Pick your own goal, and go after it. Sen clenched her teeth. All right. She left her hands low, an invitation for him to attack. He did, and she retreated. There—Kerestel punched right, then left, then kicked. And when his foot came down—. Sen moved almost before the second punch began, dodging to the outside, well clear of the kick that would hit only empty air. Kerestel overturned, as before, his weight a little forward. Desperately, Sen punched, but he was already twisting away—her opportunity vanishing before her eyes—.
It hurt , like someone had stepped on the arch of her foot. Wheezing for air, she rolled onto her side—and found the Grandmaster had stepped within the fence. By sheer force of will, Sen forced herself upright. But Sen had this much victory, at least: she, a Temple Dancer, had managed to hit a Hunter trainee in a fight. Surely the Warrior would be proud of that. The silence stretched out, harpstring-tight. And then the Grandmaster spoke, his mild voice betraying nothing more than it had before.
Sen heard the words, but they were meaningless sound, echoing around the empty space where her brain used to be. The company mistress entered the ring, and Sen knelt, reflexively. Two gentle hands came to rest on her hair, sent wild by the fight; then she heard more words, and these had meaning.
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I release you from that obligation, and give you into the keeping of Silverfire. May she watch over you. Also per orders. By then, the older trainees were back from their endurance ride, and open practice was underway in the yard where Kerestel and the girl had sparred. The Grandmaster was on the balcony, watching them.
He abandoned that post when Kerestel came in, though, and settled back into his chair. This was a test, obviously. But why? Why had he let her in? The other trainees were going to hate it, and maybe some of the masters, too. He wants to know if I saw what he saw, Kerestel realized.
And whether anybody else is likely to. He started with the obvious. Kerestel hesitated. But there was no point in being embarrassed; the Grandmaster got regular reports from the training masters. But as soon as she stopped pointing her toes and learned how to put real force behind it, that kick would be a monster. Back to class, where the rumors would already be spreading. Silverfires worked at all kinds of jobs, spying not excepted; news got around fast.
The whispers started before Sen sat down at the third-year table in the refectory. Before she even got to the refectory. Probably before she left the tiny, austere room that had so abruptly become her new home. Whispers, and stares. Not friendly ones. Trainees both older and younger regarded her with frank curiosity, half-turning from their speculative huddles to watch her; some of them looked faintly annoyed. But the thirteen-year-olds, the trainees who were supposed to be her year-mates Someone grabbed a pinch of her hair and yanked painfully.
Her hand rose before she could stop it, running over her newly-shorn hair. But still dyed black, and that marked her for what she was.
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What she had been. Several trainees snorted. Sen wanted to turn away, ignore them all, but these were her year-mates; like it or not, she had to live with them.
Trying for politeness, she stood and gave the gathering crowd a little bow. He was taller than her by a couple of inches, and used it. Sen opened her mouth, not sure what she was going to say—but movement at the other end of the room stopped her. A dais there overlooked the ten student tables, and men and women were entering to take their seats. Their entrance made the trainees scramble into position, lining the benches along their tables, with guilty expressions that suggested they should have been waiting quietly when the masters came in.
His perfunctory words appeared to be the only blessing they bothered with; everyone sat when he was done. Hunter schools might have begun as Warrior cults, but that was a long time ago. Sen, for one, was determined not to forget, but she wondered if she should still pray to the other Aspects. By the time she looked around, the masters had gone to a side table, covered with platters of food. When the last of their number was done filling her plate, the eldest trainees rose. They moved with the same lethal grace as the masters, a grace similar to and yet different from that of Dancers.
Their bodies were weapons, not works of art. And yet it was art, of a sort. Serving went in order of seniority.
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When Sen followed the rest of her table—hanging back to save them the trouble of elbowing her to the rear—she found, to her dismay, that the platters had been thoroughly demolished. The few shreds of meat left behind by the older trainees were snatched up before she could get near them, and many of the fruits and greens were gone, too. If nobody brought more, practically the only thing left for the youngest trainees would be the heaping bowls of rice. She hesitated, one hand on an apple.
Who was she, to take this for herself? We fight to stay here. With all the hostility around her, Sen would have to fight harder than anyone else. And if she left the apple there, it would only go to the bullies in the next year, the ones who shoved their way past the others. But it sat like lead in her stomach, as everyone ate in silence. But if this boy was telling the truth—and he was far too gleeful to be lying—. Then that fight against Kerestel had only been the first test. And if she failed any of them, there was nowhere to go.
Sen gritted her teeth, swallowing down a mouthful of rice. You just have to succeed. It was an open, airy room with windows just beneath the high ceiling to let in the light, and the wood of the floor had been worn smooth by countless years of feet.
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The man waiting inside was nothing like the company teachers, though. This, Sen could do. She relaxed into the movements, pleased to see that her flexibility equaled or bettered that of the other trainees. Her satisfaction faded quickly, though, when they got to strength exercises. And Talon saw it. She heard the quiet huff of his scorn—but no amount of gritting her teeth could make her arms firm up.
Grimly, she did what she could, and drew in a breath of relief when the warm-up was done. Until the master spoke again. Ninth pattern. New girl, over here. Was this better or worse than him sending her to stumble along behind the others? They were performing something like choreography, a pre-set pattern of strikes and blocks, watching her out of the corners of their eyes.
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