“It” is the hunter’s gaze (bazkide)

It came to rest on me. She pressed her lips together as if to stop herself from saying anything more and jerked her head at me. “Come on.”

She gave a formal nod to the others. “Make your luck, candidates.”

She set a fast pace, but I had no problem keeping up with her. I stayed close at her heels, ignoring the stares of townsfolk we passed, as she led the way past the food stalls. Smells of simmering broth and grilled meat were starting to drift into the air as lunch preparations began in earnest, but the weather was changing, the sky getting dark with clouds. Just what the day needed, rain.

I wondered if the tents leaked.

I wondered if that lion bazkide was young, if that’s why it was smaller than the others.

I did not wonder what the next test was going to be, because what would be the point?

And I really, truly, definitely didn’t wonder which tent had lost Kellum the use of his leg or killed the two tweeners back when I was a little. Was it the tent I’d skipped or was it the one I was headed to?

All right, that’s a lie. I was wondering that, hard, so hard it was twisting my stomach into knots. But I didn’t want to be. I pushed myself to wonder about other things instead.

What had the hunter been thinking right before she stopped talking? When she looked at me, and it was like she was going to say something but then she stopped herself?

Only one way to find out.

“What were you going to say?” I felt like I was asking the question to her elbow, she was walking so quick and I so close behind her.

“What?” She tossed the word over her shoulder.

“Back there. You wanted to say something and you stopped yourself.”

She stopped walking, so abrupt I nearly climbed right over her, and shot me another look. Just like the last one, like she was torn between saying something and keeping her mouth closed.

“Just say it,” I told her. “You know you want to.” I didn’t try to coax or look pleading. I’ll pull that sometimes, if I think it’ll work, especially in the market. Lots of traders are willing to throw in a little extra something if you make your eyes real big and hopeful. Once I got a whole basket of apples. Pretty bruised, but they made good applesauce. The hunter didn’t seem like the kind with a soft spot for cute little girls, though.

“Hoping for an edge up?” she asked, her voice tight.

“Pfft.” I rocked back on my heels. “I’m not looking to get myself killed, that’s all. I’ve got a ma as needs me and I aim to be headed home, safe and sound, at the end of this day.”

Her expression softened, just a little, her lips relaxing. She paused, looking me over again, and a tiny line formed between her eyes. “I’m not saying anything about the trials. The bazkide decide and…” She shook her head and let the words trail off, before her expression went intent again. “Remember who you’re fighting, that’s all.”

She turned away and strode off.

I hurried after her, with a new thought to wonder at.

I had plenty of time to wonder at it, too. She took me to the purple tent and left me there, on the empty inside, and then I waited. And waited. And waited some more.

I paced the entire edge of the tent, walking all the way around it. And then I did it again, the other direction. Then I decided I should be saving my energy and sat down on the ground. I stared up at the ceiling. There were no bazkide inside this tent, not yet anyway.

When the rain started, I could hear it, pattering on the roof of the tent. You’d think, cloth tent and all, that it would soak right through, that the cloth would get sodden and drippy, but that’s not what happened. It sounded like the pitter-patter of tiny mouse feet running across the ceiling, but it went on and on and on.

It was sort of a peaceful sound when it came right down to it, but I wasn’t feeling real peaceful. My stomach was getting growly, so I ate one of the nut bars, stretching it out, real slow, one nibble at a time, wondering if Ma was getting up for lunch, and then going back to thinking about what the hunter had said, and then thinking about the lion bazkide again.

I should have asked the hunter how bazkide laughed, that’s what I should have asked.

Knowing what she’d wanted to say got me nowhere because I didn’t know what she’d meant. We weren’t fighting anyone. Well, the other candidates, they’d fought each other, that was obvious. Martine had kicked some poor guy, taken a punch in the face. I wondered if any of the other tweeners standing in that line were hurt.

What was taking them so long?

I scrambled to my feet as soon as the first of them joined me. It was the boy in blue. He flashed me a grin.

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my,” he said by way of a greeting.

My eyebrows shot up. “Did you see a tiger?”

He looked surprised. “Didn’t you?”

I shook my head. “Nor a bear, neither.”

His turn for his eyebrows to rise. “That was the last one I got.” He glanced around. “But we’re the only ones here? So the two in front of me didn’t make it.” He eyed me and I could see the emotions crossing his face — curiosity, skepticism, doubt — but then he shrugged and touched his chest. “Ty.”

“Kasea,” I said, brushing my fingertips against my own jacket.

“How long do you suppose we’ll have to wait?” he said.

“Do you know what we’re waiting for?”

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