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Chapter 16

Only years of experience kept Nessa from jumping to her feet. This is what she hated about the Entry Games: the win or die mentality.

Just when Nessa was sure she couldn't watch any more, Miran sprang back to life. She threw a fist over her shoulder and hauled one off on the puppetmaster's nose.

His concentration was destroyed.

Miran broke free as her attacker was shaking off the hit.

Mikhail, master of wrestling and grappling arts and acting referee, shouted: "Foul!" He was standing just out of arm's reach of the pair.

Master Muski jumped to his feet on the dais.

Master Mikhail saw Muski in motion out of the corner of his eye. With a hand motion, Mikhail brought the match to a halt and nodded in the direction of the masters lined up on the platform.

Muski acknowledged Mikhail with an upraised hand and asked the girl from Rakesh to approach, "Do you know the rules of wrestling?" Muski was familiar with how the Tolinese do hand-to-hand combat. They had a different fighting style out there, a fact she had demonstrated in the other events.

"I confess, sir, I do not," Miran replied, keeping her dark eyes lowered in deference.

"No strikes of any kind are permitted," Muski informed her.

"If I may, sir?" Miran asked, raising her gaze to meet his.

Muski nodded for her to continue.

"I am of a noble house in Rakesh. Close contact of such proximity between myself and people of his caliber is not permitted."

Muski held back a grin as he peered down at this girl who spoke with a brave calmness, "You are here to become a Peacekeeper, yes?"

"Yes, sir."

"As a Peacekeeper, you may be required to tangle with barbarians rougher looking than him," Muski nodded to the gargantuan youth behind her.

Not missing a beat, the girl replied, "In the event that I lose all my weapons and hand-to-hand combat becomes necessary, it would stand to reason that I will be fighting for my life. In such an instance, I will not be adhering to rules established in a game because my opponent will not be following them either. We will not be playing a game then. We will be fighting for our lives. Both of us will be doing whatever we can to get the better of the other. I did what I would do if I was in a real life scenario. These are a set of harmless tests. The people I will encounter as a Peacekeeper will not be harmless, which is why it is better to be prepared now."

Muski could not fully restrain the smile that threatened. He disliked the wrestling matches for the reasons she pointed out. It was not a replication of a real-life scenario. It was made into a sport with rules for safety. It was necessary to do for the Entry Games. Sometimes entrants got out of hand. Too competitive.

Muski agreed with the girl. Fighting for your life was not a sport.

He respected her argument and the fact that she was bold enough to make it.

He had jumped to a stand and drawn attention to himself because there was only one person in recent memory who'd thrown a punch instead of grappling. Nessa Lightfoot had done it because she didn't know the rules.

Nessa had done it for the exact same reason, only the tiny redhead had phrased it less eloquently. Her comparison had to do with fighting a wolf in the woods. There was no way Nessa could win a wrestling match against a wolf, but in such a case, you aren't playing by the rules. You fight to survive. Wolves have teeth. You have to punch because that's the only thing that will stop the beast from tearing you limb from limb.

Because of the foul, Miran was disqualified from the final event. She trudged back to her tent, disappointed in her performance. The masters were going to spend the rest of the day deliberating. She hoped she hadn't botched things by punching that guy, she just—didn't want to lose. Losing was tapping out. Losing was accepting defeat.

The rules for the hand-to-hand competition had been described to her. Once she got into that desperate situation, her reflexes took over.

In Tolin, hand-to-hand combat involved punching and kicking, this tame sport of wrestling had less impact, but wore on the body in different ways.

In light of today's disaster, Miran resolved to ask Nessa what her chances were of getting accepted by the Academy..

The redhead wasn't there when Miran pushed into the tent. She arrived a short time after.

"How badly did I make things?" Miran wondered, her hands buried into her hair. Her gaze glued to the grassy ground.

Nessa disrobed as she considered an answer, "You're the fastest entrant. You're more well-traveled than most, so I know you did well on the written tests. You made yourself noticeable. You traveled all the way here from Tolin. That's a testament to your hardiness. You weren't afraid to explain yourself to Master Muski. That forwardness will be necessary. Not everyone is that bold."

"Do you still think I stand a chance?"

"I think you're more Peacekeeper material than I ever was."

Miran started to say something but stopped herself. She considered Nessa's skill sets. After a week of being tested on what was expected of Peacekeeper Trainees, Miran had come to realize that while Nessa had all the learning, she was much more suited to a life as a Courser. She could hunt and track as easily as she breathed, and she preferred the solace of the wilderness to the bustle of towns.

Maybe she had a skewed opinion. Nessa had been on the run and it was possible that the more people they ran into would lead to the increased possibility of Nessa getting recognized, but Miran knew that wasn't true. Miran had seen Nessa in the woods even when they knew Hunter was after them. She was calm and collected. Peaceful.

Miran knew better than to suggest the notion. Nessa had made her opinions of Coursers very clear.

"Thank you," the Tolinese girl said at last. She'd heard about the infamous Nessa Lightfoot throughout the week. She was the top of her class. She was set to get her shield not long after her sixteenth birthday. She was a prodigy. She was the pride of the school, the town, the country.

Miran could easily understand why Nessa had run away. Everyone here put on her on a pedestal. They forgot Nessa was a girl. A teen-aged one. She was too young be making superlatives about. She was impressionable. She was introspective. It was entirely possible she had run away because she couldn't handle the pressure. The constant surveillance, people watching her every move, waiting to see what she would do next.

Miran could relate to that.

Somehow, she managed to get to sleep.

It was probably speculating on all of Nessa's life problems and what had driven her from this place initially that kept Miran distracted from panicking about her shortcomings this week.

Nessa practically had to kick Miran out of the tent in the morning.

Entrants were to be in the yards by eight to hear the verdict, but the deliberation typically lasted through much of the morning. There were always some stubborn holdouts who refused to let the ceremony go forward until their picks had been chosen.

Nessa spent the time packing her things. She'd waffled between going to watch and slipping away without saying goodbye. She didn't have much experience with goodbyes, and she was sure Miran would understand.

The redhead resolved to leave without going to the closing ceremony. There was no doubt in her mind about Miran becoming a trainee. She was fast and quick-witted. Muski would want her in the Academy.

Nessa's final act was to top off her water and then head out.

She was returning to the tent, trying to figure out a way to tell Miran she'd left on her own terms and that she hadn't gotten caught by a Courser when she heard a rustling sound come from inside the tent.

The idea of struggling to write a note was tossed aside as Nessa entertained the notion of doing it in person.

She reconsidered her own ineptitude when it came to writing. That still might be the easier option.

Best start off light. "Did you forget something?" Nessa asked as she pushed into the tent, ready for a quick barb about being tardy on the day of the final ceremony. No one could predict how long the deliberations would last, but everyone was expected to be on time. Some considered it the unofficial final test.

Miran's face was not the one that greeted Nessa.

Instead, she met grey eyes and a blonde beard flecked with orange.

Nessa cursed inwardly.

She'd anticipated Hunter closing the distance, but she hadn't expected him to do it so fast. He really had to have walked both day and night to make up the lost time.

"I could kill you if the High King hadn't expressly wished against it," Hunter growled.

Nessa nodded. She knew that if he caught her again, it wasn't going to be pretty. She had, after all, told him he could collect the bounty on her and then gone back on her word. He had every right to be angry.

Nessa had every right to her own freedom.

"Why'd you do it?" He demanded, pressing forward, breathless. He must have run the home stretch to get here. "You told me I could collect the bounty on you."

Nessa blew out a breath and replied honestly, "I lied. I'm not going back."

"Have you looked at where you are?" Hunter waved his hands around, exasperated. "You are back."

"But no one knows I'm here."

"Not yet. It won't be hard to track you down. All I did was ask after the Tolinese girl and I found you. There will be others soon enough."

"How many times did I save your life out there Hunter? You owe me."

"You and I already made our bargain Lightfoot."

Nessa advanced on him, "I'm not going."

"If I go back without you, my own life will be forfeit." Hunter spoke quietly as Nessa turned her back on him and made for the door. His tone as well as the words themselves halted her exit. He had boasted to them that he always caught his catch. Why did that ring in her memory now?

She didn't have time to dwell on it.

Fast approaching footsteps had her full attention.

This time, she knew it wasn't Miran.

With Hunter at her back and this unknown opponent coming through the front door, her odds didn't look good. There was a time when she would have trusted Hunter to be on her side, but she'd betrayed that trust when she ran away.

Now, they stood in the shadow of Coghlan Castle.

As a Courser so close to cashing in, Nessa knew better than to expect Hunter to help her out of this.

The redhead turned to size up Hunter and her chances of catching him offguard. It didn't look good. He was all business. He was holding something of a grudge.

She'd have to wait until the newcomer showed and see what she could get away with then.

Nessa heard someone push through the tent. She saw Hunter's gaze narrow.

"Nessa Lightfoot. Gone Rogue," the speaker was female, her grin, audible.

Nessa knew the owner of that voice. "Oona Trick," Nessa turned to face a lean girl of average height. She had dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, and a round, impish, face. She was donning black wool trousers and a light-colored tunic with the sleeves rolled up. Her porcelain skin was sunburned. "I was wondering when you'd turn up," Nessa managed a grin.

There was no love lost between the two girls. Oona had been a few years ahead of Nessa at the Academy. She was their golden girl, until Nessa's arrival.

Oona had never gotten her shield. She hadn't dropped out like most of the Coursers. She'd been kicked out. One of the few. She blamed Nessa.

Oona was infamous for her work as a Courser. Her bounties were never turned in alive. She was doing great at perpetuating the bad reputation Coursers had.

"It would appear that you, too, have fallen from grace," Oona purred.

Nessa shrugged, "Bet you never thought you'd live to see the day."

Oona laughed, "Wrong. I've wished for this moment."

"And now that it's come to pass?"

Oona was right to be suspicious, "I'm going to take you to the High King and collect my reward."

"You have to catch me first."

Oona cocked her head to the side, confused. Nessa was trapped. There was only one way into the tent and Oona was blocking it, "You're already caught, you just don't know it yet."

Nessa let loose a grin, "The last time you fought me, I was twelve. I've improved by a small measure."

The redhead heard Hunter let out a huff of amusement.

Nessa rolled her eyes. He shouldn't have brought attention to himself, but since he had...

Oona's gaze honed in on him, "Name yourself."

Hunter stood a little taller, "Cavan Hunter."

Oona, it would seem, knew the name by reputation, "The King's Courser."

He nodded that this was true.

Nessa didn't allow herself to process this statement. She didn't have time. She had to say something, "If you intend to claim the bounty on me, you'll have to go through him. Hunter laid first claim."

"I'm sure he did," Oona replied with a smirk, looking Hunter over. "You know I don't care for rules," Oona said to Nessa.

"I do," Nessa nodded.

Hunter looked from Nessa to Oona—they had some sort of history.

He was surprised that after what Nessa had done, she still thought he would fight for the bounty. Her betrayal hurt and he wasn't someone who forgave easily.

It was true he'd stolen more bounties than most, and he had a vested interest in this one, but he wanted to give her up. He'd had to fight harder to keep her than any other bounty thanks to her popularity. He wanted to say she wasn't worth the trouble, but it was a lie. She was going to be quite the payday.

So why did part of him not want to turn Nessa in? He risked losing his position as the King's Courser if he didn't. He knew Nessa deserved to be running wild and free.

If Oona took Nessa, the tiny redhead wouldn't be his problem anymore. If Hunter let Oona turn Nessa in, he could live with himself. Oona would have her hands full, not that Hunter wished that on anyone, but it was possible Oona deserved it, judging by the thinly veiled glares of the girls.

Hunter was no stranger to Oona's reputation. She tended to bring in her bounties dead more than alive. Lightfoot was under a no kill order.

That honor was reserved for the king himself.

There was no rule about damaging the goods before delivery and it was well known that Lightfoot didn't make a habit out of going down without a fight.

Hunter let out a huff, about to give Oona the bounty.

Oona misinterpreted the sound.

She pounced as Nessa dove out of the way.

A number of things became clear to Hunter as he grappled with the Courser.

He knew better than to trust his bounty. Nessa had given him the slip a number of times, but he was the one who had consistently found her. He'd chased her for over five months. He deserved the praise and the prize for collaring her and presenting her to the High King.

He'd thought he was being smart when he struck that deal with Nessa all those months ago. He didn't want to have to exert the energy dragging her back to Cataire if she was heading back on her own steam. He knew her reputation.

He knew about her engagement. He knew you don't tie a girl like that down. You also don't cross the High King.

She was nothing like he had anticipated. She was small and soft spoken, except in his presence. He was drawn to the ferocity she seemed to reserve specifically for him.

He was surprised to find her talent in the woods wasn't an exaggeration. She had a guard that she never let down. She'd grudgingly accepted him into their party as they traveled or, at least, he thought so. She'd saved his life more than once. She could have let him die and kept running. She hadn't.

Still, Hunter wasn't sure he could deliver Nessa to the High King. She wouldn't be happy trapped behind stone walls, but that wasn't his decision to make.

He was puzzled as to why she'd returned to Coghlan Castle, despite her claims that she would never go back.

Why had she led him astray for a week if she had been here the whole time?

The High King had to know she was here.

If he didn't, Hunter would make sure he did. He had to take this fight out of the cover of the tent. A fight that would draw the law. He could claim the bounty when the High King sent his Peacekeepers to quell the disturbance.

Hunter tumbled through the tent flap, taking Oona with him.

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