The Child of Spring   
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Introduction. In which Winter and the boys practice Swimming Dragon, finally. An hour later disaster strikes.

loud was stamping and kicking again: "It's not fair. Why does Tamarind get to sit this out? I don't want to do Swimming Dragon either!"

"You don't have to join the practice if you don't want to," I said.

"I don't?"

"As long as you accept the consequences."

"Errr... Are you going to tie me against a tree and have me lashed?"

I don't know where they get these ideas.

"No, Cloud. Every action we do or choose not to do has a natural consequence."

"Master Kao says: 'You can't throw a stone into a pond and then blame the water for rippling.'"

"Yes, Ker. Now, Cloud, if you have made peace with the possibility that you won't be able to sit on the privy unassisted in old age because your hands are curled like gnarled roots and your spine has stuck together like frozen grease to a frying pan, then I will not force you into practice." It seems to me now that the smell of brownie poo might have inspired this rather outlandish example of the perils of old age.

"Perhaps Swimming Dragon is not so bad..." I could almost see Cloud's spine and hands negotiating with his brain. "Will I be rewarded if I do it well?"

"Of course." I was not very pleased when I noticed two plums, a pine cone and what appeared to be a painted beetle shell exchange hands between two of the boys. Someone had lost a bet.

"Let's discuss terms." Cloud was Gondolwain to the bones. He probably negotiated with the sun before it went down. And I would not be surprised if someone in the boys' dormitory was charged commission when it rose again in the morning.

"We will do twelve rounds and then another twelve rounds of Reverse Swimming Dragon. If you do it well - "


"You will do 24 more rounds: 12 to the front, 12 to the back."

"And if I DON'T do it well?" Cloud was getting belligerent.

"24 more rounds."

After consultation with Tamarind, Pebble had an idea. "Wintersai? What if my Swimming Dragon is not as perfect as yours, but not as bad as Cloud's either?"


"Have a guess, Pebble."

"Another 24 rounds?"

Master Winter says: 'Nothing focuses the mind quite like the prospect of getting intimately acquainted with brownie poo.'

I felt extremely pleased with myself. There, behind me on the stone dais, twelve novice monks ranging from six to ten years of age practiced Swimming Dragon with a degree of mindfulness that would have put the grandmasters of White Mountain monasteries to shame.

An hour later, halfway into the thirty third round, their noses grew accustomed to the smell and the enchantment broke.

As I led the practice, Wild Apple broached the subject of black unicorns again in the kind of whisper that is not quite a whisper. Did Pebble think it would be all right? (No, probably not.) How would Pebble know - had he ever fed a black unicorn! (He didn't have to: Everyone knew they only ate human flesh.) Why was that? (They had delicate stomachs, probably. Feeding them apples might kill them.) Wild Apple was not convinced. What if he mashed the apples? Master Greycrest was a hundred and seventy years old, had no teeth and probably was as delicate as they got, but he seemed to do just fine. Seed wanted to know whether they could have a pet unicorn. But would they be allowed to keep it in the boys' dormitory, queried Grass, ever the voice of reason. No, but they could probably smuggle it in at night. (Cloud, what am I to do with you?) How big was that hole again? Oh. They probably ought to get a colticorn, then. Or a dwarf unicorn.

On and on and on it went. They talked - excuse me, whispered - for fifteen rounds straight. There seemed to be less and less connection between their ideas, but the ideas themselves remained, as Aunt Winn would say, fabulous. When they exhausted the dietary requirements of black unicorns, they moved on to other matters of gravity, such as which one of us would outdo the other in Swimming Dragon, Torrent or Wintersai?

"Torrent," said Pebble. Now, I do not dispute the sentiment, but I must admit the swiftness with which it was dispatched did wound my pride a bit. "Not when Wintersai is in Flow, though," countered Ker. Bless him. As far as I am concerned Ker, from now on you can quote Master Kao all day long.

"Watch your stance, Seed. The knee should not pass the toes."

I heard Pebble whisper, "How does he see with his back to us?" Ker made a chortling sound which was halfway between 'flow' and a cough. "Told you."

Next, Grass wanted to verify the parentage of Stormblades. Was I sure? They all had brown skin and blue eyes. He said he was pretty certain they had to be brothers. Wild Apple had an alternative theory. Maybe they got scorched by lightning?

Then came the screams.

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