1 Night of Flames
Scarlett's head was warm, and it wasn't due to the fire roaring in the middle of the plaza. After drinking so many rounds of ale and drinks she didn't know the name of, her arms and legs were tingling. Her vision was slightly blurry, and for the first time in the day, she was able to relax.
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The world around her seemed to be moving in slow motion, even with so many people dancing and celebrating around her. It wasn't the first time she drank this much, but after such a long day, the alcohol's effect seemed to have multiplied. She was too tired to dance, so she sat on a large leather chair near the fire, and watched.
This was the only night of the year when men were allowed into the village, and the other women were obviously enjoying the company of the few male specimens that had been invited. Some were relatives, brothers or friends. But most of them were probably strangers who were there just for the fun.
It was no coincidence that so many babies were born exactly nine months after the Night of Flames. At least eight other girls among the trainees in her group shared the same birthday.
Tomorrow everyone would go back to their daily lives. She would start anew, in her new role, and she knew there'd be a lot of work to do. But tonight… tonight she would enjoy herself. She had never been with a man, or a woman, for that matter. She was mostly trained to kill males, not bed them.
Maybe she'd choose one tonight.
After all the death that'd be coming her way for the rest of her life, she could be allowed to have one night of fun.
She set her eyes on a tall, muscular man that seemed to be a lot older than her, judging by this slightly silver long hair. He was shirtless, dancing with a group of women who couldn't get enough of him. They touched his shoulders and chest, spilling ale over his abdomen and using their tongues to clean him off.
Of course, tomorrow everyone would pretend none of this had ever happened.
Her reverie was abruptly interrupted by Pakuri, who covered her view of the man. Despite her size, Scarlett hadn't even seen her coming.
"Move," she said, towering over Scarlett.
"Take a break, Pakuri. Relax, for once in your life," she said, holding up her mug.
"I was sitting here before I went to get food, and I want my seat back," said Pakuri, waving her hand in dismissal.
"Well, you can't have it. I'm sitting here now," said Scarlett.
Normally, she wouldn't have been too quick to defy Pakuri. But she was emboldened by the alcohol and all her inhibitions were gone.
"Are you sure you don't want to give me back my seat?" said Pakuri, smirking. Scarlett knew that smirk. It meant Pakuri was getting ready to punch something. Or someone.
"Yes, she's sure," said Mimbi, appearing behind Pakuri. She moved between Pakuri and Scarlett, looking up to face Pakuri. "Are you going to find another place to sit?"
Pakuri scowled, and grabbed Scarlett's mug from her hand, without taking her eyes off Mimbi. Then she threw the mug on the floor and walked away.
Mimbi giggled and turned towards Scarlett.
"You finally stood up to her!" she said, slurring her words. She had obviously been enjoying the ale too.
Scarlett smiled at her friend, and stood up.
"I'm going to get us something to eat."
But before she could move, Mimbi pushed her back down on the chair. Startled, Scarlett looked at her quizzically.
Without saying anything, Mimbi sat on Scarlett's lap.
"I'm so happy, I wish tonight would never end," she said, brushing off some hair out of her face. In her other hand, she had some red berries, and she took one to her mouth. Her lips were stained red from the fruits.
"Taste them," said Mimbi, as she brought up two berries and slid them across Scarlett's mouth.
For the first time, Scarlett looked at Mimbi as a woman. It had never crossed her mind that her childhood friend was no longer that much of a girl. Neither was she. They had never really discussed their tastes in partners, but Scarlett knew Mimbi had a preference for girls.
Maybe it was the alcohol that made Mimbi's movements look so sensual. The only light in the plaza came from the huge bonfire in the center, and the dancing light made her honey colored eyes glow.
The two girls locked eyes and smiled at each other as Scarlett ate the berries. Mimbi caressed Scarlett's hair, like she always did when she wanted to show affection for her dear friend. This innocent gesture was something they both did all the time, but for some reason, this time it felt different…
Later on, Scarlett wouldn't remember who started it. All she'd remember was that her first kiss had tasted like ale, with a bit of berries.
A few hours earlier.
No one remembered the last time that the Night of Flames fell upon a moonless night. A clear, star filled night sky enveloped the land of the Jakara, where preparations for a ceremony were underway. Throughout the winding paths and cobbled streets of the village, large bonfires blazed and crackled, casting dancing shadows over the low brick buildings. In the arena not far from the village, a humongous pile of dead wood, leaves, and offerings of cloth, food and carvings was ready to be lit.
Around the arena, the wooden seats were filled with girls and women of every age and size, from the youngest newborn to the eldest who could barely climb the steps to take a seat. Beneath the spectators, other women settled into their chairs and accommodated their drums, bells and flutes. The sound of their music announced the commencement with a slow, deep drumbeat.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
In the northern hills, however, Scarlett heard the drums from afar and let out an involuntary whimper. She had been hiding in the empty barracks all afternoon under the pretext of saying goodbye to the place which had been her home for the past six months. After hours of sweeping, casually spilling dust all over the place again and then sweeping some more, she had given into despair and stared at the wall for almost an hour.
The Night of Flames was also the night of trials, where she and seventeen other trainees would become Karainas.
There were no fiercer warriors than the Karainas in the kingdoms of Jakara, but Scarlett felt as brave as a lamb. While the other trainees rejoiced at the fact that their night of triumph- or failure- would be remembered for being moonless, Scarlett felt betrayed. She had prayed to Jasy every night for the past few months, asking the moon goddess for strength and guidance. Scarlett liked the moon, because like her, it had no inner fire. No light of its own.
Jasy had never replied, and Scarlett didn't expect her to. The Gods had no time to meddle with human affairs. But she believed that maybe Jasy understood, and recognized a fellow outsider trying to survive in a vast, unwelcoming universe.
Scarlett's mother had been a Karaina, and had died fighting the Hova in the last great wars. She had never met her, and she didn't even know her name. Scarlett wasn't the only motherless baby raised in the matriarchal world of the Karainas. They were warriors, and in the life of a woman trained to fight or die defending the human lands from the Hova, motherhood wasn't a priority. And a baby raised in the land of the Karainas had only one destiny: to work and fight as if every day could be the last.
Up until it became obvious that Scarlett didn't possess any fire magic, or any magic at all, she had never felt like an outsider. But the fireless in the land of flame magic were destined for what she believed to be menial occupations, and she didn't want to spend the rest of her life wishing she were someone else. Plenty of fireless women must have loved their jobs as sky watchers, rhea breeders or stitchers, but the truth was, she wasn't good at staying still or calm for long.
Why did she have no fire magic if her mother had been a Karaina? If the Karainas ever bred, their daughters would also possess the spirit of fire. She wondered if had been her father's genes. Maybe he had been someone the wind tribe, who paid no heed to magic. Or maybe her mother hadn't been a Karaina after all, and she had been raised to believe that so she wouldn't feel left out. The fact was, tonight she would face seventeen other trained fire wielders and all she had to fight them was her dull sword and shield.
"Stop it," said Mimbi. "You will be fine."
Scarlett turned her head to find her friend's smiling face staring at hers. She hadn't heard her come in.
"I believe in you," said Mimbi, as she stretched out her hand. Scarlett took it and rose. Her sword fell on the floor, making a clanking sound that resonated through the empty barracks.
Mimbi's long, black and unburnt hair fell down over her shoulders as she bent to pick up Scarlett's sword. Scarlett knew that Mimbi never left anything to chance, and that wearing her hair down was a statement. Long hair among the Karaina trainees meant that no one had ever broken her defenses. Most of the other girls' curls and locks had been charred or completely burned off in combat. Scarlett always kept her hair braided and oiled with snail's ointment, which was thought to keep the burning to a minimum. Luckily, no one had ever come close to hurling a fireball to her head.
"What if no rhea is willing to take me as rider?" said Scarlett, as she fastened her sword belt. Mimbi tilted her head, observing her.
"Then you'll ride a capybara or a deer into battle. I don't care. You will become a Karaina because I need you with me," she said, waving her head so her hair fell to her back.
"You know that only those with a fire spirit can become Karainas. You can't undo centuries of traditions because you want your best friend to play warrior with you," Scarlett said.
"They'll send me to do stitching or the tannery."
"Stop being an idiot. You've already broken tradition by being the first trainee without any kind of spirit magic. I've never seen anyone dodge fire and blades like you. Remember me; any rhea should be honored to make you its rider."
If it weren't for Mimbi, Scarlett would have just accepted her fate. Mimbi was the the High Elder's daughter and heiress, and she had convinced the Grand Karaina to let Scarlett train with them despite her lack of magic. Then it had been up to Scarlett to learn how to fight, and she had done it graciously. What she lacked in magic she compensated with speed. Her body bore the traces of many confrontations where the trainee's fires had gotten the best of her, but she had defeated every one of them at least once.
No one became of Karaina without a rhea, and the flightless birds chose whom they pleased to ride with. It was said the they could smell courage, and the fastest, bravest rheas always chose the woman that could match their own. They bowed only for Karainas, and no one knew of a fireless Karaina in the tribe's history. If the birds were so smart, Scarlett thought, they'd see right through her.
"Well, you can always become a smith. Or my personal hairdresser," said Mimbi, still smiling.
"Oh, it would be such an honor to braid the hair of my beloved leader," said Scarlett, giving a mocking bow.
"It would be my honor to have a friend like you by my side, whether you're there to braid my hair or fight the Hova with you," said Mimbi.
The thought of Mimbi riding into battles without her left her with a hollow sunken feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She was her only friend.
The bull's horn sounded from afar, and Mimbi cocked her head to one side.
"We will be late," she said, grabbing Scarlett's hand in hers. Together they left the empty barracks and walked out to meet their fate, not knowing that this night would be the last time they saw each other in a really long time.