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Duel by Bonita del Rio

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Projectra, heir to Orando, looked out of the window and gazed at Talok and Talokia, the setting suns, and watched as their orange-pink harshness lit the three moons with bronze fire and bathed the desert in white.

This place is much like my own, she thought. The harshness of nature is reflected in the people. I thought Val understood that. My poor love, if he cannot adjust to this place, with all its technology, how would he be able to stand my own for the rest of his life? If I would be allowed an outworlder lover after I am queen.

Val Armorr was also worried about his life--namely its duration. He wanted to shout about the asinine practices of desert worlds and hot-headed primitives, but he looked at the princess's gaze, so cool in the sunset, and kept his anger and his fears to himself. Would she understand? There's no need for this. Does she expect me to kill my challenger? What does she expect from me?

The door clicked open and Val was on his feet, tensed to strike. He forced himself to relax when he saw it was Shadow Lass, alone. She sauntered in, wearing a black nylon jumpsuit that was slashed to the navel, held over her budding breasts by a gold bar binding the two sides. The hands in her pockets were clenched fists. So different from the Princess's beige robes and still, smooth hands.

"I'm sorry, Val. Tormach will not consider apology, only challenge."

"Oh, great."

"I figured as much. Tormach is anti-United Planets and a victorious duel will only enhance his faction's standing."

Val slumped into the sofa. When he was challenged, he took measure of the man and it was big.

"There's more," Tasmia announced.

Val looked up and Projectra inclined her head, as if giving permission to Talok VIII's Champion to speak. "Tormach has demanded the right to sire the next Champion."

Light blue eyes turned back to the sunset. What disgruntled faction of the family would her father appease by gifting her dowry and bed? Fanatical Pharoxx? Or some older man with hands colder than the dead's? Maybe Father will wait long enough for me to choose my own consort. It can never be you, my dear Val. Will you be able to understand that?

The Terran's reaction was more blunt. "That's rape!"

"Oh, no. I will be expected to consent." Softly, Tasmia muttered to herself, "Though if he expects to be more than a stud, I'll slice his head off before I lose a finger. This isn't even going to be a battle marriage."

"Shady, what are you talking about?" Val asked.

Tasmia hadn't spoken loud enough to warrant his attention and found it rude of him to ask. She curbed her temper and answered: "On Talok's World, when we claim a man as husband, we cut off the first joint of our useless finger. By this, we declare we will always be with our man. In return, he gives us a cap to staunch the blood, declaring his estate is ours and our children's. Also, he vows to always be there to bind our wounds."

"That's sick!" Val protested.

Projectra shook her head. Now Val was going to learn a lesson and it was fitting that the blue barbarian should teach it.

"Is it any worse than placing a band on a woman's hand to prove she is her husband's property...or the have the woman wear white to declare her death to her family as she weds? Your own people have ritual scarification as well. Do not presume to place your values on another culture...you, especially, should be wise in this."

The white-haired heir to a distant throne was impressed. Perhaps the Champion of Talok VIII was not such a barbarian after all. Val thought about her words. "Touche. That's the second time you've knocked me for a loop."

"Underestimating your foe is a fatal error. Underestimating a fellow Legionnaire, Karate Kid, bruises a lot of egos."

"It wasn't just my ego you bruised at the academy, Shady."

The Champion smiled widely, and in the memory, all was forgiven.

"What happened at the academy, Val?" Projectra asked. "You never told me."

"Mostly because I was too embarrassed, Jeckie," Val admitted, walking over to the window ledge. "The great Karate Kid was beaten by a girl who wasn't even paying attention to him."

Shadow Lass continued. "I was watching Supergirl, Brainiac 5 and Mon-El take a tour of the academy and lost interest in learning how to fall. Val snuck up on me and tried to toss me. I reacted as I had been trained and defeated him, since he wasn't expecting a fight. So now, I get to help in his lessons."

Projectra's eyes twinkled with amusement as her lips turned upward in mirth.

That's all I get? No laughter? What does it take for you to notice me, Princess?

"Karate Kid, come with me. You have little experience with our weapons and combat, and even less time to learn them. I have found a teacher for you; the one who taught me."

"Right. I'll see you later, Princess."

"May your arm find strength and your heart never waver."

Val heard that leave-taking on his one trip to Orando. Two knights, comrades, said this to each other as they went to escort the Legionnaires to fight the outworld menace of Morlo. Comrade. That's all you're going to be to her, eta [low-classed peasant], with unknown parentage. Get that through your head.

They walked down a blank corridor. Val noticed the light was filtered through an arched roof made of stone. Was there a metaphor to learn from? He was about to ask Shadow Lass when she hissed, "Take me for a fool! I need to get you a torch!"

The boy sighed. He got poetry when he wanted romance from one woman and pragmatism when he wanted poetry from another!

"Well, Val, this is where you will train..." Tasmia announced as she led him into a room. A sharp, feminine voice barked something in a native language. Armorr felt a moment of regret from Shadow Lass as she threw him into the room.

Damnit, Tasmia, this is the second time you've caught me off guard! he thought, not allowing the words to escape. This fight was serious--almost deadly serious--and she had the advantage of sight. He listened, rolled to his feet and slashed out where the footfalls indicated. The fact that he met empty air did not throw him off. Of course she would use her flight ring; in a fight this serious, a Talokite would place winning above honor. This was an important lesson she was teaching him, he realized as he listened for a footstep, a movement, an incautiously drawn breath.

The rustle of her cape warned him before her elbow cracked into his head. He twisted, blocked the elbow and grabbed her hair, bending her neck over his shoulder.

"I yield," Tasmia croaked, and lights came on. They were in a small arena. A woman with wild violet hair and pointed ears stood on the viewing stand.

"I am Ha talich (Colonel) Tarnia Tolarn, the Champion's blood and battle mother. Daughter, your skill does me honor."

"Thank you, mother."

"And you, young champion of all the Japans, it will honor me to teach you the techniques to use our weapons. You may leave, daughter."

"Yes, Ha talich."

"We have much to do before dusk tomorrow," Tarnia announced as her daughter left. "You must learn how to survive."

***

Tasmia returned to the palace where Projectra was. "The teacher was impressed. She will teach him."

"How long will it take? What does he have to learn?" Projectra asked worriedly.

"Primarily, he must learn to think with a weapon." Shadow Lass glanced warily at the noblewoman. Would she understand?

"Projectra, there is a tradition on our world...a good one that has kept our race alive. The day before the duel is one where the duelists must answer the demands of the future. One of the demands is to guarantee that the numbers of the people are strong; that the warrior's strength will not be wasted if he dies at Day's End. Val's seed would be wasted here. Except--"

"I will not," Projectra interrupted imperiously.

Shadow Lass remained silent for a time before saying, "Your world must have some strange customs to make you deny a honored warrior you care for on the probable last day of his life. I must beg your pardon and leave for a time."

What was Tasmia's business? Projectra wondered. Her curiosity grew until she chose to wear a pair of night sight contacts and a dark cloak to find the Champion. Fortunately, Tasmia did not go far before she entered a building. Minutes later, Projectra entered it and was greeted by a series of statues, each one bearing a resemblance to the girl she followed. At the end of the passage was a statue of a wild-haired woman holding a broadsword point down. With her other arm, she beckoned the audience to embrace her. Any master sculptor on Orando would have called it his life's work. Projectra looked into its face and saw serenity worth killing and dying for, and realized what it was. "A Madonna," she whispered in wonder.

"Welcome to the Church of the Sainted Ancestors. Why did you follow me, Projectra?" the Champion demanded, willing her shadows away.

"This--is it?--a Catholic church?"

"Yes. Christ was one of the first good things that otherworlders brought us. I was hoping a priest or nun, or perhaps my ancestors could advise me. I was hoping He could advise me, but no one can tell what He thinks."

"You speak to your ancestors, too?"

"My dead grandfather gave me the power. However, they tend to forget the concerns of life and become vague in thought to those who seek their advice in blessed darkness."

"I apologize for the intrusion. I needed something to take my mind off Val." The last word was whispered. Projectra's lips caressed the name as she said it. "Oh, to be a commoner and not worry with affairs of state! I would bed him and wed him gladly! But I cannot...let him find another who is allowed to have him.... Please, don't tell him what I said."

Black tresses swished as the Champion shook her head. "He will not hear it from me. Come on, I'll give you a tour. You know I was raised here when my mother was away?"

***

Val raised his arm, blocked the axe, and twisted, breaking the handle.

"Good!" Tolarn shouted. "You've learned enough to fight Tormach. Do not hesitate to use the weapons, Legionnaire."

Val looked at the vibrating staff in his hands and turned it off. "Forgive me, teacher, but there is no honor in these weapons."

"Of course not. They are only tools of war. The honor is in the warrior."

She took him back to the palace. The girls were gone, checking out the night life. That was fine, because he did not want them to see how scared he was. Part of the training was watching the holos of his opponent. Tormach was strong, fast and cunning; a deadly fighter who did not rely on weapons, but used them when his own strength failed. That made him desperate and dangerous at the end of a fight.

The thoughts of strategy and lessons filled his head as he removed his sweat stained tunic and picked up the sponge-like animal that was used for bathing. The creature writhed at the sensation of new chemical secretions, but quieted and cleaned its user. Val would have preferred a bath, but water was scarce on this world. In fact, the technology to tap ice worlds and polar caps was one of the things that the Talokites were bidding on.

The weapons troubled him. In Japan, a samurai's sword was his soul and both held honor. Thanks to his sensei, he was raised as a samurai, despite his obvious mixed breeding. How could he use weapons like this, with electrical currents as well as blades? Although these thoughts weren't conducive to sleep, he willed his body and mind into alpha states. Later, the girls came back, giggling about their ancestors' follies and speaking of the times they reached across the border between the living and dead. Eventually the talk faded into sleepy mumbles and soft snores.

***

The day of the duel was spent tending to the demands of the future. Val was trying to write his will and find the words to his death poem while Shadow Lass underwent a series of physical examinations before being summoned to the Church for counselling. Projectra, preferring not to watch the politics that set the confrontation into motion, stayed in the air-conditioned embassy, working with a needle and thread.

"This is ridiculous!" Val shouted, throwing his pen. It stuck in the wall and vibrated. By the time it stilled, Val was out of the room, heading towards the U.P. armory.

Fifty minutes later, he knocked at the princess's door and entered.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Embroidery. I'm putting a thread pattern into this material."

"We have something like that in Japan. Do these patterns mean anything?"

"I was trying to streamline my crest. Ah, finished!" She took the work out of the frame and kissed it. "Val, I cannot answer the demands of the future as this world sees them--my future has too many of its own. But I can answer the demands of my heart." Tears began to fill her eyes. "When a lady wishes to show her affections, she asks the knight of her favor to wear her colors into tourney. Will you...wear this for me?"

He hugged her, and whispered, "Maybe someday, the demands of the future will bow to the demands of the heart. Thank you, gracious lady. Now I must go and prepare for the duel."

When Projectra next saw Val again, he was in the arena. Thousands were watching in person; millions more watched at home. Val was dressed in his orange gi, Tormach wore old battle leathers. Much to everyone's surprise, the Legionnaire wore a sword.

Tormach motioned to his second, who brought a seven-foot, two-handed broadsword. Even without trickery, the sword could cut a man in half. The trick to survival was to simply stay out of the blade's way.

Tormach charged. Val ran past him. The Talokites began to laugh until they saw his sword, his stance. A line of purple bloomed on Tormach's shirt.

"I'm bleeding!" Tormach roared and charged again, intending to remove Val's head. The swords met. They tingled and sparked, making Val glad he insulated his gloves. He twisted and another fine line of blood began dripping through the leathers. Again the swords clashed. Tormach's wounds were slowing him.

Val screamed in challenge, startled Tormach and slashed off the tips of three blue fingers. Then he turned the blade and slipped it between Tormach's legs.

Brown eyes narrowed into slits. "The Legion code says nothing about maiming," the samurai said softly. "Surrender now or I cut off your genitals...and your leg. There are enough medics here to keep you alive...and crippled."

Blue eyes met brown and widened. As Val suspected, Tormach was a bully who revelled in causing fear, but could not bear it. Tormach's blade was useless--Val was too close--and his strength could only help push the strange sword into his body. Blue eyes rolled and the massive body fell.

"Kill him!" the crowd roared.

"A warrior doesn't need to kill!" Val retorted and began to walk away.

Tormach's second pulled out a gun. Darkness covered him. "Feel the heat leeched out of your soul!" the Champion commanded. She rose into the air, holding a chalice, floated down and pulled the gun out of the second's hands.

"Ancestors!" the man moaned. "Please, Champion, no more!" The darkness eased and the Champion turned to the fallen duelist. Once at his side, she tipped the chalice over and spilled the liquid onto the sand.

There was a collective gasp at the waste of water.

"Talokites! Do you understand what these otherworlders can give to us? Water! Enough water for all of us to bathe in! Enough to waste! In return, what do they ask? For our military skills and a chance to help us defend ourselves against the Khunds--a group of otherworlders who gave us nothing but fear! Even before the first Champion, we were troubled by otherworlders, I do not deny that! However these are from the same world which gave us the Christ and the ways to shake off Maakas and his evil people, the Yakka Mahor. Consider that, and the positions of the duelists before choosing your side in this debate. As for myself, I am grateful to Val Armorr, and salute him."

Privately, she watched the princess' and adopted samurai's eyes and realized there may come a time indeed when the demands of the future fall to the demands of the heart. Good wishes, to both of you, she thought, you and your worlds will need them.