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A man who did not pay sharp attention to them was kicking the dust of his own grave. Keanan Milroy lifted his face to the sun. He inhaled deeply, noting the direction of the wind as it teased the left side of his face. His gaze sought out and locked on to the fighting ring in the distance.
Climate and fighting science flashed behind eyes of cool, intelligent indigo, calculating the best position to attack. The crowd of eager spectators parted for him as he confidently strode to the hastily constructed stage. Today he would be fighting on wood. Double ropes. Stakes. No one had taken the time to plane a rounded edge to them. The last tidbit of information shuffled through his mind and slid into place. The sky was clear, so rain would not make the boards slick. He eyed the rough edges of the four stakes. It would not make the fight any less deadly.
Keanan barely felt the hearty slaps on his back. He doubted any of these men who had come to watch him fight truly wished him luck. They were here to cheer two men into pounding each other bloody. No one cared who the victor was, as long as they had wagered on him. Keanan intended to be that man.
Nodding to his second, he ripped off his hat and tossed it high. A cheer went up when it landed in the center of the ring. This action notified his opponent and the spectators that he had arrived. It was also a token of defiance. Keanan preferred the latter, rather than believing he was clinging to years of tradition. After spending most of his eight and twenty years being defiant, he considered himself an expert.
Sam"Dutch" Olsson raised the rope and forced his bulky frame through the opening. He jumped off the four-foot stage and ambled his way toward Keanan. Dutch had been a decent fighter until he had shattered his right wrist in a fight three years earlier.
"You're looking fit," Dutch said, giving him an approving nod, "and mean enough to piss on the king himself."
"Is Weaver here?" Keanan asked, referring to the man he intended to knock out. If half the gate money were not enough of an incentive, then the stake of 300 would go a long way for easing a bruised face and scraped knuckles.
"Nah, but he'll show. The stake is too comely to resist."
"More appealing than a freshly bathed petticoat," Keanan agreed. He nodded in the direction of the barouche. Once inside, he would strip down to the waist and wait until he was called. "You know where to find me."
"On your knees and hands clasped?" Dutch laughed, when he heard Keanan swear. "Add me to your prayers," his friend shouted from behind.
"I'll chap my knees when they allow a braying ass like yourself through the holy gates."
Dutch snorted and waved him off.
Keanan glanced back, but his friend had already blended into the crowd. Knowing Dutch, he was probably off to increase his wager now that he had left his fighter restless and irritated.
He shook his head and headed for the barouche. Prayers. It was just like Dutch to say something so asinine to simply rile him. He was well aware that what faith Keanan had, had been snuffed out years ago, and its passing had not been gentle. When the smell of blue ruin and filth had made it falter, fear, beatings, and starvation had withered it into dust. The only thing he believed in was himself. His abilities were limited to his cunning and the power restrained beneath his flesh, muscle, and bone. Everything beyond was just fanciful twaddle.
Keanan hesitated at the door of the barouche. Turning, he scanned the growing crowd. Since prizefighting was illegal, there was always the risk of an unwelcome magistrate set on ruining their efforts. Keeping his gaze on the crowd, he reached up and tugged at the knotted silk fogle at his neck.
Every fighter wore colors. He slipped the black-and-red fogle from his neck and idly wrapped, then unwrapped it from around his left hand. A few hours from now, his victory would allow him to claim Weaver's colors.
No one had ever claimed Keanan's colors. He fought and kept everything he owned. The reminder of the times when he had been more vulnerable primed his driven nature. It all came down to finely honed instincts, and his instincts were warning him. This afternoon, he was about to face more than a jug-bitten bruiser.