Hey Guys, Had to take a guest back down to Toronto today to catch a plane tomorrow, with a two hour Cirque du Soleil show in between. This is with Karen so the five of us were jammed into the one car and I couldn't write the next EC. I hope you enjoy this training session.
Kyrus’s arms hurt, his chest burned and he thought he was going to either faint or throw up, but at least he wasn’t being forced to do the push ups outside in the snow. Last night alone twenty feet had fallen, dimming the bottoms of the Hall’s windows. He wasn’t sure how many pushups he’d done because he’d had to start over a half dozen times.
The Training Hall was the second largest building he had seen in Milar and he realized that he’d subliminally caught sight of them in all of the larger towns. On the plains this building could not be built into the mountainside like the original, but the back of it could be plated with sod. In this city, from this Capitol, the original of all those other Training Halls sprang.
From outside, a ring of peaked roofs snugged against the mountainside like a half circle of eyebrows over a blank fringe of face, glints of light catching the odd arrangement of windows. From inside, those peaks showed the Milari mastery of glass by letting in light and keeping heat inside in a ring of clerestory windows. Other narrow, two story windows, placed prudently between stone buttresses allowed an odd, sliced view of the valley and part of the city below even with their bottom thirds obscured by white. It was warm enough inside even though Kyrus had never seen a brazier or a fireplace in the whole building and had wondered how such an enormous room with so much glass had been kept warm.
Below the windows was the round training ring where the students lined up in arcs ranged on half of that. In the middle the various Zon stood when directing their groups of students on the pale, smooth wood floor worn to silky softness by generations of bare feet. When the Surdeniliarch had first brought him here three weeks ago, he’d mentioned that when the floors were re-finished it was only to reduce the rippling bumps caused by knots that wore down more slowly than the surrounding wood.
On the side of the circle, actually inside the mountain, there was a place for students to stretch and walk themselves cool and through two doors set in the red mottled stone wall were three rooms, one set aside all on its own for equipment. The other two rooms were connected by a hallway that led outside, a room to change one’s clothing and leave outside gear and the washing room lined with the same polished reddish black and gray stone the building was made of. That had been the room that had almost undone Kyrus to begin with when he realized that everyone showered there. Men and women both. Together. Naked.
If I can show my bare face to the world, I can ignore the bare body as well.
“Freeze!” Zon Elemfias had a bellow that could stop a Moa in its tracks even if she were female. He thought she might be able to strip feathers, beak and claws with her voice alone. She even kind of looked like a Moa, without its beak riveted shut, and seemed as dangerous. He kept his smile to himself as he held his chest off the ground, arms locked though they trembled. She didn’t like him much but he was learning things from her that he didn’t think he could from anyone else. Even Ilax himself.
It wasn’t the Surdeniliarch today because the Unity was in session this week and of course he had to sit even if the railing arguments didn’t have much to do with his purview. Probably something about taxes again. If the Milari did anything really well it was argue about taxes. No. He shook himself mentally. They do war well, too. You have to give them that.
“You, Kyrus!” At least she followed up on her promise of no discrimination. The things the others called him… well, the mildest was Bee Eater. “Up!”
“Yes, Zon!” At least he was comfortable with that. How dare they actually have a term for authority he was comfortable with? “Shake it out, boy, walk five, sit five, walk five.”
“Yes, Zon!” It was a routine he was fast becoming used to. He picked up his ironbound staff and took it out of the way.
The way they spaced their training was very different from anything he’d caught glimpses of at home. But the Surdeniliarch was telling him it was to build up his wind at this altitude.
Kyrus moved over to the side bench, shaking his hands and arms before carefully swiveling his upper body back and forth, feeling his back muscles and his abdomen scream. He barely had the wind to respond to Zon Elemfias. He sat down, tried to not resent his own lack of wind, and failing, watching the rest of the class. That included the girls. That girl.
She made him even more uncomfortable than she had that first night. Not only war training, but also a senior student and he could see all their faces bare in the light from the upper windows. She was leading the next class up from his, her green staff showing the brownies the new strikes she wanted. The Milari trained most with staff, the heaviest – iron clad and over topping their heads -- given to the newest students. He watched her, trying not to flinch as her cry led the class in a lunge, ragged on their part, excellent on hers as far as he could see.
He looked away, to where Zon led the other greens in a complex dance of evasion, the white staff in her one hand as thin and light as a polished willow twig; more a short wand than anything else. It rapped out and hit the three attacking students as heavily as though it were an iron bar. Whack! An unprotected calf. Crack! A green staff clattered on the ground, the student following it down with a huff of breath. A curious choked sound as the third student suddenly found the end of the Zon’s staff resting on the bridge of her nose, her own staff caught to one side.
It seemed like magic to him. For all that the Surdeniliarch had come back that night and told him he would be taught, that he was teachable, that he had some talent for it, it seemed impossible. He felt clumsy as an ox on two legs, and as slow. He puffed after the youngsters in his black staff class – all of them five, six, seven -- determined to not show his despair in himself. He clung to the one line from Ilaxindal ‘You do have a talent for it.’, in the dark when even his youth couldn’t bring sleep fast enough and his bruises reproached him. Jashi is better than I and he’s only seven.
He couldn’t quit no matter what they did, no matter how hard they rode him. He’d spent too many years focused on being a warrior to give up now, no matter how unlikely it looked to him. The Zon even commented on it the first day he’d started, with the children. The Surdeniliarch had told him he would not take over his training until he’d mastered the basics and had introduced him at the war school. He’d felt like an idiot, sitting with the kids all around him, half his age or younger but he’d set his teeth on the thought that it was an insult and had quickly found out it was merely reality. I don’t know what the Surdeniliarch was talking about. I’m awful.
“You are all going to feel awful at first,” the Zon had said, eerily as though she could read his mind. “It’s my job to drive you away if I can. If I can discourage you, you are not meant to be a warrior. I hold no favorites, nor scapegoats.” This last was said looking straight at him, the one brown student in a line of pale faces. And aside from the name, based on what Milar thought of Lainz, she hadn’t.
Kyrus got up to pace around the walking circle again, with a number of others of various classes who looked at him askance or avoided him. Except for Jashi who thought he was an interesting exotic, and Werfas, a greenie who seemed to not care that he was Lainz. Another few moments and the whole group would be called to a mass exercise then released to wash and go on to other schooling or chores. The room would be cleaned and the adult classes would begin and go on into the evening, when the great lamps hanging from brass chains from the ceiling would be lighted.
“Shion!” Everyone’s head snapped around. “Line up!”
A thunder of feet as everyone clattered to their place in line, their staffs held aslant, from the rag-tag black staves down to the precisely angled white wands of the teachers. “Present!” Everyone stepped apart and brought their staff across both wrists, held waist high.
A clatter as Malyissen, the youngest student lost the heavy stick and it fell to the floor. Blushing, she bent, did five push-ups before taking up her stance again, everyone waiting until her stick was balanced and her stance solid.
The enDarkened staff had already made his arms hurt that morning. He was shaking, head to foot, staring at the iron ring on the blasted stick just below his line of sight. Zon let them stand a moment or two longer before calling Haraklez and two of her class to gather up everyone’s staff before handing out plain, short wooden staves.
As she lifted the weight off his wrists, Kyrus hid his sigh of relief. It was always best not to let anyone see how hard it was to hold the Lightridden thing at arm’s length. It was such a relief that he barely felt the weight of the plain wooden staff at all as she laid it back across his outstretched wrists. Of course it was shorter.
Then they paired off to do the basic step forward, step back blocks. Kyrus expanded his lungs and was suddenly no longer short of breath. The four-foot long staff felt light as a feather in his hands and the blocks and strikes no longer so impossible. After every set, the elder students moved down so that every time he faced off with someone it was a new opponent.
This is wonderful. He felt good. Light. This is easy. Tap. Tap. Tap. The shocks of contact ran through him solid and sure all the way down to his toes. He knew where he was, where the staff was. No more hesitation. Why don’t they train with plain wood every day? His feet were suddenly unerring.
“Shion!” Everyone stopped.
“Kyrus! Verpiccaus!” Kyrus stepped back from his sweating partner, realizing he was just pleasantly warmed, aware of the senior student also stepping out down the line. What was this? His heart leaped into a nervous hammer.
“Yes, Zon! Yes, Zon!”
“Center!” She was pointing to the sparring circle. This is craziness. I don’t know enough to spar! I barely know the basics!” Kyrus stepped out, facing the older boy, one of those who steadfastly ignored him.
He could feel the rest of his class’s eyes on his back. No black staffer was ever called out to spar. Never. He’d only been studying the month and he knew that. Only older browns and the greens and yellows sparred, with each other or with the white staffers.
“You know the calls?” she asked him.
“Well then.” She turned to Verpiccaus. “Basic moves only.” And then said to both of them. “Open spar.”
Even as he acknowledged Kyrus’s throat closed up tight, suddenly certain she meant to humiliate him in front of everyone and kick him out, a faint red mistiness gathered around the edges of his vision as he stared at his opponent. If he doesn’t accidentally bash my head in. Even if it embarrassed the Surdeniliarch.
There was nothing in the world but Verpiccaus and the staff in his hands. It was as though he were on fire and a flake of burn floating on the heat alone. Kyrus stepped to one side as Verpiccaus lunged, tapped the lunging boy lightly on the back of the head, then just over the kidneys and the back of his knee, finished the turn and stopped. Waited.
Verpiccaus, suddenly furious, bowed back to him and they took up stance again.
This time Verpiccaus waited. Kyrus smiled. All right. He stepped forward, feinted high and as the other boy’s staff came up, touched the inside of his knee, stepped back before the other boy could bring his staff down.
“Verpiccaus, down.” There was a barely suppressed rage in his gaze as he bowed and took his place in the line again. Twice. Kyrus could see Haraklez’s grin, which vanished as he came up from his own bow.
This time Zon Elemfias stepped across from him and Zon Pirzifon took the referees place.
“Loess!” He couldn’t remember what happened, felt a shock against his stick and then a double tap on his body, a flurry and his feet came up slowly enough for him to watch before he landed hard. For a long second he couldn’t see, couldn’t make his chest expand, couldn’t breathe and then it all came back with a wonderful, wild inhale and he found himself lying, looking up at Elemfias who was just lowering her own stave. What? What? He realized he still had a smile on his face.
“Good. Anything broken?” She asked quietly. Was that an enthusiastic glint in her eye? Yah, to dump me on my ass.
What? Broken? “Broken?” he repeated a little stupidly. “Ah, no, I don’t think so.” She said ‘good’? She praised me? What the Dark is going on?
“Yes, Zon.” His reply was breathless and he limped as he took up his place and watched as she called up everyone to spar, even little Malyissen. It was the oddest thing. He could see the careful attention the Zon were paying, and the yellow staves. It was as though they were staring through each pair of fighters. The Zon herself didn’t step up to spar anyone else, though he thought he saw her pay particularly close attention to the youngest. It made sense though he didn’t know what specific she was looking for.
He was tired and shaky enough that he didn’t much care what she wanted, because she didn’t mark him out in any way, he figured that he didn’t have the mysterious ‘something’ they searched for. One more line up and the whole class was dismissed.
Kyrus stayed behind to run the mop over the floor, a task he had found that would delay him long enough that he didn’t have to endure the showers with everyone else, while Jashi oiled, wiped and stowed everyone’s staff. The squeals and splashing of water heard dimly through the door had stopped before the two of them, and Werfas headed for the echoing, steamy shower room.
Jashi scampered up the ladder and peered into the top cistern. “It’s full. It’s hot.” The cold water pipe just ran straight from the attic to the showers. The hot water cistern was a clever idea in this cold country. He remembered the Basin, where every street was full of water and small gondolas in the rainy season and bleached as bone in the Dry.
Here the water was carried by pipes into the mountain, to some secret core of heat and came back nearly glowing, giving off the stink of sulfur but no less welcome for that. Someone had mentioned that the building was heated the same way.
Kyrus was always last getting cleaned up, though lately Jashi and Werfas had been slow as well, having to wait for the hot cistern to fill after the first rush of students through. The first to the showers always got the hottest water.