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2 The Coward Who Dances

 The Gutu Empire was like a behemoth, stretching for hundreds of thousands of kilometers. It encased hundreds upon hundreds of cities and thousands upon thousands of towns. With each city having even more villages around them, the amount of such villages was such that it would seem impossible to count them all.

The Gutu Empire operated on a feudal system: the Empire altogether had a hundred provinces, each of these provinces was broken down into counties, finally, these counties would then further be divided into districts. Each district, would have hundreds of cities, towns and thousands of villages within.

A province was ruled by a council of county chiefs, with the head of the largest county being the head of that council. Counties were allowed to battle each other for territory acquisitions and even assimilate each other.

A county chief had complete autonomy within his or her county and was even allowed to rule with an iron fist. The chieftaincy of a county was hereditary, resulting in a society where family was everything. If one was not part of a clan, tribe or sect, then he or she wouldn't get to rise or become anyone worthy of notice.

The districts also operated the same way. The county chief would be in charge of the main district and would allow the sub districts to battle each other, so long as the battles didn't weaken the overall power of the county a lot.

After all, what mattered in a dog-eat-dog world such as this was none other than... power. To defeat other districts, a district would need to grow both strength and strategy wise. Of course, large scale conflicts would be more or less be controlled, so as not to weaken the county's overall power,

As such, to strengthen the districts below his rule, a district chief wouldn't prevent such conflicts, but instead would even encourage the cities, towns and villages to battle each other! All this, would be following the creed of the Gutu Empire...

The weak do not deserve to live.

After all, in the mind of such a world-shaking power, what would weak subordinates bring to the Empire other than trouble? Thus, why would a weak person be allowed to live? A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The Gutu and their insatiable lust for battle made other races in the world fear them. There were many races and creatures within the Gutu Empire and outside, and yet no one dared start a war with this behemoth!

For, if the Gutu Empire were to truly go to war and mobilize the armies of every village, town, city, district and county, not a single person would be able to escape their wrath. A provoked Gutu Empire would be nigh unstoppable!

Fortunately however, even though the Gutu loved battle, they also believed in keeping the harmony of nature in the world. Hence, the Empire did not expand its borders... or at least, that was what the people within the Gutu Empire were told from birth.

The Empire was heavily decentralized, with many powers rising and falling within its borders... yet the royal clan still had an iron-tight grip over the Empire. There were many reasons for that.

One of them was none other than the so-called Elephant Foot Guard.

That was an army which belonged solely to the royal clan and had jurisdiction to act anywhere within the Empire. They had two main purposes.

The first was to destroy anyone or annihilate anything the royal family told them to.

Few could evade the gazes of the Elephant Foot Guard, even fewer could possibly hope surviving to tell the tale... and none would be around long enough to hear of such a story being sung in the taverns!

The second, was to search for talented warriors throughout the kingdom, and bring them in so as to service the royal family.

To do that, they were known to travel across the entire Empire every year, recruiting possible talent. They would send warriors known as Elephant Envoys to every known dwelling throughout the Empire.

The day narrated in the episode that follows, was the day one such envoy arrived to Gumbo village...

When the envoy arrived atop a mighty elephant, the villagers all bowed once, then immediately cheered and went into widespread celebration. Envoys were heavily respected throughout the Empire.

One of the reasons for this was because a single word from an envoy of the Elephant Foot Guard, could elevate an entire village's status... they could even hope, if they were lucky, to rise to the skies in a single step!

Until a Gutu child was ten, they were no different from any children on earth, except for the fact that their bodies were slightly more powerful. It was only through the awakening ceremony one went through once they reached such an age, that one truly became a Gutu.

Hence, the day in discussion. Finally, today, Taku would also be awakened: on that day, on that year, he had finally turned ten!

Life for the young Taku had been difficult in the village.

Almost from the very beginning, he had to fend and look after himself. Fortunately, due to the fact that he was mentally an adult, that had been much easier for Taku.

He, who was a man in a child's body, from the very moment that he had opened his eyes and glanced upon the world... he had decided that it would become his property, and his only!

However there was a slight problem with his initial plan to take over the world.

He was a coward.

"Line up for the honorable envoy!" shouted the village chief. He was an old man with a head of white hair but his body was at the very pinnacle of physical perfection. There was no doubt that he would live for a very long time.

The envoy was an old man just like the village chief, except he wasn't clothed in furs. Instead, what he wore was an exquisite robe that covered his body from head to toe.

The children who were going to be awakened that day were only a handful. Life in the village was tough, so many children died each year, especially orphans. Due to the difficult state of warfare in this place, there were quite a few of them.

Most of them would not survive, due to the fact that their bodies could not handle the harsh weather. If they safely passed through the winter, surviving the cold, merciless climate, there was no guarantee that they would also live through the summer, as many would die due to the extreme heat.

Others, instead, would be poisoned by dangerous creatures, while even more got poisoned from eating stale food. There were numerous ways to die within the villages, some much grimmer than others, however that was life as a Gutu.

Taku had survived partially due to his wit, but mostly due to his cowardly nature that made him even more careful and aware of any dangers that could befall him.

After those ten years, he had grown used to life in the village, but his cowardly nature was not only a blessing, but also a major problem. The villagers also knew him well due to it.

Whenever he was challenged to a fight, he would run.

Whenever he saw blood, he would faint.

However, the biggest problem had emerged a short while after Taku had turned seven years old.

...

Except for the fact that the mothers were the ones that took care of children while the fathers were the one who went hunting, the Gutu had few distinction between the two sexes, since both male or female Gutu could easily grow up to become warriors someday.

Before that happened however, they would be taught different things.

After all, although the Gutu had extremely powerful bodies, they would still need food and clothing to survive, right? Thus, the children would be instructed ever since birth on how to manage the village's affair.

Such lessons were given by the village's elderly women whom, after witnessing the sun rising and falling over the horizon for so many times, had grown old but also wise.

Thus, young Gutu would study simple calculus, what was enough to allow them to execute the simple addition or subtraction required in their mundane life, and what could be defined as biology, so as to know the details of the beasts they would be hunting in the future.

Pretty much, this was so the younglings could do thing such as calculating the food supply's total amount and know what part of the prey was edible.

After the age of seven however, there would be one of the rare distinctions in between the role of males and females in the villages of the Gutu.

Usually, while males would learn the art of sewing and weapon crafting, females would learn how to cook, read and write. The village of Gumbo however was different in this aspect as, unlike most other villages, it had once been a huge city that had declined after the disappearance of its founder.

Before he left, what he had left behind, for his descendants to pick up, was a single thing that had come to distinguish the village of Gumbo from its neighbours: dancing.

What the founding ancestor had left had been a mysterious dance. Just by seeing the dance, a person would feel their body feel lighter and their fatigue washed away. Often described as mesmerizing and hypnotic, this dance would thus be used as a way to relieve the hunters of fatigue whenever they came back from their hunts in the evening.

Due to its importance as both a relic from their ancestor and a magical technique able to soothe the body, this dance had become extremely important for the Gumbo village. This was especially true, as it allowed warriors and hunters to be able to utilize their full strength without needing to worry about exhaustion. After all, they could recover every night when they saw the village's prettiest girls execute such a magical dance!

That's right, this dance was mainly taught to young girls. While some boys knew the dance as it was something so important, it would only be taught to seven-year-old Gutu of the female gender... and these girls would mostly end up not marrying for their whole life.

What a Gutu seeked in the partner would not be just beauty, but also strength! To survive in the Gutu empire, the child would have to inherit the best possible genes! How could the village's most powerful warrior pair up with a lowly dancer?

However, a dancer's role was of utmost importance in Gumbo village nevertheless! That was why, when a young girl announced that she would like to become a dancer for her whole life, the people's gazes wouldn't just be filled with contempt alone, but also with flashes of admiration and respect. It was a blessing and a curse.

Still, the elderly still couldn't help but cringe whenever they saw Taku sitting in between his friends, listening intently to the older woman, their teacher, showing the 'Butterfly Steps', the first grade of difficulty of the ancestral dance.

Was this child truly a Gutu? People still couldn't help but wonder at times, despite knowing him from the very moment he was born, whether he was truly a man. No. Even girls smaller than him showed more courage. He was no man, he was no woman, he was just a cowardly chicken wearing human spoils!

if such a coward child could effectively become a warrior, then wouldn't they have wasted their whole lives? How unfair could the Heavens possibly get?

All that child was good at was running away from a fight and dancing.