Tamra opened her mouth to say, No, you're not ready. But then she stopped. Studying Amira, she thought, There's some strength in her. A spark, maybe. If it could be fed . . .
Briefly, she allowed herself to imagine the glory, if she transformed one of these rich kids into a fierce competitor. She'd be the most sought-after trainer in all Becar, and her daughter would never again have to feel worry that they'd be separated.
No. It's a crazy idea. I can't turn one of them into a winner. It was widely known that the children of the wealthy dallied in racing but never won. None of them had the fire. You had to burn with the need to win, with the conviction that this is what you were meant to do. That was an aspect of racing that couldn't be taught, and these spoiled rich kids had never felt it. They'd never known the feeling of yearning for a future that vanished like a mirage before your eyes. Or the feeling of having all your dreams slip like sand through your fingers. They'd never tried to change their fate and discovered it was immutable.
They'd never been thirsty.
On the other hand . . . the girl had volunteered to try.
Maybe the answer to all Tamra's problems had been right here in front of her the whole time, and she'd been too stubborn to see it. The augurs preached that you could improve the quality of your soul by your choices, and thus grant meaning to your current life and hope for your next. Tamra might not be able to read the state of these kids' immortal souls . . .
But maybe I could give them a chance to shine.
"Follow me," Tamra said curtly.
"Hey, she asked me," Fetran butted in. "I'm first."
"You're going to break your neck," Amira told him.
"And you won't?"
"My kehok likes me."
Tamra heaved a sigh. Seriously, why did she bother talking? It wasn't as if they listened to her. Kehoks liked no one, because they loathed themselves. I'm a terrible teacher. I should switch to raising potted plants. "You'll race each other. And you'll use chains and harnesses." When Fetran began to object, she held up her hand. "I don't want to explain to your parents why their darlings are minus a few limbs."
Or have them explain to me why I'm not getting paid anymore.
Without looking back to see if they were following, Tamra stalked across the training grounds to the kehok stable, a prisonlike block, made of mud-brick and stone, that dominated half the practice area. Out of the corner of her eye she saw other trainers' students running obstacle courses, lifting weighted barrels, and wrestling each other on the sand. She didn't make eye contact with any of them. She knew what the other trainers would think of this--her students weren't ready for the track. But they would never be ready if they didn't take risks.
And if there was a chance she could shape them into what she needed them to be . . .
Closer to the stable, she heard the kehoks.
The worst part about a kehok scream was that it sounded almost human, as if a man or woman's vocal cords had been shredded and then patched up sloppily by an untrained doctor. It made your blood curdle and your bones shiver.
Tamra was used to it.
Her students still weren't.
Amira and Fetran huddled with the others in a clump as she flung open the doors. This is a terrible idea, she thought. Sunlight flooded the stalls, and the kehoks screamed louder. They kicked and bashed against their walls. There were eighteen kehoks in the stable, five of which were owned by Tamra's patron.
She halted in front of them.
The unnaturalness of the creatures made your skin crawl, even if you were accustomed to seeing them on a daily basis. Kehoks looked as if they'd been stitched together by a crazed god. There were dozens, even hundreds, of possible varieties, all of them with the same twisted wrongness to their bodies. In the batch before her, one had the heft of a rhino and the jaws of a croc. Another looked like a horse-size jackal with the teeth and venom of a king cobra. Another bore the head of a lizard and the hindquarters of a massive lion. According to the augurs, the shape of the kehok's body reflected the kind of depravity it had committed in its prior life.
Tamra picked the lion-lizard and the rhino-croc. She wasn't trusting newbies around venom, even in a practice race. Starting with the lion-lizard, she positioned herself in front of his stall and met his eyes.
Like all kehoks, he had sun-gold eyes.
The eyes were the only thing beautiful about any of them.
She let her gaze bore into his. Steadying her breathing, she shut out all other distractions: the whispers of her students, the screams of the other kehoks, even the muttering of other trainers, who had come to see what she was doing in the stalls so early in the training season.
She felt her heartbeat. Steady. Thump, thump, thump. Focusing on that, she willed the kehok's heart to beat at the same tempo.
He fought her. They always did.
Rearing back, he struggled against the shackles.
"Calm," she murmured. "Calm."
Moving slowly, Tamra gestured to Fetran to pass her a harness and saddle. He did, and Tamra kept her thoughts firmly fixed on the kehok. Thump, thump, thump.
She tossed the saddle onto the kehok's back. The monster shuddered but didn't try to bolt. Continuing to move deliberately, she attached the harness--both the harness and the saddle clipped onto a chain net that was fitted over the kehok's thick hide. The chain net allowed them to be shackled within their stall, as well as quickly saddled.
She repeated the process with the second mount.
When both were ready, she signaled her students: Fetran and Amira to the starting gates and the rest to the viewing stands. Grasping one harness in each hand, she barked at the two kehoks, "Follow!"
Kehoks didn't respond to words.
They responded to intent. And will.
According to Becaran scientists who had studied the kehoks for ages, the kehoks read your conviction through a combination of your voice, your expression, and your body language. The augurs claimed they responded to your aura and its reflection of the purity of your purpose. But Tamra believed what most riders and former riders secretly believed: the kehoks read your heart and mind. Regardless of how they did it, though, the result was the same. Doubt yourself, and you'll be gored. Don't doubt . . . and they'll take you to the finish line.
In other words, the more stubborn you were, the better control you would have.
And Tamra was very stubborn.
She just had to hope these two teenagers were as stubborn as she'd been.
Everyone watched as she led the two kehoks to the racetrack. She was, she admitted to herself, showing off. Not many people could control two at once. It had been considered a useless parlor trick when she'd been a rider--you were allowed to influence only your own racer--but it had come in handy as a trainer.
Locking the kehoks into the starting shoots, Tamra beckoned Fetran and Amira. They slunk closer, clearly regretting having agreed to this. She thought about letting them back out, but then thought, This is their chance at glory! Or at least it was a step in the general vicinity of glory. Whether they knew it or not, she was offering them freedom from the lives that had been mapped out for them. And a chance to change the fate of their souls.
"One lap," she told them. "Loser mucks out the winner's stall for a week."
"Get ready to shovel," Fetran said to Amira, his bravado belied only by the adolescent cracking of his voice.
Amira's eyes were as wide as a hare who's caught sight of a hawk. But she said, "You're only saying that because you're scared I'll win."
You're both scared, Tamra wanted to say. "Mount up," she ordered instead. "Belt yourselves in. Fetran, take the rhino-croc. Amira, the lion-lizard."
The two students climbed the ladders into the starting shoots. Tamra moved around to the front, forcing the two kehoks to focus on her instead of the riders. Normally, an advanced rider would do this by him- or herself, but she wasn't taking chances. Her students had never run side by side before, on a shielded track. So far, all their experience with riding the kehoks had been solo, heavily supervised by her. She held the mounts steady with her will.
This is going to work, she thought. I'm going to make them into winners! I'm going to change their destinies! Instead of dilettantes who dabbled in racing before returning to run their parents' estates, they'd be champions. When they went for their annual augur readings--or however often rich kids went--they'd be told hawk or tiger, instead of cow or mouse. They'd be thrilled--the young always wanted to be reborn as something grand.
The two students lowered themselves into the saddles and belted themselves in with the harnesses--the straps should keep them on their kehok's back no matter what the monster did. In a professional race, there were no harnesses and no chain nets.
It added to the excitement.
She broke contact with the kehoks and climbed the ladders to check the straps. The second she switched her focus to the saddles, the kehoks began to buck and snort. Fetran and Amira clung to their backs.
Straps were secure.
She took a breath . . .
Reconsidered all her life choices that led her to this moment . . .
Decided it was too late to change her mind and run off into the desert to live a less stressful life subsisting on scorpions and camel dung . . .
She retreated to the stands, beyond the dampening shield that covered the track. All racetracks had an augur-created psychic shield that prevented anyone in the stands from influencing the racers, whether it was by concentrated determination or an overabundance of enthusiasm. From here on, it was up to her two students.
"You have one task," Tamra called to Fetran and Amira. "Fix this word in your mind:
Tamra then slapped the lever that unlatched the gates, and the two kehoks, with their riders still clinging to their backs, burst out of the starting shoots. They barreled forward--even at a cheap training facility like theirs, the practice track was hemmed in by high walls, so there was no place for the massive mounts to go except forward. But that didn't mean they wouldn't try to resist.
She jogged through the stands, parallel to the track.
The lion-lizard bashed against the wall, trying to knock his rider off. He didn't understand that the rider was attached. Tamra felt each blow in her memory--her bones still ached because of the number of times she'd been slammed against a training wall. Then there was the time a kehok had rolled on top of her in an attempt to unseat her. Her right leg had broken in three places, but she'd won that race. Some days--like today, with twinges of sympathy--her leg still hurt.
"Run!" she shouted at the two riders. "That's all that matters! That's all that exists! You are nothing but the sand beneath the hooves, the wind in your face, the sun on your back. You are this moment. Feel the moment. Feel the race!"
She missed it, the way the wind felt, the way the rest of the world fell away, the way life was distilled into a simple goal. Nothing about life was simple anymore.
She wished she could peel away everything else and just focus on this: a race. Just her and a monster that she understood and could control, rather than the monsters who wore human faces and believed they were purer of soul than she.
Maybe they are purer than me. But that doesn't make their actions right.
She couldn't dwell on that now, though, as Amira and Fetran demanded her attention. The other students and trainers cheered as the two kehoks and riders thundered around the track. Sand was kicked into the air in a cloud that billowed up toward the sky. She began to feel a shred of the old exhilaration--the barely bridled wildness of the kehoks, matched with the barely contained terror of the riders. It was intoxicating. Tamra cheered with the others as the riders rounded the third corner.
And then it happened--
Fetran lost control.
She knew it a split second before the crowd gasped. It was in the way the boy's kehok tossed his head, the sun glinting off his golden eyes--
The rhino-croc sensed that the boy's focus had slipped, and he pivoted on his back feet. Rising up, he struck the other kehok, the lion-lizard, in the face. The lion-lizard crashed to the wall, and the girl--pinned between her mount's back and the wall--cried out in pain. Shaking off the crash, the lion-lizard then charged at the rhino-croc. He lashed with his claws, and the croc clamped down with his massive jaws.
Tamra was already running. She leaped onto the sands of the track with no thought but to save her students. Ahead of her, the two kehoks were tearing into each other.
She threw herself forward, feetfirst, skidding between them on her back. Hands up, she roared with every fiber of her being: "STOP!"
Later, the other trainers would tell her what she did was suicidal.
You don't throw yourself between out-of-control kehoks.
You don't lie prone beneath their hooves and claws.
But Tamra did.
What she didn't do was allow a shred of doubt or fear into her mind. They would stop because they must stop. Her livelihood depended on it. Her daughter depended on it. I will not lose these students.
You. Will. Stop.
And they did.
Snorting and snuffling, the two kehoks dropped back onto four feet and retreated from her. Rising to her feet, hands outstretched, one toward each, Tamra felt her whole body shaking with . . . She had no name for what she felt. But they would calm. Now.
She heard the others running toward them. Shouting for healers, the other trainers unstrapped her two riders. She heard the screams of her other students, their voices melding as if they were a single scared beast. One of the riders, Fetran, was howling in pain. The other, Amira, was frighteningly silent.
But Tamra kept her focus on the two kehoks.
She walked toward one and took his harness. Then she took the other. She led them along the racetrack, crossed the finish line, and then led them back across the training ground to their stalls. It felt ten times as far as it was.
Only when they were locked in did she allow other thoughts to enter her mind.
Were they dead?
Was it her fault?
Yes, of course it is. She was their trainer. Part of her job was teaching them not to die.
For a moment, Tamra couldn't make her feet move. She'd rather face a herd of kehoks than exit the stables now and see what damage had been done.
One of the kehoks snorted as if it were mocking her cowardice.
Go, she ordered herself.
And she walked out of the stable to see how badly her students were broken, and to take responsibility for letting her hopes destroy their dreams--and possibly her own.
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