Section I: Episode 3
August 3, 2014
The thrill of the race, the nerve of racing.
Galavar watched Asash sail across the gymnasts' obstacle course, pinning his body between floorless walls, dangling and jumping between far-paced hand-hoops, and balancing on a tiny, unstable ledge. These were only a few of the obstacles that awaited Asash and his rivals, and the spectators marveled.
In the meantime Galavar contemplated his own performance. Beyond his starting marker waited eight jars of water, neatly lined up. Beyond those sloped a dirt hill, cleared clean, with a forest of wooden beams rising up to support thick, cream-white netting that spanned the length of the brae.
He would have to carry his jar of water as he climbed that net.
And the baton. He would have to carry that too.
Beyond the crest of the hill would be the three heavy baskets that he would have to lift, but he couldn't see them from here.
A wave of gasps erupted from the crowd. One of the gymnasts had slipped from the hand-hoops and landed in the soft sand. Galavar cringed. It was just enough of a fall that there was no way for her to jump back up. She would have to go back to the start of the hoops. She looked silly there, covered in sand, hair disheveled, and sporting a blindfold over her left eye. But in as long as it took for Galavar to think that, she was on her way back to the steps.
He turned back to the jar of water waiting for him. There was too much water there for him to drink it and hold it in his mouth. The top of the jar was big enough that he couldn't cover it with his hand and brace it against his body. And he had nothing on his person to fashion a lid.
More gasps; this time someone had fallen from the unstable ledge. It was the same gymnast, clearly rattled from her first fall and now in last place. She didn't give up, though. Wiping out would be a greater dishonor than finishing last. Everyone performing today had worked hard to qualify. They all deserved to be there.
At the head of the pack, the first gymnasts were already reaching the end of their course.
Then came the sprinters. Asash wasn't in the lead when he handed Team Javelin's sky-blue baton off to its eponymous captain, but he was close enough that, as Javelin screamed along the track and barreled toward Galavar, she pulled her way in to first place. The fastest runner in Ieik, a real crowd-pleaser. Many recalled her from her first-place performance last year, and she had been in the relay a year before that as well.
There was no more time left for Galavar to figure out his puzzle. He would have to hold the jar freely in one hand as he climbed the net, and move slowly enough not to spill it.
"Stick the top in your gut!" Javelin cried as she thrust the baton into his hand and collapsed to the ground in a pile of gasping lungs.
It took Galavar just a moment to realize what she meant—not the baton but the jar. He ran across his starting marker and picked up the water. Muttering a small hope, he bowed forward and pressed the top of the jar hard into his stomach with his left hand. Then, carefully, he wedged the baton between his left thumb and the jar. So far, so good.
When he stood back upright, he felt the sting of the cold water splashing against his skin…and the water stayed there. He had no extra fat on his belly—few people in Ieik did, let alone youngsters coming into their prime—but his muscles were supple enough all on their own to cushion the jar.
"Soft, hah," he mumbled, and took off.
If he slipped at any point the jar would disgorge its contents for sure, so he climbed onto the mesh carefully instead of jumping straight onto it, and then went slowly at first, getting a feel for the rhythm.
The netting shook. His first rival was underway. Curiosity got the better of him, and Galavar threw a glance over his shoulder to see what solution the other bodybuilder had come up with. He was carrying the jar of water against his own belly also, and Galavar felt a twinge of resentment at having his idea stolen…until he remembered that it hadn't been his idea.
The stern face of his philosophy teacher, Koro, came to mind, and he imagined her rebuking him for his ego.
"Even out of session you're after me," he joked, trying as hard as he could to get comfortable in his rhythm.
The slope wasn't particularly steep here on the early part of the climb, which actually made his work harder. He contorted his body into a horseshoe shape, trying to find something that worked. He had trained for net climbing countless times, but with all four limbs and no jar of water on his belly. The challenge required a completely different position, one that he hadn't figured out yet, and despite all his practice it was as though he were on the net for the first time.
The netting shook again, violently this time, and Galavar heard a plaintive cry rise up from behind him even as a much louder roar erupted from the audience. He didn't need to look. Someone had jumped onto the net and wiped out, spilling their water. Under the rules, anyone who wiped out could still complete their leg of the relay, but wasn't allowed to pass the baton until all the other athletes had done so.
The net shook again, and again. Most of the bodybuilders were underway now. Galavar was still in the lead, but he didn't have a gait he was happy with, and wasn't moving fast enough.
Then, to his left, one of the other bodybuilders all but raced past him. The crowd erupted in one of its inexhaustible cheers, and it was only upon being overtaken that Galavar realized that, previously, he had been the frontrunner, and most of the spectators who could see him had been cheering expressly for him. Ieik was a small place. Everyone knew everyone else. He wondered how many times his name had been spoken in the last few seconds.
The bodybuilder who had passed him was named Nightlight, and Galavar could tell immediately that she wasn't carrying her jar the same way. She had a natural gait on the mesh, accounting for her speed, but she was carrying the jar in her left hand and her left side was facing away from him.
What could she possibly be doing?
At first he tried deduction, but when that failed him he tried peering. It was hopeless, though. She was at just the perfect angle that her own body blocked Galavar's view of her hand.
It was time to take one of Javelin's vaunted risks and speed up. So far he had been keeping a pace at which he felt he could guarantee no mistakes. But he knew he could go faster and probably still hold the water. So he did.
He sped up carefully, forgetting about Nightlight and studying the net with dagger focus. It was all about putting his limbs exactly where they needed to be. Faster, and faster.
But now another bodybuilder passed him, this time on his right. This one's name was Remedy, and Galavar gasped when he saw what Remedy was doing.
"How are you doing that?!" he yelled.
Remedy was walking on the net, the quivering, shaking net, balancing solely on his two feet. He carried the baton and jar in one hand, using the other as a lid. Remedy was even bigger than Galavar, and had just a big enough hand for the job—maybe not covering the jar completely, but closely enough to stop nearly all the water from splashing out.
"I'm hearing 'Congratulations, First Place!'" Remedy shot back, grinning, and carried on.
It was a stereotype that tall, big-framed people were not as good at balancing. What Remedy was doing was amazing. If he deserved to be beaten, surely it was by someone with such pluck.
Another cry from behind told Galavar that another bodybuilder had lost his water. Two wipeouts, and two ahead of him. That meant three more viable competitors behind him. Galavar was in the middle of the pack.
Then it occurred to him what Nightlight was doing. Remedy couldn't possibly have been covering the entire jar top with his hand, but it was enough simply to cover most of it. That's what Nightlight was doing, bending her hand and tilting the jar such that the effective opening at the top was much smaller. She was well ahead of him now, but Galavar was sure he had figured it out.
He still had time to change the way he was holding the water. Once the net got steeper, it would be too late, but for now the jar was still pointing more or less upright.
Conversely, when the net got steeper, Galavar would be able to go much faster.
Because of his awkward position and the still-shallow angle of the slope, his right arm was beginning to tire out. It was time to decide whether to change tactics.
For better or worse, he decided to trust Javelin's advice. He would keep on going the way he had been.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!