The Collar and the Cavvarach

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Chapter Sixteen: So Much Cooler

Bensin awoke on Monday stiff and sore — especially his right arm — but pleased with himself. Except for that humiliating loss in his very first duel, he had been doing great in the Grand Imperial so far. He had won three times now. Once on Saturday afternoon, which put him into the second rung. Thank goodness for the fact that the youth fighters got two chances to make it through the first one, just like in Young Warriors of Jarreon. Then another time on Sunday morning, putting him in the third rung, and again Sunday afternoon, which put him in the fourth.

That’s already better than I did last year. Bensin smiled into his pillow. I might even place this time. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A Grand Imperial trophy would be something to boast about for the rest of his life, but the money that would come with it would be far better. If he even got third place, his ten percent of the prize money would put him months and months ahead in his savings. And first place was twelve thousand imps, so his share would be one thousand two hundred. He had saved about seven hundred imps now, so if he came in first, and if he kept hiring out every week in the meantime, he would have more than enough to get Ellie’s collar removed by the time the tournament was done.

Bensin rolled over and stared up at the ceiling. It’ll be so awesome if I win. And as badly as he wanted that prize money for Ellie’s freedom, Bensin wanted it for Coach Steene almost as badly. Coach had done so much for him: not just teaching him to fight better than Mr. Brinks ever had, but making his bare little apartment Bensin’s home as well as his. Treating Bensin like a friend a lot of the time, not just like a student, and never like a slave. Never once hitting him. Never once cussing at him. Never even yelling at him, except to shout instructions during practice. Letting him have that extra time off that allowed Bensin to visit Ellie on Sundays, at least when he wasn’t busy competing. Never putting him down for being born Tarnestran and not Imperian, as Mr. Creghorn used to. Race didn’t seem to matter to Coach Steene. Not to mention how Coach had nearly bankrupted himself purchasing Bensin in the first place and sold his wedding ring to buy him clothes and shoes. And he had given him another chance even after he caught him lying.

I owe him so much. Doing well in competition was the only way Bensin knew to repay that debt, and he was determined to do it. Especially because he knew he was going to have to deceive Coach at least once more when the time came to put his plan into action. But after that, things will be different. Once I know Ellie is safe and free, I’ll never lie to him again. I’ll do everything he tells me all the time and be the best slave he can imagine.

Thinking about Ellie reminded Bensin that he had better get started with his day if he wanted to see her. It had been over a week, and she must be missing him terribly. He would stop by and hang out with her for a bit, if the Creghorns let him, before he went to work for Officer Shigo. It was out of his way, but that was all right.

He dressed quickly and tiptoed down the hall to the kitchen to make himself breakfast and a sandwich, keeping it quiet so Coach could sleep in. Coach had written a pass last night and left it on the counter so he wouldn’t have to get up early and do it, and Bensin knew his owner wouldn’t be happy if he was awakened early anyway.

When he got there, Mrs. Creghorn made him prune her rose bushes and weed the garden, but Ellie brought the baby outside and sat on the grass with him while Bensin worked.

“You didn’t come to play with me yesterday,” his sister accused, “and you haven’t even came to see me at all in a long long time.”

“I know it’s been awhile. Sorry. I got in trouble for getting home late that time after I ran the errand to the car place, so I’ve had to be extra careful to be on time or early every day now. That’s why I haven’t stopped by after my yardwork in the neighborhood for the last few weeks. Plus, my owner’s had me practicing extra in the mornings for the Grand Imperial, and I haven’t had much time.” Kneeling in the moist dirt, Bensin pulled up another weed and added it to his pile. “That’s where I was yesterday when it was your day off: competing.”

“Did you win?” Interest momentarily replaced her grumpiness.

“Not yet. It’s still going on. I’ve been mostly winning my rounds so far, though. I’ll fight again next weekend. It goes on for three more weeks.”

Her face fell. “Then that means you won’t come see me next Sunday either. You never come much anymore. Just like you didn’t come that other time when you said you would, and you didn’t bring me a present.”

“That was more than a month ago! I already told you I was sorry about that. I got in trouble and my owner grounded me, remember?”

Ellie seized Baby Willem’s hand and pulled out the ladybug he had just grabbed. “I waited and waited. Just like I waited and waited yesterday. I’m always so bored and lonely when you’re not here.”

Bensin sighed. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. She just didn’t get that his life wasn’t all about her. And as bad as he felt for his sister’s loneliness, he had to admit that it had been kind of nice not squeezing the extra time out of his schedule to stop by the Creghorns’ house. He had to get up earlier, rush through his work faster, or be late to something in order to see her during the week. If he kept it up, one of these days Coach was going to find out, and that would probably mean the end of his plans to free her.

“I do my best,” he told Ellie, tugging out another weed, “but I can’t come here on the Sundays I’m in tournaments. Tell you what, though; I’ll try to stop by for a little while on Mondays from now on before I hire out, like today. Okay?”

She scowled. That wasn’t the same, since she wouldn’t have the day off, and they both knew it. “Did you at least bring me a present this time?”

“No. I haven’t had a chance to go out and buy anything. I told you, I’ve been busy with extra practice because of the tournament. I’ve barely been making it to my hire-out jobs on time most days. I almost didn’t have time to come here today, and I can’t stay too long. I have to work for someone at eleven, but I wanted to make sure I came to see you first.”

“Then can you take me to buy a present today before you go?”

He sighed again. As much as he loved his little sister, she could sure be a pain sometimes. “Fine. As soon as I finish up here, we’ll see if Mrs. Creghorn will let us go to the bookstore, okay? You can choose a book, and if it doesn’t take too long, I’ll read it to you before I have to leave.”

Ellie chased after the baby as he crawled across the lawn, and Bensin pulled weeds as fast as he could. When she had dragged Willem back, she said softly, “Yesterday I was feeding the baby his dinner in the kitchen and I heard Mr. Creghorn talking to Mrs. Creghorn. He was asking if she thought they should sell me.”

Bensin whirled around to face her. “What?”


“Well, what did she say?”

“She said the baby likes me, and they’ve spended three years training me, and I’m getting better around the house, and it would be a waste to sell me now. But Mr. Creghorn said I still can’t do all the housework like you used to and take care of the baby at the same time, and that’s why they had to hire in Becka. He said she’s a grownup and she can do the work and take care of the baby too, so why do they need two slaves to work for them when they could just have one.”

Bensin couldn’t move. The morning was already warm, but he felt as though his bones had turned to ice. Were his worst fears about to come true? It took two tries before he could speak again.

“So — so what did they decide?”

“I don’t know. Baby Willem started fussing for his dinner, and I had to feed him again. I didn’t hear anything else.”

“Gagagaga,” put in the baby, grabbing a handful of Ellie’s hair and trying to stuff it into his mouth.

They can’t sell Ellie. They just can’t. Bensin stared at his little sister, trying to think what he could tell her. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with guilt for not finding a way to come see her more often. What if he had shown up today and she had been gone?

“But they sold you and your new owner is nicer,” she reminded him, freeing her hair. “I’ll miss Baby Willem, but maybe my new owners will be nicer, too. And maybe they’ll live close to your new owner and you can come visit me every day. Maybe they’ll let me go to slave school and then I can learn how to read books.”

Yeah, and maybe they’ll live further away. Maybe they’ll take you off to some province at the other end of the empire and we’ll never see each other again. Maybe they’ll work you to the bone and not give you your time off. Maybe they’ll abuse you like so many owners do.

Bensin found his voice at last. “I won’t let them sell you.”

“Maybe your owner could buy me, and then we can live together,” she suggested hopefully.

He shook his head, hating to disappoint her. “My owner hardly has any money. There’s no way he could afford to buy another slave. Anyway, he doesn’t have any other work that you could do, and you’re too young to really hire out. Besides, I already told him I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so he’d be mad if he found out I was lying. I already got in trouble for that once. If he finds out I lied to him another time, he’ll probably sell me.” He took a deep breath. “No, I’m just going to make sure that one of these days you’re a free little girl living with a family that loves you and takes care of you and lets you go to a real school. Now I’d better get this yardwork done so we can go buy you that book.”

He hurried through the rest of the weeding and pruning. When he had finished, he clipped off a handful of pink roses to stick in a vase, hoping the gesture would put Mrs. Creghorn in a good mood.

She was busy in her study with the door shut, as usual, but Becka was dusting the furniture in the living room. She looked up with a smile when he entered. “How nice that you’ve come on your day off to spend time with Ellie. She’s such a sweet little girl. Talks about you all the time and how much she misses you.”

“She said she heard the Creghorns talking about selling her,” Bensin confided, pulling a vase out of the kitchen cupboard. He filled it from the sink and poked the roses in before setting it on the dining room table. “I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”

The woman nodded. “I’ve heard them bring it up a couple times. I don’t think they’ve decided for sure yet, but I know Mr. Creghorn wants to. And he did talk to my owners about possibly increasing my hours here, and he asked if I’ve had experience caring for young children.”

Bensin felt cold inside again. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

He knocked on the study door. “Yes?” called a voice.

“I’ve finished the weeding and pruning, ma’am,” he called back, “and I brought in some roses for the table. May Ellie and I please go out to the bookstore for a bit? We’ll bring the baby along in his stroller for some fresh air.”

Mrs. Creghorn must have been preoccupied with her writing. “Fine,” she replied after a moment. “Come in and I’ll write her a pass. Make sure you take Willem’s bottle.”

They rode the bus to the bookstore, the baby gurgling in enthusiasm at the outing and earning smiles from those seated nearby. As promised, Bensin let his sister pick any book she wanted, and she chose a collection of illustrated animal stories. It cost him six imps and ninety-five slivers, which he felt was more than a second-hand book with a dog-eared cover and purple crayon scribbles on half the pages was worth. But Ellie was delighted with the gift, and for today that was what mattered.

The book was too long to get through the whole thing, but they sat on a bench outside and he read her one of the stories while little Willem tried to grab the pages. Ellie admired the pictures and together they laughed over the animals’ antics. Finally, a quick peek through the window at the clock by the counter told Bensin that he had better take her home if he didn’t want to be late to Officer Shigo’s.

“I’ll try my best to visit you again soon,” he said as they walked back to the bus stop, “but my owner will probably keep me extra busy with practice again this week, and I don’t think I can come next weekend. Like I said, though, I’ll try to stop by again next Monday morning. And don’t tell anyone, but one of these days — or nights — I may just show up and take you away to freedom!”

“Yeah.” But he could tell Ellie was skeptical. He still didn’t have an actual plan; it would be a lot harder to get into the Creghorns’ house at night and get her out than it had been for the two of them to sneak out together. And it wouldn’t be enough just to get her collar cut off if the Watch caught them again in the process.

And what if the Creghorns did decide to sell her before the end of the tournament? Bensin still needed another thirteen hundred imps, and he needed it soon. And he couldn’t think of any quick way to get it.

At least, any legal way.

He pushed aside that troubling thought, hugged Ellie goodbye in the front yard, and jogged back down the street and around the corner to the bus stop. He had to get his mind on other things before he got to the Shigos’ house, otherwise he was certain the officer would figure out what he was thinking.

“Nate and I were at Red Arena on Saturday,” Officer Shigo told him a few hours later as the two of them sat on his porch. As usual, he had called Bensin to come take a break from his work over a glass of lemonade. Bensin sat beside him, smelling the freshly-mown lawn and his own sweat, feeling as awkward as he did every time. “We didn’t make it Sunday, but we watched your next two matches on TV. Congratulations on getting this far through the Grand Imperial.”

“Thank you, sir.” Bensin took a sip from his glass. “I stunk pretty bad on my first match.” How embarrassing to think that the officer had been there watching.

The man chuckled. “We all mess up now and then. If you had to pick a match to lose, I suppose, strategically speaking, that would be the one to pick. So you’re back at it again this Saturday?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how many matches are you fighting then?”

“Two, sir, if I win the first one. There’s no more chances if I lose. And then two more on Sunday if I keep winning.”

“Well, I have to work this weekend, but I’m sure Nate will be glued to the TV. You know, he’s been telling all his friends that he knows someone who’s in the Grand Imperial. They all think it’s pretty cool.”

Bensin grinned. It was fun feeling sort of famous. Last year the excitement had been brief; he had lost in the second rung. This time, his name had been in the newspaper twice already, but only in the middle of long lists of competitors. The longer he stayed in, the greater the chance that there would be pictures, even whole articles about his fights. And if he placed, people all over the empire would know about him. Mom would be so proud of me if she were alive. Remembering her brought a momentary pang. He wondered if his dad, wherever he was, would see him in the newspaper and think of him.

“Have you had a chance to visit your sister lately?” the officer inquired.

Bensin shifted in his seat. “Uh, yes, sir. I stopped by this morning before I came here.” He took a long drink of lemonade, casting about for some way of changing the subject that wouldn’t seem totally obvious. He had to keep Officer Shigo from finding out that the Creghorns were thinking of selling Ellie. He just knew that if the officer heard about that, he would somehow figure out that Bensin still meant to try to free her.

“And how is she doing?”

“Okay, I guess, sir. She was sad I couldn’t stay longer. But I bought her a book and read part of it to her. She likes stories. This one was about animals.” If he talked enough about other things, perhaps it would take attention away from the topic he wanted to avoid. “She likes books about animals, and rabbits are her favorite. She has a stuffed rabbit named Bunny that our mom made her. She sleeps with it every night.”

Officer Shigo was looking at him oddly, but Bensin didn’t look back. Watch officers are trained to know when people are lying. Were they also trained to know when people were avoiding the truth?

He took another swig of his lemonade, staring out across the lawn at the fence he had helped to paint a couple months ago. It still looked pretty good. The hedge at the side was beginning to grow out, though. He’ll probably want me to trim it again this afternoon.

He could tell the officer’s gaze was still on him, and Bensin was sure his face was growing red. He knows I’m hiding something. He took another sip, not daring to look up.

“I see,” Officer Shigo said finally, and Bensin’s heart thudded. But the officer said nothing more.

After an awkward silence, Bensin finally drained his glass. “Well, I — I guess I should get to work again, sir,” he ventured, pushing back his chair. “Should I trim the hedges now?”

Bensin was on his way out the gate with money in hand, breathing a sigh of relief to be escaping at last, when the school bus pulled up. He watched as Nate and his sisters climbed out. The girls went right on in, but Nate stopped short.

“Oh, hey, Bensin!” he exclaimed. “I was wondering if I’d see you here today. Did my dad tell you we saw you fight at Red Arena on Saturday? And we watched you on TV the next day. You’ve been doing so awesome! I can’t believe I know someone in the Grand Imperial!”

Bensin grinned. “Thanks. Actually, I did pretty awful in the first round. I wish no one had to see that.”

“Yeah, but you still stayed in the tournament! How many athletes in any sport wish they could qualify for an event that big and never do? It’s so cool that you’re actually in it. And rung four is coming up and you’re still in! Some of the guys at school didn’t even believe me when I said I knew someone personally who was fighting in the Grand Imperial. Oh, and that reminds me.” He grinned sheepishly. “I saved the program from Saturday. I was wondering if you’d mind signing it.”

Bensin blinked. “Are you serious?” He wants my autograph? No one had ever asked for his autograph before.

“Yeah. I keep stuff like that from sports events I go to. I’ve got a whole box in my room. A few things I’ve been able to get signed, but not many. It’s always more special when you can get one of the athletes to autograph it.”

“Well, I guess so. Sure.”

“Awesome! Come on in, then.”

Bensin followed him back into the yard and up to the house. “I’ll wait out here,” he suggested by the steps.

“Don’t you want to come inside? Come on, it’s hot out here.”

“But I’m all sweaty. And my shoes are dirty.”

“You can take them off right inside the door. That’s what we always do.”

“I guess your dad probably wouldn’t want me inside, though,” he ventured.

“Oh, Dad won’t care.” Nate opened the front door and stuck his head in. “Dad, you don’t mind if Bensin comes on back to my room, right?”

“Of course not,” Officer Shigo’s voice replied from inside.

“See? Come on!”

Reluctantly, Bensin pulled off his shoes and followed the other boy into the house.

The living room was very different from Coach Steene’s, with its real furniture and no cardboard boxes in sight. Unlike at the Creghorns’, the furniture looked like it was designed more to be comfortable than to impress people with how perfectly everything matched.

Through a doorway, he glimpsed Officer Shigo and the girls talking over glasses of milk in the kitchen. But Nate led the way down the hall and into the second room on the right.

The walls were covered with sports posters, including one showing two gladiators battling with cavvarachs. A miniature basketball hoop hung above the door. Almost everything in the room had a sports theme, even the bedspread, which was round and patterned like a giant soccer ball.

Nate dropped his backpack on the desk and rummaged around in the closet. “Aha. Here it is.” He produced a large shoebox, pulled out the program from Saturday, and fished a pen out of a pocket in his backpack.

“I, uh, I’ve never written an autograph before,” Bensin admitted. “Where am I supposed to sign it?”

“Oh, anywhere. How about on the front right under where it says Grand Imperial Cavvara Shil Tourney.”

Bensin carefully wrote his name in cursive the way his teacher had taught him to do years ago. He couldn’t help thinking how embarrassing it would have been if, like a lot of slaves he knew, he had never been sent to slave school and didn’t know how to write. “I only have one name,” he apologized. “I guess it looks kind of lame there by itself.”

“No, it doesn’t. It’s your name; who cares if you have one or two or three?” Nate examined it with satisfaction and replaced the program in its box. “You want to see some of the others I’ve got here? This one’s my favorite.” He pulled out a booklet titled Annual Imperial Gun Show in bold black letters. “Dad took me last year for my birthday. It isn’t exactly sports, and I didn’t get any autographs there, but it was so awesome.”

He handed the booklet to Bensin, who flipped through the pages dutifully. They were full of pictures of more types of firearms than he had known existed.

“We saw all these close up.” Nate grinned at the memory. “I even got to fire some of them!”

“Wow.” Bensin wondered what it felt like to fire a gun. He knew he would never find out, since it was illegal for slaves even to touch a firearm. Just examining the pictures like this made him feel a little guilty, and he glanced over his shoulder, wondering if Officer Shigo would walk in and see him looking at them. But it can’t be wrong to just look, or Nate wouldn’t be showing them to me.

He wondered which kinds of guns Watch officers used. A lot of the weapons in here looked almost exactly alike to him.

“I’ll show you my favorite.” Nate took the booklet from him and turned a few pages. “Here it is: the Stinger 700. One of my uncles has one, and they’re so cool! I’ve been begging and begging my parents, and they finally said they’ll get me one if I can earn straight As for a whole year.”

“What makes that one so much cooler than the others?” Bensin ventured, hoping his question wouldn’t reveal his utter ignorance of all things firearm-related.

“Lots of stuff. See, here are the other Stinger models on this page, and they all hold twelve rounds in the magazine plus one in the chamber, but the Stinger 700 holds fifteen plus one.”

Rounds? Magazine? Chamber? Was he talking about bullets? Bensin nodded as though it made perfect sense. “Wow, fifteen.”

“And the grip is only a little longer than most of these others,” Nate went on, “so you can still carry it around in your pocket, but it’s got more power and great range. I love the slide serrations, too. Don’t they make it look awesome?” He pointed to what seemed to be a series of slits in the top part of the gun, arranged in overlapping concentric patterns.

“Yeah. Awesome decorations.”

“Well, they’re not really for decoration. It’s to make the gun lighter. But I think the pattern of cuts on the slide looks cooler than any of the others. And I love how the S700 is imprinted there on the barrel in silver. And look how awesome the grip is, polished wood instead of just metal like those ones. It’s really comfortable to hold and easy to fire. Of course, it’s the most expensive one, but hey, my parents would be paying, not me.” He chuckled.

“It sounds great.” Bensin wasn’t sure what anyone his age would do with a gun, but he supposed it would be fun to have, if only to show off to your friends.

“Hey, do you have to be back at a certain time, or can you hang out for a bit? I could show you the rest of my sports stuff if you want, or we could shoot baskets or something.”

Bensin hesitated. “I’m not too good at basketball. I should probably just go home. I — I don’t want your dad to get mad or anything.”

“Dad won’t get mad. He likes you.”

Bensin knew that couldn’t be true. What Watch officer would like a person who had ever broken the law? But he didn’t see any point in saying so. His dad must not have told him how he first met me. “I guess I could maybe stay for a few minutes,” he allowed.

To his surprise, he enjoyed himself. First they shot baskets in the bedroom with an extra-small ball. Nate did much better than he did, but the free boy didn’t make fun of him for his missed shots. In the meantime, he played music from his computer and talked about his favorite songs, but Bensin had no idea who the singers were. After all, Coach Steene never listened to music at home and only turned on the radio in the truck when he wanted to check traffic or see how his favorite sports teams were doing.

Then Nate showed him the rest of his collection of programs and memorabilia from sports events. Bensin was afraid he would say something stupid and reveal his ignorance, so he didn’t comment on the music and only made a few admiring remarks about the sports tickets and programs and trading cards. Still, they were interesting to see, and it was fun to hang out with a free person his age who didn’t treat him like a slave.

But what was Ricky’s rule about friends? Don’t make the mistake of actually trusting your free friends, and let them think you know you’re not as good as they are. Well, Bensin certainly wouldn’t be trusting Nate with any information about his plans for his sister. And he would be careful to be humble, all right. Who knew what Officer Shigo might do to a slave who wasn’t polite to his son?

“You want to play a game on my computer?” Nate inquired, sliding his sports box back into the closet. “I’ve got some really fun two-player ones. There’s one where you can pick a weapon and follow clues to track down criminals. You could try out the Stinger 700 if you want.”

Bensin felt his face turning red. He didn’t want to admit that he had never actually used a computer before.

“I, uh, I really should probably be going,” he stammered. “My owner won’t like it if I’m home too late. Thanks, though.”

“Oh. Well, okay. I guess I should probably get started on my homework. I’ve got a big chemistry test this week, and my grade’s kind of hanging on it. That’s my hardest class.”

Bensin wondered what it would be like to go to school fulltime like Nate. He hadn’t been to school since he was ten, and even then, it had only been in the mornings. And they didn’t assign homework or give grades in slave school.

What if the only work I had to do was schoolwork, and I got two whole days off every week? What if I had my own computer and knew how to use it and someday I could get a job sitting in an air-conditioned office and be paid for all my work? What would it be like to live with my whole family instead of an owner and know that none of them would ever be sold away to someone who could mistreat them?

The thought made him wistful. But what was the point in wishing and wondering? It would never happen. That wasn’t his life. But it will be Ellie’s life, Bensin vowed. And it will start soon. If she were about to be sold, he had no other choice.

The week went by fast, full of his workouts, gardening jobs, Coach Steene’s classes, and extra cavvara shil practice. The two of them got to the CSF early every day, and stayed on for an hour or more after work every evening, so Bensin could drill with the cavvarach. Coach kept working with him on his hand-switching technique and on how to avoid getting his arm battered without the shil to protect it. Bensin knew he was improving; he could feel the difference.

“You’re doing great,” Coach told him as they headed home Friday night. “I think you’ll be fine tomorrow. Don’t get cocky, though. That’s always been Jayce’s problem. I know he hasn’t lost in a while, but back when I trained him, when he did lose, it was usually because he got overconfident. And that’s what’s going to bring him down in the Grand Imperial, too.”

Jayce was still in, though, and unlike Bensin, he had won both his first-rung matches last Saturday. Bensin had lost track of whether Jayce or Mr. Brinks had been bragging about it more around the CSF this week.

Red Arena was just a little less crowded on Saturday than it had been the first couple days of the tournament. Many spectators whose favorite athletes had been eliminated were no longer here, but the event was popular enough that there were still plenty of strangers eager to watch no matter who was fighting. Coach had told Bensin that tickets for the best seats sold out months ahead of time, even for the days where no one knew beforehand who would still be in.

When they checked the schedule in the Competitors’ Cave, Bensin was relieved to see that he wasn’t against Jayce. Of course, he knew the organizers wouldn’t pair up athletes from the same training facility as long as there was anyone else still in, but he had an unreasoning dread that at some point he would end up fighting his nemesis anyway. And that would be the end of the tournament for Bensin.

I have to stay in. I have to keep winning. I have to place.

But he had better not focus on those thoughts. Right now he just had to concentrate on beating this morning’s opponent.

And he did, floating through the fourth rung duel in his Zone, heedless of the gritty sand under his bare feet or the roaring crowds all around. The other boy was good, but his skills were no match for the hand-switching technique Coach had drilled into Bensin.

The duel was over in three minutes, and Bensin threw his arms up in triumph, exulting in the resounding cheers from the stands around him. That was the awesome thing about large tournaments: there were more people there just to watch the action and celebrate whoever won, and fewer people there to cheer just for their friends or family members. Even slaves got almost equal applause at times like this.

Jayce won his morning match as well. Big surprise. And after lunch, Bensin watched his rival win his second one. Jayce was both strong and fast, and every time he went strutting out onto the sand it was with a you don’t stand a chance against me air. And sure enough, no one had, at least so far.

Bensin’s next turn came a few minutes later, and he went on to win in the fifth rung. “I’m on a roll!” he laughed as Coach high-fived him in the Cave afterward. “I wish I could fight again today. And again, and again!”

Coach shook his head as he handed him the thermos. “This is a good place to stop. Remember what I said about getting cocky. You’re not invincible. You did great, but that doesn’t mean your next opponent couldn’t be tougher than any you’ve had yet. Tomorrow will be soon enough for your next victory.”

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