The boat finally set off a few hours later. By then, the ship had filled up with at least three hundred potential candidates. Vivid retelling of the fight that had occurred hours before was aplenty. Few newcomers believed them, however, and the administrator’s consciousness and lack of reaction to any questions posed to him served only to reinforce the idea that it was an over-exaggeration of a small argument. The fact that Chun had long since put away her sword further weakened the credibility of the tall tale. The story, however, kept the other students away from Chun. They did not want to be on the wrong side of the administrator’s ire.
The massive ship cut through the canals, sometimes even against the wind. Chun was rather curious about this, and she voiced her question to Jack.
“All the successful boat captains are at least minor weavers. The captain of this boat is an above average water weaver. He might even be a retired Cartographer. If you look, you’ll see a weave pushing the boat along when the wind is against us. Most people can weave, but they’ll be about the captain’s level. There’re different ways to grade different weaves, which you’ll probably see later. People powerful as those who built the House are the exception eh.” After giving the girl an explanation, Jack left to mingle with the crowd.
Chun did look, and she did see several small blue streaks in the water. They were, however, much smaller than she had expected. Curiosity sated, Chun’s bored mind began surveying the people around her. Years spent refining her ability to scan for potential threats identified several outliers in the otherwise generic crowd of students.
The most obvious was, of course, the administrator she had dueled earlier. He had been quiet since Chun was welcomed aboard and seemed to be deep in reflection when he was alone. When there were people about, he returned to his trademark scowl.
Less obvious were some of her fellow students. There was a royal on board. Some obscure Duke’s son no doubt. Prominent enough that there was a constant crowd of students around him, desperate to earn his favor.
There was a group of dark-skinned, curly-haired students who stayed in their corner of the ship, glowering at anyone who dared approach them. Chun inched closer, hoping to glean some kind of information of their origins. They spoke a language Chun could not interpret, with long syllables and snappy consonants.
Another one was of similar heritage to the previous group but had pale skin instead of dark. He was chubby where they were skinny but other than that, had similar deep blue eyes and black, curly hair. The group treated him as a stranger and chased him away whenever he tried to join in. After the fourth rebuke Chun observed, the boy gave up, resigning himself to a little corner. The other students avoided him as well, uninterested in a clear outcast.
One particularly interesting outlier was a tall, slender girl. She seemed the perfect Sigelian, with golden blonde hair and bright blue eyes. Her perfect face marred only by her unconcealed distaste for Chun. Chun was unclear as to why this was so, but she made a note to herself to keep a lookout for this girl.
The final outlier was her own partner, Jack. He was and has been, a street urchin for some time, despite his claims of being a fireman. The only irregularity was the items he carried. Everything he carried bore signs of heat damage. The deepest recesses of his coat were caked with soot. There was also the question of the small silvery badge he carried in an inner pocket. Chun only spotted it when it glinted in the heat of Jack’s weaving. He was a mystery.
Lost in possibility, Chun was made wise to the boat’s arrival at its destination by the jarring stop of the boat. She took a look at the island they would spend the next twenty-four years on, assuming everything went well.
It was… disappointing, to say the least. The island was big, no doubt. But it seemed to consist of trees, trees, and an occasional rock or small hill. By far the most distinct feature on the island was a range of green hills across the island, consisting of taller hills.
This was not what the other students expected either, as Chun could deduce from the sudden increase in furious whispering. The administrator stood up, face unsmiling and posture menacing. “This is the Home Island. Some of you will be staying here for the next twenty-four years. Good riddance to the rest. The first trial of many to come will be happening now. There is only a finite space at the basin; it is up to you to claim your space. There is no upper limit to the number of people you can have in your crew.” Glancing at Chun in an overtly unfriendly manner, he continued.
“In an effort to minimize waste of space, there will be a minimum number per crew this year. You need to have at least four members in your crew to claim a space. Gather a crew and elect a captain. The captain will obtain a map and a flare. And remember, if you feel the need, giving up is an option, use the flare provided. Let the Cartographer entry trials begin, and let the blue guide you!”
And with that, the balding man retrieved a box of maps from the captain and sat by the boat.
The whole clearing erupted into a mass of human movement as the students sought out fellows and friends hastily made on the boat journey. A few lucky candidates had come with friends or family. Chun’s trained eyes spotted Jack in the crowd and made a beeline towards him. In the corner of her eye, she noticed the royal had already formed a large group of admirers. The group of dark-skinned students was already leaving. Chun found Jack with the Sigelian girl from earlier. The girl turned to leave the instant she recognized Chun moving towards Jack. Stopped only by the realization that everyone else had gone, keen to gain a head start on the others.
The only ones, the only one, remaining was the chubby native deemed undesirable by everyone else. His original group had disappeared and left him alone. The other students had avoided him altogether.
The girl sighed theatrically, dislike still holding a monopoly on her face. She turned to face Chun, “I hate you and I wish you weren’t here, but welcome to the crew.” She said ‘welcome’ as if it were a bug she found in her mouth. Not even introducing herself, she walked towards the last student and dragged the surprised boy towards Chun and Jack.
Jack rubbed his neck. “She seemed interested in joining a crew with me, and I thought it would be okay. Sorry.”
“It is all right, Jack. This can be settled later.” Then, pointing towards the returning girl and the pale native, “What matters is that now, we have four in a crew and we can start. Since you are the one who brought us together, why not you go and obtain the map and flare. I will welcome the newcomer.”
As Jack left to get the map, Chun turned to greet the newest addition to the small crew. “My name is Chun Li, and who may you be?”
The native seemed surprised that Chun was speaking to him, and also confused at the words that came out of her mouth. Chun realized that the boy might not speak Trade. She raised her hands in the popular handshake gesture and mimed a greeting.
The girl let out an exasperated sigh, and said to no one in particular, “Of course he doesn’t speak Trade. Why should he? I try to be friendly to one guy, and I get saddled with some Eastern yak and a native idiot. Fantastic.”
“What do you mean, Eastern yak?” Chun countered.
“I mean, the little thorn in my side, that you Easterners are stupid and slow. You know only to obey orders. Slow, stupid and obedient? You are all like sheep!”
“A sheep is not a ya –”
“Tut tut – don’t question, obey.”
Fuming, Chun kept quiet, not because the girl had told her to, but because Jack had returned with a map and flare. Jack was looking rather hotheaded himself after returning from his short errand. “He said all the good maps had been taken. This is the best one left.” And he unraveled a completely water stained map. It was unrecognizable and illegible.
The girl cursed. “What are we going to do?”
Chun and Jack were lost. The native, presumably having caught on to the situation after seeing the map, gestured and pointed at a distant object. Jack, having had to do a fair share of charades to get what he wanted from foreigners on the street, quickly realized what he was trying to communicate.
He translated the charade into Trade for the girls. “He thinks we should get on top of that hill range we saw when we came in. I think he thinks we can spot the basin from there!”
Silenced by the ice cold logic present in the native she termed ‘idiot’ earlier on, the girl could do nothing but agree with the plan and follow her crew.
The trek was destined to be long and arduous. As soon as they entered the forest, a pitfall trap opened up and threatened to swallow Jack, who was going first. Only the native’s quick mind and quicker hands saved Jack from serious injury. The crew realized that the journey would not be as simple as they thought. They had encountered tens of traps by their first hour in the forest, forcing to slow down and check for triggers in every tuft of grass.
The boat had left in the evening, and now, the sun was setting. The pale purple rays of the drowning sun cast a sickly red hue on the crew. The tall trees and hills cast long shadows, and soon the forest was blanketed in darkness. The crew counted several flares being fired up into the night sky.
Jack pulled out his lighter and flipped it open, weaving from it and maintained a small orb of fire in his palm. Now, instead of feeding on the lighter fuel, it fed on the magic of the weave and burned brighter than before. “With light, I think we can carry on. We can’t lose time and the others already have head starts on us.”
Chun was torn. On one hand, agreeing would prove the girl correct in her assessment and stain her honor. On the other hand, going forward would put her closer to fulfilling her oath. Chun pulled at her hair in frustration and kept silent.
Thankfully, the native was much more vocal about this predicament than she; he sat down and refused to move.
The Sigelian girl, at the end of her line, weaved the air around the native, trying to push him forward to no avail. He had weaved a column of stone around his feet to hold him down.
“Gah! You stupid, primitive mongoloid! We need to catch up with the others! We can’t afford to lose!”
He responded by gesticulating wildly. He mimed falling down a pit in the dark; vicious predators were also acted out, although rather awkwardly due to his bulk and build.
If the native refused to come, they would be down to three members. At least four members needed to be present for them to qualify. Jack elected to avoid wasting time. If they had to stay overnight, they might as well get as good a nights rest as they could. The girl, now outvoted, could do nothing but resign herself to her fate.
The native wove a small earthen barrier around the group and placed his pack in the center of the circle. He gestured for the others to put their bags in the center as well, before sitting down cross-legged outside the barrier.
Jack and the girl seemed confused by his actions, but Chun quickly understood his intention. Their belongings would be in the center, protected by their sleeping bodies, and she voiced her translation of the native’s actions. Still, he seemed unsatisfied. He mimed a ticking clock and pointed at his wrist.
“He wants us to keep a watch?” Jack voiced out, still confused and looking for confirmation from his other crewmembers. The other girl seemed unsure, but Chun nodded vigorously.
“That makes sense. He appears to know this place better than us, and he has told us that there are wild animals in the forest. This is the best course of action.” Then she turned to the native, tapping him on the shoulder to gain his attention. She conveyed her wish to go on the first watch, and then sat down. He seemed content with the arrangement, lying down and falling asleep almost immediately. Jack and the girl followed suit, leaving Chun alone with her broken blade and the silence of the sleeping forest.