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Lieutenant Lorenz of the Tricorn squared off against Athia in Kamil’s training hall. Lea put the spar together, a little demonstration to assure the Olstin Chapter Commander that Athia could do the job. For that purpose, the city’s other captain and the commander both stood in attendance.


Captain Finn couldn’t match Lea for height but stood broad and well built. They called him Altur, a vicious breed of snapping turtle, and with his tower shield on his back it fit. He chewed on a sweet-tinged reed, slowly grinding it into a wad to suck on in his cheek. Beside him, Commander Darren wore his steamed blue uniform. His breast shelved a few dozen marks and awards while gold trimmed the attire.


Darren as commander of Olstin, ranked as the second most powerful Tricorn leader. Accordingly, Finn and Lea were among the most influential captains. As one of his lieutenants, Lorenz would be someone well regarded. Like Athia, the man wore simple, well fitted white clothes. His fists bore calloused knuckles and scars that matched a face of past injuries and pain. He wore it like a tree wore its knots.


Kamil’s students whispered to themselves. Lorenz came often to train, and everyone remembered Athia’s visits, sparse as they might be.


The two combatants matched size, though Athia stood a hair taller and he a few inches broader. They waited. He low and defensive, her spry and threatening to pop at any moment. She bounced on her toes while he settled into a deep, centered stance.


“Athia,” Lea said. “Don’t embarrass me.”


“I’m planning on embarrassing him.”


Lorenz didn’t qualify as an unarmed specialist, but he trained a great deal in it. Finn and Darren expected a win from him. Lea said they’d be satisfied with a close fight. Athia wouldn’t be. Unless it was fun.


“No powers.” Kamil cleared his throat. “Begin.”


Athia sprung forward, one arm pulled back. Lorenz’s defense rose to meet her. He considered his options; weather the first assault, then seize the initiative when her attack broke on his defense. A simple plan.


She reached him, her fist moved, then her hips followed. One foot rose as she twisted into a backwards roundhouse as she pulled her punch. The kick whirred a deep sound in the instant it took to land. The surprised Lorenz could just get his defense down and no more as her heel collided with his forearms. The bones creaked and the clap of impact echoed.


Athia took the man clear off his feet with the force. His legs pumped to find ground again. She covered the distance by the time they did. His feet scrambled back, unable to find solid footing as she struck.


They traded punch for parry. Even with his defense cracked, he kept up in raw reflex and speed. Enough to keep afloat anyway, his arms deflecting her strikes at each turn. Athia hammered at him. Jab, straight, low kick. Lorenz grew desperate. He let her land a solid hit into his stomach in exchange for a cross into her cheek.


The punch bought Lorenz an inch of space. Athia cursed her cockiness as he drove forward. She parried, then ducked and struck his stomach again, to no effect. His knee rose. She wanted to try for a takedown, but couldn’t get enough force in her pounce, not low and off balance.


Her hands caught the knee as Lorenz’s hands slammed down against the back of her head. It rattled her as she shoved and made space. Athia blinked, usually strikes there were off limits in practice. But if he wanted to play that way.


A flash of anger lit her face as Lorenz charged, seeing his moment. Athia lunged in reply. She pulled back for a haymaker as Lorenz lead with a cross. She tilted her head, letting the strike skim her cheek and aimed hers. Dead on his forearm. He liked to block with them. A little too much.


The full weight of her strike landed square, right where her heel hit. Lorenz’s eyes widened as bone met knuckle. Their eyes met for a split second, his face a grimace and hers a wink. The pain of the impact kept him from noticing her feet. She hooked his ankle and leaned into her punch.


Lorenz toppled and Athia’s foot moved to his chest.


Kamil said, “Athia has won. Well done.”


She rubbed her cheek then moved her foot off. To the side, Lea smirked wile Darren rubbed his jaw. Finn nodded at her with an amused, but satisfied, smile. He gave her a thumbs up and stepped forward to the ring.


He pointed at her, then himself and held up one finger.


Athia squinted at him, forgetting about Lorenz still on the ground beside her. “You want to fight?”


Darren said, “try to hit him. You get one try. That’s what he means.”


Finn stood feet settled and hands half raised but looking no more prepared than a drunk with an empty bottle.


She didn’t trust that, but she didn’t have it in her to backdown.


Athia stepped over Lorenz and stood just outside of the shorter Finn’s reach. She bounced on her toes, inching closer, then threw a jab. Something simple that wouldn’t compromise her ability to retreat.


The Altur snapped. His whole body moved at once, as if each muscle filled its own, predetermined, position. It happened the moment she committed. Athia could see it all, Finn couldn’t match Kamil for speed, but Finn could match her and she couldn’t make out the man’s plan.


His head inclined forward, one hand moved to her face and stole most her attention. The second hand moved to her belt. One of his feet rose and the other slipped forward. Athia pulled her punch in time to prevent a painful impact with Finn’s forehead while everything else happened in unison.


His offhand grabbed her belt, his main hand pulled back after its distraction was done. One foot caught her heel, the other food came down at her ankle.


Athia tripped back, pulling her leg free before he could break her ankle, but she caught on her belt and lost her balance. Finn’s main hand flew, and she blocked it before it hit her face. He let go of her and she fell, caught herself and scrambled back like a crab.


Finn kept his place, giving her a small smile of amusement. This time, he turned to Darren and gave two thumbs up.


“It Below,” Athia cursed. If she didn’t come in with caution, in a real fight, she’d have a broken ankle and cracked knuckles. If not worse.


She looked at Finn, catching her breath. “I’m impressed.”


Lea grinned and raised an eyebrow at Finn. “Told you she was good.”


“You act like she’s your own daughter,” Darren said.


“Very close niece. I taught her a lot.”


Darren walked over to Athia and offered her a hand, which she took. The commander gave a firm grip and Athia squeezed with all she had, enough to overpower the older man’s hold. It didn’t show in his face, stern but polite.


“Well done. Captain Lea tells me you are five times the fighter when using your weapons.”


Athia smiled, doing her best not to show the effort she put into the handshake. “Very modest of her!”


Darren turned back to Lea with a light mirth showing his teeth. “But you only taught Lane modesty?’


“Don’t blame me for that,” Lea said.


Darren ended the shake, his hand red where Athia’s had been. “You have my blessing to do this task. Succeed and I would gladly grant you entrance into our order, with the prowess you’ve shown and your familial connections.”


Athia ran her tongue between her lower lip and teeth, eyes flicking to Lea then Kamil before returning to Darren.


“That is a generous offer, sir, but I made an agreement with Lea. I’d prefer they not know I’m coming from her, or you, directly.”


“Why’s that?’


“If they say the captain, or commander hired me they won’t act the same. I’d prefer everyone be natural if I’m investigating an imposter.”


“Prudent enough. Depart soon, lest this matter get out of hand.”


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