At the moment, the room was open and airy like the conservatory, but there were VR monitors all over. There were three separate fighting areas. Two had mats, one was the solid floor. Every known weapon she’d ever seen or heard of was in racks that lined one wall. He had a firing range at one end. An archery range next to that, that was also equipped with targets for other throwing weapons. Different kinds of punching bags, dummies, and speed bags…
She couldn’t even take it all in.
Sumi gave him a dead stare. “Is there any piece of exercise equipment you don’t own?”
“How you think I stay so sexy?” He winked at her.
She laughed at his teasing tone. Yet he was right. The male was lickably hot. And she could easily imagine him in here with his friends as they trained.
“We’ll be using the Splatterdome,” Fadima said as she began stripping her clothes off to expose the skintight workout suit underneath. “Or ring, as it’s best known.” She grabbed a long staff and headed for the unpadded fighting area.
Sumi stripped down to her League undergarments. Dancer handed her a staff similar to the one his cousin had chosen. As she reached for it, Fain joined them.
“You need fuel to fight.” Fain handed her sausage muffins.
“Thank you.” Smiling, she took the small plate from his hand and ate the muffins while Dancer and his cousin explained the rules of her coming match.
Which basically had no rules other than kill your opponent honorably.
“You can never strike Dariana’s back,” Fadima warned. “Should you do so, the referees will wound you.”
Her eyes widened. “How so?”
“Depends on where and how hard you strike her. It could be a small penalty where they merely tie one of your limbs down or a larger one that would result in your being stabbed.” Fadima used her staff to illustrate the area on the back of her leg where they might cut her.
Yeah, okay. Sumi didn’t like these rules. Andarions really didn’t play.
“An accidental strike,” Fadima continued, “such as she’s turning, doesn’t count.” She hit her on the shoulder. She handed another staff to Dancer. “Let’s show her, cousin.”
Sumi almost choked on her muffin as the two of them went after each other like they were in a League death match or Andarion ring title fight. Fain handed her water while she watched them in awe.
Fadima made a strike at Dancer’s head that would have been lethal had it contacted. Luckily, he caught it and ducked.
“Anything frontal is permitted,” she explained. “The rule is your opponent must see the blow coming either dead on, or peripherally. Those are all legal blows.”
She held her staff up in both hands horizontally. “This is a request for a small time-out, as in you’ve been injured and need the break or sprain set. It only gives you three minutes.”
As she stepped away, Dancer feigned a strike to her shoulder. He looked at Sumi. “If you strike her once she’s requested a break, you will forfeit your weapon.”
He moved to Fadima’s back. “Any hits when she’s faced away from you are the ones you have to avoid.”
Sumi swallowed her food. “I wouldn’t make that strike anyway.”
“Dariana’s a cheating bitch,” Fadima finished for Dancer. “You have to be in control of your strikes and temper at all times so that she doesn’t lure you into making something the ref will misconstrue as a back attack.”
“Ah, gotcha.” Sumi licked her fingers then moved to take the staff from Dancer. “Let’s try this.”
Hauk stepped away, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. Every instinct inside him wanted to protect Sumi. It was a painful, demanding ache.
But to Sumi’s credit, she was an incredible fighter. She met every one of Fadima’s strikes. Her circular moves were flawless and she had good weight behind her jabs.
“Dang!” she said as she stepped back after striking Fadima’s side. “Andarions are solid. Were you born with a staff in your hand?”
Fadima laughed and glanced to Hauk. “You have your male to blame for my skills. He was forever picking a fight with me. I had to learn to fight him off or stay bruised.”
Hauk snorted. “The lies that drop from your tongue, cousin. I was the innocent victim. I’d be lying on the floor, playing in total harmony, and she’d run up my back, flip, and pin me in a hold.”
“I did do that,” Fadima admitted with a smile.
“And let’s not forget,” Fain added, “how many times we’d be playing ball and she’d run in out of nowhere and throw us down.”
“That was only after she’d kicked us in our balls.”
Fadima laughed. “As I said, I take no offense to your thinking ill of me, cousin.” She met Sumi’s gaze. “But I never once defeated Fain in a fight. Until the Iron Hammer came along, he was the youngest Ring title holder in Andarion history, and never lost a single match in his entire career.”
“Iron Hammer, what?” Sumi asked with a frown.
“Iron Hammer is a legendary Andarion prize fighter,” Fadima explained. “He retired a couple of years ago, undefeated in all class weights and in both league divisions.”
Dancer jerked his chin at his brother. “In his youth, Fain was every bit as famous. He was one of the most celebrated Ring prize fighters of his generation and would have gone on to be the undefeated champ of all three titles had he not…” His voice trailed off.
“Had he not married my sister.” That knowledge made her even sicker. Omira had cost Fain so much.
Fadima held the staff up for a break.
Sumi stopped immediately.
Breathing heavily, she passed an impressed expression on to Dancer. “Your female is very well trained.” She tossed the staff to Shahara. “I’ll let you have a go and see what you think.”
Sumi thought she was prepared until Shahara started for her. She came after her like a psychotic ten-armed windmill. In less than a minute, Shahara had her flat on her back.
Hauk growled as he saw Sumi fall.
Fain caught him. “It’s training, drey. They have to do this.”
He knew that, but still…
Sumi flipped to her feet with a stunned look on her face. “What did you do? That was incredible! Teach me!”
“And me,” Fadima said as she took another staff. “I’ve never seen anyone move like that.”
“Because you’re both tall. While I am for a human, I’ve gone up against a lot of Phrixians, Andarions, Partinie, and other humongous races that dwarf me.” She inclined her head to Desideria. “She’s even better at those moves than I am. I’ve seen her face-plant Caillen in training, and even I have a hard time doing that. My brother is extremely accomplished.”
Desideria snorted. “I don’t think it’s that, Shay.”
“What do you mean?”
“You really underestimate how much your brother fears you. You threatened to turn him into a girl one time too many, growing up.”
“Hmm… too bad I couldn’t stop him from turning into an ill-mannered tourah.”
“But unfortunately, you won’t be fighting with staves.” Hauk went to the wall and pulled down the practice swords. He handed one to Sumi and one to Shahara.
Shahara screwed her face up. “I’m a knife fighter. I have basic sword skills, but nothing to brag about.”
Desideria took it from her. “This is my forte. ‘Qillaq’ means sword-bearer.”
Sumi glanced down at Desideria’s distended belly. While she had no problem fighting Dariana, who had yet to show her pregnancy, fighting a woman who was well into her third trimester was another matter entirely. “Out of curiosity, when exactly are you due?”
“I still have a few more weeks to go.”
Sumi stepped back. “Um, yeah… I don’t think we should be doing this.”
Desideria scoffed. “I am Qillaq. My great-grandmother gave birth during battle. She handed her daughter off then buried her enemies on the field. I promise, even though I’m not quite as centered as I normally am, you won’t hurt me or Vashe.”
“The son I carry. Even he’s eager for this. I can feel him tumbling at the mere prospect of the fight.”
Sumi was stunned. “I’m still not sure about this.”
That was her thought until Desideria started fighting. Her strikes and parries were as flawless as Shahara’s moves with a staff.
“My Lord, I’d hate to face you when you’re not pregnant.”
Desideria laughed. “Told you. But…” She stepped back. “I am very winded now.” She handed the sword to Fadima. “And I have to go to the bathroom. Vashe is dancing on top of my bladder.”
“I have felt that pain. Every child I carried used mine for a trampoline.” Fadima faced Sumi. “Do you need a break as well?”
“Good to go.”
As they fought, Hauk caught the strange look on his grandmother’s face.
He moved to stand beside her. “Is something wrong, Yaya?”
For several minutes, she didn’t speak. Then, she touched his shoulder where his mother had sliced him open. “Tell me, Dancer. When your mother chastised you, what did you do to deserve it?”
He started to move away without answering, but she caught his arm.
“I am old, tana, I won’t think ill of you for it. But no one has ever told me what it is you did that was so wrong she publicly scarred you over it.”
Hauk flinched as he went back in his mind to that day that was forever carved not just into his flesh, but his memories.
At eighteen, he’d been as headstrong as Darice. Dariana’s mourning period was coming to a close and his mother had scheduled their pledging.
“I won’t do it, Matarra.”
She’d growled in his face. “You will do this.”
Hauk had been adamant. “I can’t take her as my wife.”
She’d backhanded him for his denial. “No one else wants you. Do you understand? You’re revolting. Deformed. There are no other noble families willing to pledge to you. Not for any reason. And she is your brother’s widow.”
“She’s my brother’s murderer.”
This time, she’d struck him so hard, she’d loosened his teeth. “Never say that out loud!”
He’d wiped away the blood on his lips as he glared at her. “I was there, Matarra. I saw him using the drugs she gave him. It’s why she destroyed his body that I carried home, in honor.”
“Why would I lie?”
“To protect yourself.”
“From what? Disgrace? Humiliation? Contrary to what you and Dariana think, I didn’t kill him, Matarra.” All he’d wanted was for his mother to understand the truth. To stop looking at him like he was a piece of shit who should have died. “Too high to understand what he was doing, Keris took his own life. He cut the line and —”
Shrieking, she’d attacked him so viciously that he’d stumbled and fallen. She’d seized him by his throat and before he realized her intent, she clawed open his flesh from shoulder to pec. “You ever breathe a word of your lies to anyone and you can join that piece of human-loving filth in exile. I cannot believe the gods took my one, true son and left me with you. I wish to all that’s holy that you’d never returned.”
It took him a minute to realize his grandmother was calling him. Blinking, he looked down at her. “Yes, Yaya?”
“Why did she chastise you?”
He forced his emotions down and answered with the simplest, least painful explanation. “Because I let my brother die.”
She sighed heavily. “I know there’s more to it than that. One day, Dancer, I hope you’ll trust me with the truth.”
As she walked off, the door opened to show a very grim-faced Nykyrian and Syn. His gut shrank at what those expressions could mean.
Syn glanced to Nykyrian before he answered. “It’s time for our favorite How Screwed Are You report.”
“Oh goody,” Hauk said drily. “My day was already sucking. How nice of you to kick down more for me.”
“Ever my pleasure.”
Hauk ignored Syn and turned to face Nyk, who would actually answer his question. “So what’s going on?”
“We have a traitor in our midst. And we will find them and choke them with their entrails. But in the meantime, Kyr knows that Sumi’s defected.”
Hauk felt his stomach slam into the ground. “What?”
Syn nodded. “But wait, there’s more. He hasn’t harmed her daughter yet… Maris assures us that Kyr will do his best to leverage her for you and Sumi. Which is a very Kyr thing to do. So as long as he thinks there’s a chance he can use her to get you two, she’s safe. But we don’t have long or one of you or all of you will be dead.”