He didn’t tap my arm. I was too little for that. Instead he put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Looking troubled, he glanced at the bazkide in the corner again, before giving me a tight smile. “You’ve been selected to move on to the red tent. Please… wait for the others there.”
The grin I’d been wearing for Martine’s success washed away like dish suds down the drain.
The red tent? Martine was going to the yellow tent, the next size down from the big one we were in. But the red tent was the one after that, another level smaller.
I wanted to object, to protest, or at least to ask questions and maybe complain a little. What the heck? I didn’t even want to be a hunter, why was he sending me on? I hadn’t done anything. But Samuel was already moving away from me. I stared after him, too shocked to speak.
Martine turned to Benjamin, still sitting on the ground, his mouth open in surprise, a half-eaten nut bar in his hand. “Quick,” she hissed at him. “Give me your water and your food.”
“What?” He put a protective hand over the open bag on the ground next to him.
She snapped her fingers at him, big sister to little brother. “Now.”
He started to fumble with the water bottle on his belt, protesting. “But Martine…”
She crouched, scooping the bag off the ground. She glanced inside, then tugged it closed, and took the water bottle he handed her. “If you make it to yellow, I’ll share mine with you,” she told him. She rose and pressed bag and bottle into my hands. “Here.”
“I can’t take those.” I shook my head, even as my fingers closed around the objects. Water bottles, good ones like the ones the Overlocks had, cost money. The bag was just a cloth bag with a cord tie, nothing special, but the bottle was valuable, a generous loan.
“You’ll need them,” Martine said. “It’s going to be a long day.”
“I told my ma I’d be home for lunch.” I couldn’t believe it. The red tent?
“You won’t be.” Martine put a hand on my arm and began tugging me along. I could feel eyes on me, some envious, more puzzled, and a little ripple of conversation following us through the tent.
We came out of the tent into the bright sunlight. People were waiting in the open space between the tents, a crowd of parents and townsfolk eager to learn the results. Two in hunter garb standing by the door broke off their conversation.
The first, a man with hair as dark as Martine’s own, stepped forward. “Yellow tent?”
“Aye.” She dropped my arm.
“We need to get you fitted out first,” he told her. “Practice gear and padding. We want no injuries this year.”
The second, a woman with an ash blonde braid wrapped around her head, looked to me. “Eliminating candidates already?” She sounded surprised, but her smile was kind when she added, “Don’t worry, child, you’ll have other chances. It’s not often someone so young makes it through.”
For a moment, I was wildly tempted to agree with her. Too bad, so sad, sent home first, but hey, that’s the way it works when you’re destined to be a cook. A good cook. One that knows exactly the right herbs to make a roast that’s seen better days taste like the finest and freshest cut. I don’t know those herbs yet, but I will by the time I’m a head cook.
But Martine turned back before I could say anything. “She’s been sent to the red tent.”
“The red—Oh.” The woman blinked several times.
“What?” Martine’s hunter looked me over, scrutinizing me from top to bottom and back again as if I were a fine goat he was considering for the dinner table. When his eyes reached mine, I gave him my best glare, curling my lip in scorn. If I’d been a cat, I would have hissed at him.
He raised a hand defensively, not trying very hard to hide his laugh. “No offense intended, candidate.”
I might have liked to snap at him, but I knew it was Samuel—or maybe that bazkide in the ceiling—that I really wanted to snap at, so I didn’t. Instead I said, as coolly as I could, although I could feel heat in my cheeks, “Do I need practice gear as well?”
“No, you don’t.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “Apparently, Shiashia, the bazkide judge of the first round, deems you such an exemplary fighter that you don’t need to participate in the sparring round.”
For a minute, I was so distracted by the name — Shiashia — that I didn’t hear the rest of what he said. He said it soft and fast, like wind rustling leaves in trees. Or like a mother hushing a baby, the letters all blended together. It was nothing like any name I’d heard before. And then the rest of his words broke through my fascination.
I practically choked on my own spit. An exemplary fighter? Sparring round?
Maybe you’ve figured this out by now—honestly, if you’re not stupid, you should have figured it out by now—but I’m not a fighter. I don’t fight people. Kids get into spats at school or in the streets, but not me.
Sure, when I turned ten, I started learning Twos, the early afternoon exercises that we all did, and those are… well, more fighter-ly than morning flow and Elevens. When you pair off and you start bouncing people around and kicking them in the face, you kind of do know that you’re practicing for a fight. But I get bounced a lot more than I do the bouncing.
And when I get old enough, of course I’ll join all the townfolk in sticks practice because everyone who was healthy does. Yeah, we have the hunters and we have walls and we have the bazkide, but nobody—not even a cook in a merchant’s kitchen—makes it all the way through life without running into a monster of one kind or another.
I mean my plan, such as it is, means that any monsters I’d see would probably be small. Like maybe I’d have to stomp on a vamrat in my kitchen sometime, one that came up through the drains. Those are like rats, except bigger. Well, and with glowing red eyes. Oh, and fangs, too, of course—big ones that hang down over their little rat lips. But a sharpened stick through the skull would take care of one of them, no problem, and anyone that did sticks learned that move fast.
And a cook might have to go outside the walls sometimes, to the fields or the orchards or one of the farms. Might even want to. A good cook might think it worth the risk to get the freshest food for her kitchen, to pick out her eggs special or make sure the dairy was clean enough for her tastes. Beyond the walls, there’s plenty of monsters—kelpies, manders, pixels, gorhawks, gremlins. The hunters keep the area around the city mostly safe, but the monsters are always trying to break through and the small ones do.
Plus, of course, there’s always the chance of a big wave attack. There’s not been one in my lifetime, nor yet even my ma’s lifetime, but the last one was just before she was born. They think what happens with a wave is that the doors that let the monsters onto our world to begin with open again letting a new batch through. New ones and different ones, like someone with a big monster kettle is cooking up new nightmares for us. It hadn’t happened in a while, but the oldsters were always fretting that just meant we were due.
So yeah, maybe someday I’d have to fight a monster. Probably someday I’d have to fight a monster. But that didn’t mean I was a fighter today. And sure as heck didn’t mean that I’d make it through the yellow tent. Put me up against Martine or the kid in blue or any of the biggers for a Twos match and I’d be bouncing on my butt in no time flat.
“I… I…” I spluttered. I wanted to explain that there had been some kind of mistake, that the bazkide with the swishy name had gotten me mixed up with somebody else, but behind me a big tweener I vaguely knew from the market, simmering with excitement, emerged from the tent. Another hunter stepped up to escort her to get her practice gear while the hunter with the braid put her hand on my back and began steering me away.
“The bazkide choose and Shiashia has spoken,” she said, as if she could hear the arguments that I hadn’t quite managed to form.
But it hadn’t, I wanted to complain. It hadn’t said a word. This was all Samuel’s fault.