The crowd drew breath, waiting to hear the punta cry an illegal move.

The punta strode near. 'No loose hands! Restrain yourselves, gentlemen!'

The dockworker growled and nodded. Sall came under the shade of the ship's mast. Sailors sitting up on the yardarm jeered and waved their mugs of rum mixed with limes and water. He kept circling. A ray of noonday sun split between two furled sails, catching his eye and forcing a blink. A whooshing hand came left. Reflex saved him, slipping the jab.

Sall brushed away the dockworker's inquiring jabs and kept working him around the ring. There was plenty of space on the wide main deck of the tall ship Red, whose name was stencilled in the transom above the entrance to the stateroom. On the quarterdeck the Red's captain watched the fight with the captains of two other ships moored nearby.

Over their heads and past were the grey nubs of broken mountains where this border country opened into the wild, uncharted waters of the Obotema.

The dockworker kept his left hand a little low. Sall batted it to distract him, to remind him of his form. The dockworker's attention split. Sall drove with his right and clocked a dominating smack! across his cheek. The dockworker swung back at him with a crossed left, shifting to his front foot, and countering Sall's follow through with blinding series of jabs that turned Sall away and stopped him taking more ground.

Sall brushed away a variety of cuts, but the last nailed Sall in the side. Sall buckled into it. The dockworker saw his opportunity and his next blow came from high, bringing his heavy fist down to crush Sall's nose.

It was a clever throw. Sall had to take it, but he could lessen his hurt. He turned his face away, letting the blow hit the taut muscles along the side of his neck. It forced a gasp, but Sall shrugged away and brought his hands back up in time to block another blow as the dockworker advanced, seeing another chance to finish him.

Sall went teetering back. The dockworker flung heavy blow after heavy blow, each one harder to brush off. The crowd's drinks were forgotten, waiting with bated breath for the the dockworker's final punch.

But Sall hadn't fought his way across the lands to get knocked out by a dock worker. He'd grown up a brawler on the mean streets of St. Augustine, a grey city of stone buildings and cold hearths, and kept himself out of the gangs with nothing but his fists and his wits. He'd fought his way out of there, and a crippling dependence on strong drink, and now he'd fought his way to the edge of civilisation itself. This wasn't the end.

He twisted a heel, pivoted sideways, and as the straight punch passed his nose by inches threw a jab in from outside it, a strike the dockworker couldn't avoid. His knuckles drove into the dockworker's temple.

Sall levered off the punch and danced back a step.

The crowd roared as the dockworker stumbled back, blinking, shaking his head to clear it. The punch had stung.

There wouldn't be anything holding either of them back now. They stood a few feet apart. Sall could see in the dockworker's eyes neither of them wanted this fight to drag, and so pointed at a spot halfway between them. They were going to fight there. The dockworker nodded.

Muscles tense before movement. He was coming at Sall's right. Sall dodged his swinging hook, hearing it slip past his ear. Sall fed a jab low. Instead of raising his guard again he bunched his right shoulder. The dockworker had expected him to block.

His eyes went wide.

Sall's straight punch collected speed and struck crosswise across his cheek. The strike landed clean. Stall stepped into it, using all his weight to return the same blow that had almost felled him.

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