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Training Day

© Carole Cummings

 
     
     
     
 

The sticks fall with a muted clatter to the lush grass of the courtyard, and Samin’s lips purse, annoyed.

“Again,” says Xari, stern, and gives Fen a steady look as he bends to retrieve the three sticks he’d managed to balance and sets them, wordless and too stiff, on the small pile that Samin had thought no more than kindling before he’d seen what Xari had planned for today’s exercise.

Morin’s pile is smaller, his balanced web growing slowly, the foundation branch of kaya set to his shoulder, each irregular wand poised across the next and the next. Morin stands in the middle of an impossible mesh of branchwork, a dozen or more sticks latticed and interlocked with nothing more to hold them than the balance of one to another. Slowly, Morin’s bare foot ventures to his pile, toes slipping beneath the next; he lifts it steadily atop his foot until his free hand can grab it and add it to the web. His eyes are calm and serene, his body relaxed, swaying to the shifts in balance, and he breathes steadily and evenly.

Joori’s not doing quite as well, but the five sticks he’s managed look somewhat steady. Or, well, as steady as five sticks precariously thatched one end across the other can look. Samin thinks Joori’s a little too preoccupied with his brothers’ progress and not concentrating enough on his own, but that’s Joori in a nutshell, so Samin only shakes his head with a rueful little smirk. Joori looks like he knows what he’s doing anyway, even if he kind of doesn’t, sucking in long even breaths and blowing them out slow and calm as he dips down to his pile.

Fen, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to breathe at all, face set as though for battle, body stiff. He manages only three sticks this time before Xari says softly, “Aye, you have the way of it, my little Kurimo,” and Fen’s sticks tumble. Eyes hard and going harder, Fen doesn’t wait for Xari’s instruction—he’s cool and blank as he bends and retrieves his sticks, adds them to his pile, and begins again.

It’s unusual, this inability of Fen’s to perfect a move on the second or even first go. Samin thinks it’s the stillness, the absolute lack of capacity to bend with the sway of balance.

Samin also thinks this exercise is a load of bollocks. He knows it’s fairly standard training for the monks and initiates in all the temples, and yeah, he knows it’s decent foundation for the concentration necessary to become the sort of fighter who can stay the course, no matter what’s thrown at them. And bloody hell, Morin needs to learn patience, the boy’s not half an irascible little upstart sometimes, and this… all right, it might do the trick.

But he also needs to learn how to be quicker than he is, to aim for the soft spots so his blade doesn’t get stuck in bone, to go for the kill every time, and separate “another living person” from “target”. Building himself into intricate works of rough-patched art made of a wobbling tangle of sticks won’t do that.

And it’s not going to do a damned thing for Fen except make him even tetchier than he usually is. Fen insists on being present for and participating in Morin’s training, and where Fen goes, Joori follows, which can only do Joori good, even if Fen doesn’t like it. Still, what his brothers want, his brothers get, so Fen patiently acts as training partner to both of them while Samin calls instruction. Samin can’t help but think it all goes a lot smoother when he’s in charge.

“Your lack of proper balance betrays you,” Xari tells Fen as Fen’s pitiful four sticks go tumbling again. “You must concentrate. Breathe through the imbalance.”

Joori looks at Fen sidelong, and his seven sticks sway a little too far to the left; he breathes through it, as Xari said, and everything steadies. Fen sets his jaw and begins again.

Xari’s got it wrong, Samin thinks. No one, but no one, has the depth of concentration Fen has. Fen could stand in the middle of a whirlwind with lightning strikes singeing his toes and not lose his focus—if there’s something at the end of it he wants. A target. A bloody point.

“That’s it, Fen Joori, a Paradox you will always be.” Xari smirks when Joori rolls his eyes as he gently takes his hand away from his latest addition, but she only says, “So much ambition, turned to stubborn forbearance. Such a contradiction.”

There’s no point to something like this for Fen. Morin wants to beat whatever task he’s handed, wants to be the best, wants to be like Fen in some ways but is smart enough not to want to be Fen in all ways. Joori wants to be included, wants to keep hold of whatever parts of his brothers he can, and if that means learning how to be a good soldier when he’s not learning how to be a moneylender with Naro-yi, well. He’s got the same potential as Fen does, if not the same drive.

Fen doesn’t want any of that. Fen wants… well, probably more than Samin will ever know, but Samin does know that Fen wants his brothers alive, and for that to continue, they need to know how to fight, how to defend, how to attack and counterattack, how to survive. Fen learned all that by doing. This is… well, it’s something that might end up useful, but it’s not doing.

“Two more for the Kurimo,” Xari says, almost a whisper, as if not to break Morin’s concentration.

Fen curses as his four sticks wobble then fall, but he merely sets them once again into their little pile and starts again. His jaw is ticcing now, though. His knuckles are going yellow. Joori doesn’t seem to notice any of it this time, his focus on his own smaller building web. He’s up to nine now.

Samin looks down and yes, there are only two left to Morin’s pile, eighteen knobbly sticks balanced in a slapdash pattern around him, swaying like a malformed spider’s web. It’s impressive, Samin has to admit. It’s still not real training, though.

He should’ve just said no when Malick asked if one of Wolf’s could impose now and then. “Just throw them a trivial bone,” Malick had said, “so they’ll think they’re actually getting something, and then maybe they’ll get off my back.” Samin had really wanted to say no. Would’ve said no if he’d known it would be Xari. Would’ve definitely said no if he’d known it would be this. It might be fun for Morin, it might calm his teenaged impetuousness somewhat, but it’s nothing that’ll matter in the end.

It worries Fen. Samin can see it in the rigid lines of him, the stiffness of him, the way he holds his breath like he’s forgotten how suck a good one in. He does that a lot. He doesn’t like the whole “Kurimo” affair, doesn’t like that Morin is training for a war he’ll someday lead, doesn’t like any part of it. And truthfully—at least as far as Malick has said more than once—if Fen truly doesn’t want it to happen, it won’t. Samin maybe doesn’t understand the nature of Incendiary, but that part of the whole business is pretty clear—Fen has to want something for it to happen. He could stop all of this, somehow, with a simple wish. A surrender to his own want. There would be no coming war to save what’s left of Jejin, the Adan and the Jin would have to work it all out for themselves, and no need for Morin to become the strategist and soldier he needs to be. One simple surrender to wish.

But Morin wants it, so Fen wants it for him, and if that isn’t focus and concentration and balance, Samin doesn’t know what is.

Morin’s on his last stick, and everyone’s holding their breath now it seems. Morin stands at the center of his patchwork of irregular branches, the shape of it vaguely spiral, one end poised atop the next and the next and the next, curling out then inward toward Morin’s body. The whole of it sways ever so gently with each steady breath Morin takes as he slides his foot under the last stick and carefully brings it up to reach his hand.

Fen has stopped to watch, expressionless and still as a statue, a stick in each hand jutting out like long knives.

There’s a smug look on Morin’s face, all self-satisfaction as he slips his hand over the end of the stick and takes gentle hold without disturbing the rest of them, without so much as an errant sway or shiver. He peers around, because he’s Morin and there’s still a bit of that childish “Look at me!” in him. There’s the touch of a smirk when he meets Xari’s pleased, expectant gaze; a lift of eyebrows when he meets Samin’s indulgent one. Joori’s still lost in his own nine-going-on-ten sticks, so Morin slants a look at Fen.

And see, this is why Samin loves these boys with a fire he’d never even suspected lurked down deep in his chest. There’s just something about the Fen boys—even when they’re at each other’s throats, or when they’re ignoring each other with identical icy “don’t talk to me, I’m still angry with you” auras in the aftermath, or when they’re trying to pick their way around each other in this new life they’re not used to living yet. Love and sacrifice and protection, even if it is sometimes stubborn and wrong-headed—there’s just something between them that holds them together, even when they each want nothing better than to fly so far apart they’d need messages from the gods themselves to keep in touch.

Morin’s gaze slides over Fen, narrows, confused then not so much, before it skips and skids along back to Samin, then… changes. Almost a warning. His mouth twists to mischief, his hazel eyes light up, and before Samin can predict what’ll happen next, Morin’s hand firms around the last stick. His whole body jerks, knobbly branches raining down around him, and all he does is gambol over the clattering pile, that last stick held like a broadsword in a perfect offensive stance, and launch himself at Fen.

Fen’s reflexes are never not going to be impressive to watch. Joori squawks as Morin knocks into him and his sticks go flying, but Fen’s already blocking Morin’s first blow, eyes alight with battle and then pride as Morin slips a glancing hit to Fen’s forearm that doesn’t disarm him but probably would any other opponent. Joori curses, but he’s not to be outdone—he dives in with his own stick and tries to flank Fen while Morin presses the offence. It doesn’t work, but none of them seem to care.

Morin laughs when Fen sweeps Joori’s feet out from under him, and then it’s Joori’s turn to snigger when Morin gets a swat on the behind from Fen’s stick. Fen spins and blocks and parries, one arm for each brother, as Morin and Joori shout and laugh, and basically take Xari’s “training” session and turn it into a free-for-all of little boys doing dangerous things with sticks.

Samin watches the now-loose lines of Fen, the blink-and-you-miss-it smirk that would be a broad grin on anyone else, the way his breath whooshes out of him in that tiny puffing laugh that seems so odd and unfamiliar on him, but that at the same time fits. He watches as Kurimo and Incendiary lose ground to Fen Jacin and Fen Joori and Fen Morin. He watches as Xari’s lips purse and her head shakes in disapproval before her full mouth quirks up with helpless fondness.

Samin watches it all and just thinks Yeah. This.

 

 

       
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