For #SaturdayScenes this week, I’m sharing a continuation of the short story / novella draft that I began with School Days, which is set during Kemen’s childhood.
“What is he?” Chavo asked.
Bekendi followed Chavo’s gaze. “He’s a Dari. Full-blood, I think.”
All the boys exercised together, and the instructors who weren’t leading watched the students. The oldest were at the front today, where they could be corrected. Their performance was critical to their final assignments, and they worked hard.
“Have you had any problems with him?”
Bekendi had been watching another boy and glanced at Chavo in surprise. “Who, Kemen? No. Why?”
“Hm. Just curious.” Chavo wondered if he’d misread the boy after all.
The boys crowded around the water pails. They’d be off on a run in a minute, and Sikaro let them get a drink before they left. A sea of blond heads with a single black-haired mop at one edge. The boy stood out, that’s for sure.
Sikaro, the sword instructor, was leading exercises that day. He took them on a long run, two and a half leagues out and back. The oldest boys were in the lead. Bekendi was timing them, and there was always a competition to see who would be fastest. Sikaro hung back to push the stragglers. There would be no dawdling in obscurity at the back of the pack; Sikaro was there to berate and encourage as necessary.
Bekendi, who had recorded the results before, was not surprised, but Chavo, who waited with him, watched the arrival with interest. The fastest were the oldest boys, of course, at just under two hours, and the times increased in a rough inverse to the boys’ age. But Kemen, the dark-skinned Dari boy, arrived among the thirteen-year-olds, not among his own cohort. He raced in, head high and feet flying, barely nosing ahead of Tulit.
Bekendi nodded toward them. “Watch them, please. In case things get out of hand.”
It was the second day of class, and already Tulit had come to Chavo’s attention as well. Nothing obvious, nothing open, but Chavo could see his arrogance in the set of his shoulders, the way he smirked when other students were corrected in class. He watched from a short distance as the boys recovered.
Kemen leaned over with his hands on his knees a moment, then stood up, clasping his hands behind his head. His thin chest heaved, and he turned to watch the others arriving. Tulit, equally winded, walked up to him.
“You’re a keffing dog!” The insult was low and furious.
Kemen didn’t answer. He shook his head and turned away.
Tulit grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. He was half a head taller than the younger boy and much heavier.
Chavo stepped closer, but he didn’t say anything.
“Did you hear me? I said you’re a keffing dog!” Tulit’s voice rose in anger.
Kemen’s voice was quiet, which surprised Chavo. Most boys his age would be terrified or angry. “I heard you. I don’t want to fight, Tulit. It’s just a run.”
“Too bad.” He punched Kemen hard in the face.
Chavo shouted and began to run toward them. His leg seized at the sudden demand and he stumbled, almost falling. “Tulit! Kemen! At attention!”
Tulit threw another punch at Kemen. The younger boy had staggered backward, and he straightened with his left hand to his face. Blood seeped from between his fingers. The second blow did not land. Kemen stepped inside the punch, slipped his right foot behind Tulit’s, and swept his foot from beneath him. Tulit landed with an outraged grunt, and he struggled to his feet just as Chavo reached them.
Chavo grabbed their shoulders and flung them apart. “At attention, I said!”
He glared at each boy. “This is my first session at Kesterlin military school. I thought we raised soldiers. Instead I see ruffians.”
Tulit glared back at him, wavering between defiance and submission. He was nearly as tall as Chavo, already starting his growth. Kemen stared at Chavo’s boots, his left hand pressed tight to his cheek and mouth.
“Kneel, Tulit.” Chavo’s tone brooked no argument, and Tulit’s defiance faded. He scowled at the ground but obeyed, sinking to sit on his heels, hands resting on his thighs.
Chavo forced Kemen’s face upward. “Let me see it.”
The boy removed his hand reluctantly, shaking the blood off with a quick flick of his wrist. He glanced up at Chavo’s face for an instant, and Chavo blinked at the startling green of his eyes. Demon eyes, he thought to himself. It’s not natural. But the child was no demon. His lower lip was split deeply, and it was bleeding down his chin. Already swollen huge, his lip trembled a little, and Chavo saw the glisten of tears in the boy’s eyes. He kept his eyes fixed on Chavo’s tunic as the teacher inspected him.
“You’re fine. Just a split lip. It’ll be half-way healed by tomorrow morning.” He smiled at the boy and gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder. Kemen nodded and sucked the lip between his teeth. Chavo handed him a handkerchief. “Go wash it off. Hurry back and don’t be late for Commander Sikaro’s class.”
“Yes, sir.” Kemen’s voice was so quiet Chavo wondered if he was going to cry after all. He jogged off toward the water pails.
Chavo turned to Tulit. “And you. I am ashamed.”
Tulit shrunk a little, though he still scowled at the ground before him.
“During your rest period, you will work in the kitchen. For a week.”
Tulit scowled even harder at the ground, but he didn’t look up. “Yes, sir,” he answered sullenly.
“Rise, and if you strike a fellow student in anger again, you’ll be spending the next three months on kitchen duty, and you’ll owe me ten thousand pushups. Ten thousand, do you understand?”
Tulit nodded again. “Yes, sir.”
“Go to class.”