In the center of the tent, Samuel called for attention. As everyone fell silent, I pulled my eyes off the bazkide. It wasn’t going to eat me. At least I was pretty sure it wasn’t.
As Samuel started rambling through stuff we all knew—la-di-da, trials, hunters, responsibility, you get the picture—I wondered how I’d cook human. Not that I ever would, of course, that’s gross. Also probably dangerous. You probably get weird diseases from eating people, like the stomach-churning wasting disease that takes them as eats gremlins. But flavor-wise, would we be good with herbs or would we need something spicy to cover up an unpleasant aftertaste? It might depend on what the human in question had been eating themselves. Like pigs, really. Grain-fed don’t taste the same as wild-fed.
I started paying attention to Samuel again when he started giving us instructions. We were supposed to form lines. Ranks, like we did during morning lessons. In fact, that’s exactly what he wanted us to do. The same exercises that we did at the start of every school day and had been doing since we were littles.
I got into place, with Martine on one side of me, Benjamin on the other side of her, and we all started on morning flow. Stretch, twist, lunge, step back, arms up, down, drop to the ground, lift, bounce up, arms up, down, and then the other side. Three times slow, holding in each position for a count of ten. Then we started to go faster. I liked morning flow and I could have done it in my sleep, but after ten rounds or so, Samuel called us to a stop.
“Full elevens,” he ordered.
Elevens are the stretches we do mid-morning at school. Littles—the real littles—go home then, so you only start doing elevens when you’re maybe six or seven. Plus, elevens get mixed up according to the day. Full elevens means the pattern that we do on the week of the full moon. There’s also new elevens, first elevens, and third elevens. Samuel made us do all of them, five rounds each.
By the time we were finished, I could hear heavy breathing all around me. Benjamin was panting on the other side of Martine. Martine looked as composed as if she’d just gone out for a morning stroll to the market, but I could feel sweat trickling down the back of my neck and along my spine.
“Ten minute break,” Samuel called out.
I glanced around the tent. Some kids were dropping to the ground, others were pulling out water or nut bars. That’s what we did after elevens at school, but I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do here. I flicked a glance upward to the bazkide in the corner. It was still and motionless, but its eyes were open and it was watching us.
It’s not going to eat you, I told myself firmly. It’s an ally. You ain’t dinner. Besides, if I were a monster, a predator monster, I’d never pick me for a snack. I’d pick one of those resting kids. They’d have to get up before they could run away, so they’d have a tougher time escaping.
As dumb as all that sounds, I decided to stay on my feet. Martine was still on hers, too, but Benjamin sat down.
“Water, Kas?” Martine held out her water bottle to me.
I hadn’t brought water or a snack. I didn’t figure I’d be here that long. But my mouth was parched. I reached for the bottle, then hesitated. Martine wanted to make it through. She was hoping to be here all day. If I took her water, she might run out before the end. “You sure?”
“It’s fine.” She shot me a quick smile. “If I move on, I’ll get a chance to refill it. If I don’t…” She lifted a shoulder in a shrug, but her smile was tight and she left the rest of the words unsaid.
I wondered why she cared so much, why she wanted to be a hunter so badly. Hunters never went hungry, but the Overlocks had probably never been hungry a day in their lives. Their ma was a medic and their pa did maintenance, good jobs both of them. They had a nice house, solid, one where the wind didn’t blow through gaps under the doors and windows on cold days, and probably plenty of blankets on their beds. And Martine was pretty, not that that should matter, but it did. She’d pair up easy if she wanted to. She was too far ahead of me in school for me to know how smart she was, but I would have guessed plenty smart. She could do anything.
But I took the water and didn’t ask questions. I only swallowed a mouthful, though, before handing it back to her. She might say she could refill it, but who knew how much longer we’d be here?
The break was half over and Samuel was moving among the crowd. He tapped a tall boy on the arm and murmured something to him. The boy smiled fiercely in response, dipped his head in a nod and then strode out of the tent.
I guess that meant I wouldn’t be first.
My eyes met Martine’s and I lifted my chin a tiny bit to indicate Samuel. He was coming our way. She glanced behind her and saw him approaching. Her shoulders straightened, but she bent her head and fastened her water bottle back on her belt as if she weren’t paying any attention.
I watched him come shamelessly. He wasn’t sending people home, I realized. The ones he tapped looked too happy and they were… well, the right ones, if that makes any sense. He wasn’t tapping the kids collapsed on the ground or the ones who looked red and miserable already. The arms he touched belonged to kids who looked like they could be hunters, should be hunters.
Next to me, Martine took a deep breath. I could see her lips moving as if she were whispering something under her breath. A mantra maybe, words of a spell to keep her strong and steady.
Samuel stopped right between us. He touched Martine’s arm like he’d touched the others. My face broke out into a full grin even before he said the words. I was so happy for her. I didn’t understand why she wanted it, but her chance wasn’t over, not yet.
“You’ve been selected to move on to the yellow tent,” he said to her, keeping his voice soft. “Please join the others there.”
Martine beamed and gave him a crisp nod. But as she turned to leave, his brows drew down in a frown. She paused.
Samuel didn’t pay any attention to her. His eyes lifted to the bazkide in the ceiling and he tilted his head to one side, as if he were listening to words we couldn’t hear. He put a finger to his ear and his frown deepened.
And then he turned to me.