But fast and slithery, I don’t think that makes a hunter. So like I said, I’m not worried.
Well, all right, truth is… I’m a little worried. Not that I’ll wind up a hunter, but that I’ll get hurt during the trials. It happens. Two trials ago, when I was a little, the first trial I really remember, two kids died. Last trial, this tweener lives down the street from us, he came back with a twisted-up leg. Never walked right again. ‘Course it’s only been three years, so maybe someday… but mostly he sits in his pa’s shop and glowers at people now.
That can’t happen to me. There’s nobody to take care of Ma if I get hurt or I die, so I’m not going to do either. That’s firm. Kicked out early, but not first, and no getting hurt or dying. That’s my plan.
And it’s good that I have it, because today’s the day.
I joined the line of tweeners waiting to go into the first tent. It’s the prettiest of the five, I think, sort of a blue gray color. The biggest, too, but that’s ‘cause about half of us don’t go on to the next tent after this one.
At the entrance to the tent, Samuel, the duke’s steward, was checking names off a list. He peered over his glasses at me. “Kasea? Are you old enough to be here?”
For half a second, I was tempted to pretend I wasn’t. I could wait three years and try then. But no one hires a kid and until you’ve passed the trials, at least for the first time, you can’t get a job. I needed a job. As soon as I got scratched out of the trials, I’d be headed to the employment hall to see what work was waiting for me. “On your list, ain’t I?”
He tapped his way down the list, then nodded. “So you are. Good luck to you.”
Behind me, Benjamin Overlock snorted. “She’s gonna need it. She’s so little, the bazkide ain’t even gonna see her.”
“Shut up, Benjamin,” I said in chorus with two other voices behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and grinned. Martine, Benjamin’s big sister, and Rafe, his best friend, were right behind Benjamin in line. Rafe was rolling his eyes and Martine had grabbed Benjamin by the ear.
“What’d I say?” he complained.
“Personal comments are rude.” Martine tugged his ear. “If Mama could hear you, she’d tell you to apologize, so I’ll do it for her. Apologize to Kasea.”
“What for? It’s the truth! She’s never gonna be a hunter.”
“It’s all right, Martine. You can let him go.” I wasn’t worried about anything Benjamin said. Any thought he ever had went straight from his brain onto his tongue and out his mouth. Ma said he probably couldn’t help it, that he was just made that way, but whether he could or not, I knew not to listen to him.
“You’ll be fine, Kas,” Martine said. “There have been plenty of small hunters.”
“Name one,” Benjamin grumbled, rubbing his ear.
“Move along, children,” Samuel said sternly, frowning at us. “You’re delaying the line.”
Martine’s lips tightened and I could see that she wanted to complain about being called a child. She was probably seventeen or eighteen already. This’d be her last time at the trials, and it looked like she really wanted to pass. She was dressed in leggings and a tight-fitting vest that clung to her shape, and I could see from the defined muscles in her arms that she was a lot stronger than studying would have left her. But she didn’t say anything, just gestured with her chin for Benjamin and me to move on.
We entered the tent and I glanced around curiously. The trials aren’t a spectator sport, so I’d never seen the inside of one of the tents before, except for one time when I peeked under the edge, just to see. But I hadn’t seen much that time before I got shooed away.
It was as pretty on the inside as on the outside, and lighter than you might expect. The fabric must let a lot of light in because it was more like being under a sheet hung out to dry then being in a building with walls. Up top, there was a complicated web of ropes and netting. I traced the ropes with my eyes, trying to see if there was a pattern to them. Did they do something? Were they holding up the tent? Some of them dangled to the ground, but most of them twisted and twined around each other like ladders, only ladders lying in the air instead of hanging.
And then my breath froze in my chest.
A bazkire was sitting on one of the ropes, in the corner against the wall. He—or she, not like I knew how to tell the difference—was gorgeous. Well, of course it was. They’re shifters so they can look like whatever they want. But this one was in what we think are the natural form of the bazkire, the way they look when they’re not shifted and it was just about the prettiest thing I’d ever seen in my life.
Its feathers were lavender, shading to a much deeper purple along the tips of its wings, and the scales along its torso and tail were an iridescent, pearly white blue. The plumes along the top of its head were pure white. The plumes were so puffy and dense that they ought to have looked silly, like some ridiculous hat, but they didn’t. Not at all. Maybe it was the dark, watchful gaze from the bazkire’s eyes. The eyes that really truly seemed to be looking straight at me.
I bobbed a curtsy. I felt a fool two seconds later, when Benjamin said, “Whatcha doing, Kasea? Trying to get tinier?” but it seemed the right thing to do. I’d never seen anything that was simultaneously so lovely and so terrifying. Sure, I know the bazkire are our allies, but this one was big enough to swallow me in two bites. Maybe a bite and a half.