How can you be a warrior without a horse underneath you and a bow in your hands?
— Kyōti proverb
They left their tents after a half hour of stalling. Pahim walked next to her, the back of his hand occasionally touching her own as they walked down the road.
Garèo sat on one of the wagons, a large bundle of arrows at his feet and two bows, a desert horse bow and a Lorban war bow, resting against his thigh.
“You’re late,” he grumbled.
“Sorry, Great Waryoni Garèo.”
“We’ll start you with the war bow, then the horse bow. Fifty, fifty, and fifty arrows.”
“What will the last fifty be for?”
He grinned, “On horseback. The campsite owner has a mount he is particularly proud of but wants to sell it to me. I want to see how well he rides. I won’t buy it, but these pale-skinned people think that if a desert folk likes a horse, it’s worth more than its weight in meat. I found that Kormar horses have no voices, so it should be right for a beginning rider.”
She flushed at the insult, balling her hands into fists. Garèo watched her, and she knew he waited for her to snap back. Instead, she set her jaw tightly and held out her hand. “Please, Great Waryoni Garèo, the bow?”
Garèo held out the heavy bow.
Bending over, she picked up the first bundle with narrow tips and long feathers. She looked over to Pahim who gave her an encouraging smile. Kanéko took a step toward him, but Garèo’s voice shot out.
“Now, Girl! I’m hungry.”
Turning on her heels, she walked over to the first line on the ground. Away from her, she could see an impromptu target set up between two trees. A measuring chain laid coiled next to her, no doubt used to determine the distance. Beyond the target, she could see a smaller target another chain away and finally a third one an equal distance beyond the second.
Behind her, Garèo spoke up curtly, “Fire on the beat, one additional arrow tomorrow for each miss today.”
Kanéko held the heavy bow in her hand and snapped the string that bundled the arrows. Setting them down at her feet, she picked up two. Putting one in her mouth, she fitted the first. Her world grew dark as she focused on her target. She felt her heartbeat pounding in her chest and willed it to slow. Focusing on her breath, she watched how her entire body pulsed with each beat, a twitch that could be the difference between a hit or miss.
Garèo slapped his hand on his thigh. Between one breath and the next, she released the arrow. It shot through the air, slamming into the nearest target along the second ring. Snatching the arrow from her mouth, she fitted it before Garèo slapped his hand again. When he smacked his hand, she let the second arrow fly through the air. It punched into the rim of the furthest target. She grabbed the next one from the ground but was barely able to aim before he clapped.
Shaft after shaft flew through the air. She could easily hit the nearest target. She focused on the second and third and missed more often.
Garèo kept up with his pace, slapping or clapping his hands together in a rhythm. Fortunately, he didn’t say anything. When he increased his pace, she struggled to keep up, barely getting an arrow on the bowstring before releasing it.
She missed the last eight shots and felt a flush burning on her cheeks from the humiliation. When the last arrow clattered on the ground beyond the first target, she hung her head.
Someone started to applaud.
At first, she thought it was Garèo, but immediately dismissed it. Peeking up, she saw Maris standing next to Ruben, clapping her hands as she bounced up and down. Kanéko started to smile from the attention but stopped when she caught sight of Pahim. She turned away, trying to fight the rush from the unexpected applause.
Garèo cleared his throat and brusquely jammed the horse bow in front of her. “That was terrible, Girl. You missed seventeen times and barely hit the target on twelve more. Tomorrow, we’ll add twenty-three to your fifty.”
“I hit more than that!”
“I’m adding an extra arrow for every two that you barely hit. Maybe then you’ll learn how to fire with more skill than a child. I can only hope you’ll get better with this sooner than I run out of arrows for you to break.”
Kanéko stared down at the Kyōti horse bow he held out to her. Unlike the Lorban war bow, which stood as tall as herself, the horse bow barely touched her hip when set on the ground. The aged wood felt warm in her palm and the feathers at the top shook with her heartbeat. She ran fingers along the curved surface and took a long breath. Somehow, just holding the bow gave her comfort.
He released the bow and spoke harshly, “Hopefully, you won’t be as pathetic with your own heritage.”
Her improving mood soured instantly, leaving only humiliation and anger in its wake. Kanéko stormed over to the arrows and grabbed the second bundle. Unlike the first set, the horse bow used shorter shafts with wider feathers and a broad tip. She dug her fingers around the rope binding them together and hauled them to her firing line. Using one arrowhead to cut the rope, she propped the arrows and prepared to fire the second bow.
Garèo barely gave her a chance to aim when he clapped his hands.
Reflexively, Kanéko fired, and the arrow missed the first target by a few links. The second missed by almost a chain. She flushed hotter and forced herself to ignore the next clap, taking the time to aim carefully. When the fourth signal came, she fired smoothly and the arrow arched through the air, punching into the center of the third target.
Pahim and Maris cheered her on.
Kanéko hit the third target again, this time on the rim. Encouraged, she fired in time with Garèo’s clapping.
Before she knew it, she was done. Her fingers clutched the empty air at her feet before she glanced down to see only an empty string on the ground at her bare feet. She only missed seven times. A broad smile stretched across her face, and she set the tip of the bow on her foot and stood up straight.
“You’re amazing!” yelled Pahim, which only widened her smile.
Surrounding the archery range, other students had gathered to watch with curiosity. Maris and Ruben were in the front, and the dog girl clapped happily, using her whole arms to applaud. Next to her, Ruben tapped fingers into his palm in a slow, measured rate. A smattering of other clapping and cheers rose from the others.
Kanéko stared at the gathered teenagers and felt some of her mood evaporating. She could feel their gazes on her and didn’t know if she could meet up to their expectations. She saw curiosity in those eyes and felt distinctly different than the others with her green eyes and dark skin.
“Better,” grumbled Garèo as he walked up, “but your aim is terrible.”
Behind him, a horse with bridle and reins followed his footsteps.
Kanéko tore her gaze away from the students and gestured to the target. She used Miwāfu to avoid the others understanding her words. “I hit almost every time.”
Garèo’s green eyes glowed in the dusk and he shook his head curtly. “What you didn’t miss, I barely consider a hit. I’d expect Mioráshi’s daughter to hit the center fifty out of fifty. Not some rim or edge.”
Kanéko’s mouth dropped open in shock. She gestured to the target and snapped sharply, “I hit the furthest target!”
He looked down the shooting line, then shook his head. “No, you hit the third one.”
“There isn’t a fourth…” Her voice trailed off as she finally noticed the fourth target: a single circle painted on a tree two chains beyond the furthest target. A torch burned near the tree, giving enough light to reveal the target. “You have to be kidding!”
Garèo shrugged. “And Mioráshi’s could hit it every time.”
“I bet you can’t,” she replied sullenly.
He answered by snatching the bow from her hand. Reaching up, he pulled an arrow from the bundle strapped to the horse’s saddle. He didn’t even pause to aim but released the string as soon as he pointed the bow in the right direction. The arrow shot out with a crack and plunged into the edge of the furthest circle.
Kanéko stared with shock, her mouth open. Around her, the students cheered louder for him than Kanéko.
Garèo jammed the bow back into her hand. “I’m adding ten tomorrow for that demonstration.”
She squeezed the shaft of the bow, her lips pressed into a thin, tight line.
He held out the reins to her.
She looked over the dappled brown stallion. With a deep breath, she grabbed the reins. The leather hung loosely in his hand, but the horse had made no effort to step away.
Then, as Garèo turned away, she felt the strength of the stallion yanking the reins from her fingers.
She dropped the bow to grab with both hands, bearing down on the excited mount. Garèo’s disapproving grunt only made her more flustered and she took a long time to calm down the horse enough to pick her bow back up.
“Children of Tachìra don’t let their bows ever touch the sand.”
She snapped back, “We aren’t in the desert, so it hasn’t!”
As she struggled to get on the equine, she distinctly felt Pahim’s and the others attention on her back. She wanted to impress everyone but the reins kept slipping from her fingers. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Pahim grinning. She snatched the reins and clamped her fingers tightly over them. Looking away, she glanced across the horse and saw Garèo on the other side. He wore a glare of disapproval which only fanned the storm of emotions inside her.
Swearing under her breath, she managed to settle properly on the horse. Unlike Ojinkomàsu, who refused anything but a blanket, the horse beneath her wore a poor-quality saddle with a broken pommel and frayed stitching. She made a face while running her fingers on the cracked leather edges.
Garèo grunted impatiently. “I’d like to enjoy my dinner before dark. You may not be joining us, but I plan on enjoying some singing.”
Kanéko glared at him and tugged the reins to spin the horse around. The stallion resisted at first, but she dug her heels in and manhandled her mount around. Kicking, she set the stallion into a gallop a furlong down the road. Turning around, she pulled up her bow and kicked the horse into action with a little more force than she intended.
The horse started to buck but then quieted. It trotted forward.
She fired five arrows at the largest target, hitting once. Without looking at Garèo, she spun the mount around and took a second pass. This time, she hit the rim of the target.
Garèo called out as she passed, “Faster, girl!”
Accelerating into a gallop, she continued to shoot at the target, missing far more often than she hit. She felt the burn of humiliation but couldn’t focus enough to hit. After the sixth pass, the horse stumbled on the turn. She started to kick it into a gallop, but Garèo stopped her with a barked command.
Coming to a halt, she panted and stared at the target. Arrows littered the ground and she hated the sight of them. Only four arrows stuck on the target, none of them even close to the center.
Garèo walked up and knelt down.
Underneath her, the horse grow still and hold its breath. The stallion lifted one foot obediently and set it in Garèo’s hands.
He inspected the horse for damage. When he stood up, he motioned for her to dismount.
Kanéko did, then staggered as sore muscles reported themselves. The tips of her fingers burned from firing the bow.
Garèo held out his hand, but she leaned away from him.
She spoke gingerly, “Is the horse okay?”
“Yes, but it is getting dark,” he said in Miwāfu.
Kanéko leaned against the panting horse and took a deep breath herself.
He shook his head and held out his hand for the bow. “We’re done for tonight. Hopefully tomorrow, you won’t be as terrible.”
She glared at him.
Garèo stepped closer and spoke in a quieter, but much angrier, voice. “Girl, you are acting like a spoiled child with no concept of the hard realities of—”
He paused and took a deep breath. When he spoke again, his voice was less angry. “The path you are racing down is lined with dangers. Whatever your plans are, I hope that you don’t burn the sands by making an irreversible decision.”
She frowned, then shook her head. “What… what do you mean?”
“Your father’s culture honors virginity, or at least the appearance of innocence, in girls such as yourself–”
Kanéko blushed hotly.
Garèo leaned closer. “—and you seem to be quickly running to Pahim’s bedroll.”
Kanéko couldn’t match the burning eyes that bore into her. She stared at the ground and clutched the bow tightly.
Garèo continued. “Mioráshi would skin me, you, and Pahim alive if you come home with child.”
“The correct answer is ‘Yes, Great Waryoni Garèo.’ And then go feed your false friends.”
Anger and humiliation warred inside Kanéko. She hated Garèo for pushing her the second they left her father’s lands. The threats of practice every night, and knowing that she would be the center of attention during it, smoldered her throat. She also felt humiliated that he spoke frankly of the questions she asked herself. She didn’t know if she would do anything with Pahim, but having it laid bare by his scathing words only fueled the anger inside her. “Yes, Great Waryoni Garèo.”
Garèo turned his back on her and tended to the horse.
After a second, Kanéko limped away to gather up the arrows that didn’t break. When she did, she bound them in string and set them down next to the bow and headed back to the camp.
Pahim joined her. “You were amazing!”
Embarrassed, she smiled bashfully. “Thank you.”
“No, I mean really amazing. I’ve never seen someone hit a target that far away!”
“Quiet,” she said with false modesty but enjoying every word he said. She looked down to see Pahim’s hand held out for her. She thought back to Garèo’s words and then reached down. Their fingers touched before they slid their palms together.
He glanced at her and she blushed even hotter.
Pahim slid his fingers between hers, and they walked into the camp holding hands. “Kanek?”
“Why do Garèo and you keep speaking that language?”
“Yeah, I guess. The sandy words.”
She sighed, secretly enjoying the feel of their hands together and how it made her heart beat faster. “My mother hired him to teach me about the desert. Culture and language. We’ve been doing it for about five months. Mama says it is his price to stay in Rock River, but neither will explain what that means.”
“I just think he’s a terrible teacher and singer.”
“Yeah, he does that. But, besides Mama, he is the only person from Kyōti around here.”
Pahim grinned, then spoke slyly, “Aren’t you from the desert?”
She shook her head. She started to lift one hand, then realized she didn’t want to release his hand. She held up her other hand to show off her light brown skin. “I’ve never been there. I grew up in Papa’s keep, but Mama wants me to at least pretend to know the desert ways. Garèo keeps telling me I have to be better, but I’m good enough.”
“You’re more than ‘good enough,’ you’re fantastic. Incredible. And…” she looked at him as he paused. He finished with “I think you are beautiful too.”
She blushed once again and squeezed his hand tightly. She didn’t have to listen to Garèo, she knew what she was doing.