My limbs flailed a moment before instinct kicked in. Still in midair, I tucked my chin, arms and legs close to my body, executed a somersault to align myself, and landed on my feet, wobbling to regain my balance.
Outraged, I turned on Ari. Before I could demand an explanation, he said, “Another advantage of having acrobatic training is the ability to stay on your feet. That maneuver of yours could mean the difference between life and death. Right, Janco?”
Janco rubbed the vacant spot where the lower half of his right ear used to be. “It helps. You know who else would make a great fighter?”
Ari’s shoulders sagged, as if he knew what Janco was going to say next and resigned himself to it.
Intrigued, I asked, “Who?”
“A dancer. With the proper training, the fire dancers at the festival could take on anyone. With a blazing staff spinning around, I wouldn’t go against one with any weapon.”
“Except a pail of water,” Ari countered.
He and Janco then launched into an intense argument, debating the technical aspects of a fight against a fiery staff wielded by an enraged dancer. Although fascinated by the discussion, I had to interrupt them. My time was limited. The Commander’s dinner would soon be served.
With only occasional sarcastic comments about fire dancers, Ari and Janco spent the remainder of my first lesson teaching me to block punches, then kicks, until my forearms were numb.
Ari halted the exercise when another soldier approached. His and Janco’s relaxed postures tightened. They shifted to defensive stances, as Nix, the guard from Captain Parffet’s unit, came closer. The skin on Nix’s bald head was sunburned, and his thin fringe of black hair lay damply on his forehead. An overpowering stench of body odor preceded him, gagging me. His lean muscles reminded me of a slender coil of rope, dangerous when pulled tight.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Nix demanded.
“That’s—what the hell do you think you’re doing, sir? ” Janco corrected him. “We outrank you. And, I think a salute would be a nice touch.”
Nix sneered. “You’ll lose your promotion when your boss finds out you’re associating with a criminal. Whose brainless idea was it to make her into a more effective killer? When another dead body shows up, you’ll be accomplices.”
Janco took a menacing step toward Nix, but Ari’s meaty hand on his shoulder stopped him. With undertones of a threat laced into his voice, Ari said, “What we do with our free time is none of your business. Now, why don’t you shuffle off to Parffet. I saw him heading toward the latrines. He’ll need you to wipe his ass soon. It’s the one skill you’re most suited for.”
Nix was outnumbered, but he couldn’t resist a parting shot. “She has a history of killing her benefactor. I’d watch my necks if I were you.”
Ari’s and Janco’s eyes stayed on Nix’s back until he left the yard. Then they turned to me.
“That’s a good start,” Ari said, ending the lesson. “See you tomorrow at dawn.”
“What about Nix?” I asked.
“No problem. We can take care of him.” Ari shrugged it off, confident in his ability to deal with Nix. I envied Ari’s self-assurance and physical power. I didn’t think I could handle Nix, and I wondered if there was another reason, besides killing Reyad, that made Nix hate me.
“I taste the Commander’s breakfast at dawn,” I said.
“Then right after.”
“What for?” I asked.
“The soldiers run laps around the compound to keep in shape,” Janco answered.
“Join them,” Ari said. “Do at least five circuits. More if you’re able. We’ll increase the amount until you’ve caught up to us.”
“How many laps do you run?”
I gulped. As I returned to the castle, I thought of the work and time I would need to devote to training. Learning self-defense would require the same commitment I had applied to my acrobatics. I couldn’t go halfway. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. I had been giddy with fairy-tale visions of easily fighting off Brazell’s guards. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this wasn’t something to do on a whim.
I wondered if I would be better off spending my time learning about poisons and magic. In the end, all the physical training in the world wouldn’t save me from Irys’s magical powers.
My feet dragged on the ground, and my body felt as if it were pulling a wagon full of stones. Why couldn’t I just go for it? Why was I constantly considering each option, searching both sides of an argument for gaps in the logic? Like somersaulting on the trampoline, plenty of ups and downs but no forward motion. I longed for the days when a wrong decision wouldn’t cost me my life.
By the time I reached the Commander’s office, I had concluded that I had other enemies besides the magician, and being able to defend myself might save my life someday. Knowledge, whatever the form, could be as effective as a weapon.
Soon after I arrived, one of the tutors bustled into the office, dragging a young girl with him. At age twelve every child was assigned a profession based on their capabilities, and then they were sent to the appropriate tutor for four years to learn.
The tutor’s red uniform had black diamonds stitched on the collar, making it the direct opposite of an adviser’s black uniform. The girl wore the simple red jumper of a student. Her brown eyes were shiny with unshed tears. Her facial expressions alternated between terror and defiance as she battled to compose herself. I guessed she was about fifteen years old.