Rum and his new rival catch up with the others and join them in traversing a hall with the teal walls and wooden floor. He peeks into two classrooms along the way. The children participating in the front remind him of Nuria. The more reserved and astute young ones in the rear take notes quietly. The others doodle, stare into space, or fold their paper into weapons. The latter group takes his attention more so, reminding him when he used to do that himself.
“What did you fold paper into when you were little?” Rum asks Aven, temporarily forgetting about their challenge.
“I never went to school growing up,” Aven says.
“What? Then how do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Every Ohaida knows about the origami. Stupid kids try to fold paper into the weapon they wish to have one day. It’s a stupid tradition, and it–”
“Always works. Right, Aven?” Professor Tameri interrupts with a warm tone, but the gravity of a warning is present all over her face. After he nods, Tameri ushers the last of the students into the third classroom at the end of the hall, then gingerly shuts the door.
“Perhaps I wasn’t clear before. I told you all that rules are different off campus. Well, it goes beyond that. Traditions and lifestyles and beliefs are different here, too. Like I said on the bus, Vanis Town is a small city, and it thrives on superstitions like the paper folding. Not just the children, but the adults, too. The rest of the world, the big cities, and metropolises, have different views, different ways in which they know Avinia. The way at Four Hearts is unique as they come, but small towns like this have somewhat similar values. They respect our way, we respect theirs. Understand?”
Aven scoffs. “Then small towns have changed.”
“Aven,” Professor Tameri says, this time her tone matching her expression.
“I understand. I’ll keep my mouth shut from now on.”
Rum peers at Aven sideways and gets the sense something has saddened him, though his attitude and posture are covering. Rum lets the moment pass and faces the professor. “It was my fault, Professor Tameri. I asked him about it. Didn’t mean for it to get out of hand. I apologize.” Rum turns his head. “To both of you.”
Aven returns Rum’s cool-headed countenance then shrugs.
“Apology accepted. Now, we’re behind schedule. I’m taking you all–”
“What’s going on, Tameri?” calls out an old, gravelly voice. “You’re never tardy.” A stout, heavily muscled man ambles up the stairs behind Tameri. The steely gaze of his dark eyes arrests Rum’s attention before the soot stains on his pants do the job.
“This class is more challenging to handle than in past years,” Tameri addresses the man as he stops next to her. “And before you argue, Jojen, just wait until you see them in action.”
“These scrawny kids? You were teaching students big as me when you started, and they were older than you sometimes.”
Rum blinks. Wait, what? Exactly how long has Tameri been a professor?
“Oh, stop,” Tameri says, the blush coming through in her voice. “Everyone, this is my old friend and former instructor, Jojen. He runs this school here in Vanis Town, called Jojen’s Dojo, which specializes as an Ohaida educational facility. Yes?” Professor Tameri points to Roy.
“Does that mean we’re officially in Ohai right now?” Roy asks.
“That’s right. This is the nearest town to Four Hearts in Ohai. We’re effectively right on the border between the property of the academy and the Ohai nation. Jojen was the one who crafted the targets we intended to use for the orientation exercise. Is this your first time here, Roy?”
“Yeah, I’m from the S’ne nation. A city called Suho.”
“Really?” Pan asks. “That’s one of the outlying provinces around Sanlow. We’re practically neighbors.”
“And just like that, you’re learning more about one another. Connecting, growing, sharing. Three of the very things that Four Hearts Academy promotes, no matter where you come from, or what you are. It only depends on who you are and your environment if you’ll be blessed by those actions. And in the spirit of that, we have a class to begin. Jojen, may you start the tour now?”
“Follow me,” he says coarsely.
Rum elects to take up the rear in order to avoid another conflict with Aven, or Shuri. He eyes the stairs that descend into the basement as he ascends behind the others to the second floor. His nose wrinkles when he catches the scent of smoke.
“The first floor is where we hold all the normal classes for the children,” Jojen explains. “We hold practice sessions in the courtyard out there.”
Rum peers out the window Jojen points to and sees Jarrod holding out an open palm. He follows the direction his palm is aimed at and sees a weapon rack, his steel hammer hanging in the middle.
“Up here on the second floor are the specialized practice rooms. We have five, each tailored to a specific kind of weapons training.” Jojen continues pointing to each as they pass them. “Archery, close range blades such as daggers and katanas, close range bludgeoning like hammers, mid-range blades and bludgeoning, and lastly,” Jojen turns to his entourage as they come to the last door, “the spar chamber.
“This floor is where you lot will be training for the next two months.”
“But we don’t have our weapons with us,” Shuri points out.
“You first years haven’t earned that right yet,” Jojen barks. “Want to earn it? Impress me.”
“That easy, huh?” Aven says with a snort.
Jojen snorts back. “Have you landed a hit on Tameri yet?”
When Aven growls his frustration, Rum grins and crosses his arms, facing Jojen with a smug expression. “I did.”
Jojen sizes up Rum, assessing the musculature he’s gained from exceptional and longstanding spar etiquette. However, there is one thing he sees is missing and scowls. He turns to Tameri. “Is that true?”
“As I said, wait until you see them in action. And there’s no time like the present,” Tameri replies. She steps into the spar chamber and leaves the door open behind her.
Rum charges in behind her with a renewed sense of excitement. He pauses a few steps inside and awes at the walls. Aside from the space above the door, the walls are decorated by shields: scutums and targes. The north and south walls have the targes on the top row and scutums on the bottom. The east and west walls are the opposite.
Rum steps further into the room, stomping onto a large rectangular black mat. His classmates file inside the spar chamber and join him on the mat. They inspect the myriad of shields and find not a single one of their designs repeats. One has a glass edge, another has a blue feather decal painted on it, and a third has round bumps on the front.
Rum looks from the shields to Jojen, specifically his pants, and recalls the smell of smoke from the basement. “You made all of these, didn’t you?” Rum asks. “Do you sell them?”
Jojen huffs coarsely. “Absolutely not. Each of these shields come from the designs the children give me before they move onto higher grades. I’d never sell their imagination for money.”
Rum smirks. Some pretty gifted kids. Then again, they’re already champion origami artists.
“As you’ve probably guessed by now, the spar chamber is for one-on-one matches. The Star-Sparring portion of our syllabus is concluded for now. The matches now will be between the five of you only,” Tameri explains.
Then that means… Rum turns his head to find Aven already eagerly staring him down. He faces forward and shouts in tandem with Aven, “Me!” when the professor requests volunteers.
“Then the two of you may approach.” Professor Tameri beckons them with her hand. “Stop there.” Rum pauses alongside Aven, both a few inches from the professor. “Look down at your feet.”
Rum finds a bronze line to his left. Another bronze line stands five feet across it to Aven’s right.
“Those are you starting positions for each round. Each sparring match will be a best of five. After the round commences, the entire black mat is the arena. You can lose a round by stepping off the mat, by being disarmed by your opponent, or by being pinned successfully.”
“Hate to state the obvious,” Aven says, “but how do we disarm our opponent without weapons? If this is a hand-to-hand brawl, then win condition number two may get bloody.”
Jojen huffs. “A real smart-ass, huh?”
“Behind all these shields are sparring tools. Swords on the north wall, hammers on the east wall, bows and arrows on the west wall, and a miscellaneous assortment to the south. You may all go and pick any weapon you wish.”
Rum, Aven and Shuri all head to the north wall. Rum looks at all the targes up top, and the one that catches his eye is the one with the feather decal painted in the center of it. The shade of electric blue speaks to him. He reaches behind it and unlatches a sparring sword, the edges dull. It feels weightless in his hands.
“You gonna gawk at that toy all day or are you ready to settle this?” Aven calls out.
Rum tosses the sword from hand to hand as he swaggers to his original starting position. Once there he grips the hilt with both hands. “Oh yeah, I’m ready!”
Professor Tameri looks from Rum to Aven uneasily. “Remember, you two, this is only a sparring match. Treat it as such. Jojen will call out the start of each round, as well as keep track of the points scored.”
He won’t have to count higher than three, Rum cheers to himself.
Tameri gives them both one final warning look before taking her place on the sidelines.
“Okay you brats, get ready!” Jojen orders.
Rum holds his position and hardens his expression. His focus is on Aven’s sword as he raises it perpendicular to his right shoulder. He stares down the blade into Aven’s cocky grin.
“Round one, start!” Jojen shouts.
Rum breaks into a charge immediately and swings at Aven from his left. He flinches as Aven swiftly blocks his strike, and with both hands on the hilt, his face finds itself in the clutches of Aven’s free hand. He groans as his loss of balance gives Aven enough leverage to pin him to the floor.
“Too easy,” Aven boasts.
“Point, Aven!” Jojen declares. “Reset.”
Rum groans and rises, taking the starting position slowly. He finds Aven’s cocky expression infuriating and his mind is being encroached by shades of crimson. Aven again lifts his sword perpendicular to his body, his arm level with his shoulder. The dare written in his eyes is unmistakable. Rum’s acceptance comes as he assumes his previous stance.
“Round two, start!” Jojen announces.
Once more, Rum charges straight for Aven. He upswings at the last second and grins at Aven’s surprise. The surprise transfers to Rum when Aven keeps his sword steady as he moves his body around behind Rum’s in a human parry. With a hand on his face and a leg between his own, Rum and the floor become reacquainted.
“Point, Aven! Reset!”
Rum refuses to get up right away, watching Aven go back to his spot. His pride torched, the flames lick up and join the crimson in his mind and help it spread.
“I said “Reset” brat!” Jojen barks.
Rum growls and backflips into an upright position. He lifts the sword and takes a new stance with the blade angled across his chest, his legs spread and firm, and his eyes brimming with fury.
“Game point, isn’t it?” Aven prods.
“What of it?” Rum fires back.
“I’m willing to go all five rounds. A perfect victory under my belt would only sweeten today.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
“Round three, start!” Jojen orders.
Rum takes a step back to begin a charge when Aven takes his initiative away. Aven locks his sword behind Rum’s while also grabbing his right wrist. He lifts them both and as he twists Rum’s arm behind his back, he points Rum’s own sword at his neck.
“Point, me,” Aven whispers.
“Point, Aven! Winner, Av–”
“Oh, not just yet, Jojen,” Aven says. “I was serious about my perfect victory.” Aven releases Rum and crosses to his starting point. “Didn’t hurt you, did I?” Aven asks Rum mockingly.
Rum glares lethally at Aven as he grips his sword tighter. Tiny blue sparks pop up around his fingers.
“What say you, Tameri?” Jojen asks. “Its as obvious as the sky is blue which of them is better.”
Rum’s anger rises, even as he meets the eyes of the professor. He can see her uncertainty brewing. She sighs and crosses her arms. “I will only allow one more round. The winner shall receive a total of four points only this once.”
Before Tameri’s generosity can extinguish the flames in Rum’s mind, Aven tosses gasoline into the inferno. “Aww, look at that. They think you’ll win with pity points,” Aven taunts.
Rum clutches his sword and lets the crimson take hold of his actions. Blue lightning surges from his arms and affixes itself along the dull edges of the blade. A few loose currents detach as Rum charges and pop and fizzle out in the air. The cries of his professor and Jojen don’t even penetrate his senses.
Even in the face of imminent electrocution Aven stands his ground. He uses both hands to try and deflect the attack. The moment the blades touch the electricity encapsulates them both. All at once the electricity gathers at the point of contact between the swords. From there it penetrates the metal, leaving trails of blue spider-web cracks. Rum realizes his error. The blades explode apart into shards.