“So, last time we met, you tried to find the natural tone in this space and reproduce it with your own voice. Do you think you can remember the pitch you found?”
“I don’t know. Is it the same?”
“The same? I don’t know. If you want to try to find the same tone in this space, and match it, you can do that. What I’m asking is that you reproduce the same pitch you had last session, as closely as you can.”
“Will you know if I’m right?”
“Yes. That’s one of the basic skills you develop when you follow the paths… I can remember the exact pitch, or as close as the human ear can get to it.”
Stray nodded, closed his eyes, and listened to the atmosphere, just as he had earlier that week. He was patient… waiting a few seconds, and then another thirty, and then longer than he cared to measure. Eventually, he began to hum, trying to let the air escape his lungs at the same rate that the breeze brushed against his ears. He hummed the tone until he was entirely out of breath.
“Did I get it?”
“No. It was more like this…” Septa hummed, just above Stray’s threshold for hearing. Her tone was a few measures deeper than his. “Now listen again, and try to find that tone again.”
Stray listened outside himself, let his breath even out, and prepared himself for the slow exhalation. Before he could reproduce the pitch, he stopped. “No, I can’t. It’s different. Maybe it’s the weather, or something.”
“Good,” Septa said. “That’s fair, I think. The fact is, you’re never just hearing the outside world… you’re also hearing your own resonance, and the two are interfering with one another. Hopefully, with a little work, you can find a tone that you keep entirely for yourself, that you can always find, and it can be your tonic for gauging the harmonics of your body and the world around you.”
“Okay. So what do I do?”
“Think about what you’re hearing, and think about that tone from last session, that I just reproduced for you. And now… triangulate. Look for something else, that gives sense to both of the other two. I’m guessing it’ll take you a few sessions, but you can go ahead and work on it. We have as much time as we need.”
Edzie turned fourteen that autumn, and though she was still a year away from her initiation, it started inhabiting her idle thoughts. She was fully proficient in the forms now, and she could fight competently enough that she held her own in sparring matches, even against her mother. Her martial techniques served as the backbone to her social life… when Stray was attending Mistra Septa’s private lessons, and Boyle was with Varda, Edzie would drift over to practice with Bellaryn and Ghada, both of whom had a great deal to teach Edzie in the subtle art of katsun-fighting.
Stray had made great strides in calming his temper… since his first lesson with Mistra Septa, he had only ignited a few flare-ups with his classmates. The Mistra was now teaching him some more advanced methods of mediating between his mind and body: meditation inspired by the Caesurite teachings, including chanting, controlled breathing, and low-frequency acoustic sensitivity. Stray showed significant aptitude in these areas, and after a while, Mistra Septa told him he might benefit from some high-intensity physical discipline, so that he might learn more muscular and respiratory awareness.
“How about katsun fighting?” Stray suggested, with very little introspection. “Could I learn that stuff and practice the forms at the same time?”
Mistra Septa was pleased with this response, however predictable it was. “I think that would work nicely. We just need to get you a specialized trainer… luckily, I think we both know one who would be happy to take you on.”
Thus began Stray’s second schedule of private lessons: twice-weekly sessions with Mistra Eryn, the soldier-guru Caesurite monk who maintained a pavilion-practice-space in the center of the settlement. For the past fifteen years, Eryn had instructed the Denorians in philosophy, mathematics, and military tactics. Before becoming a Mistra, she had studied in several schools of arms in the River Kingdoms, and she had led a detachment of Protectorate in Bhijanica for nearly a decade. She ranked among the greatest warriors in the tribe, and was certainly the fiercest and most feared of its non-natives.
Eryn spent her first few sessions with Stray forcing him to perform very basic balancing and stretching exercises, doing her best to purge him of various bad habits that Edzie had inadvertently taught him. Once she was satisfied that he was in rudimentary control of his limbs and center of gravity, she started taking him through the sixteen traditional Denorian forms, impressing upon him the primal tactile-acoustic nature of the parry, the thrust, and the slash. Together, Eryn and Septa inducted Stray into an arcane discipline of rhythm, consciousness, and mediated instinct. He eventually realized, in a gradual private revelation, that they were grooming him.
Edzie often resigned herself to tracking Stray down across the settlement, and in those days, her search often brought her to Mistra Eryn’s practice-space. This happened on a frigid, overcast day that winter, shortly before the new year: Edzie finished the final chapter in one of Mistra Septa’s textbooks, and found herself mentally numb and physically restless. Putting on a woolen shawl and tying her heavy brivsa over her hair and shoulders, she set off north. In a few minutes, she had crossed the half-frozen Splitmouth, passed the old orebark grove, and crossed into the prairie around Mistra Eryn’s practice-space.
When Edzie arrived, the pavilion was silent… no squeaking footwraps on the wooden floor, no clatters of katsun or war-cries issuing from the entrance. Edzie stuck her head inside, and saw Mistra Eryn in the center of the space, clad in wool and boundeer leather, executing a series of maneuvers with glacial precision. She was using a western-style sword with a short hilt and a long blade, and it rotated in her palm in a way that Edzie had never seen with a katsun.
“Hello, Edzie. What are you doing all the way out here?” Eryn didn’t break her rhythm to speak to Edzie… in fact, as far as Edzie could tell, she hadn’t even looked in her direction.
Edzie took a step inside. “Entren atrista bransa Dissadae, sevastrin vastris. Hello, Mistra Eryn. I was just bored, and hoping to catch Stray at his lesson.”
“Oh, he’s already finished. He and Ghada went off somewhere… probably to Ghada’s dromo, to practice.”
A small knot appeared in Edzie’s stomach, but she kept it contained. “Oh, right. Thanks. How are his lessons going?”
Eryn executed two slashes at chest level, and then seemed to let the sword fall, but when it swung downward in her palm, she simply caught it in a reverse-grip. “He’s doing very well. I think the meditations are helping him a great deal, even with the katsun. He’ll be a worthy match for you soon, Edzie, we’ll see to it.”
Edzie nodded, feeling impatient. “Sounds good, Mistra. I’m going to go see what they’re doing. Thanks!” With this, she turned and departed the pavilion, not feeling it necessary to repeat the blessing. Ghada’s dromo was just a bit to the north, a couple minutes at a jog. She had no reason to hurry… logically, she was aware of this… but a gnawing annoyance, a sort of lurid suspicion, drove her to haste. She was at the entrance to Ghada’s dromo in a fifth the time it normally took her to travel that distance.
Edzie knocked at the door politely, and poked her head in. The interior was submerged in shadow, still and frigid with the winter air, and the only light came from the direction of Ghada’s room. There were quiet sounds coming from that direction, the shuffling of limbs or linens. Edzie marched in that direction, trying to decide whether to make a noise or appear in sudden, terrifying silence.
When she entered Ghada’s room, conspicuously and without preamble, she found Stray and Ghada intertwined in the center of the room… fully clothed, to her relief, but obviously not sure how to react to her intrusion. Ghada was standing very close behind Stray, one hand on his waist and the other on his shoulder, adjusting his posture and helping him lower his center of gravity. Stray was holding a practice katsun in a guard position, approximately at the level of his solar plexus, pointed at some imaginary opponent in front of him. Stray was clearly making an effort to concentrate on the weapon… Ghada, on the other hand, looked petrified with guilt.
Luckily, he recovered quickly. “Uh, hi, Edzie. Never one to announce your presence, are you?”
“Must have slipped my mind,” Edzie said. “And what is it that you two are so focused on that you couldn’t hear me coming down the hall?”
“Ghada’s helping me square up my stance,” Stray said innocently.
“Very nice,” Edzie said. “But you’ve got one of the best katsun teachers in the tribe giving you private lessons. Why trouble Ghada?” She directed a raise of her eyebrow at Ghada as she spoke.
“Mistra Eryn says she’s tired of drilling me on the basics, so Ghada’s help is welcome.”
“Fine, then. You look like you’re doing pretty well.” She walked past him, giving his katsun a tap when she came close enough. “Hey, Stray, you should head home. Mom could use some help with dinner, and I wanted a few minutes with Ghada, too.”
Stray scowled. “She does NOT need help. It’s still the middle of the day. I’ll stay a little longer, and you and Ghada can practice.”
“No, Stray, start back. It’ll take a while to get home, and you… might distract us.”
“Oh, come on, Edzie. I just got here.”
Ghada rolled his eyes and intervened. “No, it’s okay, Stray. Head back, and we’ll work on you some more later in the week. I’ll come over to your dromo, and Edzie can’t kick you out. I guess she and I have something to talk about, though.”
Stray nodded, his face skeptical. He placed the katsun gently against the wall, gave a half-hearted wave, and walked out into the shadows of the hallway.
“Okay, Edzie, let’s hear it.”
“SHH.” Edzie waved to quiet Ghada, and then, keeping low and quiet, she followed after Stray, trailing him all the way to the front entrance and watching him depart down the path toward the Splitmouth. Finally, satisfied that he had started home in earnest, she returned to Ghada’s room.
Ghada was standing by his cot, arms folded. “Come on, Edzie. If Stray says he’s going home, he may as well already be there. He’s not like you, sneaking around and being nosy.”
“Well, I just wanted to make sure,” Edzie said. “Don’t need him hearing us talk about this stuff, and he certainly doesn’t need to learn about it from a rake like you.”
“What stuff, Edzie?”
“Come on, Ghada. I’m not stupid.”
“I know, but I want to hear you say it.”
Edzie groaned. “You know… coupling. I mean, it’s fine for you, but Stray’s too young.” She was met with silence, so she repeated herself. “Seriously. TOO YOUNG. Twelve is too young.”
Ghada laughed at Edzie’s sudden maternal turn. “Come on, Edzie, you’re only a year older. I started learning when I was around his age… maybe even younger. And for me, it was with a girl of, maybe, three, four years older, who was a cousin of mine by marriage. At least, with me, you’d know he was learning from someone you all could trust.”
“Quite a story,” Edzie said, slightly uncomfortable with this rush of information. “So were you planning on teaching him… the whole spectrum? All the way to…”
“No, no, of course not! Come on, Edzie, I’m not a complete scoundrel… even I haven’t done that yet. Just the first things.” He sat on the cot, and Edzie joined him, listening to him with disguised fascination. He was trying his best to be open about the topic, despite its sensitivity. “You know, kissing, flirting, hands, mouths.”
Edzie winced a bit at this, and Ghada tried to wave it away. “Or, maybe even less. But he’s not that young, and you’re not his mother. In fact, I doubt Elkansa would even have a problem with it.”
“You’re probably right,” Edzie said, “but I still don’t think he’s ready. When he is ready, I think he’ll show it by going outside our circle of friends, and finding somebody who’s not knee-deep in all our business. It would be better that way, anyway.”
“I don’t know,” Ghada said. “I wouldn’t want to start trouble between you two, but I think Stray might already know what’s on my mind. If he comes to me on his own, why should I go out of my way to reject him and hurt his feelings? I think you’re making the whole thing even worse by trying to baby him.”
Edzie scowled at this, but held her tongue. “Well, I’m not interested in Stray having some tryst if he can’t even keep it secret from me, and if it’s between you and him, I would know about it. In a second.” She glanced at the katsun leaning against Ghada’s wall, and then at his hand, resting on the cot.
Edzie was about to speak, and then she found her head swimming. She knew this feeling from other encounters around the settlement… close passes near some of the older boys and girls in the Mistras’ sessions, furtive thoughts triggered by the contour of Sola’s waist or the sweaty, suggestive smell of the Denorian boys as they practiced their forms… it was a profoundly physical sensation, welling up from her gut, into her chest, and forcing the blood into her head and her loins. She had never found Ghada particularly attractive, even as the rest of the settlement swooned over him, but now, sitting beside him, watching him torture himself over his attraction to Stray, she felt herself dissolving into a warm, sensual reverie.
Ghada was looking at her, and she felt caught between paralyzing anxiety and inscrutable ambition. Finally, in characteristic form, she followed the latter. “Well, Ghada, if you need somebody to teach, you can always teach me.” Having stepped off the precipice, she went the extra step, taking his hand in hers.
Ghada was slow to look at her, and he held her gaze for a considerable span, perhaps a full minute. She kept her expression absolutely neutral, her only defense against hyperventilating, or choking with the tension. Finally, he started leaning in, awkward as only a fourteen-year old can be, and as he drew close to her, casting his eyes downward, he said, “I hope Stray’s okay with this.”
Their first experiments were charmingly innocent and earnest. Ghada’s lips moved softly over Edzie’s, and Edzie’s hands explored cautiously, brushing over Ghada’s chest and ribs and shoulders. Following her hesitation, she took his hands and invited him to paw at her stomach and back, allowing him to make only the slightest contact with her still-developing breasts and her sinewy legs. The sensation that lingered longest, for Edzie, was the smell of his breath, which Ghada kept as flawless as the rest of him.
They only spent a handful of minutes in this experiment, and afterwards, they made a fire in the small stone hearth in the gathering room. They huddled there for much longer… close to an hour… with Edzie’s arm around Ghada’s back, and Ghada’s head leaning against Edzie’s clavicle. They talked about the tribe, and about Stray, and about Ghada’s mother, and finally about Edzie and Ghada themselves.
“I don’t think we make that much sense together,” Edzie observed, not sure whether she was joking.
“I don’t know,” Ghada said. “I mean, I think I could make a case for it.”
“What’s that?” Edzie said, captivated and curious.
“Well, I don’t think either of us are looking for long-term arrangements, right? I’m not planning to tether myself to one woman… I don’t think I need it like some men do… and you don’t strike me as the type to start a family and build a household around yourself. In fact, I’d be surprised if you ever took a spouse at all.”
Edzie laughed. “So we’re a good match because neither of us wants to be matched with anyone?”
“Well, there’s more than that. I may not be very domestic, but I am loyal to the tribe. You could use someone like that… a little bit of an anchor, so you don’t just wander off as soon as you get bored.”
I already am bored, Edzie thought, but kept it to herself.
“I mean…” Ghada continued, “you’re already better-off than your mom, letting a guy like me get so close to you.”
Edzie was struck by this observation, and almost jerked out from under Ghada. “What do you mean by that?”
“You know, your mom and her romantic habits.” Ghada looked up at Edzie for some acknowledgment. “No? You don’t know? I mean, it’s pretty well-understood around here that your mother has a very particular type of love interest. She doesn’t want to get some man attached to her, so she only falls for the tortured, restless type, the kind of man that never quite returns the commitment.”
Edzie stared at Ghada for a moment, and then looked back toward the fire. This was a strange revelation, and had it come from anyone else, she might have taken offense. From Ghada, though, it simply felt honest, almost too obvious in retrospect. Her own father was lost in the haze of youth and time, and Stray’s father had only lingered long enough to leave his son behind. Aside from this, Elkansa had always been alone, as far as Edzie knew. In her mother’s self-imposed solitude, Edzie recognized the seeds of her own wanderlust.
When Kosef returned to the dromo, the overcast sky was in the grip of twilight, casting a blue-gray shadow over the Denorian settlement. Ghada and Edzie got up from the fire, politely concealing their intimacy, and Edzie made smalltalk for a few minutes before taking her leave. It took her another ninety minutes – long enough for her to think hard about this new eventuality in her life – before she arrived home, shivering, to an indifferent mother and a still-annoyed Stray.