She let the water splash down and gave Alex an expectant look.

He gawked at where the water had been.

"Jinishta wants you to try doing it," Kessa prodded him.

"Um..." Alex sent his awareness into the waterfall. "Okay."

When he tried to inhabit the water, it slipped away. It wasn't like air or energy or solid materials. Instead of receiving his expanded awareness like a comfortable item of clothing, it rolled away.

Alex poured more focus into it. He stopped paying attention to voices, and to the perceptions of his core body. He felt as if he could inhabit the water—he'd had it for a split second—but it kept rolling away. He must be making a stupid error somewhere.

"Alex." Kessa poked his leg.

Alex snapped back to his human body.

"Jinishta says you have potential with water," Kessa said. "But water is a difficult skill to master, and we will discuss it later. For now, show us your other powers. Can you infuse yourself with extra speed?"

"What?" Alex said.

Kessa gave him a helpless look.

"Can't we do this later?" Alex spoke directly to Jinishta, pausing to give Kessa time to translate. "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm worried about my friend; the one you promised to protect." He had more important things to do than humor Alashani and their weird rituals. "How much longer do I need to wait to see Thomas?"

Surely a time estimate wasn't too much to ask. But Jinishta suddenly yanked one of the frilly spears out of her quiver, and, in a blur of hyper-speed, she launched herself at Alex.

He shielded himself with condensed air.

If Jinishta had hurled the spear instead of her whole body, then maybe she would have managed to stab Alex. Instead, she bounced off his air shield. It didn't knock her down. She apparently sensed its invisible appearance, and although her momentum was too great for her to slow down in time, she ran up the shield and did a graceful backflip.

She landed lightly on her feet and tucked the spear away, all in one casual motion.

Alex found himself gawking again, and he closed his mouth. Jinishta had just proved that she could have attacked him even faster than he could register her motions. She could have stabbed him. But she'd intended no harm; this was just a display.

It had never occurred to Alex to use his expanded awareness as she had, to detect faraway barriers and scan for unseen threats. He would need to test it out. And he couldn't imagine how Jinishta moved with such inhuman speed.

"Your shielding is impressive," Kessa said, interpreting as Jinishta spoke to him. "I have never seen anyone cloak themselves in air. But I suspect you may have a few unexamined weaknesses. Perhaps I do, as well." Jinishta asked a question, and Kessa said, "She wants to know if you will you spar with her?"

Alex opened and closed his mouth, unsure how to respond to such a request. No one had ever politely offered to fight him. He could deal with enraged or murderous enemies ... but a well-dressed little woman who was supposed to be the equivalent of his boss?

It was unthinkable. He might accidentally kill her.

Jinishta gave him an exasperated look of pity, and used her powers to telekinetically fetch a velvet bag. She pulled out something that looked like two round bars of soap, or two hockey pucks. She spoke to Alex in a reassuring tone.

"Jinishta says 'we aim to touch each other, not hurt each other,'" Kessa translated. "The winner is whoever marks the skin of the other person first, with this charcoal."

Alex found himself considering a fight, despite his worries for Thomas. He yearned to measure his unpracticed skill against that of the Premier Yeresunsa. Had years of practice made Jinishta a better warrior than him? And if he had any problematic weaknesses, then surely he needed to learn about those? He ought to correct his deficits before he made another devastating mistake.

"Jinishta says she knows you are weakened from your ordeals in the dead city," Kessa went on, translating. "And also from all the people you healed. That must have tired you out. She promises to be gentle with you."

Alex raised an eyebrow to let Jinishta know that she was underestimating him. He felt as strong as ever.

Jinishta said something else, beckoning.

"She wants to take you to a sparring room," Kessa translated.

Alex exhaled in frustration. "I have to check on Thomas," he said. "That's more important than...."

A disk zoomed in front of his face and hovered there, like a curious hornet, urging him to either swat it away or grab it. Only the center was charcoal. The rest was some kind of leather, for clean gripping.

Alex grabbed the disk, but he wasn't sold yet. He glowered at Jinishta. "I'm not sparring with you," he said. "Unless—"

Jinishta sped away, faster than humanly possible.

The remaining Yeresunsa gestured for Alex to follow her. They were growing rowdy, like sports fans getting psyched for the biggest match of the year. Someone used powers to shove Alex in the back, urging him to follow Jinishta.

The shove nearly knocked him over. If he'd been on defense, with his awareness expanded, he would have kept his balance. In battle mode, he was immovable, when he wanted to be. 

"Fine." Alex gripped the sparring disk. "But this is it. Tell Jinishta that we have to visit Thomas after I win." He exaggerated that with a confident smile.

Kessa hurried to keep pace with his long strides. "Alex." She sounded stressed out. "Isn't it possible ..." She seemed to inwardly correct herself, and tried again. "I mean, is possible that you may not win?"

He glanced down at the ummin elder, saddened by her wariness. She had missed his exaggeration. "I'm aware that I can lose," Alex assured her. "Kessa, you can say whatever you want to me. I need a friend who can be honest. Tell me the truth."

Kessa's eyes crinkled. "I will be your Thomas. That is well."

Alex felt tension ease off his shoulders. She had a quick wit.

"Perhaps," Kessa told him, "while you are learning techniques from the warriors, I will learn how well the Alashani guard their prison."

Alex gave Kessa a look of gratitude before he ducked into the sparring chamber. Maybe he wouldn't need to do everything alone. Kessa had loyal, unpretentious friends among the refugees from Duin. More than a hundred ummins might be able to befriend prison workers, and learn secrets that the Alashani were unwilling to share with a powerful stranger.

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