By Blake Hutchins

The duel would begin at noon in the Hajrak, on hard-packed sand in roasting forty degree Celsius heat. Assisted by their seconds, the two combatants had stripped to the waist, displaying the cut musculature and scarred bodies of elite veterans. The torso and shoulders of one were completely covered in jagged tattoos dominated by a sharp-winged avian logo across the chest. The other, far larger man was devoid of ornamentation save for a thick gold hoop dangling from his left ear; his honey-colored skin gleamed in the desert sun. Neither man showed signs of perspiration. It was too hot for that. Sweat didn’t have time for form in this heat, which made dehydration a constant threat.

From a distant rise, Georg Ashkurnas shook his head and dialed his goggles’ magnification back to normal. He turned to face his companion, a gaunt, similarly-goggled man, who, like himself, wore the crimson and black field jacket of the Noble Order of the Blood Eagle.

“We should stop this before it starts, Sunder. You know the Emperor’s proscription.”

The other man shrugged, as if to say, Who cares?

“A month’s pay on the Fireborn,” Sunder said, his glacial tone belying the implications lurking behind the offer. The Fireborn were a new Order, recently commissioned by Caanon. In the eyes of the older Orders they were upstarts.

“Done!” Georg grinned. “Julius Thau-Yuros is an ass, but he’s a good infighter. And he’s Blood Eagle. He’ll mop up this fellow from these jumped-up Firebloats in no time. What’s his nom de guerre, anyway, this Fireborn? Shark? Moray?”

“Mako.” Sunder pronounced the word precisely. “Don’t be so sure. He was elevated from the Starborne.”

“Bah. The Starborne. They’re not Knights.”

“They’ve killed a lot of Cybrids.”

“We were both at Denver, Sunder. You know what I mean.” The men were silent for a long moment.

Nagged by a feeling he'd forgotten something important, Georg broke the silence to ask, "What's behind this duel, anyway?"

"A woman.”

“Ah. Of course.”

“Thau-Yuros has been with Mako’s sister. Family honor is involved." Sunder kept his attention on the fighters. "Khanjars. Hmm. Who picked those?"

“Hell if I know.” Khanjars were curved daggers currently in vogue among the Knights. Georg thought them a shade ridiculous. Give him something solid, like a sword. He flicked a piece of grit off his gogs. The duel’s underlying conflict troubled him. He tried to put a finger on what he'd heard bandied about back at base, but nothing came clear, and he gave up the effort. Thau-Yuros was a handsome devil. Easy to see why his trouble involved women. Georg knew firsthand how easily one could fall into duels over romantic entanglements. He smiled to himself, remembering.

"It’s always either women or gambling, eh? Not like we need reasons to duel, just excuses." He chuckled.

Sunder's only response was a noncommital grunt.

Georg leaned back against the chest-high tire of the Badger they’d driven out here and unclipped his canteen for a drink. By the Lord God, it was hot! He dialed up his gogs again for another look. The two men were stretching now, showing the flexibility of trained martial artists, their knives winking in the harsh sunlight as they moved through their katas. He sighed and shook his head. Imperial decree banned Knights from dueling, true, but you might as well tell fish to stop breathing water.

Part of him felt a pang of guilt at this kind of surreptitious defiance, but he reasoned the Empire was best served by keeping the martial traditions of the Knights well-honed – so long as no one died. Hence the autodoc in the back of their vehicle. With the latest in cellular-repair nanotechnology, it was capable of stabilizing and reviving most non-instantly fatal injuries if you reached the victim before the brain suffered too much damage. Their reports would describe a “special combat exercise,” not a duel.

“What’s the family of this ‘Mako’?” he asked, after a swig of brackish water.

“Viistu-Makelune. From the Pacific Rim.”

“Christ and Hunter. What kind of name is that?” Georg was familiar with plenty of what he called the "hyphenated" bloodlines, but this name seemed particularly baroque.

“Finno-Polynesian,” said Sunder. “Samoan genes. Through his grandmother.”

Georg dialed down and stared at his companion in frank astonishment. “How the hell do you know so much about everyone?”

The face of the Knight called Sunder Cain remained impassive as he replied, “It’s my business.”

That was true. Sunder was famous for his record of sniffing out Trojans. Elite even among the Blood Eagle, he was one of the few empowered to go anywhere and ask anyone anything. It had to do with focus, Georg thought. Knight-Captain Sunder Cain was the most focused man he’d ever met. Not to mention one of the deadliest.

“It’s the only way we’ll beat the glitches,” said Sunder, as if he’d read Georg’s thoughts.

“Right. Of course. So what are your odds on Thau-Yuros?”

“He’s damned lucky to be here. The Jaguar would just as soon crush him as look at him.”

Georg snorted. “The Jaguar wouldn’t dare, not after the Hangman’s sacrifice. He can’t touch Julius without losing so much face he’d have to spend the rest of his life on an intravenous diet of crow. Sorry bastard, Julius, to have inherited that feud. No matter how politically safe I was, I’d hate to be on Eun Alba’s bad side.”

“Is there any other side?” came Sunder’s dry retort.

Georg laughed and took another draught from his canteen before replacing it on his belt. “You really think the Fireborn is going to win?”

Sunder didn’t reply.

“Thau-Yuros is good, you know. He’s built an impressive record for one so young.”

“They’re starting.”

Seeing he wasn’t going to get anything further from his friend, Georg trained his view once again on the distant scene. A month’s pay would buy a lot of expensive jewelry for Aria, his current mistress. He smiled. Life was good.

The two men were circling. Thau-Yuros swayed like a cobra, his stance low and wide, almost crab-like, his tattooed arms weaving through a languorous pattern Georg recognized as Shadow Serpent Style, the knife gleaming hypnotically in one hand. The Fireborn kept his dark arms up in a loose boxing stance, his feet at shoulder width, knife held upright in one massive fist. It suggested any number of fighting styles. Big men could be slow, but this Mako didn’t look it. Despite his crack about the Starborne, Georg knew the TDF elite weren’t pushovers. Elevation undoubtedly said something about the candidate, even if it was into a bastard new Order without a shred of history.

He flipped a mental salute at the distant fighters. Welcome to the Knights, Fireborn. If you can survive us, you’ll do fine against the glitches.

Of course, the Blood Eagle could be pointed to as an example of too much history, he thought in a sudden moment of bitterness. That damned Church and his lies! Georg applauded whoever had cut out the bastard’s treacherous heart in that Bangkok alley. If it hadn’t been for the Blood Eagle taking things into their own hands, the Cybrids would have broken out at Denver, and then where would humanity be?

Thau-Yuros made the first move, a feint followed by a kick at the knee simultaneous with a high slash, his khanjar flashing. Mako blocked both attacks. No matter, Georg thought. These were simply probes. Then Thau-Yuros spun and extended his leg in an attempted sweep. Mako leaped over it and lunged forward with unexpected speed, one massive arm whipping out and down in a devastating cut. Had it hit, Georg had no doubt the fight would have ended then and there, possibly by decapitation, but the Headsman twisted and rolled to the side, lashing a kick squarely into Mako’s side before coming back into his original stance. Georg cheered.

“Not enough leverage,” said Sunder.

True, Georg admitted to himself. Mako didn’t appear discomfited, but Thau-Yuros had, in Georg’s opinion, displayed greater skill. If he stayed alert and kept out of reach, the Headsman would cut Mako to pieces. For that matter, if Thau-Yuros got inside, well, the Blood Eagle were masters of jiu-jitsu. He’d tear up ligaments, break delicate bones, and inflict massive, glorious pain on the Fireborn. Still, Georg wouldn’t blame the Headsman for wanting to stay out of that monster’s clutches. Nick Mako a few times and let blood loss do the work, that’d do the trick.

The two men closed again, but now with Mako’s back to Georg and Sunder’s vantage point, it was too difficult to see what was happening. A haze of dust had risen about the duelists as a result of their exertions.

“Blast,” muttered Georg. “We ought to be up close, not sweltering all the way out here.”

He activated his image enhancers and his view cleared a little. The men were circling again. Mako appeared to be favoring one leg, but Thau-Yuros was keeping his distance. Georg dialed up his magnification. The left side of the Headsman’s face was stark red and bleeding from a gash on the cheek.

“Damn it!” Georg licked his lips. “Come on, Headsman...!”

What was the duel about again? he wondered. Mako’s sister. What was it that bothered him about that fact? He strained to follow that thread of memory. He’d been in briefings all morning. When word came to him of the challenge, he’d gone to find Sunder immediately. He hadn’t inquired after details. Careless of him.

The sister. He returned to that line of thought. The combatants had circled so Georg had a direct line of sight to Mako’s face. He dialed up his magnification, and his heart turned to ice. In that moment, the casual pleasure of the duel evaporated, replaced by a sick certainty. Mako’s expression was a twin to one Georg recalled from nearly twenty years earlier. He’d been a young Knight-Cadet attending an Imperial ball then, a gape-jawed witness to a legendary duel, and the events and personalities of that night had branded themselves into his memory.

In that moment, the missing pieces fell into place. Georg saw what was happening as clearly as if a holomap had winked into existence before him.

“Sunder, we have to stop this,” he croaked.

“What do you mean?” Sunder looked at him. “It’s just started.”

“It’s Mako’s sister they’re fighting about.” At Sunder’s blank look, he added, “Don’t you see?”

Sunder shook his head. Georg took him by the arm and spun him toward the Badger, then turned and clambered up the ladder to the cab. The hot metal rungs burned his ungloved hands, but he ignored the pain as he pulled himself into the driver’s seat. A sharp vox-command powered up the cab control systems.

He flipped the Badger’s engine into life and gunned it as Sunder vaulted into the seat behind him. The vehicle lurched forward as the armored door slammed closed, shutting out the desert glare instantly. Cool air hushed into the cockpit. Georg thought of the autodoc in the cargo compartment, the cool metaplas coffin and its lifesaving mechanisms. It could only hold one person. Stupid! he berated himself. Stupid!

“What’s gotten into you, Georg?”

Georg glanced over his shoulder. “Another Thau-Yuros, another high-profile sister?”

“I don’t follow.”

Come on, Sunder! Georg wanted to shout. How can you be so bloody thick about politics?

“It doesn’t matter who wins,” he explained as the Badger crested the rise and barreled toward the dueling site in a cloud of sand. “Thau-Yuros loses, his family’s doubly disgraced for losing to an upstart, and for the implication he’s defiled a young woman’s honor.”

Sunder grunted in acknowledgement.

Georg continued, “If he wins, he’s just made an enemy of an entire Order of Knights trying to prove themselves.”

“So?” said Sunder.

“Right, but think about it. Either way, it lets Colossa Eun Alba – with his history – forge a bond of sympathy with the Fireborn, despite him being a Blood Eagle. If Thau-Yuros dies, all the better. For that matter, a victorious Thau-Yuros serves the Jaguar more than a defeated one, since Julius would be a continuing reminder of Fireborn disgrace. It’s a foot in the door for Eun Alba; his dark pawprints are all over this.”

“Why is this a problem?”

“Because – and trust me on this, my friend – the Orders should place their loyalty with the Emperor before they look to one of His Imperial Majesty’s generals.”

A heavy silence emanated from Sunder. Then, “I see your point.”

The dueling site lay dead ahead, but the dust was too thick to make out exactly what was happening. It looked like someone was down, but Georg couldn’t tell who.

“We may be bastards,” he said, “but we – you and I, at least – are loyal bastards, right?”

“Just drive,” came Sunder’s icy response. “I’ll handle the rest.”