Chapter 5

That evening, when it was time for dinner, the trainees of all classes rushed down to the large dining hall.

The hall had six long wooden tables, and each of the three classes used two tables.

Kiara and Tiya shuffled into the rowdy dining hall and after watching what others were doing, they grabbed trays and joined a queue to receive food from the cooks.

They watched as many trainees cut the line, in a hurry to get their food.

“Why are they letting them cut the line?” Kiara whispered to Tiya angrily.

“Those cutting the line are those who have been here before us. When they see us, they think us to be fresh meat and sometimes do things like this,” Tiya replied, eyeing a bunch of mean-looking girls who sauntered over to where they stood.

“We should report them to the authorities,” Kiara suggested, looking at the bored soldiers whose job was to survey the dining hall and make sure the trainees didn’t step out of line, literally and figuratively.

“If you do that they’ll be punished, but later they’ll ambush you and make your life a living hell,” Tiya warned.

Kiara gripped her tray tightly, “How do you know this?”

Tiya smirked, “I’ve wanted to attend the academy since I was three. So, I asked everyone around me questions about this place until they tired of me. My father had to take me to a soldier he knew, one who was wounded and recouping. He was the one who filled me in.”

Kiara was about to reply when those mean girls made their move. They waited for the line to progress, and when they saw a little opening the four of them squeezed themselves in, throwing Kiara and Tiya off balance.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” Kiara asked as she regained her balance.

One of the girls giggled and turned to face Kiara, showing off ridiculous buckteeth, “What do you think I’m doing?”

Tiya surreptitiously pinched Kiara, silently asking her to back down. Kiara pushed her hand away and replied to the girl, “I think you’re cutting the line?”

One of the girls shrugged nonchalantly, “And so?”

“It’s unfair and rude. The system here is ‘first come, first served’ and we’re all hungry. If you want to receive your food earlier, then you should endeavor to come quicker,” Kiara instructed.

The girls laughed loudly, drawing the attention of one of the soldiers. He shot them a glare but still remained where he stood.

“Oh, look, the greenhorn is giving us moral instruction,” Buckteeth said gleefully. Her friends laughed once more.

Kiara was hurt by the girls’ laughter, but she tried not to let it show.

“Look here, you stupid girl,” Buckteeth said, “I don’t know you or where you came from but if you don’t shut up this instant and pretend like you didn’t see us get in front of you, you’ll become my enemy, and believe me, you don’t want that to happen.”

Kiara swallowed audibly, thinking that this was the third threat she was getting, and it was still her first day.

“Don’t worry, she won’t talk about it anymore.” Tiya hurried to placate the girls.

“Shut up!” Buckteeth barked, “I wasn’t talking to you.”

With that, the girls faced forward and moved with the queue.

“What is wrong with you?” Tiya asked furiously under her breath, “Do you have a death wish? Stop raising our seniors’ ire.”

Kiara didn’t reply but looked around to see who had witnessed the very embarrassing incident. As it turned out, Jannen was behind them. The look on his face said he heard everything that had happened and that he was disappointed in her for not following his suggestions.

Kiara shot him a dark look and then proceeded to ignore his existence.

When it was their turn to get served, Kiara watched eagerly as the unsmiling cook put two spoonfuls of stew unto the tray.

Kiara sniffed and regarded the stew for a moment, observing with disdain that there were chunks of meat in it.

“Is there meat in this stew?” she asked the cook.

The cook, a young man with only one eye, shrugged, “Yes. There’s beef in it.”

“But I don’t eat—”

“Leave so I can attend to the next person.” The cook interrupted her quite rudely.

Kiara carried her tray and unhappily trudged down to the table the newest trainees occupied.

She was sad because she had worked up quite an appetite, and now she couldn’t eat the tantalizing stew before her because there was meat in it.

She watched as her fellow trainees dug into their food with gusto, with some already licking their plates clean.

A moment later, Tiya joined her at the table and Kiara had to watch her friend make appreciative noises as she wolfed down the stew.

After clearing a good portion of her food, Tiya raised her head and noticed Kiara staring at her stew desolately.

“Kiara, why aren’t you eating?”

Kiara shook her head, “Where I’m from, we don’t eat meat.”

“And where is that?”

Kiara lowered her voice, “Zodya.”

Tiya’s eyes widened, “Kiara, you say the most surprising things. How can you be from Zodya? Everyone knows no one survived its destruction.”

“Well, my mother and I did,” Kiara countered.

Tiya gave Kiara a look that said she didn’t know whether to believe her or not.

Kiara looked around and found that Jannen was still scowling at her.

“Earlier today, you were groveling before that Jannen boy. Who exactly is he?” Kiara asked Tiya, effectively changing the subject.

Tiya’s demeanor changed and she became very excited, “Kiara, you must be the only one who does not know Lord Jannen. He is the last of his bloodline, the noble house of Jannen. He’s so wealthy some claim he’s richer than the queen. He lost his parents when he was a toddler, so he began to run their numerous estates at an early age. As young as he is, he’s known to have influence that extends far beyond the borders of Galtea.”

Kiara was not impressed, “So he’s rich. Is that why they let him keep his hair?”

Tiya took a spoon of her stew and replied, “I have no idea. But rumor has it that he has some thaumaturgy in his hair.”

Kiara laughed, “That’s absurd. What else do you know about him?”

“Nothing much. He keeps to himself and has a very small circle of friends. Many girls think he’s a good catch,” Tiya said.

Kiara barked out a laugh, “Him? No way.”

“Why is it so hard for you to believe? He’s very fair-looking, wealthy and he broods. What more could a girl want?” Tiya asked dreamily.

Kiara had no reply but instead she gazed over to Jannen, who was eating his food in a well-cultured manner. That he was a rich lord did not give him the right to look down on her, she thought furiously.

“Can I have your stew?” Tiya asked, drawing Kiara away from her thoughts.

“Um, sure, you can have it.” Kiara replied.

*   *   *

The next morning, Kiara was awoken by the sounds of horns. She tossed around and used her pillow to cover her ears. Due to her lumpy mattress, she’d been unable to sleep the night before; she’d stayed awake thinking about anything and everything. It was much later in the night that she managed to fall into fitful sleep.

Next thing she knew, she felt something shoving her forcefully.

She threw her pillow at the person in annoyance.

The person was undeterred by the projectile sent their way and continued shoving Kiara.

Finally, Kiara decided to give up on sleep and sat up shouting, “What is it? I’m awake!”

She found it was Lashira who had been shoving her.

“What do you want?” Kiara asked rudely.

“It’s the rising hour. If we don’t get out of bed now, soldiers will come in with whips and flog us,” Lashira explained, shifting her weight from one foot to the other with impatience.

“What?” Kiara asked, her eyes bulging with shock. It was still dark outside.

“I’m very serious. You have to get out of bed now,” Lashira warned.

Kiara looked around and saw that a good number of the girls were still in bed, sleeping peacefully.

“How do I know you’re not trying to prank me?”  Kiara asked distrustfully.

“And why would I do that after you saved me from those boys at the stream yesterday?” Lashira asked with a grin, her perfect white teeth contrasting beautifully with her dark skin.

Before Kiara could reply, she heard footsteps outside the sleeping hall. It seemed like five or more adults were approaching the hall.

The grin left Lashira’s face as she said, “Hurry, let’s go. They’re here already.”

She grabbed Kiara’s hand and pulled her out of bed. Still holding her hand, Lashira hurriedly left the hall through another entrance.

Once they left, Kiara heard what sounded like lashes which were followed closely by cries of pain. She turned to Lashira, “Thank you. I’m sorry I doubted you.”

“It’s no bother.” Lashira waved off Kiara’s thanks.

“What do we do now?” Kiara said, just as a lash succeeded by a shout pierced the air. Kiara pitied the girls still in the sleeping hall, but there was nothing she could do to help them now.

“We line up outside with the other trainees and get ready for our morning exercises,” Lashira replied. They made their way outside and joined the other students. In the dim light, Kiara saw that most of them were bleary-eyed and still sleepy.

After a while, another group of trainees joined them. They were the unfortunate ones who had overslept. Many of them were openly crying and rubbing their hands over various parts of their body.

A wiry man with leathery skin and a hollowed face stepped up. Kiara thought he looked malnourished but kept the sentiment to herself.

“Welcome to your first day in the Galtean Military Academy. Today, you’ve finally become real trainees. Today, you will start your journey towards becoming Galtean soldiers, the best in the four kingdoms. My name is Captain Cassius Seg’r and I will be leading you when it comes to your morning warm-up exercises.

“Let me warn you, once you hear the sound of the rising horns, I expect you to be off your beds immediately and outside here. Some of you did not have the sense to do that today and were whipped for slacking. Today’s punishment will be nothing compared to what tomorrow’s defaulters shall face.”

Kiara shivered and made a mental note to try to wake up even before the rising horns sounded. She saw Tiya walk up to her and whispered to her, “Good morning.”

Tiya didn’t reply, instead she just nodded glumly.

“What’s the matter?” Kiara asked, concerned that Tiya was not her usual vivacious self.

Tiya showed her the posterior part of her arm and Kiara gasped loudly when she saw broken bleeding skin in two places.

Without asking, Kiara knew Tiya had been whipped for oversleeping. She patted Tiya’s shoulder and whispered words of comfort into her ear.

“Now I’ve told you everything, off we go!” Captain Seg’r hollered, and some trainees cheered.

“Wait! What?” Kiara asked, lost. She’d missed the captain’s words while she’d been consoling Tiya.

“We’re going to run round the Academy four times, starting now,” Lashira informed.

“No way,” Kiara said. “The Academy’s compound is very large. How do they expect us to do this on an empty stomach?”

“The last four trainees to cross the finish line will be punished!” the captain shouted and immediately, the three girls ran off, not wanting to receive a taste of the punishment.

*    *    *

Kiara gulped in air and looked behind her, taking solace in the fact that there were scores of trainees still behind her. Helping her mother carry wares from their home to the market square had given her a high endurance limit for middle-distance races.

She looked forward and continued running, with Tiya and Lashira trailing her closely.

Soon, she began to tire rapidly, and in no time Tiya, Lashira and some other trainees had overtaken her.

“What is wrong with me?” Kiara asked, she usually did not get tired that easily.

She tried to regain her speed, but it was impossible. Her breathing became labored and her legs weak.

“Kiara, is everything alright?” Tiya asked with concern when she noticed her friend was lagging behind.

Kiara was too exhausted to reply, so she just nodded and motioned for them to keep running.

“You don’t expect us to run along without you now, do you?” Lashira asked.

“Believe me, being thrashed is not something you’d enjoy,” Tiya expressed in a heartfelt manner.

A boy shoved Kiara from behind and she almost fell.

She stumbled and regained her balance almost immediately.

“That’s it,” Tiya said and slowed down. She walked a few paces backward and gripped Kiara’s right arm. Lashira did the same, latching onto Kiara’s left arm.

“Leave me,” Kiara moaned, experiencing vertigo. How could she let the girls know the world was swimming around her?

“No. You must come with us,” Tiya replied, tugging her forward.

“Yes. There are very few people behind us,” Lashira added.

Kiara wanted to shout at them to leave her alone, but she hardly had the energy. After a while, it became a chore to keep her eyes open, and without any warning to her friends, Kiara slumped.

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