The girl was eight years old but she had a black-eye worthy of a heavy-weight prize fighter and a scowl that wouldn't have been out of place on the face of a Civire bouncer. An air of don't-want-to-be-here radiated off her like heat shimmer from warp-core housing, and had been since Inola Toras had dragged her off a Brutor boy a year older and twice her weight and marched her into the empty classroom.
The boy was on his way to medical. By the time the sixth sense for trouble that Inola had developed over twenty years of teaching had sent her down the hall to the lunch-room at a run, Commander Invelen's sister's excellent impression of a small, red-headed whirling dervish had done considerable damage.
Not the first fight Irt Kalur has been in, Inola thought, but quite possibly the first he's lost.
"Miss Roth?" Inola asked the small bundle of resentment sitting in front of her. "I asked you a question."
Camille Roth folded her arms and sighed. "I know."
Inola folded her own arms. "Are you going to answer it?"
Inola's sigh was internal, twenty years of teaching having given her more than a little self-restraint when it came to dealing with miniature miscreants. "Miss Roth, that's not an acceptable response. Why were you fighting?"
Camille shook her head. "That's not any of your business."
"Children fighting in my classroom most certainly is my business, Miss Roth."
"We weren't in your classroom."
Strictly speaking, true. "You were in the lunchroom after you were in my classroom, and that's not an excuse. And I know you've only been here a few days, but that's not an excuse either. What would Commander Invelen say if she heard you'd been fighting?"
"She'd ask if I won," Camille said.
Quite possibly true, Inola thought, given some of the rumors about the Commander. "I think she'd be unhappy you got in trouble. We don't allow fighting here, Miss Roth."
The little girl stuck out her chin and said stolidly, "Then I guess you better punish me."
"I need to know what happened to know who deserves punishment, and how much. Did Mr Kalur start it?"
"I'm not saying."
"Miss Roth. Camille. I know that when you come to a new place, it can be hard to fit in. Sometimes the other kids want to make sure you know who the boss is, yes? Is that what happened?"
Camille's expression didn't change. "I'm not saying."
"If you don't tell me what happened, I'll have to punish you both."
"Good," Camille said.
"You want me to punish you?" Inola asked.
Camille rolled her eyes. "If you don't, the other kids will think it's because of whose sister I am."
Ah ha, Inola thought. "Is that what happened? Mr Kalur thought you were getting preferential treatment because you're Commander Invelen's sister?"
"No. And I'm not saying."
"If the other kids are teasing you, I can make them stop, if you tell me."
"Ms Toras," Camille said patiently, "If I tell you, then I'll be a tattletale. And they will stop, now. I proved he was wrong."
"Mr Kalur? Proved he was wrong about what?"
"About Ami. I proved he was wrong on his body."
Inola blinked. "On his body?"
Camille sighed again and gave Inola a pitying look. "He's Yushkal clan," she said, clearly thinking that explained everything.
It took Inola a moment to dredge up what she knew about Irt Kalur's clan background, and then Camille's words made sense. Yushkal clan, one of the Brutor clans with a long tradition of trial by combat. "He said something about Commander Invelen and you challenged him to prove the truth of it with a fight?"
"I'm not saying," Camille said, but her expression gave her away. "And it wasn't true, anyway!"
"What wasn't true?" Inola asked gently.
"She's not a Sansha!" Camille burst out, glaring at Inola. "Ishukone made her arms, not the Sansha! And she hasn't let the crew down, either, that's not fair! It's not her fault! She's the best XO ever and it's not because she's Silver's girlfriend!"
Inola pulled out the chair from the desk nearest to Camille's and sat down, used to compressing herself into a piece of furniture made for eight-year-olds. "Honey, no-one thinks that about your sister."
Camille blinked hard, tears trembling on her eyelashes. "They say it."
"This is the first time you've lived in a crew, isn't it?" Inola asked.
"Cia has crew!"
"Your other sister, Captain Roth? She has crew, but do the two of you live with them, do you go to school with their kids, like you do here?"
"No," Camille admitted.
"Well," Inola said. "A crew is bigger than a family, but it's not like a station, either. People know lots of other people, especially someone like Commander Invelen. She's in charge of everybody, right, after Captain Night?"
Camille nodded, and unfolded her arms long enough to swipe surreptitiously at one damp cheek.
"And sometimes grown-ups, they say things they don't mean. And they don't think that kids overhear them, or they think their kids know they aren't serious, but the kids don't always know. Right?'
Camille nodded again.
"So you don't need to take it to heart, something like that. It doesn't mean anything. You just ignore it next time."
"There won't be a next time," Camille said, with a certainty that could easily have belonged to her sister.
"There won't be a next time for fighting, either. Will there, Camille?"
Camille heaved a sigh. "I'll try," she said. "I do try, you know, Ms Toras. But it's a lot of work, sometimes."
Inola let herself smile. "I know, honey. It's a lot of work for everyone, sometimes."
"You tell a teacher next time someone says something mean, okay?"
"Oh, it'll be okay," Camille said. "Irt is the leader. That's why I picked him."
Kalur is the leader, Inola thought, studying the girl. Headed for a good career as an NCO, if he can learn to control his temper rather than letting it control him. "Do you want to be the leader, Camille? Is that why you fought him?"
Camille rolled her eyes again. "I am the leader, Ms Toras. They just don't know it yet. How are you going to punish me?"
"I think this time we'll say that a warning is enough, Camille, since you're new."
"No!" Camille said indignantly. "You have to punish me! If you don't, it won't work!"
"I see," Inola said, and she did. The formal curriculum for the children of Captain Night's crew focused aptitudes and trained skills, but there was an informal curriculum that the teachers kept an equally close eye on. Who leads, who follows. Which ones make peace, which ones get their friends working together, which ones can't suffer fools ...
The ever-shifting relationships in a class of five-year-olds settled and hardened as time passed, under the teachers' watchful eye. By the time they graduated, their files would have reports on the intangible complexities of personality as well as their academic achievements, making sure they were slotted in to the right place in the massive human machinery of the crew.
And in that process, the ideas of settling things yourself versus tattling to the teacher, of being the defiant martyr as opposed to the teacher's pet, those ideas carried a certain weight.
"All right, Miss Roth," Inola said. "Report here at zero seven hundred tomorrow morning for cleaning duty. You'll be making this classroom shine every morning before the other students arrive, and you'll clean up after them when they leave at the end of the day."
Camille nodded. "Okay!" she said. "Can I go?"
"Yes. Go on to medical and get your eye looked at before dinner."
"I will!" Camille stood up. "Thanks, Ms Toras! I'm sorry I caused you trouble, but you know. Sometimes you just have to."
Inola turned in the under-sized chair to watch the girl leave. For a moment longer, she sat looking at the door.
I am the leader.
They just don't know it yet.
Inola shook her head, and unfolded herself slowly. They might not know it yet, she thought.
But they will.