Trying to hide his lack of poise, Pul immediately bowed low.
Senior Teacher Tu patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, ushering the boy over the threshold. Once Pul had entered, he then moved himself to a corner, barely containing his anticipation over how the Headmaster would handle the boy. The woman simply nodded to the old man and then turned her full scrutiny onto Pul.
“Headmaster,” Pul knelt, shoving his nerves down into his stomach.
The woman laughed again.
“Please be at ease Student Pul! There is no need for formality, though I am sure that you are quite surprised that the Headmaster of the famed Royal Academy of Moutan is a woman.”
“Please forgive my earlier startlement. I meant no disrespect,” he said in apology, colour splashing across his fair skin.
“That’s fine. None was taken,” she smiled kindly. “I am Headmaster Liwen Yi.”
Liwen…? Wait…is she related to Consort Liwen? Ah! So, she comes from a powerful Moutan family. How interesting!
Taking a breath, he bowed again.
“I’m ready Headmaster. Please kindly direct me with your teaching.”
Liwen Yi laughed her tinkling laugh again.
“Very well Student Pul! Come. Sit before me. Your placement testing begins now,” she said, face becoming serious as she sat back down at her writing desk and promptly launched into the verbal testing.
The testing last two hours and Pul was surprised by the type and nature of the questions. They ranged from mathematics, to political theory, to art and culture. Each time, he was presented with a scenario and asked how he would approach the issue to solve it, or he was asked to give his opinion on a statement that the headmaster made. She barely made any comment, only occasionally asking a clarifying question before moving on to the next part of the test.
Luckily, Pul had realized very early that the test wasn’t just about parroting back the knowledge, but about how to apply it in difficult scenarios and what his thought process was in terms of trying to resolve the problems presented.
Decision making is the basis of rule. If I do not do well here, Seiren will laugh at me…
While Liwen Yi’s expression did not change as she heard his answers, the old man in the far corner tried hard to hide his excitement. It was very clear to him where the boy would place, but he wanted the Headmaster to say it herself.
Finally, Liwen Yi rose.
“Your answers are satisfactory, Student Pul. Senior Tu, he may join Student Iseulbi and the others in the purple class.”
Moving to a set of drawers on the side wall, she pulled one open and removed a jade token with a purple tassel and handed it to him.
“This is the entry token for the Academy and its associated palace gate. You may come and go as you please, but do not lose the token. I’m sure Senior Tu has already warned you, but I say it again so remember it properly. Also, stay behind after class to receive your chore assignment. Regardless of station, everyone does chores in the morning and after class to maintain the Academy’s grounds and classrooms…You will be no exception. Also, as a temporary student, the Star Tower is forbidden. Other than that, Moutan’s Royal Academy welcomes you.”
“Thank you, Headmaster!” he said, rising. He stood awkwardly for a moment, not sure how to ask.
“You have something else…?”
The old man chuckled, answering for the Headmaster.
“Since you are placed in the purple class, young man, your token automatically allows you into the library tower and I am its guardian! You will be able to access all the books except those in the restricted section. Does that satisfy you?” he chuckled.
“Ah!” Pul said, immediately brightening. “Thank you!”
“Senior Tu will escort you to class, Student Pul. With luck, we shall see you again later,” the Headmaster said with a gracious tilt of her head, signalling that he was dismissed.
Pul bowed smartly with a noticeable spring in his step as he hurried after the old man, disappearing down the path.
The Headmaster watched them, her brown eyes thoughtful, and then the eyes became sharp as she flicked her sleeve.
“Yi’er…that was rude…” said a masculine voice from the window.
“So is eavesdropping,” was her dry response. Turning, Liwen Yi glanced at the silver masked man peaking in, one hand behind his back. In the other hand, he held a small dart between two fingers. With practiced ease, he fired the dart back towards its owner such that it thudded into her desk.
Coming around to the door, he found a comfortable spot next to her.
“Tch…aiming for your Shifu’s eyes. So aggressive,” he sighed, harrumphing childishly.
“Shifu…you also shouldn’t go too overboard,” she growled back, making him chuckle. “So…is there something you are looking for?”
“Ohh? I only came to see my favourite disciple. You aren’t even going to serve me tea?” he asked, looking pointedly at the pot that had been steaming gently on the warmer.
“Hmph,” she snorted, but still she took the pot and poured two cups. Setting one down for him, she sat back with her own.
“That’s more like it…” he smiled.
“By Shifu’s tone it seems you already found what you were looking for…” she observed, as the two of them sat comfortably drinking their tea.
Grand Chancellor Mu only smiled and casually blew some steam off the top of his translucent blue teacup.
“Senior Teacher Ran, this is Student Pul,” said Senior Teacher Tu, introducing him to the purple ranked class which was apparently held in an open pavilion next to a large lotus pond. “He is the page of the Crown Prince of Shobu and will join your studies while he is here in Moutan.”
“Take a seat beside Student Iseulbi,” said Teacher Ran. “I understand that you are already acquainted.”
“Yes Teacher,” Pul nodded. He walked through the double rows and sat down in the empty seat next to the dark-haired Crown Prince who only looked at him with his liquid eyes. Pul could feel the hairs go up on the back on his neck and his skin prickled with the glares being shot his way. He glanced over at the Crown Prince who did not look up, but he could see the boy was smiling faintly.
Pul hastened to set out his books and pulled his brushes out with a clatter, but then became dismayed when he realized he had no water for his ink stone to grind the small brick of stamped ink. The Prince simply pushed his inkstone towards him, generously offering to share without saying a word.
“Thank you, your Highness!” Pul said out of the side of his mouth as Teacher Ran continued the lesson. Snatching at a brush that was rolling away, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
What a clumsy person, thought Feiyan, amused. Well, what a coincidence. I haven’t seen him since the parade.
“You’ve recovered well, I see,” said a soft high voice in Pul’s ear. He started.
W-What? That voice…
Lightning rippled down his spine as he turned to stare at the boy beside him who only blinked innocently.
Why does his presence feel so different than before? Is this really the Prince…?
The brilliant dark eyes twinkled at him with silent laughter at the consternation on his face.
As a poorly supressed gamut of emotions passed over Pul’s face, Feiyan became even more entertained when the boy’s cheeks flushed with sudden redness.
“Pul…mind the Teacher!” Feiyan whispered abruptly, noticing Teacher Ran walking towards them.
Teacher Ran rapped Pul’s head with the book he was reading from, and calmly continued on with the lesson. It hadn’t been a hard blow, but it had made quite a noise causing the other students to snigger.
Pul rubbed his head ruefully and wanted to bury his face in the ground.
Beside him, Feiyan smirked, trying not to giggle. The sound of the book hitting Pul’s head had been quite hollow, making it sound like the boy’s skull had nothing in it. He was still red and in fact his flush had climbed above his ears and into his blond hairline.
Seeing that Teacher Ran had circled back to her elbow, Feiyan became alert.
That sneaky person!
“Student Iseulbi please recite the next lines…”
“Yes, Teacher Ran,” Feiyan stood up, clearly and confidently reciting the next paragraph with no mistakes.
“Ennn. As expected of Student Iseulbi. Since it is mid-day, all of you make your way to the mess hall for your meal. I will expect you to come back when the level of the water clock outside the hall has dropped two levels,” he said, snapping the book closed.
“Which way is the mess hall, your Highness?” Pul asked, whispering shyly.
“It’s just Bi. I’ll show you, but first, pack your books and your things. If you leave them here, someone will surely mess with them,” said Feiyan.
“B-Bi?” Pul swallowed, not sure about the lack of formality.
“Come!” Feiyan said impatiently. “Make haste! They don’t reserve meals for anyone. If we get to the hall late, there’ll be nothing but scraps.”
Pul nodded and quickly shoved his things into the satchel, but the jade token slipped out.
Feiyan’s hand shot out, snatching it out of the air.
So clumsy, she sighed. In the middle of handing the token back to him, she changed her mind and said:
“Here, you see this?” she asked, grabbing his lapel and tugging him closer. “Loop it on your belt like so…”
The boy’s mouth fell open and she giggled, realizing that the blush was back because they were standing too close together.
“Do you always get this red when you are embarrassed?” she couldn’t help teasing.
The deep blue eyes were so startled that he looked like a dazed rabbit.
Feiyan held her hands up and away from his body, seeing that steam was coming out of the boy’s ears.
“Let’s not talk about that…let’s just go to the mess hall…” she sighed. Flinging her own satchel over her shoulder, she ran out of the classroom at top speed with Pul on her heels.