Lao ended up being a class favorite in the Arenaverse somehow, so I ended up writing a bit about him. Ratha is also fairly awesome in my admittedly biased estimation, and this story contains the only fight scene I was satisfied with upon finishing it. That said, your mileage may vary.

Friend from Spathi

"Why, Lady Ratha, this is a surprise!" The slender, feline demi-human half-turned in his chair, brows lifted as he surveyed his old acquaintance, who gave him her typically feral grin and seated herself heavily across the table from him.

"And not a pleasant one, I assume?"

He smiled, face relaxing. "How can I know if it is pleasant or not, when I do not know the circumstances behind it?"

She chuckled, flexing her leathery wings and waving her hand at a nearby waiter, who gave her a positively miserable stare before weaving his way -- very slowly -- over to their table. The feline smiled at his reaction. Ratha was an intimidating person under the best of circumstances, and in the tiny, crowded cafe, she seemed to swell beyond her ordinary proportions. Seven feet tall and boasting a wingspan of fourteen feet, six inches, she was powerfully muscled and -- the cat knew very well -- an experienced and truly excellent fighter. Her heritage was difficult to pinpoint. Besides the wings, her face and muzzle were wolf-like, but she bore a pair of impressive, curving horns, and her tail was that of a cat. He had never seen the need to ask her about her origins. Very few ever did.

He waited patiently while she took her order, sending the waiter scurrying hurriedly back to the kitchen, then nodded agreeably when her attention returned to him.

"But do tell me why you're here," he said. "It is rare for you to leave the city -- let alone the island."

"Thought I'd pay you a visit, Lao, see how you were holding up," she replied, grin flickering for only an instant. "From what I've seen so far, this place is about as exciting as tending fields in Jeddah."

"It has its moments." Lao permitted his gaze to wander over the other customers of the cafe. Many of them were watching Ratha nervously. He smiled, golden fur rippling in a small shrug. "It is most ... relaxing, after my service in the Red Lady's temple. I find that in many ways, I do not mind."

"The difference between you and me, friend," Ratha remarked, looking toward the kitchen, where the waiter was emerging hesitantly with her meal. She grinned maliciously at him as he set it down, and Lao tutted her a little as he bolted to the safety of another table. She snorted and started her meal.

He let her eat, emerald-green gaze measuring her almost critically, and ate sparingly of his own food, a meaty stew he'd grown fond of since moving to the Arena. When she showed signs of slowing -- Ratha did not take well to being interrupted during a meal -- he spoke again. "Surely, Ratha, your desire to see me is not all that compelled you to leave Spathi. The king placed you in his personal guard -- he does not take kindly to vacations."

She glanced up at him, a rasping chuckle issuing from her throat. "That's why I always liked you, Lao ... ballsy enough to catch me in a lie and point it out for me."

He smiled, but he did not respond, waiting patiently for an answer to his question. After a moment or two more of pushing her food around her plate, she sat back with a sigh and folded her arms across her chest. "The king had a change of heart -- not that I can blame him." Her teeth flashed in a feral grin. "I got an job offer with a potentially massive profit --" her wings stretched wide, nearly upending the chair beside her, then snapped shut again "-- it didn't pan out."

The cat's brows shot up, and he took a slow sip of his drink before responding. "Not assassination, surely."

She gave a lazy shrug. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Ah, Ratha ..." He smiled ruefully, then glanced at her with mild curiosity. "I suppose no one would take on the task of executing you?"

She laughed, bringing her fist down on the table with a thud that shook it to the floor beneath them. "Not a one would dare. They know what I'd do to them."

"Indeed, one can only imagine." Lao could do better than imagine, truthfully, as he had seen Ratha's work before, and he understood that very few people would feel any desire to cross her. He also imagined that at least part of the king's reason for releasing her was that it would be a pity to destroy such a piece of work as Ratha. Lao had done well during his time in the king's service, but she was a force of nature, touched (some said) by the hand of the Red Lady herself.

"But enough about that," Ratha said easily, daring him to change the subject back, "why don't we have a little tussle for old time's sake? See if your comfy new job has rusted your skills."

"You have always given me much more credit than I deserve for my exploits on the battlefield," he murmured modestly, but she laughed instead of relieving him of his obligation to accept.

"Please, the only guy on Spathi who could match me blade for blade, and I overestimate you? Gimme a break, Lao, I couldn't even break a sweat fighting these farmers." She flicked an ear, baring her teeth maliciously at a nearby table. The men there, who looked as though they had taken offense at her name-calling, shuddered and looked away.

"How can I refuse?" Lao replied truthfully.

"Good man." She grinned, rising from her seat, and slapped him on the shoulder. "Where's a good place to play around here?"

The training yard was, as usual, busy and crowded, but it did not take long for them to find a clear space, particularly after Ratha threatened to spike one or two of them on her spear. Lao tutted her again, amused, as he readied his own weapon, a pair of custom-crafted clawed gloves. They had been a fine gift from the Red Lady's king, and they had served him well for the years he'd worn them.

When he finally looked up, Ratha was watching him critically, having already warmed up and determined that there was sufficient space for a brawl. "You don't look like you've gone soft," she said agreeably, in answer to his inquisitive glance, "but there's really only one way to find out."

Without further preamble or even taking a fighting stance, she lunged at him, wings kicking up a small tornado of dust behind her as she used them to propel her forward. Fortunately for Lao, he was no longer present when her spear pierced the air where his chest would have been. Instead, he was three feet to her left and returning rapidly. She flipped her spear sharply, and their weapons clashed for the briefest moment, until she bobbed out of the way of his second strike and slashed the blade of her weapon upward from the dirt.

Again, he avoided the blow, scooting backward over the packed dirt and forcing her to advance. She did so with great enthusiasm, whirling the spear in an attack that would have cloven him in two had he been in its path, but agility was his strongest suit, and he was well away by the time it landed. He attempted to dart in closer to her, but he found himself buffetted by her wing and startled enough that he was thrown off balance.

She snatched the opening like a hungry wolf, heaving a skewering spear-thrust at him, then gave a roar of laughter when he narrowly avoided it by crossing his claws beneath the weapon's shaft and pushing it away. Her mirth was due primarily to the unfortunate side-effect of the maneuver in which he lost his balance and landed squarely on his bottom.

"Ah," he said, rising easily and giving himself a slight shake. "Perhaps I have grown complacent."

She snorted, tail lashing with pent up energy. "You never used to make that mistake."

"Rest assured, Lady Ratha," he smiled, "I will not make it again."

"Good." She stretched her wings wide, eyeing him lazily, but the second time it was Lao who stole the preemptive strike, appearing seemingly out of nowhere under her chin.

She sprang backward, avoiding an eviscerating upward strike, and retreated again when he pressed her, darting from one side and then the other. Annoyed, Ratha took to the air, pushing him away with a powerful flap of her wings, then dropped on him, spearpoint-first. Lao's escape was an undignified scurry, and he gave her a look of mild reproach before springing at her again.

The match continued in that fashion for several minutes, neither gaining the upper hand and neither giving an inch. It rapidly drew the attention of most of the crowd at the training yard, some of whom were lazy soldiers looking for an excuse to lounge and some of whom were genuinely interested in the lightning-fast exchange of blows. Several bets were exchanged, but all in a sort of tense hush, as though even the gamblers didn't want to break the mood. The fighters themselves battled in silence, concentrating on the eloquent point and counterpoint of their weapons than on bluster and conversation.

It was into this air of tension and excitement that two newcomers walked, first gazing curiously at the crowd, then joining it just in time to see Ratha's spear plow a heavy furrow through the yard's packed dirt in pursuit of Lao, who was in midair before it had even struck earth.

His landing was marred by the slightest wobble, forgivable because he was balanced on the shaft of the spear. He stayed there only a split second, springing again before she could rip her weapon from underneath him, and flipped easily over her head. She spun in a flurry of movement, and before the observers could fully comprehend what had happened, the dust was settling around them, and the fighters were still. One of Lao's blades was pressed gently to the side of Ratha's throat, and her speartip was delicately tickling his ribcage.

After a moment of silence, during which time each considered his options, they broke apart, and the crowd around them let loose the breath it had been collectively holding. It was slowly beginning to disperse when Ratha walked over to clap Lao on the shoulder, grinning.

"Almost like old times.. glad to see you haven't softened up any."

"And you are as skillful as you ever were," Lao replied in kind, glancing over the remnants of their audience.

Ratha watched him for a moment, then shrugged easily. "Nothing better to do with my time."

The cat was about to reply when he caught sight of the two who had trailed in at the end of the fight. "Pardon me a moment, Lady Ratha," he said quickly, and he walked over to join them, inclining his head respectfully to the male of the pair. "Baron," he said, "and milady."

The girl gave him a suspicious look, then nodded slowly in response when she had determined he was not mocking her. Her companion watched the exchange with thinly veiled amusement, then nodded in acknowledgement. "Major Lao. You put on quite a show there."

"A simple spar," he murmured, spreading his hands. "Though I have found that with Lady Ratha it is best to fight as though your life depended on the outcome."

"I believe I can understand that entirely," murmured the Baron, glancing over at Ratha, who had seated herself and was checking her spear for nicks.

"At least they will have another show to entertain them now that we have finished."

"That is true, ah --"

Ratha had gotten to her feet again and was ambling in their direction, apparently finding the spear undamaged and still functioning to her satisfaction. Lao turned to her with a smile, waving a hand at the two. "Lady Ratha ... Baron Teal and Genoa Rivermarch. He commands the guards here."

She eyed them both casually, finally nodding. "Well," she said idly, "I was going to ask a favor of you, Lao, but from the look of things you won't be able to do it for me." With a grin, she clapped him on the shoulder, then started out of the yard. "Try not to scare the farmers too often, Lao."

The cat man gave her a slightly wistful smile as she retreated, calling after her, "I will endeavor not to.. good luck to you in your travels."

"Red Lady be with you," she replied, waving absently over her shoulder.

Lao's expression was puzzled, but he said nothing more, turning back to his commander, who gave him an inquisitive look. "Something wrong, Major?"

"Ah.." He shook his head. "The blessings of the Red Lady are usually only offered in times of war ... but in Spathi it is always a time of war." He shrugged and smiled. "Perhaps it was only habit."

"Perhaps ..."

"Wonder what that favor was.." Genoa said suddenly, still watching the shadows where Ratha had disappeared. She turned back to find them both staring at her and was apparently startled that she'd spoken aloud. "Erm.." she muttered, annoyed and embarrassed, but Lao shook his head.

"She likely wished to ask me to accompany her on her journey. It is a hard road she travels and she does not like to travel it alone."

"And you declined." She arched an eyebrow, apparently skeptical.

He smiled. "I have other duties now, milady ... and if it is all right with you both, I must return to them."

"Of course," the Baron agreed. "Don't let us keep you."

Lao inclined his head, flickering a smile at them both, then walked back to the building, watching the shadows unobtrusively as if he hoped for one last glimpse of his companion from a lifetime ago. He saw none, but he continued to search, even as the shadow of the archway fell across his vision.