By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
“I’d like to see him try that when I have a sword,” Butu growled when the other sordenu was out of earshot.
“You’ll have your chance soon enough, but it won’t be as easy as you expect. You see how he moves? Karp could cut you faster than the wind even with his back to you, and he could do it in the dark.”
“I can move faster.”
Blay sighed and straightened, looking around. Most of the sordenu were at the mess tent. “Not for long,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that next time Karp or another sordenu swings a practice blade at you, let him hit you.”
“I thought the point of fighting was not to get hurt.”
“That will come later. It will all make sense later. Let’s get you to the sergeant.”
Butu jogged to catch up, hefting his small pack.
“There are two day watches and two night watches,” Blay explained as they walked. “Karp’s a midnight sentry, the second of the night watches. He stays up after his shift to spar with some of the veteran sordenu — who rarely take a watch. Most of his shift sleep from dawn to early afternoon and train then.”
They passed an attractive but tired-looking woman.
“And Tesa will take the second day shift today,” Blay said, goading her with excessive cheerfulness. Her salute included a rude gesture. “She also had the first night shift last night,” he confided to Butu.
“How many sordenu women are there?” Butu asked.
“Very few, but it’s discouraged. And if you’re in the same platoon, it’s against the rules.”
That hadn’t been what Butu had meant, but he couldn’t help asking. “Why?”
“It’s complicated, but it’ll make more sense later. For now, just don’t,” Blay said in severe tones. He brightened. “Anyway, as I was saying about watches, in the field, watches are different. We’re all on watch by day, really, but we have three night watches. Field sentries change from night to night, because even the night sentries have to travel all day. On the march, you usually get good sleep two or three nights out of four. On the other nights or when you’re traveling in groups smaller than a company, you sleep a lot less.”
“Keep the watch, the watch all night,” Butu chanted, quietly, because the childhood rhyme seemed more useful now. “We’ll keep the watch, so all be right. Watch all night, the watch we’ll keep. We’ll keep the watch, through all night’s sleep.”
“Yeah,” Blay said. “Used to do that when I was a kid, too.”
“We could stay up all night, waiting on the moons.”
“We’d look for when our fathers got home from the Zhekara Contest, the hundred-day war.” Blay turned westward, and Butu watched his goatee work his jaw. “My foster father came back, at least. Many didn’t.” He sighed and looked back at Butu. “Not anymore, though.”
Blay shrugged. “It’s not allowed. Besides, I’m in my fifth cycle. It won’t work for me.”
“Why not?” Magic wouldn’t work for him? You don’t have to think about it, Butu wanted to say, it just happens! Then he thought, but I fell, twice, yesterday. And he asked me if I’ve fallen. What was the word? Mirjuva. “Blay, what does mirjuva mean?”
Blay nodded, as if he had expected the question. “Another time. Here comes the sergeant.” Blay pointed at the mess tent, at a precisely pressed man striding toward them with two others following him. “His name’s Aeklan el’Ahjea, but you’ll call him ‘sir.’ When he gets a little closer, we’ll both salute. Don’t talk unless he asks you a question, and whatever you do, don’t argue with him. He’s been at this several times longer than I’ve been alive.”
The sergeant was even older than Pater – twenty cycles, at least. Most of the sordenu shaved their heads, but he had let his hair grow just enough for the gray to show.
Blay saluted, and Butu followed his lead awkwardly, not quite managing to imitate the sharp posture the sordenu adopted. Aeklan saluted back.
“At ease,” he said in a gruff voice.
Blay lowered his hand and relaxed his stance. Butu tried to mimic him.
“Is this one of the new recruits?”
Aeklan looked down at Butu. “What is your name, boy?”
“Butu tem Ahjea, sir,” he said, proud he had not forgotten the “sir.”
“You’re too young,” Aeklan pronounced severely. “And you’re too small.” A pause as the sergeant looked him up and down. “You’re also out of uniform.”
“Um, I’m sorry, sir,” Butu stammered, saluting again in hopes of making up for it. The sergeant grunted.
“I will remedy that immediately, sir,” Blay said.
Aeklan’s critical glare examined Blay. “You do that, corporal. I would hate to be forced to tell Captain Philbe that his faith in you is misguided.”
“Yes, sir!” Blay said, snapping a salute.
Butu mimicked him, and Aeklan saluted back.
“Report to the armory when you have a uniform, recruit.”
Butu grinned in spite of himself, but Aeklan’s permanent frown turned into a scowl.
“What do you think this is, recruit?” he barked, leaning forward, spittle raining on Butu’s face. The boy cringed. “Stand up like a man, boy! You will be a sordenu, you water-starved camel, not some fool performer! Wipe that smirk off you face, or I’ll make you think falling down was the best thing that ever happened to you!”
Butu struggled to hold his pose during the tirade, terrified and unsure what to do. But as the sergeant drew to a close, his hand snapped up and he echoed Blay perfectly.
Once he was sure Aeklan was out of earshot, Butu turned to Blay, even more sullen than after Karp had tried to smack him. “I don’t think reporting to the armory means I’ll be getting a sword today.”
Blay chuckled. “No. It means you’re polishing some.”
Butu screwed up his face for a moment before he realized what Blay meant. “I’m being given a job to do?”
“Punishment duty,” Blay corrected as he led Butu toward the barracks. “For being out of uniform.”
“But I haven’t been given a uniform, yet,” Butu objected.
“It doesn’t matter. Ignorance is no excuse among the sordenu.”
“Why didn’t you warn me?” Butu asked bitterly. “Why didn’t you take me to get a uniform before taking me to the sergeant?”
Blay shrugged. “The quartermaster was at breakfast, and no one else can assign you a uniform.”
“But that’s not fair.” And why haven’t we had breakfast, either?
“So why am I still being punished?”
“Nothing really makes sense for the first couple months after your fall, but I promise you’ll understand soon.”
“Does everyone know about my mirjuva?” Butu asked sullenly.
Blay shook his head. “Falling down is the most common form mirjuva takes. It’s so common that a lot of people simply say ‘fall’ instead of ‘experience of mirjuva.’ As someone whose fall was a fall, I can assure you that your experience of mirjuva is not unusual.”
“Oh,” Butu said, feeling slightly better.
“Now, to find you a uniform.”
“Better late than never.”
“Be a man, recruit,” Blay said sternly.
Butu stiffened. He sounded too much like Aeklan. They stopped outside the supply tent. The flap of the tent was down, and rather than open it for Butu, Blay motioned him to stop.
“Zhepal will fit you for your standard kit.” Blay’s head swiveled to and fro, searching. “He’s very organized, and you’ll never want for any necessities in a camp where he’s quartermaster.” His voice lowered. “That is, if you can ever find him. Ah. There he is.”
A man who seemed all arms and legs emerged from the mess hall and jogged toward them, stuffing a piece of bread in his mouth. A large leather knapsack was slung across his back, its straps loaded with pockets down the front. The quartermaster sized up Butu with an expert eye, which Butu’s gaze clung to even after he had returned Blay’s salute. Zhepal’s eyes were like two runny eggs. Butu wanted to poke one.
“Sir,” Blay said, “this is Butu. He’s ...”
“Another new recruit.” Zhepal swallowed his bread. His tone was cheerful, but his face remained flat. “I’ll fit him for uniform and kit and teach him the rules.”
“Meet me in the mess once you’ve finished stowing your gear,” Blay said to Butu. “We’ll at least get you some food before sending you to Kira.”
Butu saluted. “Yes, sir!”
Blay grinned like he had been waiting his whole life for this before jogging away.