"It's unusual."

"I'm sorry?" Lovvorn retrieved the knives he had been practicing with, glancing over his shoulder to see who had spoken.

"I said that it is unusual."

"It is hardly unusual for a champion to throw his weapons, Minister." He took his place back at the line he had marked earlier, readjusted his glasses, hefted the blade of one knife lightly in his left hand and gave a quick flick of his wrist, sending the knife flashing across the lot to embed itself in the target he had erected. "Just today in fact, Craven defeated a man with an affinity for slings." Not that he had done the weapons any justice, but it was hardly Lovvorn's place to judge.

Harshly. He sent another blade slicing through the air.

"Yes, I watched that match. Champion Craven has proven himself quite the competitor."

"He fights just like the Regent." A thunk as a third knife found its place in the target.

"A point that has not escaped his notice." Minister Corti rolled his eyes. "Point of fact, it only seems to have captured it further."

"His is not a commonly practiced style." Rather than retrieve them a second time, Lovvorn reached into the leather pouch attached to his belt and withdrew a set of small, star-shaped discs, the six points all filed down on one side to razor-sharpness. It had been quite a few years before he was able to handle them without slicing his fingers. So frustrating when Anell had always made it look so easy. "I am surprised one as far out as Craven would even have cause or occasion to learn it."

"Though Dehlmar denies it, I'm sure Rosado had a hand in that." Corti shrugged, "But I was actually talking about you, not your choice of weapon."

"Is it that rare to see poor mountain boys travel so far from home?"

"It is rare to see a scholar actually participate. And those few who do tend not to make it this far."

"This far?" Lovvorn raised a brow skeptically. "I am but five rounds in." He held one tip of one star loosely in his right hand and gave the slightest flick of wrist. Bare seconds later there was a dull thunk as it joined the knives at the target's center. "And I'm not a scholar."

"You lie. That's cute." Lovvorn glared over the rims of his glasses as he pushed them back into place. Corti grinned. "Scholars are the only ones who keep notes as a means of training."

"I don't keep notes."

"Uh huh, so what do you do with that notebook you carry around in your bag?"

"Have your spies go digging through champions affects, do you?" The man had people everywhere. Tracking fights he himself could not watch, tracking champions in the hours they were off. Were he not operating so conveniently—and yet precariously—within the bounds of regulations, Lovvorn would have been the first to throw charges against the Minister.

Though he would probably manage to charm his way out of punishment and eviction. He just seemed to glide right out of whatever trouble he caused, despite even the judges' ill humor over his antics. It was almost to be envied.

Almost. As anger and annoyance over the Minister's complete, total, and brazen disregard for the traditions far outweighed Lovvorn's ability to be impressed by his escape tactics.

Corti chuckled and stepped in closer, crossing to stand directly in his line of fire. "Such criticism is hardly merited, Champion Dekort."

"So those aren't your men chasing after the other champions, reporting back all their secrets?" Were he not a law-abiding man himself, Lovvorn would be tempted to take advantage of the target Corti was so graciously offering him. Alas, he returned the remaining stars to the pouch at his side before temptation overruled rational thought.

"For certain they are. But those are hardly secrets what they tell. Secrets are confined to dark corners and hidden shadow. My men remain fully in the sunlight." "As for you little secret…" he came two more steps closer, "Like you, I am an observer. I watch, I listen, and I learn. I just don't write it down for later inspection." He winked; Lovvorn glared.

"There is no law against keeping notes."

"No. But that hardly explains what purpose a scholar has in participating."

"I have already said once that I am no scholar."

"And I called that a lie."

"Then your powers of observation are sadly lacking." Lovvorn pushed past him and stormed across the lot to retrieve his blades from the target.

"You fight so hard to be something you are not. Why is that?"

He nicked the tip of a finger when he pulled too hard on one knife, causing his grip to slip just slightly. "I fight to make it to the next round. I am nothing but what you see before you." He glowered over his shoulder as he used the end of his shirt to wipe away the small bead of blood.

Corti walked towards him. He dislodged one the stars from the target and held it up, capturing the fading sunlight on its smooth, metallic surface. "Then either you are a poor pretender, or I am a better observer that you would allow."

Lovvorn raised his head, pulled himself straighter. "I pretend nothing. My aim is true; my skill is real."

"Your skill is technical. It lacks fluidity." He turned the star around in his hand, playing with the light that flashed across its surface, fingers deftly sliding over the razor sharp blades. "Your aim is that of one who has studied and memorized all the proper angles. Calculated. Deliberate. Precise." The spinning stopped, and he held it loosely between fore and index fingers. Then suddenly it was gone, sailing to the other side of the lot to strike in the dirt only centimeters below where Lovvorn's bag sat.

"You hit dirt. Congratulations." He wanted to be mad, to ask what the hell his point was, what exactly was Corti's pathetic throw supposed to demonstrate. Except that he did understand. He knew exactly what the point was. The Minister's hand had not even moved. Or if it had, the motion was so slight as to be imperceptible. He had not even glanced in that direction, and yet Lovvorn had the sense that was exactly the spot he had wanted to hit.

He had the sense, too, that Corti knew what he was thinking. But the look on his face when he looked at Lovvorn was not mocking or laughing. Only… curious, speculative. "What brings a scholar to the field of battle? What do you have to prove?"

"I have nothing to prove." Anger filled his voice again. Anger, irritation, whatever would mask the sudden hurt and doubt he felt under that gaze.

"Then why are you here? Why do you fight?"

"For my home, for my family." Because Anell can't. Lovvorn drew himself up, clenched his fists tightly at his sides, and tilted his head to stare the Minister directly in the eye. He was not going to back down. He would succeed, and he would win, and nothing this man or anyone else said would break his resolve. "I fight to win."

Corti smiled, pushed against the nosepiece of his glasses with the tip of his forefinger, nudging them back into place. "I guess we'll see if you can." He winked again, then turned and strode off.

Lovvorn blinked after his retreating figure. Confused and angry and sad and… "Damnit." He closed his eyes and fought back the tears stinging the corners of his eyes. Minister Corti was right. What was he doing here? Why had he insisted on competing? This was Anell's life. Anell should be here. Not him.

What right did he even have… to try to take Anell's place…