The image in Antoine’s mind overlapped with the man sitting in front of him, and the two merged into one seamlessly. He gave a deep bow.
“Good morning, Your Royal Majesty,” he greeted before slowly returning to the vertical.
The Emperor merely smiled at him and gestured majestically to the two seats in front of the desk. Antoine took his seat, paying attention to always maintain a straight, neat posture. Even in the seat, he could not relax. The agonising seen of earlier that afternoon kept coming up in his mind every time he thought about relaxing.
“Stand up straight! Keep your arse as taught as a mother’s stomach during birth! Come on… Shoulders up… Chest out! I said chest out!”
An elderly lady walked around him, constantly prodding him with a short, wooden baton.
“My god, you’re useless… Why did he pick you? At least he should have chosen someone with at least a modicum of training in etiquette and posture… You? You would offend a rat with a glance! Well, this will have to do, we’re out of time.”
The old lady just couldn’t stop ridiculing him, could she? He knew very well he was a far cry from the grace and poise of nobility, he was a farm-boy after all. He didn’t even have any ambition to take a job at the royal palace. He just wanted to pass his course and hopefully gain tenure to do research at any of the national academies.
‘I’ve been plucked against my will! A chicken egg ripped from its mother’s nest! Why are you ridiculing me? I had no choice in the matter!’ he wanted to shout.
He couldn’t help but wonder who it was that had plucked him so rudely from his life and plopped him in the royal palace. He hadn’t even known where he was supposed to work until the carriage turned a corner and he found himself in front of the palace gates.
“Sigh,” this had gotten him another round of berations from the old lady.
‘Please don’t swing that stick around so much. You’ll poke my eye out!’
Oh, how perfect his life had been.
“Morning Antoine! How have you been?” a voice echoed from the door of the classroom.
The person from whom the shout came, was Lily. She just couldn’t do things reservedly, could she? It was fine for people to expect him to fail at nearly every corner when it came to proper etiquette, he was a country bumpkin after all, but Lily? She was a noble, and not just any noble, she was the eldest daughter of one of the three Dukes Primaire, the three highest nobles beneath the Emperor. One of them would even inherist the throne after the Emperor passed away.
Normally the eldest son of the Emperor would inherit the throne, or in case there were no male heirs, the eldest daughter would, but the Emperor had no heirs. The Emperor had never even so much as dated a woman. For all of his life he had secluded himself within the castle. He would appear occasionally during annual celebrations, and frequently visited the Royal Academy, but, other than that, no one ever saw or heard from him. Besides the three Dukes Primaire, not even any of the other nobles ever saw him. And even those three only saw him once or twice a year.
Lily’s father wasn’t just any of those Dukes Primaire either. He was the one closest to the Emperor, and the one everyone thought was most likely to be chosen to succeed the Emperor. As his daughter, Lily was soon going to be the First Princess of the empire. But she acted even rowdier than some of the farm girls Antoine knew from back home.
He behaviour wasn’t just out of place considering her position in society, her status and her future, it didn’t match her looks either. She was the picture of a fairy tale princess. Soft, smooth skin, gentle curves, petite features, beautiful red lips, lake-blue eyes and dark, almost black, hair.
Come to think of it, how did he even manage to become friends with her?
Antoine didn’t dwell on the matter for too long, however. The last three years of his life had been one messy miracle after another, and meeting and becoming close friends with Lily was just one of the earlier ones he could recall.
“Morning, my Lady,” he answered her.
“Humph!” Lily’s cheeks puffed and her eyes frowned at him, “I’ve told you countless times before not to ‘my lady’ me!”
She stomped up to him and knocked him on his head.
“You’re my friend, not some servant, act like it!”
“Yes, my Lady. My apologies, My Lady. I just ask my Lady that she remember that my Lady is the daughter of one of the Duckes Primaire. It would be a lesser Lèse-Majesté if I didn’t address my Lady properly. Also, we’re in public, people would gossip greatly if such a crime was to be committed.”
What Antoine said was true. With Lily as the daughter of a duke, and the daughter of one of the Dukes Primaire at that, it would be a grave crime if he, a commoner, didn’t address her properly. However, he omitted in his reply that such formal address could be omitted if the other wasn’t royalty, and permitted such an omission.
“Lèse-Majesté my foot! I told you to stop doing that so it’s perfectly fine to stop!” she protested, “Anyway, move over, I’m sitting here.”
“You heard me. I’m sitting here,” Lily didn’t give him any more chances to protest and quite gracelessly plopped her bottom down on the bench, forcing him over a seat.
Antoine knew it was useless to offer any further resistance, and simply dropped his head on the table. Lily smiled secretly at the sight and puffed out her chest slightly.
‘Should a lady like you really be strutting around like a peacock?’ Antoine couldn’t help thinking when he saw her do that.
Well, it couldn’t be helped. There was no arguing with her. Once she made a decision, that was the end of it. Only the gods could make her stop, and even they would no doubt have some difficulty in doing so.
“Good morning, class!” a voice rang out from in front of them.
“Good morning, Doctor Willen!” the class responded.
“I assume everyone had a good three weeks of rest. No doubt all of you are rearing to dive back into our work.”
No one answered.
A solitary sound of agreement could be heard from a young man at the very front of the hall. Loris was the class’s most enthusiastic student. He always arrived first in the morning, and often stayed behind well after everyone else had left to discuss the work with their lecturers.
Antoine was also enthusiastic about the work, but seeing the disgusted looks of his classmates at Loris’s utterance, he could only voice his agreement in spirit.
His gaze slowly shifted from the table to the middle-aged man standing on the platform at the very front of the hall. He was a thin-boned man, in truth he looked more like a walking stick than a person. Everything about him seemed to be thin and drawn, his limbs, his nose, his fingers, even his hair – which was already thinning. But as weak and frail as his body seemed, his eyes shone with a devilish intelligence. He was a starved cheetah, desperately searching for any knowledge he could devour. Antoine had even heard the other lecturers say that he was likely to become the youngest faculty dean in the – admittedly short – history of tertiary academic institutions.
“Alright everyone, let’s begin the semester. Get your notebooks and let’s get started,’ Doctor Willen waited a few moments until he saw about half of the students had their books and pencils out, “Right, this semester I’ll be teaching you Research Methodology. So, anyone know what research is?”
Loris raised his hand, but the lecturer ignored him. This had become common practise. If the lecturers were to let Loris answer every time he raised his hand, he would be the only person answering. Both he and the lecurers seemed to have come to some unspoken agreement. Loris would raise his hand to show he knew the answer, but the lecturers would first see if there was anyone else who also wished to contribute. If the answer should be rather simple or easy, they would even refuse to let Loris answer all together, and force the rest of the class to participate.
‘There must exist some code btween Loris and the lecturers,’ Antoine thought, ‘If he raises his left hand, they ignore him most of the time, but when he raises his right hand, they immediately, or relatively quickly, give him a chance to speak. What was it that he would usually say then?’
Antoine rummaged through his memory, pealing back week after week of memory clutter in search of that bit of information.
‘Ah. It’s been nearly two months since I was last in class, and on top of that I never really paid much attention to what he said. I can’t remember. Oh well.’
Doctor Wellin had picked his victim, and was staring at him like a cheetah, just waiting for him to make his move.
“Umm… I think it’s gathering information?” the gazelle answered.
“Yes, that’s true, but is that all you’re doing? Are you just gathering information at random? If the gazelle is being chased by a cheetah, does the gazelle still pay attention to everything else that’s going on?”
“N-No, he focuses on the cheetah?”
“So, just like the gazelle, what do you do when you research?”
“You focus on a specific topic?”
The gazelle had escaped. It slumps back down in its seat as if collapsing from exhaustion. It looks seveveral months older thn before the ordeal began. The cheetah, however, not satisfied with the state of things, turns his attention to the herd once more.
“So, how do we go about gathering this information?”
It scans the herd for a few moments, picks out its next target, and closes in for the kill. As if noticing the approaching danger, the gazelle near the apparent target are quick to throw their comrade into the flames of hell. They slink away, and put as much distance between themselves and the pray as possible.
“Umm… You read textbooks?”
The poor sod answeres.
“My dear child…”
The moment stretches. Predator and prey stare one another in the eyes. Neither dares to look away and begin the chase, from whom-so-ever breaks eye-contact first, would surely die.
“That’s true. It’s one source you could go to, but it’s not HOW you gather information.”
The chase is on.
“Umm.. You go out into the field?”
“And do what?”
The gazelle slips on a rock. The cheetah is gaining ground.
“Umm.. You do experiments?”
The gazelle is back on its feet, but can it escape the clutches of its hunter?
“How did you know that word? You aren’t one for reading much, are you, Heir of Earl Javos?”
The sidestep doesn’t work, now the cheetah is mere metres away!
“I, umm… I don’t know, Doctor.”
And the kill is confirmed.
“That’s okay, we’re all here to learn. Admitting you don’t know, is the first step on the journey to greater understanding. After that follows figuring out what it is that you don’t know, and then, yes, ‘research’.”
Doctor Wellin pointed dramatically at the two words that had appeared on the board without anyone’s notice. Was he a lecturer, or an actor?
“And when you do research, especially academic research, you must follow a specific method, hence ‘methodology’. And that’s what we’re going to study this semester: the various methods and manners in which you do academic research!”
‘Ugh, the stage is set for our next six months of suffering.’