His name was Zoto Manataru, fourth son of the once famous Longo Manataru, one of the greatest jugglers who ever lived. That was the problem. All his life, Zoto had been forced to live within the shadow of his father’s reputation. All his life he had heard people say things like, ‘Ah! so you are Longo’s son! Well then, let’s see what you can do!’ And, of course, he had never lived up to their expectations. When you expected the best, and got three balls, you were never impressed.
Zoto had never managed more than three. It was something of a family embarrassment. Other jugglers had children who could juggle nearly a dozen flaming blades without being burned or cut. Or a dozen live ferrets without getting bit. Or a dozen chicken eggs without breaking them. Even Zoto’s brothers and sisters were better than he was. He was the worst. And everyone knew it.
So today, standing before the elders of the Juggler’s Alliance, trying for the fifth and final time to join the guild, Zoto breathed deeply and did his best to focus his concentration. This was his final chance. If he could not juggle four balls successfully for at least five minutes, then he would forever disgrace the name of Manataru and be cast out of his family a pariah and a shame. No one would speak his name again. Amongst his people, the name of Zoto would be stricken from the books, and no child would again be allowed to bear it for seven generations – until it was cleansed of the stain that he had placed upon it.
“Are you ready young Zoto?” asked Duraka Yaranja, head axe juggler of the Yaranji clan.
Zoto bowed and grabbed his balls. “I am ready master,” he replied.
“Then let us begin. Show us your talents. Remember, this is your final chance. Drop a single ball, and you are shunned for life.”
No pressure, thought Zoto. But he tried to put that all out of his mind. The worst part of it was that he KNEW he wasn’t ready. He’d never been able to keep five balls in the air, even during practice. It would take a miracle for him to be able to do it now. So where was he going to get a miracle? Did it matter.
“Today I am doing five!” he declared. “Today, you shall all witness my skills. And you shall see five of my balls flying high.”
Several of the masters looked at each other. This was unexpected. Zoto was only required to juggle four to continue. Why had he chosen to do five? Was he trying to impress someone? If so, then he was sorely deluded. Five balls were fine if that was what he wanted, but not all that impressive considering that this was the Juggler’s Alliance. Even the worst of the masters here could juggle ten balls easily. But… whatever…
“Show us your balls then,” sighed Duraka Yaranji. “Let us see them fly.”
Thus, with three balls in one hand, and two in the other, Zoto began the sequence. Throwing the first two in the air, the others followed: two, one, two three, two one two three… Sweat trickled down his forehead. His eyes felt dry and itchy from staring straight ahead. And his stomach grumbled deeply with the strain of his guts. The urge to vomit out of sheer anxiety was upon him, but he could not. To fail now was to fail forever. He had to hold fast. He had to keep his balls flying high for the sake of his family and his family name.
But he was going to have problems. Poor Zoto could tell after only a minute that things were going to become increasingly difficult. It was the sweat. His balls were getting sweaty, and slippery. It made holding them more difficult, and he had to increase his grip, squeezing them tighter when he caught them. This made it harder to throw them back into the air rapidly.
He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep it up…