Poison Study Page 79

“Perhaps because the beans are imported from Sitia,” I theorized. “That would be illegal; at least until the trade treaty is finalized. Maybe Brazell’s been using other southern ingredients or equipment as well.”

“Possible. Which is why he was so eager to have a treaty. You’ll have to take a good look around when you visit the factory.”


“The Commander has scheduled a trip to MD–5 when the southerners leave. And where the Commander goes, you go.”

“What about you? You’re going too, aren’t you?” The panic welling in my throat made my voice squeak.

“No. I’ve been ordered to stay here.”

“One, and two, and three, four, five. Keep fighting like this and you will die,” Janco sang.

I was pinned against the wall. My bow clattered to the floor as Janco’s staff tapped my temple, emphasizing his point.

“What’s wrong? You’re rarely this easy to beat.” Janco leaned on his bow.

“Too distracted,” I said. It was only a day ago that Valek had informed me of the Commander’s plans.

“Then what are we doing here?” Ari asked. He and Maren had watched the match.

Still uncomfortable about what he might have heard when I was delusional, I had a hard time meeting Ari’s gaze. “Next round, I’ll try harder,” I said as Janco and I caught our breath. Reviewing our fight, I asked Janco, “Why do you rhyme when you fight?”

“It helps keep my rhythm.”

“Don’t the other soldiers give you a hard time about it?”

“Not when I beat them.”

We started another match. I made an effort to concentrate, but was beaten again.

“Now you’re trying too hard. I can see you planning each offensive move,” Janco said. “You’re giving yourself away, and I’m there for the block before you even strike.”

Ari added, “We drill for a reason. Offensive and defensive moves must be instinctive. Let your mind relax, but stay alert. Block out all distractions. Stay focused on your opponent, but not too focused.”

“That’s a contradiction,” I cried in frustration.

“It works,” was all Ari said.

I took a couple of deep breaths and cleared the distressing thoughts of my upcoming trip to Brazell’s district from my mind. Rubbing my hands along the bow, I concentrated instead on the smooth solidness of the weapon. I hefted it in my grip, trying to make a connection, creating an extension of my thoughts through the bow.

A light vibration tingled through my fingertips as I traced the wood grain. My consciousness flowed through the bow, twisting and turning along the grain, and back along my arm. I possessed the bow and my body at the same time.

I moved into the third round with a sense of heightened awareness. Intuitively, I knew what Janco was planning. A spilt second before he moved I had my bow up to block. Instead of scrambling to defend myself, I had more time to counter as well as block. I pushed Janco back. A beat of music pulsed in my mind, and I allowed it to guide my attack.

I won the match.

“Amazing,” Janco shouted. “Did you follow Ari’s advice?”

“To the letter.”

“Can you do it again?” Ari asked.

“Don’t know.”

“Try me.” Ari snatched his bow and assumed a fighting stance.

I rubbed my fingers along the bow’s wooden grain, setting my mind back into its previous mental zone. It was easier the second time.

Ari was a bigger opponent than Janco. What he lacked in speed, he made up for in strength. I had to modify my defense by dodging his strikes or he would have knocked me off my feet. Using my smaller size to duck under one of his blows, I swept my bow behind his ankles and yanked. He dropped like a sack of cornmeal. I had won again.

“Unbelievable,” Janco said.

“My turn,” Maren challenged.

Again, I tuned in to that mental zone. Maren’s attacks were panther-quick. She favored the fake jab to the face, which usually lured my guard up and away from protecting my torso, leaving it exposed for a body strike. This time, I was one step ahead of her, ignoring the fake and blocking the blow.

A clever opponent, she applied tactics instead of speed or strength. She charged me. And I knew she planned to move to my side when I stepped up to engage her. Instead of moving up, I spun and tripped her with my bow. Pouncing on her prone form, I pressed my staff against her neck until she conceded the match.

“Damn!” she said. “When a student starts beating her teacher, it means she doesn’t need her anymore. I’m walking.” Maren strode from the room.

Ari, Janco and I looked at each other.

“She’s kidding, right?” I asked.

“Blow to her ego. She’ll get over it,” Ari said. “Unless you start beating her every time you fight.”

“Unlikely,” I said.

“Very,” huffed Janco, who was probably nursing his own bruised ego.

“That’s enough fighting,” Ari said. “Yelena, why don’t you do some katas to cool down, and we’ll quit for the day.”

A kata was a fixed routine of different defensive and offensive blocks and strikes. Each kata had a name, and they grew more complex with each skill level. I started with a simple defensive bow kata.

As I moved I watched Ari and Janco become absorbed in conversation. I smiled, thinking that they bickered like an old married couple, and then concentrated on my kata. I practiced finding my mental fighting zone, sliding into and out of it while I performed the appropriate kata moves. Panting, I finished the routine, and noticed Irys watching me from the doorway with great interest.

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