The next city we stay in is Sa Yuno, yet another town alongside a river in the prairie. We have one final stop on this continent. When we reach Sa Dunas, you marvel at the size of Kareem’s capital. It’s twice the size of Sa Shirij. To the south of the city is the ocean. We’ll be crossing it in a few days, but first, there are many stories for you to discover here.
It’s early morning when we reach Sa Dunas. The city is bustling with more activity than usual. There are crowds gathering near the various fairgrounds and arenas. You’ll learn why soon enough. I sit on the floor of the common room—once again I’ve secured us an inn to ourselves—and place my hands on the smooth planks. As I did in the Nalik Woods on Kareena, I draw on my power, focusing on events from the recent past. Let me tell you the story of the healer.
* * * * *
Daija and her friends Grace and Trissie sat on one of the stone benches circling the arena. On the floor, at the center of attention, was Daija’s friend Matthew. Their parents owned neighboring shops in the market, so of course the two of them grew up doing everything together. It was only fitting for Daija to watch Matthew’s mazorn, his skill performance. All young men who were ready to court hosted one.
Matthew spoke to his parents and the vishee, the organizer, as he waited for the young women to file in. He kept his attention on the three of them, ignoring the potential suitors filling up the arena’s seating. The young women spoke to one another, making the space anything but quiet.
Daija and her friends had been attending mazorns for the past year in anticipation of their upcoming kezdins, their courtship competitions. Some young women held their kezdins as soon as they turned twenty-five; but Daija, Grace, and Trissie had decided to wait until they were twenty-six.
Despite having attended numerous mazorns, this one felt different to Daija. The men at the other mazorns were strangers or vaguely remembered classmates. None of them were close to Daija like Matthew was. Everything was different, more personal, when she actually knew the young man hosting the mazorn. Society put pressure on men to perform perfectly. Daija was shaky with nerves for her friend, silently hoping he would do well.
All of the women were finally seated, and a hush fell across the arena as the mazorn began.
Matthew opened with music. He cradled his flute, playing a complex, yet beautiful song that immediately captivated his audience. His body swayed with the melody, moving with a grace Daija knew only too well. She smiled, remembering when Matthew had first learned to play. He was always carting his simple beginner’s flute around, taking every opportunity to practice. Despite their adventures, he was careful with it. It never suffered any harm. Now he had an ornately carved flute made of rich, dark wood. The sound it produced was just as rich.
While Daija had heard Matthew play this song before, she wasn’t immune to its mesmerizing qualities. For a long time, there was only Matthew and the sound of his flute. The song came to an end, and the arena was painfully silent for a moment. Then the whispers began.
“He’s very good,” Grace said to Daija. Daija nodded in agreement.
Next Matthew demonstrated his skills with visual art. Sitting at a table the assistants brought in, he drew on a piece of paper. The whispers continued as the audience members amused themselves. Not all skills are enjoyable to watch.
“Do you think he’ll wait for your kezdin?” Trissie asked Daija. “Yours is one of the last ones of the season. What if he enters other kezdins before yours?”
Daija had thought about that possibility a lot. She hated that her kezdin was so late in the season, but the earlier dates had already filled up. She didn’t want to wait until next season and chance losing the opportunity to court her friend. “He’ll enter mine.” She hoped she was right.
When Matthew finished his sketch, the vishee used magic to project an enlarged image of it for the audience to see. The paper bore a detailed illustration of a deciduous tree in spring.
Matthew took up a block of wood and a knife, quickly carving a miniature copy of his flute. Daija watched as his hands skillfully manipulated the tools. She knew about his woodcarving skills. His family sold wooden furniture and elaborate carvings in their shop. He was raised to be a woodcarver.
After the vishee projected an image of the carving, Matthew presented various other skills before ending with the athletic ones. In this part of the world, athletic talent was heavily sought after. Matthew’s trainer joined him on the arena floor, and all of the accessories Matthew had used in his previous performances were removed.
The men bowed to one another before attacking each other with their bare hands. Daija knew the fight was rehearsed because they didn’t severely harm one another. In the kezdins, hand-to-hand combat was frequently brutal. As a healer, she tended to many men who were severely injured after fighting in a kezdin. Matthew moved with grace, deftly avoiding most of his trainer’s attacks and blocking the rest. Then his trainer swiped at his legs, knocking his feet out from under him. Matthew fell but immediately regained his footing. The audience let out a collective breath of relief. After several minutes, Matthew knocked his trainer to the ground and held him there, claiming victory.
He helped his trainer to his feet, and the assistants brought out wooden swords. After bowing to each other once more, they sparred. Their blades were a blur, clashing over and over again. Matthew once again moved with a fluidness that kept him out of harm’s way. He tapped his trainer in the chest with his sword.
Victorious, Matthew turned to the audience and bowed low, indicating the mazorn was complete.
Daija was relieved Matthew’s mazorn had gone well—other than the brief moment when he fell during the hand-to-hand combat demonstration, that is. She and her friends stayed in their seats to avoid the crowd surging for the exit. As they waited, they spoke of Matthew’s skills.
“Did you know he had all those talents?” Trissie asked Daija.
Daija nodded. “It’s hard not to know his talents when we’ve been friends for so long.”
“He’s not the best fighter I’ve seen,” Grace said, “but his music is intoxicating. I could listen to him play all day and never get bored.”
Daija laughed. “You should have heard him when he was younger. He was terrible.”
“So, he’s persistent,” Grace said. “He learned despite being terrible at first. That’s a good quality.”
The arena was almost empty, so they got up to leave. All three of them took a courtship card from the table by the exit. Daija already had one of Matthew’s courtship cards, but it was one of the ones his parents had given her parents when they were babies. She wanted one of his newer ones, too. She would tuck it between the pages of her courtship diary when she got home and added the details of Matthew’s mazorn.
Her courtship diary was almost full now. She wrote about all of the mazorns she attended, marking her favorite potential suitors in purple ink—Matthew’s entry was obviously purple. They would receive invitations to her costume ball to encourage their participation in her kezdin. She just hoped they would still be available come the end of the season.
At least she was guaranteed to have one of them in her kezdin. Last year, toward the end of the season, she had given a man her token. A token was a white square of cloth with her family’s symbol and her name embroidered on it. The man accepted her token, which meant he had to compete in Daija’s kezdin if he lost the one he was currently participating in. He couldn’t compete in any other kezdins unless he was eliminated from Daija’s.
She was glad he accepted the token. He had made it to the final round—fencing—and it was to-the-death. Having her token meant the fight was altered to end when one person was nearly dead. Then a healer would tend to him and save his life, so he could live to compete again.
Since he lost the fencing competition, The Zinian Swordsman was indebted to her.
* * * * *
Several months later, Daija’s family hosted her costume ball. Their symbol was posted on the board next to the arena closest to their home—the one they would be using for Daija’s kezdin. She and her parents stood on the arena floor. It was swept clean, and tables of refreshments lined the round space, interspersed with chairs for guests who didn’t want to dance.
Friends and family streamed through the entrance, clad in formal clothes mimicking the wardrobes of characters from various plays and operas. Daija and her parents greeted them, and they congratulated her on her upcoming kezdin. Then the suitors arrived.
All the young men wore masks, each one unique, and each one attached to an alias. The Blue Dancer. The Magic Flute Player. The Fabled Warrior. She had sent invitations to each of the men whom she had a courtship card for—especially those written in purple ink—though the ball was open to all suitors. Invitations merely ensured the men she liked—those who hadn’t already won a kezdin, that is—knew of her kezdin and would attend her ball.
As soon as the men appeared, Daija was asked to dance. Musicians were already playing songs, so she accepted the first man’s request, and they started the ball. Her younger friends who hadn’t hosted kezdins yet were there to keep the other suitors company while she danced with each one in turn. They would take note of the aliases they liked in the hopes they would attend their own kezdins next season. As Daija danced, she asked her partner questions, getting to know his skills and interests.
She wore white gloves on her hands, and the left one had a pocket where her courtship cards were tucked. She had five cards, and she could give them to whomever she chose. Any man who received one of her courtship cards had to enter her competition. Daija didn’t want to give out any until she had danced with each man at least once. The dancing was exhausting—there were so many suitors—but she kept at it. Her future was at stake. In her mind, she kept note of the men who seemed like the best matches for her.
The Magic Flute Player was one of the first to dance with her. His mask was thin wood, painted orange with a flute and music note accents. “What are your skills?” she asked him.
“If I told you, you’d know who I am,” he said.
She recognized his voice, and she smiled. Matthew had waited for her kezdin after all. “You play the flute?”
Another suitor took his place. The Fabled Warrior’s mask was minimally decorated with only two swords crossed on his forehead. She had seen him before at kezdins last season and was surprised he hadn’t won a competition yet. He was burly, which helped him master athletics. She knew he particularly excelled at martial arts.
Then she was dancing with The Blue Dancer, who was obviously skilled with his feet. His mask only covered the top half of his face. It was made of a stiff fabric rather than wood and was dyed blue with curling silver accents.
“So you can dance,” Daija said. “What else can you do?”
“Anything my lady desires,” he said, “though I have a proclivity for performing arts and fencing.”
He was tall and graceful, his lithe figure different from the stockier men who frequented her city. She wondered if he was a foreigner. It wasn’t uncommon for them to appear at kezdins in large cities like Sa Dunas.
Then she danced with other suitors, discussing their interests and hers. They often complimented her dancing and her position as a healer.
The Blue-Eyed Bowman was obviously skilled at archery, but he also loved painting. Bard of the Night was a talented storyteller, vocalist, and musician. The Artist’s Muse could draw, paint, and sculpt in addition to being skilled in the culinary arts.
While she danced, Daija kept her eye out for The Zinian Swordsman. Where was he? If he didn’t enter her kezdin, law enforcement would have to find and execute him for breaking the token law.
After dancing with every potential suitor in attendance, Daija excused herself and sat in a chair next to a refreshment table, sipping on a cold drink. Trissie joined her. Though she had already hosted her kezdin and married, she attended the ball to support her friend.
“What’s wrong?” Trissie asked. “I can tell something’s bothering you.”
“It’s The Zinian Swordsman,” Daija said. “I gave him my token last year, and I sent him an invitation; but I haven’t seen him tonight. Have you seen him?”
Trissie shook her head. “I haven’t. You rest here while I enquire at the entrance. Maybe one of the assistants has seen him.”
While Trissie was gone, Daija scanned the crowd for The Zinian Swordsman’s mask. It was made of tan cloth and had swords embroidered on the cheeks. There.
On the opposite end of the arena, near the exit, she saw him. He was leaning against the wall, his arms crossed in front of his chest, his eyes intent on the dance floor.
Daija approached him. “I’ve been looking for you all night. Why haven’t you asked me to dance?”
He looked down at his feet. “To be honest, I’m a terrible dancer. I hoped to avoid embarrassing myself.”
Daija knew not every suitor was a skilled dancer, but she hadn’t been expecting that to be the reason he hadn’t approached her. What had she been expecting? “It must be hard to court when you aren’t a strong dancer.”
“Very,” he said.
“Well, we both know you’ve already caught my attention. Why don’t you keep me company while I rest my feet? No one else needs to know you can’t dance.”
“Thank you,” he said, inclining his head. He offered Daija his arm and escorted her back to the refreshments and seating. “It seems I am to forever be in your debt. If it weren’t for you, I would have died last season.”
“I hope this season brings better luck for you. I’m sorry you had to wait a whole year to court again.”
“I’d rather wait a year than be dead. It gave me time to continue training and sharpening my swordsmanship. I didn’t escape death only to lose another sparring match.”
“If fencing is even part of my kezdin.”
“Forgive me. I shouldn’t assume what your kezdin has in store for me. I only hope I have the skills to survive it.”
“We’ll find out in a few weeks.” Daija needed to hand out her courtship cards before the ball ended, so she took her leave of The Zinian Swordsman. Since he was already bound to her competition, she didn’t have to give him a card.
She sought out five of the men, dancing with them a second time and slipping courtship cards into their hands. She didn’t need to give one to The Magic Flute Player—he would join her kezdin with or without it—but she did anyway. She knew what her courtship card meant to him.
After she gave out her last card, Daija pulled away from the floor to seek more refreshments. She was done dancing for the night, and her feet ached. If only she could take her shoes off and use her magic to soothe the tired muscles.
Some suitors insisted on speaking with her once more, and she obliged; but she made them sit beside her along the edge of the arena. Other people still danced. She hoped her friends were enjoying themselves.
It was late at night when the ball finally ended. Once everyone had left, Daija and her parents met with the vishee to finish the plans for her kezdin. While Daija had discussed events with her before, now she had to finalize her choices. There were five rounds to the competition, each with a different activity.
Daija knew what she wanted. She wanted a man who could demonstrate patience and had steady hands, so she chose woodcarving for her first round. It would be an easy start for her suitors, especially The Magic Flute Player. One of Daija’s favorite things as a child was listening to her father tell stories, so she chose storytelling for Round Two. She also enjoyed attending concerts, so Round Three would be music. Like most women in Kareem, she admired physical prowess in a man; so her final rounds were physical competitions: fencing and hand-to-hand combat. She knew many of her favorite suitors were skilled in both of those activities.
Daija had a few choices to make the competition more entertaining. She could make any of the first three rounds a mystery round where the activity isn’t publicized until after the previous round is over. While Daija loved storytelling, she didn’t necessarily want a professional storyteller. To avoid scaring off any mediocre storytellers, she chose to make Round Two a mystery. Since rounds four and five were physical fights, she had the choice to make them to-the-death.
Daija had witnessed many to-the-death fights at other women’s kezdins. Being a healer, she was used to seeing dead and nearly dead people. But did she want to condemn a man to death? It was an honor to die in a kezdin.
“In a city like Sa Dunas,” the vishee said, “men are eager to compete in to-the-death challenges. They find it more rewarding than kezdins that don’t have some risk to them. It’s your choice, but I highly recommend you make at least one of those rounds to-the-death.”
Daija thought about it for a moment. If she made both rounds to-the-death, she would condemn three men. Many kezdins in Sa Dunas, particularly those closer to the center of the city, had their to-the-death rounds at the start; so half of the suitors died at the beginning. She thought three deaths was far better than that. She also knew her younger friends would likely give tokens to the finalists, sparing them. Since the finalists would likely be saved by her friends, Daija chose for only Round Four to be to-the-death. Hand-to-hand combat was brutal enough without it being fatal.
The next day, the events were posted in place of her ball announcement on the board outside the arena. Any suitor interested in courting her would see them and be able to determine whether or not they had a chance at winning her kezdin.
In the two weeks between the ball and the kezdin, Daija often wondered who her suitors were. Had she met any of them before? She obviously knew who The Magic Flute Player was. While she didn’t know The Zinian Swordsman’s identity, she knew of him. Same with The Fabled Warrior. Who was The Blue Dancer? Which of the aliases belonged to the men she had sent invitations to?
“It’s a shame we’ll never know most of their identities,” Grace said as she, Trissie, and Daija poured over Daija’s courtship diary. Since the men reused their aliases for each kezdin, they didn’t reveal their identities when they lost unless they lost by dying.
“Will you have a face reveal after Round Two?” Trissie asked.
If she wanted to, Daija could make the quarter-finalists reveal their identities. She wouldn’t know which alias belonged to which man, but sometimes guessing wasn’t that hard. Would seeing their faces benefit her in any way? “I’m not sure,” she said. “Probably not. I like the idea of seeing the winner’s face for the first time after Round Five.”
Daija just hoped the victor would be a good husband. She’d always liked the idea of the matchmakers people on the southern continent used. They seemed like a better way of ensuring an appropriate pairing. But Daija didn’t have that choice. Not unless she abandoned her friends and family and moved to Lekra where healers were less valued. No. She would stay here and marry whomever won her kezdin. In a few more weeks, she would know who that was.
“Who do you want to win?” Grace asked. “The Magic Flute Player, perhaps?”
Daija knew she’d be happy with Matthew, but it would be strange going from friends to spouses. “I gave him a courtship card, so he’s certainly a contender.”
“What about the Zinian Swordsman?” Trissie asked. “He must be a good match since you gave him your token.”
“He would be good, too. But there are plenty of other talented men. I gave a courtship card to The Fabled Warrior. I’ve seen him around a lot, and I’m surprised he hasn’t won a kezdin yet.”
“He was in my kezdin,” Grace said. “He can’t draw at all. He’s more of an athlete than anything.”
“Who are the others?” Trissie asked.
“The Blue-Eyed Bowman, Bard of the Night, and The Artist’s Muse.”
Trissie giggled. “I’m so glad I’m not a man. Coming up with an alias has to be the hardest part of courting.”
Daija and Grace smiled. “Some are more creative than others,” Daija said. “At least we don’t pick the winner based on his alias. We’ll just have to wait and see which of the suitors becomes my husband.” And hope I’m happy with him, whoever he is, she thought. The kezdin seemed too far off. Why did they have to be two weeks after the ball? It felt like forever to her. Patience, she told herself. It will be here soon enough.