It’s time for the duel.
Martin stopped me at the door to the courtyard. “Stay inside while I meet with Cadet Berela’s second and Commander Mills. Don’t come through the door until I wave at you.”
As soon as Martin entered the courtyard, Cadet Olden, Berela’s second, did the same from a door opposite ours. The watchers stopped milling around and turned their attention to them. Dozens of cams rose into the air, tracking their progress. At the same time, Commander Mills emerged from the crowd and strode to the center of the courtyard.
“What’s with the coordinated entrance?” Joy asked.
“That was my idea,” Megan replied. “Martin would have just agreed for everyone to meet in the middle around noon.”
“What was wrong with that?” Pete asked.
Megan shook her head in dismay, as if amazed anyone could ask such a question. “It’s lousy showmanship. My way builds drama. Drama builds tension. And a tense opponent makes more mistakes.”
Pete glanced at me. “Doesn’t that go both ways?”
Megan shook her head. “Martin left Cadet Berela with the impression that this is how duels are staged on Aashla. That left the impression duels are common on Aashla, which left the further impression that it’s not Chris’s first duel.”
Comprehension dawned on Joy’s face. “Psychological warfare!”
Martin and Cadet Olden spoke briefly with Commander Mills, then they turned toward their respective primaries and waved. On cue, Berela and I entered the courtyard. Berela’s father walked behind him, carrying a naval saber. Martin loaned one to the cadet, giving him a few days to familiarize himself with the weapon.
“We want a fair and honorable duel,” Martin proclaimed, when the newsies questioned the move.
When we reached the middle of the courtyard, Commander Mills said, “At the request of both parties, I will judge this duel. Before events progress to blades and blood, I ask if there is no other way to settle your differences.”
“Cadet Berela has been aware of my terms for five days. If he makes his list ‘targets’ public and offers personal, heartfelt apologies to each woman on it, I will consider the matter closed.”
Berela’s face looked pale, but determined. “Not going to happen.”
Commander Mills gave a slow nod and motioned to an aide who held two sabers. “Blades and blood, it is. Cadet Olden, please choose one of these weapons for your primary.”
“Sir, we request the use of the blade Cadet Berela practiced with. He is used to it and made some minor modifications to improve its balance.”
Mills turned to Martin. “Is this acceptable, Captain Bane?”
Martin held his hand out to MP Berela. “May I inspect the weapon?”
The elder Berela handed it to Martin without a word. My second examined the sword carefully, hefted it, held it straight out, and gave it a couple of controlled swings.
With a shrug, he handed it to Olden. “I think Cadet Berela has ruined the balance, rather than improve it, but that’s his problem. The blade is otherwise unchanged. Cadet Berela may wield it in the duel.”
When presented with the other blades, Martin picked one. Then, Commander Mills waved Berela and me forward.
“Gentlemen, the duel ends when one of you yields. However, you may not yield until your opponent draws your blood. Is that clear?”
Berela and I nodded.
“In the event one of you is wounded too badly to yield, I am empowered to yield for you. It that also clear?”
We both nodded, again.
My friends and I retreated five yards. Berela’s group did likewise. Joy and Megan gave me quick kisses on the cheek, Pete and Martin shook my hand, then Jade gave me a gentle kiss on the lips.
“Don’t die, Chris.”
My friends withdrew to the edge of the crowd, as did Berela’s father and Olden. Commander Mills backed out from between us and raised his right arm.
“Are you both ready?”
“Yes,” Berela said.
“I am,” I added.
Commander Mills’ arm descended. “Begin!”
I raised my blade and took a cautious step forward. Berela raised the saber over his head, looking just like a swordsman from a poorly illustrated adventure novel, and charged!
For a second, I stared at the other cadet in slack-jawed amazement. Gathering my wits and closing my slack jaw, I kept my saber in the ready position and stopped advancing. Berela could get in one powerful swing at the end of his headlong charge, but I was certain I could avoid it with a parry and a sidestep. That should leave Berela’s back open for a quick thrust, something deep enough to draw blood and hurt like hell, but nothing fatal.
Thinking the duel would be over almost before it started, I was totally unprepared for Berela’s next move. Just before he reached me, Berela dove to the ground. As he slid by on the grass, Berela swung at my legs.
I tried jumping over the low attack, but only one leg cleared it. Sharp pain blossomed in my left calf as Berela’s blade opened a long cut on it. As Berela turned his slide into a roll, I tested my leg. It slowed me down a bit and likely gave Berela some much-needed confidence, but I couldn’t imagine it would really affect the outcome.
Berela rolled onto his feet and looked up at the swarm of cams. Spreading his arms wide and presenting his back to me, the cadet yelled, “First blood! I win!”
I was tempted to close the gap between us, drive the tip of my blade into his back, and end the duel. Refusing to act dishonorably, I held my ground. Not wanting to tire my arm holding the heavy saber in the ready position while my opponent wasn’t in a position to attack, I lowered it to the ground.
“The duel isn’t over, Berela. I have to yield, first.” Raising my voice so it carried throughout the courtyard, I declared, “I do not yield.”
Berela’s arms dropped to his sides and his shoulders slumped as he realized his mistake. Only, Berela hadn’t made a mistake.
Moving faster than I’d imagined possible, Berela spun around and flung his saber at me!
With his saber out of position, can Chris defend himself from Berela’s surprise move? Find out in Chapter 31, coming Wednesday!