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The Secretary was surprised to find herself impatient for his return. He'd been gone a month, too short a time to expect him to have even left the imperial enclave known as The White City. Written correspondence was out of the question. They both knew this, as much because of the ponderous pace of Imperial bureaucratic time as to avoid the mediation involved in communicating impersonally, the filtering effect of censors both internal and external, real and imagined. Thus it was that she had filled the gap of anticipation with dreams of his first journey in her land and imagined herself for the first time as a stranger. When a Department mandarin drew her attention to the appointment he had made to see her, she accepted the news with the equanimity that befits her rank.
Courtesies having been observed, only the sound of tea being served filled the room as they settled on cushions either side of a low table. Though the ritual sounds spoke superficially of accord, not quite unseen, the Brownian motion of the steam rising from their cups better captured the underlying conflicts each was battling with.
"I am told you have visited the Emperor's three Academies."
"Indeed, I have, though not without some challenge as you forewarned."
"Were you hampered in your access?"
"Not at all. At least, not deliberately. Movement through The White City is reminiscent of some famous paradoxes that were once part of our school curriculum."
"How is the inclusion or exclusion of curriculum material decided upon in your homeland?"
"I can't profess to know. I could only tell you who makes those decisions."
The Secretary could not comprehend the ramifications of not having an Emperor to provide stability over aeons, with a purpose and a trajectory as true as time's arrow itself. Blind to this, she impugned upon Marco's homeland a wisdom its own citizens would have scoffed at. Seeing in her face a hint of acquiescent patronisation, he said only: "The question would yield a different answer at surprisingly regular intervals." At that, her eyes narrowed. He sipped his tea with an innocence that was either wholly beatific, or a disingenuity that was no less admirable.
"Tell me of the Three Academies. One is my alma mater. I am interested to see if you can work out which." Her self-indulgence surprised him, and he began his report uncertainly, defensively, hastily trying to reframe the narrative he'd prepared into a portrait of her. It shifted incessantly, resolving and dissolving like a surrealist montage.
"My journey took me first to the Archē Academy, where the East Gate imposes itself on the minds of denizens, then to the Aūrion Academy, where the West Gate frames the entirety of the landcape, and finally to the Ārtios Academy, where the Gateway Bridge is erected as a permanent reminder of the transience of all things. I have prepared a report on each, but I would be hard pushed to say which you attended without more time to reflect."
She laughed, and he could tell it was as much at herself as at him. He relaxed at that and she seized the opportunity to move on.
"I am only playing, Mr Collier. Your visit is a welcome diversion and I am keen to hear your thoughts. Would you care to read your reports to me? It would bring me great pleasure."
"I would be delighted to," he said. Often, since his children had grown up, he missed reading aloud to them. He took every opportunity to do it in his classes. Equally, he kept those opportunities to a minimum because, like her, he enjoyed being read to. He wondered whether she had ever known the teacher's priviledged joy of hearing a reading voice develop over weeks, months and years.