A rumble ran through the watchers. The lion knew without looking up that the song was laughter and derision both.
"And, as usual, no one joins our number unless he can best one of us in an unfair fight." Snickers then. "So, Donnik, choose one of your brothers. You win, you get to stay. You lose, we keelhaul you."
A long pause answered Lexander. The wind soughed in the sails, and the rigging creaked. Then, a hesitant voice said, "Him."
"Zalen? You want to fight Zalen?"
The lion glanced up, actually looked at the newest by-blow. Like all of the captain's get, he was a feline mix, plain-coated with a handful of spots here and there and only a determined desperation to harden his eyes and stiffen the adolescent gangling of his body.
"Yes," Donnik said. "He's pretty small."
Lexander barked a laugh. "What do you say, Zalen?"
The lion sheathed her dagger. "Sure," she said, her alto rough enough to pass for a young man's. "I'm always good for a fight."
Lexander clapped the new boy's shoulder. "Good luck. You'll need it." Then he strode into the watching circle, still sniggering.
A nervous Donnik waited as the lion padded into the center circle, throwing off her boots. She spread her arms, black claws showing through the slits in her fingertips. "Ready."
Donnik leaned forward. "Ready," he said, ears flattening.
"Fight!" Lexander called, and they leaped.
One of Donnik's fists drove into the lion's midriff, striking hard muscle insulated by thick padding, the same padding that suggested the lion's masculine shape. "Ow!"
The lion grabbed his wrist and bent his arm backward, the cords on the back of her hand standing in sharp relief in the wet sunlight. As he whimpered, she kicked him in the groin.