Power Study:Study 03.5By: Maria V. Snyder
“Holy snow cats! Will ya look at the crowd.” Janco whistled in amazement.
Although Janco had the annoying tendency to exaggerate, Ari agreed with his partner. “Must be a record.”
“They must think we’ll be easier to beat.” Janco touched the scar where the lower half of his right ear used to be.
Ari recognized Janco’s nervous gesture. He’d seen it a thousand times. “No worries. Take a closer look.” From where they stood next to the castle, they could see the training yard was filled with soldiers practicing with swords and knives and bow staffs. “Greenies mostly. A few veterans, but nobody you can’t handle. Well…” Ari eyed Captain Francesca. She was deadly with a knife.
“You call that a pep talk?” Janco grumbled. “Why are we here anyway? This isn’t our job. It’s Valek’s.” Valek was the chief of security for the vast intelligence network of the Territory of Ixia and the Commander’s right hand man. He had made a challenge to all the soldiers in the Commander’s Army: beat Valek in a fight with the weapon of your choice and win the right to be Valek’s second. Ari and Janco had teamed up with Maren and the three of them had bested Valek. Janco had found the loophole and Valek agreed the trio could be his seconds. For now. If another trio formed, then the new group would have to win a fight against Ari, Janco and Maren together.
Ari and Janco strode into the yard. Maren was already warming up. Her blond ponytail flashed in the morning sunlight as she practiced a bow kata. She twirled the five foot wooden bow staff with lethal accuracy.
“Consider it an honor,” Ari said. “We get to weed out the greenies. Anyone who beats one of us wins the right to face Valek.” He knew he had said the right thing when a determined glint shone in Janco’s eyes.
Janco smiled with a predatory grin. “If anyone beats us. And I’m feeling disinclined to allow that to happen.”
The names of all the hopefuls were put into a bucket. Ari, Janco and Maren each picked a name and the matches began.
Those who faced Ari soon realized that, despite his large muscular size, he was quick with his broadsword. Able to hold the sword in his right hand and use his left for punching, he dispatched his first two opponents without breaking a sweat.
The third man chose the bow staff as his weapon so Ari’s next fight lasted a bit longer. Not as adept with wielding a staff, he always worried he would break the bow into splinters.
“A block, a dodge, a spin. Come on, do you want to win?” Janco’s voice sang out over the din of shouts and clashes of steel.
Ari smiled. His partner liked to sing rhymes during a fight to keep his rhythm and to unnerve his opponent. It reminded Ari to pace his bow attacks, luring his attacker into a cadence. Temple strike, rib strike, temple, rib, temple, rib. Then a feint to the temple and blow to the exposed ribs. The young man went down as his air whooshed from his lungs.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Ari chugged a glass of water and picked the name of his next opponent from the bucket. The morning flew by in a series of matches. Each one unique, but all ending in defeat.
Ari was pleased with his skills, but vowed to work on his bow katas.
When all the soldiers had a chance to fight, Ari, Janco and Maren compared notes.
Janco tried to bandage a nasty gash on his right forearm. “Francesca is the only one who got past my defenses,” he said. “She’s awesome with a knife. Valek will have a decent match against her.” Maren pulled the bandage from Janco. “You’re making a mess. Let me.” Her long fingers deftly wrapped his arm. “I lost one sword match to Rye.”
“The greenie?” Incredulity laced Janco’s voice. “Did he compliment your hair or something? I know he’s good looking, but—Ow! That hurts.”
Maren finished tying Janco’s bandage with vicious delight. Ari listened to them bicker. Just like old times, he thought. Back when they had met in a storage room and practiced bow fighting with Yelena. Since earning their new positions, Ari hardly saw Maren. And he and Janco were often sent on separate missions. He didn’t like it. They were stronger together than apart.
The subject of Maren and Janco’s argument interrupted them. “When do I fight Valek?” Rye asked.
“Anxious to lose?” Janco asked. “He won’t be as easy to beat as our creampuff—Ow!” By the murderous expression on Maren’s face, Ari would bet a month’s wages on her challenging Janco to a match and dumping him into a large mud hole. Before they could erupt into another argument, he said to Rye, “Valek is on a mission right now. You can face him when he returns.”
“When?” Rye asked.
“That’s when, sir.” Janco corrected. “Besides being none of your business, I don’t like your attitude.
Maybe you should fight us first.”
“Anytime, sir.” Rye flipped him a salute.
Ari put a warning hand on his partner’s arm. “Cocky and insubordinate. Sound like anyone you know?” Janco huffed but kept his mouth shut. Good.
Ari studied the young man. He had a lean muscular build and was a few inches taller than Janco. A serious intensity radiated from his blue eyes and his dark hair and tanned skin tone suggested he was from one of the southern Military Districts.