I wore an elaborately embroidered shirt myself, imported from Brahvniki, a dark blue satin—almost black--with white and red and gold and pink and black embroidery so stiff you could almost not see the collar or cuffs. There were gold medallions along the asymmetrical hem, the point on the one side falling almost to my left knee.
I struggled to be the wildly excited kid, a big smile on my face, chatting with Father as we settled into the Imperial Box. I longed to be home, hidden deep in the bowels of the library, or in the Bath. I wanted to be in my hiding place either in the ceiling or in my horde. I wanted to be in my bed with the curtains drawn stuffy tight and the covers over my head. I wanted to be anywhere but here.
“You see, my minimal,” Father said waving at the crowd. “It is easy to make the mob happy. Give them enough bread and enough blood and they’ll turn it into gold and power for you.”
“Yes, Divine Father.” Kyriala sat, smooth and still as a statue. Ilesias fussed, wanting to get down and crawl around. Kaita restrained him and distracted him with a biscuit. He seized it with both hands, gumming, gnawing and drooling all over it. As he gradually turned it into mush to spread around she had another with whipped cream on it, waiting.
Shefenkas stood in his gate, still, ready. The same, calm, intense look on his face as always. Only one fight to go, Shefenkas. Only one. Then... My mind shrank from that. I looked over at Sfetkabras, raised my viewing glasses to take a better look. He had a wistful expression on his face almost as if to say why did it have to be you? But then perhaps I was imagining the sheen of sweat on his face. I couldn’t see his upper lip for the thin, long moustache the man sported that trailed in two dark brown and purple spikes down past his chin.
The Mezem hadn’t been kind to him, he was a young man, perhaps in his twenties but he looked twice that age now, with deep wrinkles. His hair had grown gray in thick streaks in the time he’d been here. His boy dyed them purple.
The Director raised his hand, the gong roared and the gates clanged open, both men stepping out onto the golden sand. Shefenkas moved faster than usual. Sfetkabras closed more slowly. “RAIKAS! SFETKABRAS!” The cheering drowned out fading gong, shrieks from fainting women cutting through the deep roar. Sereniteers were actually in the stands and someone started a fist fight in the high bleachers and was darted unconscious and hauled away, losing both his seat and the price he'd paid.
Something was happening, Sfet’s trick, whatever it was. He was known to confuse an opponent, who would sometimes strike wide. I could see it in a fraction of a hesitation in Shefenka’s step. I raised my viewers. As Sfetkabras moved in during that heartbeat, Shefenkas closed his eyes and his moves sped up rather than slowed down. Whatever Sfet's trick was, it was obviously trumped by Shefenkas's sense for weapons that had served to save his life in his fight with Riji.
The crowd was making a noise that I could hear like thunder through the glass. It vibrated under my touch. I could feel it through my feet.
“Father! The White! Show the White! I want to buy him! I want to buy him out!” I waved my own white kerchief. Most of the bowl of the Mezem was a sea of white, with a few flecks of red here and there. Shefenkas had made no secret he did not like to kill his opponents and his fans knew that. And Sfet's fans did not want him dead either. I could hear the screaming, see people publicly clinging to one another, even husbands their wives. In the Aitzas box to one side I saw a man come so hard he slid out of his chair right into the boy, boneless.
Father smiled a terrifying smile, plucked the red kerchief out of the box and waved it toward Shefenkas. “Kill him, you murderous bastard,” He said showing his teeth. “I know you want to spare him to spite me. So I demand you kill him.” The crowd wailed as they saw Father’s hand, some collapsing back into their chairs in anguish, the others howling their shock and protest, even as Sfetkabras’s reaching hand pleading for mercy fell back as he despaired.
“NO NO NO NO! NO NO NO NO! NO NO NO NO!” The crowd began chanting. Shefenkas looked up at Father, incredulous, eyes wide. Father ignored the crowd, leaned forward, staring at Shefenkas and waved the red once more.
Shefenkas whipped his sword in the blood cleaning move, wiped and sheathed it, turned to Father and did a big, wide double charcoal -- both hands turned down flat, cutting the air -- shaking his head in the Arkan way as well. I could see his mouth move and knew the word semanakra even if I couldn’t hear it. Father wouldn’t understand it.
The crowd cheered Shefenkas, cheered wildly, in a complete frenzy. People hurled bits of their own clothing, even their gloves into the ring. Father froze, his hand clenching on the red kerchief. He raised the crumpled red cloth and shook it at the Yeoli as if to force him.
Shefenkas waved at the crowd as if to take them all in. I could see his eyes locked on Father as he deliberately raised his hands, thrust one finger into the curled fist of the other, then wiping it out to point at Father, in the wildly obscene gesture for fik you.
A good half of the crowd screamed their approval of the gesture, Ilesias was howling behind us and if Father had been frozen before he might have been dead now he was so still, some emotion twisting under his skin, his face a rictus even under the fat. The Director, his face doughy with fear, signalled the torturers who would stake Sfekabras down on the sand and torture him to death if Shefenkas would not kill him.
I swallowed, tried to speak. “Fa—“ He didn’t take his eyes off Shefenkas and the motion of his hand was reflexive. I was too surprised to do more than twitch. The Imperial seal caught me just across the back of my cheek near the hair and gashed me.
Sfetkabras struggled up on his good knee and one hand. The crowd howled both fighters’ names, there was so much noise it beat at my body like a giant’s fist as I raise my hand to the stinging pain on my face. My fingertips came away bloody where the Imperial eagle had torn my skin.
The torturers raised dart-tubes to show Shefenkas that he could not defend the man he was supposed to kill, they’d just dart him unconscious and chain him. Skorsas in his gate hid his face in his hands. The other gladiators were uncharacteristically on their feet, waving their arms.
Sfetkabras stared at my Father from the sand, his face going from shocked to uncanny and Father’s fist, with the red kerchief still clutched in it went to his chest. The tableau only held for a frozen moment before the Brahvnikian collapsed flat onto the sand. Father straightened. Sfetkabras turned his face toward where Shefenkas stood, defeat and appeal in his face.
He said something to Shefenkas that I didn’t have a hope in Hayel of hearing. Face grim, Shefenkas re-drew his kraiya, the torturers brought their dart tubes up to ready. But the Yeoli stepped over to Sfetkabras, who kissed his fist and ghosted the hand open to the Yeoli, a bitter smile on his face as Shefenkas almost gently put the sword through his heart.
The potential torturers became mere guardsmen again at that moment, the crowd going completely mad as Shefenkas cleaned, re-sheathed the sword and gathered Sfetkabras’s body in his arms, pulling him close as if he were a friend or a child, rocking slightly, his face buried in the man’s hair.
He stood up at last, carrying the body as the crowd stormed the ring, but they stopped short a bare arm’s reach from Shefenkas. He spoke to them nearest him and they gave way as if to a king, a Durakis. He paced slowly to the other man’s gate and gently gave the body to his boy, the guards there to help him.
Then without looking at Father or the Imperial box he went up the stairs to where the Director was obviously thrilled at the drama, to bend his head one last time for that hated victory chain.
Shefenkas, unlike other gladiators, never turned to raise his arms in victory for the crowd’s approval, but his time when he turned to the embrace of their cries he fisted both hands over his heart and offered them his open hands. I thought the sun shook in the sky from the sound.
Father’s hate-filled eyes never left him all the way back to disappear into his own gate, the crowd whistling him and actually clapping their approval as they respectfully let him through, reaching to touch his back as he passed. He touched their hands and arms and clasped hands here and there, as he got close to his own gate and the crowd got more boisterous, closer and less reserved.
This scene from Chevenga's point of view