Everyone moved back into the dining hall once the sun had fully lowered beneath the horizon. The groups were much more animated than at lunchtime, excitedly discussing the assessments that had taken place throughout the afternoon.
It had proven a hectic exercise, with all twenty Masters spending a half hour examining selected groups of ten. They provided basic swordplay routines for the boys to follow, and then paired them off to practice the routine. The Masters circled the duelling students, speaking to each other as they observed the action. They stepped in at times to provide guidance, with varying results.
Mune and Mura were selected in the second last group of the day. The three other boys sharing their room were included, alongside another group of five. The other five boys included some of Mune’s travel companions, and conversed in a friendly fashion with the two boys. When the Masters paired the ten boys, Mura was disappointed to be facing his courtyard tormentor. The two boys who kicked him at lunch were paired together, laughing to each other while glancing in his direction.
The Masters appeared impressed with Mune. He had been able to quickly master the provided routine. The boy he was paired with had a harder time doing so, but Mune took it upon himself to help his opponent by slowing the pace until they knew it well enough to increase speed. By the time the half hour drew to a close, both Mune and the boy looked formidable.
Mura’s opponent had not forgotten earlier events, and made sure that he made him look as bad as possible. The boy was stronger, and placed just enough extra strength to his movements to throw the smaller Mura off balance. Rather than do as Mune had, the boy kept pressing his advantage at all times. The Masters looked at Mura, but did not intervene. Unknown to the small boy, they saw he could follow the routine perfectly, but his size disadvantage made him easy pickings for his larger opponent.
The two boys sat beside each other at the dinner table. Mura rotated his shoulders gingerly, still feeling the impact of his opponent’s attacks. He envied Mune at that moment, who showed no ill effect from his sparring. The Masters were more animated in their discussions with each other, though still subdued. After a time, one of them stood up to address the trainees.
“What we have observed this afternoon was a mixed bag. Some of you have shown great promise, in both fighting ability and leadership skill. Others have shown that the next seven years will require extensive effort on their part to raise themselves to the requirements of the Shogun and the Emperor. Luckily for you, the Shogun holds us personally responsible for your successes or failures.
He gestured to the other Masters seated alongside him. “We, as your teachers, will do all that we can to assist you in improving yourselves. I speak for all of us when I say that you should all strive to find the time needed to develop your skills. Regardless of if it is under our guidance or amongst yourselves, there is no such thing as wasted training.”
There were some groans of complaint from the students. Mune could not believe his ears; why would any of the boys who had come here not make every effort to earn themselves the respect of their teachers and peers? Those who did complain were destined for anonymity, he thought to himself.
The Master continued. “The initial assessments will be completed tomorrow morning. Once this is completed, we will adjust the groups to keep you on even levels of ability. The new groups will begin their training in the afternoon, where the same group adjustment process will be applied. After a week of this, the resulting groups will be as evenly matched as possible. These will be your groups going forward, with yearly reassessment at the Challenge Tournament.”
With those words, the Master resumed his seat to complete his meal. The boys began talking amongst themselves again, expressing where they thought their skills would place them.
Mura looked to Mune. “I can only hope that the Masters saw my ability. My opponent did me no favours.”
“I am certain they would have, Mura. A Master would be able to see your skill despite the mismatch of your pairing.”
Mura felt a kick land against his left shin. The two boys who had done so earlier had ensured they sat facing him again, to continue their bullying. He grimaced again, glaring angrily at the two boys. The two laughed at him.
Mune noticed his friend’s discomfort, and looked across at the pair. He subtly surveyed the dinner hall, seeing where the attentions of the Masters and everyone else were directed. He quickly reached across the table, grabbing the pair by their hair and slammed their faces into the table. The pair sat in shock, until they noted the blood beginning to trickle from their noses. They both stood and launched themselves across the table at Mune.
The Masters looked to the source of the commotion, springing up to make their way towards it. Both boys had focused on Mune, one pinning his arms while the other aimed punches at his stomach. Mura moved in and subdued the attacker, giving Mune the space to break the other’s hold. By the time the two Masters got there, the two friends had the other pair face-down on the table, arms bent up behind their back.
“The four of you! Stand up immediately!” Mura and Mune released their holds, allowing the two to comply with the request. “Each of you will be placed in solitary placement for tonight. You will be woken early tomorrow morning, to assist with collecting the fish from the village.”
Mura noticed one of the Masters was he who had reprimanded him in the courtyard earlier in the day. He looked at Mura. “You again! You are already beginning to strain my patience, young one.”
The other Master looked at Mune. “You have drawn the notice of most of the Masters. For your sake, this better be a one-off occurrence. The four of you! Follow me to the confinement rooms.”
Mune looked to Mura, giving him a wink and a smile as the two Masters marched them out of the hall. Mura mouthed a ‘thank you’ to his friend.
– X –