When Tian-yun returned to carry out his inspection of the harbour property after the imperial guard had completed their Jezek investigation, he found the whole place in excellent condition. He organised a cleanup of the building and the yard around it. Now all we had to do was find a use for it.
After many round-table talks we decided that Rix and his crew would run an outreach for HI from the building. It was located in an industrial area that, while not exactly impoverished, was home to a distinct group of people who needed help. They were the indentured workers who staffed the many factories and service centres in the area. They were contracted to their employers for set periods, were paid minimum wages, and worked long hours. The Ferals knew that part of the city well, and they welcomed the idea of having a permanent, safe base in the area.
We named the centre Breaker Two, partly because the name had the connotation of breaking the cycle of disadvantage—the merry-go-round that Josh had referred to one day—and partly because Rix refused to name it Feral anything. That would put people off, he declared. I countered that it was just as likely to intrigue the demographic we wanted to help, but I lost the argument.
The existing building was extended in keeping with its original industrial use and its location. When complete it included accommodation for the Ferals and offices for HI. There was a medical clinic, because industrial accidents were common in the area and the nearest hospital was some distance away. Our research showed that many of the indentured workers and their families struggled to put enough food on the table, so we incorporated a cafeteria which would offer three meals a day, and invited the workers and their families to apply for meal vouchers. Access was by one voucher per day per person, and they were free to decide which meal they wanted. Some families chose to dine together in the evening, while many children took the opportunity to enjoy a good breakfast on their way to school. Unmarried workers more often chose to have a hearty midday meal. We also set up a study centre equipped with computers, where kids could stop in after school to study and to do homework, and a library, where they could do research. Tutors were available for those who needed help.
Breaker Two had a huge asset in that it backed on to the harbour and had its own dock. We wanted to take advantage of that but no one could think of a way to do so. We put the matter aside temporarily and concentrated on our other plans. A breakthrough came some months later.
I needed to get all of the leaders of the various groups together. We had taken on new groups and projects and I wanted to review progress and discuss strategies for the future. I also wanted to create an opportunity for everyone to mix and get to know each other better. I hoped that would lead to fresh and creative ideas. Rather than simply have a dull meeting in a conference room I decided to take them out on the harbour for the afternoon. I thought we could have lunch together, attend to our business, and spend time exploring the city from the water, all at the same time. We hired a city ferry and its crew, and engaged caterers. We set off from Breaker Two a little before midday and spent the time until the meal was ready just mingling. I enjoyed the chance to chat informally with the group leaders and it looked like everyone else was enjoying the outing as well. It was an early summer Sunday, so every little beach around the harbour was full of people. There were many people on the water, too. We passed windsurfers, kayakers, and sailors—from kids in little dinghies up to crews in large yachts.
“Wow! Look at those little guys go!” one of the leaders said. We were watching a group of kids about ten years old sailing their dinghies around a circuit. They were racing, and it was fascinating to watch as they manoeuvred their craft skilfully. They were competitive, too. Although one of the kids looked to be in the lead there wasn’t much in it.
“Wouldn’t that be great?” another leader asked. “I wish I’d had the opportunity to do that when I was their age!”
I was standing near Kashuba. We looked at each other. “Rix!” I yelled. He was on the other side of the boat looking at something else. When he joined us I asked, “What are your sailing skills like?”
Kashuba and I laughed. Kashuba pointed to the kids on the water. “Watch these kids for a while.”
I asked the skipper to circle around so that we didn’t get too far away from the sailors. Rix watched. “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to do that?” he said. “How would you learn, though?”
“There must be sailing clubs that teach kids,” Kashuba said.
That gave us our use for the dock at Breaker Two. Rix found a sailing club that operated in a cove a short way around the shore, and arranged a demonstration race in our neck of the harbour. He publicised it and a good crowd of locals came out to watch. Enough kids expressed an interest in learning to sail that we went ahead and set up the Ferals Training Squadron. It was a grand name, but the kids loved it and turned out in force to join up. The sailing club trained Rix and several of his boys as instructors, and we paid the club to supervise FTS activities until they were satisfied that we could run it on our own. The club had been looking for a second base so that they could run point-to-point races, and we were happy to partner with them in that. It turned out to be a productive arrangement, appreciated by both sides.
The local kids had a new, exciting way to spend weekends, and we ended up with a waiting list for membership of the squadron. FTS went from strength to strength. Over time we added other water activities, including tours of the harbour using our own boats.
The success of Breaker Two encouraged us to be innovative in the way we offered help to other disadvantaged groups, including other scallies packs, and soon we had more projects on the go. Each time a project achieved success it had a knock-on effect, and other disadvantaged groups came to us with proposals for self-help programs.
One project gave us great pleasure because it enabled us to repay the kindness shown to Rix and his scallies when they were on the run from the criminals. The boys developed a close relationship with the residents of the village that had helped them. The people were mostly elderly folks whose families had left to take up work in the city. The Ferals helped them out by offering physical labour for jobs that were too much for them. The elderly folks were rapt to have the help, and Rix’s boys learned that giving was as good as receiving, when they saw the joy that resulted from their work. It was a marriage of opposites—brash young crash-or-crash-through city kids and solid, hardworking country people who would give their last morsel of food to help someone in need—but it worked, and both sides benefited from the relationship. It began as a working arrangement and a way for the Ferals to express their thanks, but it became much more as the two groups grew to love each other. The old folks gradually became grandparents to the boys, and friendships blossomed as the arrangement added a new dimension to the lives of both groups.
Day to day life became pretty routine for a while.
Darm and I had our schoolwork, and the emperor and empress had state engagements and trips. I felt that I was intruding on the imperial family’s privacy, but every time I mentioned moving to a place of my own I was howled down by Darm, and he was backed up by his parents. When I thought about it I realised that Darm really had been lonely before I turned up. He had plenty of people around him, but there was no one his own age that he could just hang out with and do teen stuff with. I filled that need for him and his parents were delighted. It was no hardship for me, either. I loved living in the palace, and I loved the emperor and empress. They treated me like a son, and Darm was like the brother I had never had.
The long summer school holidays arrived. When we didn’t have other engagements Darm and I spent our days with Yoso or with our friends at HI. We treated Tyras, Abi and Ben to a day at an amusement park, and Jake and Anna to a weekend trip. Yoso was thrilled when Darm gave him a tour of the palace galleries.
DöhmCorp was humming along nicely, and it rarely needed my input. Interestingly, the electronic messages to Errol had stopped. Whether that was because there was again a Döhm family member in charge, at least nominally, or for some other reason neither of us knew.
Yoso applied for a place at the Imperial College of Arts. As the director had predicted, his application was accepted and he began classes there after the summer holidays. He still lived in my old home and travelled to the college every weekday. He did well in his general study areas and he enjoyed those classes immensely. He thrived on the social interaction with kids his age that had been denied him before, and he emerged from his shell with a warm, witty and friendly personality.
Yoso’s music and art tutors were another matter. They seemed unable to accept that he had artistic and musical talent, and they seldom gave him credit for anything he did. Between them they pushed him almost to breaking point. Darm and I would often pay him a weekend visit and some days while we were there he would sit and cry. After this happened several times I’d had enough. I made an appointment to see the director. I half expected to be rebuffed, but there was no problem. I guess as Yoso’s sponsor, and with connections to the imperial family, I had some clout.
After we greeted each other the director got down to business. “Echo! To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”
“Well, Professor Brunel, I have a concern that I wanted to discuss with you. It relates to Yoso.”
He looked surprised. “I see. All the indications I have are that Yoso is doing well.”
“Yes, sir, he is in general, but there may be a problem. Crown Prince Darmian and I visit Yoso regularly at his home. Several times now we have found him in tears. The way he describes it, his art and music tutors are treating him harshly.”
“In what way, Echo?”
“It seems that they push him relentlessly. They only rarely tell him he has done well, and they apparently yell at him a lot. Sir, I can understand that different teachers would use different ways to get through to their students, but I don’t think the methods these tutors are using will work on Yoso. At the moment he feels crushed, and he is talking about leaving the college and going back to home tutoring. If he did that I think it would be a shame because he loves his other classes at the college, and he has become much more confident and outgoing.
“Professor, I know Yoso, and I believe he is almost at breaking point. l think he has the talent to succeed as an artist and as a musician. I think he has the desire to do well, but I fear that his tutors are killing that desire.”
The director nodded. “That evening at the palace I saw an extremely talented young man, but I think I also saw a sensitive young man, the kind whose talent needs to be nurtured within him and then cajoled out of him. I assigned him to tutors who I believed would work with him to achieve that. If what you say is correct, that he is feeling crushed, then something is going wrong. He should be soaring under their tutelage. He should be developing new ideas, and new paintings and compositions should be bursting out of him.”
“Sir, I can assure you that is just not happening. Yoso hasn’t composed a new piece or completed a new painting since he started here. In fact, when Darm and I visited him last weekend he didn’t even want to go to his studio.”
The director nodded, apparently deep in thought. “I think I should speak with Yoso. Would you like to stay while I do? I think he might be more comfortable if you were present.”
I readily agreed, and the director made a call. A few minutes later there was a timid knock and the door opened.
“Ah, come in, Yoso.”
Yoso’s face lit up when he saw me, and I stood and gave him a hug, not caring what the director thought.
The next hour or so was difficult. At first Yoso was reluctant to give detailed answers to some of the director’s questions. After several questions were not really answered, the director, apparently tired of beating around the bush, said, firmly, “Yoso, Echo has told me how distressed you have been. He tells me you are feeling crushed. He also tells me you have spoken about leaving the college and going back to home tuition. That would achieve three things. First, it would deprive you of the social contact you have been enjoying here. Second, it would deprive you of the training we are best equipped to provide for you. Third, and most important, it would mean that the tutors who are making you feel the way you do would go unpunished.
“Now, please, will you tell me what has been going on in your music and art classes?”
That opened the floodgates. Yoso poured out his heart. He wept as he described the tutors’ bullying, their disdain for his work, and their lack of understanding. He told how they laughed at his tears when they roundly criticised almost everything he tried to do. “I haven’t been able to complete a single piece of music since I’ve been here,” he cried. “Monsieur Guerin has found something wrong with every piece I’ve shown him. He says they are ‘sans valeur’ and ‘puéril’ and looks down his nose at me.” Yoso sniffled and wiped his eyes. I wrapped my arm around his shoulder, trying to comfort him. He pulled himself together. “I expect that I will do things wrong, but I can’t accept that I do everything wrong.”
“Neither can I, Yoso,” Professor Brunel said, gently. “The compositions I heard you play at the palace were superb.”
“Sir,” I said, indignantly, “How on earth could anyone say Yoso’s works are worthless or childish?”
“That I do not know, Echo, but I intend to find out.” There was an edge to his voice I had not heard before, but it softened when he spoke to Yoso again.
“Yoso, what about Mr Nesterov? What does he say about your paintings?”
“He criticises the colours, the composition, the perspective, everything,” Yoso said. “When I ask what he wants he just says I should know. He says ‘the painting is within you, just waiting to come out’ but when I paint what is in my head he hates it. He keeps saying, ‘back in Russia…’.” Yoso smiled for the first time since he had entered the director’s office. “I get the impression that nothing here is as good as it was back in Russia.”
The director chuckled. “I think you’re probably right about that. Now, let’s see…”
Seconds drew out into minutes as the director sat with his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, hands tented in front of his face and fingertips tapping together. At last he spoke. “Yoso, thank you for your candour. I accept what you have told me. I have a couple of ideas but they will take a little time to put into effect, and I will need to have discussions with Monsieur Guerin and Mr Nesterov. Will you be patient while I work this out, please? I suggest you take, say, the rest of this week out of classes. Work at home. I understand you are doing well in your general studies, so I don’t believe that missing a few days will have any adverse impact on your grades. However, I will check with your other tutors and if there is anything crucial coming up I will arrange something to cover that for you. I will tell your tutors you have urgent business to attend to. Don’t come back until I contact you, because I don’t know how long this will take.”
“Thank you, sir, for trusting me,” Yoso said. “I will be much obliged if you are able to resolve this. I really do not want to leave the college.”
“Now, to put my plan into effect,” the director said, “I need something from you. Would you be so kind as to loan me a portrait and a landscape, as well as ten or twelve of your compositions?”
Yoso grinned. I think he had an inkling as to what the director was planning. “Yes, sir, I would be happy to. Perhaps Echo could loan you his portrait since you have seen that, and I will select a landscape for you. Would the pieces I played at the palace be adequate for the compositions? I would need to add more, since I only played a few of my own that night.”
The director smiled. “Those pieces would be more than adequate. Just add more of a similar standard.” He turned to me. “Echo, would you mind if I borrowed your portrait? Yoso makes a good point about my having seen it already.” He held up a hand. “In fact, perhaps two portraits would be even better. Do you think Crown Prince Darmian would allow me to borrow his portrait as well?”
“Certainly, you can have mine, sir, and I’m sure Darm would be happy to loan his to help Yoso.”
“Good. Good. Thank you.” The director looked at the wall clock. “Now, it’s almost lunchtime. Yoso, why don’t you go home now with Echo, and choose a landscape? I will send someone around to collect it around midafternoon. Echo, would it be convenient to collect the two portraits at the same time?”
Yoso and I agreed, and we left after thanking the director for his time. He told us he would be in touch to let us know the results of his discussions. The way he emphasised that word made me wish I could be a fly on the wall when the ‘discussions’ took place. Yoso was impressed that he was escorted home by my IG detail. I helped him pick out a landscape, then returned to the palace.
A week later I received a summons to the director’s office. When I arrived Yoso was already there. We were shown into a conference room where the director was waiting for us. He greeted us warmly and invited us to sit. “Yoso, you will probably be relieved to know that your music and art tutors are no longer employed at the college.” He paused to allow that to register.
Yoso looked stunned. I’m sure I was wearing a silly grin.
The director continued, “I asked around, and I found that other students had suffered the same treatment, although not to the extent that you did. I was also able to corroborate what you told me. I set each of the tutors a task. Both failed it. If I had my way neither of them would ever teach students again.
“I called in some favours, and set up two little exercises. First, I arranged a recital by several former students of the college. Each played two of your compositions, Yoso. I invited Monsieur Guerin to judge the playing and the composition. The second exercise took the form of a small exhibition of paintings by former students, and I asked Mr Nesterov to assess the works on several criteria, and to select a winner. I had both exercises filmed.”
He pointed to a wall-mounted screen. “If you care to watch, you will see what happened.” He pressed a remote control.
A grand piano filled the screen, then the camera zoomed out and panned to take in the room. “That’s Monsieur Guerin,” Yoso whispered to me as a little man with a thin face and a handlebar moustache took a seat. He cried, ‘First candidate!’ in a shrill voice. I took an instant dislike to him.
A young woman sat at the piano and began to play. She did a fine job, I thought, although I didn’t recognise the pieces she played. “Next!” the little man called, and a man in his mid-twenties took the hot seat. He played the piece Yoso had played for Darm and me on our first visit, and it sounded almost as good as when Yoso played it himself. The little man wrote notes as each pianist played. He frowned and smiled (actually, it was more like a grimace), screwed up his face occasionally, and nodded his head at times. When the last person had finished his second piece, Monsieur Guerin dismissed them all, saying, “I will inform you of your results tomorrow.” He was making some final notes when the director entered the room.
“What did you think, Emile?” the director asked. “Tell me about the execution first, keeping in mind that they were playing original student compositions, but not their own.”
“They were a little rough, but I think that can be put down to not being intimate with the pieces.”
“What about the compositions?”
“Oh, on the whole they were sublime. The composers are gifted.”
“Did you have a favourite piece?”
“Oh, definitely the first nocturne, the third piece played. That is on a par with anything the classical period produced.”
“What would you say if I told you that was composed by a fourteen-year-old boy?”
“It is true.”
“Well, he is a brilliant boy, then. The way that piece soars and crashes, and the way the notes tumble over themselves is exquisite. And that final single high note sets it off beautifully.”
“Yes, I think so, too. I have actually heard him play that piece, and his interpretation of it is breathtaking.”
“Who is this young man? Do I know him?”
“Yes, you do. He is one of your students here… Yoso.”
The little man’s eyes almost popped out of his head and his jaw dropped.
“The same Yoso that you belittled at every opportunity. The same Yoso that you have bullied and laughed at.” Professor Brunel looked the tutor in the eye. “Emile, would you care to explain your treatment of this young man?”
The man’s face had paled. His mouth opened and closed but he seemed unable to say anything.
“No?” the director asked. “You found fault with every piece Yoso composed in your class. Would it interest you to know that every one of the works you heard played today was written by Yoso?”
The man seemed to shrink before the director.
“I can only conclude that you simply don’t like Yoso,” the director said, “or, perhaps more likely, you are envious of him because he has more talent than you had at his age. You should have been pleased for him. He has a natural talent that needs to be nurtured and encouraged. Instead, you just about broke him. And there have been others, too, haven’t there? You didn’t treat them as badly as you did Yoso, but you still failed to recognise their potential—wilfully I suspect—and you tried to stifle them instead of encouraging them.
“Go now, and think about your future. I will see you in my office tomorrow as soon as you arrive in the building.”
The director pressed the remote control.
I was dumbfounded, but pleased. I looked at Yoso, who was sitting next to me. It looked like he couldn’t make up his mind whether to laugh or cry. I leaned over, put my hand on his shoulder and said, “One down, one to go…”
That made up his mind. He burst out laughing. He punched me on the shoulder. “Darm is right, you have a weird sense of humour.”
I chuckled. “The emperor reckons I’m just being natural when I blurt out things like that.”
“Well, that’s a good way to be,” the director said, a smile playing on his lips. “Mostly.”
I laughed. “Yeah, mostly. It gets me into strife sometimes.”
“Well, Yoso, Monsieur Guerin and I had a good discussion yesterday. He was unable to satisfactorily account for his actions towards you and other students, so he is no longer a tutor here. Would you like to see what happened with Mr Nesterov?”
Yoso grinned. “Yes, please!”
The director smiled, perhaps at Yoso’s enthusiasm. He pressed the remote control again.
A room with a dozen paintings hung on one wall appeared on the screen. A tall, thin man with a long dark ponytail (I assumed he was Nesterov) was looking at the works of art. He examined each one closely, making notes as he went. After he had looked at all of them he stepped back into the middle of the room, apparently taking in the works from different perspectives. He was still doing that when Professor Brunel entered the room and took a seat. When it seemed Nesterov had finished his assessment the director stood and approached him.
“What do you think, Yakov?” he asked.
“Some of these are excellent,” the man replied.
“Have you decided on a winner?”
“Yes. The portrait of the young man… the one on the right.”
That was Yoso’s portrait of me.
“I see. Is there any particular reason? Why not one of the other portraits, for instance?”
“Oh, this one…” He indicated one I had never seen before. “This one is, uh, good, but not noteworthy. This one,” he said, pointing to the portrait of Darm, “is excellent, but the one I chose has a life of its own. It is more, how do you say… intimate?”
“Perhaps because one was painted from life and the other without the artist having met the subject?”
“Yes! That would explain the difference.”
“What do you think of the landscapes, Yakov?”
“Ah, yes. This one is superb. The others are merely very good.” The one he pointed to was Yoso’s.
“Would it surprise you, Yakov, that the portrait you chose as winner was painted by one of your students?”
The man looked surprised, “Oh? Who?”
“Impossible!” the man spat out.
“It certainly was painted by Yoso. As were the landscape you described as ‘superb’ and the portrait of Crown Prince Darmian.”
“But… but that boy is not capable of producing works like these!” Nesterov looked distressed.
“Did you give him a chance to show that he is?” the director asked. There was an edge to his voice.
The tutor’s mouth opened, but the director didn’t give him a chance to speak. “You didn’t, did you, Yakov? Instead, you belittled everything he tried. ‘Just blobs!’ I believe is the way you described one of his attempts to please you. Perhaps you could explain why Yoso produced works like these,” he swept his hand towards the hanging paintings, “in his home studio under his old tutor, yet he has not been able to produce a single work under your tuition?”
Nesterov’s shoulders had slumped and he no longer stood tall and proud.
“Be in my office first thing in the morning and we will discuss your future at the college. I hope you will give that some thought overnight!”
Nesterov managed to say, quietly, “Yes, director,” before he left the room.
The screen went blank and the director pressed the stop button on the remote control. “He did give it some thought,” he said. “When he arrived in my office this morning he resigned.”
Yoso returned to his classes the following day. His new music and art tutors were the exact opposites of Guerin and Nesterov. They fed his need to create, and they coaxed out of him the compositions and paintings that were hidden within. He soon began producing works that surpassed those he had created in his home studio.
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