Page 15

Author: Rachel Bach

“You shot my gun with no problem, so you can’t have forgotten everything,” I countered, giving him a smile of my own. A nice, predatory one. “How about a friendly match? Give us something to do besides listen to Cotter and Basil fight over the vidscreen.”

Rupert’s face didn’t change, but I could tell from the stiffness in his posture that he wasn’t thrilled by my suggestion. His unwillingness didn’t necessarily mean that he had something to hide, but it certainly didn’t dispel suspicion. Of course, if he wasn’t going to volunteer, then I’d just have to push a little harder.

“Captain,” I said over my shoulder at Caldswell, who was sitting on the couch beside his daughter. He glanced up at my voice, and I gave him an earnest, innocent look. “Can I borrow your cook for a little sparring practice? I hear he’s pretty good, and I need someone besides Cotter to kick around.”

The captain looked at Rupert. “You want to get kicked around?”

“Not particularly,” Rupert said. “Forget it, Devi. After a crash ship full of xith’cal, I’m no challenge for you.”

“Hey!” Cotter yelled. “I killed most of those!”

“How do you know that if you never try me?” I said, ignoring Cotter completely. “Come on, it’ll be quick. Best two out of three.”

Rupert looked at Caldswell again, but the captain just shrugged. “Up to you.”

Rupert closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Fine,” he said, taking off his apron. “But I’m warning you, you’ll be disappointed.”

I stepped back and motioned for him to lead the way.

Because there was nowhere else large enough, we set up in the cargo bay. Cotter, being Paradoxian and thus always excited about a fight, got into his armor and moved the crates of fish around to make us a nice little ring. Since we were far and away the most exciting thing going on, everyone came down to watch, even the captain, dragging Ren along behind him. Cotter tried to start a betting pool, but it didn’t work out because everyone was betting on me. People were far more interested in getting a good seat on the cargo crates surrounding our little pit, anyway. For my part, I was watching Rupert.

If I hadn’t known better, I’d have said he was embarrassed by all the attention. He took off his coat slowly and threw it up onto the crates, out of the way. He swung his arms twice and rolled up his sleeves, but otherwise he didn’t do any sort of warm-up.

Neither did I. I could have used one since my joints were still stiff from the fight earlier, but I didn’t want to give him any clue as to what was coming. If I was going to learn anything useful from this, I’d have to trick him into doing something that would give himself away, and that meant catching him by surprise. Fortunately, Rupert hadn’t seen me do any fighting out of armor yet. No armor meant a whole new bag of tricks.

I was dressed for the occasion, at least. I’d kicked off my ship flats, and my bare feet gripped the scratched metal of the cargo bay floor nicely. My pants were soft, lightweight, and loose fitting, great for kicking. Even better, I was wearing my favorite tank top, a thin, tight black sheath that left my arms free and showed off my chest. I might have staged this fight for very legitimate information gathering purposes, but I was still going to be fighting Rupert, and while I’d written off getting him into bed days ago, I wasn’t dead. If I was going to be rolling around on the floor with Mr. Charkov, then I was going to look hot while I did it.

But if Rupert appreciated my outfit, he didn’t show it. “Last warning,” he said as we took our positions on opposite sides of the cleared square. “This will only end in disappointment.”

I just smiled wide and lunged.

It was bad form for a mock fight. I’d attacked early, no warning, no salute. But this match wasn’t actually about fighting, so I burned every bit of the energy I’d built up waiting for him to be ready, closing the distance between us as fast as I could.

Being so tall gave him serious reach on me, but I was used to fighting larger opponents, and I went in low, aiming for his stomach. I was there before he could defend, my fist flying straight for his abdomen. But the moment I touched his shirt, he faded. His body slid away from the blow, matching my speed perfectly and leaving me overbalanced. I stamped my foot and spun to catch myself, coming back around to brace for the counter—only to see Rupert lying on the floor looking up at me with a scowl.

“Charkov!” That was Basil, who’d gotten himself worked into a furious fluffy ball of feathers. “You’re not going to let the little Paradoxian knock you around like that, are you?”

“I’d be worried if she didn’t,” Rupert said, pushing himself up with a hand on his stomach like he was in pain. “It’s her job. I’m just the cook.”

There were a few more catcalls, but I didn’t hear them. I was too busy working over what had just happened.

I knew I’d felt Rupert under my fist, shifting his weight away with a skill I hadn’t faced before, and I’d fought some scary people. His fall had been perfect, too, a neat collapse that spared every muscle. But he looked so cross as he stretched his supposedly bruised abs that I started to feel guilty. Maybe his dodge wasn’t the amazing skill it had felt like? Maybe he really had gone down like a leaf? Maybe I’d let my paranoia get the best of me and I was just kicking around a man who wasn’t a fighter and who’d been nothing but nice to me?

Except, of course, when he was only being nice to set me up.

I eyed Rupert as he stepped back into position. His posture spoke of sore muscles and irritation, everything expected of someone who’d been thrown into a fight he didn’t want with a stronger opponent. It was a good show, and I would have bought it and ended the match right then had it not been for his eyes. Rupert’s eyes were locked on my shifting feet with a fighter’s attention. Every now and then, he’d glance up at my face, and though he tried to hide it, I caught the shadow of a smirk.

I stiffened. That’s how he wanted to play it, did he? All right, I’d play. The next time his eyes flicked to mine, I smirked back and ran in.

I didn’t kick, I didn’t punch, I didn’t try to strike him at all. Instead, I went for a throw, putting myself well inside his reach in the process. He’d have to choose. Was he going to stand there and let me throw him? Or was he going to take the opening and throw me instead? It was much harder to fake a bad throw than it was to fake a fall, but if he let me throw him without any sort of counter, no one would believe he’d had any sort of training, certainly not enough to absorb the kick of my gun, which would prove that something fishy was going on. Of course, if something fishy was going on and I forced him to reveal it in front of the crew, I would probably end up the dead, nosy merc from my motto, but I was in way too far to stop now. Part of being Paradoxian means never knowing when to quit.

The closer I got, the more certain I was that Rupert was going to let me throw him. By the time my fingers touched his shirt, I knew it for sure. But as I shifted my weight to pull him over my shoulder, Rupert’s arm appeared from nowhere, and then I was down on my back with no idea how I’d gotten there.

A chorus of cheers rose, and Rupert’s hand appeared again, this time to help me up. I grabbed it with a glare, letting him pull me to my feet. The moment my legs were under me, I lurched back without warning, pulling him with all my weight.

For a second it was like pulling on a mountain, and then Rupert collapsed in another of those perfect falls, tumbling neatly before sprawling almost too pathetically on the floor beside me. To the crew it must have looked like I’d just sent him flat on his face, but I caught a flash of a grin as he got his hands under him. He made a tired, hurt sound and then pushed himself over onto his back with such overplayed stiffness that I rolled my eyes.

“That’s that, I guess,” he said, staring at me with a pathetic look. “You got me two downs out of three.”

“That didn’t count,” I said, rolling to my feet. “One more down.”

“Leave him alone, Devi,” Caldswell called. “You’ve embarrassed him enough for one night.”

That sounded like Rupert’s out, and I fully expected him to take it, but to my surprise Rupert shook his head. “She wants to knock me over one more time,” he said, sitting up stiffly. As he got to his feet, he shot me a sly smile. “Who am I to deny a lady?”

Oh, he knew what he was doing. He was baiting me clear and strong. His posture was defeated, but his eyes were all mocking challenge. I’ve never been able to turn down a challenge, which was how I got into so many fights growing up. My mother always said that idiots never learn, and I guess she was right, because idiotic as it was to let Rupert bait me, I swallowed it hook and sinker.

All at once, I stopped playing. I stopped bouncing around and grew very still. And then, without shifting my weight, without making a sound, without giving a warning of any kind, I launched a roundhouse kick straight to Rupert’s side.

I must have been better than he’d thought, because his body didn’t slide out from under the blow this time. There was no overbalancing, no feeling of a spoiled shot. I hit him straight, hard, and solid with all my strength. It was the kind of kick I’ve used to crack ribs on much bigger men, and Rupert just stood and took it.

Kicking Rupert for real felt like kicking a metal post. The shock and pain went all the way up my leg until I was gritting my teeth against it. For a second I was sure I’d broken my ankle, but I didn’t hear anything crack. My eyes were locked with Rupert’s the whole time, and I saw the moment I connected that I’d actually done it, I’d caught him by surprise. It lasted only a breath, and then Rupert fell, dropping sideways in perfect, controlled collapse.

The room was silent. Everyone seemed to know that kick was different, even those who’d never thrown a hit in their lives, and except for Cotter, who looked smug, and Nova, who couldn’t look mean if she tried, they were all giving me the evil eye. Big, bad Devi, picking on the little guy.

Steeling my face so I wouldn’t wince, I lowered my throbbing leg and walked over to Rupert. Every step hurt like hell, but I refused to let it show as I knelt down and helped him sit up. “Okay,” I announced. “Show’s over. You were all right, this was unfair.” I looked down. “Sorry, Rupert. Thanks for being such a good sport.”

He sighed. “Just don’t go beating up any other crew members.”

“I won’t,” I promised, sliding my shoulder under his arm before he could move away. “Go back and have a drink on me,” I said to the watching crowd. “I’ll take Rupert to the infirmary and patch him up.”

Hyrek moved to help anyway, but Caldswell got up first. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s go drink Miss Morris’s combat bonus while she cleans up her mess.”

That was all it took to snap everyone back into action. The rest of the crew followed the captain up the stairs to the lounge, including Hyrek, who didn’t look happy about it. I supported Rupert with my shoulder while we walked to the engine room door. Pickers gave us the stink eye as we entered, but she couldn’t tell any tales, so the moment the door was closed I sank down and clutched my injured leg.

“God and king,” I groaned, glaring up at Rupert. “What’s your chest made of? Lead?”

He folded his arms. “You brought that on yourself.”

He was right, of course. I had no business throwing a kick like that in a friendly fight. But still. “You baited me,” I snapped.

Rupert arched a dark eyebrow. “Just because someone baits you doesn’t mean you have to take it.”

I shook my head and focused my attention on my throbbing ankle, rolling up my pants to get a better look. The bruise ran from the top of my foot up to the middle of my shin, and it was already starting to darken. In a few hours it would be an ugly purple. I was just about to try walking on it again when Rupert swooped down and picked me up.