1.3

Edzie approached the door to Baliban’s dromo, whose wooden plank was ajar. She peeked through the gap, and called his name a couple times, but there was no response. She stepped out of the shadow of the doorway and lingered in his yard for a moment, and then she meandered over to the East Pavilion. There was a low wooden stage in the center, whereupon she sat, discouraged at the thought of making the walk home. A moment later, she found herself terminally bored, and stood back up, eager for some way to amuse herself.

For a while, Edzie contented herself with drawing pictures and patterns in the dirt with her foot. The floor of the pavilion was fairly clean, so her scribbles barely showed up, but at certain angles and in certain lights, they became visible for a moment. Edzie played this game idly, pondering meanwhile the incident with Stray and Mistra Septa the previous afternoon. Stray’s small act of defiance in the face of the Mistra, which had seemed so innocuous at the time, had lingered in Edzie’s mind, and now she found herself replaying it, trying to visualize all its incidental details. Edzie knew Stray had done it largely to serve his own ego, but she also knew – knowing the boy better than anyone else in the tribe – that he did it partly to protect her and Boyle from rebuke.

Edzie wondered, for a moment, whether Stray, in defending himself from Mistra Septa’s scolding, had also been defending himself from Elkansa’s judgment. This seemed like the type of thing that Mistra Eryn might say… she always had obtuse theories about these sorts of social situations. Edzie herself dismissed the idea quickly… she knew that Stray was simpler than that, and in a way, more noble. He had sensed a challenge, and in defense of his pride and his friends’ self-respect, he had risen to it.

For a little boy, she thought, he was strikingly womanly: a stalwart defender of his social territory, the stable center of gravity for the people in his circle. She wondered if he might eventually become one of the few male heads of households in the Denoria tribe, or perhaps a male tribal elder… he seemed to have the patience and the charisma for it, at least.

Eventually, Edzie couldn’t think of any more pictures to draw, so she turned to practicing the katsun formations her mother was teaching her. There were sixteen in all… some tribes had more elaborate practices, but the Denoria had settled upon the most important subset, and their warriors were well-respected for it. Edzie didn’t have Stray’s natural aptitude, but she made up for it with her perfectionism. After every repetition of a form, she would pause and recalibrate her shoulders and hips, hearing her mother’s carping in her head.

She spent a few minutes searching for a stick that could stand in for a katsun. There was nothing of interest around Mistra Baliban’s house, and the pavilion was cleared out and tidied up for the next session. Finally, snooping around his garden, Edzie stumbled across an old digging wedge lying in the soil. She picked it up to examine its head, and found it was already nearly dislodged from the four-foot wooden handle. A few shakes, and the wedge-head dropped off. Edzie was confident that she could claim it had happened before she got there; wooden handle in hand, she headed back to the pavilion.

The rod was about half the weight of a katsun, made of softer wood, and badly balanced, but it would work for a bit of practice. She thought about taking the forms in prescribed order, but eventually decided to start with the ones she found easiest.

Low, hovering, hands apart. Number three, attack: feint from left, kick, thrust.

Low, weight on back foot, right hand centered. Number seven, withstand: parry thrust, step inside, assert the body.

Low, stable, left hand loose. Number nine, intercept: wait for cue, horizontal strike at waist, shift into follow-up form.

When the gravelly baritone of Baliban’s voice interrupted her, it was disconcertingly close. “How studious, Edzie! I hope your teachers appreciate your dedication!” Turning, Edzie found him leaning against one of the posts on the far side of the pavilion, attired in his eggshell Mistra’s robe, with a pair of hard-soled walking shoes substituted for the traditional sandals.

“Hello, Mistra!”

“Hello, Edzie. Would you like a partner for practicing your forms?”

Baliban was in his young fifties, nearing the end of his oath to the Caesura… within a few years, he would no longer be bound by the order, and he would be free to leave his post as a Mistra to the Denoria tribe. In his decades with the tribespeople, he had evolved from an ebullient young guru to a weathered sage, his good humor tempered but fully intact. He had always been broad in the shoulders and chest, but in the last few years, the tribespeople had seen his posture dip and his belly distend, so he was now on the portly side.

Edzie agreed to match him, and he spent a few minutes searching for a practice katsun in the front room of his dromo. When he came back out, he carried a wooden staff with the lower half carved into a handle… lighter than a true katsun, with its metal point and fused blade, but certainly better-balanced than Edzie’s gardening stick.

At length, Baliban stood before Edzie, idly swinging it to loosen up his arms. As he did so, he glanced in her direction and flashed his wry smile. “So, battle maiden, are you going to slay me with my own garden implement?”

Edzie assumed a basic stance, raising her mock weapon in front of her. Baliban began cycling through the basic striking patterns, announcing each one in advance. Edzie would have taken some offense at this patronizing treatment, except that it gave her the mental space to hold a conversation. Besides, she clearly remembered her mother’s words: action and adaptation must keep happening, regardless of attention and distraction. Exercise your muscles, not your mind.

“So… number two… your mother and Stray are well, I take it?”

“Yes, and food is plentiful, and mom says we’re growing fast.” Edzie parried and circled as she spoke, refraining from mounting any counterattacks for the moment. “She says when I master the sixteen forms, I’ll be ready to kill my first Huskin. She’s already claimed one of the grazing females for me.”

“An important… number three… moment for a young woman!”

“Did you have to do it?” She measured her words carefully, taking breaths between steps.

“Not at your age.” Baliban side-stepped, feigned a lunge, and then returned to the default defensive stance. “The people who raised me were merchants from the Delta, and they had no such custom. …number four… When I took my place in your tribe, I was already an adult, but your people had to treat me like a child. I learned to keep a dromo, kill and prepare my food, and fight, fifteen years later than you all.”

“Was it hard?”

Baliban slowed down for a moment as he plumbed his memories. “It was unfamiliar. But life with my family, and then my training with the Order… by the time I got here, I was capable of adapting.” He was striking without warning now, though he hadn’t intensified his pace. Still, he was finding every attack met with a competent defense. “You are very quick, Edzie, for someone just learning.”

“You’re being nice.”

“You are mistaken,” Baliban assured her, fully sincere. “If you mean the compliment, it was simply an observation. And if you mean with the attacks, I assure you… if I tried any harder to hit you, I would just expose myself for the clumsy bristlebear that I am.”

Edzie could see that he was, in fact, starting to struggle, breathing more audibly and letting his footwork lapse. She let her own reactions slow down to match his rhythm. There was no reason to be pushy, and besides, she was already moving on to her next topic of conversation.

“Mistra, when you lived at the temple, did you learn the emanences?”

Baliban raised an eyebrow as he advanced. “Indeed. All the monks have to learn the fundamentals of the four paths. What brought this to mind?”

Parry, step back, parry… Edzie let her body react to Mistra Baliban as she explained her interest. “Yesterday, before Mistra Septa’s lesson, Stray tried doing some of them. The Cry and the Step, by humming and then moving really slowly.”

“Ah, right.” Mistra Baliban retreated a few steps, now too involved in the conversation to keep thinking about his forms. “The way of Inselsin… that’s the Step… never my strong suit. There’s too much of me for me to keep track of all of it at once. Aaraya, though… the Cry… I picked that one up pretty well. I still use it sometimes, when I need to get myself realigned.”

Seeing that Baliban was no longer practicing, Edzie lowered her wedge handle. “Stray thought they were magic powers. He thought you could knock somebody over by saying words of power. I told him it wasn’t like that.”

Baliban nodded thoughtfully. “Hmm. I see.”

There was a moment of ambiguous silence between them. Suddenly pensive, Baliban walked around past Edzie and sat down on the wooden platform at the front of the pavilion. Edzie joined him presently, laying her wooden weapon beside his own. His unexpected hesitation had piqued her curiosity.

“It’s not, right? I mean, the monks can’t make things happen with their minds and stuff, right?”

Baliban glanced at Edzie and half-smiled, still caught up in his own thoughts. “Well, if you’re talking about the stories you children tell when you’re supposed to be sleeping or doing chores, about words that can kill grown men and make lightning strike, then you’re right, nobody can do that.”

He looked away again, his gaze drifting. “But even in the Order, we have our stories.”

“Like what?” Edzie was already impatient, even just having to ask.

“Well, it’s believed that the students of Ademah… Stillness… at least, the most accomplished ones… can hear the softest sound for miles around, and can see types of light that are invisible to normal eyes.” He gazed aloft, seeming to search the skies and the air, as he sorted through the stories in his head.

Edzie remained silent, at attention.

“And it is said that the followers of the cry, Aaraya, can intone a chant in a meditation room, or even in a cave on the mountain, and the hum will continue, sometimes for days, after they’ve left.”

“Wow,” Edzie said, trying to remember more from Mistra Septa’s guidebook. “I wonder if I could learn them?”

“I am sure you could, if you ever joined the Order,” Baliban assured her. He hesitated a moment. “Although… I’m not sure you would be suited to such a life, living in a temple and practicing meditation all day.”

“I could do it,” Edzie declared, unwilling to be discouraged.

Baliban chuckled in reply.

“So…” Edzie spent a moment formulating her subsequent question. “So if you hadn’t come out here, to teach our tribe, do you think you could have learned to do those things? Would you have spent your whole life at the Envoclajiz, learning to be a powerful monk?”

“My whole life?” Baliban was mildly amused at the thought. “No, I would never have become one of those Prima Caesura adepts that you all whisper stories about. All monks have certain plateaus for each of the arts… some level where they no longer have the talent, or the drive, to go any further. Besides, we monks are as varied as you tribesfolk. Few of us want to spend our whole lives doing one thing. I certainly didn’t… I wanted to be out in the world!”

“Like in our tribe?”

“Precisely.” Baliban was now fully present, smiling softly as he accounted for himself. “And also, all the other places I’ve been. Dror, Horizon, the old kingdom up the Tempus River, and Tundras out on the Stoneside… the Order has given me many chances to see many places, all in the name of Dissadae and the Caesura.”

He smiled fondly, lost in younger skies. A couple figures were approaching from the west, but Edzie didn’t say anything, and Baliban kept talking. “I know I don’t travel as much anymore, but you should have seen me ten years ago, back before you were born. I would be gone for whole seasons out of the year. Just ask your mother… the other Mistras must have hated me then, making them take up all my slack.”

The approaching figures, two Denoria girls who Edzie didn’t recognize, stopped at the edge of the pavilion and gave the Blessing of Dissadae. Baliban looked toward the new arrivals, and stood up promptly. “Ah, hello, Bayla, Tevni. This is Edzie, from down in the central quarter.” He turned toward Edzie. “Edzie, my lesson is starting in a few minutes. We’re learning about the reconstruction of Bhijanica after the Succession Wars. Will you be staying for it?”

Edzie did some calculations: two hours might keep her later than she had planned to stay, and she wasn’t sure she wasn’t still on her mother’s bad side after yesterday’s truancy… but the temptation to stay for the session was strong, and Edzie didn’t need much convincing anyway. She shrugged, nodded, and took a seat toward the rear of the floor to wait for the rest of Mistra Baliban’s students.

… … … …

The sixteen forms

The sixteen forms

… … … …

By the time Edzie arrived home, the daylight had turned orange and the shadows had turned blue, and the air temperature had dropped by five degrees. She found her mother and Mistra Septa at ease in the gathering room of her home, having finished their katsun lesson for the day. Mistra Septa had been learning martial techniques from Elkansa since before Edzie was born, and she remembered a time when they would exhaust themselves with their exercises, night after night. For the past couple years, their rigorous sessions had declined to about two a week, and they spent the rest of their practices idling and venting.

When Edzie arrived, Mistra Septa was at the table, and Elkansa was beside the door, binding scraps from today’s harvest of vegetables. They were not caught up in any conversation… at the moment, each seemed to be occupied with her own thoughts (Edzie was always amazed at how long adults could spend in this state). When she passed through the doorway, they both offered their greetings, Septa in her formally self-conscious style, and Elkansa with typical curtness.

“Edzie, where is Stray?” Elkansa held Edzie’s gaze for a moment, continuing to strip and bind her scraps.

“I don’t know. At Boyle’s, I think.”

“Go find him.” Elkansa’s voice maintained its stubborn neutrality, which she rarely allowed to lapse. “Tell him I will not prepare dinner until both of you are here, and if you take too long, you will have to find your own food.”

“Okay mom,” Edzie assented, and then turned to acknowledge her teacher. “Nice to see you, Mistra.”

“Well met, Edzie. Will you be at our lesson later this week?” Mistra Septa shared a certain sternness with Elkansa, which many young Denorians found off-putting. Edzie, on the other hand, found it reassuring, because she could sense the warmth in it, even if it was habitually suppressed.

Edzie nodded, smiling softly. “Yes, Mistra. Perhaps the day after tomorrow.”

“And punctual this time, I hope?”

“Of course, Mistra.” With a nod to each of the adults, Edzie hurried out of the gathering room. She jogged halfway to Boyle’s dromo, and then relaxed her pace, realizing she had no particular urge to be stuck at home for the rest of the evening.

Boyle’s dromo was a few hundred yards to the north, across the walking path. Dredda, Boyle’s father, sat on a stool near the front entrance, stooped over a bucket of water. As Edzie approached, she saw that he had washed the few metal implements the family kept for cooking and eating, and was now using the same water to rinse some of his and his wife’s clothes. He heard her footsteps and glanced up at her, smiling. Edzie could see Boyle in his father’s face, though somehow, between generations, Dredda’s unassuming smile had morphed into Boyle’s wry smirk.

“Hello, Edzie! What brings you to my workroom?”

“Hello, Dredda. I was looking for Stray. Is he here?”

“No, I’m sorry, young lady, but he left an hour or so ago. Boyle is inside, doing whatever it is he does.”

“Do you mind if I say hello, and see if he knows where Stray went?”

Dredda gestured toward the open door. “Not a problem. I hope he can help.”

Edzie stuck her head hesitantly through the front door, feeling as though she was trespassing. She found herself in the gathering room, which had three doors leading off in different directions. The ones in front and to her left were dark. She saw the steady glow of lamplight flickering in the right-hand room, and set off in that direction, still mildly uncomfortable in the unfamiliar house. A few paces from the room, she could see Boyle through the entranceway, sitting on the floor with his legs crossed.

Boyle glanced up as Edzie arrived. He had a wooden plank before him, and an old parchment manuscript to his right. In front of him, on the plank, was a piece of brown scrap fabric, whereupon he had drawn some figures and diagrams with a whittled charcoal pencil. Whatever he was doing, Edzie had clearly interrupted a fairly intense train of thought, because it took him a full four seconds to greet her.

His greeting finally came out as a disarming “Hi, Edzie!”

“Hi, Boyle.” She reclined in the doorway. “I was wondering if you knew where Stray went.”

“Oh yeah.” Boyle didn’t skip a beat. “He went out to the western watchtower. He went last week, too… said he likes talking to Genefre when she’s on duty.”

Edzie didn’t balk, though this news was unexpected. As far as she knew, Stray’s whole life was fully secondary to hers: spending time with the same people, worrying about the same lessons, always easy to find if he decided to do something on his own. Edzie barely knew Genefre, except that she occasionally chatted with Elkansa after council meetings, and she assisted Mistra Gita’s crafting lessons a few times a week. Now, knowing she’d have to follow him all the way to the watchtower, she was sure she wouldn’t be home until long after Elkansa had given up on food. Part of her regretted this, but part of her was glad for the excuse to keep drifting through the settlement, reveling in the privacy of the open air.

In the fast-fading light of the evening, she took off west, passing her own dromo without looking up. She crossed a loose lot of half-built shacks, stepping gingerly between excavated earth and neglected piles of old timber, avoiding the thicker shrubbery, which someone in the area might have been using as a garden. Passing through, she reached the Splitmouth… there were no easy crossings in this part of the settlement, but there were wooden rafts dragged up on the bank every few hundred meters, all kept for public use. She had to walk almost a kilometer before she found one on her side of the river.

The other side of the Splitmouth was officially the west side of the settlement, with the central court and the Chronoboros a ways to the north. Edzie pulled the raft ashore, and then set off almost directly west. She passed south of the spacious Huskin pens and the cluttered avenue of merchants’ huts and stands known as Handworkers’ Row, and continued walking parallel to the major East-West Road that linked the two halves of the settlement via the Central Court. Most of the day’s bustle of activity had ended, but she could still hear a murmur of foot traffic and conversation. Edzie was walking between dromos and storage sheds now, impinging slightly on other residents’ territory, but she was careful to be inconspicuous, and nobody gave her a second look.

A few people crossed her path as she walked by, returning, presumably, to their own homes down near the docks on the Prospect. The homesteads had grown more sparse, and now she was in a largely empty field, with an occasional glimmer of lamplight marking a window in the distance. She knew that the larger Western storehouses were off to her right, but they were unlit, so they were fully lost in the deepening dusk. From her left, she could barely hear the rush of the Prospect River. Luckily, the clouds were sparse on this particular night, so the moon was generous in showing her the ground she was stepping on.

By the time the western watchtower came into view, the wind had picked up slightly, and Edzie was starting to feel the chill seep through her brivsa. She put up the hood and pulled the scarf tight around her face, like she was preparing for some formal introduction, and it gave her a moment of relief from the breeze. The sky around the horizon glowed with the light reflected from the fields, and the skeletal silhouette of the watchtower broke up the sedate blue. Edzie felt her steps softening as she approached, and by the time she reached the ladder leading up the scaffolding, she was as quiet as a breeze grazing the grass. She could hear a conversation happening above her, but she couldn’t discern its content without getting a bit closer.

Within the first three rungs of the ladder, she recognized Genefre’s voice.

“… would make a good tribal elder. At least, my dad always said so, though I think it’s because she was quick to defend him when my mom got mad at him. I never told her how much I appreciated…”

When Edzie pulled herself up to the fourth rung, the wood emitted a tortured groan. The conversation abruptly stopped, and Edzie heard Genefre scrambling to ready her weapon and look down over the edge of the platform. It was too dark for her to identify Edzie, so she called out for an acknowledgment.

“Hello, Genefre, it’s Edzie. I was wondering if you’ve seen Stray.”

“Oh!” Genefre processed this news for a moment, still looking down over the ledge. “Of course! Feel free to come up if you want, Edzie. I was just talking about your mother, actually.”

Stray’s voice followed, sounding slightly guilty. “Hi, Edzie… is Kansa mad?”

“No, I think it’s okay. She’s not making us dinner, but I don’t think she means it as a punishment.”

Edzie reached the platform several seconds later, pulling herself up and settling into a crouch. Stray was sitting on the middle bar of the guardrail, and Genefre was leaning against it on the other side. She had left her lighter tunic behind in favor of a Huskin pelt, which she had draped over her bandeau and most of both arms, and she had worn a winter brivsa lined with grasscat fur. Edzie silently admired her foresight, having condemned herself to a bristling chill in the night air. Genefre was twenty-four, well-regarded among the tribespeople, with a strong bearing and a patient demeanor. Her initiation scar wasn’t visible… it was probably somewhere on her chest or back… so her foremost distinguishing feature was the strand of burgundy thread that she had braided into her shoulder-length hair.

Genefre took a moment to size up the situation, and then tried to restart the faltering conversation. “Nice of you to join us, Edzie. Can you and Stray stay long?”

“We probably shouldn’t,” Edzie replied, her voice touched with shyness. “Mom told me to come get him.” She caught Genefre’s eye for a second, and then looked back down. “You know mom pretty well from when you were kids?”

Genefre smiled. “Yes. From when I was a kid, not her. Your mom is a bit older than me… when I was your age, she was already making a name for herself with the elders. Your mom helped with some of my katsun lessons, back when I was that age, and she was a really excellent teacher.”

“Edzie is doing those now,” Stray interjected. “I don’t really get it.”

Genefre raised an eyebrow. “What don’t you get?”

“I don’t get why we all have to learn to fight, when everybody just spends all day herding the Huskins and working around the village. I mean, they tell us it’s best to run away if something scary attacks us… why are we all being treated like we’re supposed to be warriors?”

Edzie was taken off-guard by the question. As far as she had considered it, they were taught to be warriors because they were a warrior tribe. All eight of the Concordance tribes were warriors, and they all measured one another by their military prowess. Yet, as far as Edzie knew, they hadn’t been involved in a violent conflict in nearly a century, since the last incursion by the Fisher tribes from across the mountains.

She glanced at Genefre, expecting an answer, and discovered that Genefre was already looking back. There was a moment of pregnant silence between them, which Genefre finally broke. “Come on, Edzie. If your mother is still the same woman I remember, then you know the answer to that question.”

The answer came to Edzie in a flash, like a ray of sunlight through a cloud. “Readiness. She says we always have to be ready, because we could be called up at any moment to defend the Envoclajiz from the Fisher tribes.”

“Yes, well-put,” Genefre confirmed. “And how are you doing with your forms, Edzie?”

“I don’t know,” Edzie answered honestly. “I’ll know when mom tells me I’m good enough.”

“When she’s ready, she has to kill a huskin!” Stray exclaimed, excited at this prospect.

“Yes, as will you,” Genefre replied. “Most of our parents make us do that when we’re about Edzie’s age. It won’t be long for you.”

“Yeah, I don’t know if I can do it,” Stray said, scrunching up his face. Then something occurred to him. “So wait, how come Sola and Luna have to kill a grasscat, instead of a huskin?”

“That’s later,” Edzie explained. “They’re fifteen. We all do the initiation when we’re fifteen, in front of the whole tribe. That’s when you get your initiation scar. The huskin slaughter is just an informal thing.”

Stray processed this information, and then turned to Genefre and asked, unexpectedly: “When you did it, did your father get to see?”

Genefre stammered a little. “Yeah, and my mother both.”

Stray nodded, and suddenly lapsed into silence, turning and looking out across the Huskin fields. From this distance, you could barely see the line of the Tenebre River, which met the Prospect several kilometers to the west. Now, at night, you could only see the blanket of unbroken shadow, a placid ocean beneath the field of summer stars.

Edzie let Stray inhabit his private world for a moment, and then she interrupted him as gently as she could. “Are you about ready to head home?”

Leaving Genefre to her post, Edzie and Stray started walking back east, crossing the open field under the watchtower’s gaze. Walking side by side, they navigated by the moonlight, both concentrating on the uneven ground in front of them. The sound of the Prospect River dominated now, occasionally synchronizing with a breezy rush of distant leaves. Every few steps, they were serenaded by the croak of some singing insect, but these were sparse, so far from the water. The only signs of civilization were the dim pinpricks of the thresh lamps in the distance.

“So,” Stray said as they passed into a patch of taller grasses and river weeds, “do you think you’re good at the forms?”

Edzie shrugged. “I guess. I’m trying to be good enough for mom. She’s really serious about this stuff.”

“Yeah, especially with you. She’s really been teaching you a lot.” He paused, and then spoke more quietly, as if to himself. “More than me, at least. All she wants me to do is memorize them.”

Edzie felt a pang of annoyance, which turned almost immediately to sympathy. “Well, I’m a year ahead! She’s just starting you with the practical stuff.”

Stray was not interested in false reassurance. “No, she worked harder with you, from the very beginning. You started earlier than me, and she never just went over lists of forms with you. It’s not because I’m an outsider, either… she’s serious about it with Mistra Septa, and all her other girl students. It’s because I’m a boy… she doesn’t think I can do them as well as you and her.”

Edzie considered offering him another consolation, but she realized almost immediately that he was in the mood for honesty. “You might be right,” she said, finally. “Mom is pretty traditional. You probably have a lot more to prove than me.”

“But you think I can do it, right?” Now he wasn’t looking for honesty, so much as a pledge of faith. Edzie was not a person to come to for that sort of thing, but for Stray, she could spare it.

“Yes, Stray, I know you can do it, just as well as any of the girls in our tribe. You already use the forms sometimes, when you play with Boyle. It’s so natural for you, I think I’m the only one who’s even noticed it.”

Stray betrayed a shy, wavering smile. “Thanks, Edzie.” He paused, only now getting to the crux of his inquiry. “So I was wondering… since your mom is teaching you so much, do you think you could show me? I want to learn… I want the chance to learn… the forms as deeply as you do.”

Edzie cocked her head slightly. “Show you?”

“Yeah, like, you teach me the advanced stuff that your mom is teaching you. So I can start practicing the hard stuff on my own.”

Edzie considered Stray’s request as they walked. They had nearly reached the Splitmouth, and she started scanning the bank for the boat she had left. She turned north, with Stray close behind… as they trudged over the grassy earth, she thought about taking on a new responsibility as Stray’s clandestine katsun teacher. At first, she was inclined to turn him down, simply for the sake of her own convenience. When she thought about it, though, she found herself becoming more favorable, especially when she thought of it as a subtle protest against her mother’s monolithic seriousness.

Pushing through the flora on the riverbank, she and Stray came suddenly into a small clearing, and at that moment, Edzie’s frame of mind shifted decisively. She stopped, and Stray almost bumped into her. Edzie turned to face her adopted brother, who stepped back nervously.

“Okay, Stray. I accept. Whatever mom teaches me, I’ll pass on to you, as long as I’m good enough at it.”

Stray smiled, preparing a grateful cheer, but Edzie interrupted him. “So we’ll start now. Have you memorized all sixteen forms?”

Stray shook his head.

“Well, first off, I can at least tell you what they mean, and maybe that will help you remember them. There are four types.” She paused to break off a branch from a fallen limb, and when she returned to her position, she was holding it like a katsun, hands set apart. As she listed each of the four types of maneuvers, she pantomimed them. “First, there are the Attack forms. Second, there are Defense types, which mom sometimes calls the Withstand forms. Those are ones where you’re supposed to hold a position and deflect attacks.”

“And there are four of each, right?” Stray asked.

“Yes. Third are the Intercept forms, where you parry attacks and then follow up with your own attack. Those are the hardest. Fourth are the Withdraw forms, where you give up ground so you can find a better position, or regroup.”

“Or run away.”

Edzie took a lunge at Stray, feigning a whack at his knee. “NO!” Laughing, she relaxed her stance. “Well, mom would say no, never, but yeah, you’re right. If you’re obviously overpowered or outmatched, the Withdraw forms will let you get away.”

“Okay, I think I got it,” Stray said. “Attack, Withstand, Intercept, and Withdraw. That’s way easier than the numbers.”

“Yeah, but you have to learn the numbers too. Don’t lose track of those.”

“How come?”

Edzie shrugged. “I don’t know. Because you do. Sometimes people… the elders especially… will ask you to do the forms in order.” She swung her branch idly, listening to it whistle in broad arcs. “But there’s even more to the four types… like, if you take any pair of two types, they make a special group.”

Stray laughed. “Like a group of groups? That’s weird.”

“It helps you understand all of them. Like… Attack and Intercept are the striking types. And Attack and Withdraw are the positioning types.”

“How about withdraw and intercept?”

“Those are called the weak types, or passive types, because you’re supposed to be making space for the opponent’s attack. So the other two… attack and withstand… are the strong types, or active types, because you’re asserting yourself.”

“I think I get the idea,” Stray said, his brow furrowed. “I won’t remember them all, though. There’s too much to memorize.”

“It’s okay. You can actually diagram them, and they’re a lot easier to remember.” Edzie glanced down at her makeshift practice weapon, and then tossed it back into the underbrush. “Okay, that’s enough for now. Let’s head home. I’m hungry.”

Edzie turned and started walking. They saw the raft about a hundred meters on, and turned toward it. Just as she was getting there, she heard Stray scamper up behind and look for a way to help move the vessel. As they pushed it off the bank and hopped up on its wooden deck, she saw that Stray was carrying something behind him. It was the stick Edzie had used to show him the forms, and as they crossed the Splitmouth, he was clearly fighting the urge to swing it around and slay imaginary beasts.

Stray managed to keep the stick for several weeks afterwards, playing with it less and less frequently, until one day Elkansa needed a replacement leg for a stool in the gathering room, and the toy katsun was finally recruited for a more practical purpose.