It was about a quarter to seven that evening when Steene and Bensin pulled into the parking lot of the large park. A cool breeze hit them as they got out of the truck, and they both paused to pull on the light jackets they had brought.
Lively music played from speakers all around, and brilliant temporary lighting illuminated milling crowds in what was almost a carnival atmosphere. Steene sniffed appreciatively; aromas wafted toward them from half a dozen food stalls featuring various local restaurants that offered dinner to the hungry throng.
“Entrance is ten imps per person,” announced an attendant at the gate as they approached.
Steene handed over a ten-imp bill. “Bensin here is a contestant.”
He showed the woman the registration slip, and she compared the name printed on it to the one on the boy’s collar. “All right, your slave gets in free. Good luck!”
Long rows of tables on either side of the entrance sold Springstyle sports equipment of every variety, while other vendors, who had paid well for the opportunity, hawked their wares from around the edges of the park.
In the middle, of course, were the fighting rings. There were six of them: two each for the under fourteen, under sixteen, and under eighteen fighters. Netting hung from poles around each ring to protect onlookers from the occasional flying cavvarach.
Steene checked a nearby sign. “The under sixteen boys’ ring is over on the right there. Come on.” He led the way as Bensin followed him through the crowd on bare feet, carrying the duffel bag with the protective padding, cavvarach, and shil that Steene was letting him borrow for the event.
“Hi, Coach Steene!” A couple of the girls in one of Steene’s intermediate classes waved to him from amongst the crowd.
He waved back. “Good luck this evening! You’ll do great!” He would try to go watch some of their matches if he had a chance, but Bensin was his first priority today.
A cheer went up from somewhere to their left, followed by thunderous applause. The music cut out while an announcer’s voice called over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for April Levang, our under eighteen girls’ cavvara dueling champion!” There was another cheer, and scattered applause rippled through the park.
They made their way to Bensin’s ring, empty of contestants at the moment, and Steene found the list of pairings for the first round. “So who am I fighting, sir?” the boy wondered from beside him.
I don’t believe this.“You’re going first, and it looks like you’re up against Jayce Torro.” Usually athletes from the same school or training organization weren’t matched against each other in public competitions, at least not unless they both made it to the finals and there was no one else to fight. But Steene had signed Bensin up as his private pupil. He hadn’t mentioned the CSF on the form since the boy wasn’t a paying student there anymore, and so the organizers had had no way of knowing.
“I’m against Jayce, sir? Your former prize student?” Worry crossed Bensin’s face. “I pictured maybe facing him in the final round.”
“Well, now you can beat him at the beginning and get it over with,” Steene replied, trying to sound confident. He wasn’t actually sure which of the two boys was the better athlete, but he wasn’t about to say so now. “Come on, let’s go get you warmed up.” He led Bensin toward the competitors’ tent as another, smaller round of applause went up from the crowd at the other end of the park.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” bellowed a different announcer, “I give you Brock, winner of the boys’ under fourteen cavvara dueling competition!” There were fewer cheers this time. With only one name, Brock was obviously a slave, and people seldom got as excited when a slave won. Not that slaves didn’t have friends who would have been glad to cheer for them, but slaves’ friends were almost always other slaves, and they didn’t usually have the money for the entry fee required at most tournaments.
“And that concludes the cavvara dueling portion of our evening,” the voice went on. “We’ll take a few minutes’ break, and at seven o’clock we’ll start the first rounds of cavvara shil. Check the rings or ask at the information counter for the lists of competitors, and be sure to pick your favorites. Bets can be placed at our betting booth across from the front entrance.”
The competitors’ tent, which was really just a peaked roof on poles, was full of athletes warming up and coaches giving last-minute pep talks. Steene guided Bensin to an empty corner and pulled out the jump rope he had stashed in the duffel bag. “Here. Warm up.” It might look funny, but he had found that jumping rope was the best way to warm up in a small space.
As Bensin began jumping, Steene pulled out the padding and shil that he had worn at so many tournaments in his own teenage fighting days. At the other end of the tent, he could see Jayce’s parents hovering anxiously while their son pulled off his socks and shoes and prepped his custom-designed gear under Markus’ watchful eye.
Steene wove his way over to them, noting the way the boy’s mom and dad sidled away as he approached. They don’t want to have to talk to me about why they pulled their son out of my class.
His former student, who hadn’t seen him coming, started almost guiltily at the sound of Steene’s voice. “Oh, hi, Coach.”
“Ready for your first competition under your new trainer?” He hoped the bitterness he couldn’t help feeling wasn’t too obvious.
“Um, yeah. Listen, nothing personal about switching or anything. It was just, you know ….” His voice trailed away.
“No worries, Jayce. I’m sure you’ll do great with Mr. Brinks.”
Markus smiled toothily at him as he handed Jayce his padding. “Oh, he will. He will.”
“I hear I’m up against a new pupil of yours,” the boy added as he pulled the padding over his head. “Some collar named Bensin.”
“You shouldn’t call him that.” Steene frowned. “Slave or not, he’s a person, and a good fighter too. He’ll give you a run for your money.”
“Well, I’m ready for it!” Jayce grinned and flexed his muscles.
He is ready for it.Steene turned and walked back toward Bensin. Was his new student as good as his old one? He would find out soon, and he had an uncomfortable feeling about this.
Next time I’ll check with Mr. Drogum about mentioning the CSF on the form, Steene decided. Bensin does train there, after all. He should have done that this time.
But he wouldn’t let Bensin see how he felt about this match. “Better start stretching,” he ordered. “They’re going to be calling the two of you out there in a minute.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy coiled the jump rope up. “Was that Jayce you were talking to over there, sir?”
“Yeah.” Steene took the rope, noticing for the first time the holes in the knees of his student’s pants and how threadbare his shirt was. It was quite a contrast to Jayce’s name brand sports clothes and expensive shoes. “Listen,” he began as Bensin pulled one foot up behind himself in a standing quad stretch. “He’s good, but not as good as he likes everyone to think, so don’t let him intimidate you. He’s overconfident. You can beat him if you stay focused.”
“If you can get him to underestimate you, you’ve got an even better chance. Focus mainly on defense at the beginning while you get a feel for his fighting style. Then attack when he thinks he’s got you intimidated. Try to pin him or disarm him suddenly, before he can come back from his surprise.”
“Yes, sir. Got it.” They said nothing else as the boy finished stretching. Steene wasn’t sure if Bensin really believed he could do it or not.
Finally Bensin stood up, peeled off his jacket, and donned the padding. The loudspeaker crackled to life as he strapped on Steene’s shil. “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” came the announcer’s voice, “we begin the event you’ve all been waiting for. Will the first contestants for the cavvara shil competition in each age group please step into their rings.”
Steene handed the cavvarach to Bensin and led him out of the tent, through the crowd, and over to the ring formed by the circle of netting. Jayce was already stepping into it from the other side.
A different announcer, the one in charge of just this ring, spoke into his microphone from a few yards away. “For the first round in boys’ under sixteen cavvara shil,” he declared, reading from his sheet, “we have Jayce Torro versus Bensin.”
Excited applause rose from the gathering crowd. “You all set?” Steene asked. Out of habit, he double-checked the straps on his student’s padding and shil, even though he knew Bensin knew just how tight to fasten them. “All right. Get in there and make me proud.”
Bensin nodded under the lights. “I’ll try, sir.”
Steene lifted the edge of the netting, and his student ducked under it and into the ring. A whistle blew and the duel began.