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The site resembled a sandy parade ground. It was a huge, sandy parade ground. Thousands of soldiers trained here, sparring. They were tirelessly beating each other up under the scorching sun, wearing only short pants (sometimes with a bandaged chest, in the case of the women) under the guidance of the Master walking around.
Someone moved his arms like a whirlwind, parodying the famous Chinese fantasy movies. Crazy jumps, contrary to the laws of physics, were the norm here. Someone stopped falling as easily as a feather on the wind, by pushing off the earth using just a single palm. Others were easily shattering wooden shields.
Others fought with a variety of weapons. Their diversity was impressive. Hadjar didn’t know the names of most of these weapons, and he was glad that the familiar staves, wands, swords, bows, swords, axes and hammers were at least there. Some of the girls sometimes waved ribbons around.
It might’ve looked funny, but not when those ribbons left scratches on the stone walls.
And, of course, all of their characteristics were gradually being studied by the neuronet, gaining enough information to be able to perform a detailed analysis.
For example, it could produce something like:
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The Prince walked along the edge of the parade ground, listening to the Master’s shouts. He constantly repeated obscure phrases, like ‘energy circulation’, ‘external techniques’, ‘internal techniques’ and so on.
Sometimes, the old man stopped duos that were training together and showed them how to do something properly. Then, an unlucky student found themselves flung, crashing into the wall, and they’d be considered lucky if they didn’t leave a dent behind.
A new wall was probably erected here every season, because, at that moment, it looked like it had withstood a shelling.
When someone noticed Hadjar, they stopped training and bowed. This continued until the Master noticed a toddler walking around the court.
“Your Highness,” he bowed slightly. “May I ask who let you in and where your Nanny is?”
“I asked for permission from South Wind,” Hadjar replied. Judging by the old man’s face, he was interested to know where the scholar had gotten the ability to give such permission. “ And Nanny is busy with Elaine.”
“And did you decide to come to visit us since you were feeling abandoned?”
Hadjar bowed his head in annoyance. Despite all of his peculiarities, the Master still treated him like a small child. A child whose uncle and father had gone to war (and how could they cover such vast distances so quickly?!), whose mother had gone to a nearby town to execute some corrupt governor, whose Nanny was busy with his sister, and whose teacher wouldn’t be coming out of seclusion for another month.
South Wind was currently working on a new medicine that he was going to use to speed up the development of the nobles. If he got lucky, it would probably bring him a lot of money and, more importantly, fame.
The scholar, even being a cripple, didn’t refuse his attempts to get the attention of the sect.
So, to the Master, he looked like a lost child.
“No, Master, I’ve come to study.”
“Study?” the old man was surprised. He scratched his long, thin beard. “And what are you planning to study here?”
“Martial arts,” Hadjar said proudly. The old man should’ve known better than to ask.
The Master laughed, and a few dozen soldiers that had been standing nearby laughed with him.
“Why do you, your Highness, think that you can study martial arts?”
“Because I’ve decided to do so.”
The old man twitched slightly, having glanced into the child’s deep blue eyes. Damn it, he could’ve sworn that he’d seen a look that could bend iron.
“Your determination is worthy of praise, my Prince,” the Master nodded. “But…”
The martial artist came closer and touched the child’s wrist. He listened for a second, and then opened his eyes and shook his head.
“While you do undoubtedly possess some talent…” the Master sighed, “It isn’t strong enough to achieve true greatness on the path. Perhaps you should go back to South Wind’s scrolls.”
This news could’ve broken another man, but Hadjar was adamant. He had heard, all his life, that he couldn’t do anything or couldn’t handle anything. But in spite of everyone’s words, he’d used to achieve his goals and deal with his problems, punching through any obstacles. He knew that hard work and diligence produced much better results than mere talent.
“I’ve decided to do it,” Hadjar repeated.
Suddenly, the Master realized that he couldn’t convince this two-year-old boy to give up.
“I’ll take you on as a disciple, then,” the old man stood up, blocking the sun.
The court grew silent. The silence hung heavily on the shoulders of the people. They froze, remaining in poses that they’d been in a moment ago. Some of the disciples were even standing with their feet raised above their heads.
First was the South Wind, who had been alive for two thousand years, and had never taken a disciple before, and now the Master, who was almost twice as old as him, and had also never taught anyone personally before.
To tell the truth, luck was part of it. Hadjar had been born the son of the King, and had then expressed a desire to study and then become a disciple of the Master. He was quite a lucky boy.
“But you have to pass one small test, first.”
“What kind of test, Master?”
The old man smiled and pointed to the opposite side of the court. There was a large barrel of water there, on the surface of which floated a wooden cup. Soldiers often went there to rinse their mouths. They were allowed to drink only a few times during training, and the Master oversaw them very strictly.
He would say that nobody was allowed to mix… He said that one couldn’t mix the energy of the sun (fire), with the energy of water. Whatever that meant.
“Do you see that barrel over there, my Prince?”
“Then your test shall be this: you need to pour water from that barrel into this one here,” he patted a barrel next to him that was exactly the same as the other one, only this one was empty. “You mustn’t spill a single drop.”
Hadjar estimated the distance that he needed to cross. It was about fifteen hundred feet from one end of the parade ground to the other. Given the fact that it was difficult for him to take even a hundred steps, it was daunting to imagine having to walk so much more than that. The task was further complicated by the scorching sun, as well as the large size of the barrels; he needed to pour a whole barrel of water.
The warriors hid their smiles behind their fists. Well, they loved their King, who was strict, strong and fair. And yet, they were glad that the little Prince had been put in his place. They hoped that he, being a well-bred boy, would turn around and leave, offended, but without making a scene, like the spoiled children of petty nobles usually did. Neither Nanny nor the Queen would approve of that kind of behavior.
“Well,” Hadjar nodded, clenching his fists.
Nobody had expected this. They also hadn’t expected that the boy would lift a heavy barrel and drag it through the parade ground.
The Master blinked a few times, rubbed his beard and screamed: “What are you staring at?! Keep working!”
No one moved, because the Prince, Haver and Elizabeth’s son, was walking among them. The very thought of touching him caused them to tremble, they were afraid of hurting him accidentally while sparring.
“But, Master, we could…”
“The Prince is doing his job, and you have to do yours as well. Those of you who are going to take a break can forget the way here! Whoever pauses to cool off, they can forget the way here as well!”
Forgetting the way to the parade ground meant missing out on the opportunity to train with the best instructor in the country. No practitioner could allow himself such a thing.
They all craved strength and they weren’t afraid of the danger along the path of cultivation, the complexity of it only fueled their excitement. So it wasn’t surprising that, just a minute later, Hadjar found himself having to dodge other people’s heels and hide his eyes so sand wouldn’t get in them.
He was dragging the heavy cup, looking at the barrel ahead of him intently.
The Master looked at the little Prince. He was ready to save the child’s life at any moment if the need arose, but the disciples whom he was training were also trying not to injure the boy. And so, their movements became calmer, more measured, more reasonable.
Well, little Hadjar’s stubbornness had produced a lot of benefits. He, the Master smirked inwardly, was an excellent training obstacle. Maybe someone would get so deeply immersed in their movements today that they’d be able to get some inspiration and get to the next level.
It would hardly be that beneficial, but who knows.
The Master wondered how long the Prince’s willpower would last. Could he reach the barrel?
It was extremely difficult for a two-year-old child to overcome five hundred yards under the scorching sun, among all the flickering bodies. And what if a heavy cup and hot sand were added to the mix?
However, Hadjar overcame the first hundred yards, then two hundred, and after a quarter of an hour, all five hundred of them. He’d already surprised the Master. But a simple surprise wasn’t enough to force the old man to take him on as a disciple.
And as soon as Hadjar scooped up the first cup and went back, he would understand that it was impossible, at his age, to pour fifty gallons of water without spilling a drop. This wasn’t just difficult for two-year-olds, this kind of exam was used in the army, for people being recruited into the common infantry. And not even every adult could handle it.
And yet, the Prince got to the 2-foot barrel. He puffed and dragged over a small ladder, putting the cup in. It was small for an adult and huge for a baby.
Climbing on the ladder, he scooped up the cup and carefully went back down. Turning around, he walked back.
The Master saw how difficult it was for the boy. He was almost on the verge of fainting, but his eyes… These blue eyes made the Master, who had thousands of life and death struggles, shiver. There was something inflexible and endless, like heaven itself, in them.
The boy went back. Staggering, almost falling, he held the cup with both hands, not allowing a drop to fall onto the sand.
“Hadjar!” Came a cry from behind his back.
The Master turned around and froze. On the stairs leading into the palace, the Queen was standing. Her spacious, amber-colored robes fluttered in the wind. Her hair framed her beautiful face, and a fire burned in her lovely green eyes.
“Careful, Hadjar!” Elizabeth pushed off the stairs.
It was about twenty yards from her to the ground. For an adept of her level, it was no more than a step was to a common man. And yet, no matter how swift and powerful the Queen’s movement was, the lingering warrior’s leg was much closer.
The Master barely managed to turn back and stretch out his power toward the clumsy disciple. He threw him aside with only an effort of strength and will, but it was too late. Hadjar had been hit with the full force of the blow.
Like a limp doll, the boy was thrown into the air and slammed right into the rack of swords.
The Master and the Queen hurried after him, but it was obvious that they wouldn’t get there in time.
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