[Preview] Chapter 1: Orientation Day

Nov 3, 2021, 1:06:19 AM

Alicia found her second arrival at Harrington Station less of a disaster. She asked the porter for a dolly and pushed her trunk outside to the waiting carriages. She didn’t run into any of the students she had met the few weeks before and ended up taking a cab alone to the school’s main gates.

Horse-drawn carriages lined the street along the main gates of the school. Women wearing uniforms consisting of overalls, blouses, and caps helped the students carry their trunks to wheeled carts waiting on the sidewalk. When Alicia exited her own cab, a woman in overalls tipped her cap at her. With the help of another woman they pulled Alicia’s trunk off the back of the cab. She stood ready to help, but they waved her off. Instead, they asked her for her name and student number and left a receipt with her.

Alicia followed the instructions in her welcome package and headed to Huellen Hall for her dormitory assignment. She checked in with the clerk at the front desk and received her assignment for a dorm on the fourth floor.

I hope my new roommate’s more sociable. Elena’s shoe sat in her carpetbag, and though she wanted to give it back to her, she didn't look forward to having her as a roommate again. If she must, Alicia could survive a year with Elena, but she’d rather share conversations and dreams with someone much more amicable. One week lasted a lifetime.

When Alicia arrived at her room, a brown-skinned man stood in the door frame. The white whiskers of his beard and short hair stood out against his dark skin. Once Alicia came close enough, she could make out the railway insignia embroidered on his sleeve. He wore the navy-blue suit of a conductor. He tucked his cap under his arm.

He talked and laughed to someone unseen, but Alicia recognized the voice from inside and cracked a smile. The older man noticed Alicia’s approach and nodded at her.

Alicia poked her head into the room. Sure enough, Madeleine Cavenport stood in the room unpacking her trunk. Madeleine, surprised, screamed out with glee and pushed by her father and threw her arms around Alicia.

They embraced.

“You’re my roommate?” Alicia asked.

“Now, I know this year will be great! Dad, this is Alicia Reynard. I told you about her! She’s the girl from Dunbrooke.”

“Oh! How do you do, Miss Reynard,” the older man said in a gruff, low voice. He extended a calloused hand and Alicia gave him a firm handshake. “Maddy says you have an interest in steam engines.”

“I do, Mr. Cavenport,” Alicia said. “That’s a lovely hat you’ve got.”

He looked at his conductor’s cap and faced Alicia again with a wide grin. “I taught my daughter everything I know, so she’s as knowledgeable as any rail engineer.”

“I’ll be sure to ask her plenty of questions then.”

“Did you come alone?” Madeleine asked.

“Yes,” Alicia said. “With belts tightened, my mother thought it best not to make the trip up since she’d end up having to travel back to town right away. I don’t think she’s partial to riding on trains either. She grew up and lived in Dunbrooke and I don't think she intends to leave.”

“My father will be in town overnight. He’s going to inspect the trains at Harrington. We’d be happy if you came to dinner with us tonight.”

“Certainly! I’m real glad we’re boarding together,” Alicia said.

“I’ll be taking my leave now, Maddy,” Mr. Cavenport said, putting on his conductor’s hat. “I’ll see you ladies tonight. Enjoy your orientation. This is an exciting time!”

When Mr. Cavenport left, the ladies divided up the room. Alicia took the side closest to the door and Madeleine the other half.

“I have to admit, I’m a tad worried. What if we don’t get along together?” Alicia asked.

“I should tell you, I snore something fierce,” Madeleine said.

“My father snores as loud as a train. I’m early to bed and early to rise and I never hear a thing.”

“Don’t go wandering outside and falling asleep.”

They laughed together.

Alicia opened the tall window of their room and poked her head out. From her high perch, Alicia saw the roundabout with the tiny circular park in the middle. She knew that the right-most street connected to it led towards the Merchant Quarter.

A sturdy tree grew in the courtyard grounds below them. Under the tree, Alicia caught sight of a gardener tending to the flower beds. Rows of May Night Sage and Yellow Honeysuckles alternated in a vertical strip pattern along the length of the dormitory hall. The sweet and welcoming scent wafted up, and Alicia would have no problem waking up to this every morning.

During the on-campus exams a few weeks ago, the school grounds sat empty and silent as students fretted over the tests, but now it bustled with life. Young women walked along the city street in groups of two or three. Others picnicked on the school grounds chatting with one another and soaking in the city and the sun.

Alicia's mind overflowed with subjects to write her mother, and she looked forward to penning her first letter.

Madeleine and Alicia entered Alebright Auditorium for freshmen orientation. She never saw so many people, let alone, women in the same place. She marveled at the sea of colorful dresses and the different wicker hats bobbing around as the students chatted with one another. Conversation made a constant roar louder than even the Dunbrooke church congregation.

These women came to Aeterall across Maedrelleden to attend school. She picked out the women with handmade dresses and figured that they hailed from farming towns. Other girls wore fancy ankle-long dresses, and she assumed they arrived from well-to-do cities.

Maybe they came from Lauffield, a port city on the eastern seaboard where the wealthiest of people lived. She had heard descriptions from her father’s friends who traveled and ranched through the central valley to the coast of Maedrelleden. In her mind, she marked these as places she wanted to visit once she could travel by air. The trains wouldn’t be able to take her everywhere she wanted.

On the stage, Alicia recognized Lady Stacy Windham. She wore a sky blue suit jacket over a long matching blue dress and white blouse. The arrangement of flowers on her hat matched the shade of her jacket.

Lady Windham gazed into the crowd and cracked a smile. She waved to her audience.

How did Lady Windham expect to address this large and chatty crowd of people? No sooner did Alicia think it, the answer presented itself. A young woman dressed in overalls appeared and set up a device on the podium in front of Lady Windham. A shrill noise filled the air along with a loud puckering noise that happened each time Alicia saw the young woman poke the device.

“Hello? Is it on?” Lady Windham said. She recoiled at the sound of her voice echoing through the room. A slight buzz followed. The young woman left the stage and Lady Windham addressed the crowd.

“Hello, can everyone hear all right? Please wave if you can’t.” Lady Windham glanced around the auditorium. “You must excuse me I’m not used to the microphone yet.” She cleared her throat.

“My name is Lady Stacy Windham and I am the Dean of the University of Aeterall. I govern the school board along with our head research scientist and lecturer Mr. Lombard, and Captain Reinhardt Warren from our royal military.

“Congratulations, ladies! You have been accepted to the University of Aeterall and for the next four years we will educate you to be the best and brightest in our country.

“Many of you may not know this, but my efforts to include women at our prestigious university have taken the better part of a decade. The obvious deciding factor is the war with Vergenstat. Women should have a stronger and equal role in Maedrelleden’s society. With our men soldiering in the battlefields who will run the city?”

“WE WILL,” a rowdy group called from the audience. Raucous laughter, whooping, and applause broke from the entire freshman student body. Alicia and Madeleine applauded and laughed. They searched the auditorium for the source of the outcry. The outburst elicited laughter and cheers from all around causing Lady Windham to pause and smile.

Once the crowd settled she continued. “Yes, women will,” Lady Windham said. “We will run the post offices. The banks. The train stations. We will be scientists and engineers. We will lay the bricks to build a foundation for a new society one that includes not just shades of our skin color, but one that includes both genders.

“Ladies, what I have strove for in the royal court is our inclusion and equality. For the longest time, our society expected women to support the kingdom by having and rearing children and by supporting the men as they went out to labor. There's nothing wrong with that, but in this new age of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and nascent modernization of our society, we ladies should do more than what the old patriarchs thought of us. We must learn science, engineering, and keep up with the times if we are to break with past bonds. We seek not to displace our fathers, brothers, and husbands, but rather, if we choose too, we should be able to work alongside them now, in our country's time of need, and later, when peace comes again. In doing so, I hope it doubles our growth as a kingdom. We may not fight in the battlefields, but we will defend our country armed with knowledge and determination.”

The young women rose and applauded. Many of the women raised their voices and cheered at Lady Windham’s speech. She let the applause crash over them and linger for a minute before she gestured to quiet them.

“All things being equal, we will treat you like the men. The academy schedule will be rigorous. The first year will focus on humanities and general studies in mathematics and science before you work on your chosen specialized fields. This will give you a rounded and complete education, a foundation we strive to build for each student here at the university. Think of it this way, if you ever find yourself at a party with nobility, you’ll have a witty retort and a topic of conversation.”

The audience chuckled.

“After your second year, you will focus on your specialized field and present a thesis project to the teaching board. This project will decide the next two years of study with the aim to carry out your thesis.

“Lastly, I have another initiative I'd like you to try before we adjourn on this gorgeous autumn day. In my youth, when I attended my private charter school, our elders encouraged the young women to form sisterships.

“Many of you are from neighboring towns and villages. You are daughters to farmers, mine workers, and steelworks folks. You’re from the harbor cities, or the central valley, or elsewhere in our great country. And, you may find yourself lonely, maybe homesick, despairing, or in need of an understanding soul. I want each of you to find another young lady, not a friend in your circle, but someone new, someone with a different perspective, and bond with that person as your dear sister. Be willing to help your dear sister when she longs for home, finds herself overwhelmed, or if she needs an ear to listen too.

“Take your time finding her, because, when you leave here, your relationships will be the most important takeaways from these four years.

“You are Maedrelleden's best of the best and we know it, because we admitted you here, and while you may carry yourself far, to find lasting, enduring success in your life you cannot go it alone.

“Enjoy today. Stray from your bubble and meet someone new, and tomorrow, prepare yourself for the rigorous study ahead. Thank you and may the High Lord of Creation bless you all.”

The women in the audience applauded. Lady Windham allowed Captain Warren to take the microphone. He gave a curt introduction and laid out various ground rules and other university information in a monotone voice. The girls around Alicia and Madeleine giggled and swooned at the sight of him. Even Madeleine traded a few words with Alicia over his looks. Seeing that he lost the room, Captain Warren cleared his throat and waited. Once he regained their undivided attention, he continued in his humdrum voice.

When he finished, Lady Windham returned to the microphone and dismissed the girls. The women applauded her one last time before scattering out of the auditorium hungry for the new experiences that awaited them in the city and school.