Zana in the Summer
The early summer morning in Shenkuu would have been perfect but for the crying. Crying? My eyes shot open, suddenly fully awake. There shouldn’t be crying! Not here in the tranquil academy.
I soon found the source of the noise, a small baby Mynci sitting on the stairs leading to the entry hall. I rolled my eyes. A child, just what I needed in my life. All the same, I scooped the girl up off the steps and carried her inside.
My pupils laughed when they saw me carrying her, but one glare silenced them. She was wrapped in a pale blue shawl, so I simply placed her on the ground behind me and got on with the lessons.
The two staffs were a blur in the dawn light, so fast that those watching could barely see them.
The Shadow Kacheek took a half step backwards, breathing heavily.
I brought my Jade staff around in a wide slow sweep. Timon, my pupil, actually laughed at the speed of the blow; he was used to the fast move strokes that he barely had time to block, but he was getting faster at blocking them.
He stepped forward again, flicking his stick out to block mine. “Getting tired?” he joked.
My stick hit his and I shot my arm out using his stick as a pivot point, and bring it in a collision course with the back of his knees. It was a move he just didn’t see coming.
“No, not really,” I replied standing over him. Behind me I heard the baby giggle. I didn’t turn; sure, we were noble fighters, but everyone knew you took an opening when you got one.
Timon smiled slightly. “Fine you win,” he said, then added, “this time.”
Something hit the back of my knees. Hard. I fell but rolled as I did. My attacker, if that’s what she could be called, was the child. All four of her paws were on the ground supporting her, and her tail was holding the practice staff nearly twice as long as herself.
I started laughing less than a second after the Kacheek, and soon the rest of my class was laughing as well, but inside my mind was racing. Maybe having this kid around wasn’t so bad.
I was right, well, quite right. Zana, as we called her, turned out to be cheeky and mischievous, but she was talented and she learnt fast. The thing I couldn’t believe was that she couldn’t be any more than ten months old.
As she grew, her purple fur became darker, and by the end of the summer I was almost certain that she would grow into a beautiful shadow Mynci. I was proud of her, but then everything changed. Then she came.
She was standing on my doorstep one morning, a look of hope about her. “They told me you found a baby Mynci?” she said slowly and hopefully.
My face fell. “Yes, Zana has been with us since the start of the summer,” I said carefully.
Her eyes brightened as a look of hope spread across her face. “She had a blue blanket with her? And she was about nine months old. I lost her and I’ve been so worried, then this morning someone mentioned that they had seen a very young Mynci training here. Is it true?” she said, her words now rushed.
I tried to force a smile; it was good that Zana’s mother was here, but somehow I couldn’t help feeling it would have been nice to teach her when she was older. “Yes, would you like to come in?”
I lead the Shadow Ixi through the corridors of the academy. We soon reached my rooms, where sitting on the floor was Zana, a wooden dagger in her tail, four paws on the ground. I never understood why it was also instinctive for her; she couldn’t really talk, and she could barely walk. Yet she would pick up anything weapon-like and hold it like this as poised to fight.
Her mother was so thrilled to see her that she barely noticed the attack pose, and it wasn’t exactly a common pose, only to an expert was it obvious what the child was doing. The woman swept the child up in her arms, holding her tightly. To me it seemed a little strange that she didn’t notice the dagger.
“Oh, Sarah,” she scolded. “I’ve been so worried about you.”
I placed the two cups of green tea on the table, one for the Ixi and one for myself.
The Ixi had calmed down now she’d got her little girl back, and she spoke quite calmly. “They said you’d been training her?” she questioned me the second I’d sat down.
“In a manner of speaking,” I replied. “She’s simply too young for any formal training, but she picks everything up so fast.”
“Yes, not that I’d know much about that, but her father was a natural,” she replied, brushing a strand of dark hair from her eyes.
“Hmm,” I murmured, thinking to myself. “Where is he now?”
“Umm,” the Ixi stared sadly down at her tea, “he is dead. He died just over a year ago when there was all that unrest in Kinira.”
“Oh,” I said, but it meant little to me. “Have you thought of enrolling her in an academy?”
She shook her head. “No I’ve never really thought about it, but now I do I doubt I’d be able to afford it.”
I nodded. Life wasn’t easy in Shenkuu if you were on your own, especially with a small child. “We could take her?” I offered. It would be an honour to teach one so talented.
She seemed startled by the suggestion. “Take her?” she said, “but I’ve only just got her back. I know things are going to be hard, but we’ll manage.”
I swallowed. I shouldn’t have even tried now, and it wasn’t as if the child would even be ready to learn much in the next six months. “I’m sorry; you're right. I shouldn’t have even asked,” I said a touch sadly. I had grown to like Zana over the summer.
The Ixi was thoughtful for a moment. “It would be wrong of me to rob her of such an opportunity,” she said slowly.
I, also slowly, nodded my head. “I could simply teach her for the summer,” I offered. “That way she wouldn’t even miss any school.”
She smiled. “Sounds like a good idea,” she said.
I also smiled. “I’ll see you in nine months then.”
The sun, just as bright, if not brighter, than the day before, shone down upon the mountains of Shenkuu. I’d been up at dawn with my pupils, racing the sun, as they called it. It was one of the few exercises we did that didn’t involve fighting. It was also one of the few that my pupils had any chance of beating me at. I pushed my legs harder. I could see the academy about two hundred meters away.
Behind me, I could hear Timon breathing. Not heavily, though; he wasn’t anywhere near exhausted. The Shadow Kacheek had been working on his fitness since the last summer. I can’t say I was happy that he was likely to be able to beat me by the end of the summer, but I was proud. Besides, he wasn’t going to win today. I passed through the arch first, Timon less than two meters behind me.
I sat on the bench, Timon sitting at my feet, as the other pupils crossed the final line and slowed. Quite a few of them were gathering around Timon, awed by his performance. So was I; it wasn’t often a twelve year old came close to beating me. Even so, I wasn’t going to let the kid get a big head.
“Sensei!” A small dark blur raced towards me. Zana buried herself in my fur. “It’s good to be home,” she whispered.
Timon and Zana didn’t really getting along at first; mostly it was because of Timon. He resented the amount of time I spent with her, bending to the stereotypical view that a girl would never make a decent fighter. That changed when he turned eighteen.
My pupils were my pupils until they turned eighteen. After that, they were their own masters. They made their own decisions, could move away from the academy if they wished, took on contracts and the like. It was traditional that when they turned eighteen, they would stand in the centre of the courtyard and call for any challenges. It didn’t matter the outcome, unless said student managed to get himself badly injured, but it was said to be the last time for childish revenge, one last play fight before the real world. Not that it was, but it was... well, traditional.
“Is there anyone else?” Timon called from the centre of the courtyard. The other children were gathered thickly around the edge, a few whispering or shoving one another in an attempt to get someone to challenge him. He’d already defeated three of the older boys, back for what they thought of as payback; sadly all three had been beaten.
Internally I signed. It was rare, very rare for a pupil to leave without being defeated at his graduation. It really wouldn’t do to let him leave with a big head, but it also wouldn’t do any good for me to challenge him. Of course, I would beat him easily, but that wasn’t the point.
“I’ll challenge you.” The voice was feminine, and a lot of heads turned. It could only be Zana. Few of them had fought her before. She was perhaps a little timid, and certainly didn’t boast about her skill.
A few of the older boys laughed. Timon joined in. She was only nine, what hope did she have against an eighteen year old master?
“Are you sure?” Timon asked, Gold Handled Katana gripped tightly in one hand.
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said confidently as she emerged from the crowed, Night Katana gripped in one hand.
The whispering started. It was rare for a student to choose the Night Katana as their first choice weapon. I only knew of one other that would use it as their first preference. The strangeness of the situation was added to by the weapon Timon was using.
“Very well then,” Timon said, bowing. Zana returned the bow. The gong was rung. Blades flashed. I watched, impressed despite the situation, my two finest pupils fighting each other. The blades flashed in the noon, the light one gleaming a bright gold, and the other dark silver.
As the battle wore on into the morning, my other pupils grew tired. I wasn't surprised when I noticed several of them slip away; they’d missed breakfast and the battle wasn’t all that exiting. Zana seemed to be fighting an entirely defensive battle. That puzzled me; I knew exactly how good she was and I’d never seen her fight in such a manner before.
It was about two hours after the fight had begun when the final group left, annoyed they’d missed all their morning for nothing and desperate not to miss lunch as well. They could always come back afterwards; neither of the two seemed to be getting anywhere. It was then that the banter started. Until that moment, both had fought in complete silence except for the clash of blades.
It was Timon that started it. “Getting tired?” he called mockingly.
“No, not really,” Zana replied, swinging the sword around and bringing it around to lock with his.
“You can’t be trying to make me grow complacent with fatigue?” he said questioningly, his blade easily deflecting hers.
“No,” she said, her blade shooting around at eye-blurring speed.
He caught the blade with his own, concentrating on the fight now, and caught her left hand as it moved to strike him. “Do you really think you can win that way?” he asked.
She shrugged, stepping forward, and Timon fell over her tail. She held her blade inches from his face. “I just didn’t want to beat you in front of all your little followers.” She lowered the blade and stepped back, still wary.
Timon stared at her, enraged, and then the anger faded to the laugh that filled the yard. “You don’t fight badly,” he said, adding, “for a girl.”
She laughed. “Not angry then?” she said, offering her hand for him to stand up.
He took it, and I applauded. ”Beautiful, now please tell me you’ll stop fighting so we can get some food while there’s still some left?” I asked with a touch of sarcasm.
Timon laughed. “Okay, this little minx has proved her point and had the decency to do it without a crowd watching.”
After that, the two of them were friends; at least, for the next seven years they were friends. Zana left on her seventeenth birthday, the last day of summer. I never saw the Shadow Mynci again.