“This is a lesson in teamwork. You and your partner will be pitted against another pair,” Selenia explains, her voice easily carrying across the courtyard. “The object of this lesson is not to be the person who wins the fight for your team. We are here to learn how to win a fight as a team. So, I do not want to see any showboating and, as usual, no attempts to injure each other. I want to see moves that require both team members. Back each other up and play off each other in order to utilize maneuvers that would be impossible for a solitary fighter. For some of you, this will be easy. For others, this will be very difficult.” She turns to Kellia and Luke. “Then, there are the two of you.”
“We understand,” Kellia and Luke stoically reply.
“I should apologize to you, Luke. I know you have barely been with us and I am throwing you into something this advanced, but it is unfair to everyone else if I slow down the class for a single person. So, you will have to adapt and learn quickly,” Selenia says before turning back to the rest of the class. “With that in mind, Mr. Callindor, you will be working against a team of equal skill and teamwork. Roland and Kira! Your team will spar with Kellia and Luke. Understand that I do not want to intervene in a fight at any point. Everyone go to your sparring areas!”
Luke and Kellia refuse to look at each other as they walk to where Roland and Kira are waiting. The makeshift arena is marked by four dark blue rocks that emanate dim light beams to each other, creating a large, square boundary. Luke quickly scans his partner and opponents to get a feel for what is about to happen. Kellia keeps herself a few steps behind him, which makes it obvious that she is unhappy about being his partner. Ignoring her, Luke pays more attention to the odd pair in front of him. Roland towers above everyone else in the class and his arms are as thick as solid tree limbs. His bald head and stud earrings make him look slightly comical to Luke. Kira, on the other hand, is slender and timidly keeps herself near the edge of the sparring area.
Luke stops at the border of the sparring area to stretch and collect his thoughts. He was disappointed in being partnered with Kellia, but being pitted against Roland and Kira could not be more perfect. Both of them were on his list of possible heirs. He was sure they came from nobility because of how they carried themselves. Kira was his top choice because her file stated that she had moved to Gods’ Voice only a month before attending the academy. It helped his suspicion that the girl was entirely out of place in an academy of warriors, but part of Luke acknowledged that her ineptness could be an act. After all, Kira lacked the accent that Luke expected from the heir, but she could have learned to hide it.
A plan forms in his mind about how he could use the fight to learn more about Roland and Kira. It was a loose, but sensible plan as long as he avoided getting knocked out by the enormous Roland. Luke steps into the sparring area and takes a fighting stance, knowing he looks ridiculous due to his lack of weapons. A few students chuckle at the odd position, but the half-elf ignores them, setting all of his attention on Roland, who takes a long step toward him.
“I was hoping for this,” Roland announces in a bellowing voice. “A Callindor is a true test of my skill. I am honored for this opportunity.”
“Shut up and put up,” Kellia snaps, stepping over the border. Without warning, she grabs Luke by his wrists and wields the half-elf like an unwilling mace. Luke is unable to do anything until he gets his bearings. To his surprise, Roland gracefully ducks the attack and tackles Kellia at her knees, knocking her down. Luke lands next to the others as Roland and Kellia attempt to lock various wrestling holds on each other.
“Guess she never heard of teamwork,” Luke mutters, getting to his feet. “Next time, I think I’ll stay out of arm’s reach.” He turns in time to catch a tiny foot coming at his head. He lets go and takes a step back as Kira struggles to regain her balance.
The dark-haired girl hops on one foot for a bit until she steadies herself. “I told him that wouldn’t work. I don’t suppose you could turn around again and let me get another shot. Please?”
To Kira’s dismay, Luke shakes his head and throws a slow punch at her. Even though it was only meant to scare her, Kira leans away from his fist, toppling backwards. She rolls onto her stomach and tries to clumsily sweep Luke’s legs out from under him. Kira misses when Luke takes a step back, giving her space to stand. She continues trying to hit the half-elf, using a different type of kick each time, but he always manages to step out of her reach. A few of her kicks come in faster than he expects, forcing him to work a little harder to get out of the way. He continues backing up until he gets within reach of Roland who has Kellia pinned to the ground. As soon as Kira attempts a wide crosskick, Luke yanks Roland up by his pants to use him as a shield.
“Nice try!” the bigger student laughs, picking up Kellia to use for his own shield. The kick sends Kellia crashing to the ground. It isn’t long before she is joined by Luke who is grabbed by his face and slammed into the ground.
“You idiot! Stop interfering!” Kellia hisses under her breath as she scrambles back to her feet.
“We have to work together,” Luke angrily whispers, standing up and grabbing her by the shoulder. “So shut up and try to work with me. I’m tired of getting beaten up every day.”
Kellia smacks his hand away, but Luke can tell that she begrudgingly agrees with him. Both of them charge at Roland, quickly dodging the large boy’s surprisingly fast and accurate punches. When they bait him into making a very wide swing, Roland’s own strength and momentum twists him off-balance. The smaller fighters take the opportunity to sprint past him with Kellia stopping to spin around and leap onto Roland’s back. Pulling back with all her strength, she grabs both his arms and grinds her knee into his shoulders. Kellia holds on as Roland pitches himself backwards in an attempt to smash her into the ground. The impact knocks the air out of Kellia’s lungs, but she maintains her grip and braces her knees against his back. With a loud grunt, she lifts Roland into the air where he helplessly kicks and flails. A brief murmur of awe can be heard from a few of her resting classmates.
Meanwhile, Luke keeps running until he reaches Kira, but the clumsy girl manages to stumble out of his way. He tries to follow up with a soft punch to the side of her head, which misses after she trips backwards. They continue like this with Kira getting out of Luke’s way, as if by accident, and Luke easily blocking her kicks. If he wasn’t sure before, now he is certain that Kira was more than what she seems. He glances over at Kellia as Roland starts to angrily call out for help. Kira turns to run over to her partner, which gives Luke an opening to lunge at her. The half-elf runs past her, grabbing her by the collar of her shirt and trying to throw her backwards. The sudden tearing of cloth is a nerve-wracking explosion of sound that catches everyone’s attention. Luke is a few yards away from Kira before he skids to a stop and realizes that he is still holding her shirt.
Without looking back and before anyone else can make a sound, Luke yells, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! I’m really sorry!” Behind him, Kira is turning bright red and frantically trying to cover herself with her hands.
“I can’t believe you! How could you embarrass me like this?” she screeches with tears trickling down her face. “What kind of man are you that you would take my top off in public? You are in so much trouble, Luke Callindor!”
Selenia calmly walks over to Luke and takes the torn shirt out of his numb, fidgeting hands. Holding it up before her, Selenia can see that it is ripped down the front and all of the buttons are missing. She looks closer at the shirt and an angry expression flickers across her face. The mercenary shakes her head and pats Luke on the shoulder before giving a chilling glare to everyone else. All of the students go back to their practice while Kira hides behind Kellia who makes sure to keep the girl protected.
“You have my apologies, Kira,” Selenia says with a frustrated sigh. “It looks like this shirt was poorly made and we missed the flaws during inspection. It happens from time to time when you order bulk supplies. The buttons on this shirt were not sewn on correctly, so it was a matter of time before they popped off. We will get you a new one by the end of the day. In the meantime, Kellia will escort you back to Bloodfae dorm. You have permission to use your regular attire for the rest of the day. Is that acceptable?”
“No!” Kira screams through her tears. “I want something done to Luke! He embarrassed me! Can’t you punish him in some way? What he used wasn’t even a real move. He just grabbed my shirt like it was a fight between kids.”
“He is a beginner just like you. These things happen and he looks almost as mortified as you,” Selenia points out, turning to walk back to the other students. “Luke and Roland, you two will spar for the rest of the class.”
Kira clings to Kellia as they start to walk away. Luke makes sure not to look at Kira as they pass by, but puts his arm out to stop them. Kira shrinks away as his arm goes out, relaxing slightly when it lands on Kellia’s shoulder. He stares at the ground as he turns toward them.
“Hold on. Let me make it easier for you,” Luke requests as he takes his shirt off. “Bad shirt or not, this is my fault, so you can use my shirt to get back to the dorm with your dignity intact. It might be a little big, but it will cover you up.”
He holds the shirt up for Kira to walk into, which takes her a few seconds to gather enough courage to do. An awkward silence comes over them when they notice that the shirt is backwards on Kira. With her arms still tightly held across her chest, she realizes that she is unable to button the shirt without revealing herself. Luke wraps his arms around her to keep the shirt in place while he buttons her up as quickly as possible. For a second, Luke feels her hands on his stomach, causing his body to tense up with anxiety. Once he is done, he gently turns the shirt around on her, allowing her to put her arms through the sleeves.
“Thanks. I guess. You still should be punished though,” she mutters with a few, meek sniffles. “I’ll give you the shirt back tomorrow before the run. I still don’t like you. Seriously, you and I will not get along until you pay for this embarrassment. Don’t think this is finished, Luke.”
Kellia begins leading her away from the class and back to the girls’ dormitory. Luke swears that he hears Kira mumble, “This shirt is nice and warm.”
“Well, that was awkward,” Luke mutters under his breath. He turns around to see a blur coming at his face. He only has enough time to roll his eyes to the sky and wonder why he keeps walking into attacks. The solid fist strikes him in the side of the head, sending the half-elf tumbling a few feet away. Roland storms over to Luke and yanks him to his feet by his shoulders.
“Selenia might not punish you,” growls the large boy as he shoves Luke. “But I will! What you did to Kira was rude and pathetic! I will defend her honor by wiping the courtyard clean with your face. Have at you!”
“Wait a second! It was an accident!” Luke loudly exclaims, nimbly dodging a high body tackle. “Besides, I gave Kira my shirt to cover up. Come on, doesn’t giving her my shirt count for something? And who in the world says ‘have at you’ any more? This is a fistfight, not a duel.”
Roland tries to grab the agile half-elf, but Luke sweeps his legs out from under him. Luke is almost out of reach when Roland grabs Luke’s foot and rolls up to his feet. The action flips Luke onto his stomach while Roland begins twisting his ankle. The pain is dull at first, but quickly grows to excruciating. Luke braces his hands against the ground, pushing back to loosen Roland’s grip. Instead, he knocks Roland back and twists his foot free as the force of his push moves him into a standing position on Roland’s barrel chest. The large boy roars as he throws Luke off him and scrambles to his feet. Luke launches himself at Roland the moment he lands, causing the boys to crash to the ground in a heap.
Luke rolls away and slowly gets to his feet, carefully eyeing Roland. The noble actions, chivalrous attitude, and interesting word usage has put the large boy at the top of Luke’s potential heir list. He is almost giddy with the possibility that he found the heir so easily that he almost forgets he is in a fight. Roland’s charge is fast and his clasped hands come down like a savage club, denting the ground where Luke used to be. It is a maneuver that Luke finds out of place in a martial arts class. In fact, he is sure that he has seen the fighting style that Roland uses somewhere before.
“Stand still, so I can smash you!” Roland snaps in frustration.
“Again, I gave her my shirt! Doesn’t that count for something?!” Luke desperately yells.
“That is another strike against you,” Roland states, cautiously inching closer to Luke. “Showing off your body to a delicate flower such as Kira is a serious offense. Did you think she would feel more at ease if she saw your bare chest? Your simple gesture only increased her embarrassment. You never think of consequences before you act, Callindor. That much is obvious to me. I will show you why acting before thinking has consequences.”
Luke stands his ground as he continues to argue with the larger boy. “I gave her my shirt because I didn’t want her to get cold or be seen by anyone else. The last thing I wanted was for other people to see her. I didn’t even see her because I didn’t look. Besides, I’m a guy. Who cares if I have my shirt off? I happen to think that I look good without a shirt.” Luke swiftly deflects Roland’s punch and dances out of reach again. “Shouldn’t you be ashamed of yourself? I remember you getting an eyeful of her. If anything, you should be punished instead of me. I had the decency not to stare.”
“How dare you insult my honor?!” Roland shouts. He lunges at Luke only to feel the half-elf leap onto his head and run down his back. Roland is unable to turn around before Luke rapidly kicks the back of his knees like a lumberjack hewing a massive tree. The bigger boy falls backward into a fierce elbow that lands between his shoulder blades. Roland is sent flailing forward, landing nose first onto the ground.
“That hurt you freaking jerk! Dammit! That was a freaking nice move, but that really freaking hurt!” Roland declares in a sudden change of speech. “I can’t believe you aren’t pulling your freaking punches. You are one sick freaking bastard, Callindor!”
“You sound like a common street fighter. What happened to the noble talk and the good dialect?” Luke asks, cautiously approaching Roland. “Are you trying to be something you’re not, Roland? Until now, I took you for a noble with a talent for fighting.”
“I’ll show you street fighting,” the boy mutters. He quickly grabs Luke by the leg, lifting the half-elf onto his shoulders. The next thing Luke knows, he is getting spun around by his legs and driven headfirst into the ground. He lays on his back watching the clouds spin while three hazy Rolands stands over him.
“That’s what you get for messing with Roland Gauntlier,” the boy declares with a friendly sneer. “Better luck next time you mess with a woman, Callindor. I hope you learned your lesson.”
Luke watches Roland walk to the rest of the class and notices that nobody makes a move to help him. He remains on the ground, letting the dancing lights of his concussion dance across his vision. Aside from the dull pain coursing through his mind and body, the entire incident was a big step toward completing his mission. Roland is officially off the heir list now that Luke knows who he is. Thinking back, he should have figured it out sooner since his father used to make weights for Roland’s father, a famous professional fighter who was at his peak ten years ago. Aside from a payment of gold, Luke and his father were invited to some of the fights, getting to sit next to the ring with the nobles and trainers. He wouldn’t be surprised if he had sat near Roland during one or more of those fights.
The real mystery before him was Kira. Luke couldn’t put his finger on what it was that seemed off about her behavior. Her brown skin and black hair marked her as a person from the southern deserts. Yet, she supposedly came from Gods’ Voice and she acted more like a spoiled northern noble than the hardened southern nobles. It was possible that the Duke went so far as to magically transform his daughter to look like a southern girl.
Then, there was his concern over how Kira fought during class. At first, Luke couldn’t understand why Selenia would invite the clumsy girl into the martial arts class. It took him a few exchanges with her to notice that Kira knew how to fight. Every stumble took her out of his reach, but she was never too far away so as to make a kick with her long legs impossible. A nervous shiver runs up Luke’s spine when he considers the possibility that she was holding back and testing him. It occurs to him that he could be thinking about Kira all wrong. Instead of the heir, she could be the assassin using the cover of a first year student. Through the searing pain in his temples, Luke wonders if he can bring himself to fight a female assassin.
“That girl is going to be a problem,” Luke groans.