Prism jumped from one wooden pillar to another. As they increased in height they also increased in distance from each other, and he'd yet to make it to the highest pillar. He reached the second highest, scrambling on the edge to keep his momentum before leaping toward the highest pillar with all the strength of his legs.
He collided with the side of it, his fingers stretching for the top edge of the pillar, but they came up empty and he slid to the ground, once again defeated by the long jump. Seven months of training, and he still couldn't make that jump. He spent five hours a day in physical training, two before breakfast, two before dinner, and an hour before bed. The last he added to his schedule of his own free will, driven to master the techniques his master showed him.
Still the final jump eluded him. Still he collapsed to the ground defeated every time. He let gravity win and slumped against the base of the pillar, catching his breath as he went over the jump in his mind, wondering how he could cover the last stretch of distance. A form darted through the air above him, and the pillar vibrated as someone landed atop it.
"Your left foot slipped. Again," said Master Vinhkroludar from above him. Prism looked up from his slump to see the shaved master with his prominently pointed ears, fierce blue-green eyes staring at him, an apple in his hand. He took a bite and a small drop of juice fell from his mouth and landed on Prism's forehead.
Prism wiped the juice with the back of his hand, blending it with the sweat which covered every inch of his face. "How come you's gets to eat when it's not mealtime?" He asked as he stood and stared at the master accusingly.
"I'll forgive you for abusing our mutual tongue again, just because you're dazed from the fall," Master Vinh said, taking another bite of his apple as he crouched on the pillar's flat top.
Prism sighed. After seven months, he'd picked up the speech patterns of the other monks, but his native dialect sometimes took over, especially during moments of distress. He bowed out of respect to Master Vinh and said, "I'm sorry. How come you get to eat when it's not mealtime?"
"I can reach the apples," Master Vinh said, pointing to the apple tree beside them. The only tree in the Eastern grounds, it had sprung up in a seemingly random location, yet the monks cared for it as if it belonged there. This species of apple had no low-hanging branches, though several branches extended out toward the wooden pillars, thick and full with fruit. Prism assumed Master Vinh had snatched one while vaulting toward the final pillar.
As if to drive the point home, Master Vinh took another bite and said, "Speaking of reaching high places, it's time to get up and try again."
"Try again? I missed it completely!" Prism protested. "This is impossible!"
"Impossible? Am I not standing here as proof?" Master Vinh asked, extending his hands dramatically. "Try again, Prism. I'll give you an apple if you get it right." Another taunting bite followed the statement, and Master Vinh's smirk set Prism's blood boiling.
"One apple?" Prism asked, barely managing to contain his anger behind his frown. "That's it?"
"You've become so demanding since you turned sixteen. A typical youth if I ever saw one," Master Vinh said. Another bite, another smirk. "Accomplishing the task should be reward enough."
Prism gritted his teeth and balled his fists. He hated it when Master Vinh taunted him. But the desire to wipe the smirk off Vinh's face was enough to drive Prism back toward the lowest pillar. "Fine. I'll try again," he said as he backed up, preparing to run and jump.
He sprinted toward the pillar, jumping as he neared it. Using the jumping technique Master Vinh taught him, he kept the momentum going as he landed, immediately vaulting off the first pillar to the second, clearing distance and height to land atop the next pillar. He repeated this process for the next three pillars until he reached the second to last, shouting to summon all the strength to his core as he vaulted toward the last pillar again.
His fingers hit the pillar an inch below the edge, and he slid back down to the ground, this time rolling backward when he landed and coming up standing.
When he looked back up at the pillar, Master Vinh was crouched again, chewing on another bite. He swallowed it and said, "Oh, now that was close." Extending the almost-finished apple core toward Prism, he added, "Want a bite?"
"You's are infuriating!" Prism said, glowering at Master Vinh. An apple core nearly collided with Prism's face a moment later, but he managed to deflect it to the side. "What was that for?"
"I forgave you for saying 'you's' once today. You get only one free use of the word," Master Vinh said, "but you're welcome to what's left around the core."
Prism glanced at the apple core, now bruised and dirty near the base of the second pillar. "It's covered in dirt."
"Seems that's all the apple you're going to get," Master Vinh said. "You could have that one or any which fall to the ground if you want."
"You shouldn't waste food, Master Vinh," Prism scolded. Despite the disrespect to his mentor, his frustration had reached its limit, and he no longer cared if he faced repercussions.
Master Vinh smiled. "You shouldn't speak to a Master that way."
"Even one as arrogant as you?" Prism replied without hesitation.
"It's not arrogance when one has earned their position," Master Vinh said. He stood tall on the pillar, assuming the one-footed heron stance. "Maybe you should come up here and speak to me on even footing?" Master Vinh asked.
Prism considered delivering a flying kick to the pillar to knock the master down. Sighing, he indulged his mentor's lesson one more time. He prepared for another ascent, bounding up the pillars as before, until his fingers reached the edge but not high enough for him to grip it.
"Oh, that was so close!" Master Vinh said excitedly, clapping. "You almost had me there. Let me give you a hint. The apple was only wasted if you fail to learn the lesson."
Prism raised an eyebrow to complement his glare at the master. He walked back toward the first pillar, considering the point for a moment. When he turned to face the series of pillars he contemplated them all at once. Until this point, he'd treated the pillars as individual steps along the way, instead of considering it as one process.
Studying it now, he noticed a lower branch of the apple tree extended far enough to almost come between the last two pillars. He'd never connected it to the process until now, but Master Vinh hadn't mentioned the apple without reason.
He sprinted again, bounding up the first pillars with precision. As he reached the second to last, he adjusted his angle and jumped for the lower branch of the apple tree. His months of precision jumping allowed him to land perfectly on the branch, and he used the spring of it to launch him to a higher branch, which he caught with his arms and used its suspension to cancel his momentum. He snagged an apple and slid down the trunk to the ground.
"Splendid! Well done!" Master Vinh said, clapping. He dived from the pillar into a forward roll, absorbing the impact of his fall as he sprang to his feet.
Prism bit into the apple and swallowed the first scrumptious bite. "The goal was the apple all along," he said, brandishing the fruit at Master Vinh.
Master Vinh grinned and pointed at the pillars while Prism ate his well-deserved reward. "Do you want to know a secret, Prism?"
"Please, tell me what I was doing wrong," Prism said between bites.
"I move the pillar an inch every day after you almost catch the edge," Master Vinh explained. "I've moved it twenty-three times since we first started seven months ago. If I'd left it where it was your first time, you'd have jumped over it by now."
Prism shook his head, annoyed. "Why?"
"You don't understand?" Master Vinh said, his grin disappearing. "Then I should've left it there for all the good it's done."
Prism stopped to consider the point, trying to find the wisdom in the apple. "The goal wasn't the apple, the goal was to make the attempt no matter how difficult the task."
"Why?" Master Vinh asked, his eyes lighting up.
"Because you told me to?" Prism said hopefully.
"You went through all that because I told you to?" Master Vinh asked, chuckling.
"No . . ." Prism said, grinning, "I did it to wipe that smirk off your face."
"Good enough," Master Vinh said, sighing. "At least you had a personal motivation."
"And, I can reach the apples," Prism said, brandishing the apple again before taking another bite.
Master Vinh nodded. "Indeed. Once you've finished that one, fetch me five, if you don't mind."
Despite Master Vinh's choice of words, Prism heard the command behind them. It didn't matter one bit whether he minded or not, if he didn't fetch five apples, the following lesson would be far more taxing.
So he finished the apple quickly, then bounded back up the pillars, easily making it into the tree once again. He snagged five apples tucking them into his robes before descending the trunk.
He handed all five to Master Vinh and asked, "What are you going to do with these?"
"Juggle," Master Vinh said, tossing the apples into the air one by one and keeping them circulating with ease. He didn't even have to watch them as he returned his attention to Prism. "Do you know why I came to Ultaka, Prism?"
"No. You've never told me. Have I earned the privilege of knowing?" Prism asked.
Master Vinh smiled as acknowledgement. "One day, a brave human ventured onto the northern Dobrag tundra. He wanted to open trade with the Gor tribes and the Elroks in the south mountains. He wasn't a merchant himself, just worked for one."
"And the Gor caught him, chopped him to bits, and cooked him with apples?" Prism suggested, hoping to disrupt Master Vinh's concentration.
"Please, the Southern Gor tribes are nothing like the Northern ones," Master Vinh replied, catching the apples. "You have too violent an imagination, Prism." He rolled his eyes and resumed juggling all five apples. "Gor don't eat humans. If we did, I would've eaten you seven months ago to save me the trouble of training you."
Prism chuckled fondly, and bowed out of respect before asking, "Okay, so what happened?"
"That human had a thirst for adventure, a rare thing in this age. No one cares about exploring anymore, because the world is already so connected. We have newscasts and an amazing public transit system. Wireless communication took hold two decades ago, and now people can even see each other on their broadcast screens as they talk to each other. People can see the world without even leaving their homes, and when they do they stay within the lines." Master Vinh met Prism's gaze and held it for a pregnant pause. "Few people choose to step outside that box. No one explores, no one juggles."
"I don't see the connection," Prism admitted.
"No?" Master Vinh said. "Well, let me explain. That man, Colthan Dreggor, wasn't a merchant, as I said. He wasn't interested in monetary gain, he just wanted to see life in the Dobrag. He took a job with an enterprising businessman who wanted to establish trade routes, and even with only a base understanding of the Gor tongue he bravely entered our territory." For the first time since they began training together, Master Vinh's eyes grew wistful, and sadness added a subtle quiver to his voice. "The Gor took Colthan captive, stripping him of anything he could use as a weapon until they could determine what to do with him. They kept him confined in a cabin but allowed him food. A youth was assigned to bring him food."
"You?" Prism asked.
"Me," Master Vinh confirmed. "Colthan had a thing for ice peaches. I wasn't supposed to bring him fruit, but he liked them so much, I sneaked him a peach on occasion. He collected the pits, and as soon as he had two he'd juggle them for me."
"Was he any good at it?"
Master Vinh smiled fondly and said, "Not at first. In fact, he was so bad he dropped them nearly every other toss." He laughed heartily, pausing his juggling until he recovered. He juggled two apples with one hand as he continued, adding the others back in with each sentence. "But I brought him a few more peaches, and he added a few more pits. He'd juggle them for me, trying out new patterns and trying to get me to juggle them back with him. We'd practice every day, and we both improved until every single toss was perfect."
"And juggling eventually bought him his freedom? He impressed the chief who let him go because he was amusing?" Prism surmised.
"It bought his freedom, but not in that way," Master Vinh replied. "No, one day I came to deliver his meal and found Colthan's guard lying next to an open cell door." He shook his head, sighing helplessly. "Welts covered the guard's face and throat, and six peach pits lay scattered across the floor. Colthan escaped, but not back to human lands. He made his way to a neighboring tribe and charmed his way into their graces using all the Gor he'd learned from me. He's an old man now, but he still lives in the Dobrag, and is good friends with my tribe."
Prism considered the story for a moment, but he couldn't make sense of Master Vinh's line of thinking. "I don't see the point," he admitted.
Master Vinh's eyes narrowed, and five apples came hurtling toward Prism's face and chest. Prism deflected the first four with practiced movements from his daily training. He caught the fifth and took a bite, smugly regarding Master Vinh.
"Good, your reflexes have sharpened, and your instincts are strong as ever. You knew I'd throw the apples at you. It's the only way you could've matched my speed," Master Vinh said with approval.
Prism swallowed a second bite and shrugged. "I still don't understand."
Master Vinh continued. "Colthan explored the world, testing the limits of his existence. When his world became a one-room cell, he continued to test those limits. He explored his options, made peace with someone who could help him, and used what tools he had to escape into the larger world." He stooped to retrieve the four uneaten apples and assumed another circular pattern with them. "Juggling, Prism, is about keeping everything in motion, and establishing a rhythm, but the excitement comes when you break the pattern and do something no one expected." He changed the order of the apples, throwing two up at once in the middle, then two on the side, switching between the two columns and creating a wave pattern. "That's how you improve."
Prism smiled, sure he understood it now. "When you can't reach the next step, you change your approach. You jump for the apple tree instead of the post," he said.
"You jump for the apple tree instead of the post," Master Vinh agreed. "Now, you've got some options ahead of you, some choices to make. You're stuck with the Order for the next nineteen years and an odd number of months. You're going to be training every day, essentially living the monk's life. After your first year, you may be able to earn probation, and be allowed to leave the Temple grounds, but for nearly twenty years you won't be able to live your life as fully your own."
"What are you getting at?"
"You still have options. You can join the Order and become a full monk, swearing the proper oaths and committing yourself to the world," Master Vinh replied.
"Giving up sex, even physical contact with others outside of my monk duties?" Prism asked. He'd given thought to this option before. Considering how much he'd learned so far, he believed he could find happiness with that life. But he hadn't determined anything yet.
"That's one side of it. We strive to improve, to become as mighty as a mountain, rooted firmly in discipline as we stand steadfast in defense of the world. That means sacrificing certain things," Master Vinh replied. "But again, it is not the only path. As a pardon, you may also swear to live as a monk for the duration of your sentence, with the understanding that once your sentence ends you are free to live in whatsoever manner you choose."
"What advantage does that afford me? I'll be too old to make much good of my life," Prism said. This had remained his primary concern about completing his sentence altogether. His mother died at an earlier age than he would be when he finished his time. Tobrig had only made it to thirty-one.
"If you think that, I have a lot to teach you. You are never too old to begin living your life. Have you forgotten the apple tree already?" Master Vinh said. "Despite that lesson, committing to the monk's life during your sentence can afford you the opportunity to renegotiate your sentence, and it could possibly be reduced by as much as half."
"Why are you only telling me this now?" Prism asked.
"These options are not available to you until you complete your first year. You can still choose neither option, if both are unsettling to you," Master Vinh said with a shrug. "Kaeral has made it clear he has no intention of living as a monk, and once he earns probation I'm sure he'll adopt his old habits. I already know you cover for him when he sneaks out at night."
Prism started, his eyes wide as he took an involuntary step backward. "You know about that?"
"As does Grandmaster Valkean," Master Vinh said, chuckling. "We know he slithers through the crack in the garden wall and has been since he came to us. We witnessed it last night and have witnessed it several times before. What we don't know is why he keeps coming back, and that is far more intriguing to us than confronting him."
Prism saw little reason not to cooperate now. "I honestly don't know."
"I have a theory. I believe he's coming back because, like you, he craves discipline and order in his life. In Gor, the concepts of discipline, order, stillness . . . they're all summed up in a single word. We call it Nar. It's intrinsic to every Gor, we crave it like mother's milk. The opposite force, Chen, the concept of movement, chaos, and instinct, is just as powerful, and drives us in other ways. Kaeral has lived his entire life following Chen, and only now has he had a true taste of Nar," Master Vinh explained. "I believe you've done the same. As I sought Chen when I left my people, following Colthan's example."
"And you'll let him keep sneaking out?" Prism asked.
"He keeps sneaking out like you kept leaping for the pillar," Master Vinh replied. "He keeps coming back because it's the apple tree. Here we're more concerned with the development of his soul than strict adherence to the rules and regulations."
Prism scoffed. "Though you drill those into my skull anyway."
"Of course," Master Vinh said. "You crave Nar, after all." He gave Prism a wide smile and went on, "You have options, Prism. It's not only three. You could do a thousand different things. A million. Every avenue is open to you, if you've the will to pursue it."
"Every avenue?" Prism asked. "What if they keep moving the post? Ah! I get it!"
He dropped the apple, turning back to the pillars. He rushed into the sequence again, taking him into the tree. As he reached the lower branch and launched himself to the one above, he swung upward and around it, landing on the higher branch. From there it was an easy jump to the highest pillar.
Perched atop it, he could see over the wall, Kobinaru glittering on the ocean shore in the distance. The longing he'd buried for the past seven months returned to him, for a boy who'd saved him without question, and who'd set him on this path in the first place.
"Not every path is straight." Master Vinh said, patting the base of the pillar. "Enjoy your apples, Prism."
When Prism returned to the monks' quarters, Kaeral's door was cracked open, signaling to Prism that Kaeral intended to sneak out again. He'd escaped the temple with greater frequency as the months had worn on, though Prism had no idea why.
Kaeral never spoke of his adventures outside the temple, and Prism had never asked. Though he once considered information as good as currency, Kaeral was his one and only friend, and he didn't want to risk that friendship by invading Kaeral's privacy.
He also enjoyed helping his friend whenever he could, so he crept down the hall and into Kaeral's room, finding the young Gor sitting by the window and staring into the twilight sky.
"You spent all afternoon in that tree. What a crazy boy you are," Kaeral said in place of greeting. Prism appreciated the banter they shared. Kaeral teased him, out of friendship, not out of any desire to mock Prism's ideals.
This helped reinforce Prism's courage to say, "I'm coming with you tonight."
"What? How?" Kaeral asked, surprised but not angry. "You know you can't fit through the crack."
"I don't have to. I can get over the wall," Prism said. "The apple tree will get me over for sure."
Kaeral nodded. It made sense, considering the leaps Prism had made earlier that day. The apple tree didn't quite reach to the wall, but it would be close enough. That didn't fully solve the problem, however. "How will you get back in?" He asked.
"I'll figure that out when we get back," Prism said, shrugging as if it didn't matter one bit.
"Prism . . . breaking the rules," Kaeral said, sliding away from the window. He embraced Prism, ruffling Prism's non-existent hair. "It's been awhile. Welcome back! To what do I owe the pleasure of the young rogue's company?"
"I want to see someone," Prism offered.
"Who?" Kaeral asked, grinning. "A girl?"
"He lives in the palace," Prism said.
"Grim? You're joking," Kaeral said, groaning in frustration. Prism shrugged, not bothering to explain his intentions further. Since Master Jan died, only Kaeral knew of Prism's attraction to the Duke's son. It had taken several weeks of fishing to learn if Kaeral considered such attractions improper from his years living among humans.
"Will you help me?" Prism asked.
Kaeral stared at him for several seconds, grinned, and nodded, laughing helplessly. "Well, it isn't going to happen tonight, that much is certain. We'll have to plan it, and it's risky. If we get caught, we'll both have our sentences extended beyond our life spans."
"But you can get me there?" Prism asked.
With a flourish of a bow, Kaeral replied, "No one knows the streets of Kobinaru better than I do."
"How do you get inside the city, anyway?" Prism asked.
"I guess I'll have to show you my secrets, eh?" Kaeral replied, clicking his tongue. "But can I trust Master Vinh's star pupil?"
Prism shrugged. His answer didn't matter. Kaeral would decide whom he trusted regardless of any opinion Prism offered. Instead, Prism said, "I'm ready whenever you are."
Kaeral nodded. "We'll leave an hour after sunset, then we need to get down to the shore. That takes about a half hour if I sprint. I know you can run, but I bet you'll add about five or ten minutes to our time, just because you're unfamiliar with the terrain."
"Then what?" Prism asked.
"We strip and swim to the docks. They can't see us in the water," Kaeral said. "You can swim, can't you?"
"Yes. We used to bathe in rivers back home. We were taught how to swim in case we went out too far and the current caught us."
"Good. Ocean swimming is a bit different, but if you stick with me, we'll be fine," Kaeral replied.
"So we arrive naked in Kob, then what?" Prism asked.
"Someone will meet us on a fishing ship with a red lantern," Kaeral said. She'll probably only have extra clothes for one person, so we'll have to figure it out from there, but I'm sure we can improvise. There are others on the boat, so we can borrow from a few people as needed. Once we get inside her home, there will be clothing for both of us."
"Then you can get me to the palace?" Prism asked. Noting Kaeral's resignation, he hastened to add, "for a stake-out, not to break in tonight."
"Yes. We'll catch a late streetcar," Kaeral said. "They run through the night, but at decreased frequency."
Prism hugged his best friend and said, "Yes! Thank you, Kaeral."
"Don't thank me yet. We haven't done any of it," Kaeral replied dryly.
"No, but we will," Prism said. "I'm going to get those apples."
"You're so strange, Prism."
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