Archive | March 2015

Chapter Nineteen – Taslin – Duck

“Duck!”

Taslin and Lansesh were serving as backup for the six-year Gladiator Rantoness Kallesh-Red in a five-on-three match against another Pit’s lead team. It wasn’t a fair fight. It wasn’t even in the same league as a fair fight. But Taslin was having more fun than she’d had in any match so far.

She ducked at Lanesh’s call, and took the prompt to swing out with her mace. Her attacker’s sword swung over her head, clipping off a few curls of hair and nicking her ear. Taslin’s mace slammed into the shorter woman’s knee.

“Swarm!” The woman’s curse was short, and she swung at Taslin again even as she went down. Taslin took that one on her shield, fell backwards, and squirmed to the side just in time to catch a hammer-blow meant for Ranton.

She caught it the way Ganlenrel had taught her, on her shield and rolling with it, using the spike just so on the edge of the hammer so she disarmed the man. “Up,” she called to Ranton, and nearly missed the damn woman with the longsword coming at the back of her knees.

It didn’t matter. Ranton got the man Taslin had disarmed, and that freed up Lanesh to shield-bash the second man of the team in the face. The woman’s sword caught Taslin, not a major wound but a heavy enough nick to make her swear. That was going to bleed like a butchered deer.

Use it, Ganlenral was fond of saying. Bleeding? Use it. Limping? Using it. Screaming? Use it. So all right, she could use it. She finished her roll to her feet in front of the opposing team’s heavy hitter. Skuskrin Takrin: she knew rhi from the posters, yet another reason this wasn’t a fair fight. Rhi wore a goatee in two long, long beaded braids, and rhis hair the same way. It was said there was a bead on there for every opponent Skuskrin had beaten in the pit.

Taslin didn’t stop to count. She swung her shield in a feint – they were known for shield-bashes, people Ganlenrel taught – and caught Skuskrin’s beard-braids with the tip of her sword.

The fighter would have been on guard against a throat-cut or a proper thrust, but that caught rhi by surprise. Not as much surprise as Taslin was hoping for, but it was something. Skuskrin hollered as the braid went flying and flailed with one blade.

It was enough. Taslin got a backhanded swing in against the fighter’s face and a second one, quick and dirty, against Skuskrin’s throat. The big fighter went down, and Taslin rode rhi down to the ground.

She could see Lanesh and Ranton to her left, both of them taking down the lead from the other team. She rested the flat of her blade against Skuskrin’s throat with all her weight, moving quickly before the bigger fighter regained control of rhiself.

Skuskrin grabbed her wrist; she stepped on his wrist and ground her boot into the sand. He flailed and she pushed down harder, until rhi could feel the edge of the blade on his throat.

Skuskrin dropped both hands to the ground, flat-palmed, in surrender, just as rhis lead Gladiator fell to the ground with a thunk.

The Master of Ceremonies shouted, and shouted again. Taslin’s eyes went to the high box, where a First Circle woman sat, watching. She watched Skuskrin’s eyes roll back in rhis head, trying to see the woman. She let up on the fighter; rhi had surrendered, after all, and nobody who’d made it this far in the pit would ignore a proper surrender.

The First Circle woman held her hand out. Even from here, you could see she enjoyed it, the way her sleeve draped dramatically, the way she listened to the crowd roar.

This was the loudest crowd Taslin had heard yet, the biggest crowd she’d had at a fight. Of course, it wasn’t her crowd; they were here to see Rantoness Kallesh-Red. Taslin and Lanesh were, like the ribbons on her sleeves and the bright patterns on her armor, just part of the show.

The First Circle woman, too, was part of the show, and loving it. She waited for the crowd’s roar to reach its peak. They rarely called for death when the fight had been good – even if the fight had been mediocre – but if they paid for that box, they could make that choice.

“Come on…” She didn’t think she was supposed to hear Skuskrin’s mutter, but, given the circumstance, she also couldn’t blame rhi. “Come on.

The roar kept rising. The crowd was on its feet. It was an animal, a beast. Had it ever overrun the fighters? Had the mob ever carried out the judgment itself? They could take maybe twenty of them, thirty if they could work together as a team. There were hundreds there, maybe thousands. Even Ranton couldn’t handle that.

Suddenly, there was silence. The First Circle woman had held up both hands. A whisper grew from the far end of the amphitheater and moved like water across the crowd. Death? Or life? From here, it was just more noise.

The First Circle woman’s hands parted and dropped. Life. The crowd erupted. Taslin stood, finding her place by Raslin; she watched the opposing team – those that were conscious – find their feet. As a group, they faced the stands. And the stands faced them.

The applause was insane, starting from a roar and rising, louder, louder, until it seemed to shake the foundations. Taslin had been too close to a Flow Storm once, when a thunderstorm and Flow spurt had mixed. That sound, loud enough to pop her eardrums, had been nothing compared to this.

She’d heard cheers before. She’d won battles before. There was always a rush, always the warm feeling of success and the even-warmer feeling of all those people cheering, cheering for her.

This was a good match times a thousand. Her back straightened. She knew they were supposed to be solemn as they saluted the crowd – and especially when they saluted that First Circle woman, who might want to be a patron of one of them at some point – but a sidelong glance told her Ranton and Lanesh were grinning already. So she grinned, her fist over her chest in salute, all of her aches and bloody cuts fading under the rush and the noise.

It must have been a good match to watch, because the Master of Ceremonies had to quiet the cheering. Usually, it trailed off on its own. “Good gentles of New Indapala,” the M.C. bellowed, voice made to carry by a small application of magic. “I give you the Gladiators: Rantoness Kallesh-Red, Lanesh, and Taslin!”

One by one they bowed, and each time the crowd cheered. Even when the M.C. introduced the opposing fighters, the crowd cheered.

“We thank you for your cheers and your attendance. Please save your gifts and put them in the boxes as you exit; throwing them onto the Pit floor is not encouraged.” The M.C. was being pelted with flowers and gifts even as he encouraged people to do exactly the opposite; but that happened, in a smaller scale, even in the tiniest, least-attended matches. “Thank you, thank you.”

“Thank you, thank all of your for your attendance.” The M.C. continued to lavish praise on the crowd, and Taslin and the other fighters continued to bow and salute, to smile and wave, bow and salute again.

The gifts piled up around the M.C. and at their feet, the cheering shifted and flowed, first chanting Ranton’s name, then Skuskrin’s, and then, much to her surprise, Lanesh and Taslin’s names.

She was giddy by the time the crowd began to trickle away – giddy, and weary, beginning to sway on her feet and her wounds beginning to ache. Still, she smiled and waved, bowed and saluted, caught gifts and passed them to Ranton.

A normal match – a match that Taslin was used to – the crowd cleared right out, and the gladiators were free to go the medics, to go back to their dorms, or, as she had done a time or two, flop down on the hard dirt of the pit for a while.

When the last of this crowd faded away, Taslin wasn’t sure if she could move. But when Skuskrin, beside her, shifted his weight, she found her hand on her blade and a hand-width bared.

“Easy.” Rhi held out both hands, palms flat up, bare of weapons. In rhis left, the forlorn beard-braid was draped. “I am not one of those amateurs you have fought before.”

“You… you know who I’ve fought?”

“There are always amateurs.”

“Of course.” Taslin ducked her head. Why would Skuskrin Takrin know who she was?

“And I have watched your fights.”

Taslin kept her head down but didn’t even bother trying to hide the smile. “Ix.”

“I’m not an ix, I’m Suskrin. Especially to you, Taslin Gladiator.” Rhi held a hand. “You are a pleasure to fight against.”

She took the hand and shook it, as firmly as she could. “I am honored.”

“Then I will pile on the honors. You took this – you should keep this.” Suskrin put the beard-braid in Taslin’s hand and closed her hand around it. “Consider it your first Pit trophy – if indeed, it’s your first.”

“It’s my first.” She held the braid tight. “Thank you.” She turned her head-duck into a bow. “I hope you won’t take any offense if I say I hope I never see you in the Pit again.”

“And likewise. Good hunting, young fighter.”

Suskrin bowed to her, and Taslin bowed one more time.

“Good hunting, Gladiator Skuskrin Takrin, ix.”

Chapter 18 – Valran – Remember

“Remember.” Keldra Dre tapped Valran’s nose for emphasis. He wrinkled his nose and struggled not to pull away.

“There’s a lot to take in.” He shut his mouth, but the words had already been said. “I mean, Mistress, I will do my best.”

Her lips curled upwards. “I know you will, Valran Servus. You want to succeed. Yes?”

“Yes?” He didn’t quite meet her eyes.

“I thought so. You have ambition aplenty, don’t you?”

That was a very dangerous question, no matter how he answered it.

“That, Mistress, is a very dangerous question for me to answer.”

“I know. But I’d like you to answer it anyway.”

“Yes, Mistress, I am ambitious. Right now, I am your Servus, and my ambition is to serve you to the best of my ability.”

“And if I choose that you will serve me by learning everything I know about the world?”

“I may be serving you for a great deal longer than my contract, Mistress.” He tried a smile on her and it did not, at least, sink. “But I will do my best to remember everything you’ve told me.”

“Very good. Now.” She stroked his hair; he was kneeling again, on the floor in front of her while she sat on that giant bed. “What was the last thing I told you to remember?”

He swallowed. “‘When channeling the flow, it helps to have a picture or a feeling of your self; you can visualize the flow moving around that picture or sensation.”

“Very good.” She patted his shoulder. “Now we get into the hard things.”

“Hard things, ma’am.” He looked around the room and swallowed.

“It’s been a long day for you, hasn’t it?”

“Weird, at least…. Mistress.” Hard things. What sort of things would this woman find hard?

“Then we’ll worry about the hard stuff later.” She stood up and held both hands out to him. “Take my hands,” she prompted, and, feeling silly, he did. “Stand up.”

He was surprised to find out that he needed the support of her hands. He hadn’t knelt for that long in… ever. “Thank you. What’s… what’s the hard part?” Waiting to find out might be a hard thing in itself.

She released one of his hands and tapped his nose. “Finding the core of yourself to hold as your protective center. It’s very… exhausting.”

“Why don’t they teach this in outer circle schools?” He kept his voice polite. She was his Mistress. You did not shout revolution at your Mistress.

“It’s an advanced technique.” Her answer was breezy. “Do I need to back up further?”

He tilted his head at her. “Back up… are you…” Oh, no. He hadn’t asked for instruction in the Flow.  He didn’t want instruction in the Flow.

“Carefully, Valran, you have my word on it. With full caution for your safety and humanity.”

“Yes, Mistress.” Being a Servus had risks.

“For now, I do believe you need something to eat.”

“Yes, Mistress.” He ignored the small gnawing in his stomach. You had to feed your Servus. You had to feed the wall-workers, too.

“Come this way.” The apartment didn’t appear to end. The next room was… it was a food-preparation room, a kitchen, lined with cupboards. “I don’t have anyone to do the cooking yet. I don’t have anyone at all, except you. Sit, there,” she pointed at a straight-backed chair. “I’ll throw together a sandwich for you now, and we can worry about complicated meals later.”

“I… can cook.” Valran sat as ordered, surprised at how light-headed he was feeling. “Decently.”

“Really? Well, we may have to see if we can get you into a class, then, and let you take over the cooking.”

He wanted to be offended by the idea of needing a class, but she was Inner Ring and he was not. Yet. The food that had been good enough for his family was probably not the sort of thing an Inner Ring Oligarch would want to eat, not unless they were slumming it. “Yes, ma’am.” He swallowed, as the question just brought up more questions. “Ma’am… what do you want me to do for you?” If she wanted a domestic Servus, well, that was what he’d be. But that wasn’t what he’d signed up for. Of course, she hadn’t picked him at all. He coughed, trying to salvage the stupid question. “That is, if you have made up your mind. I know that I was a gift from your grandmother to you…”

“It’s all right, Valran. It’s a fair question.” Knives were flashing on the counter with gladiatorial finesse. “You clearly had plans for your time as Servus when you picked the House to broker you that you chose. I imagine they did not include domestic work.”

“No, ma’am.” People didn’t often bend knee to spend their time scrubbing floors. He supposed some might, just to be scrubbing a better class of floor. Valran didn’t quite suppress a smile. In some way, that was exactly what he was doing. Bending knee to scrub fancier floors.

Keldra Dre tipped her head at him. “You bent knee to be a Donnor. And then you were bought by my grandmother, which might have put a small bend in your plans, oh Handsome Valran. And then she gave you to me, which might put all sorts of interesting bends in your plans, won’t it?”

He found himself swallowing. “I knelt to serve, ma’am. I will serve in whatever way you order me, of course.”

“And what of your plans?”

“‘No plan survives past its first step.’”

“That’s not how I heard the quote.”

“You are my owner, ma’am, not my enemy.”

“Good.” The tone of her voice made Valran look up again; she was smirking, looking very satisfied indeed. “Step one. I am not the enemy. Step two. You knelt to serve. Step three… you will serve me to my satisfaction and no-one else’s.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

She set down her knives. “Step four.”

“Step four, Mistress?”

She crossed the room and took his chin in both hands. “You sold ten years of your time. You should get fair compensation for that service.”

He wanted to speak, but she was holding his jaw very firmly shut. He made a soft noise of assent. If only he understood what he was assenting to.

“You are going to be my assistant, Valran Servus. And in assisting me, you will spend a great deal of time on your back, Donnor-boy. But you will also spend a lot of time on your feet.”

She released his chin before the Donnor-boy sunk in. Valran nodded, even less certain what he was agreeing to now.

“Confused?”

“Yes, Mistress.” He looked at the floor. How had things gone so badly so quickly?

“I’m told I have that effect on people. Okay.” She touched her hand lightly to his hair. “I didn’t ask for a Servus.”

“I know, Mistress. I’m sorry.”

“Please don’t be. You asked to be one, but it is not as if you chose to be given to me.”

“No, ma’am. Not… specifically.”

“I’m sure my grandmother made it complicated.” She waved her hand idly. “Okay. You wanted to be a Donnor-boy for a reason. Not just for the pretty company and the potentially easy work, right? I’m assuming you’re not stupid.”

“No, ma’am.” He might need to clarify that. “Anyone who pays attention knows that kneeling to be a Donnor can be as hard as anything else, and it’s a lot more dangerous than some of the other ways to kneel in service. Not as bad as being a Gladiator-”

“But it actually has a death rate, whereas, say, being a driver doesn’t. Correct. Will you tell me your reason?”

Valran swallowed hard. “If my Mistress commands me, I will do anything she says.”

“Tell me…” She set her hands on his shoulders; Valran held his breath. “Tell me where you learned to talk like this. If you’d been trained, you would have been… well, different.”

“Different?” He swallowed. “Sorry, Mistress. I beg your pardon. I learned most of it from books, and the rest of it from…” He gulped. She’d given him a direct order. “From a relative who came home briefly during service.”

“Aaah.” She nodded, very slowly. “And did that relative have something to do with your choice to kneel in service at the Donnor House?”

“I… yes.” He bowed his head.

“This is very interesting. Well, it’s helpful for both of us that you can speak as nicely as you can. You could pass as someone from a much more interior circle than you were born.”

“Thank… you… Mistress?” Was that a compliment?

“When I am done with you, I will be able to pass as a Tenth-Circle rag-seller, and you will be able to pass as the favored son of a tenth-generation Inner Circle line.”

“Um? Um, Mistress… what?” He risked a look at her face to see if she was serious.

She was smiling, but it didn’t look like she was joking. Of course, this whole thing could be an elaborate joke. “I’m going to polish you like a piece of silverware, until you know exactly how to act in any situation.”

“And you want me to… what… tarnish you?” Why? He coughed. “I’m not Tenth Circle, you know.”

“You’re Servus, now. You’ve no circle at all.”

He twitched. “Ah…”

“My apologies. I should have known better – that was a horrid phrasing.” She patted both of his shoulders as if it would calm him, or as if she was calming herself. “You are skipping the Ladder for the moment, at least.”

Valran forced himself to breathe levelly. “My mistress may of course say whatever she wants of me.”

“Of course, but that’s no reason to be stupid about it.” Keldra Dre sank to a sitting position in front of him. “You’re not Tenth Circle, no.”

“And you’ve lived in all the Circles. Worked your way through.”

“You know as well as I do that people treat you differently if you’re climbing through than if you’re born there, staying there.”

“Yeah… yes.” They tended to try to find ways to attach themselves to the ones that were obvious climbers. If you’re going that way, it wouldn’t hurt you to bring me with you, would it… Never mind that it never worked. Valran looked cautiously at his mistress. “You want me to help you pass as a – what did you say? – a Tenth-Circle rag-dealer? Mistress, why?

Her smile grew strange and feline. “There are questions you don’t wish to answer, Valran Servus, and there are questions I don’t wish to answer. Do you think you can do it?”

He swallowed. It wasn’t a threat. It didn’t need to be a threat. She owned him. “Yes, ma’am.”

“And do you trust that I can do the other – that I can polish you up?”

“I’m still Outer-circle, you know. Ma’am.”

She tapped him lightly on the nose. “No. From now on you are not. You are Servus, you are my Servus. Do you understand?”

No. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. Now, stand, help me up, and we will eat.”

His world was being turned upside down. Valran stood.