"Master Meredith, whose entitlement to a last name had not yet been determined by the courts, was sitting in a window-seat overlooking the playing fields of Narrows School when the Third House bullies found him."
In his final terms of school before his university years, Meredith is faced with a host of problems: A prefect who abuses his power. A games captain who is supposed to protect Meredith but has befriended the prefect. And a legal status that makes everyone in the school question whether Meredith belongs there, among the elite.
Unexpectedly, rescue arrives, in the shape of a fellow student who seems determined to right wrongs. There's only one problem. . . .
"Fair play" is the motto of the Third House, but that motto takes on a different meaning when Meredith is secretly wooed by a young man from a rival House.
This novel can be read on its own or as the third and final story in the "Master and Servant" volume of Waterman, a historical fantasy series and retrofuture series inspired by the Chesapeake Bay oyster wars, boarding school rivalries in the 1910s, and 1960s visions of things to come.
"Let's look at your arm now."
Meredith cautiously turned round. Carruthers stood fully dressed in his school uniform: shoes, trousers, shirt, vest, and a dark blue blazer – blue to represent transformation. No doubt he was entitled to a House cap as well, but he was as bareheaded as always. His hair was the color of yellow cordgrass when sun shone upon it. His eyes shimmered grey like pebbles in a pond. His skin was darker than the usual milky-white shade that distinguished masters from servants; one of the more vicious rumors circulating in the Third House was that Carruthers's parents, who were notorious Egalitarians, forced Carruthers to do servant-work during holidays. Meredith refused to believe the rumor, if only because he could not imagine any servant standing by and allowing Carruthers to do work on his behalf.
Carruthers had turned toward a table beside the students' lockers and was pulling open a first aid kit marked with the symbol of the Red Circle, for Narrows School was one of the few Dozen Landstead institutions that was charitable enough to raise funds for that international, humanitarian organization. "Giving money to the Yclau!" Rudd had once said in anger. One of Rudd's ancestors had drafted the Embargo Act of 1912.
Carruthers – like his father – clearly had no qualms about using foreign technology, for he was pulling out the kit's contents, carefully selected by the school, so as not to contravene the Embargo Act: bichloride of mercury tablets, tincture of iodine, aromatic spirits of ammonia, carbolized petroleum jelly, rubber tubes for tourniquets, adhesive plaster, picric acid gauze, cascara tablets, crystals of hydrated magnesium sulfate, and crystals of potassium permanganate. The last item – used to treat poisonous snake bites – was next to useless for a kit used on a Bay-island school, but some of the school's students who came from the mainland were convinced that every harmless water snake they saw was a venomous water moccasin.
In a prosaic manner, Carruthers focussed his attention on the kit's scissors and roll of bandages. As he cut a small square of bandage off the roll, he said, "Two pieces will do for now, I think, until we've cleaned your arm."
He was holding the scissors awkwardly, and Meredith remembered suddenly that Carruthers had sprained his right wrist at the last footer match. Meredith cried: "Oh, please, sir, let me do that for you!"
A moment later, he would gladly have borrowed Carruthers's heirship dagger and plunged it into himself. Carruthers glanced over at him, but this time he made no comment upon Meredith's eccentric eagerness. He simply handed Meredith the scissors and stepped aside. Meredith cut the final piece, sweat slickening his palms. He could feel Carruthers's gaze upon him.
"There's a bench over there that you might feel comfortable sitting on." Once again, Carruthers was being exceedingly careful in his wording. Meredith went over to the bench; then, at Carruthers's suggestion, he dragged it over to the table where the kit lay.
He felt light-headed as he sat down. The bench – which had been carved with the names of generations of Second House lads – was irregular under his bare thighs. The day had grown warm enough that Meredith had changed, that afternoon, back into his apprentice-aged clothing: short trousers and no blazer, only a vest, with his sleeves rolled up. Now Carruthers had Meredith pull up his right sleeve further so that the cloth would be well away from the cut.
"Fletcher's work, I take it." Carruthers placed his hands around Meredith's forearm and gently pressed the skin next to the cut with his fingers.
"Yes, sir. His cane." Meredith was all too aware now of the firmness of Carruthers's grip, and the tenderness of his probing.
"We'll have to hope, then, that he hasn't been sticking his cane into the ground for picket practice recently." He let go of Meredith. "The cut doesn't look deep, but tomorrow morning, when the school physician arrives, you should go straight to the sanatorium and have him check on you. If you wish, that is," Carruthers carefully amended his command.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
"He may want to treat you with tetanus antitoxin. In the meantime" – Carruthers's fingers were suddenly on Meredith's forearm again, squeezing hard – "I'll do what I can."
Meredith held his breath as Carruthers squeezed blood out of the cut, then carefully wiped off the blood with one of the pieces of sterile bandaging that Meredith had cut. "This needs a bit of antiseptic," said Carruthers, straightening up. He leaned over Meredith, reaching for a bottle labelled "Peroxide of Hydrogen."
Meredith forgot to let out his breath. Sitting as he was, his face was only inches now from Carruthers's chest. The strong smell of sweat on Carruthers's body had been replaced, after the sponge bath, with a sweet, salty scent that reminded Meredith of Bay water.
"Hold still," said Carruthers as he pulled back, adding, "if you don't mind." He poured a few drops of the antiseptic onto the wound. It fizzed, biting into the fresh wound. Meredith remained still and silent, as he had done when Carruthers had probed his cut and forced out blood.
He looked up from Carruthers's hands to see that the Head was watching him. "You're a player on the Third House footer team, as I recall?" Carruthers said.
"Ah. That explains it." Carruthers turned his attention back to the cut.
Meredith felt a warm glow cover him then. No further words were needed from Carruthers; the Head did not need to say, "You bear pain well." His sentiments were contained in the simple words, "You're a player."
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