Neal stared at the piece of parchment in disbelief.  It lay on his map table beside the arrow that had delivered it.  Neal sat down in the nearest chair, hardly seeing the candlelight flickering in his pavilion.  He was lost in his own thoughts.

            “Well?” Simon Lamb said expectantly.  “What does it say?”

            Neal came back from his reverie and gestured for Lamb to pick it up.  Simon grabbed the paper and read for himself Alexander Rothrock’s challenge.  As he did, he saw that Neal was shaking.

            “Something wrong?”  He asked.

            Neal put his hand to his mouth and then burst out laughing, no longer able to contain his amusement.  He guffawed, his laughter filling the tent.  He laughed so hard his sides hurt.  Simon stood, waiting with feigned patience.  Inwardly he wanted to throttle the younger man.

            “That stupid little shit actually thinks he can beat me!”  Neal said when he finally regained his composure and wiped a tear from his eye.  “He’s dared to challenge me!  As if he thinks he can finally get the better of me and soothe his wounded pride.  I’ve been beating his sorry ass since we were little children, no matter what game we played.”

            “Be that as it may, Neal, this is no game.”  Lamb said insistently.  “There is a lot more at stake.  You aren’t seriously considering this idea?”

            “And why not?”  Neal asked, smiling.  “I’ve never lost to him, and I’m not about to now.  He’s been on the run for seven years.  Seven years of exhaustion, hunger and hard living.  While I’ve been living in optimum conditions and training daily.”

            “We’re going to win this war anyway.”  Simon persisted.  “What will this prove?”

            “It’s good strategy, Simon!  We can win tomorrow morning.  Not next week, not next month, but tomorrow.  And at a minimum loss of life, so we’ll have them working for us instead of buried.  We get more for a minimum of effort.  You were a businessman, isn’t that good economics?  Maximum gain for least effort?”

            Neal was smiling, possessed of a manic energy.  He was absolutely thrilled by this turn of events.

            “But what if he wins?  What if he kills you, even if it’s some lucky fluke?  We lose everything.”  Simon reminded him.  “We will win in a matter of weeks, if not days.  Why take the risk?”

            “To put him in his place.”  Neal said with finality, rising and leaving the tent.

            Donovan Reza stepped out of the shadows in the corner and stood behind Lamb’s chair, silent as the grave.

            “His pride could ruin everything.”  Lamb said.  “Ensure that it doesn’t.”

            Donovan only smiled in response.

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