“Alright, everyone, on the line!”
Kallima and her peers obeyed, lining up quickly on a white stripe painted on the grass. Coach Drummer, a man with umber hair peppered with grey and shorts far too tight to wear while educating children, began walking down the long line. Kallima had managed to get between Sable and Shay when he had called, but she was nervous, especially when the coach’s neck began to stretch unnaturally off of his shoulders, allowing him to observe each student while keeping a slow, deliberate pace. Kallima averted her eyes from the man, a bit queasy at what she deemed an impossible feat.
“Today is about assessing your individual talents,” he shouted, “and building a team around those skills! Strength, agility, stamina, defense. All are necessary assets your team will require! The obstacle course in front of you is your competition today. There are sixty-five of you, so we’ll split you into thirteen teams of five. The thirteen fastest times today will be the team captains.”
Shay chuckled softly, and Sable leaned closer to Kallima.
“He’s got this. Top five for sure,” she whispered.
“Planning on going first, d’Parsia?”
Sable yelped as Drummer’s head stopped and stared down on her. She shook her head vigorously and stiffened with a crackle. The coach narrowed his eyes at her as he waited for his body to get closer.
Coach Drummer, Sable, and Kallima all turned to Shay, who grinned excitedly at the opportunity.
“We have a volunteer!” Drummer called down the line. “Rules! No weapons for this one. Stay inside the yellow lines. If you break something, you get to fix it. In detention!”
As he spoke, Shay, in his white and blue gym uniform, took his place at the start of the course, crouching down like an Olympic runner at the thick red line. Drummer stood over his shoulder and explained the course. Shay nodded, eyes focused on the task before him. The coach lifted a pocket watch and stared intently at it.
Shay darted headlong into the course like a sturgeon, diving through rings with grace, flipping over hurdles with ease, and jumping halfway up the high wall to grab a rope. With one last somersault, he rolled over the red line at the end of the course, sliding sideways to a halt.
“Show-off,” Sable said with a slight grin.
“Orion, 6:14,” Coach Drummer announced. “Would have been faster without the flourishes.”
“Well, I didn’t want to scare everyone off,” Shay said breathlessly.
“Go hydrate. Anyone want to go next?” Drummer shouted.
One by one, the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old students attacked the course. Sable scored a pitiful 14:28, the worst of the group, and Acacia managed a time of 9:12.
“Satudotter, you’re up!”
Kallima swallowed hard, but took her position at the front of the course. As with the others, Drummer leaned close.
“Through the rings, over the hurdles, up the wall, and past the wooden dummies. Got it?”
“Rings, hurdles, wall, dummies,” Kallima repeated.
Her summers racing with her mother on the playground came back to her in a flash as she leaped through the first ring. The word rebound played in her head as she flipped with a back handspring into the next, feet first. Steady breathing, the memory told her, and let your body flow. She repeated the flip through the next two loops and over the hurdles. After a short sprint, she dove over the meter-wide puddle and rolled to the foot of the wall. Watch your footing, she recalled, pulling herself up the rope.
Kallima grinned at Sable’s voice, leaping down from the wall and rolling to the final leg. This part was easy, she thought with a smirk. She had spent most of secondary evading hallway bullies. She spun through the rotating arms, throwing her arm up once to block one of the extensions. Ducking through the last pair of dummies, she skidded on one knee over the line the way she had seen ball players do.
“Satudotter, 6:54! If Maya doesn’t beat that, you’ll be a team captain,” Drummer said.
Kallima nodded, panting, as Sable and Shay rushed her and pulled her up.
“Nicely done!” Shay praised.
“That was, like, so awesome! You must have trained.”
Kallima shook her head as they walked her to a water pump. Acacia offered her a cup.
“Just racing my mum at the park,” Kallima breathed, taking the glass.
“Man, Maya better beat that,” Shay laughed. “I’ve still got top time, so I’ll pick first, and I so want you on my team!”
“She flips better than you, Shay,” Acacia said.
Shay agreed, “She hits harder, too!”
“Thank you?” Kallima said, not sure whether or not it was a compliment.
“Vance, 6:48!” Drummer called out. A small group of sprites cheered in tiny, high voices, though they were quickly overpowered by Shay and Kallima’s cheers.
“Oh, thank God. I don’t want to be a captain, anyway,” Kallima said.
After a few moments where everyone got water and calmed down, Coach Drummer called for everyone to return to the line.
“Okay, team captains! When I call you up, come get a star and pick a team color. Orion!”
Shay accepted the star pin that Drummer held out and gathered up a pile of crimson wristbands. Sable whispered assurances to Kallima that he was bound to pick her first.
A tall, thick girl with grey-green skin repeated Shay’s actions, selecting the aqua bands.
The thin blond prince sauntered to the coach, snatched up his star, and commandeered the violet bands. Kallima stared at him as he smirked towards his twin, twirling one of the bands around his finger before slipping it on. Down the list of names, sorted by time, the coach went, calling out Tuscany, Whitewood, Bramble, Colson, Stellar, Indigo, Ash, Hokito, Graham, and, finally, Vance. Drummer then stepped back to allow Shay his first pick.
“Kallima,” he said without hesitation.
Eleven other captains groaned, making Kallima blush as she approached Shay and accepted her own crimson armband. Reginald Noble, however, crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. Once it was his turn, he called for his sister, who readily took his offer. Down the line it went so everyone had their choice of teammates before it returned to Shay. His second pick was Acacia, who quickly joined the red team. For his third, he hesitated, examining the remaining twenty-six students.
“Sable.” Kallima told him.
“She got the worst time, Kali,” he said. “No one is going to pick her. We need... Marcus.”
Marcus, Kallima noted, was a brownie, only a few decimeters high, and forced to slide his band over his head and around his waist like an impromptu belt. Then he offered up a tiny high-five to his new teammates.
“We need a sneak. He’s agile, and his glamour is naturally strong,” Shay said.
“I’ll do my best, boss!” the short brown boy squeaked.
Down the line, the choices all became slower as teammates debated the remaining picks. As Shay had suspected, though, Sable’s name never came up. Kallima’s heart grew dense as she realized that the gargoyle would indeed be the last pick of the teams. Then Coach Drummer returned to the action, asking who would be the fifth member of Shay’s team.
As with his first choice, the boy quickly shouted, “Sable.”
A short roar of laughter filled Kallima’s ears as the Noble twins reacted to the name. Some peers joined their mockery, but most stayed silent. The twelve remaining ‘weak links’ glowered at the class head.
“Are you sure?” Marcus asked, as though trying to change his mind. “She did... she was awful, boss.”
Shay nodded, saying, “She’ll bring down the average and give us more room for improvement. Besides, she’ll give us a distinct advantage in the Labyrinth.”
The tiny gargoyle shuffled to the completed team and let Shay hand her the last red band. She twisted it in her fingers as if afraid to put it on.
“Advantage?” Kallima said as Coach Drummer moved away. “What advantage?”
“Gavin says that I make a good wall,” Sable said.
“I wasn’t kidding about our average,” Shay said. “Going in, everyone will be expecting us to make good time, and we will. The first time. But it gets harder, and you’re expected to improve your time. We need Sable to bring us down. And Sable needs us to pull her up.”
“Trust me, like, you guys will be doing most of the pulling,” Sable said under her breath.
Kallima pat the stone girl on the shoulder, telling her, “Look on the bright side, Say. You were the first of the last picks.”
“Please!” A gruff voice behind Kallima chuckled viciously, “That little brick shouldn’t even have a team.”
Kallima turned and found herself staring square in the dark blue-grey eyes of Reginald Noble as he squinted at her in distaste.
Marian added, “You’ll drag everyone down. You may as well kill yourself now.”
“Don’t listen to them,” Marcus’ tiny voice said.
Kallima glared at the royal twins. Hearing them taunt her roommate into hurting herself brought back too much pain for her, and she began to grind her teeth.
Reginald smirked. “No one would really miss an orphan like you.”
Shay spat back, “She’s n-n-not the only orphan on this te-team, let alone this s-s-school.”
“Show some respect to your ‘cr-cr-crown p-p-prince,’” Reginald snarled and laughed.
Kallima’s fists clenched tightly at the cruel chuckles, the bullies’ voices inciting her second trigger. Shay shrank back, embarrassed, and tried to silently push his team away from the taunting twins. Marian, though, skipped after the group with a sinister smirk.
“Besides,” she said, “we heard the news. Tell me, Satudotter, what’s it like knowing that your mother would rather be dead than put up with you?”
And that was three.
Kallima shoved Shay aside and slugged the princess. The entire freshman class gasped at once as Marian’s head whipped to the left. Kallima’s knuckles stung from the impact with the girl’s jaw. Reginald lept towards Kallima, grabbed her hair, and flung her to the ground, yelling at her to keep her hands off his sister.
“You don’t touch her!” Sable screeched.
The typically-timid gargoyle lunged at Reginald only to be pushed down by a massive creature with large, disproportional arms named Jarl. Reginald climbed on top of Kallima and punched her across the face. Kallima spat the resulting blood at him. Reginald growled and hit her again. Kallima clawed at his face as Sable and Shay’s shouts filled her ears.
Suddenly, a bang shook the ground, and Kallima grabbed her head to stop its throbbing. Reginald, still on top of her, did the same, as did Jarl, Marian, and Shay. Sable turned to a perfect statue in her terror at the noise. Coach Drummer, who had punched the ground in the middle of the fighting group, rose to his feet again.
“All of you,” he shouted, “class dismissed. You six, come with me.”
Moving to let Kallima up, Drummer grabbed a hold of Reginald’s ear. He hissed and pushed himself onto his toes to ease the pain. Once Kallima was up, Drummer grabbed her ear as well. She leaned down close as he dragged the two teens back into the castle. Behind her, Sable’s whimpers, Shay’s soft words, Jarl’s grunts, and Marian’s sighs overlapped into a clamor of nervous energy. Drummer pulled his delinquents to the lift that led to the headmaster’s office. Kallima apologized to the imp who cranked them up, his muscles bulging from the strain of the people on the elevator. When they arrived at the office, Drummer forced the bickering teens out.
“Headmaster Locke, we’ve had a yard fight,” he announced.
Locke’s legs were folded up under him as he again worked at his low desk, and he looked up in surprise at the announcement. Then he narrowed his eyes at Kallima.
“Satudotter,” he said, shaking his head. “Why am I not surprised?”
His face blanched as he caught a glimpse of Reginald.
“And why is our crown prince covered in blood?”
Kallima scoffed and said, “It’s almost all mine. I barely scratched him.”
“You decked my sister!”
“She was asking for it!”
“I ought to-!”
Headmaster Locke rubbed his temples and dismissed Drummer from the room. The coach nodded and eagerly abandoned the six rowdy teens with the headmaster, who waved them all to sit on the floor in front of him.
“Alright, then. What happened today, Mr. Noble?” Locke asked.
Putting on a believably innocent expression, Reginald said, “We picked out teams, and I went over to comment on Shay’s choices. Then Kallima punched Marian, for no reason at all.”
Headmaster Locke held up a hand to silence Kallima. Then he turned to Marian.
“What did you say to her?” he asked.
“I asked how she was doing,” Marian lied. “I heard that Satu had passed away and wanted to check on her.”
Kallima ground her teeth together and growled. Shay gripped her arm tightly as Locke continued down the line.
“Anything to add, Gotgrunder?”
“The grey one tried to jump in. So I knocked her down. Just to keep his highness safe.”
“D’Parsia, is that true?”
Sable whimpered, eyes darting from Kallima to the Nobles and back then up to Locke. Then she shook her head silently. After a pause, the headmaster cleared his throat.
“Would you care to elaborate?”
Sable shook her head again, black hair flying back and forth over her face as she redirected it to the floor. The centaur sighed.
“Well, if Miss d’’Parsia won’t tell me… Orion?” he asked.
“We pick-picked out teams, like he s-s-said, and we were talking ab-bout Labyrinth. Th-th-those two came over and started t-telling Sable to kill herself an-and that Kali’s mom committed suicide j-j-just to get awa-away from her. That’s when Kali hit Marian. Reggie got defensive and hit Kali back. Sable jumped in, Jarl sh-shoved her, and I just didn’t want my team to get beat up on- on day one, so I used Tairochi on his ass.”
Wide-eyed and mouth slightly agape, Headmaster Locke covered his cheek with a palm as though contemplating what to do next and stared at Sable. The gargoyle buried her own face in her hands, elbows on her knees, and trembled.
“Is this true, Satudotter?” the elder finally asked. “You struck first?”
Kallima crossed her arms, saying, “And I spit in his face. I won’t let him insult my mum or my friend like that.”
With another sigh, Locke pinched the bridge of his nose and scrunched his face up.
“You two,” he said, “cannot tell people to kill themselves, understand? I don’t care who your father is. You cannot say that!”
Reginald rolled his eyes and crossed his own arms. Marian scoffed and turned away.
“Alright, then,” Locke said, standing up. “Orion, you’ll be cleaning the locker rooms for the next week.”
“What did I do?”
“You can diffuse situations like this. You didn’t. And swore. One week cleaning lockers. Got it?”
“I want you doing laundry. One week, every night,” the centaur said.
“’Kay,” Sable peeped.
“Gotgrunder, I believe that the animal keepers could use your help. One week, every night. Same as everyone else.”
“Crown Prince, Princess, I think that you need to learn the value of your peers. Perhaps that won’t be so hard if I suspend your private chef for the month.”
“What? No!” Marian cried.
Her brother shouted, “You can’t do that!”
“I can. I am,” the headmaster said.
The teenage royals shrank down under the half-man’s glare. Locke held up one arm, sending them, and Jarl, out.
“One month. Now, get out. As for you, Satudotter…”
Locke touched his chin thoughtfully, making Kallima nervous. The twin Nobles stopped in the doorway and stared at the fiery-haired girl, excited to see what her punishment would be. Then Locke nodded and spoke.
“Remedial Government,” the centaur said with a stern look.
“Government?” Kallima repeated.
“Of course. You don’t care that you spat in the Crown Prince’s face? I think a government course will fix that perfectly. I know just who to teach you, too.”
Kallima groaned at the twins’ laughter as they turned, joined their lackey, and descended from the office on the lift. Headmaster Locke cleared his throat, and Kallima turned back to him.
“I’ll have him meet you in the library tomorrow,” the headmaster said. “Six-thirty.”
“Yes, sir,” Kallima said with a sigh.
“Good. He’s been begging me to let him teach next year. This will be a good test for him. You may all leave now. Oh, and Satudotter?”
Locke’s face became even more stern as he told her, “Please do not anger him. If you would like to take the stairs, they’re that way.”
He pointed to another door near the lift. Kallima furrowed her brow, nodded, and followed her friends down the winding stairs.
“Well,” she said, “I got into a fight, got remedial classes. What next?”
Shay glanced at his schedule, saying, “Um, next we got alchemy.”
Kallima groaned in defeat.“Could this day get any worse?” she breathed.