Pul’s first day at the academy was marred by an altercation that started in front of the lotus pond.
As he propped himself up on one hand, he ground his fingertips into the dirt in rage and humiliation as they laughed above him. He could only grit his teeth, grunting, as he slowly lifted his upper body, and tried to blink his left eye clear of the mud and pond water that had been thrown in his face.
They were shouting and hollering above him, taunting him, as he pushed to his knees, coughing.
Why…? he wondered.
A few hours ago, when he entered the academy precinct located in an outer ward of the the palace, he had been surprised by what he saw. The academy had been deliberately situated close to one of the palace gates and as he moved closer, accompanied by one of his brother’s guards and a palace eunuch, he saw that it was not just young nobles that were entering the Royal academy’s doors, but commoners who had special pass tokens denoting that they were students. Some of them were even carrying on lively conversations with passing officials who had stopped to exchange greetings.
Standing in front of the door, was an old man sweeping before the entry with a broom.
“Well, well! Who do we have here?” asked the old man when Pul arrived. The old man, who appeared to be the gatekeeper, was very simply, but neatly dressed in a plummy purple robe, his top knot only adorned by a single black ribbon. He waggled his bushy eyebrows cheerfully, stroking a hand over his neat moustache and closely trimmed beard, as Pul stepped forward.
Pul bowed with cupped hands in the Moutan fashion.
“Greetings to you, sir. I am Pul, the page of Crown Prince Seiren of Shobu. At his command, I’ve come to learn at the academy while we are staying in Moutan.”
The gatekeeper’s eyes crinkled in welcome, but the eyebrows raised expectantly as they moved to the young eunuch at Pul’s side, who startled contritely out of his reverie.
“Ahh! Apologies, Senior Teacher Tu! I forgot myself…This is the letter of introduction from his Majesty!” he bowed, extending the letter with both hands.
Pul choked realizing that he had just dodged trouble through politeness. So, the old man was not a gatekeeper, but a teacher of the academy! The old man did not miss the look on Pul’s face and chuckled. Taking the letter, he unsealed the envelope and quickly scanned its contents. He recognized with a spurt of excitement that this was the King’s own hand and not Byul’s who normally wrote official correspondence on behalf of his master.
Hah. I was right. Even as he came up the avenue, I could see it in his posture and the way he moved…it’s all over the bow he made just now and his way of speaking. He’s not a simple page, this one…
“Young man, when we enter here at the gates of the Royal Academy of Moutan, we leave the trappings of our rank and our preconceptions at the door. The things that hamper the sharpness of our minds should be cast aside,” he said, and smiled at the cautious look on Pul’s face.
“I understand Senior Teacher,” Pul nodded. “Please explain the rules to me so that I can improve myself.”
“Young man, it’s good that you understand!” laughed the old man. “Come with me.”
But before Pul followed after the teacher, he bowed to the young eunuch, also signalling to his brother’s guard that he could return to the guest palace.
“Thank you, Eunuch Cheng, for showing the way,” he said.
“Ohh? You remembered my name! You are very welcome, young page of Shobu’s Crown Prince! I take my leave then!” smiled the eunuch, genuinely pleased.
The old man grunted his approval.
Mmmn, this one…yes, I’m looking forward to it…he thought, gesturing for Pul to follow.
Pul was led into the academy and then into a side hall.
“In the Royal Academy, rank does not determine aptitude or skills, thus we do not feel that you should be judged by your status, what you wear, or how you look. Therefore, everyone in the Academy must wear school robes. They are all the same color, and their only adornment is the golden peony embroidered on the lapel,” said Teacher Tu. He gestured to what looked like a series of neat cupboards lined up against the wall. Each had its own locking door, but several were open and contained in them plum purple school robes and a yellow sash.
“The most precious of golden flowers in Moutan is the bright minds of our young people, thus the yellow colour of the flower embroidered on these purple robes. Along with the robe, you will be given an entry token to go in and out of the Academy and its assigned palace gate. Use the token wisely. If you lose it, it is punishable by expulsion or worse as it is an entry pass to the palace itself,” the old man cautioned.
Pul nodded quickly to show he understood.
“All books and instruments are provided to you,” said the old man, gesturing to a wall of labelled drawers that contained ink brushes, ink wells, writing books, and other items.
Pul carefully pulled out a small satchel from one of the drawers and filled it with school necessities as Teacher Tu continued his explanations.
“We do not refer to anyone by outside titles. Even if you are born of nobility, you will be called Student Pul. Even Crown Prince Iseulbi is addressed this way. Teachers are different. There are two ranks: Teacher and Senior Teacher. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Senior Teacher.”
“Alright then. You may get changed here and here is your lock as well…”
“Oh…!” Pul frowned at the small lock that handed to him. It looked vaguely familiar, and then he realized that it reminded him of the twisting locks that his teacher, Lord Bai, had in his study. He unhooked the U-shaped pin portion, fiddling with it.
“Ah! Wait…I’ll show you…come closer…”
The old man squinted for a moment.
“See here…when you set all the rows to the empty dot like so it will reset itself,” he said, showing Pul how to move the dials around until they were all aligned.
“Pull it once like this to reset. When you are ready choose a combination of dots…see there are seven in sequence…Ah, yes, just like so…” he smiled as Pul manipulated the combination and then set the locking mechanism. “You did that rather quickly. Are you familiar with this perhaps…?”
The old man’s expression had suddenly become razor sharp.
These locks were designed by Grand Chancellor Mu…as far as I know, no one else in the Three Eastern kingdoms has them…
“Ah…” said Pul, realizing that he had probably given away some clues about his identity. “They looked similar to something I saw in a book…” he said, trying to keep his tone nonchalant.
“Hmmmn, I see. Well, first get changed and store your things in there…then bring your school satchel. Since it’s your first day, you will be assessed by the headmaster to see which class you should be placed in. Also, while you are here, you’ll have chore assignment as well. I’ll be waiting outside for you so please come quickly.”
And with that, he left Pul alone.
Pul was grateful for the old man’s discretion. The exchange regarding the locks had made him uncomfortable, and the old man had been keen enough to realize it and give him a moment to collect himself.
Huh…I wonder who that old fox really is… he thought. Not just an ordinary teacher for sure. He read me well enough that he must have had experience as a court official…but what are Lord Bai’s lock designs doing here...?
Still pondering the mystery, Pul quickly changed, pulling his robes off and hung them on the hooks provided inside the wooden cubbies. In his haste, he almost pulled off the silver chain around his neck with the single tear drop ruby that had belonged to his mother. Catching it before it fell, he hastily hung it back around his neck, concealing it within his new robes. He was actually surprised by the quality and the softness of the fabric as the robe slid over his skin. With a few deft twists of the dials, he locked everything else up, and hurried out with his new satchel.
“Oh ho!” chuckled Teacher Tu. “Here, your hairpin is crooked!” he said, and carefully adjusted the wood carved peony pin thrust through Pul’s hastily tied topknot. “There! Now Come!”
Pul had frozen in shock at the familiarity, but Teacher Tu had barely touched him, and it had felt more like the actions of an old grandfather than an official of the academy.
“Forgive me. We cannot have you looking shameful on your first day representing your Prince, can we?” the old man said slyly.
“That is true, sir. I must not shame my Prince’s dignity,” Pul said, bowing in thanks, realizing that the old man had once again done him a kindness.
Feeling a lot less anxious then when he first entered, he followed Senior Teacher Tu around the side of the main lecture hall where he could already hear recitations, and then down a path that led behind the hall to a small courtyard boxed in by what looked like administrative buildings. Pul realized that they were headed tpwards the furthest building, a small two storey. Rising behind that were two huge towers.
Seeing the curious look on his face, Senior Teacher Tu paused.
“The tower on the right is the library. Although it does not compare to the Palace library, it is well stocked with books. Once you reach a certain class level you will be allowed a library token and may borrow books as you wish. The other tower is the star tower….”
Pul noted that the old man’s face pulled a little as he stared at it.
“That tower is supervised by Royal Astrologer Zhu. Only approved students may use that facility. Since you are a temporary student, it’s unlikely that you will be allowed into that Tower, but do not fear…it need not concern you…”
Ah…so even court politics intrudes here. Given the manner in which the school’s system was set up, I didn’t think it would…but I see that’s not the case. It’s subtle, but it’s still there, thought Pul.
“Thank you for your advice, Senior Teacher,” Pul nodded slightly, taking the underlying warning in the old man’s words.
Again, the old man smiled at how bright the boy seemed to be. He liked the look in the boy’s cool blue eyes.
“Here we are,” said the old man, knocking lightly on the door of the small two storey building. “Headmaster, I have brought a new temporary student to be assessed. His name is Pul. He is the page of the Crown Prince of Shobu and has his Majesty’s special dispensation to enter the academy without the entry exams.”
“Ah! Come in. I was informed of your coming,” said a soft voice from within.
Pul fell into shock as the door was opened. Sitting at a small desk near a window was a beautiful woman. His mouth dropped open and he had to make an effort to snap it closed, teeth coming together with an audible clack.
The woman rose, laughing a silvery laugh, as her long light brown hair trailed after her. She wore it in a loose braid, and it swished behind as she moved to stand in front of him.
“Welcome Student Pul!” she smiled at him.