Chapter 9: Diplomacy and Combat

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MY MIND WAS BLANK for a moment. When the name finally registered, a ridiculous smile spread slowly across my face. "Varanis? As in, the guard outside the meeting hall? Andoc, you're fighting a woman?"

"More specifically, I'll be fighting Magoldis' firstborn daughter," Andoc said, looking like he'd eaten something sour. "If I accidentally hurt her, they'll probably have me publicly flogged. This is going to be a nightmare."

I couldn't help it. I collapsed into laughter as Andoc glared at me, his offended expression sending me into further uncontrollable fits that had as much to do with a release of the day's tension as it did with Andoc's situation.

"If you're quite finished," he grumbled when I had finally wrested myself back under control, wiping tears from my eyes as Senovo looked on tolerantly.

"Oh, yes," I said. "I'm definitely finished. Come on; let's hurry back to the village center. This is going to be the highlight of the entire journey for me."

Andoc merely growled something unintelligible in response.

* * *

The crowd in the village square was even larger than the one at the horse pens had been. Apparently, word had spread that the visitors from Draebard brought good entertainment value with them. Andoc retired briefly to our room to prepare himself for the fight, which Senovo reassured me was not actually intended to result in death or serious injury. Or in public flogging, for that matter.

Still, I could see that it was a bit of a delicate situation. Andoc obviously thought that his victory was a foregone conclusion. And, indeed, he was a highly respected warrior for a reason—he was good. Very good. If the fight were completely one-sided, Magoldis might be offended at seeing her daughter humiliated. However, to be seen to purposely fight with less than one's full skill would be dishonorable in the extreme, and also highly insulting.

By comparison, I'd had it easy—no one was rooting openly for the horse. Well... except, possibly, for the Mereni Horse Master. Senovo gained my attention with a touch to my elbow and indicated that we should join Magoldis at the front of the gathering spectators.

"We'll be expected to attend the Leader during the contest," he explained, and I nodded my understanding.

A platform had been erected at one end of the square, with three heavy wooden chairs placed atop it. Magoldis sat in the middle chair, looking down over an empty stretch of packed dirt where the fight would presumably take place. When she noticed us, the Leader beckoned us forward and onto the platform.

"Sit," she said, indicating the other two chairs with a flick of her hand. Senovo bowed and lowered himself into the chair at Magoldis' left with a graceful swish of robes. I quickly followed suit, sitting on her right.

A chalk circle perhaps half the size of the training pen I'd used earlier had been laid out before us on the hard ground. I was familiar with this sort of contest—it was a common enough occurrence both in Draebard and the village where I'd grown up whenever the warriors got too bored between skirmishes. The opponents would battle either to first blood, capitulation, or until one of them was driven out of the circle. Such competitions were generally friendly enough within the ranks of a village's warriors; I had a sneaking suspicion they would be less so between warriors from different tribes. Especially tribes with as much bad blood between them as the Mereni and Draebardi.

In contrast to the hush that had characterized the spectators around the horse pens, the crowd around the village square was raucous and celebratory. Mereni warriors were making their way toward the front, forming the first rank around the fighting circle. I had no doubt they would provide as much distraction for Andoc as possible during the contest.

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