“Today we will be testing your hunting and fishing skills!” the Calzai announced, his grave voice easily reaching out to everyone present , the few who had remained.
As a result of their previous dueling tournament, the group had been greatly reduced, to the point where ZaiWin was wondering if there would be any kids left by the end of the week.
From the twenty-nine that had participated in the duels the day before, five were dead, four were severely injured, and three others had chosen to stay behind under the pretext of taking care of their fallen companions. Their terrified expressions, however, told anyone with eyes on their faces that their reason to quit the Gathering was far from having anything to do with a noble, caring heart.
Of course, all the royals were still present, as were their main loyal followers. And CarFan hadn’t dropped out either, which ZaiWin could easily understand. Being left behind with the others, without an adult to supervise them, was the same as asking for trouble since, right then, he wasn’t exactly being well accepted by the other kids.
Since they were a lot fewer now, it was also much easier to understand who was affiliated with who, and who kept themselves apart from the main groups.
As to be expected, more than half of the remaining kinds belonged either to FeiWan’s group or CalWan’s group, if nothing else because the twins wouldn’t dare openly hurt one of their brother’s faithfully followers just for the fun of it, and they obviously felt safe enough under royal wings to continue participating in the Gathering.
Then, beside them, there were GinWan and LinWan, of course, keeping to themselves like always, whispering back and forth in their creepy code, looking like two exact copies even though they were sister and brother.
Then there were two girls, who must also share some blood bound between them, either sisters or cousins, ZaiWin thought, by how much they looked alike. The youngest of the two kept staring at CalWan with a dreamy expression on her face, but the older one had a strong, determined bearing about her, and the way she held the youngest girl’s hand in hers clearly stated who decided things around there.
And then there was CarFan. Surprisingly enough another girl kept him company, her expression clearly worried, her honey-colored eyes constantly checking on him. She didn’t look mindlessly lovestruck, like the two girls in CalWan’s group. More like afraid he might collapse or something worse, which lead ZaiWin to conclude that she was probably a less important member of his Clan, tasked with making sure that the young master made through the Gathering unscathed.
And finally there was him, the only one standing alone, as he had been right from the start.
So much for bringing honor and glory to their Clans, he thought ironically. So much for taking the opportunity to establish political connections with other Provinces. So much for making their Clan’s name known and recognized by the royals. Fear was truly a beautiful thing.
“The hunting grounds are shaded in green on your maps,” the Calzai was saying, still explaining that afternoon’s activity. “You are not allowed to use your daitai for the killing, but you can use them to track, ambush or chase your prey.”
Those were magical words to his ears, he thought, as did most of the other kids by the grins and smiles on their faces.
“Points will be granted by the end of the day but keep in mind that, more than quantity, we are looking for quality and for how much of a challenge you are willing to put yourselves through in order to accomplish today’s task. Today’s weapons will be the bow and the spear. You are to collect them from under that tree.”
Everyone looked towards the pointed direction.
“Wish you all a good hunt and may the eternal sun shine down on your path.”
And, with that, the Calzai climbed down from his wooden box and walked away, his expression impassive, cold and distant, as if he hadn’t just left almost ten noble kids behind, together with their companion’s corpses, to fend for themselves.
Though ZaiWin had an almost visceral hatred for the Hao Clan, he couldn’t help admire the older man’s guts. He was sure that once the event was over he would be buried in complains and demands for compensation, due to the shame and danger the young ones had been forced to endure. And still he looked as if he couldn’t care less.
Turning to make his way to said tree, he saw NimRen timidly waving at him. Her face looked even more bruised than the day before and, as to be expected, CalWan hadn’t allowed her to wander away from his side the entire day. So, unlike the days before, they hadn’t been able to march together to this new location.
He gave her an equally timid smile, not wanting others to notice their exchange, and went to retrieve his weapons for the day.
The bow was as simple as bows could be and it could have been made right there, in that forest. Just a thin, flexible branch and a cord. The arrows kept inside an equally simple leather quiver were also made of wood, but they’d been obviously carefully crafted, the shiny metal points made of steel adequately balanced and sharp. Each quiver held fifteen arrows, ZaiWin quickly counted them. Not a lot of them but more than enough for someone who knew what he was doing. The tall, thin spears leaning against the tree trunk were light and easy enough to carry and handle, ideal for fishing.
Pulling his bow and quiver over one shoulder he grabbed one spear and tried his best to get going as soon as possible.
CarFan, who looked as out of it as the day before, frowned hatefully at the mere sight of him. But, the moment he was about to come over to clearly harass him, CalWan crossed his path followed by NimRen, two other girls, one of them KimWon who made a point to ignore him, and another quieter but pretty-looking boy. At the sight of them, CarFan’s face paled considerable, and he quickly turned around as if that would be enough to hide him from CalWan’s fury, should he ever come to know that he was the one that had left that ugly bruise on his little sister’s face.
Taking this opportunity, and the fact that FeiWan was still studying his map, he quickly made his way into the woods, wishing to disappear from everyone’s sight as soon as possible.
Another inconvenience of the drastic decline in numbers of participants, he thought, running with silent footsteps, checking the trees in search of one he could easily climb. The less kids there were, the more he’d stand out, especially with so many of them holding an open grudge against him. Maybe he should have chosen to stay behind with the other kids, he considered, strapping is spear to his back as well, beneath his backpack, so he could free his hands and start climbing.
ZenTar had nagged him about the importance of him attending that stupid Gathering. He had to show them all, the El’Dur included, that Nox had a real Governor, that, from now on, it would behave like any other Province.
Nox had been without a Governor for hundreds of years and was widely known as a rogue Province, full of poor, sick people and a famous den of rapists, murderers and thieves. As such, no representative of Nox had participated in the Seventh Year Gathering for a long time. Even other ungoverned Provinces religiously sent someone to represent them, no matter if the poor kids they sent would most likely end up injured or worse, dead, for how weak and untrained they were. But no one had ever expect that kind of civilized behavior from Nox.
And so ZaiWin had to go!, ZenTar had insisted. He had to go and show them that things were different now. That they were like any other Province and that they would follow and comply with the Empire’s directives. He hadn’t liked it one bit! But he understood, and so he’d come. But hadn’t he done more than enough already? Wasn’t this enough? Kids from other, much more prominent Clans had already given up. Besides ZenTar had told him that he had to come, he had never said he had to stick with it till the end.
Sitting on a branch, he took a deep breath to recover from the effort of climbing such a tall tree. He had to quickly fix this stubborn streak of his!, he censured himself. Yes he hated to lose! Yes he hated the feeling that he was too weak and that, as such, there were certain things out of his reach, like winning in a duel against CalWan. But, more than prideful, he had to be smart about this. What if he got really hurt? What if the others decided to ambush him? What would happen to his Nox then?
With a heavy sigh he got up and easily walked across the branch to look at the forest, on the other side. At least it was quiet up there, he thought, smiling when the cool wind brushed against his face, tussling his hair. There was a lake not very far from there, he realized by the silvery glow he could see from between the trees. Lakes were always good hunting places and, even if that were not the case, he would at least be able to refill his flask and catch something decent for his evening meal.
Having decided which course to take, ZaiWin didn’t lose time and started moving.
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Bio: Sophia CarPerSanti was born with her mind lost in another world. Not too strangely, writing is her only passion since childhood, and so there's not much one can do to correct what was weird right from the start. Once deprived of writing total mental breakdown follows and yeah, nothing good comes out of it. And so there are a lot of books and manuscripts inside boxes and drawers just waiting for an opportunity to see the light of day. I hope you enjoy my beloved ones as much as I enjoyed creating them ♥