Kumi began his first official morning in Barrack Sixteen by vomiting last night's dinner in front of the entrance, splattering it on his sandals and tunic. His head was reeling and his eyelids felt like they were fighting a personal battle with him against staying open.
There was a light tap on his shoulder, and Kumi wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and turned around. Jahari was peering closely at his face, of course bright and alert, seemingly jovial at the thought of starting new training techniques. There was a teasing grin on his face. "You only had one mug."
"That was enough," groaned Kumi, dragging his feet as the other newly-advanced Dánaidh began making their way out to the training field after breakfast. Kumi had bypassed the dining room without a second look after his stomach lurched at the smell of porridge. He watched the other boys talking and laughing with presumably full bellies at they approached the clearing. He was too nauseated to feel properly jealous.
One thing was certain in Kumi's fogged brain: Mahlah had been right about his assessment of their new master. Master Eóghan, larger than Cathael but also a little rounder around the stomach and in the face, greeted his group of warriors with a broad, toothy grin as they approached him, hands resting on his protruding middle.
Kumi and the others started to seat themselves in the clearing in the manner that they had been taught—three rows of five and two rows of six, equally distanced apart and sitting on their haunches—when a booming laughed erupted from Eóghan, shaking his round frame.
"Got you trained well, don't we?" he chuckled. "As we well should; nice to see some Southlanders with a little discipline in them. All the same, you won't be needing to sit like that for today. Budge up and sit around me in a circle so you can all see better."
They hesitated for just a second, but followed Eóghan's commands. Eóghan flashed his bright smile again and said, "That's better, right? No need to look so stiff—you might as well get comfortable, we'll just be doing the lesson today; no training."
Kumi was amused to see that Jahari was the only one who didn't find this good news, looking crestfallen while the other boys around them hooted in appreciation.
Not only was there no training that day, but the lesson was short. Eóghan explained how now that they had reached Sixteen, they would be taught to hunt and spent the better part of the lesson going over the different weapons they would use for the variety of game indigenous to the island. Kumi had sat, paying little attention, preoccupied with trying to keep the contents of his stomach down.
When Eóghan was done, he sent them back to their Barracks. Kumi saw to his surprise that they weren't the first ones there, though it was barely midday. The Dánaidh of Barrack Fifteen were milling around the square, looking at a complete loss.
"What're you all doing back so early?" a boy named Dunah from Fifteen asked Kumi's approaching group, his bright brown eyes narrowed comically in suspicion. He stood the tallest of the boys in his group and a good inch or two taller than Kumi.
"We were about to ask you lot the same thing, Dunah," said Kumi and Dunah gave him a withering look. Great, even the younger Dánaidh looked down on him. Literally, in Dunah's case.
"It isn't like Master Cathael to let lessons out early," Jahari said, heavy eyebrows knitting together. The younger boys snapped their head in his direction as he spoke; apparently, Jahari's reputation extended further than just his age sect.
"Cathael didn't teach us," said another boy in a cracking, squeaky voice, peering up over Dunah's shoulder. The other boys looked away from him, rolling their eyes. Kumi felt an instant kinship towards the ostracized runt. "Lord Aelin met with us this morning before he went to go meet the builders—"
Dunah cast Kumi-Junior the same disdainful look he gave Kumi and cut over him. "Lord Aelin said Cathael left back to the mainland last night; we're supposed to be getting a new Master by the end of the week."
Jahari's face fell and Kumi could feel his nausea returning, though he was sure it had nothing to do with the wood-ale from last night this time.
"What do you mean?" Jahari said. He peered at each of the boys as though the answer would be written on their faces. "Master Cathael never mentioned leaving."
"That's because he wasn't planning to," said Kumi, and for once was glad when no one paid attention to him. Instead, the other boys now talked amongst themselves about this latest development. "Jahari," whispered Kumi, grappling the front of Jahari's tunic to pull him down towards him. "Aelin has to be behind this—yesterday, when he was asking me about Master Cathael, do you remember?" Jahari's eyes widened and Kumi led him away from the other boys, back towards their Barracks so they could talk without being overheard.
"But why would Lord Aelin get rid of Master Cathael to punish you?"
"I don't know," Kumi admitted, frowning. Far be it for him to understand the way Lord Aelin's mind worked. "But Cathael didn't mention anything about leaving before this."
He fidgeted and paced as Jahari stared silently at the space in front of him, lost in thought. Finally, Jahari looked over to Kumi. "Do you think any of the other Masters would know why? Maybe we should ask Éoghan."
Kumi's pacing slowed to a restless shuffle from one foot to the other. "I've got a better idea," he said. "Dunah said Cathael left for the mainland last night, but the ships don't leave the bay until mid-morning. He could still be there."
He expected some sort of protest from Jahari. To say that they should just forget about it and stay put—they could get in trouble, or to suggest again that they try to ask Master Éoghan. Instead, Jahari retreated to their Barracks and reappeared again, holding two waterskins. He tossed one to Kumi, whose fumbling fingers dropped it, and then led the way back to the square to fill up the skins at the well.
"It's a two hour walk," said Jahari, fishing the bucket from the well and dipping the waterskin in where it made a glub-glub noise as it slowly filled. "We might have to travel faster than that to catch Master Cathael in time."
Kumi felt of twinge of dread. A two-hour trek for Jahari probably already translated into a three-hour walk for him, and while Jahari might have had the stamina and long legs to cut his time in half, Kumi did not.
They were only a quarter of the way into their trek when he noticed how true this prediction was.
"Aelin knows about the magic," Kumi said for the fifth time, panting slightly as he struggled to keep up with Jahari's long strides. He trailed behind Jahari by about twenty paces and the wind muffled his voice. He sprinted to catch up and repeat it for a sixth time.
"I told you: you shouldn't even be practicing it," Jahari said as Kumi took a long drink from his waterskin. It was already running low. The water sloshed around freely when he placed the pouch back against his hip. By contrast, Jahari's own waterskin had continued to remain by his side, untouched since he'd first filled it up. Inhuman, Kumi thought.
"You'd get in a lot less trouble, for one." Jahari continued.
"Maybe," Kumi said, "but then I couldn't do this." He held out the skin and waved his hand over it, and the pouch swelled, bloating with water. "It has its benefits." Kumi took a triumphant swig from his newly filled pouch. The burning taste of brine filled his mouth and he gagged, water dribbling out of his mouth and onto his front.
Jahari's teasing laughter had an air of "I told you so" in it. "I meant to ask," He said now as Kumi scowled and emptied out his waterskin onto the ground in defeat, "How did you know Dunah was wrong about the ships?"
Kumi's fingers slipped as he strung his waterskin back around his hip. He kept his gaze carefully trained on his feet as he marched through the tall, yellow grass. "You have to swear to me you won't breathe this to anyone."
"I haven't told anyone about your magic."
Right. That was a good point, Kumi thought. "Well…" Kumi tried to think about how to word this carefully, how to ease Jahari into his skewed thought process that made perfect and logical sense to him, but he realized that it wouldn't matter how delicately he tried to state it--it would still sound mad.
So, the words came tumbling from his mouth, unfiltered and unprocessed. "I think about leaving sometimes. Lots of times, really. I go to the bay every once in a while, after practice since I'm normally one of the last ones anyway. No one notices when I come back so late. I go there sometimes and think about stowing away on one of the ships and taking it back to Western Adaeria. Maybe if they left at night and maybe I wasn't such a coward, I could've left a dozen times by now." He paused to breathe. "I'm not cut out to be here."
Kumi had been steadily walking forward, eyes on the ground, but now heard only his footsteps marching through the grass and stopped to look back. Jahari was standing at least twenty paces back, his expression unreadable. "Jahari?"
"You shouldn't talk that way," he finally said, catching up to Kumi in a few swift strides. "No one's ever left the Dánaidh, you know that. Besides," Jahari continued, swelling up slightly, "it's an honor to be chosen for the Dánaidh. We could be working in fields or worse if we weren't here. You just need more practice."
Kumi was ready to tell Jahari he didn't think serving as one of the Dánaidh was much different from serving the Adaerians elsewhere when they suddenly heard rustling behind them. Kumi dropped into a crouch, hiding himself in the tall grass, while Jahari spun around on the spot, drawing out from his belt the only weapon they were given at their age, a small but formidable dagger.
"What are you doing?" they asked each other in unison.
The rustling grew louder, and Kumi snatched Jahari's arm and tugged him down in the grass with him.
"Why are we hiding?" Jahari whispered, his voice clipped with agitation.
"Lord Aelin went to go meet the builders this morning, remember?" said Kumi, waving his hands in a smooth, upward motion and the grass they were hiding in stretched up high enough to shield the tops of their heads from view. "What if that's him?"
"We would've seen him—the grass isn't that high. It's probably an animal."
A faint barking in the distance put Kumi's suspicions to rest. Jahari smiled the most dazzling shit-eating grin Kumi had ever seen.
"Did that dog of yours follow you all the way out here?"
"He has a name," Kumi said in tones of mocking offense. He stood up from the grass, dusting off his tunic that still had splotches of his sick on it. "I just…haven't thought of it yet."
The dog bounded around Kumi's legs, tongue lolling out of the side of its mouth, wagging its tail—its customary greeting.
"It's not proper for a dog to go this long without a name," said Jahari, tucking his dagger back into his belt. "What do you call it to get it to come to you?"
He thought about that for a moment, realizing he had no answer. "I don't. He just does. He always finds me."
"Maybe…" In that one word, Jahari's tone was strangely hesitant.
"What is it?"
"Do you think…" Jahari said, looking around as though afraid something in the vast nothingness would hear him, "maybe he could be a Watcher?"
It was Kumi's turn to stop walking and stare dumbfounded at his friend, mouth hanging open. He would have never thought that Jahari would have mentioned anything about the Watchers. They were myths, told to Adaerian children as ghost stories. Said to be the only remaining semblance of magic native to the Northlands, Watchers had not been eradicated because Watchers could not be found. They found you.
They lurked in different forms: workhorses, wild dogs, domesticated livestock, festering bugs. Kumi's mother used to tell him that Watchers were the eyes of the Gods and would tell her if he broke dinner plates or lied about his chores or touched himself at night. He had feared the scrutinizing gaze of the merchant owner's large grey tabby for many years because of those stories.
Kumi looked at the dog in front of him, now rolling in the grass, squirming as if to get rid of an itch on its back. It flopped over and began licking its crotch in earnest, making snorfling sounds as it dug its muzzle into thick, dusty fur.
Kumi pulled a face. "I really doubt it."
An hour passed of Kumi struggling to keep in pace with now both Jahari and the dog. After his seawater mishap, he had to share Jahari's waterskin, taking more tentative sips from it even though Jahari had still yet to touch it himself. Definitely inhuman.
As they neared their destination, the tall yellowing grass began to show signs of color, hints of pale green weaving its way through as a rush of sea air blew by them from beyond a hill. Kumi was in the lead now, panting slightly and clutching a stitch in his side.
They reached the crest of the hill, and the dog sprinted down it, barking all the way. Kumi smelled it before he saw it; the breeze carried the sharp, salty aroma of seawater and the slightly more pungent aroma of what Kumi could only assume was an abundance of fish shit. Below them stretched West Adaerian Island Bay.
They were standing about ten yards away from the path to the bay, the ocean crystal blue and sparkling under the midday sun. Four piers dotted the water. The pier farthest to the right had a large ship anchored by the dock, and the pier farthest to the left held a much smaller ship, floating languidly in the water, bobbing up and down with the tide.
The dog led the way, stopping every few steps to look back and bark, as if to make sure the boys were following him. Kumi and Jahari brought up the rear, keeping low, as the grass was not nearly as tall near the bay as it was closer to the commune.
An encampment was set up not too far from shore, twenty man-sized, white tents lined up behind two much larger and much more elaborately decorated tents, the same color of blue Aelin's Summer's End robes had been.
Kumi elbowed Jahari in the side and pointed down at the encampment. There, among the tents, were the twenty slaves, the two Adaerian builders and Lord Aelin. Their voices floated up to Kumi and Jahari, who had stopped, crouching behind a thick cluster of bushes to keep from being seen. Kumi was easily concealed behind thick bramble of bushes, but Jahari's hulking mass would have been noticeable if not for some quick work by Kumi.
"…You were out here awful early, Sir," one of the builders was saying to Aelin, scratching his coarse red beard thoughtfully. His fat frame was stuffed into a simple but well-crafted leather coat that had a symbol of a hammer branded onto the right side of his chest. "We thought you was probably still on your way, ain't that right, Leyal?"
Leyal was nearly as tall as the first man, but a third of his size. Standing next to one another, it was uncertain if one was very skinny, or the other was just very fat.
Unlike the first man, Leyal wore clothes more similar to Lord Aelin's dress; fine fabrics of silk and fur, impeccably crafted, emblazoned with the Adaeria royal crest on the cuffs and center.
"There was something I needed to take care of," Aelin said, adjusting his coat, frowning as he picked at a spot on it. "Turns out I'll be needing a new Dánaidh trainer."
"Oh?" Leyal's interest was almost insulting.
"Do go on, My Lord," the bigger man said, leaning forward.
Aelin and the builders were harnessing three horses for the ride back to the commune, the slaves following behind on foot.
"I don't care for insubordination," Aelin said, mounting a tawny stallion and gripping the reins. "I suspect that there is someone practicing magic among Cathael's former ranks, yet he chose not to bring this information to my immediate attention."
Kumi sank down lower into the bushes, a chill slipping down his back and his queasy feeling returning. Aelin had to know it was him, which made Kumi wonder why it was Cathael on that boat and not him at the end of Aelin's whip. The brambles around Jahari and Kumi trembled as he attempted to quiet his stomach, tasting that all too familiar watery bile rising in his throat again.
"Begging your pardon, My Lord, but why didn't you just get rid of the boy, then?" the first man asked as though reading Kumi's mind. His and his partner's horses were the two smaller, pure white stallions, and he mounted his with a little more difficulty than Leyal. "That would make more sense, wouldn't it? Sir?" he added as an afterthought.
Even from his hiding spot, the expression Kumi saw Aelin shoot at the first man was enough to cause Kumi to cower so low he was nearly flat on his belly in the grass.
Leyal, however, was the one who answered. "You cannot 'get rid' of one of the Dánaidh, you fool," he spat. "Where is your sense, Rothnack?"
Rothnack blinked. "What'd you mean? Seems simple enough—they're just Southlanders. Boys, at that. Quick slit of the throat and you'd be done with him. No use keeping the bad seeds, right?"
Aelin turned his horse away from Rothnack, a distasteful sneer pronounced on his face. "Rothnack, fall back and keep an eye on your slaves. Lord Leyal and I will lead the way back to my commune."
Kumi and Jahari watched as Aelin led the builders over the hill, back towards the Barracks, a slightly affronted Rothnack leading his horse back behind the slaves.
"What do you think he meant by that? That he can't just get rid of us?" asked Jahari, and they waited a few moments before cautiously standing up from their hiding spots once Aelin and the others were out of sight. Without the builders and their slaves, the bay was now nearly empty. Besides the monthly suppliers Kumi saw bringing goods from the mainland, the bay saw little activity.
"I don't know," Kumi said, casting a final look behind him before rushing down the pier. "Look, the smaller ship must be for the Nineteen. The big one has to be the builders'; Cathael's gotta be on the smaller ship—they're going back to the mainland today." He sprinted towards the smaller ship, calling back to Jahari, "Come on—maybe Cathael might have some answers."
The cog ship anchored to the left-most pier was bigger than Kumi expected. He stared up at the large, billowing sail, at the flag whipping in the sea breeze, adorned with the Royal Adaerian coat of arms, and found himself suddenly full of dread. In four years' time, this would be his fate. It would be him up on that ship, setting sail to a land that he would be expected to defend with his life, to protect men like Lords Aelin and Leyal who saw Southlanders as beneath them. He would be expected to defend men like Rothnack, who suggested the murder of his people as though he were swatting a pesky dwellingfly.
"Kumi?" Jahari was already heading towards the gangplank, the dog poised a few feet away from them, facing the hill, tail wagging in slow, measured sweeps.
"Sorry, I was…thinking," he replied, and followed Jahari up the plank. Without Lord Aelin there to set sail with Nineteen, Kumi and Jahari reasoned the crew of the cog would be confused by their appearance, but otherwise unperturbed.
Aboard the ship, there were about ten to fifteen Adaerian sailors, clad in light blue uniforms giving orders to the Dánaidh of Nineteen. Kumi didn't understand too much about sailing, but from the quick, hurried movements and general barking of orders, it looked as though they were getting ready to set sail.
"What are you two doing here? Shouldn't you be at practice?"
Kumi jumped at the familiar voice and spun around. Master Cathael sat, shackled against the mast by his wrists, dressed in the simple tunic and trousers he had worn the day before.
"We came to see you, sir," said Jahari, eyes sweeping over the thick iron chains with a look that made Kumi's guilt squirm within him.
"You boys need to go back to the barracks," Cathael said, adjusting himself so that the shackles made a horrible clanging sound as they shook.
"Sir?" Kumi asked, meeting Cathael's gaze. "What happened?"
Cathael looked down at his restrained hands. "Aelin's observant."
"I still don't understand why he's getting rid of you to punish me," said Kumi, panic creeping into his voice as he struggled to make sense of Aelin's actions.
"It isn't punishment," Cathael said. "It's for precaution. Aelin doesn't want anyone who will question his methods, no one who won't follow his instructions blindly."
"But what does this have to do with us?"
"How you are trained is of the utmost importance to the preservation of the Dánaidh, and that includes who you're trained by. Lord Aelin doesn't like information being withheld from him," said Cathael. "Particularly if he feels it runs into the territory of insubordination."
"I don't understand why he just didn't ship me off back to the mainland," Kumi said miserably. "We would've both been better off."
"Kumi," Cathael said, his mouth set in a straight line, "what was the first thing you were taught when you arrived on the island?"
Kumi felt like he was suddenly back in the clearing where they had their morning lessons. And just like then, he was drawing a blank when called upon to answer a question he should've known the answer to. "I…I don't remember, Sir."
Cathael turned to look at Jahari, and Kumi really did feel like he was back in the clearing. "Jahari?"
"'Under no circumstances is a Dánaidh permitted to leave the island until their training is complete at the Summer's End Ceremony of their final year.'" Jahari recited, and had the decency to look slightly apologetic.
"I suppose that includes killing me off, too," Kumi said.
"Under no circumstances would include death, yes," Cathael said with a ghost of a smile.
"But why? Why can't we leave?"
The slight smile Cathael had slipped from his face, and his expression became closed. "That's not something even I know, Kumi."
There was a moment of heavy silence before Jahari spoke up to break it. "What's going to happen to you now?"
"I'll have to face the Royal Council for treason," said Cathael with a humorless laugh, turning his gaze outwards to the sea. The strip of Eastern Adaeria was just visible above the horizon.
"But you didn't do anything," said Jahari, eyebrows shooting upwards. Guilt clamped down on Kumi's stomach and gnawed like a dog worrying a bone. This was all his fault. Stern as a master as he had been, Cathael didn't deserve to be punished for Kumi's idiocy.
"Exactly." Cathael said. "You boys need to go back to the Barracks. Before Aelin discovers you're not where you're supposed to be." Cathael turned his head to Kumi. "You're stuck here for another four years, Kumi. Try to make the best of it."
"I…I'm not Jahari, sir," said Kumi, and Jahari frowned, as if he weren't sure he was being complimented or insulted.
Cathael stared at Kumi for a long time before finally replying, "I'm not asking you to be. Find what you're good at, and be the best at it that you can be."
Kumi felt a sick, hollow swoop in his stomach. He could only think of one thing he was even slightly adept at.
Cathael extended his shackled arms as far as they would reach and gripped Kumi's in parting, and then Jahari's. "Gods be with you, Kumi. Jahari."
"Gods be with you, Master Cathael."