The large oblong lobby inside was brimming with anxious newcomers. From the far right end, a liberally sized glass staircase spiraled up to the floors above. The absolute lack of color struck Maia; the interior was stark with white walls, white floors, and white furniture.
“Kusha, Dani, Maia,” a voice, clear and sharp, rose from somewhere in the middle of the room. “Are you here yet?”
Maia shot a puzzled glance at Kusha and Dani, only to find them as surprised as she was. Hoping to detect the origin of the summons, they made their way across the crowd. The voice rang out again when they were nearer to the center of the hall; its clarity stood out among the muffled humdrum. The source turned out to be a wee little girl who stood with some papers in her right hand, and a red weapons case clutched firmly in her left. A cascade of auburn hair surrounded her head like a silken cloud, falling past her shoulders in curly waves. Her blazing green eyes narrowed when she saw the approaching trio, and she sighed loudly while brushing off the locks of hair from her forehead.
“About time you arrived . . . had nearly given up on you,” she announced. “I’m Nafi, from the Third Continent. Care to tell me about yourselves?”
She stood with her head cocked, listening to their introductions. When they finished, Nafi pulled out the topmost sheet from the small sheaf she held in her hand and waved it.
“Our team information—we’re Core 21 and all our stuff will be numbered per our core. Also got the week’s task list.”
“Thank you,” Dani said, smiling gratefully. “So nice of you to take care of all that.”
Nafi did not smile back. She simply thrust the piece of paper into Dani’s hand. Maia peeked at the sheet, which listed their names in order.
Dani R. – V – 07656M
Kusha V. – V – 21356Q
Maia A. – V – 87243M
Nafi P. – V – 01938F
Ren L. – R – 110920D
Miir T. – R – 947430X
“These must be the numbers the Tokii assigned to us,” Maia exclaimed, noticing that the number on her lapel matched the one next to her name on the list.
“Yes. Those are unique random identifiers. Every person on this planet is allotted one. ‘V’ stands for Visitor, and ‘R’ implies a Resident,” Nafi explained.
“Ren seems to be a resident of Xif,” Dani said, shooting a questioning glance at Nafi. “Have you found him yet?”
“Oh yes, Ren . . . he’s a little busy showing off his swordsmanship in that corner.” Nafi rolled her eyes and pointed dismissively at the nook behind the staircase where a substantial crowd was gathered.
“Showing off?” Kusha raised a curious eyebrow.
“To say the least,” Nafi scoffed. “If he keeps at it, there’s no chance in the world for us to win this contest. I think—”
“All right, fine,” Dani interrupted, bringing Nafi’s tirade to an abrupt end. “So, we know who Ren is, but what about Miir?”
“He’s a mentor or team counselor. They assigned a senior from Circle Four to guide each core. Whether he’ll meet us here, I don’t know.” Nafi sounded a little disappointed. She tilted her head toward the staircase, clearly referring to Ren. “Was hoping that Mister Show-off there would be able to help us, seeing he is from Xif and all.”
“Let’s go talk to him then,” Maia suggested.
They walked to the corner of the hall where the crowd now stood in hushed silence. Finding an unobstructed view through the solidly packed gathering was not an easy job, but Maia eventually managed to peek inside. A boy stood at the center in a steady stance, wielding a pole sword that was twice as tall as he was. The curved blade at the end of the long burnished handle of his sword glowed with open menace. Maia could not see his face clearly because of the dark red hood that covered his head and hung over his brow.
“What is he trying to do?” Maia whispered to a girl who clearly did not appreciate the small talk at the crucial moment. She scowled at Maia before replying.
“He’ll split that liemeberri into four pieces . . . midair. Keep watching.” She pointed at another boy who stood with a small purple fruit in his hand, facing the boy with the pole sword.
The boy with the sword did not even flinch when his assistant tossed the liemeberri in the air. He did not look up, but simply sensed the trajectory of the fruit as it rose, reached the peak, and then started to fall. He moved when the target was a little above the level of his head. In a blur of action, the sword went up and down and then from left to right. The crowd stood in complete silence as the four pieces fell in a neat pile on the floor, forming the whole fruit like it had not been cut at all. The applause broke out immediately.
Maia stared in awe, dumbstruck by the precise execution. The boy stuck his sword casually into a belt that hung across his shoulders and walked up to a group of rowdy-looking kids. When he started collecting what looked like Xifarian money, Maia blinked, taken aback by his brashness. He was audacious, no doubt about that, daring to put up a wager on his first day at the academy, right before the opening address. Slightly flustered, she started to weave her way through the crowd toward Kusha and Dani who had found a spot to watch from the opposite side.
A frown was deeply etched on Maia’s face when she stepped on someone’s toes. Looking up, she stifled the gasp of surprise with the utmost difficulty. A boy carrying a long sword on his back and a red hood over his head stared back at her. His intense gaze was fixed on Maia—his dark pupils, bizarre with their spatter of white dots, widened as he studied Maia’s face.
So . . . this is Ren, our fifth teammate.
“My eyes won’t burst into flames if that’s what you are expecting,” the boy said in an odd raspy voice. He scrutinized her face one more time. “Oh wait, I get it. You’re not impressed with my little demonstration there.”
He has noted my disapproving look. Maia wavered for a moment between lying and telling him the truth and decided to go with the latter. “I didn’t like your idea of . . . making money,” she said, trying to choose her words with care, “not that I don’t appreciate your skills.”
“A stranger dares to give me a sermon on my little financial venture. You have guts and . . . I like it,” he replied, a temperamental smile playing on his lips.
“Well, that’s good, seeing that you two will be working together in a group for a while.” Nafi had strolled over to the pair. “I’m Nafi, and the gutsy one here is Maia. The other two of our core are way over there.” Nafi pointed to the other side of the crowd. “That boy with the red headband is Kusha, and the shining angel with him is Dani. And by the way, I, too, thoroughly despised that betting action you had going. Stunts like these could have us disqualified from the contest. Don’t know about you, but I’m here to win.”
“I’m Ren,” the boy said smugly, ignoring Nafi’s lecture. He pushed the hood off his head revealing a shock of spiky silver-and-black hair. Five silver rings adorned his left ear, matched by rings that decorated each of his fingers. Maia had to admit that the flamboyant persona of their teammate from Xif was meticulously matched by his flashy appearance.
“Already know your name.” Nafi waved the piece of paper listing their group. “Some people have to work when you choose to play.”
“You seem too little to be here, even to play,” Ren retorted.
“I’ll be twelve soon, thank you very much.” Nafi’s eyes flashed. “And since you think I’m too young, let’s hear how old and wise you are?”
“I’m already twelve,” Ren replied with a smirk. “And if you’re looking for wisdom, look no more, you’ve found me.”
“We’ll see about that.”
As the two stood measuring each other up, Maia could not help but question the prudence of the Board. She wondered what could have driven them into matching two such abrasive personalities. This did not bode well for her or the team. In the very next moment, she banished the smidgeon of worry from her mind.
Why should I care if the team falls apart? It would be the greatest possible way to escape the contest and Xif, and if it happened soon enough, she might even be able to catch the caravan to ThulaSu.