Edzie appeared at Ghada’s front door, which was half closed, and announced herself politely. She heard Kosef’s reply from the gathering room: “Come on in, Edzie.” There was a pause, and then a firm shout to the bedroom: “GHADA, SOMEONE’S HERE!”
Several weeks had passed since the row in the empty lot, and the hostilities between the children – a tangle of enmity around Sola and Luna, Boyle, Edzie, Stray, Ghada, and even Boyle’s overprotective parents – had generally loosened, to the point where nobody presented a threat to anyone else. The childrens’ injuries had mended, the Mistras’ lessons were peaceful, and the boys were no longer sulking, and the girls weren’t trying so hard to avoid each other. Though he had destroyed his traveling canvas, Boyle had stopped short of ruining the rest of his art supplies, and he continued to pursue his private hobby in the shadows of his bedroom.
Kosef was mending a woven mat on the gathering room table when Edzie entered. He gave her a disarming smile and a modest bow, and motioned to Ghada’s room, welcoming her visit. There, at the end of the hall, she found his door open, spilling the ambient glow of sunlight from Ghada’s windows. The room felt even bigger on this visit, with less company to fill it… Ghada, his lean figure diminutive in the center of the floor, was truly spoiled with an excess of personal space.
Ghada was adjusting his tunic hastily as Edzie arrived; he turned and said hello as his hands fiddled with the fabric. Edzie wondered, privately, whether this was some sort of permanent idle state for the boy… tucking, preening, matching, admiring, stitching, and compulsively arranging his appearance. Then, in her amusement, she realized he was probably just fixing himself up in a panic because he hadn’t been prepared for her unannounced visit. He certainly couldn’t be found half-naked, or just waking up from a nap, or anything like that.
At any rate, when he turned around to give her a more appropriate greeting, he looked as immaculate as ever, his outfit carefully fitted, his mohawk hanging at a jaunty droop on one side of his smooth head.
“Edzie, good to see you! How’s everything out on the west end?”
“Fine, thanks,” Edzie replied, less theatrically cordial than her older friend. “How have your lessons been?”
“Productive, as always,” he replied. “Got news this week: Bellaryn is helping with the hunting for the Festival of Release!”
“Neat,” Edzie said, making her way around the edge of the room and sitting down on Ghada’s cot. “We’d all like to see Bella, and your mother too, if she gets home.” She gestured to Ghada’s effects, arranged in a pile in the corner. “Hey, is that the katsun you practice with? Can I see it?”
Ghada hopped up and retrieved his practice-weapon… it wasn’t crafted with the same care as Edzie’s, which hung from her thigh, being merely a polished stick with a marking to indicate where the handle would meet the blade. It didn’t look perfectly balanced, but it was as large as an adult weapon, and Edzie could see its weight in Ghada’s grip. He spun it in his hand as he walked over to Edzie, and handed it to her handle-first, his face alight with guarded enthusiasm.
“Yeah, it’s from Mistra Eryn’s collection. She says I can hold onto it until I get a real one.”
Edzie stood up as she tested the weapon. It made all her forms and gestures feel unfamiliar, as if her whole arm and shoulder had been replaced with a stranger’s, but it was also satisfying… she could imagine its inertia as it passed through the air and struck a practice dummy… or an enemy’s neck or torso.
“I keep thinking about your fight with Luna,” Edzie said, letting the weapon come to rest, “and you’re really good. For a twelve year-old…”
“Thirteen,” Ghada corrected. “My birthday was last week.”
“Anyway, you fight better than any other kid our age I’ve ever seen,” she continued. “It’s like you were born with the katsun in your hand. Where did you learn your forms like that?”
Ghada shrugged, trying not to grin in spite of himself, and gave an unintentional smirk instead. “I think Mistra Eryn has been giving me some extra attention. She says I’ve got good hands for katsun-fighting.”
“Great that she sees so much promise,” Edzie said, her tone touched with veiled envy. “I was wondering if you wanted to practice with me a little? Maybe some of your talent will rub off on me.”
Ghada considered the proposal for a moment, and concluded that he didn’t really have much else to do with his afternoon. Edzie started off with a basic recitation of her forms, using Ghada’s heavier practice-katsun. He watched appreciatively, occasionally offering some bit of advice he had gotten from the Mistra during his own training sessions. At times, he tried the same forms, but with Edzie’s smaller katsun, making a show of precision and composure.
“This thing feels really nice,” he said, “but it’s so light I think it threw me off. That fight would have been a lot different if I’d had Bellaryn’s katsun to fight with.”
“Hey,” Edzie retorted, mildly offended, “lighter and shorter just means it’s faster to maneuver.”
“Well, sure,” Ghada said. “I’ve seen real ones like this before… they make them kind of like this in the Pasim tribe. They call the shorter kind a tagger.” He flowed through an attack form as he spoke, pantomiming a series of short thrusts at full arm extension. “They also make longer, heavier ones that they call splitters.”
Edzie mimicked Ghada’s thrusts, watching to see how his weight was different from hers. He jabbed at her knee from behind, and she fell forward, registering his laughter as she stumbled and recovered. She did her best to remember her training and keep the practice-weapon in a ready position in front of her, but she could tell she was moving clumsily.
“GHADA!” Kosef’s voice came from the gathering room again. “STRAY’S HERE, ASKING FOR EDZIE! HE’S COMING BACK NOW!”
Edzie composed herself, and Ghada rested Edzie’s katsun on his shoulder. A moment later, Stray appeared at the doorway, waving at them cheerfully.
“Hi, Stray,” Ghada said.
“Everything okay?” Edzie asked, though she saw no reason to worry.
“Oh, sure, I was just bored, and Boyle is helping Dredda with something, so I came looking for you. Kansa told me you came out here to find Ghada. What are you guys doing?”
“Come on in,” Ghada said, motioning to his bed. Stray hoisted himself up, sitting innocuously, his toes just touching the earthen floor. Ghada tapped Edzie on the shoulder with her katsun, and said, “We were just doing a little sparring, eh?”
Edzie turned, looking at the practice weapon in her hand. “Right. So, you think I should try with this?”
“Yeah, probably a good idea,” Ghada said. “Feel something a little different in your hands. I’ll see how well I defend against a heavier weapon. Just be careful with me!” He smirked, and Edzie sensed the patronizing smarm in his voice. She assumed an aggressive stance, intending to beat it out of him.
Edzie, always a meticulous and talented katsun-fighter, had expected to be testing Ghada’s skill, but after they exchanged a few blows, it became clear that she would be testing herself against him. She had an acute eye and a precise control over her movements, but compared to Ghada’s proficiency, her inadequacy was almost embarrassing. He flowed from one form into another, withdrawing and intercepting and baiting her in one direction and catching her off-guard from the other side, like water flowing around a stone in its riverbed. He was tactful enough to avoid humiliating her in front of Stray… he never struck her hard enough to break their rhythm, and he made a point of complimenting her quickness… but he was in control of every touch, tap, and deflection.
Stray watched, mesmerized, and managed to identify most of the forms his older peers used, but he couldn’t fully judge their respective skills, or the blatant asymmetry in their abilities. He occasionally gasped or cheered some touch or reversal by one of the combatants, but his comments only showed his lack of experience.
Not only was Ghada’s technique dominant… he also conducted the whole match with a certain level of formality that Edzie wasn’t used to in her sessions with Stray and Boyle, or even with her mother. Every one of Edzie’s attack forms elicited a designated withstand or intercept form, and he never really broke the gradual cycle he and Edzie established. He remained calm and predictable in his attacks, always giving Edzie a chance to rally; when she resorted to one of the withdraw forms, he stepped back into his own space and reset their respective positions.
Ghada’s techniques were so established, so scholastic, that Edzie started announcing his forms as he did them. She explained, between breaths, that this was for Stray’s benefit, but she hoped Ghada could sense the mocking undertone… her subtler point being that Ghada’s approach was, in itself, a sort of a recitation, flawless to the point of banality. Unfortunately, as they both knew, it was also absolutely effective… even when Edzie switched up her forms, or broke her stride to throw off her opponent, he simply reacted appropriately, choosing the right movement to neutralize her.
The first time Edzie cheated, it was mostly just for her own satisfaction, a harmless trick at Ghada’s expense. After she defended against a few of his attacks in a row, she took three strides back, slumped over, and asked him to wait a moment while she caught her breath. He lowered his katsun and turned to say something to Stray… as soon as she saw his eyes were off her, she dropped her pretense of exhaustion and thrust her katsun in between his legs, pulling them out from under him. He cursed (mildly, of course) and toppled backwards, and she stepped over him, laughing, and prodded him in the kidney with the practice weapon.
“Too trusting!” she cried, letting him remain for a moment before she stepped away.
“Hey!” Stray’s voice was audibly agitated. “You cheater!”
“Oh, come on,” Edzie said, momentarily disregarding his frustration. “He’s better than me anyway.”
“I don’t care, you’re a sluicule, taking him down like that!”
“STRAY! Don’t use that word with me!” Edzie’s voice betrayed some shock at hearing the curse come out of Stray’s mouth.
Ghada was already on his feet by then, and he spoke with care, recognizing the danger in Stray’s sudden mood swing. “It’s okay, Stray, don’t worry… she can mess with me a little. I can take it. Edzie, you should say you’re sorry for that, though.”
Edzie looked skeptically at Ghada. “Alright, fine, sorry. You’re fine anyway. I’m ready to get back to it whenever you are.”
They fought for several more minutes, and Edzie watched Ghada closely to see if she had shaken his confidence. It seemed she hadn’t… he was still fluid and sharp, all poise and protocol. If she had been more perceptive at that moment, more sensitive to Stray’s stormy attitude, she might have avoided a good deal of trouble, and changed a great deal of subsequent history. But she wasn’t concerned with her big-sister role at that moment… she was focused on Ghada, her friend and competitor, a mirror for her wit and martial skill.
So, at the beginning of the following match, knowing she couldn’t prove her prowess by the use of the blade alone, she elected to cheat again. To some degree, it was a lesson for Ghada, who she felt could use a stroke of ruthlessness to puncture his formal perfection. It was also a test for Stray, whose overreaction to her previous offense had left her feeling uneasy. Mostly, though, it was for her own satisfaction.
To Edzie’s credit, it took a fair amount of premeditation to arrange her second full assault on Ghada… over the course of three exchanges, she side-stepped an attack from the front, and then withdrew three steps, until her back was knocking against his table where he kept his cosmetics. Ghada had stepped back to allow her to regroup, and his face betrayed concern that she would knock over his things; she turned and steadied herself on the table, lowering the katsun to show that she had her balance.
When she turned back, she had an eagerness in her eyes that should have made Ghada suspicious. Stray vaguely recognized it, a glimmer of private knowledge that she coveted in the face of her opponent. She lifted her katsun again, holding it with one hand, and said, “Okay, ready? Stop me if you can.”
Ghada settled into an alert position, confident that he could intercept whatever approach she made, and Edzie charged, extending the most aggressive form into two strides and a lunge. When she was close enough that he wouldn’t be able to react, she whipped her free hand around from behind her back, releasing a vial of softening powder she had acquired from Ghada’s table. The vial itself, a light wooden bowl no bigger than a cupped palm, glanced harmlessly off Ghada’s cheek as he moved to intercept her, but the powder spread outward in a cloud, billowing over Ghada’s cheeks, upper body, and into his eyes and nose.
As he reeled, haplessly losing the flow of his intercept form, Edzie stepped inside his guard, grabbed her own wooden katsun blade with her free hand, and used the heavier practice katsun to whack Ghada hard in the ribs. His grip came loose on the smaller weapon, and she wrenched it out of his grasp and took it in her opposite hand. As he sputtered and tried to wipe the oily dust out of his eyes, she crossed the wooden swords and snapped them into place on either side of his neck, signaling her dominance.
She was on the verge of laughter, about to step back and help Ghada clean himself off, when Stray’s voice reached her, bellowing louder than she had ever heard it. His body came out of nowhere, appearing in her peripheral vision and then crashing into her, and she released her grip on both wooden swords to keep them from hurting Ghada. Stray contented himself with a single push, putting his whole weight behind both arms, but it was enough to toss Edzie off her feet. She landed on her rump with a thud, and the pain of the impact rippled through her tailbone and butt.
“OW! STRAY! WHAT’S WITH YOU?!?”
“YOU CHEATED!” Stray screamed, now just barely comprehensible. Edzie registered Stray, coiled up over her as if to kick her, and then she saw a tiny rational spark take hold, and he restrained himself. Instead, he bent down and picked up her katsun, the lighter and better-crafted of the two weapons on the ground, picked it up, and stomped unexpectedly toward the nearest wall.
“GHADA WAS NICE THIS WHOLE TIME, AND YOU CHEATED! YOU ARE A SLUICULE!”
Edzie was almost to her feet, but she was too bewildered to anticipate Stray’s intentions. He reached the wall, and with a sort of grunting, fuming ruthlessness, he propped the katsun up against it. Before Edzie could react, he stomped on the weapon, right at the center. It gave a couple centimeters, and there was a loud cracking sound. Edzie panicked and lunged toward Stray, but it was much too late… he stomped a second time, and the weapon splintered and broke into two sharp pieces, coming apart along the grain of the wood.
“NO!” Edzie reached Stray in a couple more steps… Stray, who still looked fiercely resentful, with traces of angry tears in his eyes. She grabbed him and threw him down to the ground, willfully rough, and crouched down to inspect her broken katsun. Ghada came up behind her and paused a few steps away, unsure of whom to comfort.
At that moment, as they were all caught in a moment of troubled indecision, Kosef appeared at the door, concerned about the noise. He instinctively moved to help Stray, who looked shaken, even in his rage; Edzie gathered the splinters of wood and lurched toward the door.
“What happened?!?” Kosef demanded, alarmed at the tension in the air.
“THEY can tell you,” Edzie barked, her voice wavering with a tangle of violent emotions. “I’M going to tell MOM.” She directed a scorching glance toward Stray, and then marched out Ghada’s entrance, into the gathering room, and out into the paths of the settlement. She looked at the ground, wounded and ashamed, as tears streamed down her cheeks.
Elkansa did not disappoint her daughter. When Edzie arrived home, tears dried, bearing the corpse of a shattered katsun that her mother had secured by rare special request, Elkansa was provoked into full lecture and punishment mode. This ire was directed entirely at Stray, who she already felt was troublesome and irresponsible, so his punishment was instituted swiftly and mercilessly. He was subjected to an unprecedented lecture on honor and respect and self-control, he was told that he would be making his own food for the rest of the week, he was given a host of labor-intensive projects to complete under Elkansa’s supervision, and he was kept isolated and confined for the best parts of several days.
Over the course of those several days, the full story began to emerge from a haze of discussions and reports: Ghada’s and Kosef’s, Stray’s, and finally Edzie’s. Edzie had great success, early on, in downplaying her own role in the incident, saying she was just being playfully mischievous and Stray exploded for no reason. However, when Ghada and Kosef confirmed certain parts of Stray’s story, Elkansa realized she would need to address some issues with Edzie, as well. She would not tolerate a cheater and a troublemaker, mocking and antagonizing other people her age. She had spent her entire adulthood earning the esteem of the tribe, and she didn’t want Edzie to spoil it before she could inherit it.
Edzie remained generally bitter about her lost weapon – it was many months before she stopped mourning for it – but her relationship with Stray repaired itself fairly quickly. After a few days, she was back to telling him about the stories she was reading, and within several more days she was back to practicing the sixteen forms with him. She wondered, briefly, if there was some way she could help him control his anger, but no clear solution presented itself, so she let herself forget the problem entirely. Luckily, Elkansa’s memory wasn’t so short.
A couple weeks after the katsun was broken and Stray was punished, Edzie was in her room, preparing for a trek across the settlement, when she became aware of Elkansa and Mistra Septa’s voices in the gathering room. She paused, doing her best to hear their conversation, but it was too quiet… she could just tell they were speaking very seriously, and that Stray was a prime topic of their discussion. She tried to go back to reading afterward, but found herself distracted, wondering what was happening with Stray and the Mistra.
Her question was answered after their class session the next day.