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.Several seconds went by before he said, "Begin."Of course, that was unnecessary.We were ready the second we touched.Tzadox surprised me by immediately sweeping at my leg, since he normally waited to sense some weakness in me that touching permitted.Knowing I was a fraction of a second too late to counter, I made no attempt to avoid it, and let my feet be swept beneath me.Using the momentum, I tucked and rolled away to a standing position in time to block a roundhouse kick to my head and trap his leg.He somehow left the ground twisting such that his other leg began another roundhouse kick.But when I felt his body twisting, I let go of his leg and the anchor he had was no longer there, and he lost his balance, crashed to the ground, and rolled towards my legs.I stepped over him and delivered a kick to the spine."Stop.Point to Sapir." Dobrin said, grinning at Tzadox, who rose smiling.The next point Tzadox scored after five minutes of intense attack and counter attacks.The third match, we were content to wait for the other to show an opening.When nothing happened for a few minutes, I closed my eyes—and another world opened up.I felt at one with Tzadox, could hear his breathing, feel the muscles in his body relaxing, and knew he could sense the same in me.Later I was told we stood like that for over twenty minutes.Then I felt or sensed an extra heartbeat in reaction to his intention of exploding into me.I twisted as the impact came rushing toward me, directing it harmlessly past me.The twist released my left side, bringing my right side to the left and my right palm into Tzadox’s head as he passed.He stumbled to his knees."Stop.Point to Sapir.Match to Sapir." Dobrin said."Nicely done.I thought I felt you tense for a second," Tzadox said, rising to his feet."I did, hoping you were tired of standing in the heat." I laughed."What a glorious feeling.""Beating me?""No, that feeling of being totally at peace.""Good," Dobrin said as he stepped towards me, offering a pushing posture and letting Tzadox take up the referee position.I shrugged and matched his position.I’m not sure why, but I found myself at peace and at one with Dobrin and my surroundings.Dobrin wasn’t as quick as Tzadox, but he was the better fighter.In the past, he’d seemed to know what I planned to do before I did.But today, I had that feeling about him.We fought in brief clashes and then long minutes of waiting."Stop," Tzadox said during one of the waiting periods."I declare this match a tie.At the rate you two are going, I’m going to miss dinner and the night’s entertainment at the club." He laughed.Dobrin nodded."I concede a tie, Dragon Sapir.Congratulations."Dragon! Oh no.It can’t be! It has to be Hada, not me.She had to be first.I don’t care.She does.My mind exploded in chaos, then shock as Hada landed on me—arms around my neck, legs locked around my waist."You did it, sister.You were magnificent.I’m so proud of you." She squeezed me tight.She let herself down and wiped away a tear."No, I’m not upset.You’re my sister.We are not in competition.Besides, your comments the other day made me realize my father had me focused on a symbol rather than the real goal, peace of mind.I am at peace with where I am in my life.I have a new sister I love, and I’m a captain in the Guard.I could be a trooper in the army or the commandos.I’m in a position to save lives and help others." She grabbed my hand."Come let’s celebrate, I’m buying."* * *"Dragon Sapir, it doesn’t surprise me.I’ve been around long enough to predict who will eventually become a dragon.They have a… nontraditional way of thinking and the conviction to act on it.When the individual is a senior sergeant or even a lieutenant it is harder to detect as he or she hasn’t the authority to act independently and is restricted by the team leader’s direction.But that thinking in a captain is immediately apparent.For you, it was obvious after Lanzhou." Wexler took a drink from his cup."As I suspected, you and your teams’ performances are beginning to generate nontraditional contracts, which the JAX Contract Committee is approving.I understand their reasoning; we are mercenaries for hire, and that fuels our economy.But as commander of the Guard, I worry.Our normal contracts seldom produce more than one death every two or three contracts.Of course, there will always be situations like Lanzhou that result from unforeseen conditions.However, nontraditional contracts like New Keif and others to follow will have higher risks and inevitably more deaths—because tradition must be upheld." He stared at me as if daring me to argue."I have never questioned tradition but believe duty is my… our first priority." I held up a hand to indicate I hadn’t finished."If my team and I and our contract are killed, have we done our duty? We have certainly maintained our tradition."Wexler sat glaring at me for a long time before speaking."We have another seemingly traditional contract which I suspect isn’t what it appears.For that reason, I’m giving it to you.The High Priestess of Suryah has contracted for the Black Guard to guard political prisoners who will soon be tried for crimes against the government.Sounds easy and simple, doesn’t it? How hard can it be to guard people in cages?""So why would you need the Black Guard?" I asked the obvious question he had and the reason for his concern."Precisely.And she has agreed to a team of twenty-one, to guard the current twenty-two prisoners, although the contract allows up to forty-five.She is either very generous or…""She knows some military-like group plans to break them out, and she intends for us to earn our Black Guard reputation.""My thoughts exactly.Basically, I’ve kept your current New Keif team with the exception of the three newly promoted sergeants, and the two senior sergeants, Solow and Wahle.That leaves you with two lieutenants and two teams of nine each headed by a senior sergeant.I’ve been told they are all back from their after-assignment leaves.You have today to get organized.Shuttles will pick you up tomorrow." He laughed."At least this time you don’t have to worry about keeping the contracted individuals alive.It’s not part of the contract, and I doubt she cares.They just can’t escape or be rescued alive."CHAPTER TWELVEFaithful: The Prison at Suryah.It was a warm sunny day, so I assembled my team on a grassy area on the second plateau well away from the barracks and dining facilities.The troops were dressed casually, and I had snacks and drinks prepared.Except for the few details I had been given, there wasn’t much I could tell them about the assignment.So, I spent the day walking around listening to tales of sightseeing, visits with friends and family, and the latest hot new boy or girl they had met.It felt like a family reunion.Rightfully so, since each of these individuals had served with me before: six on all three of my assignments and nine on two.It was a team any officer would be proud to lead—fourteen had earned the double dragon award."Our shuttles will be here tomorrow at eight.Anyone that’s going needs to be packed and there on time." I said, maintaining a serious expression."I don’t know, Captain," Ceder said, also trying to look serious."Guarding prisoners does sound boring and more like something meant for the army, not the Guard.""Maybe Commander Wexler has decided to give us a rest," Sergeant Nadel said [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]