The sky was blue when Etzel, Simba, Quin and I arrived at school the next morning. The dark clouds from the day before had vanished and gentle rays of sunshine spread light and warmth over the city for what felt like the first time in months. Quin and I left for our literature class, while Etzel and Simba went to their own classrooms.
We were among the first students to arrive and we made sure to hang our nameplates on the attendance board before sitting down at two small desk near the window.
"It's a shame that such a beautiful morning should be spent in a literature class," Quin said sadly.
"Want to watch the clouds this afternoon?" I asked as I turned around in my seat to look at him. He nodded happily.
"Yeah, it's been a while since the last time we did that."
"Autumn, I think?"
"Something like that. The temperature dropped really fast afterwards, do you remember?"
"Ha-ha, yes! It was like one day we were lying on the roof shirtless because it was so warm outside, and the next day it was freezing cold and there was a fresh layer of snow on the ground!"
"And now the sun is once again gracing us with his presence," Quin concluded poetically. His expression turned sad. "A lot of people died last winter..."
I nodded slowly. "According to Pari, it was the harshest winter in thirty years." I looked out of the window as I remembered: "There was never any snow in Morada. Rain and cold, sure. But there was never any snow."
"Yes, you told me that once," Quin said. Then: "Do you miss it?"
I looked up. "Miss what? Morada?"
I turned to the window again. The dark roofs of the houses and shops on the hills of Byen were greeting me. We were a few meters above the ground, on a hill, so the view was fantastic. I vaguely remembered that day, five years ago, when I had looked down on Morada from a green hill with my small flock of goats. The endless hills, the small streams in between, the farms and small houses, the village temple...
"Yes," I said. "I miss it."
With that, I turned around again to face the front of the classroom. It was all in the past. Byen was my home now.
It wasn't until halfway our línghún class that my mood had improved. Khalil, our teacher, had split the class in groups of four and let us do an exercise that was called "the changing of seasons." Each participant took the role of a season and then they would start fighting until the "end of the year", which meant that Winter started and Autumn ended the dance. Winter took the lead at the start, then Spring would join and slowly overpower Winter. Then Winter would leave and Spring would dance alone for a little while, until Summer would come and slowly take over, until every season was done. After one "year" the participants would take another role and start over. Not only did every season have a specific way of moving your body and kan, or sword, but this exercise was meant to teach us how to move together. We all had our individual time in the spotlight, but we also had to know when it was someone else's turn. In a play, it was essential that línghún players could work together like this.
I was in a group with Quin, Kader and Gabriel, which made us a quite interesting quartet. Kader, Gabriel and I were among the best línghún players in our age group, while Quin wasn't too bad at it himself. But more challenging for Quin was the fact that he was in the same group as Kader. Kader, a passionate boy with a natural tanned skin, dark brown eyes and even darker brown wavy hair, was a good friend of mine. Quin, however, saw him as a rival. He had asked me once if I wanted to be best friends with Kader, and while I had told him I didn't, he still seemed to worry about that. The fact that Kader and I spent a lot of time together to practice línghún didn't really help. Plus, Kader was better at it than Quin, something that both boys were very much aware of. The only thing that was related to línghún that Quin was better at than Kader was elegance. As good as Kader was with a kan, his movements were often a bit graceless.
Gabriel, on the other hand, was pretty well-liked by everyone. He had dark skin as well, like Kader and me, but his eyes were light blue. They almost looked odd on him, since his long, straight hair was pitch black. The contrast was quite intriguing. I had become good friends with Gabriel over the past few years. He had come over to our keji a few times, and Quin and I had visited his keji as well, and so he and Quin had become friends as well.
For the seasons exercise I had now taken the role of Spring, Quin of Summer, Kader of Winter, and Gabriel of Autumn. For someone as active as Kader, making the slow moves of the Winter was quite a challenge.
"Kader, you're going too fast again!" Gabriel said as Kader moved forward. The other boy mumbled something nasty as he turned around, slower this time. Then he brought his kan above his head in a circular motion and then moved it down again fast, almost like a housewife would handle a broom.
"Too fast," the three of us said. He was quick to disagree.
"No, that was deliberate," he said. "That was a snowstorm. A storm is supposed to be fast."
"Storm movements belong to the Autumn role," Quin reminded him dryly.
"I was improvising!"
"You're not supposed to improvise, these roles have specific moves assigned to them."
"What's boring?" a heavy voice asked. We turned around to see our teacher standing there. Khalil was every boy's favourite teacher. He was almost forty years old and had been a línghún teacher for almost fifteen years now. He was a black man with dark eyes. He had had short hair when I first met him, but he had shaved it all off one day and now he kept his head bald. He was the tallest man I'd ever met, and yet he managed to move without making a sound. The most impressive about his appearance though, was the long scar that was clearly visible on his bare left arm. I had never seen him cover that arm, almost like he was proud of the scar. But when someone asked him where he had gotten the scar, he never answered. What made him such a well-liked teacher was the way he treated his students. He treated us like equals, like friends. He never placed himself above us. As he asked his question, he placed his hands on his knees to get more or less on eye level with us, and Kader answered.
"I'm playing the Winter role, but it's all so slow, and I'm not good with slow," he said with a slight pout.
"That's a bit of a problem," Khalil agreed. "Nothing that can't be solved, though."
He stood up straight, gently grabbed Kader's shoulders and turned him around until he was looking at the wall with nothing in his way but air.
"Now," Khalil started, "the problem is that your body can't adjust to slow movements. The reason for this is that you always move fast. You move fast because you are able to, and your body knows it's able to move like that. What we need to do now, is to make your body believe it cannot move fast. Once your body believes that, you'll notice that you'll have less trouble with the Winter role."
Kader gave him a weird look.
"But how am I supposed to do that?" he asked. Khalil pointed in front of him and we looked.
"There's nothing there," I said.
"Exactly," Khalil said. "There's nothing there to slow you down, and that's what we are going to change. Under what circumstances can we not move as fast as we usually can?"
"When we're tired," Quin suggested.
"When we're sick," Kader said.
"Old people can't move fast," Gabriel said.
"Muddy streets slow you down," I concluded. Khalil nodded.
"All correct," he said. "And now we are going to combine all of that. Kader, you are an old man, who's sick, very tired, and on his way home after a long day of work, travelling on an incredibly muddy road."
Kader looked like he didn't believe this would work, but he nodded. He turned to the empty space in front of him and took a few steps.
"It helps if you close your eyes," Khalil said. "You have to see it, you have to feel it, you have to believe it."
It took some effort, but Kader slowly got the hang of it. He kept closer to the ground than before, he moved slower and with more difficulty. Like a small animal that had trouble ploughing through the snow in search for food. Like he was trying not to fall over as an icy gust of wind tried to blow him away. It looked much better than before.
"Sometimes all it takes is a bit of faith," Khalil said with a smile before walking over to the next group.
"So, how did the test go?" Etzel asked that evening at the dinner table.
"Quite well, actually," Quin said. "There was only one thing I had some trouble with. I wasn't sure whether it was the house of Lauribion or the house of Nosta that lost its last members in the Battle of the Long Arm River."
"That was the house of Spatos," Etzel said with a sigh. "The Lauribion heiress married into the royal family, thus ending the Lauribion name. The male members of the house of Nosta were executed for treason and the women were sent into exile."
"Well, I told you I had some trouble with that question," Quin said with a bright blush on his face. Everyone laughed.
"And how did you do, Jinan?" the man sitting across from Etzel asked me.
"I think I mixed up the kings of Ratassa," I said, referring to a small neighbouring country. "I know Theodore the Great was the first king and that he was succeeded by his third son John because all his other sons had been assassinated. John was murdered during a parade a few years later and was succeeded by his son Philip. But then I couldn't remember whether it was Julius the Conqueror or John II who became king after Philip."
"Who do you think came first?" he asked.
"I couldn't remember, so I guessed John." I paused. "Who was it, Rivalen?" I asked the man.
"Julius," he answered with an amused twinkle in his eyes. "Julius conquered a lot of land for Ratassa, but then John lost it again when the country was at war with Estilon."
"I knew that," I mumbled, remembering how Pari had told us about it the other day. How could I forget that?
With another chuckle or two, Rivalen returned to his soup. To all us younger boys, Rivalen was like a big brother. He'd turn thirty in a year or two, but was still one of the most popular sathi in the city. It was mostly thanks to his personality. Rivalen was always very relaxed, I could count the times I'd seen him upset on one hand. He also never abused his authority as a sathi, even though he could do so easily. He was the only adult in the keji who ever knocked before entering the bedroom of the younger boys. Even Pari didn't do that. Rivalen was just a really great guy. Okay, he was a bit overprotective of his little brother Mattaniah and Mattie's twin sister Pandora, but that wasn't unexpected.
He wasn't their natural brother though, and this was easy to see. Rivalen was from a nomad tribe that lived on the Long Plains, but had been sold to our keji at a young age because the tribe's holy man thought that Rivalen was a demon. His skin was about as dark as mine, and this went really well with his dark, olive green eyes. Since he spent as much time in the sunlight as possible, his hair had lightened to an ochre colour.
As pleasant as his appearance was, he wasn't as lucky with his looks as the other two sathi in our keji. Rivalen always sat down between them at the table to make sure they didn't fight ̶ since they didn't like each other all that much ̶ and so Aidan sat on the right side, and Seren on the left side of the older man. Aidan and Seren were of pretty much the same age, both in their early twenties, and they had been rivals since their apprentice days. Aidan thanked his popularity to his looks: wavy auburn hair that he kept neatly combed; hazel-coloured eyes that always looked like they knew something others didn't; long eyelashes; he was tall lean, and had just enough visible muscles to look like a young god. His personality though, was nothing to be proud of. He was moody by nature, spoiled, arrogant and terribly untidy. On top of that, he had a temper and could be violent at times. To everyone's surprise though, he had a soft spot for little Pandora. While he barely ever smiled at her, he certainly never yelled at her. And when he was having one of his better days he could be a great help. In short, he was a handsome guy with a terrible attitude.
As much as they disliked each other, Aidan and Seren were very much alike in some aspects. Like Aidan, Seren was spoiled, untidy, and a bit arrogant. He was also a bit of a drama queen and very vain. On the other hand, he was also courteous, kind and compassionate. And unlike Aidan, Seren had the ability to make you stop breathing just by looking at you. Because he was, without a doubt, the most gorgeous human being I had ever seen. His skin was pale and absolutely flawless. His long hair was pitch black, straight and smooth. He had the same build as Aidan, only with a bit broader shoulders. Even so, this all paled when compared to his eyes. Their colour was a mixture of grey and green, but in such a way that you couldn't whether it was a dark or a light colour. Seren also had very long eyelashes, almost feminine. Right now, both Seren and Aidan were busy with eating their dinner. They both had a few appointments tonight and had to be ready in time. Rivalen, however, had a night off. Aidan commented on this with obvious jealousy in his voice.
"Lucky bastard," he said, "I've been going to party after funeral after play for days now! I could use a night off!"
"This wouldn't be nearly as hard on you if you'd cut back on the alcohol," Rivalen answered calmly. "And for your information, it's not like I'm going to stay in bed all night. I'm going out, too."
"What's the occasion?" Seren asked while fishing around in his soup bowl in search for more mushrooms. I saw how Rivalen's expression turned uncharacteristically smug.
"I, my friend, have a date," he said, causing Seren to abruptly stop his mushroom quest and look at him in surprise. He wasn't the only one. We all stopped eating and looked at the older man.
"And the old man's okay with that?" Aidan asked, referring to the old Father Olwin, who was the head of the family. Anyone who wanted to leave the keji needed his permission.
"Actually, it's grandfather who came up with the idea," Rivalen told us. "We were talking about the twins the other day and then he asked if there's a woman I like. I saw no reason to not tell him that there is, and then he suggested I'd take her out. So here I am, following grandfather's advice."
"You do know why he asked you that, right?" Seren informed carefully. Rivalen could suppress a short laugh.
"I'm not a fool, Seren, I know exactly what he was getting at."
"Does he want you to get married?" Quin asked. Rivalen nodded.
"As sad as it is, grandfather is nearing the end of his life. Father isn't exactly a young man anymore either, and the heir is only a toddler. Grandfather wants to make sure of the survival of the Morono name. Sure, I wasn't born into this family, but I was adopted by the family's main branch, and that's the next best thing. So if I have children ̶ legitimate children! ̶ then the family will be assured of a successor."
"You said there's a woman you like, but are you willing to marry her?" Seren asked with interest. Rivalen couldn't help a slight blush.
"Wall, if she'll have me..." he said, not needing to finish that sentence. Quin sniggered.
"Wow, Rivalen in love. Who would have thought?" he said.
"So who is she?" I asked.
"Her name's Reina," Rivalen said. "And that's all I'm telling you for now. Oh, and for the record," ̶ here he looked at Quin ̶ "I like her. I'm not in love with her."
"Yet," Etzel added. Rivalen didn't deny it. So after dinner, as Seren and Aidan got ready for work, Rivalen put on some nice clothes and left the keji for his date with the mysterious Reina.
"Has he ever talked about that woman before?" Simba asked when we were once again in our own room. Etzel shook his head.
"I've never heard about her before. This was a surprise for all of us."
"Do you think she's a geisha?" I asked.
"I think so," Quin said. "After all, Rivalen is an important member of an important sathi family. That limits his choice in brides."
"Well, if Rivalen likes her, and if father Olwin approves of her, then I'm sure she's alright," Etzel said as he walked over to his bed. We followed his example and within the hour the room was quiet. My last thought before I fell asleep was that if Rivalen fell in love with Reina, she would be a very lucky woman.