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The fist shot at her face much faster than she'd expected.
Annja Creed felt certain it would impact somewhere along the bridge of her nose, but at the very last second, her body seemed to take over and jerk her head out of the way. The fist sailed through empty air and as it went past, Annja saw the opening she needed. In the blink of an eye, she fired three punches into the attacker's midsection, scoring solid hits with all three.
"Matte!" The referee's voice barked out above the cacophony of the crowd's cheers. Annja stopped, and sweat poured down her face and into the folds of her karate uniform. The gi was stained with the sweat, dust and exertion of the past three hours.
She turned to the judges and waited. Two white flags went into the air.
Annja beamed but contained her joy over winning the match. Instead she executed a formal bow from her waist to the judges. Then she walked to her opponent, a twenty-something punk rocker with tea-stained reddish-brown hair. He was still bent over, looking for the air Annja had knocked out of his lungs.
As she approached, he looked up and frowned. "How did you do that?"
Annja shrugged. "I thought you had me, Saru. But somehow my reflexes kicked in."
"Good fight. I may never breathe again, though." He tried to grin, but grimaced instead. His friends helped him off the traditional tatami mats.
Annja turned and went the other way toward the side where her gear awaited. One more match and she'd be done. But the last fight of the evening was looking to be nothing short of nearly impossible.
She gulped down water and waited for the next opponent to walk onto the mat.
When he did, Annja felt her stomach twist itself intoknots. Nezuma Hidetaki was one of the most feared fighters that the Kyokushinkai had ever produced. A hard stylist, Nezuma liked to practice his punches against brick buildings. He'd split his knuckles so often that doctors had finally removed the remaining cartilage and simply sewn the knuckles together. Nezuma had calluses on top of his calluses and though short at only five feet six inches, his thighs were as big around as tree trunks.
He strode across the mat and stood in front of Annja with his arms folded across his barrel chest. "I will not be as easy as Saru was," he stated.
I didn't think Saru was easy, Annja thought.
She took another sip of water and then mopped her brow. The material of her gi top stuck to her skin. She flapped it, trying to get some air circulating so she'd be able to move without getting caught up in it.
Nezuma did some deep squats across the ring, warming up his body. As the reigning champion, he only had to fight one matchthe last one.
Annja was already as warm as she was going to get. All that remained before her in this tournament being held in the Tokyo Budokan, was Nezuma. If she won this match, she'd be the lightweight champion in the Interdiscipline Budo Championship.
The judges looked at Annja and she nodded, then stepped onto the mat. Nezuma turned and bowed to the judges. Annja did the same.
Nezuma turned to Annja and gave her a curt bow. Annja bowed in the same style. If he's going to be rude, so be it, she thought. I can play that game, as well.
The referee stepped in between them and held his hand horizontally. He looked at both of them again, but Annja already had her eyes locked on Nezuma's.
Nezuma immediately stalkedAnnja, coming at her from the side, almost like a crab.Annja pivoted to her southpaw stance, bringing her guard higher than normal, aware that Nezuma preferred to attack with straight punches aimed at the head, trying to score immediate knockouts. He had successfully knocked out three of his previous opponents on his way to becoming the champion he wasthe one Annja hoped to become.
Nezuma shot out a feint with his right leg, a flashing roundhouse kick aimed at her upper thigh. Annja stepped back out of range, letting the kick sail past her. Nezuma's follow-up was a straight blast aimed at her head.
Annja ducked and deflected the blow away to the inside and punched at Nezuma's exposed right chest. He brought his left hand in sharply and punched Annja's arm out of the way. Annja dropped back and away, clutching her arm.
Well, that hurt, she thought. She took a breath and gritted her teeth. Let's see how he likes this.
Against all her normal strategic thinking,Annja jumped and let a bloodcurdling shout erupt from her lungs as she folded her legs up and under her, aiming her left foot at Nezuma's head.
The jumping side kick caught her stocky opponent by surprise, and he barely missed losing his head to Annja's kick. Annja landed, aware that Nezuma was already punching at exactly the spot where she'd be landing. Instead of standing, Annja let the momentum drop her to the ground and then pivoted and swept Nezuma's legs out from under him. He went down hard and the judges scored it one point for Annja.
Just two more to go, she thought as Nezuma hauled himself to a standing position again.
He glared at Annja.
No way is he going to fall for that again, Annja thought with a smile. Still, it was worth it seeing the look of surprise on his face. Especially since she knew that Nezuma was a notorious misogynist who thought women belonged either in bed or in the kitchen, preferably both.
The referee barked at them to begin again, and Annja and Nezuma squared off. budo."
After her last adventure, she'd needed a vacation. More than that, she'd wanted to test herself. And the martial-arts newsgroup she sometimes frequented had posted news about the upcoming tournament. It seemed a perfect time to do something for herself, so she made her travel arrangements from her loft in Brooklyn. Within twelve hours, she was hopping a flight bound for Tokyo.
Fourteen hours later, she arrived and went straight to her hotel and fell asleep, trying to get her system in tune with the time-zone change.
And now, here she stood, awaiting Nezuma's final attack. Her nerves seemed poised at the edge of a very steep cliff, ready to jump at a moment's notice. Even the sweat seemed to be still wherever it was on her body.
Nezuma's eyes glistened like those of a ravenous tiger about to consume an antelope he'd pursued and had cornered. Annja's stomach still ached, but her breathing had returned to normal.
For the last time the referee stepped between them. Once more, he looked at them both.
Nezuma grinned. "Hajime!"
The crowd roared and hopped to its feet. Shouts and cheers echoed across the cavernous room as Annja circled Nezuma. The Kyokushinkai fighter smiled and then roared as he launched a high roundhouse kick toward Annja's left temple. Annja stepped inside and started to drop to punch into Nezuma's groin.
This'll teach him, she thought.
But in that instant, Nezuma recoiled his kick and then shot his left arm out, clotheslining Annja across the throat in an aikido move known as irimi nage, the entering throw.
Annja felt the pressure on her throat and knew that if the throw finished, she'd be defeated.
Instead, she grabbed Nezuma's arm and used it to vault herself over like a gymnast. As she spun over, she kicked out with both feet at Nezuma's chest.
He sidestepped and shot a punch at Annja's head. Annja ducked out of the way and the two of them broke apart again.
Sweat poured down both of their faces. Annja blinked through the salt and kept her guard up. Her arms felt like lead weights, dragging her down, but she was all too aware of how prizefighters often tire. Once the guard started to drop, the other fighter usually had no problem finishing them off. Annja was determined to not let that happen. Especially since she'd spent enough time listening to her self-appointed trainer, Eddie, harp on her about keeping her hands up where they could protect her.
Nezuma's guard had stayed perfectly in position throughout the entire fight. His arms looked like coils of tight sinew wrapped around steel girders. He still maneuvered on deeply bent legs, keeping his center of balance low and steady. Trying to unseat him would be almost impossible.
He screamed again and came at Annja with a series of stomping kicks aimed at her midsection. He looked as if he was taking giant steps across the mat, and Annja had to sidestep them again and again.
This is ridiculous, she thought. It's time I went on the attack.
She turned and launched a single roundhouse kick at Nezuma's head. He casually flicked it away and in that instant, Annja went low, driving her elbow toward Nezuma's stomach.
He blocked that, as well. Annja came up, driving up with an uppercut aimed at the underside of his jaw. Nezuma pivoted out of the way and then dropped unexpectedly to the floor. She felt the crushing instep of Nezuma's right foot sink into her stomach and then lift her up overhead. When it was fully extended, Nezuma retracted his right foot, but Annja kept sailing through the air, tumbling as she went like in some bad kung fu movie.
She crashed to the floor in a broken heap just as the judges raised their red flags.
Nezuma had won the match.
Annja got to her feet, determined not to lie there like a beaten fool. Even though her stomach ached as if someone had just used a spoon to scoop out her insides, she bowed to the judges and then to Nezuma.
"Next time," she said through gritted teeth.
Annja hobbled over to her bag and drank down some of the last remaining water in her bottle. The crowd at the budokan was still cheering Nezuma and he soaked up the adoration. He bowed several times and then left the mat. The spectators left soon after, filing out in the same orderly way as they had come into the budokan.
Annja sat there for another few minutes, catching her breath. She sucked at the bottle and realized that she was out of the precious fluid. "Here."
She looked up and into the deepest, darkest eyes she'd seen on a man. He held out a fresh bottle of water and smiled.
Wow, Annja thought. "Thanks," was all she could say. "That was some fight. You held your own against him remarkably well."
"Remarkably well? What's that supposed to mean?"
He held up his hands. "Please, I meant no disrespect. I certainly do not share Nezuma's viewpoint on the role of women in society."
"You know what he thinks about women?" Annja asked. He smirked. "Nezuma has made no secret of his views on women and the martial arts. You can read about them in any number of magazines." He watched as the budokan emptied out. "Nezuma is an extremely adept opponent, however. But you made him work for that win. And that is something that doesn't happen too often. You should be quite proud of how well you fared."
Annja grimaced. "I'll save that for when I'm feeling better. Right now, my guts feel like they want to stage a revolt in my stomach."
He offered his hand. "My name is Kennichi Ogawa. I'm very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Creed."
Annja stared at him. "Nice to meet you."
"It's not often that this tournament attracts someone of your professional stature."
Annja frowned. "You've heard of my work?"