staring, but offered no explanation. “Sister Kiku,” she said sharply, and the novice startled to attention. The machina abruptly ceased its humming as she jumped to her feet.
“Sister Meena! Forgive me, I didn’t hear you come in.” She quickly executed a little bow of apology.
“This is Lulu,” the superior nun replied, with only a slight nod of acknowledgement. She steered Lulu forward with a suddenly firm grip on her shoulder. “She’ll be assisting you with the mending and any other tasks you have for her.”
“Certainly. Thank you, Sister.” She looked distinctly relieved to see her go, and Lulu was glad to be free of the clamp of the thin, cold hand on her shoulder.
The novice fidgeted with her habit, seeming unconfident about being placed in charge of someone else. “Nice to meet you. I’m Kiku. Um . . . This is the sewing room, as you can probably see.” Wisps of her fair hair were sticking out from beneath the edge of her novitiate’s hood, which was slightly crooked. She was young, probably less than twenty, and Lulu remembered again that in a few years, she would be in her position. Hurriedly, she shoved the thought out of her mind and pointed to a basket that appeared to contain articles of clothing to be repaired, judging by the disarray with which they had been placed in it.
“Um, yes. You can start mending those.” She returned to her chair as Lulu collected scissors, needle, thread, and a torn blouse on her own, looking thankful to have a worker who was so self-sufficient. “You . . . don’t talk much, do you?” Lulu shook her head emphatically and sat down at a low bench before the worktable. The novice and the machina were to her left, so with her face in profile to her, she could no longer see her. She did not feel the need to begin a conversation just for the sake of talking.
“I . . . suppose that’s just as well,” said Kiku, sounding a little sad, but the character of her voice was lost beneath the industrious whir of the machina as she started it up again, and returned to her work.
After a few days she had more or less settled into the schedule of life in the orphanage. The children were roused early for morning prayers in the main temple with the nuns and monks, throughout which the littlest ones fidgeted. After that came the morning lessons devoted to study of the scriptures and the teachings of Yevon. For afternoon lessons they were divided into classes by age to be taught mathematics, grammar, literature, and Spiran history. None of it was particularly inspiring and even the history and literature classes, which could have been interesting, were given over to memorization of long lists of dates and the study of morality tales meant to improve the children’s character rather than to provoke thought. As Sister Meena had informed her, the schedule was tightly kept, and in class even slight infractions such as tardiness or talking out of turn were met with swift discipline by Sister Constance. But, as Lulu was prompt, a good student, and not inclined to speak anyway, she managed to get by without attracting unwanted attention from the nuns.
The other children, however, were another matter. The time between classes was given over to supervised recreation, provided chores were completed first, but Lulu found herself enjoying the workroom more than the playroom, and began devising ways to linger over her tasks. It was quiet, and usually the only other person around was the mild Sister Kiku, who understood that she did not speak. The other students were noticeably interested in her, and while none of them approached her she was aware of the rustling veil of whispers surrounding her whenever she entered a room, the glances that never met hers but flickered away on the edge of her vision, like ghosts. She knew that the suddenness of her arrival, the strangeness of her eyes, the striking contrast of her long, black hair against her moon-pale skin, her foreign mannerisms, her detachment, her sadness, her silence, all made her a curiosity in their eyes, and she did not enjoy being the subject of so many inquisitive gazes at once.
At the end of the day bedtime was strictly enforced, and early, regardless of age, so that at night she often lay awake for a long time after the lights had gone out, tired but not sleepy, with nothing to do except listen to the furtive sniffling of her young bunkmate as she cried herself to sleep. She never knew if she ought to have done something to comfort her, and if so, what. No one else ever did, but Lulu felt a distant sense of responsibility for her as a result of their connected beds. But she could never bring herself to say anything, and the most attention the woebegone little thing ever got from any of the other children was a hiss of Shut up! if her crying got too loud. Then she would make an effort to stifle the sound, so that once again only Lulu would be able to hear.
Some nights she drifted off early, only to wake disoriented after only a few hours, with an immeasurable stretch of darkness yet until dawn. Then she would lie wide-awake beneath the weight of the stillness, watching the faint and pallid moonlight edge across the stone floor in watery shapes through the heavy, old glass windows, listening to quiet creak of bedsprings, the mumbling and snoring of the other sleepers, the lonely sigh of the winter wind outside the windows, and feeling that she must have been the only person awake in the temple.
She was not happy, but she was not miserable, either, and she realized she was becoming used to the tedium of the routine. There was a security in it that she had not had since she left home. But underneath it all there was a sense of unease that lingered like a doubt, a vague feeling of not-quite-rightness that she could not define. She was afraid of allowing herself to be lulled into complacency by Bevelle.
Lulu’s morning so far was not going well. Sister Kiku, taking note of her skill at sewing, had offered to teach her to operate the automatic stitcher, but the fluttery novitiate in her nervousness had put her foot down on the treadle that set the machina in motion before Lulu was prepared for it and the needle had pierced her finger. As a result she had had to return to the infirmary to be fussed over once again by a doting Sister Betony. Afterwards, having gained a bandaged hand and a lecture about being more careful in the future and lost an hour of her day as well as a good bit of patience, she still had to finish the chores she had set out to do. This time, without the aid of the machina.
She was headed back up to the dormitory, hoping for some peace and quiet before she had to go to her afternoon classes, when she found the stairs blocked by another child, who was on her hands and knees scrubbing them. Lulu hesitated, wondering if she should try to find another way around or wait until she was finished. She was still not confident in her mental map of the temple other than the routes she usually traveled during the day, and did not want to risk the indignity of getting lost, but the stair-scrubber did not seem to be making much progress.
It was a narrow wooden back staircase, the treads bowed and worn visibly in the middle from the weight of many generations of students. Finishing her work on the current step, the little girl put down her brush and stood to pick up the bucket. It was clearly too heavy for her and it took both hands and most of her strength to hoist it up to the next step. Soapy water sloshed out onto her already-sodden jumper. Lulu noticed, although the child did not yet seem to, that she was going about it backwards. Once she climbed up one step, she had to turn around and redo the place where she had put her feet on the clean, wet previous one. This was evidently going to take some time.
For a moment Lulu stood watching her idly at a distance while she contemplated where to go. A small, deep-down, cruel part of her was secretly relieved to see that at least someone was having as bad a day as she was. She wondered if she should perhaps offer some advice, since the child was only halfway up the stairs, but she couldn’t think of anything more encouraging to say than, “You’re doing that wrong.”
Just then a pair of girls, a few years younger than herself but older than the girl on the steps, came clattering by in the direction Lulu had been headed. With a blithe disregard for the wet steps or the child toiling over them, they rushed up the staircase, brushing carelessly past the little girl with her brush and bucket. Whether it was by accident or design, Lulu never saw, but the heavy wooden bucket tipped, seesawed precariously for a second, and then tumbled inevitably down the stairs, its descent punctuated by an emphatic hollow thump on each one. Dirty water cascaded over the steps and flooded the landing with a filmy tide of suds. The now-empty bucket rolled in an erratic curve and finally came to a stop in front of Lulu’s feet. She righted it, rather pointlessly, since the damage had already been done.
“Oops,” sniggered the girl who had toppled the bucket, with affected sincerity, and then the two of them ran off amid an airy bubbling of giggles that lingered behind them in an echo, as though to taunt the unfortunate child further. Lulu expected her to burst into tears, but she did not. She merely gave a weary little sigh, as though she was unsurprised by what had happened, and somehow that was even sadder. Cautiously she made her way down the steps, now slippery and less navigable than ever, to where Lulu was standing holding the bucket.
She held it out to her, and the little girl took it without looking up at her. “I’m so sorry,” she said quietly. She had a delicate lisp that curled around the words of her apology so that it came out “I’m so sowwy.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” replied Lulu, surprising herself. They were the first words she had spoken voluntarily to anyone in a long time. Now that she could see the child up close, she realized she recognized her bunkmate, the sniffler, whom she had never taken particular notice of before. Apart from the morning scripture classes, where the youngest children sat near the front of the room, she had not shared any lessons with her and had rarely seen her apart from in the dormitory.
She was six or seven, with light brown hair bobbed close about her chin and in the process of losing its barrette. Her clothes, a bit too big on her, were soaked with water and one of her socks was falling down. She had a sweet round face, dimpled knees, and pudgy little limbs that suggested that she was, or had been until recently, someone’s darling.
“Please don’t tell Sister Meanie,” the little girl implored her in a babble, “I’ll clean it up, I promise.”
“I’m not going to tell on you,” said Lulu, realizing she was biting back a smile at the child’s mispronunciation of the stern dormitory keeper’s name, and wondered if it had been intentional.
The younger girl relaxed, but a moment later the metronomic rap of briskly approaching footsteps – adult footsteps – on the stone floor caused her to go rigid with visible terror, rooting her to the spot like an arctic hare whose ears had caught the sound of an approaching bashura. She dropped the bucket and looked desperately up at Lulu, who could see fear and resignation fighting for control of her easily-readable expression. Torn between the desire to flee and the obligation to take responsibility for what had happened, she was looking for a nudge of guidance in either direction.
Instead, without thinking, Lulu put out her unbandaged hand and the pool of water on the floor swirled up into itself, coalescing into a liquidly wobbling sphere, and then collapsed back into the bucket with a foamy splash. Not a moment later a nun arrived at the foot of the stairs to see what the ruckus had been about. It was not the dreaded Sister Meena, but that did not seem to much comfort the little girl, who drew back timidly against Lulu, thrusting the fingers of one hand, which had to have been soapy, into her mouth and taking hold of her skirt with the other.
The nun took in the scene with a scrutinizing glance but appeared to find nothing amiss. “Aren’t you finished with those stairs?” she demanded at last, for lack of anything else to say. The child nodded. “Then get this bucket out of here and go back to the common room. Stop dawdling around here.”
After she left the girl tilted her head up to Lulu in wonder. “You can use magic!”
Lulu was nearly as surprised as she was. “I . . . well, I could. I mean, I used to. But not for a while now.”
“But you just did.”
“It was just a fluke. I’m not a black mage anymore.”
“You’re a black mage?” The child’s eyes and mouth widened into matching circles. Her eyes were two different colors, Lulu noticed. At first she had taken them for blue, but the right one was green. She had never seen anyone with green eyes before.
“No. Be more careful next time.” Mentally, she kicked herself for using the same words as Sister Betony, especially since they were just as unwarranted as they had been when directed at her.
“Okay.” She seemed unconvinced, but didn’t press the matter further. “I won’t tell anybody,” she said earnestly.
She began struggling to pick up the bucket again. Lulu took hold of the handle and helped her lift it, wondering how she had managed to get it halfway up the stairs by herself. “Thank you,” said the little girl, and then, as an afterthought, “I’m Yuna.”
“Can I be your friend?”
Lulu tried hard to keep any lack of enthusiasm from registering on her face. “I . . . don’t see why not.” The transparent joy radiating from Yuna’s face almost made up for the unknown future nuisance that entering into a friendship pact with a seven-year-old would surely entail.
They lifted the water bucket and carried it up the stairs together.