Forward the Hunt
For as long as he can remember, Haruki has wanted to be part of the Great Hunt, the annual coming of age ceremony where the youth of Salfea are let loose to kill a dragon and bring it home as proof of adulthood. The larger and higher-ranked the dragon, the greater the reward. Held back for years by family obligation, Haruki has only ever been able to watch from afar until the opportunity finally comes to him. Desperate to prove himself, he's certain he'll do whatever it takes to have a successful hunt.
But on the first night of his Hunt, Haruki finds an injured dragon so highly-ranked that killing him could rocket Haruki all the way to the throne... if he can resist the dragon and his ways.
The Great Hunt Is Coming! the poster on the Market Wall in Salfea declared, in wide, bright red letters. The illustration showed the faceless figure of a human raising a sword in proud declaration, an extension of the exclamation mark. Are You Prepared To Make The Leap?
Haruki stared at it like he could burn the image into his mind. It was the same design that it had been all of his life—as far as he could remember, it had always been this exact same poster, down to the defect in the p of Leap and the awkwardly exaggerated shoulders of the illustrated figure. Nothing about the poster was new or different.
Haruki, though, Haruki's life was new and different this year.
"You're going to do it, right?" Richard said from behind him. Haruki jumped and half-turned to look at Richard, then rolled his eyes.
"Of course I am," he said. "I've been waiting for this."
He'd been waiting as far as back as he could remember for his eighteenth birthday—and then he'd been waiting six long years after that. And now, finally, there was nothing to hold him back from actually participating.
The Great Hunt! It was the largest event in Salfea's calendar: the time during the month of Harvest when dragons emerged from the depths of Blackroot Jungle to mate. During the year, only specially trained hunting groups could hope to enter Blackroot and bring back the hides that Salfea depended upon for the majority of its economic stability, but during Harvest, even a child could hope to run into a dragon in the outer layers of Blackroot. And while normally they were fierce and dangerous, the mating season left them slower and distracted—still a challenge, but not as much of one.
And that was the point of the Great Hunt: for children the age of eighteen or older to go forth and bring home a dragon. The size of it determined the reward from the Queen's Coffers, and with that success, a child would be considered an adult in the eyes of Salfea's society. At the ending ceremony, the queen herself would hand over the rewards, smiling as she addressed the successful hunters gathered before her. You have proven your ability to contribute and to stand on your own. You have earned this coin and the mantle of true citizenship.
Like the poster, that speech never changed. Haruki had watched it happen every year, always dreaming of the day he too would be able to step forward to shake hands with the Queen and accept the money that was due to him. He would seek out a Knight-rank dragon for his Hunt, he'd decided early on; that would put him on comfortable footing on his own, and then when Richard, a year younger, succeeded in his Hunt, they'd work together to open their tooled dragonhide business, and live comfortably ever after.
But in the end, none of that had happened the way that Haruki had hoped.
Salfea was a closed-off little country, almost entirely surrounded by the dense and treacherous Blackroot Jungle; the rest of it sat pressed to the coastline and curved along the mouth of a large, natural cove. Through the months of Sowing through Harvest, ships would sail in on a regular basis to trade out supplies and coin for both the raw and worked dragonhide. Belts, gloves, aprons, tools—Salfea citizens excelled in creating all of it. For such a small country, it was known worldwide.
"There's no better than what's found here," a dockhand had told Haruki once, when he'd been young and lurking around to watch the transactions. "They're trying to farm dragons now, but those hides don't have the same toughness to 'em. The scales are weak. Ain't nothing better than a Blackroot dragon, and you don't get those anywhere but here."
Due to its isolated location, though, newcomers were few and far in between. Sometimes younger sailors chose to stay rather than sail off again; sometimes ambitious men and women from other countries came with the hopes of carving out a place for themselves in Salfea's dragon-hunting and processing; and sometimes people came seeking asylum from somewhere else.
Haruki's parents had been in that last category. They'd been the first entire newcomers in Salfea for some time, and the last to have come in Haruki's own lifetime. Neither of them had ever explained to him in satisfactory detail of why they'd fled, or even the name of the country they'd run from: only that they could never return on the pain of death, and it was only by leaving that they could hope to raise their son—Haruki—in peace. He'd been four when they'd arrived in Salfea, and he remembered no other home than this small kingdom. It was barely larger than a medium-sized city, alternating between sweltering heat and freezing cold, and he loved it with a fierceness that sometimes surprised him. In his heart, he considered himself as much of a native Salfean as his peers, born and bred in the country for generations.
His parents, on the other hand, had never quite warmed up to Salfea. Occasionally, his mother had lamented that they didn't have the money to leave on another ship and seek out somewhere different. Sometimes Haruki told himself they never did because of a private love for the country, but the rest of the time he knew with uncomfortable certainty that that love didn't exist.
Neither of them had participated in the Great Hunt when they'd first arrived, and they'd continued to refuse every year, even as they aged and the likelihood of a successful hunt decreased.
"It is a barbaric thing, to depend on death to start a life," his father had said, when Haruki had asked. "What good can come from a dedicated killing event? They bring out enough from the forest during the rest of the year. It is greedy to want more, and it is irresponsible to use the youth to obtain that."
No matter what, it was always the same. Whatever arguments Haruki could bring about why, his father always found some way to counter, even if it was only to simply shake his head and say, Your father knows better, for he has lived far longer than you.
It was maddening. Haruki had never understood that way of thinking—the opportunity for betterment was right there, easily within grasp! And yet his parents held themselves apart from it, and pulled Haruki with them. Because of that, his parents could only find work as lower-level servants, and more often than not, he could remember one or both of his parents refusing to eat dinner just so Haruki himself could have anything to eat. As he'd gotten older, closer to his eighteenth birthday, it had gone from frustrating into straight-out infuriating.
"It'd be only one hunt," he'd argued. "If the two of you worked together, you'd be able to split the reward and gain at least a little prestige. Even if it was only a Pawn-rank, it'd be better than where we are now! They're mocking us, you know. They think we're cowards or we're fools or that we're both. Doesn't that make you angry? Don't you want to prove them wrong?"
But his parents had never wavered. Haruki could have accepted that... if they hadn't forbidden him from participating in the Great Hunt either.