A massive audience murmured restlessly, creating a dull roar amidst the chilly humidity on this cloudy spring day. Many people were poised on the edge of their seats scared to breath lest they miss the deciding blow of what was turning into an unbelievably frustrating match. Down below, two of the country's finest circled each other in a large dirt ring, marking the grand finale of the first spring festival in nearly 20 years.

A bead of sweat dripped from Mary's chin and her vibrant red hair stuck to her face in errant strands. Working her fingers around her sword grip, Mary's eyes flashed before rushing forward in an aggressive charge.

With a lunge she sought to knock her opponent off balance. Then a powerful downward stroke was meant to decimate her adversary's defense. Ideally, her strategy would have left an enemy combatant open for a fatal blow. But in this case Mary watched, in blinding frustration, as the comely blonde captain easily danced out of range.

With a curse, Mary dragged her wooden blade across the ground in a furious upstroke. Dirt and sawdust launched at the blond Captain Oritz with terrifying momentum. The small storm and debris surged towards the stands, and numerous spectators ducked for cover under the dust devil.

Panting heavily, Mary squinted into the swirling dust cloud-eager to see the fruits of her labor. If nothing else she at least wanted to sully the spiffy captain, if only just a little. And if he was caught in the worst of the attack… even better. When the dust cleared in a chilly breeze, Mary gnashed her teeth together bitterly. There stood Captain Ortiz, miraculously unscathed and not a speck of dust on his shiny golden mane.

Mary spat out a curse. Wondering if this guy some kind of sylph. Either that or he had a wind charm. No one was that fast, especially not in this sorry clunky junk some nitwit called armor that tournament rules insisted that they wear.

Damned pixie.

When the dust settled, Captain Ortiz glided forward as if he were an actor on stage, eliciting murmurs of approval from the masses packed into the stands. His style of fighting drove Mary up a wall. Ortiz favored quick light attacks, which allowed him enough maneuverability to dodge and escape any retaliation that Mary could put forth. If he weren't so damned polite, she would swear that he was mocking her.

And what the gentleman he was, too. He never took a swipe at Mary when she stumbled, or never took advantage of the fact that her recovery time was embarrassingly slow. No, he waited for her to assume battle stance before engaging her—as if he was not taking her seriously. It made her feel like an untrained fool. And Mary was sick and tired of it. Literally.

Hot bile surged up her throat, but Mary clamped her teeth shut with grim determination to keep from vomiting. Thanks to her efforts, Mary was rewarded with a pounding headache and swimming vision. Squeezing her eyes shut, she silently swore never to chug so many lemon gels in one sitting. A fat lot of help they were—her raw wound still stung at the slightest of grievances.

If only Captain Pixie would just stand still for a second, Mary would have this whole thing over in moments if she could just land one solid hit. She was fading fast, and the last thing Mary wanted to do was pass out in front of, what had to be, half of Phandaria's population. As a warrior she'd never live down the humiliation.

Fear of sissy fainting spells aside, Mary couldn't remember a time when this danmable leather armor hadn't driven her more mad. It pulled and chaffed at all the wrong places. It was little wonder Captain Lightfoot was dancing circles around her. If she could take this crap off she'd be able to get off a proper swing, which even that sylph incarnate couldn't out maneuver.

Hm….take it off? Why not? An unidentified flying object fell at Mary's feet, as if to admonish her for her distraction. Glaring up at the stands, she kicked away the half empty bottle. The crowd booed and jeered at her lackluster performance and inaction. It was enough to make her ears burn and blood simmer. Usually she ignored such jibe, but her second's bellows from the side lines were starting to get on her nerves. So far he'd called her every name in the book, but her own.

"Damnit! You lazy fool! You gonna stand there'll day?" Samuel spat angrily, his facing turning an unflattering shade of red. Mary's upper lip curled into a half snarl half strained smile. If she got through this match she was going to give him a black eye for all his sweet encouraging words.

Mary weathered the verbal assault with her head lowered, and sweat soaked hair hiding her face. She had to admit it had been a long time since she'd been this royally pissed. Not only was that pretty boy making her look like an idiot, half of Phandaria thought she was, indeed, and idiot. It made Mary want to scream.

So… she did.


The primal wail ripped through crowded stands, startling those even all the way up in the royal viewing box. Small hairs on the back of Garr's neck rose at the guttural sound Mary unleashed upon the unsuspecting public. If it weren't for Darzen's steady weathered hand the poor king would have leapt out of his royal robes and over the railing.

Darzen pulled away and tried to suppress a chuckle behind his white mustache.

'Wound up tight, are we?' he thought with a grin.

Darzen brushed away some of the silvery confetti that drifted into his mustache. He glared at the nobleman's child two viewing boxes over, hurling the shiny stuff over the commoner's seats below before turning his attention back to the ring.

"Spirited, isn't she," he remarked to Master Alba, Garr's mentor, who watched the match below with analytical enthusiasm.

"She's frustrated, and duly so. That Ortiz is a very clever lad," Master Alba stroked his chin thoughtfully. "At this rate Argent will wear out before the next round."

"Don't you think so too Chel-" the old archery master stopped short- his granddaughter's seat was cold and empty. "Impetuous girl," he grumbled to himself, pulling a fur-lined coat closer over his frail shoulders to stave off a cool breeze. He looked up at the thick grey cloud cover, this cold damp day did nothing for his arthritis.

"She's certainly slowing down, but I that won't mean a victory for the boy," Darzen proclaimed. "The boy hadn't been able to land a single solid blow to gain any points so far."

"Quite right. Up until now, she's been able to surprise her opponents with her strength. She is very strong for a woman." Alba commented thoughtfully.

"… Strong for a man too," Darzen chimed in happily.

Alba made a gesture as if he had to agree, but did not appreciate Darzen's poor attempt at humor.

"But that Oritz fellow has her running in circles like a novice," Master Alba stated offhandedly, "If her form gets any sloppier it will only be a matter of time before he lands a solid blow for the win."

Darzen shook his head and idly fingered one of the medals that adorned on his dress uniform. "Mary could be half dead and the boy still won't land a hit," the old guard commander stated proudly of the young woman he had recently befriended. "I tell you that girl's instincts are exceptional! Right Garr?"

The old commander was treated to a steely glare, which clearly stated that Garr was not amused by the subject matter. Darzen returned the expression with a look of parental challenge, thus ending the brief and silent standoff.

"Hm? Interesting…" Alba leaned forward in his seat, ignoring the way his joints popped in protest.

Suddenly Darzen's white bushy eyebrows disappeared behind his receding hairline.

"Has that girl lost her mind?!" he sputtered. "Is she stripping?!"

Not that Darzen minded when a pretty lass felt the urge to go about in the "buff". But in the middle of a duel?

Alba sat back in his cushioned seat with a mentor's approving smile, "No, my friend. She has not lost her mind. I believe that she is finally using her head."


Mary's throat still tingled from that primal scream, but her head was so much clearer. It also helped that the venerable Sir Ortiz looked just a spooked as half the crowd.

'Should've done that three rounds ago,' Mary thought to her self as she exhaled slowly and casually shucked off the leather armor that protected her hips and thighs. The casual way in which she removed the troublesome armor once again stoked the spectators' ire. The crowd was merciless, throwing trash and hurling all types of colorful insults from the lack of action. Not that Mary cared all that much, though she did make a mental note to hurl another batch of dirt in their direction, though.

Her lower-body armor was soon joined by two wrist guards, which fell at her feet with a soft thump. The armor around her upper body was a little trickier. The ringmaster was just about to intervene when Mary finally managed to slip loose the buckles that kept the leather in place. Something sticky and cakey pulled at her stitches when the neck guard rubbed against her skin, but Mary paid in no mind-it was nothing new anyhow.

She caught her handsome opponent's stupefied expression and tossed the young man a wink. However, a quick look at the sidelines made Mary fear her purple-faced second in command would drop dead from a conniption fit.

Finally the last of the leather body armor sprung loose freeing her chest and ribs. Mary took a deep breath and kicked to constricting thing to the side. Mary wasn't a big fan of armor anyway, especially armor that did not factor in a woman's breasts.

"Captain… Argent?" Oritz asked, his handsome brow furrowed in cautious confusion. He looked back and forth from the angry spectators to his stripping battle partner, clearly conflicted. Mary made a halting gesture for him to spare her a moment as she kicked the rest of her armor out of tripping range.

The roar of the crowd grew, and Mary's predatory senses picked up Oritz's crumbling confidence. It smelled like fear.

"Captain, if you are not on your guard, I will be forced to attack."

Mary only grinned from a cross the ring. He was so polite, so proper … and impressionable too. The conflict in his eyes was just too adorable.

Captain Oritz swallowed and tried again. "Unless you forfeit and drop your weapon, please."

At this Mary's grin stretched into a full-blown gleeful smile at Oritz's ingrained gallantry. She struck a casual pose, and brazenly challenged, "Well, then lets go."

The crowd began to grow even more restless, demanding that Oritz rise to the bait. And Mary fed off the energy of the chanting, stomping masses, which sent an all too familiar tingle of battle lust racing through her blood.

With each passing second the confidence in Captain Oritz's stance collapsed. In the place of a noble knight Mary saw a young man, barely out of his twenties who practically lived to please others.

And predictably enough, he charged. But his heart wasn't in it, and Mary saw victory in those troubled blue eyes. There was no room for gallantry, or gentlemanly honor in battle, even a duel of good sportsmanship such as the tournament. Those without the fortitude to win against all odds were destined to lose.

In a split second they clashed with deafening intensity. A wooden sword went flying into the heavy air before making a muffled "thump" on the soft ground. Captain Oritz doubled over clutching his arm while Mary stood over him with her dull weapon tip at his neck.

All she needed to do to score a winning point was to tap his shoulder. A simple flick of the rest was all that it would take. So Mary was completely floored when her wooden blade fell uselessly to the ground by her feet. And Mary soon followed—a large red stain growing on the front of her rough sewn tunic.


The king and his two most trusted advisers all but hung over the railing, too stunned to move—as were all the spectators in the outdoor stadium.

"Oooh, there she goes…" Darzen awkwardly fiddled with his mustache.

"A shame really," Master Alba lamented. "She executed such a brilliant strategy. Crude, mind you. But brilliant nonetheless."

None too inconspicuously both Alba and Darzen eyed their young protégée. Garr's hands gripped the sanded wooden beam as if to launch his body over railing and into the commoner stands below.

"Don't, Garr," Alba warned as Garr pushed himself off the railing. "This is not you place to intervene."

Garr swallowed and wet his lips as if preparing for speech, but no words were uttered.

Alba, however, continued without any prompting, "You know the political consequences if you leave this box and go to her, especially after your performance two days ago. Some of you detractors are already looking to challenge your miraculous pardon of Captain Argent."

"So sit here and watch as she bleeds to death?" Garr spoke in an oddly subdued voice as if he were trying to contain himself.

Darzen covertly motioned for two of his men to block the stairway, and let Alba talk down their young king.

"Have more faith in your people, Garr. You only have to look to see that the palace medics are rushing to her side as we speak."


Alba shook his head firmly and leveled a stern look with eyes that were watery with age. "I know she is a close friend of yours. But if you show her any more favoritism the court and the council will become suspicious."

"Suspicious of what?" Garr demanded. "I do not recall allowing the court or council to dictate whom I associate with."

"As you should," Darzen found himself cheering Garr's fortitude against the tightwads in the royal court. Though he quickly snapped his mouth shut when Alba leveled a glare at him as well.

"I'm not asking you to bow to the council or court's prejudices. But I am also asking you not to ignore them either," Master Alba cautioned.

"And how does showing concern for a close friend threaten my throne?" Garr shot back.

"Garr you appointed her leader of our armed forces. You circumvented old established laws and made her a step away from nobility in status. Then she resides in the palace under your direct care? Garr, my boy, all I am saying is that the court becomes nervous when kings show favoritism—especially to commoners."

Garr slowly reclaimed his seat, and Master Alba's shoulders sagged with relief. But he could see Garr's mind work furiously behind those sharp eyes of his, they were just as shrewd and calculating as his father's the late king.

A frigid wind blew through the stadium, signaling the onset of evening. But it wasn't the wind that made Darzen shiver. What chilled his old bones was the icy stand off between mentor and former student.

"Guard," a fully armed solder snapped to attention. "Escort me back to the palace I wish to leave."

Alba had to admit Garr looked just as composed as per the norm, but he couldn't help wonder what the young king was up to.