That winter was unusually cold, so life in the settlement became more taxing. With the Splitmouth almost frozen through, the Denorians had to walk farther to get water, and the captive huskins needed to be watched closely in their pens, and fed with numbing regularity. Luckily, the food stores were ample, now that the tribe had stayed in one place for so long. The cold only led to a few deaths, generally due to the carelessness of caretakers, the frailty of the elderly, and the dangerous curiosity of young children.
When Stray crossed the open yards of the settlement, the ground cemented by permafrost, he always wore his heavy brivsa, but he often loosened it and let it fall back behind his head, as if he was out for a summer stroll. The frigid air on his nose and ears made him ecstatically aware of the movement of his blood through his temples, and he could almost feel his pulse in his fingers and wrists. A few years prior, he would have found it terribly uncomfortable, but now it felt like a sort of gift, or a challenge: the stirrings of his animus, the mournful song of the blood cowering in his capillaries.
On a gray afternoon, two weeks past the changing of the year, Stray made his walk to Mistra Septa’s, looking forward to his usual session with her. He passed Boyle’s dromo, locked down like a fortress, wooden planks covering every window, with no sign of light or life. As he approached the Splitmouth’s southern crossing, he felt a breeze against his cheek and the back of his neck, and he closed his eyes and let his feet carry him along. His skin felt dry as parchment, and he wondered, if he froze to death, whether he might solidify, standing up, into some kind of desiccated statue decorating the footpath.
The thought vanished from his mind when he reached the Splitmouth… he was lighter on his feet since he had started his movement training, but he still had to concentrate to keep a firm footing on the frozen water. Looking to the left, he saw two children, running and sliding along the north bank, wrapped tight in their winter furs, their faces and ears bound up in their brivsas like winter outlaws. One of the two children looked up and waved, and Stray waved back. He was glad the settlement still showed some sign of life.
Stray reached Mistra Septa’s pavilion several minutes later. He put up his brivsa’s hood and drew its scarf tighter around his face, and then, properly arranged, stepped inside. The warmth of the closed space enveloped him. He placed both hands palm-up, giving the traditional salute, and repeated Dissadae’s blessing. Scanning the room, he found Mistra Septa gathering up furs and cushions, obviously cleaning up after her previous session. Luna used to do this for her, Stray thought, but he hadn’t seen her around lately.
“Welcome, Stray,” Mistra Septa said. “I hope you’ve kept warm. Neither of us needs the company of some winter illness in this sacred space.”
“Warm enough,” Stray said, loosening the brivsa on his way up to the platform. He picked up a few cushions as he walked, and Mistra Septa rolled up the last Huskin fur, and they met at the far side of the pavilion, tossing all the furnishings into a pile to be put away for the evening. When they were satisfied, they found their usual places: Stray on an overturned wooden crate, and Mistra Septa in the assistant’s chair close by.
Mistra Septa asked Stray if he was ready to start, and he nodded. She commenced their chant: she found her tone, and he found his within a few seconds, and they remained in place for several minutes, cycling and synchronizing and rooting themselves in the resonance of the pavilion. When they finished, Mistra Septa called for silence, and told Stray to find his heartbeat and his pulse, and listen to the full song of his body. They spent a few more minutes on this exercise, and Stray ventured into his meditative space – the dark corner, the warmth, the womb – but didn’t go any further, wanting to remain alert and responsive in the presence of his teacher.
Finally, in unison, they returned to the present. Mistra Septa looked pleased, but Stray could also sense some sort of irregularity in her mood. He wondered about it for a moment, but wasn’t so audacious as to inquire. An extended silence filled the space between them, until finally, Mistra Septa made an unexpected suggestion.
“I thought we might try a different exercise today. Would you mind accompanying me down to where the Splitmouth meets the Prospect River, near the docks?”
Stray considered this for a moment, weighing the discomfort of another walk through the cold, but this concern passed almost immediately, and he agreed. Septa piled three layers of imported wool over her Caesura tunic, and she donned her own winter brivsa. The Caesurite monks' brivsas were styled distinctively, bleached an eggshell white, with brown curlicues adorning the hood and the ends of the scarf. Mistra Septa's was lined with fur from some shaggy mammal, and the scarf had a gold thread woven into it along the length. She pulled on furry legwarmers over her trousers, and finished her outfit with leather-soled slippers. At last, before she headed for her entranceway, she picked her katsun up from its place against the wall, sliding it into her beltstrap.
Stray and Mistra Septa retraced Stray's previous walk, following the road southwest. For a while, Mistra Septa drilled Stray on his recollections of the previous week... she asked him to remember particular remarks, reactions, specifics of conversations, and his own emotional valences in response to them. This was a common exercise during their private lessons, and Stray had gotten good at it... it was easy enough for him now, even while walking. When he ran out of details to relate, they fell silent, and thus they walked the last kilometer to the water's edge.
Where the Splitmouth joined the Prospect, there was a narrow rocky beach. To the north, Stray and Mistra Septa could see the small network of islands that marked the Splitmouth's breaking point. Normally, the water here moved hastily from the rapids just upstream, but now, in the dead of winter, the flow was interrupted by an accumulation of ice. The beach itself was bone-dry, and the water was frozen solid for thirty meters out over the river.
“Very quiet out here,” Stray said. “I guess anything that makes noise has taken shelter.”
“Something like that,” Mistra Septa replied. “So... we're here to play a game we used to play at the Envoclajiz, when the temple river froze halfway-over. Are you ready?”
Stray nodded, tugging his brivsa down a few centimeters to let a few breaths escape. Voluminous clouds issued from his mouth as he spoke. “Sure. What are the rules?”
Mistra Septa drew her katsun and reversed her grip, so that the blade pointed downward. “I'll take this out a few meters and plant it in the ice. Your goal is to go as far as me, pull it out, and then take it a little farther and put it back in. The winner is the one who's willing to walk the farthest.”
Stray asked a couple simple questions, but the game was entirely self-explanatory. Mistra Septa took the first turn, as she had promised... she left the bank, setting a rhythm for her steps, and got nearly halfway to the open water before she decided to plant the katsun. Its sharp point slid into the ice like a flag-pole, perfectly perpendicular to the frozen surface.
Stray took his first tentative steps toward it, and found that out here, the ice seemed relatively stable. It made crunching, scraping noises under his feet, but he couldn't feel any significant sagging, or any movement of the water underneath. His first moment of minor panic arrived when he pulled the katsun out, but there was no disturbance, except for the hiss of the treated wood sliding out of the ice.
Stray continued three more meters out, trying to step lightly. With his final step, he heard a crack in the distance, like an aquatic echo through the brittle air, but he didn't balk. His first attempt to skewer the katsun into the ice failed... it was absurdly hard... but on his second try, putting more weight behind the thrust, he managed to set the marker.
As he returned to the bank, Stray passed Septa, already heading out to accept the challenge. She was polite, only moving the katsun out another three meters, but Stray could tell she was getting bored.
So Stray approached again, trying to accelerate the game's progress, but three steps beyond the previous goal, he felt the icy surface shift beneath his right foot. The ice didn't crack, but suddenly, unexpectedly, he was vividly aware of the flow of water several centimeters beneath the sole of his foot. His senses sharpened considerably, and his nerves started reacting to the vibrations and displacements in the frozen surface: a moan, a shiver of stress, a shift in pressure, as if the ice was speaking to him through the marrow of his bones. His mind was flooded with anxiety, and he froze, trying to calm his panic response.
When he could breathe normally – three deep breaths, a clear sense of his pulse and heart rate – he locked his legs in place and drove the katsun back into the ice. Again, the surface shifted, but it didn't give way.
“Come on, you can do better than that.”
Stray jerked his head around, shocked: first, that the voice was so close... right over his shoulder... and second, that it wasn't Mistra Septa's voice, but Mistra Eryn's. He discovered her a mere meter behind, standing right in his tracks, her feet together and her hands behind her back. It occurred to him that, even in his high-strung state, he hadn't heard the slightest sound of her approach.
“I see you're feeling the ice, Stray,” she said. “Now keep going. It'll be more than the ice and the water... it'll also be the air, the sounds of the trees, even your own circulation. Above all, listen to your body, act with your mind, and don't be afraid.”
Stray nodded and stepped inside himself, fully inhabiting his own smooth sensory surfaces. He closed his fingers around the katsun's handle, exhaled, and pulled it back out. He took a step, felt a touch of cold wind around his calves, and suffered another twinge of panic. Exerting a great effort of will, he visualized the fear as a sensory organ, a sharpened prong that was making contact with the neutral surface of his animus. He shifted his weight instinctively, looking for an anchor point in the ice, trying to determine his next step.
The ice sagged, the water came closer, and his breath caught in his chest, but nothing gave way. As he sighed with relief, he heard Mistra Septa's voice from the bank: “You know, Stray, if you can touch the open water with the point of the katsun, you automatically win!”
Stray took another step, listening now to the shifting resonance around him, a whisper that seemed to warn him and guide him from one point on the ice to the next. Slowly, as he gained an intimacy with the patterns of stability in the ice, his consciousness of his steps became rhythmic. The anxiety faded, and he began to move more quickly. His verbal functions stopped engaging, except to observe, and commit to memory, the incredible feeling of levity, as if he was always at just the weight that the surface could support.
Even this reverie had its limit, however, and for Stray, it came when he was just a meter from the edge of the ice. His rhythm was interrupted by a crack just under his feet, a hiccup in the flow he had adopted, and he found himself suddenly unstable, trying to keep his toes on the patches of ice that would hold him. His body screamed to step back, to retreat from the inevitable disaster, but another part of his consciousness – the part that he had spent so long exercising – replied in kind, fighting against his instincts and holding him in place. Holding his breath in his lungs, he slid his hand to the very bottom of the katsun handle and stretched his arm out toward the water.
The tip of the katsun touched the water and made a ripple, just past the far edge of the ice, just as Stray felt himself falling forward. He braced himself for the shock of the cold water, but it never came... instead, he felt a strong hand on his upper arm, pulling him back and providing a counterbalance, infusing him with a miraculous stability that gave him the strength to stand back up. He looked back over his shoulder at Mistra Eryn, holding him upright, and wondered how this patch of ice could possibly support both of them.
“Impressive! Now find your footing, and follow me back... the ice here is about to collapse.”
Stray did as he was told, taking two breaths to find his balance and then pivoting without changing the position of his feet. Mistra Eryn was already three paces ahead, allowing Stray to follow meticulously, reproducing her exact footsteps. Mistra Eryn seemed to make the ice stronger, more stable, by some impossible effect of her very presence. Stray managed to reach the bank without allowing his pulse to rise up and run away from him.
“It's been many years,” Mistra Septa said, “since we met someone who could do that on the first try.” Both she and Mistra Eryn gave Stray congratulatory bows, and Mistra Septa took back her katsun.
Presently, Mistra Eryn turned and looked east, up the length of the Prospect River. Stray followed her gaze, and discovered a horizon that was softening and darkening, taking on a dusty orange hue. Mistra Septa was looking that direction, as well, and so she remained as she spoke.
“So, Stray... Mistra Eryn and I are wondering about your plans. Whether you plan to be initiated, how you feel about the tribe.”
Stray thought about the question for a moment. “Well, Edzie is getting initiated next Fall, and I have another whole year to get ready for it. I've been thinking about traveling, or visiting some of the other Concordance tribes, but... nothing beyond that.”
Now Mistra Eryn spoke, still gazing along the river. “Stray, do you know how the Caesura Prospectus works?”
Stray knew some rumors and hearsay about the recruitment ritual of the Order of the Caesura, but he didn't know the details. He said as much, admitting that he had always been curious, but had never thought to ask.
“Most of the adults in your tribe have a partial idea,” Mistra Septa said, “but only we Mistras really understand it. Every winter, just after the new year, a handful of youth from the eight tribes... no more than forty or fifty total... make the pilgrimage to the Envoclajiz, to test themselves in our initiation trials. They need the sanction of the Mistras, and they have to make the journey to the monastery alone, including the final climb up Gryffepeak. We call them Prospects, and this river is named for their journey.”
Stray's mind was quick, but it wasn't entirely ready for this conversation's implications. “So who can be Prospects? Is it only tribeswomen? How old do you have to be?”
Now Mistra Eryn spoke... the Mistras seemed to be alternating intentionally. “Anyone can be a Prospect... they come from everywhere... but because of our relationship with the Concordance, most new initiates tend to be from the tribes. Traditionally, the pilgrimage is made at the beginning of the year leading up to your tribal initiation... if you fail, you're welcome to return to your tribe and accept full tribal citizenship, just like normal. And on a side-note, most Prospects are tribesmen, not tribeswomen. The hermetic lifestyle tends to attract more males than females.”
“That's... surprising,” Stray said. “Why do we have three female Mistras, then, and only one male?”
“Most of the monks are male,” Mistra Septa said, “but the ones who return to the tribes as teachers are generally female. It's hard for males to earn your tribes' respect, and the men prefer the privacy of monastic life anyway.”
Stray nodded, understanding perfectly, and Mistra Eryn continued. “So, Stray, Mistra Septa and I both think you have an aptitude for our practices... your emotional stability and sensitivity, your perceptiveness, your attunement, your focus in your meditation... and we think you'd do very well as a Caesurite. It's rare to find someone who fits our profile so perfectly.”
“So...” Stray hesitated. “You want me to become a Prospect?”
Mistra Septa put a hand on Stray's arm, doing her best to be reassuring. “We want you to do what's best for you. But we'd like you to give some thought to Prospectus... you have the raw talent, you're capable of completing the trials, and there's a great deal we could offer you... acceptance, community, purpose, and our investment of faith. You would be a great force in Dissadae's service.”
Stray was at a loss, and the two monks allowed him to absorb the news. Finally, in lieu of an answer, he came back with another question. “So how long does Prospectus take? What are the trials like?”
“It's tough to explain,” Mistra Eryn said, “without really going deep into our teachings. The journey to Gryffepeak and the Envoclajiz would take a week, give or take a few days... once the new Prospects are gathered, the monks spend two more weeks teaching you the basics of Caesurite theory and praxis. The trials themselves come at the very end, and they're mostly designed to test your commitment. Forty years in the Order is a long time, and we need to know you're serious.”
“Yeah, that is a long time,” Stray said, largely to himself. Both Mistras nodded in unison, still looking off to the west, in the direction of their temple.
“You have time to think about it,” Mistra Septa said. “Your best chance would be a year from now, right around this part of the season.”
Mistra Eryn had grown bored of standing in one place, so she'd wandered a bit inland, to a fallen tree by the main path, and was balancing on its splintered trunk. “I can't believe I'm saying this, given how hopeless you were just two winters ago,” she said, “but I think you'd like it, Stray. I think it might be where you belong.”
The cold winter gave way to a hot, cloying summer. As Ghada settled into his citizenship, Edzie slowly drew closer – through those essential rites of combat and scarification – to attaining her own.
It was a humid late afternoon, and the smells of human and huskin musk had settled into pockets across the settlement. Edzie was hunched over the table in her gathering room, stitching a small patch to a ripped seam in her oldest pair of trousers, when Ghada appeared in the entranceway.
"Hey, Edzie, do you want to go?"
Edzie glanced at him without raising her head, fixing him with a sly smile. "Sure, just let me finish a few more stitches." She looked back down as he leaned in the doorframe.
"Good evening, Ghada," Elkansa said, looking up from sharpening a carving knife on the other side of the table.
"Hi, Elkansa. I told Edzie I wanted to go down to the Twilit Bridge."
"Sounds like a nice walk, I suppose. What's of interest down there?"
"Nothing, mom," Edzie said, now in a hurry to finish her stitches. "It's just cooler by the water, and there's nobody around at night, so it's nice."
"I guess." Elkansa looked at her daughter, and then at Ghada, and then put down the knife and the whetstone. "Well, go ahead, stop hovering around the gathering room. I'll finish your patch. Take care of him, okay?"
Edzie nodded, thanking her mother for the consideration, and hastened out of the dromo and into the night air. She walked slowly... she had only finished dinner an hour before, so she wasn't feeling very mobile... but there was no reason to hurry, anyway. The late afternoon light was still waning in the sky, casting a purplish hue over gray clouds, and though the warmth was still a bit stifling, it was far better than it had been in the depths of the afternoon.
Edzie extended her arm, and Ghada took it graciously.
They walked silently for a while, following a trampled swath of earth to the southeast. As they left the vicinity of the residences and the Splitmouth, the spaces between dromos grew, so that each little homestead seemed to stand guard over a whole rutted countryside all its own. The path passed through wooded groves and wound around steep inclines, ensuring it would be easy for Huskins to follow from the fields further along. Pools of shadow gathered beneath the orebarks, and the troughs in the landscape smelled of damp earth and Huskin musk.
"I don't think we'll make it by sundown," Edzie observed indifferently.
"Better that way, I think," Ghada replied. "Quieter, right? Fewer people out and about. Most of the travelers' market will already be gone."
"I guess it's called the Twilit Bridge, not the Sunset Bridge, right?"
Ghada didn't respond for a moment. Edzie glanced back at him, and she found he was looking down, watching his next step, in a sullen way that was uncharacteristic of him. "Everything alright, Ghada?" she asked finally, slowing her pace to make it easier for him to keep up.
"Fine, Edzie. Just tired. You know."
"Ugh, Ghada." Edzie scowled at her companion. "What are you going to do? There must be something you could try."
Ghada shook his head, smoothing out his tunic as he walked. " Edzie... I'm really truly stuck. I've asked every hunting guide I know to take me on an expedition, and none of them will do it, even with mom's sanction. They say it doesn't suit me." He scoffed. "... Which hasn't gotten any less stupid, however many times I've heard it."
"And you're sure you can't..."
"Sure, Edzie, go through the list again." Ghada was speaking more sharply than normal. He had obviously been stewing over this for a while. "First, no, I don't want to go up to the Hunters' Roost. Just because I want to hunt, it doesn't make me a mud-soaked, anti-social tree dweller."
"Right, fine. And you can't hunt for the tribe, because our guides are all jealous traditionalists. And you don't want to learn some kind of trade, because... ?"
"Edzie, I spent my whole life learning to fight, to use the katsun. To do anything else, I'd have to start from scratch. How should I even be bothered to pick one?"
"I still think you should help other boys in the tribe with wardrobes and cosmetics."
"Great, study a trade that only five people care about, two days a year."
"Okay, fine. Anyway, I think your solution's clear, however little you want to hear it. You spend the next few years learning a trade, maybe traveling with your mom, or helping Mistra Eryn with her lessons, and before too long you'll find your soul-mate... some strong, virile tribeswoman who wants to bear your daughters and help elevate you into the pillar of our community that you deserve to be."
"Great. The one respectable choice." He put his free hand back in Edzie's elbow. "And here I've gotten a great start: falling for the wildest and most confusing girl in the tribe. Useless to a Denorian boy, just like perfect katsun techniques."
Edzie thought about this as they walked, feeling Ghada's frustration vicariously, but also touched with pride that she could be of such interest to him. She searched her mind for some response that might console him, and when she finally found it, it chafed painfully.
"You didn't really fall for me, Ghada. We both know that."
Ghada shrugged. "Well, it would have been even worse with Stray... how would a couple men, locked into a romantic arrangement, ever find any kind of status around here?"
They were talking louder now, having to raise their conversation over the whispered rush of the Prospect River. When they reached its north bank, lined by a steep ridge imprinted with Huskin tracks and ruts from wagon wheels, they turned east and traveled along the river, opposite its flow. The sunset stretched across the sky before them, but its most intense light was obscured by a succession of hills and woods in the background. Still, the sky was vibrant... the setting sun tinted the clouds a rosy orange, and it cast a dramatic golden light on the lonely travelers.
The colors deepened, and then faded to an obscure blue, by the time Edzie and Stray finally reached the Twilit Bridge. It was a hundred and fifty meters long, and wide enough that four carts could have traveled abreast. The bridge was set upon a scaffolding of rough-hewn beams, driven into the ground and anchored with stonework, nary a trifle to the waters of the Prospect River that hurried along forty meters below.
The bridge had a guardrail at waist-height, beyond which there was another meter or so of stable surface. Edzie and Ghada climbed over the guardrail and sat down on the other side, their legs drawn up to their chests; they huddled close enough together that they could converse over the sound of the water, confident that the passing pedestrians wouldn't hear them.
Edzie was quiet, feeling defeated after the previous conversation, so Ghada turned his observations to the present moment: the cool air, moving along above the water, and the soft rise and fall of the Pastures in the distance, disappearing over the horizon at the foot of the Crag Mountains. They both ignored the clomping footsteps and grinding wooden wheels behind them. After a few cycles of idle talk, they found that the human sounds were finally fading away, gone with the daylight. The only movement left in their field of view was a figure far below, lingering on the bank of the Prospect and making splashing noises in the water.
Edzie and Ghada tried to see her in the fading light... she was probably in her forties, washing her naked upper body in the river, and occasionally splashing a handful of water on a huskin that was standing beside her. The two of them made a charming couple: her animated form in sharp contrast with the bored, motionless posture of the accompanying creature, which appeared to be semi-domesticated.
"I wonder if she does this every night?" Ghada said, massaging Edzie's lower back as he spoke.
"Not in the winter, I hope," Edzie replied, stifling a giggle, and then she mov/ed an arm up over her head, wrapping it around Ghada's back. She turned her head toward him, breathing lightly on his ear, letting her chin brush against his neck.
"She still does it in the winter, but only once in a while." The voice, normally so familiar, startled Ghada and Edzie, and they felt a moment of panic at being so close to the bridge's edge. They both turned inward to look back, and their foreheads knocked together painfully.
Edzie was the first to recognize the voice. "OW! Damn! Stray, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me. Don't tell me you've forgotten already." Stray was approaching from the north, balancing confidently on the guardrail. "And for your information, that is Belinda." He waved at the woman with the huskin.
"CAREFUL, VORAISH!" the woman yelled in response. "DOBBA AND I WON'T CATCH YOU IF YOU FALL FROM UP THERE!"
Edzie had been huffy at Stray's intrusion... now that she heard the woman refer to him so direspectfully, her annoyance was immediately replaced with defensiveness on his behalf. "Stray... what are you doing... no, more important, did she just call you a voraish? What a sluicule!"
"She's not a sluicule," Stray replied calmly, reaching Edzie and hopping down from the guardrail. "She lives on a farm with her daughter just up the hill to the north. She's a very nice woman."
"She is not nice!" Edzie was still fuming. "She just called you an voraish! Are you just... totally fine with that?"
"Yeah, it's fine, Edzie. Look, try not to be mad. We can talk about it later." He sat down next to her and looked across at Ghada. "Hey, Ghada, how's everything?"
"Life is but an endless summer day. As for you, Stray... I see your lessons with Mistra Eryn are not going to waste! How many hours does she have you practicing, to be so light on your feet?"
"She says I have an aptitude," Stray replied. "I think she just needed someone new to occupy her time now that you've left her nest."
Ghada laughed. "You think I'm cutting her free? Not a chance! I still have to practice with her every other day, just to stay a little ahead of you!"
Edzie, getting tired of their flirtation, tried to redirect the conversation. "You're right, though, Ghada, his balance has come a long way. He tried to explain it to me, the way she teaches him to do it, but I couldn't entirely follow. How did she explain it, Stray?"
Stray reoriented slightly, so that he was facing more in their direction. His face grew serious, and he concentrated on the details of his lessons. “Okay, so, the balance technique... she explained it like this..."
At this, Stray seemed to become Mistra Eryn, recalling her words verbatim, allowing them to issue from his lips as though they were being summoned through some fissure in time.
"It's actually a rhythmic form of meditation, focusing on the connection between the mind as executive, and the body as unconscious extension. Mistra Septa talks about that day five years ago, when I made a fool of myself in her class, balancing on one foot... that's where she first saw my talent for balance."
"So Mistra Eryn has me stand on one foot, and then loosen up my mind and lay it softly over my body, like my body is a small animal, being held gently in the grip of my consciousness. My body is an autonomous living thing, and I have to feel all its emotions and attitudes."
"At first, I was only aware of the broadest, most obvious effects of my body... when I felt myself losing balance, the process was already so far along that I was totally caught up in it. But she told me to call out as soon as I felt my balance start to slip. As early as possible, however minor the feeling of imbalance, I had to react to it. I did that for a couple weeks, about ten minutes a day, and she didn't care how long I stayed up at a stretch... all she cared about was that I gave a clear, decisive signal before I fell, and that I gave it as early as possible."
"Eventually, I learned to feel that imbalance long before it actually took hold of my limbs. The imbalance – the shifting of weight in one direction, the overcompensation in the other direction, the collapse of the axis – that's a pattern that starts building up as soon as I lift the leg off the ground, and left to itself, it inevitably took control of my body. So I had to learn how to disrupt that pattern and preserve my balance, using a sort of destructive interference to stabilize."
"Mistra Eryn called that the paradox of negative stability, a principle the monks of the Caesura have borrowed from another order that operates somewhere down south. She says it can be very useful for certain types of rhythmic meditation... she can only teach the basics, though. I'd have to find someone more experienced to learn any more advanced applications."
Ghada nodded, both fascinated and jealous at this knowledge that the Mistra had bestowed upon Stray. Edzie listened to the breath of these boys, sitting on either side of her, and let their warmth soak into her arms and rib cage. For a moment, she felt like a conduit for the energy between them, like there was a stream of heightened awareness passing through her body. She struggled to think of something to say, hoping desperately to break the spell.
“So, you never told us what you were doing here, Stray.”
“Oh, I came this afternoon, after I helped Elkansa carry water from the ford. I was just here chatting with some of the pilgrims passing through. I was coming home when I saw Belinda on the other side, and stopped to talk to her for a while... and then, when I was done there, I saw you guys show up, so I climbed back up here to see you.”
Ghada rejoined the conversation. “You were talking to the pilgrims? About what?”
“You know... where they were going, what they were carrying, how long it was taking them. There was one from all the way out in a town called Simper, which is on the far side of Horizon. He says people are always traveling through there on the way to the Citadel and Callibreath.”
Edzie and Ghada were aware of the geography, the vast distances that these pilgrims had to traverse. To get to Horizon, you had to travel twice the distance they had traversed to get to Resine, venturing to the far west border of the Pastures. Beyond that, you entered the region called Azure, a rolling, fertile stretch of farming outposts where the grass was known for reflecting blue in the moonlight. It must have taken these travelers six or seven weeks to make the journey, just to pay tribute to the wonders of the Envoclajiz Temple a bit further to the east.
Edzie and Ghada let Stray tell them a bit more about the travelers. They were heading both ways... earlier in the summer, they would almost all have been going east, and in the fall, they would have all been returning, but now, in the season's hottest stretch, both directions were well-represented. Those who were heading east looked weary and haggard, but hopeful... those heading west looked refreshed, blissful, the weight of their endeavor lifted and replaced with a bevy of fresh provisions. Those from Horizon, Azure, and Tempustide were on horseback, and most others were on foot, leading a donkey or an ox laden with their supplies.
Edzie and Ghada were patient, but they eventually grew tired of Stray's account, so they prompted him to balance on the guard rail some more, and challenged him to do tricks for them. He hesitated, trying to remain very serious about his special training, but eventually he acquiesced, showing them how he could stand on one foot, and perform small hops and slow turns without falling from the beam. At length, he invited Edzie and Ghada to try. They made their best effort... Ghada could manage a very stable, steady advance for a few meters, and Edzie could almost walk normally for the same distance before she started teetering... but neither of them had Stray's elegant, effortless touch.
Eventually they all stepped down, laughing, and acclimated to the bridge's surface. A cloud seemed to pass over the moon at that moment, and all at once, all three of them realized they didn't have anything else to talk about. Ghada tried to think of some quip or witticism to break the silence, but Stray and Edzie both understood that their sojourn at the bridge was coming to an end.
“Ready to head back?” Stray's voice made the suggestion, but it might as well have been any of them, since the evening's amusements had run their course.
They walked north along the main path into the center of the settlement, splitting the difference between their routes. As they walked, Stray and Ghada exchanged observations about Mistra Eryn, laughing at intervals, just barely audible to Edzie, who was walking a few steps behind. The breeze from the Twilit Bridge was gone, and the warm air put her in the mood for empty space, but at least it was dry and light on her skin.
Edzie walked in an absent-minded silence for a kilometer or so, and then she noticed that she was cringing a little bit whenever she heard the boys' laughter up ahead. It wasn't the sound itself... Stray's laughter had always comforted her, and Ghada's was almost musical in its gracefulness... rather, it was her sense of their natural chemistry, her awareness of the suppressed attraction between them. She recognized, in herself, the first traces of genuine envy: not for Stray, who was within her sphere of influence, but for Ghada. She would always be a little jealous of Ghada, merely because he could be something to Stray besides a big sister and a protector. Edzie knew that her promise to Stray – her long-cultivated sibling relationship – ruled out anything but a chaste loyalty, and there was something devastating in this knowledge.
Finally, when they drew near the Splitmouth, they said farewell to Ghada, who was continuing north to the Surcrossing. He gave Stray a strained, overly-formal goodbye, and Edzie granted him a modest caress, promising that they would have more private time together soon. Ghada assumed his characteristic stroll and departed, and Edzie and Stray turned west, following the Splitmouth toward their dromo.
After they had gone another kilometer, Edzie spoke up. “So, you knew that Belinda lady, huh? And you let her call you that nasty word? You're getting soft, Stray!”
Stray shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. The Mistras have taught me a lot.” He looked straight ahead, still and sanguine. “But I know more people than just Belinda call me a voraish.”
“Like who?” Edzie demanded, almost theatrical in her outrage. “They've got a lesson coming!”
“Come on, Edzie,” Stray said. It only occurred to him in that moment that Edzie might be genuinely surprised by this news... if there was anyone who inspired excessive politeness toward Stray, it was her. “You have to know, Edzie... lots of people call me that. Because that's what I am... an outsider. They all remember where I came from, or if they're too young, they hear their parents say it. Belinda might be the best about it... at least she calls me that openly, out of affection, instead of keeping it just out of earshot.”
Edzie tried to muster a denial, but she found her wit paralyzed, and suddenly it was all she could do to focus on walking... left foot, right foot, stay on the path, keep breathing. She felt her cheeks tense up, and her frustration slowly gave way to earnest, boundless pity for her adopted brother. She had no words to tell him what anguish it gave her, knowing that he felt this kind of estrangement from her tribe, so she continued in silence.
Stray listened for some sort of consolation or note of sympathy for a few minutes, and then realized that none was imminent... this was Edzie, after all. Edzie, meanwhile, let her brooding turn from Stray's misfortune to thoughts of her own mother, and of the elders, and to a frigid kernel of hatred within her breast, which had no object, and which she had no way to disperse.
By the time they arrived at their dromo, Edzie had managed to loosen her distressed nerves, and the solace of the gathering room consumed her and laid her to rest.
On the day of Edzie's initiation, Elkansa asked her – nigh pleading, beseeching – that she keep her tunic and brivsa clean until her trial that afternoon. It was a wise and honest request, given Edzie's tendency to neglect her appearance, but its only affect was to make Edzie think of Ghada, and to remind her that he was fighting in a festival exhibition duel. It was taking place at Mistra Eryn's pavilion, and Edzie was already dangerously late.
Edzie reassured her mother that her outfit would be fine, picked up her katsun and her brivsa, and hastened out into the early afternoon sun. It would be a significant walk... perhaps a half hour each way... so Edzie had to be careful to get back before her trial at the central court.
The Festival of Emergence was well underway, and so the road outside her dromo was unusually congested. Denorians escorted their family members from other tribes, touring the settlement on their way to the festivities. Many pulled carts or wagons, and there were even one or two foreign merchants on horseback – nearly unheard of in tribal settlements. A woman caught Edzie's eye wearing a red satin brivsa-like accessory, her body bound in maroon straps, her upper arms clad in leather armor... her face was marked with tatoos that resembled Concordance tribal scars, and (very much unlike a Concordance warrior) her nose, lips, and cheeks were perforated by myriad decorative chains and metal bits. Edzie slowed to a crawl and gaped at the woman as she passed, fascinated by her dangerous exoticism. She considered introducing herself, but dismissed the idea, knowing she needed to hurry to Ghada's match.
Edzie passed Boyle's dromo and crossed the Splitmouth over a makeshift bridge, assembled for the sake of visitors to the festival. On the north bank, she turned right, leaving the heavy traffic to hike along the paths beside the stream. Even here, where she usually found solitude, there were visitors bathing, devouring roasted bird and huskin flank, and resting against the orebark trees. Edzie glanced at them as she walked, but didn't heed them, consumed as she was in her own anxieties.
She envisioned her initiation trial, later that day. She had seen the grasscat that had been chosen for her – a young huntress, entering her most fertile years, that had given her trappers a great deal of trouble. Edzie felt the giddiness of anticipation, but she also felt strangely removed from the event. It had been hovering over her for months, occupying all her idle thoughts and practice-sessions, but today, it seemed no closer than it had seemed yesterday, or even last season. This sense of remoteness made Edzie feel off-balance, and it discouraged her, but she was intent on performing well.
A bit of solitary meditation might help, she thought to herself, as she hopped over muddy patches and wove around bends in the dirt path. She might be more confident if she had spent the morning in private, collecting her thoughts, planning her approach. She even considered, for a passing moment, returning to her dromo and foregoing Ghada's match so that she could be fully prepared. He had told her, after all, that it wasn't that important for her to attend. Again, Edzie dismissed the idea... she knew how excited Ghada was for his public appearance, and besides, she was already halfway to the pavilion.
Edzie passed the orebark grove where she and Stray and Boyle had once tried to perform the emanences of the Order of the Caesura. She barely looked up as she walked... still distracted by thoughts of her trial and the eventual scarring ritual... but a slight smile crossed her face as she noted the orebark stump she had sat on. Further along, she entered one of the quieter residential areas, an enclave of dromos where a few Denorian neighbors were currently skinning fruit and gossiping in their yards. When she reached the broader path, she turned north, and within a few meters, the crowd seemed to grow exponentially: from sparse and subdued to dense and harried.
She followed the traffic a short distance north, and then turned right, off the main path, into a spacious field. Two rows of posts had been erected here, guiding visitors to the site of the exhibition matches, and they were obviously having no trouble finding the pavilion: the crowd here was thick enough that Edzie had to push people aside to get close to the stage.
The pavilion's walls had been taken down, and its floor had been raised by two meters, so that the audience could see the fight. Two young women in brivsas were currently circling, scanning one another for vulnerabilities. The visiting woman wore a yellow bandeaux and a brown brivsa, and the local fighter – a girl Edzie knew as one of Baliban's students – wore the familiar cool gray brivsa and a snug athletic tunic.
The fight didn't entirely interest Edzie, so she turned her attention to ground level. An open space had been cleared on the west side of the arena, and the next scheduled competitor was warming up. Edzie lingered and looked closely at him as she passed... it was a boy approximately Edzie and Ghada's age, with frizzy brown hair pulled into a plait that fell over his upper back. He was thin, for a Concordance warrior, but his narrow arms were obviously toned and coordinated. His brivsa and tunic were a muddy green, and he had a yellowish complexion and heavy-lidded dark eyes.
As she inspected the fighter, Edzie almost tripped over another bystander, a stocky woman who didn't seem to be paying much attention to the current match. Edzie noted that she had the same green linen brivsa as the next competitor, and tugged at it gently to get her attention.
“Aye?” The woman looked at Edzie with guarded interest.
“Hey, that's the next fighter, right?” Edzie said, pointing to the boy in green. “Do you know anything about him?”
“Aye, we're from the Hexcalor, down south. Heard you Denorians throw a good festival, came up to celebrate and compete a bit, help get your huskins in the mood to fuck. That's Thistleroy. He's actually an old friend's nephew, so I'm here to see him win a couple!”
Edzie raised an eyebrow, but didn't react. “So he's pretty good?”
“So you're fightin'?” the woman inquired, wondering how much she should reveal.
“No, I can't... I have my initiation trial later today. I know some people fighting, though.”
“Well, Thistleroy is a mean fighter. Quick, clever, one of our best. Comes from a hard family, but he's trying to make good, be a respectable tribesman. Hopefully he meets a good Hexcalor girl and she can keep him in line.” She grinned. “Or maybe even one of you Denorians! After you see how he fights, at least. The boy can stand up to most women, blow for blow.”
“Well, I'm sure it will be a good fight,” Edzie replied. “Hastan bris ramsa tarvanay! (May our blades meet in sisterhood!)” With a polite nod from the Hexcalor woman, Edzie departed for the opposite side of the arena. As she approached, she heard a cheer rise up from the audience – the current match had concluded – and she hurried on, afraid Ghada might get up to the platform before she could wish him good luck.
Ghada was finishing his preparations in the opposite annex, fixing his brivsa and pulling an absolutely unnecessary decorative sash down over his sporting vest. His trousers were wrapped snugly, down to his knees, and his slender shoulders were bare and just barely tanned. His katsun was an impressive specimen, loaned to him by Rodra the craftswoman... it was crafted from some very light wood, its handle glossy and almost white, and the blade was polished to a striking shine. Edzie couldn't entirely see Ghada's face, but she could tell there was some greasepaint accentuating his eyebrows.
“Hey, what's with the makeup, little galeed? This is a fight, not a promenade!”
Ghada glanced up at Edzie's voice, and pulled his brivsa scarf down just enough to grin at her. He reached out to grab at her waist, but she slapped lightly at his outstretched hand. “No flirting, now, get your head in the fight. Don't make me regret coming out here.” She brushed his brivsa hood aside just enough to caress the hair by his ear. “You know who you're fighting? This Thirstleroy?”
“A little,” Ghada said. “Won his last couple today, but he was up against slower kids. I'll give him a good swatting.” He fixed his hood and pulled his scarf tight, making himself look as respectable as possible. Somebody up above was gesturing impatiently, doing their best to get his attention. With a final tap at Edzie's shoulder, he mounted the wooden steps to the platform.
The formalities were short... Warryn, the elder of severity, was off presiding over the main stage at the central court, so it was Keldra, elder of Accord, who had the pleasure of introducing Ghada and Thistleroy to the crowd. Edzie backed away enough that she had a good view, and then she turned to look around the audience. She caught sight of Baliban, who was engaged in a conversation with one of his students, and she saw Kosef whispering to Treya, the two of them dutifully attending their son's exhibition match.
Elder Keldra was reading an Old Concordage blessing, followed by the rules of the match: the first combatant to score three touches to the upper body or head, or to disarm their opponent, would be the victor; only strikes with the wooden edge were allowed, and any serious wounds inflicted would be punished appropriately by both tribes. After each successful touch, both combatants had to return to their sides of the stage, and Elder Keldra would tell them when they could rejoin the fight. The two combatants both acknowledged the rules, faced one another, bowed, and touched blades.
“Hey, Edzie!” Edzie started at the voice, jerking her head around, and found Bellaryn standing beside her. “Nice of you to come, with your initiation coming up so soon! Some extra good luck for my little brother, I think!”
They both turned toward the stage. The formalities were ending, and the two fighters took their respective starting positions: two meters apart, both arms outstretched, katsuns held vertically, point-down, so they would have to be reversed before their handlers could wield them effectively. Ghada was a picture of Concordance dignity, his strong, sculpted arms perfectly still, his brivsa tied up and pulled back neatly. Thistleroy was an entirely different creature: his moss green tunic was long and loose, hanging down to his upper thighs, and his trousers were billowing all the way down to his calves, like an acrobat's uniform. His brivsa was tossed over his shoulder... drawn up enough to cover his face, marginally respectful, but intentionally, arrogantly bereft of seriousness or discipline.
“Looks like a sluicule,” Bellaryn murmured, as Elder Keldra put a hand up to signal the engagement. The space of a full breath passed.
All at once, Elder Keldra gave the signal, and Ghada tried to step back cautiously, taking a vigilant position. Thistleroy moved unexpectedly, with shocking speed: without even reversing his grip on the katsun, he flipped it up, rotating it so the blade was down and the wooden edge whipped through the air into Ghada's space. The movement had no grace or rhythm... indeed, it looked downright clumsy, as the boy's hand seemed to entirely release the katsun in order to turn it over... but it started Ghada so much that he missed a step, and his stance folded into an awkward stumble.
Thistleroy used the confusion to find a comfortable grip, and before Ghada could entirely recover and assess his situation, Thistleroy was pressing the attack, whacking unevenly at Ghada's chest and stomach. Ghada managed, almost supernaturally, to block the second one of these strikes, batting it away with his own blade as he tried to regain his footing and his position. Unfortunately, the third strike slipped between Ghada's katsun and his knees, and it thumped audibly against his ribcage.
There was an audible gasp from the crowd – a resounding grunt of disapproval, despite the fact that only a third of the bystanders were paying much attention to the match.
“Nedaja!” Bellaryn cried, exploiting a curse that Edzie had never even heard before. “I was right, he is a sluicule. Ghada, send this voraish home! Ugh.”
“Ugh,” Edzie groaned. “Ghada should know better. That's exactly the type of trick I might have pulled on him.”
She watched as Elder Keldra made the signal for a touch, and Thistleroy patted Ghada on the shoulder. There was a smile in the Hexcalor boy's eyes that seemed playful... not the gloating, self-satisfied attitude that Edzie might have expected... and Ghada hesitated, and then nodded to him, trying his hardest to be polite. The boys retreated to their starting positions, and though his face was covered, Edzie could see that Ghada's eyes were suddenly wary and irate.
Elder Keldra waited a moment, and then gave the second signal to engage. Thistleroy feigned the same trick, flipping the katsun forward again, but it was clear that Ghada was ready for it... Rodra's katsun was already turned over a quarter turn, ready to deflect any quick openings. Thistleroy hadn't expected any less... a trace of a smirk appeared under his brivsa, and he turned his katsun over into a ready-position and stepped back. The two boys circled for a moment, and then Ghada struck out with a tentative attack form, testing Thistleroy's reaction time.
As the subsequent round unfolded, Edzie and Bellaryn discussed their observations. Thistleroy was no amateur... his movements were loose, but effective, and he could launch an attack, and then disengage when he lost his rhythm, without letting a conspicuous gap open in his defenses. Still, Ghada's immaculate forms obviously dominated the match: he seemed to anticipate his opponent's attacks so well that he started his defensive forms before Thistleroy even engaged, and when Ghada withdrew, it was always calculated, into an advantageous position, so that he could mount his own counterattack.
The round lasted for almost ninety seconds before Ghada deflected Thistleroy's overhead strike, pivoted around to his flank, and executed a clean, graceful slash across his lower back. Mistra Eryn made the signal for a touch, and a wave of applause rose from the vicinity of the platform.
“I think his luck's run out,” Bellaryn said with a grin, looking toward Thistleroy.
Edzie scowled in the direction of the platform and noted Thistleroy's sanguine expression. “Maybe so,” she said, “but he doesn't look too worried about it.”
In the third round, Thistleroy didn't try his opening trick, so the usual dynamic of a katsun duel – the advances and retreats, the parries and replies – ensued almost immediately. Ghada was still dominant, but Thistleroy was learning quickly. He saw that Ghada favored the backhanded strike, and that he was sometimes slow to switch hands; he cycled through different attack patterns, occasionally repeating one to throw Ghada off. He quickly discovered that Ghada was predictable, but almost completely impenetrable... no matter how aggressive or clever Thistleroy's attacks, Ghada seemed to foresee them, like some kind of a choreographed oracle.
It took almost two minutes of futile exchanging of blows for Thistleroy to test the rules of the duel. Exhibiting some evidence of fatigue, he stepped into a rough attack form, taking a wide, telegraphed swing at Ghada's shoulder. As Ghada raised his katsun to parry, he saw a glint of sunlight, and realized, in the middle of his maneuver, that Thistleroy was striking with the blade forward, as though he was going to cut Ghada in half. Ghada didn't have time to adjust, so he simply parried, and he felt his opponent's blade take a splinter of wood out of Rodra's katsun.
A wave of uncertainty struck Ghada. Was this kind of attack even allowed? Was Rodra's beautiful katsun permanently damaged? Over these thoughts, he heard the crowd's reaction: again, a murmur of shock and disapproval. It wasn't much, but all these emotions – all the sudden indecision and deliberation – left Ghada unresponsive for a split second, and Thistleroy took advantage of the pause, striking Ghada under the arm with the wooden side of his weapon, scoring his second touch.
Ghada lowered his weapon and turned his eyes directly to Elder Keldra, outraged and imploring. She looked at him with concern for a moment. “Are you hurt?” she asked.
Ghada looked at his bicep and his fingers, and shook his head. Relieved, Elder Keldra turned her eyes toward Thistleroy.
“Sorry, it was an accident,” he said. “If I'd have cut him, Dissadae's mercy, I'd be forfeiting and begging the tribe's forgiveness right now.”
Elder Keldra replied with severity and scorn in her voice. “There is no rule that you can't be clumsy, Hexcalor. But you must know... if you slip up and injure our tribesman, you will sorely regret it.” She looked at Ghada. “Are you willing to continue? If not, we all understand, but it will be considered a forfeit.”
Ghada straightened up. “No,” he said, “I'm happy to play this one through.”
The two squared off again, and Bellaryn leaned over toward Edzie. “He's showing off, as always. Maybe a little more than usual, since you're here!”
The fourth round began, and Ghada seemed to have recovered, but he had clearly lost some of his aggression... his attack forms were careful, and he had almost entirely abandoned his intercept forms in favor of withstand and withdraw forms. He absorbed three assaults from Thistleroy before he ventured a more aggressive advance. Thistleroy deflected the attack, executed an intercept form, and visibly rotated the katsun in his grip.
Thistleroy's next strike was a short slice, barely enough to reach Ghada, but he led with the blade of his weapon, and Ghada stumbled back from it in shock. Thistleroy wasn't stepping at full speed, or striking at full force, but he made his advance with cold deliberation, striking twice with the wooden edge, and then swinging again with the metal blade. It knocked against Ghada's parry, and Ghada continued retreating, not sure whether to turn his own blade over or not. His situation suddenly seemed deadly, and his steps and his parries were becoming desperate and clumsy.
“Dissadae, what's the voraish doing?” Bellaryn blurted out.
“He's being a sluicule,” Edzie said. “He won't cut him, though. Come on, Ghada, stuff it back in his gut.”
Bellaryn was less confident than Edzie: Thistleroy's next swing at Ghada was right at neck-level, and Bellaryn swore, if Ghada hadn't jerked his body back, the blade would have opened up his throat. Ghada was falling into a full, panicked retreat now, his movements off-balance, his own katsun useless. He finally fell back, landing on one hand, and raised the katsun in inane self-defense, terrified of the metal edge that could unbind his flesh from his bones.
Thistleroy stopped, like a blizzard suddenly subsiding, and turned his katsun over in his grip. With an insulting gentleness, he brought it down on Ghada's neck, tapping him just below the hair-line. Satisfied, he lowered the katsun and offered Ghada a hand, ready to pull him to his feet.
Ghada's brivsa had fallen open, and Edzie could see a fiery frustration on his face, his jaw tense and his eyes glazed. He stood up on his own, refusing his opponent's help, but he wasn't turning his anger outward... Edzie could tell he was in the process of closing up on his first defeat, directing all his shame and disappointment into his own psyche. He didn't look at Thistleroy, and he didn't look at Elder Keldra. Instead, he caught Edzie's eye, for a fraction of a second.
Elder Keldra hadn't officially given the signal for a third touch, or a victory. She seemed to be caught in a moment of uncertainty, unsure of whether to allow blatant threats of injury as a strategic play. Luckily, she didn't have to make a decision on the point... before she could speak, or furnish a gesture, Edzie was pulling herself up on the platform, to the delight and confusion of spectators on every side. Ghada and Thistleroy were standing up, now, side by side, and they were both looking at her through suspicious eyes.
“I'm fighting him!” Edzie proclaimed to Elder Keldra, her hand already on the handle of her katsun. “That was a shit match. Let's see if this voraish's tricks work for another three rounds.”
“It's okay, Edzie, it was fine for my first exhibition match,” Ghada said, his impeccable sense of honor returning.
“That was your first fight? Damn right it was good!” Thistleroy exclaimed. He turned to Edzie. “What's your problem, then? Can't control that temper? You think I'm not good enough to beat a girl?”
Elder Keldra was already shaking her head. “No, Edzie, each match has to stand on its own. Frankly, I'll need to give some thought to how I score this one. Having another one won't help me.”
Edzie scoffed and turned to Thistleroy. “Fine. You seem game, though. Tell you what... if I win, we count it as even. I won't even take the victory... I'm not officially a member of the tribe yet, anyway. We just scratch off your win, and we all go to feast together.”
Thistleroy raised an eyebrow. “And if I win... I get both victories? Make the deal sweeter for me? You really want to risk it, Denorian?”
“Fine by me,” Edzie said. “And like I said: we all go to feast together.” She looked at Elder Keldra. “What do you think? Can you certify the match?”
Elder Keldra looked at each of them in turn. She glanced at Edzie's katsun – an old, proud specimen, Elkansa's favored implement for so many years – and she felt a swell of pride in her breast, the vanity of a tribeswoman who had spent her life serving a single great family. She looked out at the crowd and opened her arms, signaling for their response.
The roar that rose up was properly modest, but it was enough to signal the interest of the audience.
“Alright,” Keldra finally said, “take ninety seconds off the platform to prepare yourselves, and then take your positions.”
Thistleroy returned, stretching, to his corner of the platform; Edzie and Ghada walked in the opposite direction, silent until they reached the fenced-off annex on the east side. Ghada kept his eyes on the ground in front of him as he walked, effecting an unusual brooding sobriety. They stepped off the platform, and Edzie started stretching.
“Damn, I thought I was better than that,” Ghada grumbled. “It's harder than I expected, facing a sharp edge. Don't get yourself hurt, Edzie. It's not worth it on my account.”
“I'll be okay,” Edzie promised. “Meanwhile, the voraish wants a war, so let's have one. We'll see how he likes being on the other end of my katsun.”
Ghada nodded, his spirits warmed by Edzie's protective confidence. He offered her a hand, and they reached in and grasped each others' wrists, exchanging solidarity in their shared grip. Edzie nodded to Ghada, and Ghada smiled back and released her arm. She mounted the platform and found Thistleroy, already waiting in the center, swinging his katsun in front of him.
Elder Keldra gave the blessing, and added, “This is an unscheduled exhibition match, a special provision to Edzie of the Denoria and Thistleroy of the Hexcalor, and the rules remain in force. Do you both agree to fight honorably within Dissadae's circle?”
Edzie and Thistleroy nodded, and Elder Keldra told them to take their positions. Edzie projected confidence, even indifference, to match Thistleroy's cavalier demeanor. Still, she remained wary of his tricky opening, not wanting to start the match a step behind. Finally, at the draw of the third breath, Elder Keldra gave the signal to start.
For the first two rounds, Edzie could have been mistaken for a timid novice, or a trainer intentionally going easy on her opponent. She spent the vast majority of the time defending, making short and tentative advances, and moving around the platform. Thistleroy was conservative at first, protecting his flanks and keeping his vulnerabilities clamped down, but as the asymmetry in tactics became clear, he became bolder, testing out various approaches to undermine Edzie's nerves or penetrate her guard. She wasn't nearly as precise as Ghada had been, but she seemed to be calculating, conserving energy... Thistleroy had no doubt that she was holding something in reserve.
Throughout both of these rounds – each taking a full four minutes, each eventually won by Thistleroy – Edzie remained patient and observant, sticking to her objective: to learn Thistleroy's patterns, to see whether he was stronger on his right or left side, to learn his most common attacks and his defensive tendencies. In particular, she was looking for a certain kind of opening: a drop in his guard, or an over-extension or overcompensation, that would ultimately become the starting point for her strategy in the pivotal third round.
The crowd had quieted down by the beginning of round three, feeling the match had lost its drama. Thistleroy's confidence had plateaued, and at the start of the round, he tried to goad Edzie into an attack, intentionally dropping his guard and exaggerating his own clumsiness, laughing as he beckoned to her. She took a couple whacks at him, forcing him to close up and reengage, and then she executed her first serious attack form: a feint from the left, a step across his field of view, and then an aggressive slash from the right.
Thistleroy behaved as Edzie predicted: he parried, dropped his katsun low, and tried to take a hack at Edzie's ribs... a successful strike would have brought the match to a clean end. Instead, he found that Edzie had already passed by on his left side, thrusting her katsun high past his head. Her next movement was completely alien to Thistleroy: keeping one hand on the end of her katsun's handle, she whipped the other hand back, levering the wooden edge of the weapon into the back of his head.
The crowd heard a “thwack,” loud enough that it interrupted their conversations. Thistleroy, on the other hand, heard nothing... instead, he saw a flash of multicolored light, and he felt his head jerk forward with the impact of the wood. Pain washed through his whole head, centering especially on his temples, and then it was overtaken by an agonizing smarting on the back of his skull. When the dizziness had subsided, he discovered that he had lost his balance and fallen to the platform, losing his grip on his katsun and catching himself on his palms.
“Ugghh... ow.” He stood up and stumbled a little, and then finally found his footing.
Elder Keldra made the sign for a touch, but she looked at the Hexcalor boy with some concern. “Are you okay, Thistleroy? That was a hard hit... rest for a few minutes if you need it.”
Thistleroy took a minute to recover, lowering himself to his haunches and putting his free hand to his forehead. He sensed Edzie standing over him, uncomfortably close, and he made a point of ignoring her. Finally, when he felt that his head was clear and his eyes weren't casting colors over his visual field, he stood up and returned to his starting position.
“Looked painful,” Edzie said through her brivsa. “Good thing I kept to the wooden edge!”
“Good luck getting that close again,” Thistleroy said, reminding himself to stay vigilant.
The fourth round was devastatingly quick for Thistleroy. He hadn't entirely recovered from his dizziness, and suddenly he felt viciously, painfully aware that Edzie was willing to inflict serious bruises. It also didn't help that she switched tactics radically, launching a barrage of aggressive attack forms, one after another, giving him no time to stabilize or counterattack. He had gone from fighting a nervous huskin calf to dealing with a charging bull, and he only managed to deflect a few attacks before he let a strike under his guard.
Elder Keldra signaled Edzie's second touch, and Thistleroy found he was just happy it hadn't hurt as bad as the first one. “Honorable elder,” he said, “would you mind if I accepted your offer to take a few minutes to recover? I can still feel the ringing in my head.”
Elder Keldra graciously agreed, and Thistleroy retreated to his annex while Edzie stood, motionless, on the platform. Two friends offered Thistleroy a gulp of cold water and a firm kneading of his shoulders, and he tightened up the folds of his tunic and mentally reviewed the last two rounds. He would have to be fully committed, self-possessed, and willing to employ whatever strategy was available... his most significant hope, he thought, was that all these Denorians shared the same deficiency: a fear of the katsun's naked blade.
When the general ache had left his head (the sharp soreness was still there, but wasn't so distracting), Thistleroy stepped back up to the platform, thanked Elder Keldra, pulled his brivsa tight around his face, and took his starting position. Edzie mirrored him, and Elder Keldra signaled the start of the final round.
Thistleroy settled into a moderate defensive pattern, keeping alert in case Edzie shifted back into an aggressive frenzy. Instead, he found the round starting out more like the first two rounds, with Edzie giving ground, being careful, venturing an occasional attack form. Thistleroy tried to intercept, but it was useless – Edzie was too clever, almost prescient, about his range of possible responses. He delivered his own sequence of attack patterns, and found his attitude almost perfectly mirrored in Edzie's forms: she met his aggression with calm defense, and when he settled back into a conservative mode, she pressed him carefully, testing the boundaries of his movement.
At last, after three minutes of this cycling, posturing behavior, Edzie got the chance she was looking for: she saw Thistleroy turn his katsun over and present the blade to her, looking her in the eye as he did so. She sensed Elder Keldra tense up behind her, preparing to put a stop to a potentially dangerous development. All three of them hesitated, and then Thistleroy made his move, delivering an assertive strike to Edzie's torso.
Edzie could tell he was moving slowly enough to stop the weapon before it seriously cut her... his intention was to upset her, to break her rhythm and trigger her panic response. Instead of retreating from the blade, Edzie stepped decisively into it.
There was a gasp from the spectators, many of whom had returned their attention to the match. Thistleroy reversed his movement so suddenly, it was akin to a spasm of the upper body, and in trying to stop the blade from reaching Edzie, he actually lost his footing and stumbled backwards with comical clumsiness. He managed not to completely fall over, but he had to put his arms out to steady himself, and the katsun went limp in his grip.
Edzie was now focused, entirely in control. She brandished her katsun in her right hand, stepped around Thistleroy, and drew the wooden edge gracefully across his belly, demonstrating a maneuver that might be used to ritually disembowel an opponent. When she had completed the strike, which constituted the final touch of the match, she locked her left bicep under Thistleroy's shoulder and planted herself, firmly, to hold him upright.
The two combatants – one now victorious, the other defeated – hung in that position for a second, and Edzie looked into Thistleroy's eyes from a few inches to his left. An echo of forgotten emotions rippled through her mind and into her body: a memory from earlier that day of a terrified, hungry grasscat that was awaiting its mortal blow; a memory of Luna, clutching a strip of canvas in her hand, spittle spraying from her mouth as she yelled; finally, deep below Edzie's consciousness, the memory of Dormoroy Gesk's eyes, alternately frightened and swollen and bulging with mortal intent. Here was Thistleroy, acting out so many parts, his ear so close to her lips.
She moved her right arm around, whispering as she did so: “Thistleroy... here's what somebody who's not bluffing looks like.”
Her katsun rolled over as she moved it across her body, pressing its sharpened blade hard against the back side of Thistleroy's knee. Thistleroy didn't even have time to notice before she yanked it across, splitting open the joint and nearly severing his hamstring.
Thistleroy let out a sustained, voice-ruining scream of agony as his leg suddenly stopped supporting him; Edzie pulled her katsun away and jerked her head back from the scream, but she stayed rooted to the platform, keeping him on his feet. She only let him down slowly, allowing him to crumple to his knees; as she finally released him, she saw blood pouring from the wound, covering the side of her leg and pooling on the wooden platform. Finally, a burst of activity overtook her, a veritable frenzy of bystanders and authority figures trying to react.
Ghada was the first to the platform, diving to Thistleroy's assistance, placing a hand over the gaping wound and trying to keep it there as the boy slumped over and gasped for air. Keldra arrived a moment after, helping to move Thistleroy's prone upper body, barking at another bystander – someone she knew, Edzie assumed – to run and get Greya the healer. Having dispensed with these necessities, Keldra turned toward Edzie, giving her a look that was somewhere between horrified and acridly bitter. She started moving toward her, apparently wanting to confront her immediately, but seeing that Edzie wasn't running away, Keldra turned her attention back to Thistleroy, as several others reached the platform: Bellaryn, Kosef, Treya, and the Hexcalor woman Edzie had spoken to previously.
There was such a jumble of activity, such a disorganized rush of instructions and demands, that Edzie started feeling overwhelmed, and escaped into a private fog. She was only half-aware when Greya arrived and attempted emergency surgery on the boy, making an incision behind his knee, using a tiny clasp to hold the separated muscle together, and sewing the damaged tissue with thread so tiny as to be invisible. The leg was splinted, some foul-smelling liquid was pressed to Thistleroy's face under his brivsa, and he was borne from the platform on a stretcher, semi-conscious and groaning.
The next series of developments were focused on Edzie herself. Several more visitors from the Hexcalor tribe had arrived at the arena, and they were barking things at one another, at Edzie, and at the older Denorian tribeswomen who were trying to keep everything under control. To keep them calm, Elder Keldra called forth two Denorian warriors to watch Edzie, and two of the Hexcalor stood by to supervise (the others ran off to attend to Thistleroy at Greya's infirmary).
Edzie's various guards – both Denorian and Hexcalor – were irritable, ill-at-ease, and indecisive. After a few minutes, it became clear that they were stuck waiting for some new development, having no particular procedure or authority to handle this kind of offense. Their stasis was finally broken by the arrival of two additional figures: first, a Hexcalor tribal representative, called forth from the contingent watching the matches at the main stage; second, Elkansa, looking disheveled and intense as she arrived from the southwest.
The Hexcalor representative arrived first. She wasn't much taller than Edzie, but she was broader, with muscular shoulders and square jaw. Her brivsa and tunic were a shrill dark yellow, lined with silver thread along the hood and ends of the scarf, and she had several decorations that weren't characteristic of a Concordance tribeswoman: a cluster of piercings on the right side of her eyebrow and nose, and a facial tattoo that resembled a tiny compass rose on her left cheek. When she arrived at the platform, she gave Edzie naught but a glance, but there was genuine hate in her eyes. She turned almost immediately to Keldra, speaking quietly, but emanating fury in her gestures and expressions.
Elkansa arrived presently, interrupting the two tribal authorities and making her presence known. The Hexcalor woman was preoccupied growling something at Keldra, and so they waved Elkansa away, freeing her to stomp over to Edzie, jaw set.
“I can't believe you would do this,” she said, her voice a rasp of disgust.
“I just overdid it,” Edzie said, trying to collect her wits and return from her troubled reverie.
“Don't just wave this away, Edzie. The woman who came to me said the boy may be crippled. What happened? How did you lose control of your blade?”
The Hexcalor woman had obviously overheard, and she yelled in their direction: “She didn't lose control of anything! The match was already over... this little sluicule hobbled a promising fellow tribesman, just out of spite!”
Edzie raised her eyebrow at the ranting woman, and the latter turned back to her negotiation with Keldra. Elkansa's eyes remained on her daughter. “So? What happened?”
“I gave him some special treatment,” Edzie said. “I wanted to show him he wasn't better than us. I think he gets it now.”
Elkansa looked baffled. “Why, Edzie? Why did you do that to that boy?”
Edzie remained silent at this question. Responses rushed into her brain, and then refuted themselves and disappeared. She thought back to the time that Stray had retaliated against her by breaking her katsun... he may have been overreacting, but his reasons were crystal clear: he wanted to balance out the scales of fairness. Edzie looked into herself for something similar, and couldn't discern anything comparable. She didn't have any reason that she could cite, or repeat, except that she had felt a rush of violent reactionary emotion, and it had guided her katsun's blade. Deep behind this impulse, she couldn't find an ideal or a higher purpose, or even an echo of regret... in fact, she found nothing at all.
And so she said nothing at all.
Her silence was broken, presently, by Elder Keldra's arrival. The Elder's news was as good as any news could be at the moment. “That's the chief of the visiting Hexcalor, invested... for the purposes of our festival... with the authority of their elders. She agrees to let you go home in your mother's custody, if you promise not to flee. We'll gather a couple of the others... Elder Hylidae, at the very least... and discuss the situation. You'll get a visit later tonight.”
Elkansa nodded, doing her best to appear dignified and respectful. “Thank you. What about Edzie's initiation trial? She was supposed to be thirty-fourth tonight, before the feast.”
“The trial is hereby suspended. By me. That topic will require some more discussion. Edzie, can I trust you... in spite of your offense today... can I trust you to cooperate with us?”
Edzie nodded, unable to muster anything but an indifferent frown. Elder Keldra dismissed the two Denorians at attention, and then she walked over to continue talking to the Hexcalor chief. Edzie kept her eyes unfocused, suddenly profoundly afraid of seeing disapproval in Ghada's face, or his parents'. She only glanced up as she and Elkansa were leaving the platform behind, pushing through a sea of concerned and anxious and frustrated faces. She found, to her relief, that Ghada and his family were nowhere to be seen.
Elkansa's speech to Edzie, begun when they were out of earshot of the platform and only completed long after they had arrived home, was an epic, righteous, redundant, exasperated masterpiece of moral instruction. At times, Elkansa seemed to swing into baffled, almost merciful leniency, suggesting that Edzie's crime was an inevitability of youth, or that she herself had failed in raising her daughter. At other times, Elkansa agonized over Edzie's character, as if her meanness was some sort of virus, or a crack in a wall that needed to be fixed. And of course, during some particularly vitriolic passages, Elkansa laid the blame squarely at Edzie's feet, demanding to know why she had broken so many established conventions, and why she had dedicated her life to sabotaging her relationship with the tribe.
Edzie was fairly sure that this third attitude was the fairest one. I did that, she said to herself, and I either need to learn to control that part of me, or I need to learn to live with it. Or perhaps both.
In the gathering room, dimly-lit through the side windows, Elkansa eventually ran out of things to say, and she fell to pacing and shaking her head and sighing. Edzie excused herself, glad at least for that small consolation, and found several hours of solitude in her room, paging through two borrowed books without absorbing a word of either of them.
Through the entranceway, Edzie heard Stray come and go. She tried to keep her attention diverted, not wanting to think more about her transgression, but she couldn't help but hear Elkansa give Stray a brief overview of the situation. He made all the expected sounds of shock and dismay, and asked if there was anything he could do, or if he should try talking to her. Elkansa told him there was nothing he could do, and so Edzie finally heard him depart, returning to the festival with a troubled and heavy heart.
When the elders finally arrived, the sun was just dipping down beneath the horizon, and Edzie was feeling drowsy. Elkansa called her out into the gathering room, and she shook herself awake and joined the small conference that had gathered there. Aside from her and Elkansa, the entourage included Elder Keldra, Elder Hylidae, Elder Amiaverta, and the Hexcalor representative, who was finally introduced to Elkansa as Ifris.
The four of them had come to a tentative solution, an attempt to spare Edzie the embarrassment of a full trial and a temporary extradition to be punished by the Hexcalor. The elders... Keldra in particular... had purchased mercy with promises, apologies, and pleas. Edzie's status as an uninitiated daughter was a significant factor, as well, as it was considered bad form to hold a girl accountable as a fully-initiated woman.
First, the trial would be delayed by two days, so that it didn't interfere with the festival. It would be a private tribunal, consisting of the current assembly, plus Ghada, and one additional Hexcalor woman, a close friend of Thistleroy's family who was currently attending the festival. Depending on the findings of the tribunal, Edzie's punishment might be as lenient as a gesture of shame to the victim, or as harsh as extended restraint and punitive branding. Whatever was decided, it would be inflicted by a member of the Hexcalor: either Ifris herself, or a fellow tribesperson chosen by Thistleroy.
The other matter, an internal consideration, was the handling of Edzie's initiation. The council agreed that Edzie's initiation would be delayed... that she would be evaluated the following year, and if she was sufficiently contrite and respectful, she could be initiated a year late, in the same festival as Stray.
All five of them looked to Edzie for acknowledgment, and though her emotions were a raging storm of frustration and resentment, she managed a nod, her face cast in stone. The tribal leaders excused themselves hastily, ushered off by Elkansa's token words of esteem. The three Denorians headed for the sunset banquet, rushing to deliver the ceremonial address on time; Ifris declined to join them, preferring to take some time alone and make herself available to her own discontented tribespeople.
When they left, Elkansa and Edzie remained standing in the gathering room. Elkansa's eyes were downcast, and Edzie's remained focused, trained straight ahead, unwavering. At last, Elkansa spoke, breaking up the tension.
“By Dissadae, Edzie, what did you think was going to happen?”
Edzie let her eyes settle on her mother's face. “I didn't think anything was going to happen. And I still don't.”
Whether she meant this as empty defiance, or as a way to downplay the punishment that had been proposed, neither of them was sure, but those words bore a portent of unrealized irony and violence... a curse whose consummation was already approaching, a shadow on the settlement's outskirts.
The Festival plateaued late into the night, as always, illuminated by a yellow moon and a multitude of mismatched thresh lamps. The central court was a slow storm of celebration, home to hundreds of Denorians and their Concordance kin, caught up in idle conversations with old friends and new loves and total strangers. There was some troubling talk of a problem at one of the exhibition matches... an unusual injury, a possible diplomatic complication... but it was barely a flicker of concern within the vast glow of kinship that engulfed the settlement.
Boyle and Varda were standing at a table on the west side of the central court, picking at baskets of root vegetables and blusterwheat bread, when a stranger happened by them and asked them a question.
“Hey, Denorians... do you know who it was that fought Thistleroy of the Hexcalor today? I want to talk to him.”
Boyle glanced up at the stranger and immediately recognized him as an outsider. He wore something like a brivsa, except it was made of some hybrid textile that looked like muddy gray fish-scales. The scarf was down, loose, over the man's broad, slumping shoulders, and the hood was pulled up so far it cast a shadow over the man's eyes. On his upper body, he wore a ratty gray tunic that failed to obscure a suit of protective leather pads, belted on and fastened over his frame with a web of leather straps and tarnished buckles.
“Who?” Boyle asked.
Varda interjected. “He said somebody from the Hexcalor tribe. Thistleroy? I heard Ghada's match was somebody from that tribe.”
The stranger seemed to perk up at the name, and he reached toward Varda in his excitement. She recoiled slightly, a vicious look in her eyes, and he withdrew his hand. Boyle caught a glimpse of something as the forearm passed... four centimeter-wide white circles, like scars, but too perfect to have been accidental.
“Ghada! Yeah, that's what somebody else said. You know him? Can I talk to him?”
Varda's eyes burned with suspicion, and she remained absolutely still, suddenly feeling like she was dealing with a dangerous predator. Boyle wanted nothing more than to get away from the situation, so he was quick to offer up the only information he had.
“You're out of luck. He decided to skip the banquet, said he wasn't feeling well. Probably at home sleeping, I think. You can probably talk to his parents if you want, but...” He craned his neck and looked around. “... but I don't see them. They should be somewhere around, though.”
“Can you tell me where this Ghadja boy lives?” the stranger asked.
Boyle started to speak, but Varda grabbed his arm and answered for him. “No, we don't know. We don't know him that well. Sorry.”
The stranger remained at their side for a moment longer, looking at them from the shadow of his hood. Then he uttered a word of thanks, turned, and fled into the crowd. Boyle, always perceptive, caught sight of a flash of silver under the stranger's tunic, and then the figure was lost.
An hour later, Edzie was lying, awake, in her bed, the covers tossed on the floor so she could feel the autumn air. She was still thinking... obsessively, involuntarily... about her transgression that day, and whether Ghada would forgive her, and what kind of a person she would be when she was finally initiated. The wind whistled by her window, but she didn't hear it.
Thistleroy was lying awake, as well, trying to move, grunting in pain with each exertion. His back and working leg were stiff, and the headaches that had throbbed in his head all evening were not going away, and he hoped the pain would be better by morning. His mind, stretched out and worn raw by the agony, kept flirting with violent impulses... fantasies of finding the girl that had injured him, of inflicting some crippling wound upon her, even thoughts of killing her, though those disgusted him as soon as they entered his head, and he always turned away from them when they arrived.
At Ghada's dromo, a figure moved the wooden plank aside and entered the front entrance. The interior was pitch dark, and it was clear nobody was awake and active in the household. The figure still walked quietly, but it didn't slink like a fugitive animal... it walked purposefully, checking in one room (empty) and then turning down a long hallway. As it approached the entryway to Ghada's bedroom, it drew a tool from the back of its belt.
Ghada awoke with a start, drawn out of an anxious dream by a flood of conflicting sensations. Something extremely heavy pressed down on his chest, and something else yanked his arm away from his body, and a hot gust of pungent breath washed over his face.
“This is for Thistleroy's leg, you redge,” said a voice that chafed at Ghada's ears like broken glass.
Then Thistleroy felt something drastic and unfamiliar in his hand: first a sort of folding in the crook of his thumb, and then a shooting, cutting, mind-bending agony, unlike any pain he had ever experienced. His hand couldn't move for about four seconds, and then it was suddenly let free. Ghada, locked in mid-scream, tried to throw his hand in front of his face, but it deflected harmlessly off the vast weight sitting on his chest. Something wet splattered across Ghada's face, and he caught his breath for a moment, and then resumed his scream.
He tried to thrash... even to breathe... but it was impossible, and he suddenly felt like he was going to asphyxiate. With some less panicked part of his mind, he felt his other arm – seized up, trying ineffectually to free itself – jerked up from under the weight, and he felt the same sensation a second time: the folding, the pain that burst into his temples and diffused through his whole body, the helpless thrashing and swinging.
Suddenly, the weight was lifted, and Ghada lunged out of bed, crumpling to the ground and trying to bury his hands in his own chest. Rivulets of blood ran down his arm, and as he jerked and screamed, they left splatters across his covers, his floor, his chest, and his face.
He heard laughter... it seemed distant and indistinct now... and he heard somebody moving toward the entrance to his room. The figure was sheathing some kind of small blade on the back of its belt, and it was tucking something else into a pocket beneath a ratty gray tunic. It wasn't talking, and Ghada couldn't see its face; its stride was leisurely, almost buoyant, as it left his room, his dromo, and finally the whole Denorian settlement.
“Edzie, wake up. Come.”
There was an urgent note in Elkansa's voice, an intensity that Edzie hadn't heard since their fight over Boyle's parents. She blinked, shaking the sleep out of her eyes, and sensed that the air was chilly, soft with early morning light. She considered objecting to the rough treatment, but decided to wait and see what was happening.
“Come on, Edzie. Get clothes on. Your brivsa is in the gathering room. We have to go.”
“Why?” Edzie grunted, swinging her legs to the floor. “I barely slept last night. Can you please tell me what's going on?”
“Something happened last night, and it has to do with us. The messenger couldn't say any more. There's a meeting with the elders in the central court.”
Edzie and Elkansa stumbled out the door a minute later, jogging side by side up the path past Boyle's house. The fields and lots were littered with evidence of the festival, small campsites and discarded debris, but the visiting parties had been kind enough to stay off the path, so Edzie and Elkansa could safely ignore them. They reached the central court a few minutes after the messenger who had summoned them, and found that it was already occupied and buzzing.
Near the smoking remnants of last night's bonfire, five elders congregated: Amiaverta, Warryn, Keldra, Yogo, and Hylidae. A few meters away, a small group of outsiders were gathered, conversing in low tones. Ifris was present, and appeared to be driving the conversation. Near the elders, Treya stood, attired in sloppy evening robes, holding her head in one hand.
Elkansa and Edzie approached from Treya's side. “What happened?” Edzie demanded, alarmed by the tone of the gathering.
Hearing Edzie's voice, Treya's demeanor changed radically. She put her hand on her katsun handle and jerked her shoulders up to attention. “Stay away from me, Edzie,” she said, her voice raw and her eyes red and wild.
Elkansa thrust a protective arm in front of Edzie, reaching toward her own katsun with the other hand. “Treya,” she said, her tone taut with warning.
“Stop this,” Elder Warryn said, moving into the space between the three women. “Treya, don't forget yourself. This is tribe business now.” He looked at Edzie and Elkansa, knowing they were entirely at a loss. “Ghada was attacked last night,” he said. “Somebody assaulted him in his own dromo, while his family was at the central court. We suspect it had something to do with your match yesterday.”
Treya let out a bitter laugh. “We don't suspect... the redge said it! He said this was for the boy whose leg was cut!”
“Is Ghada okay?” Edzie addressed the question to the open air.
“THEY TOOK HIS THUMBS, EDZIE.” Treya was screaming now, as if she was feeling her son's pain. “BOTH THUMBS. HE HAD TO WATCH THEM TAKE THEM.”
Edzie's chest constricted, as if Treya's words had struck her in the ribs. She had never heard of this kind of cruelty... what did it mean for Ghada's beauty, his ability to work, his ability to fight? She almost swooned for a second, and when she recovered her senses, she found she was looking at her own hands, flexing her forearms, dizzy with the awareness of her own bones and muscles and nerves. She lost track of her hands, then, but she remembered her surroundings, and the nervous expressions on the faces of the Hexcalor tribespeople. The thought of their faces suddenly snapped her back to attention, and she looked at them with wild tears in her eyes.
“WHO? WHICH OF YOU DID IT?”
Elkansa tried to calm her daughter, and Treya simply shook her head. Edzie was already crossing the court, drawing her katsun, when Elder Warryn stepped up to her from behind. She didn't even hear his footsteps... she only felt her head draw back, and her arms fold, and a streak of pain flash into her shoulder. It hardly took more than a touch from Warryn... Edzie crumpled in his hands, finding herself caught by the wrists and neck, unable to move any limb without some kind of pain answering in her joints.
“Stand down, Edzie,” Warryn said into her ear.
Edzie thrashed for a moment, not because she hoped to escape, but simply because there was something reassuring in the pain... an inescapable resistance, a tension that called her back into her own body, a constraint that she could test herself against, and indeed, a point of physical failure that she could fall back on. Finally, after three more seconds, she let her muscles relax, arms going limp in Warryn's grip, breath evening out.
When he was sure she was calm, Elder Warryn released her, and the grim silence of averted disaster washed over the court. Edzie looked across the array of Hexcalor faces, wanting to meet a gaze, but she found no purchase. When the representative finally spoke, she addressed Elder Warryn, though he had already been appraised of this information.
“We are fairly certain we know who did this,” Ifris said. “Looks like it was Thistleroy's half-brother Crastin, a thug from somewhere out east.” She paused, glancing at Elkansa, and then elaborated. “He used to be Hexcalor, but we exiled him... nine years ago, give or take... for violence and subversion. His family has officially denounced him, and we keep him out of our settlements.”
Elkansa and Treya continued glaring at the Hexcalor. Only Edzie managed to speak, looking to her own elders for answers. “So here they are, with an excuse all ready. How do they know? How do we know?”
Elder Hylidae replied with admirable, futile gentleness. “We spoke to several Denorians... four, to be more specific... who said they saw an outsider asking questions about Ghada last night, during the banquet. Their descriptions match Ifris's description of Crastin. We also managed to follow his tracks this morning, before the sun rose... Ghada's blood led us to his bootprints... but they disappeared along the bank of the Prospect. We think he got at least two hours lead-time on our trackers, and the darkness slowed us down.”
Edzie was still seething. “And he happened to be here, ready to attack a rival tribesman. Still seems too easy to me.”
Ifris spoke directly to Edzie now, trying to maintain some dignity. “He didn't just happen to be here. He's been known to come to other tribes' festivals, specifically for the purpose of checking up on old family members... Thistleroy among them. We are ashamed that he still lurks in our shadow, and we sorely regret what happened to your friend. We only wanted a just punishment, not this bloody travesty.”
Silence held for another moment, and then Elkansa stepped into the breach. “So where is this Crastin, now that we know who he is? The longer we wait to send out a hunting party, the harder it will be to find him.”
“They don't know where he lives now,” Elder Warryn replied. “They suspect it's near Horizon, or further east, maybe as far as the Bhijan River. We're scouting our territory, and sending messengers to our neighboring tribes... we sent out six parties this morning... but if he escapes our lands, there's nothing else we can do, except send word to the Protectorate central office.”
Edzie's face contorted with disgust. “You...” She turned her smoldering gaze on the elders. “You won't even follow him? He can destroy one of your own children, and just walk away, and Ghada gets no justice?” She spat at her feet, and then turned to the Hexcalor. “And you... you're willing to accept this? Your own bad blood, bringing shame to your tribe, mutilating children, and can't spare so much as a few hunters to bring this redge what he deserves?”
There was silence in response to Edzie's outrage, a dismal reticence shaded differently for each participant in the conversation.
“Well?” Edzie demanded.
“Edzie,” Elkansa finally said, “the elders have spoken. Their judgment is sound.”
Edzie's eyes were red and wet as she turned from her mother to Treya. Treya met her gaze with a stony contempt. “I think you know, Edzie... we have no righteousness to stand on here. Thanks, in part, to you.”
Ifris spoke up, then, making an unexpected contribution. “Crastin's crimes are not your fault, Denorian, and we don't intend to foist this responsibility upon you. In light of these crimes, we hereby rescind our demand for a shared tribunal. Your elders may punish you as they see fit for Thistleroy's injury... it's safe to say that Crastin has undermined any moral claim we might have held in the matter.”
This did not have any kind of calming effect on Edzie, whose face betrayed her continuing anguish. “THAT is NOT ENOUGH. My slip had nothing to do with Ghada, and now he's crippled.” Her words rushed out in a torrent, like a backup of swamp sludge bursting through a break-wall. “PUNISH ME however you want, you sluicules. When that's done with, I'll still be spitting in your faces, and we can get on with punishing YOU for what your huskin-cursed children did to my friend.”
Ifris met Edzie's gaze with a spiteful eye. “I think you should pinch those lips, Denorian. We resent Crastin's methods... we refused to tolerate them... but if it hadn't been for your wantonness, he would have stayed in the shadows, and you would have your initiation scar by now. As it stands, you are still a child, and I am losing patience with your childish lectures.”
Edzie prepared to respond when she felt her mother's hand on her arm.
“Go home, Edzie,” Elkansa said, calm and unequivocal.
Edzie almost refused... almost unleashed another torrent of disgust... but then she felt tears welling up in her eyes and sobs gathering in her jaw, and she made the strategic decision to turn away.