(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 2: Strangers
Kirin – Lorar: The Arena Venaris
His name was Kirin. He was of average height, and he was strong, and capable, and fast. He preferred a gladius, but was more often given an axe to wield in the arena. He didn’t mind; he was adaptable and he was fierce. Women threw him petals, and gold, and sometimes more personal items, and so Kirin thought he must have a good face. He was clean-shaven and light-haired, and that was unusual in Lorar, though less so amongst his fellow slaves. He was blue-eyed and came from somewhere far away and cold. He knew it was cold because he’d come swaddled in mink as a screeching babe—swaddling he still wore now, sewn into his short tunic. He’d known no mother, certainly no father, and this was no trouble to him, Kirin having learned long ago that he preferred to remember his past in his own way, and not always the way it had happened.
He’d been bought as a gift for Alinaea, the barren wife of a gladiators’ trainer. At Alinaea’s knee he’d learned his letters and languages like a noble’s son, until he’d grown old enough to be useful in new ways, and then Alinaea had borne a real son, with blue, northern eyes, and her husband had supposed it wasn’t Alinaea who was barren after all.
When her husband had buried her, Kirin had been barred from attending.
Kirin had become a gladiator then, and he’d learned he had a talent for fighting the way his owner, Themus, had a talent for finding men for him to fight.
He was about to fight now.
In the tunnels beneath the arena floor, he waited with his fellow brawlers on a pair of wooden benches lined up opposite one another against the stone walls.
Like many Lora spectacles this one was arranged thematically, its fighters representing Lorar’s traditional enemies. Six and six—a team of men dressed as southerners from Ajwata, ek-Anout, Kemassen, and Indas on one side, and northerners on Kirin’s.
Light filtered down past the bars of the gate that led onto the arena floor above, but it was cold in the underground. Where Kirin’s arms were bare—his show armour only covering his shoulders, part of his thighs—his pale hair stood on end. A change from the sweat of the practice yard anyway.
Further down the tunnel leading away from the steps, Themus was arguing with an arena attendant about the fighters who’d been rented for this afternoon’s games. Themus was red in the face, waving his hands around like big flapping wings. Kirin smirked.
“Four noxii—four.” Themus shoved four of his skinny fingers in the attendant’s face. “Marianus paid for four noxii and eight fighters. Not nine.” Noxii—undesirables. Not proper gladiators, but prisoners and criminals who’d been condemned to death. Real fighters were more expensive, of course.
There’d been four noxii mixed in amongst the gladiators on the benches—two Masseni soldiers from Kemassen and a criminal on the bench across from Kirin’s team, one criminal on Kirin’s. One of them had been led to the communal shithouse.
“And one of your noxii is dead in the toilet with the sponge down his gullet.” The attendant wasn’t backing down. Themus couldn’t threaten him with a beating like he could his gladiators.
Kirin grinned as the attendant continued. “You’re telling me you’d short Marianus a man? You’re telling me you don’t think the senator will repay you? Come now.” He slapped Themus’s shoulder. “You’re a Red, aren’t you? A full-blooded Redder—the pride of Lorar you’ll be, if you do Marianus a favor like that. You wouldn’t want the people saying Themus was a crook of a lanista with shit for fighters. Do the Reds a favour, will you? He’ll pay, he’ll pay. You know he’ll pay.”
Of course Marianus would pay. A Red Faction man was a man of his word. With Marianus leading Red Faction this season, they’d pummel the other factions into submission come election time. A slimy lanista—a supplier of gladiators—was nothing next to that.
Dominance over the senate was decided in biannual elections between paired factions. The Greys and Whites, then the Reds and Yellows. Yellow Faction rarely won, but it didn’t stop them making a whole lot of noise trying to snatch votes from the feeble-minded. As a slave, Kirin couldn’t vote anyway, but if he could’ve, his faith in the Reds wouldn’t be shaken by some cheap Yellower’s campaigning. Any good fighter felt the same.
“Well,” Themus began, his gesticulations calmer, “if he were to pay.” He hesitated. Worry stewed in his eyes. “But I only brought one other fighter. He’s—” Themus paused. “A fine fighter. Tough. Anouti stock from the Sajit desert. Master of the sands—probably a prince, actually.”
Kirin snorted. The man Themus was talking about was called Oran. He’d been brought to the arena to get fitted for some armour, but he was hardly seasoned, despite his corded muscle. He’d not been at Themus’s training yard more than a fortnight, and had said barely anything in all that time. Didn’t even talk to his own people—ate alone, fought aloofly. There was something in his eyes, in his refusal to speak. Something dangerous.
Kirin stared down at his sandaled feet, the shackles chaining him to his teammates.
Sometimes freemen sold themselves to Themus—desperate fighters who’d paid for their freedom only to find themselves without work and selling themselves all over again, or young men seeking glory and infamy from the arena crowds. But there was a third kind of man, the dirty fighter who bowed his head to the gods of death not for love of Lorar, but love of savagery. Oran had the look of such a man.
Themus threw his hands up and marched off—presumably to fetch Oran. At least Kirin might learn something about the stranger—assuming they all survived.
Kirin peered along the benches, examining the men’s faces for fear or bravado—anything to give him an edge in the battle to come. Some hung their heads, some closed their eyes. Further down the line, the light from beyond the metal gate that sealed the entry arch didn’t reach the men’s faces, but there was a lot Kirin could tell just from watching how men moved.
Life was simple in the arena: you broke your own bones, or someone else’s, and you tried your best to please the crowd and gain infamy or wealth. Occasionally a fighter would be killed, but if you fought well the audience was likely to spare you. Fighters were expensive both to train and to keep, and their purchase could land a man in debt. They had all been schooled to bleed each other, but not to kill outright, to entertain with the boldness of a swing or a well-timed dodge, but to pull back from delivering a crippling blow. When a senator hired fighters with the intention of watching them destroy each other, he paid a hefty price.
The presence of the sacrificial noxii meant Marianus wanted to see blood today. If the audience agreed, and if Kirin and his fellow fighters didn’t please them, the blood of the noxii wouldn’t be the only red spilled across the arena sand. Today was no ordinary brawl, man against man, or man against beast. Today, Marianus Rufus, Red Faction’s candidate in the upcoming election, was throwing a series of spectacles for the people of Lorar. Kirin’s fight wasn’t the first event of the day, but it was the highlight.
Kirin enjoyed the fight as he enjoyed his life, though he’d been a fighter now since he was twenty-one, and at thirty was growing weary of the game. His blue-eyed child had died long ago, by accident or design, but he might yet father sons. Time to wield his popularity and buy his freedom.
He glanced up the stairs and past the gate. There were always crowds when Kirin fought, but today the stone and wood amphitheatre shook from the rumble of thousands of overhead feet.
Was that his name being shouted from far across the ring and by hundreds of voices? He grinned, chest hot with pride.
The criminal on Kirin’s team started crying.
Kirin’s remaining four weren’t so feeble: one-eyed Caefrith, a surly old slave from the Feislands; Trivius, a former drunk who’d sold himself to Themus fleeing debt; Thanus the Thumper, with a club nearly as broad as his face; and young Petro, a pretty boy from Vetna, swift of foot, though slow of wit.
Of the true gladiators on the southern team, Oa was near as new as Oran. Kirin hadn’t spoken to him except to exchange grunts during the mock-battles fought in the training yard. They’d kitted him up like an Indasi javelin-thrower. Bado was older—he’d been here even longer than Kirin, and claimed to have been a palace guard in Kemassen once. Why he wasn’t anymore was something no one had ever been able to pry out of the man, but he was a good sport, for a southerner. Didn’t cheat at dice, didn’t steal. Kirin couldn’t say the same for Chadras, the last of the trained fighters. He’d won a couple matches, but not to great acclaim. The underground walls of the arena were scattered with graffiti mocking his short stature, his trickery in the arena. They called him the Masseni Pirate.
Both teams wore costumes representative of their native lands—gaudy, bawdy things characterized by ineffective armour, furs, feathers, and false finery. Kirin wore a thick wool tunic, rough against his skin, punctuated by tufts of fur from rabbits, wolves, and even stoats. His helmet was ornate but flimsy, detailed in the likeness of a great king of the Feislands—Hurtha the Hungry maybe, who Senator Marianus had crushed in battle years earlier. His armour wasn’t much, but it gave him the advantage of speed—an intentional consideration, designed to balance combat between Kirin and heavier, stronger opponents like Thanus. Most gladiators were skilled at a certain style of combat, portraying specific characters for the audience. The Thumper was a claviculus, so-named for his use of a cudgel. Kirin spent more time dodging blows than withstanding them, a velon through and through.
As the collective adoration of the city rumbled above, a shiver shot up his arm.
He turned away from the light back to the men on the benches.
Themus ushered the southern fighter toward the benches, where Oran took the prisoner’s place between Bado and Oa.
“You take the axe when the attendants push the men through,” Themus instructed. He pointed at the weapon lying at Oran’s feet—the axe-tipped sagaris meant for the southern prisoner, then walked away from his men and leaned against the wall, rubbing his forehead between his fingers like he had one of his headaches.
When Kirin turned back to the bench across from him, Oran’s dark, reddish eyes were fixed on Kirin. He was smirking like he knew something Kirin didn’t. The most Kirin had been able to find out about him was that he’d been born of some tiny tribe in the Anouti deserts south of Ledan. His skin was near as dark as his hair, with that same disconcerting red tint, and he wore his locs long and thick, to match the roughness of his beard. One of Kirin’s girls had called Oran handsome, but Kirin couldn’t see it.
Every man of Lorar knew the Anouti were cunning and cruel things, lusty and prone to cowardice. During one of his lessons, Alinaea had explained that southerners had less blood than those north of the Helit Sea. The sun was fiercer where they lived, and it boiled their blood in their veins, so that they were covetous of it and fearful. They ate dogs and sometimes even children.
Kirin spat to the side, his gaze locked on Oran’s. There was one other thing that set Oran apart from the others: Kirin was afraid of him.
Oran scuffed the floor with his boot, crunching sand beneath his foot. “Today we will spill blood together, Maznin.”
Maznin—outsider. Kirin bristled at the Anouti word, which he’d learned at his tutor’s knee.
“I’m a proud man of Lorar, Maznin.” Kirin sneered. If he showed off, maybe Oran wouldn’t smell his fear. “I grew up with roads and houses, not mud-huts and rats’ nests.”
That smile again, long and low. Kirin fought a shiver. Perhaps not all southerners were cowards—some of them were mad.
The chaotic shouts of the crowd above had become coherent and uniform. Staffs and sandals and fists thumped against the concrete floors and wooden barricades, and a triumphant greeting rattled down the little gated tunnel.
“Ero, ero, ero!” Lord, lord, lord. The victory cry given a senator upon his ascension. They gave it to Marianus this morning, though he hadn’t won his victory yet.
Kirin’s chest swelled. He was a Red Faction man—how could you be anything else when they supported games and fighters and whores, parades, and conquest? All that was good in the world. All that was Lorar.
Nothing like fat-fingered Grey Faction, who pinched the nation’s purse strings, or White Faction— full of spies and scholars. Yellow Faction was the worst of them all. They oversaw infrastructure in the city, but mewled, cowardly, at any suggestion that Lorar dare extend its rule beyond its current borders. Red Faction controlled the army and navy, looked ever outward to spread Lorai civilization to the ends of the earth—the faction of the brave.
The audience above was chanting Marianus’s name. No wonder—a war hero, an adventurer, a man of fides. A man of Lorar. What an honour to perform at his pleasure, to stick it to the Masseni prisoners on the other bench.
Kirin nudged the Thumper in the side with his elbow, then cocked his chin at the two Masseni noxii. “A copper to whoever gets them first.”
Thanus, who was holding his club between his legs, gave his weapon a thud against the floor. “Two coppers if I get ‘em in one swing.”
Kirin snorted. “And two my way if you don’t? Deal.”
Another two coppers toward his freedom, to add to whatever prize money he made today when he beat these southerners to shit.
What was today’s prize? Usually he paid attention, but he’d been too excited to notice. He whistled at Themus. “Hey, Themus! What’s the prize?”
Themus turned his way, glared, but relented. “No coin, but Marianus—”
The trumpets sounded, drowning out Themus’s voice.
No coin. No coin, but Marianus was watching. No coin, but there would be glory. The glory of the fidelia.
Kirin pinned his attention to the gate. He could just see the dancers racing past, breasts bared as they darted about the arena in their flimsy dresses, strewing lilies and roses across the sand. A dedication to the Good Ones who reigned beneath the earth in the Underworld.
He smiled, tapping his foot to the rhythm of the chanting outside. He hardly ever felt this rush anymore.
Two arena attendants hurried to unlock the shackles holding the fighters’ ankles. As the cold iron fell away, Kirin shook out his feet.
Once they were all free, Bado banged the hilt of his curved southern sword against his shield. “For Lorar!” Bado chanted, Masseni accent still there after years in Lorar. “For victory! For the fidelia!” The men on the benches—all except the prisoners and Oran—took up his drumming. The two Masseni prisoners cast hard glances at Bado.
Kirin didn’t have a shield of his own, so he struck the handle of his axe against the bench instead. He made sure he looked Oran in the eyes as he did it.
Two soldiers slid open the metal barrier blocking the archway and the fighters practically leapt from the bench—all but the criminal on Kirin’s side, who had to be dragged out.
The men filed out in two lines. Marching onto the sand-covered wood floor of the arena was like stepping into day after being swallowed by night. The noonday sun blinded Kirin briefly, and he raised his arm to shade his eyes. The amphitheatre was bursting with spectators. The people of Lorar—the fidelia—stood and waved and yelled from the stands. The wealthier citizens sat in private boxes dressed in rich purple from Masseni murex or in elegant togas, while the poor wore simple tunics. Marianus paid for the games, and so entry was free even to the lowest of Lorar’s people. Even some slaves and foreigners huddled squashed within the arena amongst Lorar’s citizens.
A second trumpet called, and the crowd shushed—mostly—as an announcer introduced the fighters. First the less well known fighters—Oa, Chadras, Trivius, Petro—then the favourites. Kirin grinned as the announcer introduced the favourites.
“—and traitorous Bado, snatched from King Aesmun’s court in far away Kemassen, trained in the deadly arts of poison and pain!” Bado made a show of looking fearsome, baring his teeth, darting left and right, slashing with his curved sword, twirling it.
“From the frigid wastelands of Aeskomaena—the Thumper! Fierce as he is foul!” The Thumper roared, waving his club about, though he was no foreigner in truth.
Kirin was next. The main attraction. Best of the best. Kirin’s heart thrummed so hard he could feel it in his neck. He rolled his shoulders, preparing a grin.
“He’ll jab you in the kidney and quick as lightning, give your wife a jab soon after—not that she’ll mind it with that face! Torn from Hurtha’s own army—the Ripper of Feis!”
The crowd went wild and Kirin raised his axe, drinking in their praise. A few of the spectators on the lower circle of the arena tossed gifts into the sand—metal phalluses with “Ripper” carved into them for luck, coins, talismans. A woman a few rows up took out her tits and shook them about.
In the arena, with the sun above him, with the fidelia watching, Kirin’s ridiculous armour was no longer just a costume. Kirin fought with purpose. With pride. The Ripper of Feis, but a man of Lorar from hair to cock to feet.
Kirin lowered his axe, expecting the announcer to make his dedication to Marianus, to the gods of death who reigned in the arenas, but it didn’t come. Instead—
Kirin turned. One of the arena attendants handed the announcer a clay writing tablet and spoke something in his ear before dashing beneath the stage. The announcer took an instant to look it over, then started up again. “My brave fidelia, Senator Marianus Rufus has a treat for you today! A newcomer to the arena, but no less fine a fighter for all that. Desert serpent, desert beast! In the south they call him the Son of the Goat, god of death! To others, he is the prince of the Anouti wastes and the deep Sajit! Genius to the Good Ones! In our tongue, we call him Feralius!”
Oran didn’t even raise his long-handled sagaris axe, didn’t smile at the crowd. Just stood there stonily.
Feralius. Like Oran was the king of the feralia—the gladiators’ festival. Kirin spit onto the sand.
“Senator Marianus Rufus dedicates this spectacle to Good Ones!” cried the announcer. “To the hungry dead beneath the earth! To the Reds! To the fidelia!” He gestured toward the arena seats, where Marianus and a gaggle of senators and senatorial wives gathered in the choicest of the boxes. Marianus stood and held his palm up in greeting. A skeletal brown figure sat beside him—it must be Yakovius Lutelian, the head of Yellow Faction. Kirin had seen the man up close once before, when Yakovius had been protesting the fights. He had the beady eyes and hooked nose of the Anouti, and an ugly red burn scar covering half his bald head and his face. Marianus must have invited him.
Hopefully he kept his mouth shut today. If not, someone might have to make him.
Marianus and the other senators all took their seats. A ray of sunlight glanced off the metal tip of a fighter’s spear, blinding Kirin. He flinched and rolled his shoulders to try and get some air beneath the thick fur on his shoulders.
Beads of sweat had already formed beneath Kirin’s helmet. One rolled down his forehead. He turned back toward his team and wiped it away with the back of his hand. As the two teams faced each other in the centre of the round arena, Kirin ground his feet into the sand, steadying himself.
Oran was staring straight at him. He whispered something beneath his breath, baring teeth that looked like knives in his dark face.
Kirin frowned. “You’re in Lorar now. Your rat magic has no power here.”
The massive sagaris that Oran gripped two-handed looked deadly sharp, and worse still, it had a long reach compared with Kirin’s short axe. Kirin would need to dance to get close enough to touch him.
From the rim of the arena, one of the guards sounded the horn that signaled the start of the match. The blast rang out long and piercing, and the crowd cheered.
The two teams spread out, circling slowly—a process that could take ages. But audiences got antsy after too long a wait, and Kirin always gave the people what they wanted.
He backed up enough that his teammates could hear him over the audience. “We’ll give them a bit of blood today, boys! They deserve it.”
Petro laughed to Kirin’s right, and clanged his gladius against his shield, though nothing Kirin had said had been particularly funny. Caefrith stood to Kirin’s left, but Thanus and Trivius were somewhere behind him.
The only one not moving was the weeping criminal. He’d sat down in the sand in the centre of the arena, clutching his legs against his chest. His head was tucked against his knees, all while his sword lay beside him, useless. The sand at his feet was damp.
Kirin scanned the field in front of him for the two Masseni soldiers on Oran’s team. They weren’t as pathetic as the man in the sand. They stood poised as though to defend, their scissorblades positioned protectively in front of them, though the double-pronged swords were a tragic weapon to give someone untrained, strapped to the fighter’s arm, covering his hand as they were. Kirin had a feeling he’d win his bet with Thanus.
To the left of the prisoners, Chadras and Bado gripped their curved swords, and to the right of Oran, who stood dead-centre like he’d decided he cared about pageantry after all, Oa gripped his Indasi spear.
Before Kirin could make a move, Oran skipped back on nimble feet, charting a straight line. He held the sagaris not in two hands any longer, but one, and carried it so its end hung toward the ground. This wasn’t a weapon Oran had trained with in the practice yard for years—this was a random tool he’d been assigned with no forewarning. Yet he held it like a man who knew how to use it, and the way he used it wasn’t like anything Kirin had seen. No one was that strong.
“What’s he doing?” Petro called, nervous.
Kirin shook his head.
Oran started running—not backwards anymore, but toward Kirin’s side of the arena. Kirin grit his teeth, worrying the handle of his axe as he hopped left and right, in case Oran came for him. Oran swung the sagaris—once, twice—as he ran, almost to the centre of the arena, pummeling the sand with his feet, so light it was like he was flying even though Kirin had lifted that axe and it was too heavy, far too heavy to—
The sun’s rays glanced off the sagaris as he brought it down like a bolt of heavenly thunder on the prisoner’s head. The sagaris thunked deep into the man’s skull, shearing through bone till it met the prisoner’s jaw, carving a perfect line straight down his face. The criminal’s grip on his legs had been so tight the corpse remained where it was, locked in its seated position.
Oran pulled the handle of the sagaris and the blade gave slightly, blood spurting across the sand, across Oran’s face and bare chest. When Oran hauled the axe out, it was broken where the head met the pole. The prisoner’s head was split in two, one side of it leaning to the right like it might crumble onto the sand. Where the broken bone no longer supported the structure of his face, his skin wrinkled, loose.
Oran tossed his broken axe and grabbed the prisoner’s sword.
“Feralius! Feralius! Feralius!” chanted the crowd, but Oran’s expression was unreadable.
Oran’s team rushed forward, emboldened. The Masseni came first, and Kirin darted left so he was in their path—he still had a bet to win. Oran ran past him, toward Kirin’s teammates. Kirin would have to save him for later.
One of the Masseni soldiers, braver than Kirin had thought, took a chance and ran right at him. Good. Let him. Held by a skilled hand, the scissorblade was the bane of a short axe and its close reach, but these Masseni had no idea how to use their own blades. The soldier yelled something as he approached, faster now, blade thrust in front of him awkwardly.
Kirin roared loud as he could and side-stepped the soldier’s attack. He danced to the soldier’s left, jabbed him in the back with his elbow, then gave a sharp kick to the back of the soldier’s knee. The soldier stumbled into Kirin, knocking him off-balance, and he rolled backwards as he hit the ground. The soldier swerved, jabbing at Kirin’s midsection with the scissors, but Kirin tossed sand in his assailant’s face. The soldier fumbled only for a moment, but a moment was long enough for Kirin to get to his feet.
Kirin darted behind the soldier. He thwacked the man’s side with the flat of his axe and gave a cheer, the whooping praise of the audience pushing him on. The soldier’s plated armour took the blow, but the ferocity of the hit unbalanced him. Kirin slammed his blade into the back of the soldier’s head, lodging it in his crested helmet.
For a few agonizing moments, the man lived on, though the blade of the axe had penetrated the base of his skull. He slashed lethargically with his own weapon, but it was no use. A mere heartbeat later he collapsed. Kirin kicked the body off his axe and swerved just in time to parry an attack from the second of the Masseni strangers. He gave the man a sharp kick to the gut and smiled. The expression had the intended effect. Angry, the man lunged forward.
Then feinted right.
He’d learned from his friend.
“Need help?” Thanus yelled from somewhere behind Kirin.
“No.” Kirin called back, the baying of the crowd threatening to drown out his response.
The soldier stabbed his scissorblade at Kirin’s left shoulder, but Kirin was too fast. He dodged, then slammed his axe down on the Masseni’s left arm, nearly hacking it off in one blow. One of the scissorblade’s prongs arced a shallow, painful cut across Kirin’s chest.
Kirin clenched his jaw so hard his teeth felt like they were rattling.
Someone screamed behind him.
The boy clutched his belly, trying to stop his guts from spilling out onto the sand. He whimpered, scrambling away from Oran, no sword in his hand. All the other gladiators had turned to watch.
The crowd—the crowd were yelling down at Oran. Kill him. Spare him. The audience jeered both at the gladiators, and each other. It could take a while for them to decide.
Oran slashed his stolen sword across the boy’s neck, nearly severing his head. Petro’s corpse collapsed to the ground, pumping blood.
Petro. Not a noxius, not a soldier. Petro was a fighter, one of their own. Only the fidelia decided his death. Just what was Oran’s game? Themus wouldn’t be pleased with the loss. The fidelia wouldn’t be pleased—they’d told Oran to spare him. Now the audience jeered, throwing not charms for luck, but tossing whatever came to hand at Oran.
Trivius charged, and none of the members of the southern team tried to stop him. There was only one thing to do when faced with a rabid dog like Oran: you put it down.
“Behind you!” a woman screeched to Kirin from the stands.
Kirin twirled round, facing the dying Masseni soldier.
The Masseni’s forearm half-dangled from just above his elbow, spurting blood onto the sand. It looked like a lot of blood to Kirin. Perhaps Alinaea had been wrong about southerners. The man stumbled toward Kirin, his scissorblade’s straps tangled in his mangled arm.
Kirin charged him. The soldier tried to raise his scissorblade to defend himself, but all the weapon did now was weigh down his near-severed arm. Kirin buried his axe in the Masseni’s neck. The spray from the wound splattered across Kirin’s face, his hair, the fur at his shoulders. Hopefully Themus hadn’t paid too much for the outfit, and hopefully the blood hadn’t ruined the mink at his groin.
No one was cheering. The arena was silent.
Kirin turned from the dying soldier and looked up at the crowd, but they weren’t watching him.
Twenty feet away, Oran stood over Trivius. Trivius howled, his bloody hands held to his face.
And he wasn’t alone—a second body, its matted red hair caught in the breeze, lay motionless a few feet away. Caefrith. Two of Kirin’s men dead.
Only four men left besides Kirin and Oran. They were all hanging back.
The crowd erupted in a frenzy of shouts, as if angry, but Kirin was suddenly unsure if that’s what their sounds meant. The crowd was the measure of his performance, of his reward. Was it a performance any longer?
Oa jogged toward Oran, whooping. He slapped Oran on the back, the traitorous cunt.
Then Oran did something very strange indeed, twisting backward in a fluid, easy motion, slashing at his own teammate, nearly lopping the man’s head off with the swing. Oa slumped to the ground like a heavy sack of flour, his blood wasted across the sand, his eyes vacant.
Everything stilled. It was quiet again in the arena, but for the thudding of Kirin’s heart and his raspy panting.
Trivius started dragging himself away, using his bent elbows to pull himself forward as though something was wrong with his legs.
Thanus the Thumper thudded toward Oran and Trivius, his broad, shovel of a face red with bloodthirst.
Kirin knew how Thanus felt. These were their brothers being struck down by this mad Anouti rat. He ran toward his companions, feet beating the sand.
Oran turned toward Trivius, and Thanus stepped between them. He swung his heavy club as Oran approached, and Oran jumped back. Kirin could tell this was a dance to Oran, his feet light as Thanus’s club was heavy. Somewhere, probably somewhere far away, he’d been trained to fight in a way Kirin had never seen.
As Thanus herded Oran back, Kirin skidded to a stop beside Trivius, grabbed him by his collar, and hauled him a few feet away. The last thing Trivius needed was fat old Thanus landing on top of him.
Trivius had been stabbed in his eye, and one of his ears was dangling from a thread of skin. The tendons behind his knees had been severed—a cowardly attack, the kind of injury that would ruin a fighter. Kirin forced a smile for Trivius’s sake, but Trivius wasn’t even looking at Kirin. His remaining eye was fixed on where Oran had been standing.
“He’s mad. He’s a beast!” Trivius blurted the words from trembling lips.
Thanus yelled loudly. Kirin looked up.
Oran had disarmed him.
Kirin dropped Trivius’s collar, and sprinted toward Oran and Thanus.
The Thumper stumbled back, dodging blows. Oran was a cat though, and like a cat he toyed with his prey. Kirin could see it in his narrow, shifty eyes, in the way his slick smile made a bow of his mouth.
Kirin swung his axe in front of himself, plunging toward Oran. “Bado! Chadras!” he yelled. “Some help?”
Chadras, hung off to the side, staring in confusion. Bado hurried toward the skirmish.
Oran was alone and he didn’t even care, smiling even when Kirin nicked his arm with his blade. Kirin didn’t frighten him in the slightest.
Kirin kept swinging, just to keep Oran moving, just to keep him away while Thanus saw to Trivius, or till someone ended the fight. Till something happened to put an end to this. Oran stayed on the defensive, stepping back, kicking out at Kirin’s legs only enough to keep Kirin at bay.
“Are you mad?” Kirin asked Oran, panting. He ducked a stab from Oran’s sword and swung at Oran’s legs.
Oran dodged the blow—he was even quicker than Kirin—and he rolled backwards until he landed on his feet in a show of agility. He spread his arms out, inviting attack, his weapon stained. “Because a man bought me and told me to be a killer but not to kill?” Oran laughed. “I am a killer, but I am not his killer.” He snarled. “And I am no rat, Maznin.”
Thanus and Bado eased up beside Kirin.
“A dead man,” threatened Thanus.
Kirin darted a glance at the crowd, at Marianus in the senators’ box. All the senator’s attention was on Oran, with no sign that he was going to end the fight, or call in the arena attendants to put Oran down. It was too exciting. And even Themus couldn’t command Marianus, if the senator decided he wanted to see the slaughter through. Kirin could picture his master, red-faced with anger. He’d be compensated for the losses, but it’d take a long time to replace his best fighters.
Thanus bent to retrieve his club, then yelled to Chadras. “The game’s over. Chadras, help us silence this vermin.”
Chadras shook his head. “He is karnaam. One does not fight the karnaam.”
Kirin didn’t know the word, but it obviously held some power for the southerner. Chadras wasn’t bugding.
“One does not, but I do.” Kirin kept his gaze on Oran, but Oran only looked amused by the boast.
Bado sucked in a breath. “The Sons of Hazzan. From the deep Sajit. It’ll take all of us to kill him.”
Kirin shook his head, leaning in closer to Bado so he could talk without Oran overhearing. “See Oa’s spear over there?” With something long, they could disarm him without getting too close.
Bado nodded, keeping as wide a space as he could between himself and Oran as he ran toward Oa’s body. His gaze didn’t leave Oran once, but Oran didn’t look over at him at all.
Oran cocked his chin at something behind Kirin. “Your friend is dead.”
Thanus cursed as he glanced back at Trivius. “Bled out on the sand,” the Thumper confirmed.
Oran twisted his blade tauntingly in the air. “Avenge him.”
Was Trivius worth avenging? Probably not, but Kirin wanted Oran dead. Badly. He bent down, dropping his axe to pick up a fallen gladius. Behind Oran, Bado had discarded his sword in favour of the spear. He held his position.
Thanus inched forward, club high.
They needed to be careful, corner him maybe, get that sword out of Oran’s hand and—Thanus ran forward in a clumsy, foolish rush.
“Idiot,” Kirin snapped, as he followed the charge.
Oran laughed as the Thumper’s club missed him. He was a far smaller man than Thanus, but his wiry frame was muscled and he was sparing with his attacks, while Thanus’s were rushed and emotional. Kirin recognized Oran’s tactics—they weren’t so different from his own.
The Thumper swung his club in a savage arc that forced Kirin back to avoid being hit, but Oran slipped back from his reach, sword ready.
Behind Oran, Bado raced forward with the spear. Its tip was missing, so instead of skewering Oran, Bado held it horizontally in both hands. As soon as Oran was close enough, he raised the bar over Oran’s head and pressed it tight against Oran’s neck, pinning Oran to his breast. Oran thrashed back with his elbows, landing blows to Bado’s sides that had him wincing, but he held strong.
The Thumper ran forward, raised his club, swung—
and Oran dropped his sword.
He grabbed the pole, threw himself backwards into Bado so hard his knees touched his chest, and then swung his legs down with all his might, spinning them so that their positions were reversed—all before the Thumper’s club had finished its arc.
Bado’s brains splattered across the sand. Oran slipped out from under the spear as Thanus—startled—barreled toward him. Oran grabbed the falling spear and twisted so he was facing Thanus.
The scream was the worst.
The Thumper’s eyes and mouth widened as the spear’s cracked wooden end skewered him, as his massive girth forced him to slide down the length of Oran’s weapon.
Kirin ran toward Oran, and Oran let go of the spear. Thanus fell to the side like a screaming, bloody sack of bricks, the spear still poking through his back.
No time for kindnesses—Kirin vaulted over Thanus’s fallen body, over what was left of Bado. He chased Oran across the sand. As Oran retreated, the crowd’s cries turned to jeers.
No one liked to see a coward run.
Kirin grinned. He followed, raising his gladius to eye level, roaring against the wind. He was close, so close. If he were just a bit closer he could reach out and grab Oran’s locs, yank him back and slit his throat. But Oran was approaching the perimeter wall. When Oran thudded against it, Kirin wanted to drive his gladius through the rat’s throat.
Only Oran didn’t stop.
Kirin plunged forward, hitting empty air as Oran dashed up the side of the wall in two great steps and launched himself over Kirin’s head. Kirin craned his neck, Oran’s locs whipping his face. Then Oran was on the ground behind him, slamming Kirin up against the perimeter.
Kirin’s right ear popped as his head met the cement wall. His jaw thrummed. He screamed. He dropped his sword. He vomited.
All the sound had been sucked out of the arena. It was like plunging underwater, and the water was filling his ears, his skull. The water, the ringing, and the echoing vibrations of the crowd, magnified and distorted as they yelled—
Kirin shoved back against Oran, knocking him to the ground. He hauled himself off the wall and kneed Oran in the chin.
Oran grabbed Kirin’s leg and Kirin toppled into the sand with a thud. He fell hard, and the pain in the side of his head was like being slammed into the wall again. He kicked at Oran’s face with his free foot, and Oran rolled away, nose bloody.
The world was spinning.
Kirin grinned, groaned, and dragged himself onto all fours. Something metallic glinted in the sand between them and Kirin scrambled for it.
It was a lucky metal phallus.
He lunged at Oran, who was supine on the ground, ready to ram the phallus into Oran’s eye socket, but Oran raised his forearm to block the blow, and the ridiculous weapon glanced off his leather cuffs. Oran brought his knee up, and kicked Kirin in the balls.
For a moment they were a tangle of jabs, and punches, and mad thrashing, Oran’s legs knotting around Kirin’s, Kirin’s hand reaching back and yanking on Oran’s hair, their bodies close as lovers’ bodies, Kirin’s ribs crushing against Oran’s. Locked together.
For one instant, Oran’s eyes flickered with uncertainty. “My people are strong, Maznin, and brave, and better than this stadium of ghouls and gutless cunts.” His words faded in and out in Kirin’s head, as the ringing and chanting of the crowd fought with them for dominance. “You think Lorar mighty, and you think yourself one of them, but all you are is a fly, buzzing from the bloated carcass of this city.”
The insult stung, but Kirin wouldn’t show it. A man of Lorar wasn’t so easily led. “If I’m a fly, what are you then?”
A horn sounded, long and loud: the call to stop. Kirin couldn’t risk it.
“A serpent,” Oran answered. “Wrapped about Lorar’s neck to choke the life from it.”
The horn blew a second time. Kirin blinked, eyes stinging from sand he hadn’t realized was stuck in them. The clinking of the arena guards’ armour as they approached stabbed at Kirin’s inner ear. They were yelling, calling an end to the fight.
But Kirin didn’t stop. He couldn’t. The soldiers had to pry the pair of them from each other’s grip and force Kirin to his feet.
Oran relaxed as he was freed from the tangle of limbs, but it was the relaxation of a panther, the grace of a hunter in the forest.
Chadras was being ushered back below the arena by Themus, who didn’t look red-faced at all, but white as ivory.
The crowd, which had been silent for a long time, thundered again in a show of awe and shock, and Kirin clamped his hand over his ear, wincing.
One of the soldiers grabbed Kirin’s arm. He slapped Kirin’s shoulder like they were friends. “Marianus has summoned you. Both of you.”
Both of them? Had he heard the soldier properly? Kirin frowned, stumbling. “The senator?” He wiped his lips with his fist and it came back smeared with puke. His head felt like it was on fire.
“Marianus?” Kirin repeated, but no one answered him. The soldier half-dragged him toward one of the archways beneath the arena seats, and Kirin let him. His hair was pasted to forehead with sweat, blood, and sand. His ridiculous armour was in tatters.
Past it all, past even the pain, Kirin grinned to himself. What a state he was in, to meet a man so honoured.