By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
Butu's feet barely touched the rocky sand as he landed, already in motion. He ducked under the first rope, hitched his arm around it, and swung up to the tent's roof. There was nothing tricky until the stables, which he had to run over for having to go sunset, but at least by then the sun would be on his side.
Three steps along the roof he dropped down, grabbed the guide line for the tent, and swung underneath it, gracefully landing back on the edge again. One more step to the corner. He dove for it headfirst, grabbed the tip of the pole in one hand and the line in the other, swung a full turn on the line and launched himself for the next tent.
As he turned the first corner, he yanked the cloth off his eyes and risked a glance at Hatal on the other side of town. Of course the younger boy was a good distance ahead, but he hadn't had to think about the sun. Immediately to Butu's right, Paka raced the short ways across the roof, an honest eye to make sure Butu didn't cheat.
He dove off the side of the corner of the tent again, whipped under the line, and touched the gravelly ground briefly. Ahead was a paddock, and Butu leapt lightly to a fence post next to a sad-eyed mule. Butu took in the situation with a glance, then stepped onto the mule's back as smoothly as a hawk glides through the air.
Not enough to run across. I'll have to jump from back to back.
The mule under his feet brayed an objection and tried to shake him off, but Butu had already jumped to the next one. The mules filled the pen with brays and snorts as he went. The handlers showered him with a mix of cheers and curses.
Have to touch all corners, he thought, slapping the pine post with his hand as he sailed past it. Paka easily kept up with him despite jogging along the pen's fence. Ahead, the stables. The stables were as big as the supply tent he had fallen off earlier, made mostly of stone, and had a steeply sloping slate roof. Paka would run right up the wall of the stable, but Butu wanted to get a bit more speed. He changed direction, aiming for another tent.
He risked a glance as he picked up pace again. He'd caught up to Hatal, slowed because the livestock were being herded into their pen for the night. The shouts of the handlers rose as the animals lowed.
Butu ran on. He hopped onto the tent's roof and jumped, using it as a trampoline. He landed at the edge of the stable roof, dancing at the very edge as he ran. Halfway to the other end of the stables, a gust of hot desert wind pushed him sideways so most of his body hung over the edge. None of his weight was on the roof anymore, but he was still somehow running, like a top spinning too fast to fall down.
Butu glanced down at the tent, spread out like a safety net.
If I fall, he thought, and instantly fell.
The tent shook as Butu landed in a crouch on it. He straightened quickly, trying to regain his stride. The roof sagged under his foot, sucking at it. He pulled free, but overbalanced. Arms wind-milling, he stumbled sideways. Panicking, he tried to jump off the roof, but instead of catapulting him into the air, the support pole snapped.
Butu clung to the tent as the weathered canvas swung inward, drawing the wall down with it and pouring more weight on the rest of the structure. The central support pole knocked the wind out of him as he slammed into it. A few seconds later, the entire tent collapsed.
He didn't move right away, even as cries of outrage rose from outside. He sensed Paka nearby, running closer, not away. Butu's breathing slowed, but now he felt a remarkable and wholly unfamiliar discomfort in his ankle.
First the falls and now pain, he thought as hands began to shift the canvas. Just like Zhek. He remembered Zasbey's strangely concerned face, again. What next? The pain in his ankle gave one, larger throb, and then vanished.
The canvas whipped away to reveal what looked like the whole clan. Butu sneezed just as a large, strong hand grasped him by the arm and hauled him to his feet. His eyes met those of Jusep al'Ahjea himself. The kluntra's eyes were as granite as the Sentinel's Finger. Butu turned his head to look anyplace else.
Pater al'Ahjea, the kluntra's father, stood watch over the sobbing Paka. A dozen familiar faces and a handful of others — many of them dressed in the colorful robes of the rich — watched with expressions from amusement to scorn.
Jani stood near the back in a fine dress of purple silk. Gold necklaces and rings with large gems hung on her. Her black hair cascaded below her shoulders in two elaborate braids bound with purple ribbons and woven with fine gold threads. Butu couldn't help staring a little. When she saw him looking at her, she turned away quickly as if ashamed of him but didn't disappear the way she usually did.
Jusep was a huge man, broad-chested and tall. He wasn't the strongest man in Jasper, nor the smartest, but he had won his fair share of battles, and few people had bested him in trade. His big arms crossed that chest now as he let go of Butu.
“You should learn to control your kids better,” said one particularly round stranger just as Jusep opened his mouth. He held a glass of wine in one hand and a chicken leg in the other and wore a sword with the bull's horns metal crescent of the Kadrak.
Without looking over his shoulder at the fat man, Jusep gritted his teeth, exposing his gold tooth. Zasbey arrived and quickly herded Hatal and Remi into a line with Paka.
When Jusep finally spoke, it was in a loud voice clearly not just meant for the four boys. “I should make it a rule that children are to be in bed by the time the sun reaches the edge of the mountains,” he said, sharing his stern gaze among them. “I would think one of you was old enough to know better.” His eyes stopped longer on Butu.
Zasbey stood next to the kluntra, looking nearly as severe.
“Take them to their tent,” Jusep said to her. “See that they stay there.”
Their foster mother tilted her head slightly, and the four boys walked toward the tent they shared. Butu looked over his shoulder. The Kadrak stranger swallowed a bite of chicken and said something to Jusep, whose expression shifted to one of amusement as he replied.
As the crowd dispersed, the kluntra motioned to Jani to come to him. She shot Butu a stricken expression and opened her mouth as if to call to him. Butu abruptly stumbled.
“Eyes forward, Butu,” Zasbey said. “You've fallen enough for one day.”
He faced front again, met Hatal's angry eyes. He didn't know what to say, not yet, so he looked away.
A circle of children — none much older than one cycle, he was sure — shouted and giggled in a corner where two tents met. A handful of them poked something with sticks. Butu caught a glimpse of a sand adder struggling to escape. They prodded it and sometimes even picked it up and threw it back into the center. While Butu watched, it hissed at them and bit one, but this only made them laugh even more.
When was the last time I played with a sand adder? Butu smiled in memory. Eventually, one of the adults will put it out of its misery.