4: Bad Habits

4.1

The summer was characterized by several stable patterns. Edzie perfected her forms, supervised by her mother, and occasionally assisted by Mistra Eryn, the Caesura monk from the north side of the settlement, whose youth had been spent training in military tactics with various civil lords from the river and plains kingdoms. In their private free time, mostly in the evenings, Edzie and Stray would practice these forms together, with Edzie drilling Stray in all the practicalities that Elkansa had glossed over or withheld. Twice a week, Edzie and Stray would attend Mistra Septa's lectures, and generally managed to coordinate with Boyle, so that the three of them could attend the same sessions. In any remaining time between meals and chores, the three of them would linger on the outskirts of the settlement, lost in their own private worlds (Edzie's books, Boyle's drawings) and their shared imaginings.

Ghada was an occasional guest in their group, but he balanced a number of other friendships and social circles. He was generally a student in Mistra Eryn's lectures, rather than Septa's, and his mother and father were more connected with the families in the central and eastern neighborhoods of the Denorian territory. Still, he made an effort to see the three of them at least a few times a month... perhaps, Edzie intuited, following whatever special affinity he felt for Stray.

The summer's schedule was fully established, and was even beginning to feel tired and anemic, on the day that Stray, Edzie, and Boyle learned about the Denorian trade – a lesson they would remember well, but not for its own sake.

Ghada was with them – the oldest, walking in front, followed (in miraculous order of seniority) by Edzie, Stray, and Boyle – as they entered Mistra Septa's pavilion, each giving the boundary blessing and looking for a seat. Edzie, Stray, and Boyle sat near the center of the room, and Ghada remained behind, near the entrance. Luna was in front, at the Mistra's platform... she and Sola had been taking turns helping Mistra Septa these last few weeks, on the order of Elder Hylidae, who thought both of them needed some practical experience under some authority figure. Among the older Denorians, there was a murmur of gossip: parents traveling, friends getting punished, accomplices discussing schemes of mischief and escape. The younger children – the six- and seven-year olds – were making a racket around the edges of the group, eliciting occasional rebukes from older friends and siblings.

Mistra Septa arrived momentarily, giving the boundary blessing, and within perhaps fifteen seconds, the pavilion fell silent. Luna stood dutifully, and Mistra Septa allowed the space of a long breath before she acknowledged her and bade her sit back down.

“Good morning, fine Denorian foundlings,” Mistra Septa began, affecting formality and demanding strict attention. “Today we learn about the economics of our tribe, especially in terms of trade with neighboring peoples. This includes some discussion of our crafts and our natural resources. If anyone feels they know this material already, you are excused from the lesson, and I wish you a lovely afternoon.”

Edzie saw three Denorians get up; glancing behind her, she saw that Ghada was getting up, as well. He gave a modest farewell gesture as he parted the curtain of the pavilion, and then he was gone. The activity abated after a few seconds, and Mistra Septa continued.

“First, I have an assignment: we must collect some of our staple resources from around the settlement. I only need a few people for this task. Are there any volunteers?”

Several hands shot up, Stray's among them (as always). Boyle hesitated, and then put his hand up, as well, following his friend's lead. Mistra Septa chose two younger Denorians, Boris and Ingra, bidding them to find the largest stone they could carry. She picked another student and asked her to find some orebark... either a fallen limb, or some object or artifact already fashioned... and then she pointed to Stray and told him to find threshweed, which grew in several places along the Splitmouth. She said she wanted them back within half an hour, so they wouldn't miss too much of the class.

“Can Boyle come?”

Mistra Septa raised her eyebrows at Stray's interruption, but didn't immediately reprimand him. “Finding threshweed only requires a single person, I think. I suppose it comes down to whether Boyle is comfortable missing the first half hour of the session.”

“I think I'll be okay,” Boyle said.

“Well, I want to be sure. You can go with Stray if you can answer a question...” She inclined her head, considering. Finally, she continued. “Name something we use in the settlement that we do not make here, that we have to get by trading with our neighbors.”

Boyle sensed that there was more to this question than a simple recounting. He screwed up his forehead, trying to figure out what kind of answer would please the Mistra. Finally, he said. “There is nothing we need that we can't provide for ourselves, with the help of the Huskins. That's what mom tells me, anyway.”

“Okay, a very wise response, but there are things we use regularly that we don't make. Can you name something? I'm not trying to trick you.”

Boyle's thoughts jumped to his own belongings, several of which he was carrying in a wrapped bundle that rested beside him on the floor: a few strips of Huskin jerky, a couple black grease-pens, and a long, rolled tapestry of canvas that he was drawing on in his spare time. He thought about Stray and Edzie – Edzie's katsun, Stray's gloves and foot-wraps – and finally, an appropriate answer occurred to him.

“Books?”

“Very good,” Mistra Septa said. “Also, most of the inks and dyes we use to color things... precious stones that some of the craftspeople use for embellishing their carvings... any of the soft cord and fabrics that some of your parents use for warmth and special clothing... there are other examples, too. But yes, books: almost all imported from monks of the Echo, or from Horizon or the River Kingdoms, where they have large copy-houses dedicated to works of the written word.”

Stray was already up, ready to leave. “You may go,” Septa said to Boyle, and he leapt to his feet. There, he faltered a moment, deciding whether to pick up his small collection of belongings.

“Go ahead, I'll watch it,” Edzie said, and Boyle complied, following his friend out into the settlement to find threshweed.  The rest of the class turned their attention back to Mistra Septa, who was introducing the topic of trade and resource management, explaining the general concepts of “economics” and “subsistence.”

For fifteen minutes, Mistra Septa lingered over these terms, and their various ilk: resources, capital, labor, and trade. When she felt she had covered the essentials, she allowed some time for questions, and half a dozen open hands shot up, giving her fertile space for a healthy discussion. Most of the questions came from students who hadn't been there for previous lessons.

Do the other tribes trade the same things we do?

Where do the big cities get their resources? Who do they trade with?

When did people start buying and selling things?

Why don't the Denorians use money within the tribes, like the merchants on the road?

By the time Mistra Septa had answered half a dozen questions, the Denorian children had returned to the pavilion with the stone (a crusty rock from near the Chronoboros) and the orebark, a scrap of discarded lumber from an unfinished house to the east. Stray and Boyle were still nowhere to be seen, and Mistra Septa was starting to look impatient. Inevitably, she called upon Edzie to solve this problem.

“Edzie, we need some of the threshweed to finish here. Do you know where your friends might have gone?”

“I don't think so,” Edzie said. “Besides, they could still get back before their time runs out!”

Mistra Septa groaned and shook her head. “No, they've already taken too long. I'll wait another two minutes, and then I'll have to do my best without them. If you want to go find them, feel free.”

Edzie accepted the responsibility, springing to her feet and jogging out the back of the pavilion, making a show of haste. Outside, she headed south toward the road, planning to go to the bank of the Splitmouth and keep searching eastward, where she (and certainly Stray) knew some threshweed could be found. She continued at a steady jog, pulling off her tunic as she ran, leaving only her bandeaux and leggings. She could already feel the beads of sweat at her forehead, and she allowed herself some annoyance at Stray and Boyle's truancy, though she knew it was exactly the type of behavior she occasionally encouraged.

Edzie's search wasn't long... within a few minutes, she encountered them walking briskly back in her direction, legs dripping with water from the stream, each carrying a fistful of threshweed. Edzie grabbed Stray by the arm and dragged him back toward the path, insisting he hurry up; he stumbled behind, laughing, as Boyle scrambled to keep up.

“What took you so long?!?” Edzie barked.

“We got distracted talking about Boyle's mom and dad, and we missed the spot where we normally pick the threshweed. We walked, like, twice as far as we should have.”

“Well, Mistra Septa is already going on without us, and if we don't get back, she'll probably have mom up in arms at us next time they talk.”

The three of them retraced Edzie's path, arriving back at the pavilion a few words into the second half of the lecture. They returned to their seats and listened as she talked about how the stones in the Pastures were brittle enough to be broken up and used in city landscapes and gardens, and how the orebark was one of the strongest woods in their part of the world, just right for fashioning strong tools and weapons. She spoke of the many Concordance craftspeople who worked with these materials, and how their creations were worth a great deal in trade. She then prompted Stray and Boyle to hand her the threshweed, and she showed how its fibers were oily and tough, and explained how it was used throughout Pantempus as an oil in lamps and perfumes.

As always happened with these lessons, many of the students were already familiar with most of the information, but they remained dutifully attentive, soaking up the lecture and context with the thirst that motivates young minds. Mistra Septa finished and fielded questions for a quarter of an hour, and then dismissed the class with a blessing. Stray, Edzie, and Boyle were confident she had forgotten the boys' lateness, or overlooked it.

As they clambered to their feet, discussing their afternoon plans, Boyle became suddenly animated. “Where is it?” he exclaimed, first at nobody, and then at Edzie. “Where are my things?”

Edzie realized she had entirely forgotten about them when she left the pavilion in the middle of the lesson. As far as she knew, that was when they had disappeared. Mistra Septa wouldn't have taken them, nor tolerated anyone else doing so, if she had known. They concluded it must have been one of the other students sitting near them, perhaps motivated by an excess of curiosity.

“It's fine,” Edzie said, “we'll just ask the ones who were near us. We'll find it soon.”

Boyle agreed, but he seemed unduly anxious. Stray and Edzie looked on with concern as he picked over the room, checking the floor and the corners multiple times before he accepted that his effects had completely vanished. Finally, he abandoned the search and prepared himself to go with Edzie and Stray to the Splitmouth, where they could continue talking about their parents, peers, and private obsessions.

Edzie, the first of the three to leave the pavilion, immediately felt something unsettling in the air. It was both an excess of sound and a strange sort of silence, a buzz of conversation just out of earshot, and a suspicious absence of playful activity. The boys, having followed her into the open, hadn't noticed any difference, and now they had moved ahead of her, down the path to the southeast. She followed, inexplicably vigilant.

Her anxieties were explained several meters further on. They passed through a gap in the houses, an open clearing of hot, dry, and dusty earth, sprinkled with scrub and scattered with a few tiny saplings that Denorians had planted over the years. Scanning the empty lot, Edzie spotted a significant group of children, perhaps seven or eight, all huddled in a hushed conversation. Boyle and Stray noticed it too, and Stray set off to investigate, ignoring, as usual, Boyle's hesitation.

Edzie took stock of the situation as she followed Stray. The children were hushed, but agitated, and they had congregated in an area where adults wouldn't interfere with them... indeed, the spot seemed chosen for this purpose, which Edzie read as a strategic decision. She checked her side and found her katsun, bound reassuringly to her thigh.

It turned out that Luna was at the center of the group, with Sola by her side, and the other children were craning their necks to hear them and see what they were doing. Edzie heard a few words as she approached: “not good,” “parents,” and “redge” – the latter of which Edzie recognized as a nasty, vicious epithet, which she had most recently heard used by the prisoner in referring to his own people.

As the children noticed the three newcomers, their conversation stopped abruptly, as though a disapproving ghost had passed over them. The hush was palpable, withering, more severe than the sun on those cloudless days. Edzie could see immediately that they were all focused on Boyle; this dawned on Stray, as well, though it took him another moment.

“Hey, Boyle,” Luna shouted, “we got something of yours here. Come take a look.”

Boyle remained motionless, clearly paralyzed by some sudden uncertainty. Edzie moved forward to stand beside him, and a little bit behind; Stray advanced until his ten-year-old body became a worthy obstruction, and then stopped and assumed a protective stature. “What is it?” he said, curious for a moment, and then his tone turned indignant: “Give it back. What's all this about?”

The children, most of them around Edzie's age, remained subdued, locked in a grip of hostile anticipation. Only Luna stepped forward, having declared herself the spokeswoman for this gathering of children. She tossed something on the ground not far from Stray's feet, though he had to take a few steps to reach it.

“Take a look,” she said. “Pure filth. Your friend needs to be straightened.”

Stray picked up the object – a crumple of canvas as long as an adult's arm – and let it fall open so he could look at it. Edzie stepped up around Boyle to get a look, and they both saw the drawings together: on one end, flowery abstractions, and then loose shapes of human and animal bodies, and then, somewhere near the center, a whole section, perhaps a handspan in length, covered in sketches of heads and faces. Most were loose and unrefined, and others were more detailed and volumetric... some were barely recognizable as warriors or tribal figures. All had the faces drawn on the heads, lucid and unmistakable, all lips and teeth and staring eyes and nostrils.

Stray's reaction was so strong, he seemed to visibly twitch, and he let go of the canvas and let it fall. Edzie's reaction was more private – a shock of distaste, a feeling like some personal boundary had been punctured – but she stood firm, suppressing her reaction and looking back up at Luna. Stray did the same, but only for a moment, and then he looked back at Boyle for some explanation or reassurance.

“I just wanted to see if I could get them right. What it would feel like.” Tears welled up in Boyle's eyes as he looked at Stray. His muscles had tensed and he had shrunk, as if he was gathering himself up to sprint away, or trying to hide in the dust at his feet. “I didn't mean anything by them, Stray. Nobody else was supposed to see it.”

Stray glanced at the canvas and winced, and then Edzie saw a transformation take place: swallowing his visceral distaste and instinctive disapproval, Stray gathered his courage and turned his visage back toward Luna and the other children. If he had a weapon, Edzie thought, he would be drawing it now, making a show of his conviction. Instead, he spoke loudly and firmly, addressing the whole group.

“Who took it? It wasn't yours.”

Some of the children exchanged bewildered looks – none of them sure whether to feel offended or guilty – and silence filled the lot as Stray bent over forward and picked up the canvas. Edzie could see that he didn't even want to touch it, but for the moment, he was being driven by his righteous instinct, not his inhibitions. He lifted the canvas gently with one hand, trying to keep it together without damaging it, and turned his attention back to Boyle, offering it to his friend. Boyle took a tortured step forward, reached out, and accepted it from Stray's hand.

Before anyone could stop her – even Sola reached out to try to defuse her ire – Luna charged, closing the ten steps, and knocked Stray to the ground. She clutched at the piece of canvas and tore it from Boyle's hand, ripping it in half in the process, and then shoved him, as well, though not as hard as she had done to Stray. As she stepped back, she yelled, “We don't give things like this back! We burn them and spit on the charcoal!”

Edzie was positioned about two paces to Boyle and Luna's flank, where she had withdrawn to give Stray some space; her katsun was already drawn. At this last pronouncement of Luna's, she stepped around Boyle and lashed out hard with the katsun, catching Luna around the kidney with a bruising blow. Luna cried out in pain, choking on whatever it was she was trying to say next, and now lunged at Edzie, knocking the katsun aside and striking her, open-handed, hard across the cheek. Edzie dropped back, stunned, and loosened her grip on the weapon just enough that Luna could wrench it free and throw it across the clearing.

Luna, rallying somewhat from her loss of control, turned and took a few steps back toward the children. Sola watched with apprehension as Luna held up the canvas, of which she still held the majority. Edzie shook the fog out of her head and took stock of the situation: Boyle was already moving to help Stray, who was propped up on one elbow, and whom Edzie could tell was so livid he was tempted to spurn his friend's help.

Luna assumed her authoritative role once again, looking back and forth between the larger group of children and the three offenders. “As I was saying: we don't abide things like this, do we? Sick stuff! I say, first, we take it to his parents, and while we're there, we check around to see if he's got any other nice markings he wants to show us! And then his mom and dad can help us burn his filth, so no other little ones have to see it!”

“It's just markings on a canvas!” Stray grunted, now fully invested in his defense of the drawings. Boyle's eyes took on a panicked look, desperate for Stray to defuse the situation, but Stray went on escalating it. “I've never heard anything so stupid! Probably has something to do with that scar you took to your forehead!”

Edzie groaned in dismay. Luna, now fully self-possessed, turned and spoke to Stray's insult. “You think you can defend this voraish? Go ahead and try! I'll make sure not to hurt you too bad!”

She gestured to Sola, who hesitated, and then used her toe to lift Luna's katsun from the ground and vault it through the air. Luna caught it at the top of the handle... it wasn't the most luxurious specimen, but sturdy and balanced, with its plated metal blade fully sharpened. Edzie knew that Luna was skilled enough to strike exclusively with the blunt wooden side, but the threat of a fully forged weapon was still alarming. Stray and Edzie both hesitated, and Boyle looked terrified, poised to retreat at the merest word.

A voice came from north side of the clearing, then, to Edzie's right and Luna's left – a boy's voice, still in the throes of frail adolescence, but it carried across the clearing like the cry of a Freymane, swooping down to pluck a rodent from the earth of the Pastures.

“Ugh, nasty word, Luna! And in front of all us children!”

All of them turned – Sola, Luna, Edzie, Stray, Boyle, and the whole gallery of onlookers in the center of the lot. The voice belonged to Ghada, who had stooped to pick up Edzie's katsun where it landed, and was now standing up and posturing for the audience. He refused to run, but he hastened his walk enough that he had joined Boyle and Stray within a few seconds. He looked ready to help Stray to his feet, but the other boys had already managed, so Ghada had to be content with presenting himself in solidarity.

“Nasty? Not nasty enough for this one. You didn't see what he marked on that parchment.”

Ghada scoffed audibly. “It doesn't matter what he marked. He's lived with us his whole life... he's no voraish. Besides, you shouldn't call people that name, even if you don't like them.”

Sola chuckled at this display of conspicuous dignity, but it wasn't enough to disturb the silence and the tension that sealed the air with hostility. Luna scowled at the three boys in turn. “Well, it doesn't matter whether it's nice or not. It's our word, and it's the right one.” She scowled, turning the katsun over in her hand, and then pointed it at Stray. “Especially for him, left on our riverbank by some westerner.”

Stray's reaction was barely visible, but, sensing it, Edzie could practically feel the heat rise in the air. Stray closed one fist, slowly, and she could see him fully quivering with rage. He might have exploded on the spot, but Luna, impatient with the silence, turned her anger back on Boyle. “But at least that one's got an excuse. This runt...” – she nodded at her hapless target  – “he knows full well that we don't tolerate that kind of filth in our home. He deserves a good kicking.”

“Unless the voraish wants it instead,” Sola interjected, laughing as she said it.

Stray started to move, ready to unleash his frustration, but Ghada put his hand in the way. “No,” he said, talking to the group, “that's not fair. You've riled him up too much to think straight, got him taking this all personally.” Hearing this, Stray heeded Ghada's hand, and Ghada continued. “If you want to fight someone, I'm up for it. You can punish me for the bad markings, or whatever they are. Provided you can hit me, of course.”

Luna raised her katsun just slightly as she spoke. “With what? You don't even have a weapon!”

“Should we let him use mine?” Sola offered, to Luna's visible annoyance.

“NO!” Luna barked. “A kid his age? He'll slice me right open, just by accident!”

“Come on,” Ghada said. “I already have a weapon.” He held up Edzie's katsun. “It's... a little light, but it'll serve.”

A note of shock slipped into Sola's voice as she responded. “Oh come on, Ghada. She's got four years on you, and you... fighting a real katsun with a wooden one... you're gonna get destroyed.”

Ghada rolled the katsun in his hand, swinging back and forth at chest-height, and replied, “Then I'll get what he deserves, right?” He glanced back at Boyle and gave a wink, barely perceptible, and then made a show of stepping into Luna's space. Luna took three steps back, opening a neutral area between them, and Sola, sensing that she had been overruled, made an effort to herd the young Denorians back and out of harm's way. Finally, having staked out his position, Ghada raised the katsun into a guarded stance. Luna responded in kind, letting the scrap of canvas escape her fingers. She raised her katsun, gripping it with both hands, and turned the blunt wooden edge outward; a second later, the ripped drawings landed softly at her feet.

There was a sprawling, ineffable moment as they stared at one another... Ghada, a mere twelve years of age, looking collected and positively regal, and Luna, a headstrong 16-year old on the cusp of womanhood, still caught in the inertia of her anger at Boyle's transgressions. Edzie sensed each of them, at peace in their element: Luna fighting for dominance, following a sort of vestigial survival instinct, and Ghada making a show of honor and loyalty (to whom? Edzie couldn't be sure). The very rustling of the brush seemed to abate, leaving the lot in absolute silence for an interminable split second.

Finally, Luna's impatience won out, and she led with an attack form, flitting and tentative, testing Ghada's reaction. Ghada did not disappoint her: he had his withstand form ready, deflecting the blade of her katsun with a snap of wood striking wood. Luna's eyes focused, and she shifted into a more aggressive posture, chaining together a series of three more attack forms. Ghada deflected two, and then, with no apparent effort, he shifted into an intercept form, turning aside her final thrust and stepping inside her guard.

The melee was now well and truly joined: Ghada pivoted the katsun inward, trying to catch Luna under the jaw, but she caught his arm, and rolled out of his grasp, nearly getting a grip on his handle as she did so. He stumbled back, and then moved into his own attack form, lower and smoother than Luna's staccato slashes. Luna fended off the smaller katsun, meeting strike after strike, but Ghada didn't give her the opportunity to rally.

The bystanders were collectively transfixed, as though they were all caught up in the rhythm of some faintly-remembered song. Edzie had known to expect Luna's proficiency... she and Sola were being groomed intensively by their parents, after all... but she hadn't expected such a performance out of Ghada, who seemed to know the forms as well as any young Denorian she had ever seen. He didn't just execute them in sequence, like Boyle always did, nor did he have Stray's clumsy, restrained ferocity. Instead, he seemed to have adapted his technique into a sort of dance, a fluid, premeditated flow from one form into another. His lack of experience showed – there were moments of visible indecision on his face, and he sometimes cowered before the larger katsun – but he managed to keep Luna from taking control of the fight for several exchanges.

The dust rose in swirls and puffs from the combatants' feet as they circled one another, each trying to adapt their technique to unsettle the other. It was Ghada who landed the first hit – a clip behind Luna's knee, barely worth mention, except that it seemed to throw Luna off and further incense her. Luna responded with renewed ferocity, and her heavy blows drove Ghada into a cowering retreat. She caught his fingers once, and then landed a heavy blow on his left shoulder, before he managed to contort out from under her assault and strike her in the rump as he darted past.

“ARGH! BASTARD!” Luna screamed, whirling around with a vicious swing, and then, without warning, Sola stepped in from the side.

“AH COME ON,” Sola barked, exasperated with her friend, and brought her own katsun down on Ghada's head, hard enough to stun him and make him stumble back. As Ghada reeled, Sola stepped in front of him and used her katsun to block another wild strike from Luna. As Edzie looked on, horrified, Stray jumped into the fray, and suddenly he was wrestling both of the older, larger girls, grabbing for their hair and clothes and weapons.

“ENOUGH ALREADY!” Again, Ghada's voice rang through the lot, arresting the attention of the three combatants. Stray found himself on the ground, pinning Luna under his writhing lower body; Sola remained upright, her right leg locked in Stray's elbow, her left foot stamped squarely on Luna's loose katsun. The three of them extricated themselves from the tangle and stumbled apart, each checking themselves for mortal wounds.

Luna had gotten away with two bruises, and Ghada had a couple sore spots and a rising welt on the back of his head. Sola was arguably in the worst condition... Luna's careless katsun strikes had opened a gash on her upper arm, and blood ran down and dripped from her elbow.

Ghada, now secure that he was still intact, made the first effort at forging peace from the debris of confrontation. “Well,” he called to the girls, “looks like you gave me what I deserved, right? Took two of you, I guess, but still...”

Sola and Luna replied simultaneously: “Learn to watch behind you, Ghada,” Sola said, in concert with Luna's “Woulda been different if I hadn't been watching my edge.”

“Fine then,” Ghada said. “You win. We'll be going, if you all don't mind.” He looked for some acknowledgment from Edzie, who nodded her approval, and they lingered for a moment while Boyle picked up both pieces of his torn canvas.

Finally, Stray, Boyle, Edzie, and Ghada turned wordlessly and trudged out of the lot, followed by the gazes of some ten astounded Denorian children. All four were sweating and panting, and so they slowed down as they reached the path. Edzie and Ghada led, heading south to the bank of Splitmouth to recover; Stray fell a few paces behind. At length, he turned, and found that Boyle had lagged perhaps ten meters back. Stray stopped in his tracks and waited as the boy caught up.

“You okay?” Stray asked earnestly, responding to Boyle's troubled, distracted gaze.

“I... I don't know,” Boyle said, clearly caught in a rush of anxiety. “I think I'm gonna go home, if that's okay.”

“Uhh...” Stray was caught off guard, and failed to muster an appropriate response.

“Sorry, Stray. Tell the others, okay? I'll see you all later.”

And then he turned right, cutting across a rocky field to cross the stream just below the nearest ford. Stray watched him go, and then remained there, paralyzed by apprehension, until Edzie doubled back and found him, taking his hand and calling him back to the world.

“He went... home, I think,” Stray explained, as they hurried to catch up with Ghada.

Edzie didn't proffer a response. She could tell Boyle had Stray worried, and she shared his concern, but she had more perspective on Boyle's state of mind. Stray was only a year younger than her, but it was a significant year... he didn't listen as well, nor empathize as sensitively, and he was more readily caught up in his unformed emotions.

“Hey, Ghada,” Edzie said as they caught up to the older boy, “we lost Boyle. He went home, I think.”

“Hmm.” Ghada slowed his pace and looked back over his shoulder. “Is he okay? I don't feel like he should be wandering around on his own at the moment...”

“He can get home fine, I think,” Edzie said, calculating the layout of the settlement in her head. “But I think you're right to worry about him.”

They both glanced at Stray and found that he wore a troubled gaze. “He shouldn't have drawn those faces,” he said, his uncertainty plain on his face. “It's partly his fault.”

Edzie raised an eyebrow at him, letting out a quiet groan of impatience. She had already decided to go check up on their friend, but now, she could tell that Stray wouldn't make the best company for the trip. Unfortunately, she was also loathe to leave him with Ghada, who she didn't entirely trust with her adopted little brother.

Ultimately, she elected to follow them, hoping that Boyle would be okay for several hours. She spent the afternoon with Stray and Ghada, walking the bank of the Splitmouth and commisserating with adults, until Ghada was finally called away on some errand, and Stray decided he and Edzie should head home in search of a meal. As they passed Boyle's, Edzie told Stray to go on ahead, hoping that Elkansa would excuse her lateness.

 

It was shortly before sundown when Edzie watched Stray disappear into their home, and turned back toward Boyle’s. She approached carefully, remembering that she wasn't in his parents' good graces, but eventually swallowed her trepidation and announced her presence politely at the front door. Dredda’s voice issued from within.

“Hello, Edzie. Who else is there?”

“Nobody,” Edzie replied. “Just me. I just wanted to speak to Boyle for a few minutes.”

Dredda appeared at the door presently, his hands sticky from some unidentifiable food preparation. “I suspect Alynn would rather you not come in,” he said, “but something’s obviously bothering Boyle. Would you care to tell me about it?”

“One of the other kids got hold of some of his drawings, and showed them to Luna. She went off on him, and we had a bit of an incident at the empty lot, up by Mistra Septa’s.”

Dredda grew stern, but kept his composure. “We? Who’s we? And did they hurt him?”

“No, he’s fine. He was just pushed over a little. Stray and I were with him, and then Ghada came later. We stood up for him, but it was Ghada who really took care of it. He put Luna in her place, I think, so much that she needed Sola to come in and help break it up.”

Dredda scowled and shook his head. “Those damn girls. And all the rest of you Denorians, too… all pride and bluster. Thank you for telling me, Edzie, but for the moment, I think it’s best that you stay out. Alynn would probably just feel like you were causing more trouble for him, being caught up in this issue. I’m almost inclined to agree, but I don’t feel so entitled to cast judgment on Boyle’s behalf.” He waited a moment, sensing that there was more to this conversation, and then continued. “I’ll let Boyle stew for a while, and then I’ll go and try to pry the details out of him. And his mother will come and stand by him and help him learn whatever lessons there are to be found. If you did stand up for him, then… thank you for that, at least.”

Dredda looked eager to leave, but Edzie reasserted herself. “Dredda, please just give us a moment. I think it would really help him to hear that he’s got friends here… friends besides his parents.”

Dredda pondered this request, and then looked back into the shadows in the gathering room. Finally, he turned back to Edzie and consented: “Go ahead around the side and talk to him through the window. Try to be quiet. Alynn is in her room, doing her exercises… she won’t hear you, and you probably have a good fifteen minutes, if you need it.”

Edzie hurried around the side of the house, her steps naturally soft; as she approached the south side of the residence, she heard movement from inside. There was a shuffling of footsteps, and a single murmuring voice, speaking quietly enough that she couldn't make out any words. She reached the window and stretched to look over the edge, and there, a mere arm's length away, she saw the small, wiry shadow of Boyle's body in the warm afternoon light. She also smelled something burning, though it wasn't strong enough to alarm her.

“Boyle!” She kept her voice to an assertive whisper.

Boyle visibly started, turning his head toward the window with a jerk. “Huh? Edzie? What are you doing?”

“I missed you leaving after our little mess earlier,” she said. “Just wanted to see that you weren't hurt or anything.”

He sniffled a bit, and his words came out broken up. “Fine, yeah. You can go.”

“Well, you're welcome,” Edzie said, affecting a mild offense. “The others? Also fine.” She paused. “Hey, are your drawings okay?”

“Okay?” Boyle sounded both hurt and genuinely confused by this question. “I... I got rid of them. They're not worth all that trouble.”

“Ugh.” Edzie felt a wave of dismay pass over her. “Boyle, come on. Don't let Luna get to you so much. She... it's not your fault, she's just making trouble.”

“I knew I'm not supposed to draw the faces,” Boyle said. “We all know that. But I got to a point where... it was too much, leaving them out. I don't know... they have a point, all those kids. There's got to be something wrong with me.”

Edzie hoisted herself up and leaned over the ledge. “Boyle, you need to listen to me. There is nothing wrong with you. People from other parts of the world... even some people in our own settlement... they don't care about pictures of faces. The crazy thing is, Luna even knows that. She's seen pictures like that, and been okay with it. She just wanted a reason to be mean to you.”

Boyle's voice was still weak. “It doesn't matter, though, cause this is my tribe, and you saw how all those other kids looked at me. They all think I've got some kind of problem. You're the only one who's okay with it.”

“Obviously that's not true,” Edzie said. “Stray and Ghada both fought for you, and you know your mother will bring a storm of pitch and fire when she finds out what happened.”

Boyle refused to be reassured. “Stray was just as disgusted about those drawings as everyone else, and Ghada was just showing off. And if a couple other boys are my friends, what's it matter, anyway? I have to live with the whole tribe, not just two... or three... other kids.”

“Why?” Edzie was firm in her response. “Why do you have to stay around here forever? You'll get old enough to leave, if you don't like it... right after your initiation, if you want. Maybe the trespasser was right, in a way... maybe we're just a bunch of boggs.”

“Edzie, we're not all strong, like you and Stray. We can't all just throw off the opinion of every other person... go out and live for ourselves... you may be able to survive by yourself, but...” He paused, and the resignation settled into his voice. “I don't know.”

“Boyle...” Edzie had no answer, so she let herself slide into a squatting position below the window, along the exterior wall. “Hey, Boyle, it's stupid, what they think about the drawings. I know... I know... there's nothing wrong with you. And Stray knows it, deep down, and he'll learn after a while.”

There was silence, but she imagined Boyle nodding, trying to believe her.

“Hey, I know there's not much else to talk about,” she said, “but I'm just gonna stay here for a while, okay? I'll be here if you want to say anything. I'll be sure to leave quietly if I hear your mother come into your room.”

So Edzie sat in the dust as the salmon evening light turned to the blue darkness. Boyle paced a bit, and sniffled, and then she heard him settle into a sitting position directly on the other side of the wall, where he just breathed quietly. Edzie thought about Luna, and Eryff down by the fishing pier, and Ghada's mother who would be the next Elder of Harmony, and Mistra Baliban and his travels. She wondered what Boyle was thinking about, sitting beside her. He only spoke once more before his mother came to see him, and it was a simple, tragic, impossible plea.

“You should go, Edzie. As soon as you're ready, you should go.”


4.2

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.


4.3

"Stray, please stay for a few minutes after the others have left. I'd like us to speak about something."

Mistra Septa made the remark sound offhanded, as if it was just a passing thought, so the other kids didn't pay it any heed. Even Stray thought it was probably just a minor favor or a correction to some answer he had given. Only Edzie, sitting next to Stray in the pavilion, could tell that this meeting was purposeful, probably having something to do with Mistra Septa's recent conversation with Elkansa.

Edzie followed Stray up to the stage, as was her habit when she didn't have anything else to distract her. Stray stood a bit straighter than usual when he encountered the Mistra... her bearing seemed to demand it. The last of the other students had left, and Mistra Septa nodded to Luna, who took her leave of the stage.

"Stray, I wanted to talk to you about some of your affairs outside of our sessions. I think it would be best if we talked privately, and besides, I don't think it would interest Edzie much."

Stray looked back at Edzie and shrugged, effectively dismissing her. She hesitated a moment, her curious and protective instincts tethering her to this mysterious situation. Still, she knew the Mistra was an authority figure, and whatever was happening, it was sanctioned by her mother.

"Okay, I'll head home," she said finally. "Come find me later if you want, Stray. We can practice a little." With that, she departed through the front entrance, leaving Stray and the Mistra alone in the pavilion. Stray, now much more circumspect, returned his attention to the Mistra.

Septa led Stray to the edge of the stage, where she sat down in the chair normally occupied by Luna. Now nearly face-to-face with the boy, she spoke gently and deliberately. "Stray, your mother... Elkansa spoke to me yesterday and told me about your fight with Edzie. I know there was a lot of discussion about it among the grown-ups, but I'd like to hear your take on it, before I go any further. Would you care to tell me what happened?"

Stray took a moment to collect his thoughts, which were colored by embarrassment and resentment: annoyance with himself, anger toward Edzie, and bitterness toward Elkansa. He had put the situation largely in perspective, and he thought he was sufficiently contrite; nonetheless, he sensed that Mistra Septa genuinely wanted to listen to him, and it made some of those suppressed frustrations bubble up.

"Well, Edzie and Ghada were sparring at Ghada's house, and Ghada was better than Edzie, so she cheated. I got mad, and Ghada made her say sorry, but she just wanted to keep fighting, so..."

"How did she cheat?" Mistra Septa interrupted.

"She asked him to take a break, and then hit him when his guard was down." Stray paused to get his story back on track as the Mistra shook her head, both disgusted and amused. "Anyway, they kept going. And I was already kind of mad. But then she cheated again – she threw some of his makeup powder in his eyes – and I guess I went crazy, because I pushed her, and then broke her katsun."

"Tell me about that. How did it break?"

"I... grabbed it from her, and took it over to the wall, and stomped on it, and it broke in half."

"Okay. Did anything else happen?"

"No, Ghada's father came in, and Edzie ran away, and Ghada and his dad talked to me for a while, and then I went home and Elkansa yelled at me."

"Okay. Thank you for telling me. So why do you think you got so angry?"

Stray was momentarily bewildered by this question, which he had been made to answer so many times, on a point that he felt was perfectly clear. "Because she cheated! It was mean and pointless. Ghada was helping her learn, and being fair, and she kept tricking him!"

"Okay, I understand," Mistra Septa said, "but don't you think what you did went too far? Was that really the best way to handle it?"

"If I hadn't done it, nobody would have done anything. Edzie never does that stuff in front of Elkansa. Am I just supposed to let her break rules whenever she wants?"

"I understand, Stray. I've seen this side of you before, in small doses... you're very sensitive to cruelty and unfairness. But there are a lot of people... Elkansa, Boyle's mom, even Ghada and Kosef... who think your temper is a problem. So I told Elkansa I would try to help you with it."

Stray remained silent, processing this revelation, so Mistra Septa continued. "I told her we would have private lessons, twice a week, two hours each lesson. You can help me decide what days... on those days, our private meetings will be immediately after my last lesson of the day. I'm going to teach you some special techniques to help you control your anger, and maybe we can also figure out where it comes from."

Stray considered this, and found it agreeable... he found Mistra Septa severe, but unlike the other children in the tribe, he didn't resent her for it. Occasional private lessons with the Mistra might be fun, he thought, though he had no idea what they would entail. He agreed with little hesitation, and he and Mistra Septa selected two days each week for their meetings.

Edzie caught up with Stray as he walked from the pavilion back to their house. He told her about the private lessons to help him with his anger, and Edzie agreed that they would probably be interesting. She did her best to act surprised at the news, despite already knowing just as much as Stray... having been huddled by the pavilion's exterior wall, listening intently to their conversation.

... ... ... ...

When Stray and Mistra Septa met after her lessons several days later, she instructed him to sit down in the empty chair, right there in the pavilion, and she pulled a crate over from the other side of the platform and sat beside him. They chatted about her lessons for a few minutes, and Stray told her about his plans for the fall, and then Septa suggested they get started. Stray, filled with curiosity, evinced eager agreement.

The Mistra started by asking Stray to tell her again about the situation with Edzie, which was still so fresh in his mind. He did so, starting with his arrival at Ghada's house, recounting his interest in the sparring, remembering Ghada's good manners and Edzie's misdeeds, and finally culminating in his own show of retribution. He ended the tale with his arrival home to Elkansa's wrath. When he was finished, Mistra Septa told him (now with less deference) to tell her again, in as much detail as possible. Stray asked what it was about the story that she didn't understand.

"It doesn't matter what I understand," she said. "It matters what you tell me."

So Stray told her again, trying to reproduce, as accurately as possible, his own remarks, Ghada's minor points of wisdom and advice, Edzie's forms and tactics, Ghada's unassailable technical skill, and his own violent response to the whole situation. At the end of the story, he noted that he had apologized to Edzie, at Elkansa's behest, and that he felt ashamed about the whole thing.

"You say you're ashamed of it because Elkansa was mad, right? And because Edzie was unhappy?"

Stray nodded. Mistra Septa gave him an overtly skeptical look. "But do you actually feel ashamed? Do you actually think what you did was bad?"

"Edzie says she was just being playful," Stray said, repeating the account of the situation that his seniors had provided to him. "I got too mad, and destroyed her things. I was mean."

Mistra Septa accepted this rote confession without further comment. Instead, she asked Stray to tell her about the incident again. When he was finished, she started asking specific questions: what else happened that day, before he went to find Edzie? What did he do later that evening, after he suffered Elkansa's reprimand? Did he remember any smells, specific objects, any of his own private thoughts from that day, from the time leading up to the fight? Could he remember the weather, how warm it was inside Ghada's house, what sounds were in the environment? Why, of all things, did he choose to break the katsun? Could he pretend they were in Ghada's room, and demonstrate where he was sitting, and show her where Ghada and Edzie were standing, and point out the wall where he had stomped on the weapon?

Stray answered these questions, each in turn, patiently at first. When Mistra Septa asked him to repeat things he had already said, or told him his answers weren't clear enough and he should think harder, he started to feel trapped, as though this was some kind of interrogation or indictment. He started shifting in his seat and tapping his foot as he spoke. Exasperation slipped into his voice, and then defeat and frustration, and then resentful obedience, and these responses continued to follow one another, in a sort of a restless cycle. He started feeling an urge to ask impolite questions: where was this going? When would they be finished?

When Mistra Septa saw that Stray was sufficiently agitated, she asked him to describe the whole situation, one more time. He did so, meticulously, trying to bring this process to an end. In the middle of his account, she held up her hand to stop him.

"Now," she said, her tone stern and unequivocal, "I need you to close your eyes and pay attention to how you're feeling. Look very close. Note, especially, the tension in your muscles, the urge to move your hands, the tightness in your chest and stomach, the burden of drawing breath. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that should be a bit like – a very minor simulation of – the feelings you get when you get angry. Except in those cases, it happens much faster, and it gets much worse."

Stray didn't answer… his eyes were closed, and he was still as a stone, save for a rhythmic clenching of his hands. Mistra Septa continued. "There are a lot of techniques for managing your anger, but they all start with this awareness: knowledge of your own body, a complete understanding of these involuntary signals that you're always responding to. Hopefully we can train you to be very sensitive to these signals, to navigate the underlying process at a moment's notice. In the middle of a crowd, in the middle of a conversation... even in the heat of combat. If you aren't an active participant in your own body's behaviors, you will always be lost."

Stray nodded. "How long does that take?" he asked.

"We'll spend a few sessions on the basics... controlling your anger before you misbehave or explode at people. After that, I think we should take a longer journey together, to explore your emotional life. You're going to become an adult very soon, and these things will get very complicated... and I think, before you get much stronger or more violent, we need to isolate the point of contact between your conscience and your anger. There's some poison at work there, and we need to flush it out."