For some seconds, all that Taisa could do was to pant. When she finally was able to say something, she shouted out:
"We won, Gawa!"--dismounting and taking her mask off, she gave her companion a strong hug--"It was a close one, but we did it!"
Gawa was recovering from the effort, breathing heavily:
"G... great," that was all she said.
Taisa couldn't be happier. She had waited so long for that day, when they would let her race... And she had won! Everything will get better, mom, she thought, still pressing her face against Gawa's soft feathers.
The Red Wall was benti territory, and Taisa had never seen it from so close. It was a huge elevation of reddish rock, with maybe ten times Gawa's height; the side in front of them, that covered them with its shadow, was so steep that one could barely go up, although there were many saliences where benti rested; the other side, in turn, was inclined, and came down smoothly to the ground. It was possible to see many benti up there; near the base, many others were also gathering, and the watchers who followed Taisa, Gawa and the other team now were joining them.
"Couldn't you have run faster?" The one who spoke was the boy who ended up in second place. " I brought us there, so close to the victory, and you didn't do you part!"
"I'm sorry, Ankal," the benti answered in a low voice. "We raced well, if we had a little more time I'm sure that I--"
"Don't come with any excuses," the boy answered. "Argh, all the grain we gave you... For nothing!"
"But who does he think he is?" murmured Taisa, ready to go teach a lesson to that whiny boy. Before that happened, Gawa said:
"Yes?" answered the girl. Did she pick up on that I would...
"Just now, " the benti began to speak, serious, "right before you tell me to run, I felt you got distracted. What happened?"
"Well," Gawa's tone made her a little ashamed, "I saw an amazing thing. Kinara, that girl from our village--"
"That one?" Gawa pointed at the team that just entered the Red Wall's shadow.
"Exactly"—Kinara waved briefly at Taisa, that returned the gesture--"She jumped from her benti to the back of the other one, Gawa! She went there and made the boy fall! It was amazing!"
"It seems that it really was, given the way you got distracted."
Taisa wasn't sure if that had been a reprimand, but she had no time to ask: a strong voice, above everyone, spoke.
"Racers!" spoke a benti with air of autorithy; he was tall and had grey feathers among the predominant brown ones. "When all the watchers arrive, the judgment will start. Make a circle and wait for them."
He turned back and climbed some rocks, speaking no more.
"Is that him?" asked Taisa. "That Kadu one, who conducts the judgement?"
"It's Katu," corrected Gawa. "The best gasami to recognize good soldiers."
In fact, Katu seemed to have fought uncountable battles; it wasn't by chance that all the others looked at him with so much respect.
The watchers guided them to a small elevation that formed a low platform. There they sat and waited, speaking about the benti who lived there.
Little by little, as the Red Wall's shadow was getting shorter, racers and watchers arrived and filled the place. Just before the judgement began, the platform was so full of children and benti that it looked that no more beings could join them. Still, Taisa noticed, there were fewer teams present than the initial number, indicating withdrawals.
With all the racers making a circle, the watchers around the platform and Katu in the middle, the judgement began. That's it, thought Taisa, the time of the truth. Katu approached a boy that Taisa didn't knew:
"In?" asked Katu, in the benti language.
"Out," said a watcher. "He fell to the ground five times."
"Including during the start," said other one. The boy looked like he was going to cry.
"Out," concluded Katu, going towards the next racer. The boy cried silently.
During the following minutes, similar scenes repeated: Katu always asked "in?" and the watchers answered with "in" or "out", explaining their reasons. If nothing was said, the conclusion was "out". Since each benti valued different talents, in some cases there was some discussion; however, in the end, the common values of the gasami always won and a verdict was reached. And the veredict was never "in" until it was Kinara's turn.
When Katu asked the question of always, the opinions were varied:
"In," said a watcher. "She brought down a zivar from the back of a benti."
Taisa looked to the boy in question, that received an "out". He was looking to nowhere, pretending not to listen anything.
"Out," disagreed another watcher. "She fell right after that."
"In," argued another one. "She showed a courage too uncommon for a zivar cub."
"Or an uncommon foolishness," someone replied.
More benti entered the discussion before Kinara's fate was finally decided:
"You risked yourself, but was sucessful in stopping your opponent," said Katu. "In battle, that could have been like the sacrifice for a fellow"—The girl threw a fast glance towards Taisa, and it looked that her mouth was subtly curled in a smile—"You are in. Congratulations."
Did she...?, Taisa asked herself, while the children applauded Kinara. Katu stood a little longer in front of her but soon resumed the judgement, cold as ever.
Now it was the turn of the boy who mointed the tall benti, the boy who almost had won.
"In?" Katu said.
"In," said a watcher. "If the race had lasted a little more, he and his benti would have won."
"In," said another one. "He got rid of a stronger opponent using his wits."
The mentioned opponent once more pretended not to listen.
"In," added a third. "He knew how to use the circumstances im his favor."
The boy was exhibiting a triumphant smile. Wow, it seems that he really did--
"Out," decreed Katu, bluntly, but with a different tone in his voice. Was it... contempt? "He disrespected his partner, right in front of me and our pack"—the eyes of the boy were wide open like two eggs—"He dared to imply, under the shadow of the Windbreaker, that we sell ourselves to the zivar for grain"—then Katu looked right inside the eyes of the boy:—"You are not worth to mount a benti. Get out of here."
The boy, frightened, didn't move at first, but hearing the first scream from a watcher, and then one more, and then another one, he took care of obeying Katu's order. The racer benti also began a booing—even the one he had mounted—and soon screams and caws came from all over the Red Wall, in a deafening choir of the most deep despise that only ended when the boy ran into the tall grass and disappeared.
"The first one." Katu surprised Taisa, who still looked to the grass. "In?"
I won, she told herself. I was the first, I'm in. I must be--
"Out," said the watcher, to the girl's surprise. "She had more training than the others."
"Out," said another one. "She has mounted ever since she was very little."
And so what?
"Out," said one more watcher. "She waited more than the other ones to come race."
"It wasn't my fault!" The girl couldn't hold her words.
"Out"—Katu's voice was like a cold and sharp knife—"You may have won, but you didn't prove anything."
Katu gave the impression that he would continue the ceremony, but the girl stood up, outraged:
"But I won!" she screamed, with the eyes full of tears. "I was better than all of them!"—she then opened her arms, indicating the other racers—"So what if I have trained more than them? My tribe only let me race now! Please! I need to enter the benti-zai! For my mother!"
Katu stared at Gawa for some time before looking back at Taisa:
"If you have not proven anything, you still have no value for us."
And, finally, the benti turned back and continued to do what he had to.
Outraged by that situation, Taisa didn't wait any longer: she turned around and ran as fast as she could, with tears flowing down her face.ns220.127.116.11da2