It was not the first thing the man had said to Taslin, but it was the first important thing.
He had begun many minutes before, as law and his conscience dictated, with a series of disclaimers and explanations. “You understand that, once you take a knee, you cannot take it back? You will be committing to ten years, or to death, or until a resident of the First Circle calls you to service.”
She had nodded, then. “I understand.” Other cities had fewer circles and thus less years of service. But Taslin had been born in New Indapala, and her family lived here.
“You understand that one out of five who take this route die in service?”
She had nodded again. “I understand.”
“You understand that two out of three who do survive are maimed or crippled?”
She had seen the funeral processions to the unfinished walls. She had seen the veterans. She had seen the fights. “I understand.”
“There are easier routes up the Ladder.”
He had sounded worried. Taslin had, then, finally looked him in the eye. “I have a little sister and a little brother.”
“Aah. Then we continue.” And they had. “Kneel, Taslin Altreka.”
She took a knee and bowed her head. The man, then, snipped the cord that had been around her neck since childhood. He took her ID chit and its severed cord, every moment a ceremony. Taslin resisted the urge to touch the empty place on the back of her neck.
The bare feeling had lasted only a moment. Those who knelt as she was did not wear their ID on a cord, but everyone wore an ID.
The collar was the thinnest metal she had ever felt, made of flat, smooth links. It would move with her, but, at the same time, she would never forget the pressure on her throat and neck.
“Rise, Taslin Gladiator.”
The name felt right, settling onto her. Standing as a Gladiator felt right and proper. Taslin rolled her shoulders and smiled, feeling it curl her lips.
The man, who had never given her his name, bowed. “Fight well, Gladiator.”
She thumped her fist against her chest in salute. “As you command.”
“This is the limit of my command. Your handler comes, and it will be from her that you take your orders from this point forward.” The man paused. He was older than Taslin, his face lined but his back straight. “I would advise you, Gladiator.”
Every word that flowed from him had the echo of a ritual. Taslin bowed her head and tried to match his tone. “I would hear your advice, sir.”
“You have been told to find a patron. Everyone who seeks to shortcut the Ladder is told the same thing, the same sage advice from those who have not followed the same path.”
Taslin risked a glance at his face. Yes, he looked as sardonic as he sounded. “Sir.”
“I will say this: be very mindful of the patron you choose. The benefits can be high, yes, but no few who have died have done so because they chose a patron unwisely.”
“Mindful?” She sounded like a parrot. She had not been accepted to this position by sounding eloquent or brilliant, though.
“Mindful.” The man nodded. “It is good to have a patron, of course. They provide you with better armor, better weapons. They offer advertising, which raises ticket sales, which gets both them and you more money. The more money you raise, the better your eventual place on the Ladder, should you survive.”
Taslin nodded. He was right; this was the sort of thing everyone told her. Everyone and no-one; it was the sort of thing that was just known, in that way that the mob knew things.
“The trick.” The man put one fist in an open palm, and for a moment, Taslin could see the fighter he must have been. “That’s what you never think of when you’re there. The trick is to find a patron who will remember that you are your own chief asset. One that will not overwork you outside the ring.” He said it without a leer, although Taslin was fairly certain of the “work” he meant. “One that will not negotiate matches for you with clearly superior foes – or with clearly inferior ones. Both can harm you, in the long or the short run.”
He met her eyes. “In short, Taslin Gladiator, find a patron who will remember to care for you, as you are caring for them in your service. Then, and only then, will you find yourself, at the end of your days, choosing the rung of the Ladder that you wish, and not simply the one that you can manage.”
She wanted to ask the man, so clearly scarred, so clearly marked by his own time in the ring, which route had been his, when his time in a collar had been through. But she could see the steel in his arms, even now, and the matching armor in his gaze. That would not be a question he welcomed, she thought.
So she bowed, instead. She knew how to bow, and it rarely invited steel to do so. “Thank you for your advice, sir.”
“If the patron is pretty enough, speaks nicely enough, shakes enough gold around you, you will forget it, of course. We all do. But then I will know that I have told you – and you will know where you must go, if you wish to best help your brother and your sister in Altreka.”
He could not have held her attention more if he’d had a sword to her throat. Taslin nodded, very very carefully. “Yes, sir.” Yes. To climb the Ladder better was one thing. To be able to help Hel and Thet, that was another thing entirely.
“Here comes your handler. Remember, Taslin Gladiator. Your life is no longer your own; that belongs to the Ring, to your handlers, to the Match-Masters, and to your Patrons.” The old man bowed, one scarred fist over the other. “But remember.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Remember that your ambition, your drive, and your skill – everything that led you to bend your knee – that is always yours, and nobody has any right to that.”
She bowed deeply in response. Pick a Patron wisely. Hold on to your ambition and drive. It was easy for him to say those things, easy for him to list them off as if they were checkboxes to fill on a test, or moves to make in a training routine. How she would go about doing them, that would be the difficult part.
“And now it begins.”
The door swung open, and another man stepped into the room. While the first one had once clearly been a fighter, this man was slender, slim, his fingers long and his hair oiled. “You are the new Gladiator?”
Taslin had barely risen from her last bow; it was easy to drop back into another. “Sir.”
“Call me Reshnel. At least when we’re alone.”
She glanced at the old man, thinking, alone? but he had vanished. “Yes, sir. Reshnel.”
“Come. Gan is running a training session in the sandlot, and I don’t want you to miss out on it. You’re going to need all the training you can get, if you’re to survive in the ring.” His eyes took in her body, naked except the collar. “You will need quite a bit of conditioning, too. Come.”
There was nothing to do but obey, sting as the critique did.
She had given her vows, and left behind everything of Taslin Altreka (everything except her drive, she supposed, her skills, and her ambition), in a small room overlooking the Third Circle Market Street and backing on the Gladiator’s complex. She’d walked in from Market Street as a free citizen; now she walked out the back door a Gladiator.
She held her head high as she followed Reshnel, pulled her shoulders back, and tried to be proud of the body he’d just critiqued. it was a good body. She had been training it – and conditioning it – since she was old enough to hold a practice sword. It might not yet be Ring Champion material, but that only came with time, she thought, and honest opponents.
“Heads up, new meat!” She caught the flying missile before she’d placed the voice, realized it was being thrown at her, or even realized they’d stepped into what had to be the sandlot: a miniaturized gladiatorial pit, with the sand floor and mats on the stone walls. Seven fighters stood around, all in soft leather armor and the thin tunics that were common-issue all around New Indapala. “Suit up!” That from the tallest, broadest, and, Taslin noticed, least-scarred of the fighters. “You go first.”
“Ma’… Ix.” The missile that had been thrown at her turned out to be tunic and armor, much as everyone else was wearing. Taslin threw it on as quickly as was wise and perhaps more quickly than that. The buckles felt strange under her fingers, and one of the straps would not cooperate. She hissed, and tried again. They were all staring at her.
“Here.” Ready hands took the strap from her and fixed it. “Don’t let them get to you. If you’re stressed, you doubt yourself. If you doubt yourself, you doubt your sword. If you doubt your sword, you falter in battle.”
“If I falter in battle, someone else wins the match.” Taslin had to twist to see the speaker; the buckles on the armour were placed far back on her sides, almost behind her. “This is newbie armor, isn’t it?”
“You learn fast.” The speaker was not one of the those armored; she, like Reshnel, wore no armor and carried no weapons. “There. Now go show them what you can do.”
“Yes’ix.” She bowed to the speaker and was amused to note that he blushed. “Thank you.”
“Are you ready already, new meat? Out with it already, come over so you can fail.”
“I hear and obey.” She bowed again, to the tall woman. “What shall I do?”