Icy cold fingers of sweat trickled down her spine while a loud ringing filled her ears. With a groan, Mai rose once more to face her opponent, weapon in hands.
Kaeo, a cat of the Zarbanni Clan as she was, eyed her with cool indifference. It little mattered to him if she won or lost, for this was training, not a match. Mai wiped sweat from her brow with her forearm. A flicker of movement warned her that Kaeo was on the attack again. Couldn't he let her rest five seconds? Apparently not.
A few years her senior, he was powerfully built and heavily muscled. Hardly winded, he redoubled the ferocity of his attack, driving her backward with each swipe of the padded staff. At least he wasn't hitting her with a real one. Although it still hurt when he rammed it end first into her abdomen.
Mai crumpled over, retching uncontrollably. Cleaning bots scurried out to remove the mess from the training arena. Kaeo swung his staff, smacking Mai in the sore side of her head.
"Up, young one. Do you think a real match stops for you to puke?"
"No, sir." She wiped her mouth with her hand, then rubbed it in the sand.
"Don't call me sir, Dualist Sta. You outrank me. I am but a lowly trainer." His sarcastic tone was not lost on Mai. Nor was the insolent twitch of his lips or the taunting bow.
"A lowly trainer who forgets I just got out of medical. I want to rest, Kaeo."
"Whine elsewhere, kitten. Your mentor hired me to ready you for your next match, not give solace and sympathy. You want that, go ask someone else. I have none."
"Have I wronged you, Kaeo? Perhaps insulted you? Robbed you of fame? If I win, you stand to gain rank."
"Trainers don't rise in rank like duelists, kitten. We are what we are forever." He dropped his padded staff as he flopped on the ground. "How long have you been in the guild?"
"Since I was five."
"And you know so little after ten years?" He shook his head, gazing off into the distance, past the arena walls.
"I never thought of it before. I didn't know it was like that. Why do you train then? Surely you're good enough to be a duelist."
"This is what happens to you when you lose a definitive match for your sponsor. Or you fail badly enough in some other way. Don't you ever make mistakes?"
"I've made plenty, Kaeo. More in my short life than many twice my age."
"Perhaps none so bad as mine, then," he sighed.
"I don't know what you did," Mai said politely. "Have you no way back?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is there no way you can possibly become a duelist again?"
"Only if a duelist of level twenty or higher takes me on as their personal trainer and releases me."
"And no one will?"
He shrugged, his tail twitching with agitation. "They are all afraid of me."