Kay was very careful not to do any more bad things. After the incident in the practice arena and that one tiny explosion…well, everyone treated her differently now. The last few weeks were a hazy blur of events. There was still so much she didn’t understand. But there was one thing she was completely sure of. She was exposed. People knew what she was capable of and that made her special. But being special didn’t grant her what she wanted. She’d thought if she showed them how special she was it would mean big trouble. Instead, it seemed to make everyone very happy, especially Ash. He couldn’t stop talking about her abilities. Kay could only understand every other word that was said, but she knew enough and could tell by his excited facial expressions that Ash was very pleased. Kay knew that telling the truth hadn’t been a bad thing, but she was still trying to figure out if it was a good thing.
Ash signaled it was time for a water break and Kay grinned in relief. She didn’t get many during the course of her training so the few moments allotted to her every few hours were beyond precious. As always, she wished for more water. She was so thirsty, but Kindle explained that water was hard to come by so they each had to make do with their ration. Kay had never had to ration water before. Her family had a well on their property, and Kay could get buckets of the cool, crisp liquid whenever she’d wanted. Here in the arena, the water was always warm and left a copper aftertaste in her mouth. As nasty as it was, Kay always wanted more.
“Break’s over, Cadet. Pick up your assegai.” Ash’s voice made her cringe. How could someone with such kind eyes be so mean?
Kay didn’t think she could pick up the assegai. Her arms already felt like limp noodles. Noodles, the thought made her mouth water. She missed mama’s cooking fiercely. The food here in the arena was terrible. Dried meat, flat bread, goat stews, bleh! She craved Mama’s fish pasta, made with fresh fish caught from the stream, and Mama’s bread…What would she do for just one more taste of Mama’s sweet fluffy bread that always melted in her mouth and—
She flinched. Yes, Ash was mean now. He didn’t even bother to call her by her name anymore. She picked up her assegai, ignoring the groaning protest from her stiff muscles, and placed her feet in the proper position. Well, she thought it was proper, but Ash came behind her and re-positioned her left foot. She leaned her weight back into it like he wanted.
Next, he was tapping at her elbows, forcing her to raise them up so they became parallel to her chest and her wrists were crossed over. She knew she had to hold the position until he was satisfied, so she held very still, despite the fact that her arms trembled from the effort. She stuck out her tongue while she concentrated. If Mama saw her she would yell at her and warn her that she might accidentally bite it off. But Mama isn’t here. Kay tasted blood and sucked her tongue back in her mouth.
Ash grunted and turned her wrists the tiniest amount. When he was finally satisfied with that position he asked for another. Again and again, Ash positioned her through the many Forms of the fire dance, muttering under his breath the entire time. By now she was used to his mumbling and she knew enough of his language to catch on: she was behind and needed practice.
Finally, after what seemed like hours, though it couldn’t have been more than one or two, he announced that she could have another break before fire movement. The announcement made her smile. Fire movement was always the last skill practiced for the day. Training was halfway over. And while she was behind on the necessary stances and positions of fire dancing, she was a master at the movement of fire.
In the last week she’d quickly come to understand that not only was she good, she was the best. Gladiators often came to the practice arena when it was her turn. They all wanted to watch her Breathe in the heat and expel the flames. Apparently no one else could do that. She created her own flames and that made her extra special. Kay hadn’t been convinced, but she also knew there was no point in arguing with adults when they thought they knew something. They could be so stubborn.
After another break that was all too short, Ash motioned for her to join him outside the ring of the fire field. At least she had water this time. She moved to stand beside him, brushing the sand off her leggings and taking tiny sips from her water skin. It wasn’t her turn in the field just yet, but Ash wanting her beside him meant that she was next. Or he wanted her to watch something. She wasn’t entirely sure which. Timber was in the fire field with his cadet. The gladiator was tossing lazy balls of fire in his direction, and the cadet was catching them and tossing them back into the sky. Kay watched with little interest. She and Daddy had played similar games of catch years ago, back when she had still been a baby. The slow game of fire catching was boring. Thoughts of her Daddy brought the familiar tummy ache, and she pressed her hands into her stomach to staunch the pain. It wasn’t fair that she was stuck in this horrid place, that Mama and Daddy were gone forever.
She knew what it meant to die. It meant you were gone, gone forever. Kay knew she would never see her parents again, but she refused to accept she would never again see her home. She knew she was getting stronger. She felt it in her aching muscles every day. She also knew that every day she learned more of the language and history of the Republic she gained vital knowledge to her escape. She would leave the arena one day. Leave the dry sand and nasty water and return to a home with rolling green hills and wildflowers, with cool crisp springs and summer rains.
Ash’s hand on her shoulder snapped her out of her daydream and back to the present. The cadet sat in the center of the ring panting. He must have done something new because his face was triumphant and Timber patted him on the back. The cadet beamed a smile into the growing crowd of onlookers as they nodded appreciatively. His smile faded when he looked at Kay.
He was older than her, Kay was pretty sure. Taller and wider too. His arms were already cut with muscle from years of practice and discipline. Kay also knew that he hated her. She could see it in his eyes every time he looked her way. She was fairly certain his dislike came from the fact that he was jealous. She didn’t need to be fluent in their language to understand this particular cadet was the best. Was the best until Kay came along. She smiled back at him.
Timber and Ash exchanged a few words and then Ash gestured Kay into the ring. The small fire field was surrounded by a ring of torches and there were various stones set up to look like men. Kay knew they were supposed to be men because the stones wore the same dragon scale armor she sometimes saw Kindle wearing.
Kay didn’t like to think of where the armor came from. She knew that in order for a gladiator to wear the scales it meant that the dragon wasn’t. She doubted any dragon could live without his scales. Did the gladiators actually try to hurt one another? Was that why they wore the protective scales of the dragon?
She looked again at the targets that were set up in the fire field. It very much looked like she was practicing to hurt people. Surely Ash didn’t mean for her to do that, did he? She frowned. Why was this just now occurring to her? She’d have to remember to ask Kindle about it later. She definitely didn’t want to hurt anyone. She had a hard enough time wrapping her head around the fact that Kindle and the others were hurting dragons. She knew dragons were wild creatures. She’d seen firsthand the destruction an angry dragon could cause, but she’d also seen baby dragons playing with one another. She’d hand fed younglings that were imprinted to her daddy. She’d practically ridden Rumble.
Ash was tossing balls of flame toward her and she’d been catching them halfheartedly, caught up in her thoughts and not really interested in the game. She knew she was training because Ash and Kindle and everyone else wanted her to fight dragons. And just as she knew this to be true, she also knew there was no way she would ever willingly harm a dragon.
Suddenly angry with the thought, Kay Breathed in the flame that Ash had been ready to hurl at her. It disappeared as she sucked in its heat. She Breathed in the flames from the ring of torches too. She ignored the heat from the hot sand and from the glowing ball of fire in the sky. The torches were enough. As always, the feeling of holding so much heat was a heady experience. She tingled all over, knew she must appear to glow as bright as any sun as the heat boiled inside her. She raised her aching arms into the air, exhilarating in the fact that the heat inside her seemed to rejuvenate her, the ache in her muscles suddenly gone. She felt good all over. Her skin stinging and hot. She held the heat for as long as she could before letting it explode from her fingertips, a stream of molten fire shooting into the sky.
Her breath came out in rapid puffs and she felt just a tiny bit dizzy until she met Ash’s thunderous gaze. She knew he didn’t like it when she lost control, when she changed the rules of the game and did as she pleased. Yes, Ash looked angry, but also scared. What was he so frightened of? She’d been pushing fire since she could walk, and that game of tossing the flame was a bore. She’d only sucked in the heat from the existing torches. She hadn’t even Breathed in everything available to her. There was nothing Ash could teach her when it came to fire movement. She knew that now. She was in complete control and no one matched her skill.