Ill Met in the Arena
Click on image to enlarge.
by Dave Duncan
Description: Though Quirt's name is little-known, his skills as a gladiator are quickly obvious and hard to match. In Aureity, noblemen battle in the arena circuit, using their powers of teleportation and telekinesis to prove their breeding and strength. The prizes at play are not only silver and bronze but also the chance to rise amongst the nobility and mate with the ruling class of women. Older than most players, Quirt still manages to draw attention and awe through his mastery of the games. Some of that attention comes from Humate, a brash young competitor with unbelievable power and little patience or control. To him, Quirt is a mystery he can't resist. However, that mystery soon proves much bigger than all of them. Ancient crimes, struggles for status, romance, vengeance, duty--Humate has a lot to learn from the world-wise Quirt. As the secret of Quirt's true identity and past unfolds, Humate and Quirt race to bring justice to the murderer and madman whose blood links the two gladiators together. With ILL MET IN THE ARENA, award-winning fantasy author Dave Duncan creates yet another new, fully-realized world filled with complex cultures and brisk adventure. Intrigue, politics, action, humor--this book will grab you from page one and not let go until the final word.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2011
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [433 KB]
Reading time: 265-371 min.
Tourney at Bere Paroohian
* * * *
With both suns blazing overhead, birds are silent and even the trees seem to droop. From the balcony of my room I look down on a bay that shines like molten silver, fly-specked with fishing boats whose sails hang limp in the breathless air. No doubt their crews feel they are being steamed, just as I know I am about to be roasted. The heat in the arena will be intense.
Landward lie rolling hills and a mosaic of terraced fields whose red soil must be hard put to support even the peasants who cultivate it, let alone provide an income for its owner. Alkin's prosperity has been earned by her wits, and that is rare indeed among the nobility of Aureity.
The house bell tolls to mark the start of the servants' midday rest. Lesser bells in the distance pass the message on to the paddy fields and orchards. It is time.
I go inside. My cloak lies on a table, cunningly folded into a tight packet that will balance on the palm of my hand. I summon it to me.
* * * PORT * * *
I come forth on the cliff terrace, a hundred feet below. This, too, is admirably designed, a private retreat shaded by heavy foliage and cooled by spray from a filmy cataract nearby. Waves lapping the rocky shore seem to murmur soothingly, as if today even the sea is soporific. Half a dozen bronze duelists stand eternal guard with swords or javelins amid the flowers. Again, I marvel at the art and skill that have gone into crafting such a residence of dreams.
Alkin herself is artfully posed against the sea view, kneeling on a cushion. She turns her head to regard me.
I bow. "At your bidding, royal Alkin of Cupule."
"Honored, noble Quirt of Mundil."
She looks me over. I, in turn, regard her--with admiration. I see a woman of beauty and grace, mature but still slender, clad in a sari of silk brocade patterned in her colors, two shades of green, over a matching choli bodice. Her only adornments are an emerald bracelet and a thin silver brooch in the shape of a sword. The sword is the badge of her profession as a duelists' manager and the bracelet was the fee she accepted to manage me. She is authoritative and also motherly. Her matronly dignity must serve her well in dealing with her usual clients, who are males barely out of adolescence. Her face is unlined; the raven hair glimpsed under the edge of her head cloth is just starting to be flecked with silver. Her forehead bears a white caste mark, denoting the full sixteen quarterings of nobility.
That is what any man or any noblewoman of lower caste would see. How she would appear without illusion I cannot tell. She must be at least a generation older than she chooses to appear.
And what does she see? Firstly, of course, a man wearing her colors, green on green; a man in his prime, two pentads older than the "cubs" she usually manages. If my face does not hint at past suffering, it certainly should. Secondly, she sees a lot of me. Standard dress for a nobleman in eastern lands is a knee-length tunic with baggy sleeves, but a fighting tabard is much skimpier. For the arena we wear thick-soled sandals. Although the nobility of Aureity breed their children for psychic strength, consciously or unconsciously they also favor height, so that size is now almost as good a guide to magical powers as caste is.
Alkin says, "Impressive. If appearance alone could win you admittance to the tourney, noble Quirt, you would have no problem."
I bow again. "You honor me, my lady."
"But princely Sudamina will not be moved by that. She will insist on more information than you have given me."
"But not as much as you could extract. I appreciate your forbearance."
A noblewoman of high or middle caste has only to lay a finger on a man to read his memory like a scroll. Alkin has promised not to do that with me, and is reputed to have high ethical standards. It was that reputation that led me to seek her out.
Amused, she gestures me to a cushion near her. "It is a long time since I harbored a dark horse in my stable. Anyone can tire of routine."
I glance around the terrace. "We seem to be one short. Would you have me go and discover what delays the noble lord?"
She smiles. "I can guess what delays him. We can wait a little while yet."
I sit where I am bidden and cross my legs with care, self-conscious in the tabard as I never recall being in my reckless youth. I note that she has placed me close, but not close enough that I need fear she will suddenly reach out and touch me.
She says, "Since we do have a moment, noble Quirt, perhaps you would assist me. That brawny lad there? I feel he would look better closer to the rocks." She points to one of the duelist statues, a cast-bronze youth wearing a tabard and clutching a sword. The effigy is life size, and attached to a plinth. Altogether it must weigh five or six times what I do.
"Glad to help, noble. A former client?"
"Princely Piese of Lactual. He did marvelously well--Hegemon Firk of Quartic took him to be one of her senior champions. She later assigned him as consort to one of her daughters."
That explains why he looks familiar; I must have seen him around the court at Cuneal, long ago. But Hegemon Firk died before I was born, which dates Alkin herself. "Where would you like the bonny boy?"
Alkin says, "About there." An identical statue takes shape at the other side of the terrace. It is illusion, of course, but very well done.
The effort is within my powers, but the real challenge is to do it from where I am sitting. I take a few deep breaths and then extend my psychic strength. I heft the original, float it across to where she wants it, and gently set it down.
"Much better!" she says. "You are kind, noble Quirt."
We exchange smiles. We both understand that we have just been flirting in a harmless sort of way--she showing off some of her powers and me showing off mine. Men's psychic skills are physical--porting, hefting, wrenching--and women's are mental. They can dissemble, project images, and read minds. At conversational range noblewomen can tell when a man is lying. That alone explains why women rule the world, as my grandfather often says.
"My pleasure, noble. Pray present me to the rest of your heroes."
Smiling, she names the other five bronzes, each representing a cub who did so well in the arena that he was sworn in by either a hegemon or the matriarch of one of the significant families. Clearly Alkin measures success by the commission she earns, and such women pay enormous fees for their champions. When I last competed in the arena, I thought all duelists were mature men of the world and certainly considered myself to be one. The statues all look like boys to me now.
"Your quarters are satisfactory?"
"Admirable, noble lady," I say. "I have never enjoyed finer. In all my travels I have seen no home designed and decorated with finer taste, and few with a better setting."
She knows that my praise is sincere, not empty flattery, and smiles acknowledgment. "The original building did not do justice to the location, but nothing remains of it now. Cupule has been my life's work. And my boys have been my family." She sighs wistfully.
I know more about Alkin of Cupule than she knows about me. Her mother was Gemma of Gravic, a younger daughter of the ruler of Pean, the city across the bay. Gemma is still remembered as a lyric poet. In adulthood, Gemma served as sworn companion of her sister Murena, the heir. When royal Alkin was born, the old ruler gave her the apanage of Cupule, whose revenues would support her in a style befitting her caste.
But by the time Alkin came of age, Murena's daughter had succeeded to the throne and Gemma, too, was dead. Alkin was a mere royal cousin, a commodity rarely in short supply around palaces. All rulers try to limit the size of their nobility and the resulting burden of providing every baby with a lifetime support. Inevitably, Alkin was offered a consort of lower caste, to start her descendants down the steep path out of the nobility.
Alkin declined the man she was offered, and any second or third offers as well. She was banished from court then, and any children she ever bore would rank as ordinaries. She became a duelist manager. That calling is acceptable for a noblewoman, although rarely adopted by one of full royal caste. Cupule, with its marble halls, art collection, and highly trained staff, is evidence that she has been very successful at her avocation. When she dies, it will all revert to her tightfisted cousin, the ruler of Pean.
A bleat of vapid oaths announces that Scuppaug has come forth too close to the shrubbery at the south side of the terrace and snagged his cloak. Scuppaug of Sagene is currently the only other client in Alkin's stable and a typical cub duelist, still suffering from a lingering case of adolescence and arrogant beyond endurance. He always maintains a studied surliness, but today he wears the tabard for the first time and is hiding his apprehension behind rank ill manners. The tabard makes him seem all arms and legs and he sports an unfortunate juicy red pimple on his nose.
Scuppaug is of the knightly class, as shown by his yellow caste mark and the mere six quarterings on his cloak. His tabard is the same green-on-green as mine and his face, excluding the pimple, has a faint greenish tinge to match; I can sympathize, remembering how my own stomach misbehaved the first time I dressed for the arena. There is a world of difference between cheering in the stands and being roasted down on the sand.
Scuppaug should not be wearing his cloak yet, nor a sword at all, but Alkin does not comment. He should bow to her, but doesn't. Because I wear no caste mark or signet ring, he is entitled to ignore me and does.
"We are ready?" Alkin inquires. She holds out a hand in my direction, an ancient gesture that must date back to the Blood Age, when a man could touch a woman without fear. I stand up and then raise her, but I do it with psychic heft, not contact.
"You know the way, knightly Scuppaug?" she inquires.
The boy flinches. "Er, only by a roundabout route."
That is my cue to say, "I will be honored to return and escort you, knightly Scuppaug of Sagene. Ready, noblewoman?"
To try to transport two people at the same time would be insanely dangerous, but a high-caste nobleman can easily take one companion with him when he ports. I recall the arena at Bere Parochian.
* * * PORT * * *
Alkin and I come forth on the arrival stage, a wooden deck in the center of the blazing hot sand of the arena. Without that empty space to aim for, I might have impacted bystanders or any changes made since I last visited the target, with undignified or even dangerous results. Bere Parochian, adjoining Pean to the south, sits directly on the equator, and I feel as if I have dropped into a potter's kiln. After one gasp of lung-scorching air I move us up into an unoccupied spot on the terrace, which is cooler only by comparison.
Although I have never competed there, I know the Bere Parochian arena well. It is quite typical. The circular expanse of white sand is about a hundred feet across, enclosed by a brick wall fifteen or so feet high, which is topped by a narrow terrace. Behind that rises the high grassy berm of the amphitheater. Covered stands for the nobility take up much of the favored west side, but ordinaries are free to bring their straw hats and water bottles and sit anywhere else on the slopes. A dozen or so managers' booths in gaudy colors are lined up along the eastern terrace, and it is to them that I have brought us.
Nobles and ordinaries scurry past like troubled ants. The slopes and stand are filling up with spectators and already the whole amphitheater rumbles with the surflike sound of an excited crowd. I feel an almost-forgotten thrill myself, an echo of youth. I did not come here to enjoy myself, but I know that I will. The arena can be addictive.
We hurry into Alkin's green-green booth. It is merely an open-fronted tent, furnished with a low table and some mats, but at least we are out of the sunlight.
She turns to me with shapely brows raised in appreciation. "It has been a very long time since one of my lads brought me from Cupule to Bere Parochian in one port, noble Quirt. Those who try it usually drop me in the sand. I will mention this to Sudamina."
"I hope I may continue to surprise you this afternoon."
If noble dignity allowed, she would wag a finger at me. "Do not be overconfident! You must not think of the Bere Parochian games as bush league. It is only a bronze tourney, I know, but it is the top of the bronze circuit. It attracts important scouts and serious talent. I have seen baby dragons hatch here."
"I would love to run into a baby dragon here!" I say, quite truthfully.
The arena has a jargon all its own. The competitors are supposed to be young noblemen, showing off their prowess in the hope of attracting offers from agents representing rulers or even, if they are truly gifted, one of the seven hegemons. Such contestants are known as "cubs" and those of high caste are "cubs-with-teeth"--it is rare for any man to defeat one of higher caste than himself. The prizes awarded in the games themselves are immaterial. What a cub is after is the chance to swear lifelong loyalty to a liege in return for some worthy position in her government and the promise that he will eventually be paired with a mistress of equal or higher caste. A man whose children are of lower caste than himself has failed both them and his ancestors. His whole life will depend on his youthful showing in the arena.
I will ask to compete as a "blank," meaning anonymously, without name, caste, or lineage. Meanwhile, my boast about baby dragons has produced a very skeptical expression on my manager's face. I have beaten hegemonies in the past and if I say so, she will know I speak the truth. She will also fear that I have a murky past and insist on reading my memory.
I explain, "Only first-class opposition will help me demonstrate my strength, royal."
I am here to qualify for the silver circuit. A single bronze crown will normally suffice, but an anonymous contender may need more than one, because games marshals have complete discretion to admit or refuse applicants. To defeat a cub-with-teeth will help my campaign. There is even a certain hegemonic lout I would love to smear all over the arena, but there are many bronze tourneys and for him to choose the same one I have would be a bizarre coincidence.
"With your permission, I will go and fetch the cub with pustules."
Alkin's eyelids droop slightly as she notes how I have changed the subject. She is a very perceptive woman. "Don't show off in front of him too much, please. He's suffering enough already."
"I will bring him by easy stages. What is his range, do you know?"
"He claims sixty miles." She smiles wickedly. "It might not hurt to drop him on the sand, though, just on principle."
She is enjoying the novelty of running a blank and I am confident she will get me accepted. Princely Sudamina of Monticle has an ominous reputation even among games marshals, who as a class eat poison-fang carnivores raw, but she and Alkin must have known each other and worked together for many pentads. Friends bend rules for friends.
Down on the arrival stage, people are coming forth and disappearing all the time. How much time do I have to coddle young Scuppaug?
* * * PORT * * *
I come forth on the top of the bank, alongside a crowd of ordinaries. The nearer ones jump in alarm and at least a dozen fall on their knees to me, which is an unwelcome reminder that some noblemen are dangerous. Like the Enemy, for instance, my Enemy, the destroyer I am doomed to destroy.
I laugh to reassure them. "Up, up, good people! I did not come here to spoil your holiday."
From up there I have a view of the whole amphitheater, but at the moment I am only interested in the view toward the city a mile away. Normally the river plain would be deserted in the scorching heat of doublenoon, but today crowds still stream along every path through the paddy fields, heading this way. More are scrambling up the outer slopes below me. I have ample time to fetch Scuppaug, bringing him by several small hops and not making him feel any more insecure than he does already.
Meanwhile the ordinaries are still gaping at me, the children whispering excitedly at being so close to a real duelist. They are all dressed in their best: white cotton breechclouts for the men, bright-colored saris for the women. These inhabitants of Bere Parochian appear to be a healthy and happy throng, although any of them would seem small alongside even Scuppaug of Sagene. They have come here to be entertained by their betters, to see them contest together and hopefully--though even the humblest street sweeper would never put the wicked thought into words--bleed. Accidents do happen in the arena. Men sometimes die and that is a double tragedy, for their opponents are vilified as killers, banned evermore from competition and in effect from the nobility, because only a champion will ever be awarded a noble mistress. But apart from gambling, the prospect of blood is what draws the crowds and gives the games their zest.
"Enjoy your afternoon, yeomen," I tell them. "We will do our best to entertain you. And if you want to cheer for me, so much the better."
"What name should we shout, noble one?" asks a white-haired elder.
"Shout 'Green!' for me. I am a good fighter and have won many crowns." That will send them scrambling to the bookmakers.
Nobles are still coming forth on the platform and vanishing again in a continuous flicker of shapes. The elite's stands are filling up. The lowest section is reserved for the scouts Alkin mentioned, all hoping to identify some talented youngster who can be recruited before anyone else gets to his manager with a better offer. In other words--but words they would never use--they are looking for good breeding stock going cheap.
I count ten managers' booths, each distinguished by its owner's colors. Alkin's two-tone green is near the center of the line, which confirms my suspicion that she is a personal friend of the games marshal. But a couple of others are being dismantled, and that is a bad sign. If some managers are leaving, the card must be filled; my chances of being admitted have just plummeted. I send a quick prayer to Our Father White and go in search of Scuppaug.
* * * PORT * * *
On the cliff terrace at Cupule, the master of Sagene is slumped on a cushion in a sulk. His clumsily folded cloak sits beside mine and his sword has disappeared. He scowls. "You took your time, yeoman."
"I was sightseeing. Ready to show off your beautiful thighs for the girls?"
He jumps up, coloring furiously. "That is an indecent remark!"
"Tabards are indecent garments. You know the real reason they're cut so short?"
The kid hesitates and then bites the hook. "Why?"
"So the buyers can see if our knees are knocking."
He clamps his knees together. I should not mock him. A man of the knightly caste is in danger of seeing his descendants drop out of the nobility altogether. This cub will never rise to the silver circuit, although no doubt an agent for the ruler of some minor realm will make him an offer eventually. As one of his liege's low-caste champions, he will be assigned to guard duty or customs collection or some other near-menial office--I cannot imagine even the tiniest realm ever wanting Scuppaug of Sagene as vizier, which is as high as a man can rise in government.
The arena is his only hope to escape this fate. If he can shine there, demonstrating strength above the level his six quarterings predict, his future ruler may assign him a higher-caste gentlewoman as his mistress, and his children will inherit higher status than he did. He is the sort of consort Alkin must have refused in her day. It is much harder to climb the nobility ladder than it is to fall off.
I heft my cloak to me and set it on the palm of my left hand. "You know the lookout at Turanian Hill, knightly?" I am guessing that the porter who brought him to Cupule will have come by that portage.
Scuppaug hefts his cloak to him and balances it on his left hand. "Yes."
* * * PORT * * *
I come forth on the windy hilltop, close to the grove of miche palms at the summit. But not too close! I never forget how, as an adolescent just developing psychic powers, I bounced off a tree and broke an arm. After a moment, when there is no sign of my companion, I walk into their shade to wait. Three champions and their mistresses come forth and at once port out again. Just when I start to worry, the lad appears a hundred yards down the slope. An instant later he is at my side looking pleased with himself. I wonder how many hops he needed to get here.
"You know Cromb Castle, knightly Scuppaug?"
I see that he is shaking. "What's the matter, for suns' sake? There's nothing to be scared of!"
"It's my first time, that's all." He looks anywhere except at me.
"But no one ever gets hurt."
"Yes they do!"
Ah! "Rarely. You've seen it happen?"
He suppresses a retch. "It went right through him." His face turns greener.
"Ugly! But you won't be fighting today--"
"She said I might be!"
"Or the suns may fall, or I may drop us into the middle of the ocean. Cromb Castle."
* * * PORT * * *
Cromb is a ruin of great antiquity, a relic of the Blood Age when wild, hairy men ruled the world by violence. Now it is merely some rocks scattered over a grassy mound on an island not far offshore. Although the suns' reflections off the water are painful, the sea wind is pleasantly cool. I point out some landmarks to help my companion fix the portage in his memory. He listens and nods.
"And you can recall Turanian Hill from here?"
"Er... Of course!"
Now that he seems calmer, I say, "Whether you compete or not today depends on the numbers. A games marshal will always jiggle the roster until she has exactly sixteen contestants. Eight is too short a card; thirty-two makes a very long day. If she has too many, she rejects some, or leans on managers to pull them. I saw some booths being taken down, so today's games must be over the limit and you need not worry. If she had come up short, the managers would have thrown in a few greenhorns, like you, but then they fiddle the draw to match you against a blank. A loss against a blank does not count as an egg on your record, but a win does count, and you can hardly expect better odds than that, can you? If you don't want to continue, you can make sure you lose in the first round, which is not the slightest bit dangerous. Understand?"
He nods doubtfully.
"There's no shame in being beaten in the first round. A breath of wind can do it. It needs concentration as much as strength and even top men will bollix it sometimes."
"I swear by my ancestors' graves."
"I didn't think a yeoman had any ancestors!" Scuppaug cannot understand why Alkin agreed to manage a contestant who wears no caste mark. He assumes I am an ordinary trying to masquerade as nobility. If he knew the truth he wouldn't speak to me at all.
"I don't. I just happened. Gingall Ridge . . ."
* * * PORT * * *
Ears pop. I steady the kid as he staggers. The view from the ridge is sensational, land and sea forever, but a wind like a skinner's knife blows up there always. A grandly dressed couple come forth a couple of yards away, flinch at the near miss, and vanish again.
"I can't recall Cromb Castle!" Scuppaug says.
I suppress a groan. His range is pathetic. "I don't know any portages between here and there, but that hill must be about halfway, so we'll try a line-of-sight jump back to that. Meanwhile memorize this one, Gingall Ridge. Remember this white rock shaped like an ear. Those two stumps . . . Now listen. Today you are in absolutely no danger. Alkin earns a commission from every buyer who takes one of her boys and--"
"Don't call them buyers, yeoman! They're royal agents! I'm not meat on a slab." He clenches his lips like an angry child.
"No, you are a potential stud for a royal herd." At that I flatter him. A nobleman of low caste--honored or even knightly class--who fails to find a ruler willing to take his oaths may end up in worse state than Alkin, because the apanage he received at birth may not be adequate to support a family. For all I know, Scuppaug's Sagene is no more than a row of rental cottages. The double standard shows--Alkin can accept money, or emerald bracelets, for her managing, but a nobleman who takes wages or engages in trade is disgraced and may even be unnamed by his hegemon. He can end up as an ordinary porter, married to an ordinary woman, and delivering letters around a city to feed his slightly oversized ordinary children. I don't remind my young friend of that dread fate, of course.
"Alkin takes your tuition fees, doesn't she? The old vulture will keep milking you as long as she possibly can. She won't let you get hurt."
"You insult your betters! You are a disgusting cynic!"
"I have much to be cynical about." My own terms with Alkin are different. I have told her that I need to make a name for myself as Quirt of Mundil, but I will not be accepting offers. I have other plans. She has been careful not to ask me what those are.