By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
The other three boys were asleep when Butu woke. He quietly gathered his few possessions into his blankets: a shirt he never wore, the pryud, a spare pair of pants, leather strap to use as a belt, his bag of marbles and the small stash of granu — brass coins — he had hoarded over the years. Lastly, he grabbed his knife and sharpening stone, both of which were well-worn hand-me-downs from an un’Ahjea. He made a silent farewell to the flattened, smooth bare spot that had been his corner of the tent for the past cycle, feeling sad yet excited. The next step of his life was about to begin.
He stepped outside, avoiding looking at his friends. He didn’t want to show emotion to them, even if they were asleep. The sun was not over the mountains yet, the shadow still laying heavy about them even as the sky turned lighter blue and the stars fading. Zheldesa had long since set. He had barely walked ten paces when he sensed someone behind him.
“Butu.” Paka, again.
Butu fished in the small pack and palmed one of his marbles.
“Paka.” He turned around.
The boy ran up to him, arms open wide. Butu was surprised to feel the wetness of tears on his face.
“Good bye, shumi,” Paka said, stepping back and wiping his face with his hands.
Butu grabbed a moist hand and pressed the amber into it. Paka’s eyes widened.
“You can come visit me,” Butu said hoarsely, then cleared his throat. “I mean any of you. It’s not as though I’m going far away.”
Paka nodded. “And when I go home, you can come visit me.”
Butu laughed and pushed the younger boy back. “You’ll be here for years, yet. I’ll come visit you here, if they let me.” He nodded southwest, to the training ground. “And maybe they’ll let us train together here in Jasper.”
“Yeah.” Butu glanced at Zasbey’s tent, still dark. “Tell Zasbey I said good-bye.”
Paka nodded. “I’ll see you around, shumi.”
Butu walked in the chill dawn toward Gordney. Jasper turned to tents and then the few fields before the sordenu camp came into view. He felt rather than saw several of the voracious hopping mice that were the bane of the farmers, and grinned at the greenness of some of the wheat, painstakingly watered from a well. The laborers were already in the fields, working though the day had yet to begin. The path turned from gravel to sand as he topped a small hill, and Gordney spread out before him.
Butu stopped next to a lone guard, more than twice his age, rolling a pebble back and forth in his mouth and returning his enthusiastic expression with a bored one.
The guard spat. “What’s the message? I’ll take it to ‘em.”
“I’m a recruit.”
The guard smirked. “Sure you are. And I’m up for a promotion to first lieutenant.”
Butu frowned. “No, really. The kluntra ordered me to report to Sergeant Aeklan.”
The man’s eyes widened slightly, but he motioned Butu past. Butu started down the hill.
“They’re sure recruiting ‘em young, lately,” the guard muttered behind him, and he felt a pebble bounce off his back. He turned to give the guard a withering look, but the man seemed lost in dark thoughts of his own.
Butu shrugged it off. I didn’t let Zhek get to me, and some stupid guard won’t either.
He trotted into Gordney, staring up at the tents — every one of them bigger than the supply tent he fell off yesterday. Each of the five largest had two poles in the center! One was a long, low open awning that seemed to double as the mess hall and a shelter for supply carts. In one corner, a portable forge ran hot with one sordenu watching it. The smallest tent, still one of the biggest Butu had ever seen, must be supplies, and one near it, with one flap tied up, was the armory.
He paused at the edge of the mess hall, where a few cooks shouted at each other over boiling pots of gruel and the sweet smell of bacon. The guard by the forge looked a lot like the one guarding the road in, and Butu was not sure about talking to him.
I have to talk to someone, though.
The camp slowly came to life, and Butu realized sordenu had been around all along, but he hadn’t seen them for the tents. They were all focused on what they were doing and didn’t seem to notice him. His palms grew sweaty.
“Um, where’s Seargeant Aeklan?” he asked a sordenu woman as she walked by, but either she didn’t hear him or was pretending not to.
A man came out of one of the barracks in his pants, his well-muscled frame half-again as tall as Butu. A long scar ran down one side of his face, just missing his right eye, and a short beard clung to his chin like a large beetle. As soon as he saw Butu, he waved. Relief flooded Butu, and he waved back, but the sordenu had disappeared back inside the tent.
Butu approached the barracks, one with a large four drawn on it. The man reappeared moments later wearing the tan sordenu uniform and a long, curved sword.
“New recruit?” the sordenu asked, looking at Butu from bare feet to shaved head.
Butu nodded. He stuck out a clammy hand. “Butu tem Ahjea. Are you Seargeant Aeklan?”
“And I’m Pri…Corporal Blay tem Ahjea.” He shook Butu’s hand. “Lieutenant Zhek told me about your mirjuva.”
“My what?” He knows Zhek? Then, Zhek’s a lieutenant?
“Your fall. How old’re you, Butu?”
“Fifteen.” He dodged someone leaving the barracks.
Blay nodded thoughtfully and pulled Butu to one side as a half dozen men exited the barracks almost on top of him. Looking back at Blay, Butu placed his age at five cycles. Twice as old as Butu, but less noticeable to him than the gap between him and Hatal. Butu thought he wouldn’t be struggling to keep up with him. He followed Blay to an emptier space near the large training ground.
“Another kid to teach us to chant?” someone muttered behind him, and he turned, but Blay spoke then.
“Mirjuva is the first time magic abandons you.” Butu watched the goatee bob on the sordenu’s chin. “It means you’re now a man, Butu. That’s why you’re here — to learn what that means.”
“I thought it means I’m going to be a sordenu,” Butu said dryly, and another sordenu walking past barked a laugh and stopped behind Butu, leaning on his wooden practice sword like a cane.
Butu shifted so he partially faced the new man. He looked to be Zhek’s age but seemed much older, somehow. He had a pebble in his mouth, which he rolled back and forth. Dust and sweat covered his skin, making it lighter than it actually was.
“New recruit?” he asked, nostrils flaring.
“You don’t look a day over twelve.” To Blay, “You sure he’s fallen already?”
“He wouldn’t be here otherwise, Karp.”
Karp moved like a sand adder, but Butu was faster. The practice sword was a cane one moment, and the next, three quick swings would have gutted, hamstrung and decapitated him. But Butu dodged, spun and leaned sideways without thinking about it.
He glared at Karp, who grinned back at him, leaning on the sword again. Butu took a few steps away from him, wondering if it he should take the practice sword away and show this sordenu how to use it.
He wouldn’t be able to dodge me.
Blay looked about ready to draw his real sword against the nonchalant Karp.
“Leave him alone,” he said, instead, voice cold but trembling. “You know the punishment for an unprovoked assault on another sordenu.”
The pebble made a few circuits around Karp’s mouth. “I know it’s not as bad as the punishment for what he just did.” He raised his sword and took a defensive stance. “Do you intend to report me to the sarge?”
What did I do? Butu was more confused than angry.
The tremble did not leave Blay. “Not this time. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet, so he doesn’t know. You and I, Karp, will talk later.”
“Right you are, corp,” Karp growled. He flipped the practice sword onto his shoulder with a flourish and disappeared behind the tent, leaving one more parting shot, “Make sure I’m not there the first time he’s caught.”