The challenge circle isn't padded with reed mats today, and I can see spots of red on the grey stone where my fellow students left a bit of themselves behind. I won't be adding to the collection.
The Masters are on the raised platform at one end of the circular courtyard, just five tall shadows now that the sun is setting behind them. I bow towards them and then turn towards my opponent. No, my victim. Helos bows to the Masters as well, her hair falling across her shoulders. She isn't even trying, or she would have shaved her head to keep it from getting into her eyes - and to keep me from throwing her to the ground with it. She has to know this is futile. She shouldn't have been allowed to enter training at all - the Masters must be punishing her for wasting my time or they would have set her against someone closer to her own level. Now it's the top of the class against the bottom, and I'm going to make sure she learns this lesson. I've already had to teach her sister Kara a lesson or two over the years - this family is difficult but can eventually have some sense pounded into them.
The Masters ring the gong, and Helos walks towards me. We smile at each other, and I can tell she's nervous. This first fight will be bad enough, but no matter how badly I crush her she'll have to come back for the next round, and the next. The Masters will stop it before the fourth round, since I'll win the first three. Even so, with recovery time between matches this will be at least a month of misery for her. I bow to her, not too low, and -
I can't breathe. My face is pressed against the stone and I'm drowning, hot liquid filling my mouth.
I jump to my feet, and my head clears. Blood is flowing from my broken nose, down my face and down the back of my throat. Helos has backed away, so I take a moment to brace myself. One charge should end this.
What? Helos bows to the judges, and turns towards me.
"You are victorious. Congratulations."
I turn towards the Masters. "Helos deliberately used a knee strike when I was bowing!" The masters nod, but otherwise say nothing. I haven't read the Code like Helos has, I've been too busy actually training. I suppose it's possible that what she did isn't actually against the rules, just common decency. I wasn't expecting to achieve a flawless victory, so this won't change what rank I get when I beat her - it just means I'll hit her that much harder next time.
I bow to the Masters again and turn to head back to the baths to clean up. I make sure to pass as close to Helos as possible, waiting for her to flinch. She stares right at the Masters instead. Fine.
"I am ready."
What? I turn to see why -
Her hand slams into my neck before I can react, and I stumble backwards. I'm prepared for a follow-up attack, but Helos bows instead.
I struggle to regain my voice to protest to the Masters, but I shouldn't have to. They would never stand for something like this. Attacking another student outside of an official challenge or lesson is punishable by anything from loss of name to banishment. The sun is getting lower and I can see the faces of the Masters better now. They look... disinterested.
"Masters?" My voice is a croak. "She has attacked without a challenge!"
"If I may explain?" Helos sounds calm, cheerful. She comes and stands next to me, and I have to resist the urge to attack her on the spot. "The rules clearly state that the next round begins once the loser of the previous round announces that they are ready to continue and the combatants are in the challenge circle. As I needed no time to recover and we are already within the circle, the round was officially in progress. It is unusual, but legal."
I step forward and look up at the Masters. "You can't allow this! She is making a mockery of -"
"I am ready."
I spin around as quickly as possible, sending the heel of my foot flying through the air where Helos' head should be. Instead, I see too late that she had already dropped to the ground and she sends her own foot shooting upwards into my unprotected groin. I collapse with the world swimming around me, spots of light and darkness obscuring my vision. I'm on my feet almost immediately, but my injuries are adding up. I could beat her in a fair fight without breaking a sweat, I know it. She isn't faster or stronger than me, she's just relying on dishonorable attacks. Now she'll yield again and the fight will end - unless...
She isn't saying anything. She must intend to win. Her dishonest tactics might have even bought her that much - this isn't a fair fight any longer. I would beat her in the fourth match, but winning even this one would mean she gets a rank. More than she deserves. I have to fight her, have to make her leave with at least a few scars, but I can't be seen to lose to her. I can't take that chance. Or can I? I can use her own strategy. Yield the fight, take all the time I need to recover, and then in the fourth round I'll go for a killing blow. If I do it right, she won't have time to yield before I grind her into a paste. Better that than being beaten in actual combat, or winning without doing any real damage to her. And corpses don't get a rank.
Helos smiles, and bows to the Masters. She won't be smiling next week.
"I'm going to crush you in the next match," I growl, not even bothering to keep the Masters from hearing.
She raises an eyebrow at me. "Next match? There won't be one. Ask the Masters how one attains the first rank."
I look up at the Masters in confusion, and they nod in turn. One finally opens his mouth to speak. "If a student has not been struck by the time they win the third round, the match ends and they are awarded the highest rank."
"But... she lost two rounds!"
"I am sure that when the rule was written it was meant to apply to one who had won the previous rounds as well, but that is not how it was written. We will meet and revise some rules after this, but in another fifty years some other student will find another way to use them against us. This is as it should be. This same opportunity was open to you, had you chosen to use it."
The Masters all walk away, leaving us alone in the challenge circle. This can't be happening. I could still kill her. I would have to flee, but right now I'm not sure I can stand to go back anyway.
Helos looks at me. Her face is unreadable. "I'm not sorry. I know what you did to Kara, and I know you were looking forward to disfiguring me in combat. That means I also know you're unlikely to let this loss go... but you're injured. That thing you're dreading, the return to your peers, that has to happen anyway. You can't get your revenge like this."
I hate her for being right.
"I shouldn't talk about how I won. It would create chaos with those that only half-understand the rules. So you are free to describe the match in any way you choose. You can make it sound like you deliberately chose not to strike me - after all, it is the truth that you yielded in the third round rather than attack. Take some time, while you rest in the baths. If you need help with your story, let me know and I will assist in any way I can."
"You would make yourself look bad?" That seems hard to believe.
"I... would rather focus on making you look good, but yes. If needed. I did not do this for my own glory." She leans towards me, and I'm tempted again to hit her - but the intensity of her gaze would make me reconsider even if I was fully rested. "I did this," she continues, "so that I would have the authority to have you stripped of everything and cast into the wilderness if you ever touch another woman the way you did my sister. And now I do."
She turns and walks away, but somehow - even with the light fading and her facing away from me - it feels like she's watching.