Photo credit for this awesome image goes to: PhoenixLu at DeviantArt
Freedom, home. He promised everything her heart desired. The boy’s hand bumped into hers yet again, and this time Kay felt a tiny scrap of paper clenched between his fingers. She took it from him, slipping it into her pocket just as Ash placed a heavy palm on her shoulder.
Ash mumbled a string of words, none of which Kay understood so she remained still until a gentle shove from Ash had her walking to the center of the ring.
It was blazing hot. Surrounded by the flickering torches and under the harsh sun and scorching sands, Kay felt she could ignite the entire field with a mere flick of her little finger. But surely that wasn’t Ash’s intention. She waited silently, struggling not to fidget. The note from Wallace, if it was indeed a note, seemed to burn a hole in her pocket.
Ash called out to her, gesturing to the torches. She wasn’t entirely sure what he expected of her. Did he want her to simply juggle fireballs like the boy before her? It seemed as good as any guess. She looked at the torches and kept her breathing normal, focusing instead on the motion of the dead flames. There would have been ten of them had the boy bothered to put the flames back after he’d juggled them. But he had allowed one to sputter out and the others had fallen to the sand forgotten.
Kay was really good at juggling flames. She’d tried juggling real balls just earlier that summer and that had been a disaster. Actual balls had to follow the rules of gravity, and Kay had been unable to get all three balls in the air at one time. Daddy had laughed so hard.
She blinked a few times in rapid succession to make sure she didn’t cry. It had been a mistake to think of Daddy. It was Wallace’s fault for making her think of home. The boy was gone, the spot next to Ash empty, and the retired Fire Dancer gave her an encouraging smile. She took a deep Breath and one torch sputtered out.
Compared to actual balls, juggling fire was easy, especially fire that was alive and her own. She Breathed in the remaining four torches and shot out ten streams of fire from each of her fingertips. Then ten tiny fireballs spun around her head and into the air, circling the length of her body.
She grinned at the watching cadet. His mouth hung slightly open.
Kay began to juggle the ten fireballs, at times tossing one or more behind her back to juggle sideways. Yeah, juggling fire was way easier than balls. She spun the fireballs around a few more times for good measure before sending the individual flames to reignite each of the torches.
Afterward there was more than one gaping face. Strangely, Ash appeared more angry than amazed. She met eyes with the cadet who had juggled before her and he scowled. Her smile faltered.
Ash snapped out orders she didn’t understand followed by the familiar command, “Hustle, Cadet.” She hurried off the field toward him and he directed her to the fence line, making a wide sweeping motion with his hand. She frowned, unsure what he wanted. He repeated his command and pointed again to the fence line.
“Go on, laps for conditioning. Start running. Hustle, Cadet.”
She ran to the fence line, but when she began to run back, Ash made another circular motion with his hand. Finally understanding his command, she began to run in large circles around the field. The other cadets joined her, and within minutes, there were nearly a dozen of them packed tightly around her as they made their laps.
Wallace shouldered his way beside her, breathing hard. He towered over her. He had to be at least four or five years older than her own seven years, but then, it seemed everyone here was a bit older than she was.
“You can read, right?”
“Of course I can read!” she exclaimed indignantly. She’d been reading as long as she could remember.
“Shh, quiet. Don’t let them see us talking. These people . . .” He trailed off, his expression haunted.
Kay didn’t know how to respond. Ash hadn’t harmed her . . . yet. She remembered Udo’s heavy boot and shuddered even though she ran in the searing heat.
“Do you really think you can get us back home?” All the hope in the world hung on that one sentence.
“We’ll talk tonight. Just be careful in the meantime. And don’t trust anyone here, no matter how nice they seem.” He pulled ahead and she didn’t bother to keep pace, not when she was already gasping for breath.