Young Tomas Vrbada, age ten, was so hungry one afternoon that his belly ached in terrible pain. After Jiao-long, who was five years his elder and would later go by the code-name Sektor, greedily stole his bowl of lo mein noodles at dinner the night before, he retaliated by slipping one of his miniature smoke bombs into the bully's bowl of rice pudding. It exploded with more ferocity than he expected, and sticky grains not only coated Jiao-long, but most of the dining hall as well. He and his best friend, Kuai Liang, about died of laughter, literally rolling on the floor guffawing as their nemesis sat motionless on the bench, his eyes bugging from his head in shock as rice dripped from his hair. But Grandmaster Oniro was decidedly furious with Tomas for his stunt, so after personally beating him and then making him clean the mess, he punished him by forcing him to walk the Lin Kuei temple's perimeter, an area approximately fifty square miles, with no food. So after hiking up and down the Himalayas for hours on an empty stomach, Tomas's tummy cramped so badly that he was nauseous.
When the boy saw a shepherd herding his sheep across a high mountain pasture just outside Lin Kuei borders, he stealthily followed in the hopes that a bit of food would present itself. The man led his sheep as well as Tomas directly to his home, a humble yurt built at the edge of the evergreen trees. The boy watched from behind a large boulder as the shepherd ushered his flock into a simple, wooden pen.
The man patted one of his animals on the head as he locked the gate and said, "I've worked hard today. I think I'll make some khir to treat myself." Then he went into his yurt.
Tomas immediately began to drool. Khir, a Tibetan dessert made with rice, coconut, raisins, and cashews, was one of his favorite foods. His stomach churned hungrily as the sweet smell of yak milk boiling with sugar wafted through the mountain air. He just had to have some.
"What do you think you're doing, lun yeung?" a voice hissed softly behind him. The boy whipped around and saw the bully, Jiao-long, crouched behind him.
"Thinking about snagging some khir," he replied honestly, ignoring the curse word his enemy leveled at him in Cantonese.
"You're supposed to be starving," the older boy sneered.
"Oh, come on Jiao-long. If you help me, I'll share it with you. You know, as a peace offering to apologize for last night. What do you say?"
The red-clad teenager narrowed his eyes. "Very well," he conceded after a long moment. "What do you want to do?"
"The shepherd just started cooking it, so it's going to be a while before it's ready to eat," Tomas began. "Since it's almost nightfall, we should wait here. When it gets dark, you howl like a wolf." The Lin Kuei were trained to make different animal sounds to use as secret signals, and no one was better at a wolf cry than his tormentor, Tomas grudgingly admitted to himself.
"And then what?"
"Well, that'll scare the shepherd and he'll come out of his house to make sure his sheep are safe. While he's distracted, I'll sneak in and get the khir. Then I'll bring it to you and we can share it."
"Okay," the older boy agreed.
All went as planned. When night fell a short time later, Jiao-long hid behind the boulder and howled. As expected, the clueless shepherd immediately bolted from his yurt carrying a heavy club. When he ran around the pen to find the offending wolf, Tomas made himself invisible and darted inside. There, he found a large terra cotta dish full of fresh, heavenly khir cooling on the woodstove. The boy promptly grabbed the dessert and ran from the hut, slipping into the evergreens where he knew he'd be safe from detection, and deeply breathed in the sweet and spicy aroma of cinnamon and cardamom.
Tomas had no intention of sharing this wonderful treat with his enemy. He was far too hungry, for one, and for two it was Jiao-long's fault that he was being punished like this to begin with. Of course, the teenager was never at fault in the eyes of Oniro. One of the perks of being the Grandmaster's son, he supposed. But even still, he couldn't return to his partner empty-handed.
So he began to think, and it occurred to him what he could do. Very carefully, he pulled the cashew-dusted skin back and ate all the custard beneath. Khir always satisfied his belly, but today, because he was especially hungry, it was the most wonderful food ever. He ravenously wolfed it down, shoveling it in his mouth with his fingers as quickly as he could, and didn't stop devouring the tasty dessert, even when his stomach began to burst at the seams. Tomas vaguely knew he was going to have a tummyache from eating so much so fast, but he didn't care. The khir tasted fantastic.
When he was finally finished, he scooped handfuls of dirt and rocks into the dish before he carefully replaced the skin. Then he trilled like a sparrow to call to his partner. Within minutes, Jiao-long found him and knelt beside him. Tomas immediately thrust the terra cotta bowl at his partner.
"Let's divide the khir equally between us," he said. "One of us should have the skin – that's my favorite part because I love the cashews – and the other can have the bottom."
"You're dumber than you look," Jiao-long said. "The bottom is the best part. I'm taking it."
"Fine by me," Tomas replied. He quickly ate the top, savoring the crunch of the cashews.
Then, when Jiao-long stuck his fingers into the dish and found dirt instead of dessert, he growled angrily and swung a fist at the younger boy, who'd already jumped back, laughing. "I'm so sorry, my friend!" he cried. "But it's not my fault that's how the shepherd makes his khir." The teenager lunged at Tomas, but he calmly became invisible and slipped silently into the trees, his tummy well filled. He felt a few granules on his tongue from where the skin on the dessert got a tad dirty, but he didn't mind. The look on the bully's face had been worth it.