A New Day and New Name
For the first time since she’d been taken, Kay opened her eyes and knew exactly where she was. The early morning light forced her to squint; someone had positioned the beds in just the right spot so that dawn woke her with its blinding radiance no matter what bed she chose to sleep in. She frowned down at the row of empty beds and reached blindly for the small glass of water on her bedside table.
Every morning there was a fresh glass of water. She wondered who had the job of sneaking in her room at night and placing it there. Ash perhaps? He seemed to be in charge of her now. She drank the morning’s rations and thought of the crisp water from the well back on her family’s property. Somehow the water was always cold, even in the middle of the summer. Here in the Sand Sea, the summer never ended.
So far no one had yelled at her about the big fire wall she’d brought on Timber. Maybe everyone knew that he had deserved it, that he shouldn’t have been sparring so roughly. Kay didn’t even feel bad, not exactly. She would do it again if it meant saving Kindle. She was so nice. Kindle had explained that Kay wasn’t in trouble, but she had tucked her into her tiny house—barracks, she remembered the word with a soft smile—before the sun had even gone down. But that was yesterday. Surely she wouldn’t be punished today for something that happened yesterday. She was frowning over this idea when the heavy door scraped against the dirty floor.
“Good morning, Cadet.”
Kay frowned at the new name. It had started last night, after her display of firepower. Maybe she had done a bad thing after all. She didn’t want a new name.
Kindle gave her a warm smile and repeated the words in Jangba. The language of the Sand Sea sounded garbled and strange, an odd mash-up of lyrical rolls and harsh vowels. Kay repeated the words in her head though she didn’t bother saying them out loud. She couldn’t easily twist her tongue from one language to the next as Kindle did.
“I know you want to go home,” Kindle continued in Drakori, repeating herself in Jangba, “but home is a long ways away and now that you’ve proven how talented you are, it’s time for you to truly begin your training.” She paused. Her eyes looked so worried, so nice. Kindle was pretty in the way a dragon was beautiful. She had a fearsome scar over one eye that disappeared whenever she smiled. It reminded her of Mama’s dimples.
“My training?” Kay asked and quickly repeated the word in Jangba at Kindle’s frown.
“Yes, you’re a cadet now, training to be a Fire Dancer like myself, like Ash.” Kindle raised her eyebrows. “Ash waits for you in the sands. And you’re late.”
Kay blinked, struggling to process the translations. How was she late for something she didn’t even know about? And training! Did that mean she would be like one of the boys she’d seen dancing with sticks? Was this really what this had all been about?
That phrase, “Hustle, Cadet,” was repeated enough times throughout the morning that Kay was sure she could repeat it without a trace of an accent. Ash snapped directions at her in rapid succession. Kindle stood at his shoulder, shouting out random interpretations because surely Ash was screaming out more than “Point your toe.”
She almost fell to the sand in relief when Kindle translated it was time for a water break.
Kay gulped down the ration greedily, searching for more.
“That’s all, Cadet. You get more in your afternoon ration.”
What? That didn’t make sense. She was dying of thirst. “I’m thirsty now!” she whined in Drakori, stomping her foot for good measure. Mama would have been horrified but she didn’t care.
Apparently, neither did Kindle because she stood and said some quiet words to Ash. The two spoke for a moment as Kay watched them, silently fuming. Finally, Kindle turned back to Kay. She had a new smile on her face, this one somewhat sad.
“I have to go to my own training session, so I have to leave you now. You have fire motion training next. I think you’ll like it.” Kindle reached over and pushed the curls back from Kay’s face. “I’m sorry I can’t stay.”
And just as quickly, she left.
Ash took hold of Kay’s empty water skin and gestured for her to follow him to the next field. This arena was larger than the others and was surrounded by a ring of torches. What was the point of so many when it was barely the afternoon?
She followed Ash into the ring, but they stayed on the perimeter as the center was already occupied by Timber—the big guy who’d challenged Kindle—and a boy a few years older than herself. The boy was also special. Maybe, everyone here was. A tiny idea began to form. She latched onto it as she watched the boy pull the fire from the two torches on either side of him. He held the tiny sputtering flames just above either hand, smiling in triumph. Kay rolled her eyes. Piece of cake. He wasn’t even using his own flame. He was basically cheating. Moving a dead flame like that took about as much effort as holding a bubble of soap.
She realized Ash was speaking to her so she squinted in concentration and really did try to understand what he was saying. Something about looking or watching, and something about holding hands with the fire. That couldn’t be right. She nodded blandly and he mimicked the nod with a friendly grin.
The boy in the center of the ring was now juggling the two flames, sending each higher and higher into the sky.
“What’s his name?” Kay asked in Jangba, surprising even herself.
“He is Cadet,” Ash answered.
Kay rolled her eyes again and received a frown from Ash.
“His name. My name Kay, his name—”
“His name is Cadet.”
Kay frowned. Well that couldn’t be right. Did Ash mean that his name was also Kay? That somehow Kay in this language translated into Cadet? But no . . . That boy across the field, he was also called Cadet. The word had to mean someone who was still young and in training because all the adults had their own name. So what did it all mean? What was she training for? A Fire Dancer, Kindle had said. But what was the purpose of all of it?
Looking around, Kay realized the field was full of the so-called Fire Dancers. The adults fought each other two at a time, thrusting their tall sticks and twirling around one another. She noted another woman aside from Kindle, but she didn’t notice any girls near her own age.
Ash tapped her shoulder, bringing her attention back to the center ring where the cadet had added a third fireball to his juggling act. Kay sighed. What was so important about watching this boy juggle? She nodded along to Ash’s stream of words and waited for the boy to finish. He had begun to draw a crowd. The big man with him tossed the boy yet another fireball. He caught it awkwardly, and for a moment, Kay thought he would drop the flame, but within seconds he’d gained control and forced it in rotation with the others. His triumphant grin would have made Kay roll her eyes again, but a hand brushed against hers, distracting her.
“Don’t look over. Don’t let anyone notice you’re talking to me.”
Kay couldn’t help her gaze sliding over at the sound of a familiar language and unexpected touch. She stared down at her hands once she recognized the face. It was Wallace, the boy who had taken the beating for talking to her, back when they had still been under Udo’s care. If she could call it care. Udo was the man responsible for transporting her from her home here to the Sand Sea. He was a terrible man, and seeing Wallace again made her skin prickle.
“What are you doing here? Are you special too?”
“Special.” The boy grunted. “You could say that.”
“Did you get taken from your home too?” She dared a quick glance at Ash, but his attention remained on the struggling fire juggler and not on the young girl talking to her feet beside him.
“You’re younger than I thought you were.”
Kay bristled at his observation. Like he was an adult. What did it matter how old she was anyway?
“Don’t get mad.” His fingers bumped into hers. “It was just an observation. I’ve been looking for you.”
Why? She voiced the thought out loud and dared another quick glance at the boy’s face. He was probably around ten or eleven. His skin was bruised, and his hair hung in disheveled layers that framed his wide face as if someone had chopped it with a knife. He was taller than she remembered.
“Because you’re like me. Because you don’t deserve to be here. Because I’m escaping and heading back home where I belong. And I’m taking you with me.”