This was intended to be a short writing exercise, but I think I've veered pretty far from the original prompt XD; Spoilers for the series of subevents "Karla the Historian". Many thanks to Frozenleaf for her kind help in beta-reading.
Karla could hardly wait for the journey to be over.
A week and a half had passed since the Outway delegation first set off towards Shang Du. It seemed like a lovely holiday at first; to ride out with her brother and enjoy a nice long road trip, and then to explore the large city that was, according to travelling traders, wonderful. Karla had lived all her life in the village of the Outway tribe, with occasional rides to Khan Baliq, but she had never before seen Shang Du. So she jumped at the chance when her brother suggested she go with them.
But as the days passed, Karla had barely had any chance to even speak to her brother. Arst was the best swordsman in the tribe; even the adults agreed that he was exceptional. His skill earned him the right to represent the tribe in the decennial Warrior's Tournament to be held at Shang Du. Unfortunately, that meant that all the other men were eager to talk with 'Young Arst' to discuss battle tactics, or fighting styles of the other tribes. The warriors of the Outway tribe had always enjoyed martial arts as a sport, but this time, they seemed to be taking things much more seriously. Every moment that they weren't riding, sleeping or eating, they were sparring in preparation for the tournament.
As a result, Karla was left with nothing to do and no one to talk to except her horse Anya or her teacher Satsral. The latter was even less responsive than the former, so that by the time one week had gone by, Karla was bored to her bones.
The entrance to Shang Du was now in sight, a gigantic doorway built into the cliffs before them. As the men's voices rose in excitement, Karla felt her spirits rise with them. Even if the ride had been disappointing so far, at least she'd be able to visit the markets with Arst. Shang Du was said to be a great city with a long history and a large bazaar. People came from all over Liese Maxia to set up stalls there during the period of the Tournament. It would be fun.
Laran, at the head of their line, dismounted to speak to the two soldiers standing guard at the entrance. The rest of the Outway representatives followed, and, leading their horses, they walked through the wide, slightly dim tunnel. Noise and merry chatter grew steadily louder, and the light at the end of the tunnel steadily brighter. Finally, they stepped out onto the cobbled streets of Shang Du.
Karla stared all around her with fascination and delight, for Shang Du was beautiful in a way she had never seen before. The entire city was built from stone and rock, which gave the place a raw but powerful nature. Gigantic stone statues stood all around the city, proud and commanding in presence, and long, colourful prayer pennants fluttered in the wind. A single large river flowed through the middle of the city, like a silvery-green carpet gleaming in the sun, with one main bridge arching across it.
There was so much to take in, Karla could hardly walk fast enough to keep up with her party. Many turned to stare at the group as they passed, and Karla stared unabashedly back with much interest. Unlike Khan Baliq, Shang Du was a myriad of colours, bright and cheerful as the bustle of the crowds that filled it. It was overwhelming.
"Come one, come all! Fresh Poranges for sale!"
"Bargain prices for rappig ears! Guaranteed to increase stamina and strength!"
"Sacred Flame Charms! Sacred Flame Charms! Forged in the fires of Efreet himself, these will protect you from harm and grant you power!"
Napples, rappigs, wine... Many products sold at the stalls were completely new to Karla, and her pace slowed as she gazed about her. As she was about to pass a tiny little stall near the bridge, something small and glistening there caught her eye. It was a pair of bells; each spherical in shape, with one end open and feathers hanging through the middle. But it caught the light like no bell she had ever seen before did.
"Karla!" Satsral called her sharply. Hastily, Karla ran to catch up with the rest, Anya trotting obediently beside her.
"Sorry," she said rather meekly.
"Don't wander around," Satsral instructed sternly. "We're going to settle the horses at the inn, then get Arst registered for the tournament."
"And after that? May we go look around the marketplace then?" Karla asked eagerly.
"Perhaps. We'll be meeting with some of the other participating tribes tonight, so there will be some preparations we have to make. This is not just a trip for pleasure, Karla; bear that in mind and behave yourself," came the severe reply.
She should have known. Disappointed, Karla sighed. Throwing a last glance at the little stall by the bridge, she led Anya after Satsral and the others, hoping that for once, 'perhaps' would not mean 'probably not'.
But it did. Whilst the adults ran in and out of the inn, Karla sat impatiently inside the room she was sharing with Satsral and some of the others, keeping her feet out of the way. She had fed and watered and brushed down the horses in double-quick time, hoping to be allowed to go out and play, but Satsral kept saying "Maybe later. Stay inside for now" to all her questions. And Arst was nowhere to be found. Miserable and lonely, Karla wished she was brave enough to sneak out on her own, but she didn't quite dare. Partly because Satsral would be furious, and partly because she wasn't sure she could take care of herself in a foreign city if anything were to happen. So she stayed where she was.
The meeting was held between several of the smaller tribes of Ajur. Most of their discussion was complicated, regarding issues that Karla didn't understand much. When the tournament was briefly mentioned, many began whispering amongst themselves, and a strange, serious mood came over them all. As a result, Karla was so bored and restless that it took a great deal of effort for her to stay quiet and still while she knelt beside Satsral. By the time they were finally done, the sky was dark and there was just enough time for dinner before Satsral sent her off to bed.
So as she lay staring at the unfamiliar beams in the ceiling, Karla made her decision. The following morning, she climbed out of bed as early as she could. The sun had just risen, and the grey-blue sky was beginning to be streaked with pink. Satsral and the others in her room were still asleep, some of them snoring lightly, when Karla pulled on her shoes and hat and ran out. She tumbled out into the quiet corridor, then flew upstairs as quietly as she could towards the room that she knew the men were sleeping in. But before she could knock, the door opened inwards, and there stood Arst.
He seemed a little surprised to see her. "What is it? Something wrong?"
"Um, I, uh..." Taken aback, Karla blinked at him. Her original plan was to sneak into his room and drag him out while he was still hazy-eyed and less likely to ask questions, then run away together before any of the adults noticed. But now that he was wide-awake and staring enquiringly at her, she felt a little tongue-tied.
"Will you come out with me?" she blurted out at last. "We could go explore Shang Du and visit the markets..."
"Come now, little Karla, Arst hasn't the time for that," Laran interrupted, appearing at the door behind Arst. "We're going to have our morning practice, then have a look at the Coliseum and see the competition we'll be facing. You don't want to get in the way now, do you?"
All the overflowing enthusiasm that had been threatening to explode out of her since she woke up disappeared. "But..." Karla protested, looking from him to Arst. Dismay must have shown on her face, for Laran took her hand and spoke to her gently.
"Your brother is an amazing genius at martial arts. You must be very proud of him! I'm sure you want him to do well too, don't you?" he said solemnly. "You're a big girl now! So be good and stay here for now, let him prepare for the tournament, and afterwards, you can go out and celebrate his great victory! What do you say?"
Karla looked desperately towards her brother. Say something! Tell Laran that you'll come out with me! she pleaded silently. But Arst looked steadily back at her, his brows furrowed.
"Go with Satsral," he finally said.
All the disappointment and resentment of the past week came rushing in, and hurt boiled up within Karla. He had barely looked at her since they left the Outway tribes; was a tournament that much more important than she? He was the one who had suggested she come along in the first place, and yet here he was, completely unwilling to take even one morning off to spend with her. Angrily, she wrenched her hand away from Laran's.
"Fine! See if I care! You're a big idiot!" she yelled. Reaching out, she grabbed the flower vase sitting on a small table beside the door. Arst's eyes widened slightly and he moved, narrowly dodging the flying vase that shot towards him at full speed. As it smashed into pieces against the wall, Karla ran down the stairs and disappeared.
If there was one thing Satsral was willing to spend on, it was food. Although Karla wasn't allowed to get any of the prettily made toys (the lovely posable clay-dolls were very enticing) or have a chance at the quoits stall, she did taste at least one dish at every stall they visited. There were fruits from Ha Mil, creamy bread from Ni Akeria, even a rare wine from Rashugal called Moonlight.
Aside from the eateries, there were people selling all kinds of wares, from pottery to clothing and accessories. Karla listened with interest as a friendly, motherly lady explained about the differences between the prayer pennant patterns they had compared to those made in Khan Baliq. She laughed at a wooden puppet show (through which Satsral sat without cracking a smile), and admired the lovely horses put up for sale in a corner. She applauded a bard who sang tales of Kresnik the Sage, using her spirit artes to create special effects as she told her story.
Turning from the woman taking bets for the tournament, Karla spotted the little stall near the bridge she had been so interested in, and ran over. To her delight, the strange little bells were still lying near the side of the display, and she picked them up. They were transparent and clear, like the waters of a shallow brook. An arrangement of thin woven braids held them together, with two long ones behind hanging down like ribbons. Wind caught the soft downy feathers attached to it, causing the little clappers tied to them to clink against the sides of the bells.
They were made of finest glass from Rashugal, the owner of the stall said proudly. He spent a good deal of time telling them about how rare and difficult it was to make glass, which involved burning sand with fire artes constantly and evenly... Karla didn't understand much of it, but Satsral didn't seem much impressed.
"It is fragile, and not worth the price," she said firmly. As Karla began to protest, the man tried to entice them with talk about how noble young ladies in Rashugal were all wearing them, and how they only broke if they were dropped, and that he would give them a discount if they agreed to cheer for the Cheagle tribe at the tournament. Satsral promptly steered Karla away after that, and they went to find more sweet desserts.
All things considered, it was a far more enjoyable day than Karla had expected at first. But something seemed to mar the excitement she felt for Shang Du's delights. Everywhere they went, people were discussing the tournament in loud, animated voices. Travelers were arriving in droves to watch the great event. Some spoke of it in enthusiastically, while others discussed in hushed tones and anxious words; perhaps they had put a lot of money into gambling? At any rate Karla was tired of it all; she couldn't help thinking that if it weren't for this tournament, Arst would have been able to spend the day with her.
Part of her knew that she shouldn't have lost her temper like that in the morning, while another part hissed that he deserved what he got, the mean pig. Karla had always known that her brother was special. He excelled at almost everything he did, be it book studies, or riding and martial arts. But he had always found time for Karla; to teach her to play chess, or go riding with her, or explore the traders' tent with her. She had always been proud of his abilities and achievements, but now that he felt so far away from her, Karla rather wished he wasn't so good at everything, and had never been chosen to represent the Outway tribe in the coliseum.
The gigantic statue of Master Gen, winner of the first Shang Du tournament, rose like a mountain before them. Karla stopped walking to gaze upon the names of the previous winners engraved on the little plaque at his feet, and sighed. "Satsral, why does everyone care so much about this tournament?"
"It is a tradition, for our tribes to gather together in a display of bravery and strength," Satsral replied after a pause. "One must be at the top of his tribe to be chosen as a representative; we can indeed be sure that the participants will show us battles of the highest caliber. And winning the tournament itself is nothing less than the greatest honour."
"Is that all?"
"There is always a certain amount of prize money as well."
"Well, that at least sounds useful. It's not like you can eat pride or honour," Karla muttered. Satsral gave a short barking laugh.
"No. But winning the tournament also grants the winning tribe the power of deterrence."
"De-ter-rence?" Karla repeated. The word was unfamiliar to her.
"It means to discourage a party from an action," Satsral explained. "In this case, if a tribe had raised a warrior strong enough to win the tournament, other tribes would not easily decide to enter into conflict with them. For if they could train one excellent warrior, who's to say they haven't trained more?"
"So... winning the tournament is a way to protect our tribe from the others?" All of a sudden, the tournament didn't seem so unimportant anymore. Karla had always thought of it like a game made by boastful adults; a test to see who the most powerful fighter was. But if it concerned the safety of the Outway tribe... That would explain why Arst took it so seriously, too.
They left the statue and sat down under the bridge where it was quieter to finish off the rest of their candied napples. Karla looked up and across at the coliseum, suspended in midair, cunningly built across a bridge that connected east to west. Despite how grand it looked, there was something ominous about the grey structure, somehow, as it stared down at them from above.
"Satsral?" she asked suddenly. "You said that the winners are given the highest honours. What about those who don't win?"
The silence from Satsral hung between them, long and heavy. Karla turned to look at her. The woman's face was even more devoid of emotion than it normally was.
"Satsral?" she prompted apprehensively.
"They die," Satsral replied abruptly. "The Warrior's Tournament battles are fights to the end."
Blood drained from Karla's face as she tried to wrap her mind around this truth. In all the tournaments she had attended before, there was a judge who would call a halt if a contestant was thought unable to continue. One risked injuries and perhaps some ridicule from his peers, but they were still just tests of skill and strength that weren't intended to cause lasting harm to anyone. They weren't supposed to be serious battles that one had to win at all cost.
But death? Nobody had ever mentioned that. Nobody told her that you had to risk your life itself in the famous tournament of glory. And nobody told her that if Arst were to lose, he would die.
"You see the Coliseum there?" Satsral went on, nodding towards the arena. "It's built all the way up there because of that rule. If the losing participant does not die in battle, he will be thrown over the edge by the winner."
"That's terrible!" Outraged, Karla jumped to her feet involuntarily, her half-eaten candied apple dropping to the ground. "Why would anyone set such a rule? And all those people coming to watch... They must know that a lot of men are going to die! Yet... They find a tournament like that enjoyable?"
"People say that only a fight to the death is a true fight. A man desperate for survival will have the strength of cornered wolves," Satsral replied in the same tone, unlaced with any emotion.
"How can you say that so calmly? And Father..." Karla choked on a lump that had suddenly risen into her throat. Father had agreed to send Arst as their representative. He had sent his own son to risk his life in a stupid tournament. Everyone else in the tribe had been so happy about Arst's participation. But now... Were they, perhaps, relieved because they didn't have to run that risk themselves? "Why is everyone so willing to send my brother to his grave?"
Satsral looked directly at her. "That is what you really think?" she demanded, and for the first time, Karla heard a slight ring of bitterness in her voice. "Your brother Arst is the pride of our tribe. He will be our future chief. Do you truly believe that we are sending him to die?"
Karla recalled the times when everyone in the tribe was training so hard with Arst, waking up at the crack of dawn with him. When they gave him advice about his possible opponents from the other tribes. When they cheered him after every victorious training session and every wild monster encounter, their eyes lit with fierce pride.
They always told Karla that he was the bright light of the Outway tribe; that he would guide them all to glory. When the time had come to select a representative to fight in the tournament, they did not choose him right away. Instead, there was a small contest held within the village, where only those who wished to fought. Arst had stepped forward and defeated everyone else, and only then did they begin to send encouraging cheers towards him, for he had proven to all that he was the most skilled amongst them.
"They... believe in him. Everyone truly thinks he can win," she whispered. Her shaking limbs gave way, and she collapsed to her knees.
Again, Satsral said nothing, watching her student in silence. Karla clenched her hands together tightly. She had never considered the thought of Arst dying, somehow. He didn't win every single spar he fought in; sometimes the older and more experienced warriors cornered him first. But she hadn't thought that it would be something to worry about.
Death. It meant that a person would cease to exist. That she would never be able to meet her brother, to talk to him, to ride with him, eat with him. She would never again lose to him in chess, or have him toss nuts at her from the top of a tree, or see that rare smile that appeared occasionally upon his face.
She didn't want him to die. Her first instinct was to ask him to pull out, to have someone else take his place. But as soon as the thought crossed her mind, she knew it would be pointless.
"He wouldn't refuse to fight. Not if it meant the safety of our tribe," she said softly. "He's... he's protecting us all."
"Karla. A word?"
Seated behind the railing on the west side of the inn, knees drawn close to her chest with her hands clasped around them, Karla looked up. Arst came towards her, his face stoic like it usually was. She nodded, and he sat down beside her, leaning back against the wooden bars.
Karla felt awkward as she stared straight ahead. She had wanted to talk to him all night, but she didn't know where to begin. What should she say? What could she say? Please don't fight in the tournament. But she already knew that he wouldn't back out just because she asked him to. Best wishes for your fights tomorrow sounded insincere, somehow. Especially since the last time they spoke, fourteen hours ago, she had tried to crack his skull open with a porcelain vase. Doubtless, he was here to reprimand her for her loss of temper and inconsideration towards the innkeepers, so perhaps... an apology first? But before she could get the words out, he spoke.
"I am sorry," Arst said. Karla turned to look at him, startled.
"I asked Father to allow you to come with us because I thought you would enjoy seeing Shang Du. I failed to consider that, with most of us occupied, it would be lonely for you. For that, I apologise," he said.
Without a single word from her, he had deduced her problems accurately. Karla bit her lip, then shook her head slowly. "You were right. It was fun with Satsral. I... I just didn't realise it would be, because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself," she admitted. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "I'm sorry, too. For shouting at you and um... for throwing the vase at you."
Arst smiled wryly at her remorseful face. "We had to pay about 3000 gald for that. It was apparently a pretty well-made art piece."
Karla winced in guilt. "I'll try to throw something less breakable next time," she offered, and he chuckled softly at her.
"In that case..." Arst dug his hand into the leather pouch on his belt, then held it out to her. "Here. A present."
Nestled in the palm of his hand was the set of glass bells she had admired so much earlier.
"How... did you...?" she gasped.
"We were passing behind when you stopped at that stall," Arst explained. "And... I suppose I thought it would help to appease your anger."
Karla took it in her hands, gently stroking the smooth surface of the glass. "Thank you. I'll take good care of it," she said softly.
They both fell silent for a while then, with her staring at her bells, and him looking upwards at the gleaming stars that hung over them. The sky was dark, and a dusky breeze blew past them.
There was still so much that Karla wanted to say, but she had no idea how to say it. She wanted to believe, like the rest of the tribe, that her brother would win. But at the same time, she could not stop herself worrying. What if an accident happened? What if someone cheated? What if, despite his skill, there was just someone else better than Arst? Part of Karla still wished that her brother needn't fight in the Tournament, and it was that part that spoke up first.
"I don't want you to die," she blurted. Arst eyed her contemplatively for a moment.
"I am not going to die," he said. She turned anguished eyes to him.
"But you'll be fighting against the strongest men of every tribe. I know you're strong, I know you're good, but... You'll have to defeat all of them to survive. Do you really think you can win against grown-ups more than twice your age?"
She spoke desperately, for she hoped he would have an answer that would soothe her fears. Had he some sort of secret arte, or a guarantee of his victory? "If you lose... You'll be killed," she whispered.
"Karla, I will not die," Arst said steadily. The clear moonlight was reflected in his eyes, so it looked as if they were glowing red in the dark. "To protect you, Father, and everyone in our tribe, I will win."
There was no trace of fear or uncertainty in his words, or his face. This was Arst, the strongest warrior of the Outway tribe. The responsible future chief. Her brother. All of a sudden, the anxiety that she had felt melted away, and pride swelled within her heart. Karla felt tears pricking behind her eyelids and she looked downwards, trying to hide them.
"Besides, someone needs to stay around to make sure you stop breaking other people's possessions," Arst deadpanned.
Her wonderful brother, always one to tell poor jokes. Karla choked out a laugh that was half a sob, and threw her arms around him in a tight hug. He held her close, stroking her hair in silence until she recovered enough to speak.
"Your jokes are awful," she informed him with a gulp. "You make sure you come home safely, and I'll teach you some much better ones! You hear?"
She could feel the rumble of his chest as he laughed softly. "All right. And now it's getting late. Go to bed, for it will be a long day tomorrow."
Obediently, Karla rose to go. Arst stood up as well, and they entered the inn together. But Karla did not turn in at once. In fact, she didn't go to sleep at all.
It was almost time for the tournament to begin. Karla leapt out of the little boat that had taken her down the river and ran, heart pounding, her fist clenched tightly around what she had been working on for the past eight hours. Satsral had been angry at first when she saw that her charge had not slept, but gave up scolding when she saw what Karla was doing. Karla herself felt extremely tired, but she was determined to make it in time.
And now she had finally finished. She had raced through the crowds of Shang Du alone to get to the boats; no one was allowed to tread upon the sacred ground of the Coliseum without first cleansing themselves by sailing down the river. To her relief, the Outway tribe were still standing together on one of the large staircase landings, talking. As Karla approached, a few of them hailed her, asking where she had been, but she had only eyes and ears for her brother.
Arst stood in the middle of their circle, dressed and armed for battle. His expression was calm, confident, unwavering, in contrast to the others' somewhat flurried faces. Light from the torches in the hall cast a fiery glow upon him. Although still shorter than most of the men, in that instant, Karla saw him clearly as the leader that she knew he was.
Panting a little, she held out the small prayer pennant in her hand. It was hand-woven from mending wool of red, orange and black, uneven in some places, as if the weaver had run out of time to undo and fix the mistakes. Emblems of flame and light were patterned in it.
"It's... not as pretty as the ones hanging around here," she said rather hesitantly. "But they say that the power of a prayer pennant comes from the wishes woven into it. I put in all my wishes and prayers for your victory... and for your safe return."
Arst took it and inclined his head once, gravely. "Thank you. I will bring honour to the Outway tribe," he said.
I don't care about the honour. Karla's lips trembled, and, ignoring all formalities, she embraced him. "Come home safely, my brother," she whispered.
Then it was time for him to go. Karla watched as he walked up the long flights of stairs. The deep bells of the Coliseum were tolling loudly, calling all competitors into the arena. A wave of excitement swept through the entrance hall, and the murmured chatters from the gathered crowds rose.
But as she stood next to Satsral, looking up at the small figure of Arst in the distance, all Karla could hear was the clear tinkling chime of the glass bells tied above her ear.
One of the hardest parts about writing this thing was trying to keep the language and tone childlike, for in this Karla is only ten years old. The age difference between her and Arst/Gaius have never been confirmed officially, so I picked the most suitable age I could imagine based on the fact that Karla gets engaged and falls in love not too long before/after this tournament (while Arst was still 12). Although of course one begins to question the 'we fell in love' part when it comes from a 10 year old, haha.
Tales of Xillia belongs to Bandai Namco Games.