But she was laughing now. From beneath the bridge's closest arch she emerged on the back of her onyx cloud serpent. It rose before Koak, swaying and billowing like liquid smoke.
"Are you insane?!" Koak exclaimed. "What if your serpent had allowed you to fall?"
"Do you know the difference between steel and iron?" she asked him calmly.
Koak faltered. She is insane, he thought.
"Steel is stronger," he answered. "Any competent warrior knows that."
The corners of Anli's mouth curled into an enigmatic smile. "So it is."
She touched the side of her serpent's neck, and it twisted away in the direction of the distant coastline. "I trust you can find your way, Koak!" she called over her shoulder, darting toward the Jade Forest as quickly as she had reappeared. "Jade Serpent guide you!"
Koak watched them go, leaning heavily on his crutch at the end of the bridge, the wind in his hair and much on his mind.
"I did not agree to this!" Koak shouted. "You have deliberately misled me!"
"What are you talking about?" asked Ace. "Anli said you agreed to be trained in our ways!"
Ace Longpaw was unlike the other disciples of the order. While the others espoused humility in their simple attire and good sportsmanship, Ace chose to adorn himself in fine silken shirts and gaudy jewelry. He kept his moustache waxed and his hair expertly coifed, and never missed a chance to boast about his prowess both in the sky and with the fairer sex. Koak found his boisterous nature more than a little obnoxious—particularly because the order seemed to think they were so much alike. Still, he was the one Anli had selected as Koak's personal tutor, and after weeks of playing nursemaid to the hatchling, Koak was eager to begin the real training.
This, however, was not what he had in mind.
"I agreed to training," Koak argued. He reached into the bag that Ace had brought with them and pulled from it one of a dozen leather balls. "But this is a child's game!"
"Then it should be perfect for the both of you," Ace retorted with an insufferable grin. "All riders in the order play catch with their serpents," he explained. "It teaches you to read each other's moves and instills in serpent and rider a vital give-and-take relationship. It's an important lesson!"
"That's foolish," Koak sneered. "In the heat of battle, a single moment of deliberation can lead to death. There must be a master, and there must be a servant. There is no room for 'give-and-take.'"
"Come on, Koak," Ace sighed. "Just give it a try, will you?"
Koak scowled and looked from the ball to his hatchling. He had nothing to lose now that Ace had dragged him out here, to an open field an hour's walk away from the rest of the order. Whistling to catch the serpent's attention, he lobbed the ball in its direction. The hatchling sighted it and then bumped it toward Koak with a bob of its head.
"See," Ace chimed in as Koak caught the return, "that wasn't so bad, was it?" He turned toward the order's grounds. "Now do it twenty-five more times—in a row, mind you—and I'll meet you back home."
"Twenty-five?" Koak hissed. But Ace was already walking away, leaving Koak with a bag of leather balls and a hatchling that had a history of making his days difficult.
"Let's get this over with," Koak groused. He tossed the ball to the hatchling again. The serpent spun around in a tight circle, slapping the ball with the side of its tail. The return came back wide, far too wide for Koak to reach it, and his aching leg gave out under his weight when he tried. Pulling himself to his feet by way of his crutch, he looked across the field to the hatchling and could swear he saw it smirking.
That little... Koak thought. It did that on purpose!
"You have made a grave mistake," Koak said ominously. He pulled another ball from the bag as the hatchling kept a close watch over him. He held the ball low, hiding it behind his hip.
"Now," he said with a growl, "let's play a game, you and I."
Koak tensed his arm and then shot the ball at the hatchling hard and fast. Its eyes widened and it jerked out of the way just as the ball struck the ground with a loud thump and an exploding cloud of dirt. The hatchling screeched at him, and Koak laughed.