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Race the Sands, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  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’re crazy.

  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.

  Her students.

  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.

  Chapter 2

  Neither was dead, which was a miracle.

  Both were broken, though. Badly. Left leg, one rib for Amira. Three ribs and a concussion for Fetran. Their parents had descended on the training ground, cleared out their belongings from their rooms, canceled their lessons, and demanded that Tamra compensate them for all healers’ bills.

  She’d argued they’d signed contracts, relieving her from responsibility for the cost of any injuries or funerals, except in cases of negligence.

  Putting unprepared students onto the racetrack counted as negligence, they’d argued.

  She had little defense against that.

  The injuries proved she’d made the wrong choice.

  It didn’t matter that she couldn’t afford the healers’ fees, not on top of everything she owed the augurs for her daughter’s training. And it didn’t matter that if the riders-to-be had been talented enough to become real riders, they would have risen to the challenge. Instead of dreaming of glory, she should have coddled them—that’s what their parents had wanted.

  I misjudged that. I thought they’d want me to turn them into winners, if I could.

  Riders got hurt. It was what happened in the Becaran Races. It was part of why the people loved them—there was true risk. And there were stiff penalties for anything the officials ruled as negligence. “Racing comes with risk,” she told the parents.

  They swore to go directly to her patron. Insist Lady Evara rescind her patronage. Kick Tamra off her training grounds. And then they’d file a complaint with the racing commission. Insist the commission charge her with overt negligence and revoke her training permit. Require her to submit proof of an acceptable augur reading before ever being allowed to work with children again, a demand usually made only of proven criminals. Or bar her from the tracks across all of Becar.

  She should have groveled—as elite south-bank Becarans, they were used to the lower classes groveling at their feet—but she’d never been good at that. “Do what you need to do,” she’d told them, and they’d stomped off to the ferry dock, following their injured offspring, whom Tamra was certain she was never going to see again, much less train.

  By the end of the day, all the parents of her students had come to her, expressed their concern, listened to her apologies, and then politely withdrawn their children. One went as far as to say that they should have known better than to expect more from a lesser Becaran. As her last student left, she told herself, You did this. In one misguided dream of glory, you lost them all.

  Avoiding the other trainers and their students, Tamra retreated to the stalls. She occupied herself with checking the locks on the doors and shackles. She didn’t want to hear any snide comments or even accept any sympathy. Says something about my life that I’m more comfortable being with monsters, she thought. She patted one of the kehoks on her broad neck. The monster swung her golden eyes toward Tamra and then bared three rows of teeth and lunged forward to snap at her hand. Tamra was quick enough to avoid losing any fingers.

  “Yeah, I feel the same way,” she told the kehok, who was glaring at Tamra balefully. Drool dribbled from the kehok’s jaws. “Ugh, people are the worst, right? Myself included. Good thing there’s no chance I’ll be reborn as one.” It had been years since she’d paid for an official reading, but she had no illusions about the state of her soul. Being reborn as human, even as a lesser Becaran, required a kind of balance that most did not have. There was no shame in that. Unless you were destined to be a slug.

  Or a kehok.

  She should never have let those children try to race. Closing her eyes, she let the guilt swamp her. They trusted me. And I failed them.

  She prayed to her ancestors and theirs that they healed quickly. Even if she never saw them again. Even if she never had another student. Even if their parents did take the revenge they’d promised and had her barred from the track. She’d wanted more than those kids could give, and that hadn’t been fair to them. She’d pushed fish to fly like birds, and she should have known better.

  Only when she was certain that the grounds were deserted did she begin the trudge home. The desert wind had shifted—the evening wind coming from the east, with a bite of chill. Stars were beginning to poke through the graying sky, and she took comfort in the familiar constellations: the Crocodile, the Emperor’s Robe, and the Lady with the Sword. The lady’s sword was ascendant this time of year, and the three stars that made the blade shone bright
er than anything else in the sky. She used to tell her daughter, Shalla, the story of the Lady with the Sword, who saved an emperor from an army of assassins, suffered a mortal wound, and was reborn as a constellation.

  Oh, Shalla, what am I going to do?

  She had until the next augur payment to figure it out.

  Set apart from the city, the training grounds and their practice racetrack were two miles from the closest nest of houses, far enough away to warrant their own river dock but close enough that the road between was well-worn, hardened sand. Beside the road was the mighty Aur River, black without the sun shining on it. Ahead, Tamra saw the soft amber glow from the tightly packed clusters of houses on the northern bank, all with the traditional white walls and blue-tile roofs. On the other side of the river, the southern bank, the palaces of the wealthy were lit with blue-glass lanterns, bathing their white walls in faux moonlight.

  You couldn’t tell there had been another riot there yesterday.

  According to the other trainers, who loved to gossip, a group of textile workers had gone unpaid, and the business owners had blamed the emperor-to-be for unsigned contracts. Last week it had been dockworkers. Thankfully, both times the augurs had been on hand to help the city guard calm everyone down before the riot got out of control. But the turmoil was only going to get worse until Becar had an actual emperor again. Fun times.

  At least tonight seemed peaceful. The night herons were calling to one another, a low croon so soothing that it unknotted the muscles in Tamra’s neck and shoulders. She loved her home at night: the sweetness of the cool air, the serenity of the stars, and the knowledge that she’d be able to see her daughter in the brief moments they were allowed to visit before Shalla returned to the augur temple for another day of lessons.

  Tamra picked up her pace, anxious to see her.

  She and her daughter lived in a patchwork kind of house, two mud-walled huts that had been shoved together and painted white to create a two-room home, between a spice shop and a weaver’s workroom. It smelled like a mix of cinnamon and citrus all the time, and there was the continuous comforting whoosh-thump sound of the shuttles on the weaver’s loom. Their house was too small to hold a shop plus living quarters, so the rent was cheap. Wedged between the other buildings, it didn’t look like much. But it was their home, and the recent unrest in other parts of the city hadn’t touched it yet. She wondered if the discontent would reach such a boiling point that it would stop being safe to let Shalla walk to and from temple. She hoped it didn’t come to that. Surely, the emperor-to-be would be crowned soon.

  Tamra let herself in and breathed in the scent of baking onion bread, her favorite. “Shalla? Shalla, I’m back!” Shutting the door behind her, she braced herself.

  A second later, an eleven-year-old girl bounded out of the second room and launched herself toward Tamra. Shalla had shiny black hair, burnished bronze skin, and brilliant purple eyes—her eyes were a legacy from a man that Tamra barely remembered, though she once thought she loved him. She’d named her Shalla, which meant “star,” because she was the light that guided Tamra through the darkest parts of life.

  Shalla launched herself into Tamra’s arms, hugging her so tight that Tamra let out an “Oof!”

  “Mama, you will not guess what happened!” Grabbing Tamra’s hands, Shalla skipped in a circle as if she were again five years old. A memory flashed into Tamra’s mind of her daughter that young, pudgy-cheeked and mud-spattered, contrasting with the polished young student she was being groomed to become, and Tamra felt like laughing and crying at the same time.

  Shalla often made her feel that way, especially these days.

  “You sprouted wings and learned to fly,” Tamra guessed.

  Stifling a laugh, Shalla rolled her eyes. “Mama.”

  “You tamed an elephant and want to keep him as a pet.”


  “You met the Lady with the Sword, and she promised you a ride across the desert on her magical cheetah, but first you had to eat a lake of honey.”

  “Mama! I passed the level eight exam!” For the past three weeks, Shalla had barely slept, worried about the exam and consumed by the fear that the augurs had made a mistake in choosing her—only the best souls were reborn as potential augurs. An irrational fear, Tamra thought. Of course my Shalla was glorious in her past life. But now all that worry had vanished, and Shalla was beaming joy with every bit of her body. Tamra wouldn’t have been surprised if she started to glow bright enough to drown out the city lights.

  Beaming back at her, Tamra kissed her on both cheeks. “Knew it! You are the most clever, most wise, most brilliant, most talented, most—”

  Shalla laughed again. “Only in your eyes.”

  “My eyes are the only ones that matter. I see you clearly.” Tamra cupped her daughter’s face in her hands and met her gaze, hoping her daughter could read her sincerity. She meant every word. Shalla was a miracle and a marvel.

  Pulling back, Shalla batted her mother’s hands away. “Gah! You’re looking at me like you look at kehoks!”

  “I’m looking at you with adoration and admiration!”

  “Exactly what I said.” Then she yelped, “Oh, no, I burned it!” She scampered across the room to the brick oven and yanked the door open.

  “You didn’t,” Tamra said reassuringly. No smoke. No burning smell. “It’s perfect. Like you.” If she told her daughter that often enough, maybe someday she’d believe it. Her worth wasn’t measured in exam grades or in the approval of the augurs. She was worthy no matter how well she did or didn’t do. Tamra wanted her daughter to understand that at the very core of her being.

  Growing up, no one had ever told Tamra she had any worth. In fact, it was always the opposite.

  Her one driving force from the second Shalla was born was to make sure that girl knew she was loved. And then the augurs saw her value, too, and took her away from me.

  At least she had her back at night. For now, a tiny fear whispered inside her. Tamra pushed the fear back. She wasn’t going to waste a moment bemoaning the fact that Shalla was destined for a higher purpose. Tamra spent enough time in the day drowning in bitterness and regret. Nights were for joy.

  Shalla poked at the crust of the bread. She’d been cooking on her own for nearly a year now, and Tamra thought she had a talent for it. “You’re right. Not burnt!” Shalla cheered. “Mama . . .” Her shining face began to frown. “Augur Clari said to tell you that the fee for level nine lessons is thirty pieces higher than for level eights. But you have enough students, don’t you? It won’t be a problem, will it?” She gazed at Tamra with hopeful eyes.

  For a moment, Tamra felt as if a desert wraith had stolen her breath. They wanted more gold? She’d been warned training was expensive, but Tamra had said she could handle it. She hadn’t had much choice.

  To be chosen to become an augur was considered one of the highest honors in Becar. It was also an honor you couldn’t refuse—if the augurs deemed you worthy, you had to train. Becoming an augur required a pure soul, and those were rare. Becar couldn’t afford to waste a single one.

  Augurs possessed the rare ability to read souls. A trained augur could tell what kind of creature you had been in your past life and what kind of creature you would become when you were reborn. By the end of her studies, Shalla would be able to look at a night heron and tell you if it had once been the baker down the street, or the emperor’s pet cat. Her skills would be in high demand and her future determined. She’d be granted a palace on the southern bank and the vast coffers of the temple would be open to her, in exchange for performing an augur’s duties, and she’d be both respected and feared. The augurs were the moral compass of the empire, ensuring its greatness continued as it had for centuries, keeping Becarans on the path to embrace their destinies. In practical terms, they helped solve disputes, soothed grieving families, and guided people’s behavior on a day-to-day basis.

  Augurs were the heart and soul of Becar, which was lovely.
Just not cheap.

  By law, every trainee’s family was offered the “honor” of paying for the cost of training. In return for regular payments, Shalla was allowed to continue to live with her mother.

  If her family failed to pay, though, Shalla would be taken away. She would become a ward of the augur temple, required to live there and work for them every minute she wasn’t in lessons. Tamra would not even be allowed to see her. Not until her training was complete, and her childhood was over. Shalla would emerge a stranger, formally “severed” from her.

  I won’t let that happen.

  “It won’t be a problem,” Tamra lied.

  Somehow she’d make it true.

  At dawn, Tamra sat alone at the table and ate a slice of onion bread. Last night it had been warm with melted onion. Today it crunched, cold in her mouth. She swallowed it down with her tea. Shalla was gone, back across the river for her daily augur lessons, and the house felt empty and bereft. And the specter of thirty additional pieces of gold hung over Tamra’s head.

  She’d have to grovel before the parents of her former students. Beg them to come back. Also, try to drum up more business, which would be hard with Fetran’s and Amira’s parents positioned against her, poisoning her reputation. At least the parts of it that weren’t already poisoned.

  And even if a miracle occurred and she won a full class of students, she still wasn’t going to be able to pay Shalla’s increased tuition. She was barely making the payments before. It’s not possible, she thought. The math didn’t work.

  She took another swig of her tea. She hadn’t added enough honey, and the bitter taste made her nose wrinkle. So did the thought she’d been trying to ignore all night. Because there was, of course, one obvious way.

  Train a rider who could win.

  Pair him or her with the fastest racer she could find.

  Win a few races, even minor ones, and that’s tuition for months.

  There were plenty of races each season, all with prize money: first the qualifiers, which were regional races held on tracks up and down the Aur River, and then the main races in the Heart of Becar, the capital of the empire. Both the minor and major main races offered pots of gold of various sizes for any top-three placement.