None of this was any concern of Dethan’s. He had much more important things to tackle and trying to comprehend the whims of fate was a waste of his energies. He had to stay focused on his goal. Get a horse. Get to his cache. Get an army. It was as simple as that, and yet in his present circumstances it was also hard.
He and Tonkin moved into the fair and Dethan found himself feeling on edge. He didn’t know why at first, because there was nothing at all threatening about the happy people milling about, enjoying the vendors’ wares and eating the large quantities of foods available. Everyone was relaxed and having a good time.
After a while he realized it was the crowd itself that was the problem. He had spent an untold amount of time chained up alone in the hells, with no one but himself for company. Here he was thrust into the mix of hundreds of people, packed end to end in some places where the crowd bottlenecked between two vendors or where there was an attraction, such as the dancing gossels presently taking place. The six-legged beastie was better served up broiled and salted, in his opinion, but to each his own.
Dethan’s best bet was to get out of there as soon as possible. But there was one other thing he needed before he could go, and this crowd might help him to get it. There were clothing vendors all about and possibly he could nick a shirt to go with his pants. Once he did that he would be able to wear his armor. Without underpadding it could be painful … but he would suffer the pain and chafing if it meant getting on with his journey.
He was keeping his eyes open when he saw an opportunity. But before he could move toward taking advantage of it, his companion grabbed him around one of his arms and dragged him toward a raucous uproar of shouting.
“Shivov fights!” his companion said with no little amount of glee.
The more things changed, the more they didn’t. How many centuries had it been since he had been dragged into the hells? And yet shivov fighting still existed. He had won four shivov matches in his time. He could not have afforded to lose. No one could, for it was a death match. There were winners and then there were corpses. There was no ground given, only ground that was taken.
Unable to help himself, he was drawn toward the arena. The crowd was even thicker here and his apprehension ratcheted up to a new level. He struggled with himself. Forced himself to shove down all the anxiety clawing through him. He tried to remind himself that he had once been one of the most renowned and most feared warlords of his time. But with a body still burned and barely healed, he was hardly more than a shadow of who he had once been.
Tonkin, for all his slight build and undernourished state, had surprising strength in him as he dragged Dethan to a place right at ringside, shoving into the space for all he was worth and receiving some angry epithets in the process. Right away Dethan could see the two fighters, seeming at first glance unevenly matched. One was burly, no more than three straps tall, by the look of him, but carrying a good two hundred rocks if he carried one. His opponent was closer to four straps tall, the same as Dethan, and also like Dethan—when healthy—was about a hundred and seventy-five rocks, give or take. It would be a fairer match if Dethan were in the ring rather than the stockier man. But it was obvious right away that each had their strengths.
And as soon as the first blow connected, something else was very obvious as well.
The weapons were blunted.
“How do they expect them to fight to the death with blunted weapons?” Dethan asked his new friend. “Are they forcing them to do this more brutally? Forcing them to kill each other with their bare hands?”
Tonkin gave him another one of those looks.
“They aren’t trying to kill each other! They haven’t done that since my father’s father was a boy! No, here it’s to the edge of the ring. Whichever fighter can toss the other out of the ring is the winner.”
“You must be joking,” Dethan said with a scoffing laugh. It had to be a jest. Shivov was the most glorious test there was of manhood and of a warrior’s skills. “What do your youngbloods do to prove themselves men?”
“A shivov test. This same here,” Tonkin said, indicating the fight. “That’s right, Willem. Give ’em what for!” he yelled at the top of a pair of mighty lungs. “Keeps us from losing some fine young men,” he said to Dethan.
“How fine can they be if they lose their fight?” Dethan muttered. Training for one’s shivov fight took every moment of every day; it forced a man to make a weapon of himself. Learn or die. Improve or die. Without that goal, what force drove men these days to better themselves? To make them reach the pinnacle of performance?
The fight was over a moment later when the shorter man used his low center of gravity and exploited his opponent’s overreaching swings, catching him under his ribs and sending him flying backward over the barrier of the ring. With a roar, the barbarian claimed his victory, showing off to the adulating crowd. Then he moved forward and made a kneeling bow to someone in the stands on the far side of the ring. The minute Dethan saw the teal coloring of her cap and the darkness of her veil, pulled down over her face, he knew it was the grandina. Seated beside her in the position of overseer was the jenden she was engaged to.
“I, Jjanjiu, am your champion, woman!” the warrior called out rudely to her. “Give me my reward. Give me my gold and give me my kiss!”
A kiss? That was what the victor got for winning? And now she had to give it to this overbearing and obviously unclean oaf? He wasn’t even that worthy an opponent, all bluster and strength and no finesse. Even across the way from her, even with the veil, Dethan could see the discomfort on her features.
“That’s the jenden’s doing,” Tonkin confided. “Offering her up to a commoner like a prize. She’s too good for us lot, and so she should be. But he does it to embarrass her. He does a lot of things to her to get back at her for being in a more exalted position than him, if you ask me.”
“Are there no other challengers?” the grandina asked in a loud, clear voice, but Dethan could hear the quaver of discomfiture in her tone.
“Give me a weapon and I will challenge him, Grandina.”
Had those words just come out of his mouth? It must be the press of the crowd. It must be the heat of the day. No, it had to be for the gold, he told himself, satisfied at last with that reasoning. That and the offensive idea that this piece of ill-skilled trash could ever consider calling himself a champion. It was probably better the battle wasn’t to the death because it would be unfair, since he was now immortal. Not that his opponent would know that.
He stepped into the ring, making certain the grandina could see him clearly, and he could tell immediately that she recognized him, and that she was relieved beyond words that he had stepped forward. Why she thought he, with his burn-scarred body, was anything better than the other oaf was beyond him. But he would not be burn-scarred forever. His body would eventually heal … although not for a while, because by the time he healed enough for it to show, the curse would be upon him again at dusk and he wouldn’t be any more healed then than he was now. But he had to realize that anything would appear better to her than a lumbering man with rotten stumps for teeth in his mouth. Gods only knew the type of kiss the lecherous hecka was seeking to have. The very idea disgusted him, just as much as it must disgust her.
He would not be asking for a kiss, he thought. Gold was enough at this juncture.
When he reached the center of the ring, he bent to pick up the blunt wooden practice sword that the previous contestant had been divested of.
His opponent turned and, upon seeing him, let out a raucous barroom laugh. “This is the best the stinking city has to offer me? A gnarled, scarred stump of a man?”
Dethan looked down at his hands, thinking he wasn’t all that gnarled and his burns were nowhere near as bad as they had been an hour before. In fact, it was the best he had looked or felt in eons. The truth was he had been immortalized at the peak of his physical prowess, and so he would always be, once he had the time to heal. But even as injured as he presently was, he was more than a match for this man. The shape of his body was one thing; the cunning and skill earned on the battlefield was something that could never be removed.
Dethan stood still, watching the other man carefully as he hefted the weight of his wooden battle-axe in his hands, swinging it threateningly every so often. The man growled and made a violent lunge for Dethan in a sudden rush, barreling into him, a tactic he had used to haul the previous opponent over the barrier of the ring. Dethan allowed himself to be picked up, and then he rolled over the man’s shoulder, down his back, and back onto his feet, leaving Jjanjiu to stumble without resistance, face-first, into the mud of the ring. The crowd erupted into laughter and Dethan supposed it was a hilarious sight. Just as the idea of this low beast besting anyone of any real skill was as big a joke as was ever told. If he was the best this city had to offer, then perhaps Dethan would make this city his first conquest. There were certainly spoils to be had, he noted. And since this city seemed to worship Xaxis, it seemed a good place to start. To take away worshippers from Xaxis while gaining them for Weysa would double the impact in Weysa’s favor. Without a doubt it would please her. And there would be a certain amount of irony in the idea that the grand’s gold would be funding the city’s downfall. But he would not oust the grand entirely … if he were worth anything as far as management and political skills were concerned. Dethan needed others to run his cities as he went off and conquered more cities. And since all his former generals were no longer alive …
He was missing his brothers even more now. He could have used them by his side. As it was, he was very much a man alone.
His thoughts did him a disservice. They distracted him from the roundhouse blow of his opponent’s axe and he caught it in his right ribcage, the blow taking him off his feet and sending him flying aside and into the mud, his sword flinging free of his hand. He pushed to his hands, but a powerful, weighty foot on his spine shoved him back down into the mud. But here the mud worked in his favor. He rolled beneath that foot, the friction completely nil around his thoroughly lubricated body, grabbed the heavier man’s foot, and jerked it forward hard. Rolling just far enough to get out of the way as Jjanjiu fell onto his back in the mud.
Once the man was down, Dethan kicked at him, forcing him to roll, making certain he was equally covered in the slick mud. He wouldn’t wrestle with the man—mud wrestling was exhausting and pointless—but it would put them on equal footing if they were both covered in the stuff. Holding on to a weapon while muddied up like this was tricky, and he wanted his opponent to struggle with it just as much as he would.
While Jjanjiu was sputtering, spitting out mud and obscenities, Dethan scrambled for his sword. Really, it was useless. What he needed was something with weight and power, something to countermand the weight of his opponent. Something like that battle-axe Jjanjiu was sporting.
Jjanjiu was back on his feet, angry now, letting his emotions take over his fight. It was yet another flaw of many. He so arrogantly thought he was undefeatable. Dethan would prove otherwise and he would do so with a cool head. Emotion had no place in a shivov contest. He had watched many in his day, and it was always the fighter who became frustrated, insulted, or angry who lost the battle. Emotions made you do things wrong. It served you ill no matter how skilled you were. It was why he never let emotion color his battles. Or anything else, for that matter.
By the time Jjanjiu hit the mud again, he had been completely divested of his battle-axe and the weapon was seated firmly in his opponent’s hands. Adding to the embarrassment, Dethan threw the sword down in front of the other man, as if to make it very clear that he was simply toying with the brute. Enough to be unconcerned about giving the man a weapon to replace the one he had just lost.
“Would you like to try again?” Dethan asked archly.
The fury in Jjanjiu’s face was all too obvious. It was reflected in his roar as he grabbed up the sword and charged Dethan. Dethan sidestepped him and swung the battle-axe down hard on the back of his opponent’s neck. Had he been paying attention, he would have heard the crowd audibly wince. But all his focus was on Jjanjiu. The man might be clumsy and enraged, but underestimating him would be foolish. And still, Dethan had to get him closer to the edge of the ring. They had been traveling that way since the beginning of the fight, moving from the center toward the edge closest to the grandina’s viewing box. Dethan looked up, easily finding her because of that brightly colored cap, so blue in a sea of muddy browns and blacks. Their eyes locked, and while it didn’t distract him from his goal, he felt something, something charged and intense, pass between them. There was something in her eyes …
Gratitude. It was gratitude. Because she knew he was going to win and somehow, in her eyes, he was the better choice of the two of them. She would not mind giving him his reward, however muddy and burn-scarred he might be.
Jjanjiu charged a second time, and once again, Dethan sidestepped him, this time grabbing the man by the back of his pants, and with a tremendous hauling movement Dethan used his own momentum to send Jjanjiu over the ring barrier.
The crowd roared in delight, the shouting beating at him from all around. He kicked the wooden sword away and held up the axe, eliciting yet another roar of approval. Then he walked the final steps to the viewing box and said, “You have your true champion now, most beautiful lady.” He bowed to her, putting his fist to his heart. But, again, he did not take his eyes away from her. As she moved down the stands, he thought of how brave she must be. Knowing that her immediate fate rested in the hands of a mud-slung vagrant of obviously no breeding and maybe only a little skill to speak for him in her eyes said more about her bravery than Jjanjiu’s self-boastings had and with far more honesty.
When she stood before him, he became aware of the dead silence at his back and that hundreds of eyes were straining to see what was about to pass between the mud slug and the grandina. But more than that, he became aware of the softest cloud of scent drifting toward him, something sweet and clean yet lush and rich at the same time.
It was her perfume. And like her, it was beautiful and bold. In her hands she held a velveteen purse, the weight impressive for such a simple contest. It made him realize just how wealthy this city was, that sums like this could be awarded for child’s play.
“Your purse, champion,” she said, keeping her voice raised, even though he could tell by the trembling in her fine-boned hands that it was taking a great deal of effort for her to keep up her appearance of calm and graciousness. She handed the purse to him and he took it carefully with a single palm. She let go and could have withdrawn, keeping herself free of contact with him, but he felt her fingertips suddenly running along his forearm, through the mud caked and dried there like a damp and crumbling shell.
“You are burned,” she said softly, the words meant for their ears alone.
He didn’t think before saying, “As are you.” He regretted the words almost instantly, but instead of taking offense she simply nodded. Now that he was up close, he found himself realizing that her eyes matched her hat almost perfectly. A brilliant, glorious teal. As if the great dye makers had come up with the color for only two purposes: first, her eyes; then, her hat. And beyond that, there would never be anything to match. Her hair was black, as pure a black as ever there was, the gloss of it shining like well-oiled leather. It was all pulled up away from her face so tightly, leaving her corkscrew curls covered by her cap and only a single sprig, and that was curled into the tightest of natural curls, let loose in front of her ear. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until just then that he realized almost every person he’d laid eyes on that day had had blade-straight hair. His own hair, a brown like the darkest of nuts, had a curl to it also though nowhere near as tight as hers were. It was true of all the brothers.
“Forgive me. That was rude,” he said hastily. Awkwardly. In his time, women who were not in service to the gods were not given places of prestige. But he was aware that he was not in his time and he tried to act accordingly. He had never seen a woman who looked like her, other than a goddess, and he had learned the hard way not to cross a goddess.
“Not at all,” she soothed him gently. “I believe I started it.”
Yes. Of course she had. He should stop acting so foolishly tongue-tied. No matter what the time, what the place, he was a warrior and he would behave as such!
“I have my reward and I will take my leave,” he said briskly, turning to do so. But her sudden grip on his wrist stayed him as the shackles of the hells had stayed him.
“But not all of your reward is given,” she said. And this time it was she who seemed awkward.
Ah. The kiss, he realized after a moment.
“I have no interest in your other reward,” he said brusquely.
She looked as though he had slapped her, and he became aware of the murmur, the unkind murmur, of the crowd.
“What? You insult your grandina in such a beastly manner?!” Dethan looked up to see the jendan surging to his feet from his seat in the viewing box above them.
“She is not my grandina, for I am not from here,” Dethan barked back at him. He turned to look again at the woman before him. “And I would not debase her so by asking her to kiss one such as I.”
Understanding lit her features as well as a sort of relief. That was when he realized she had thought he had found her offensive. But everything the opposite was true. He merely found her to be … untouchable.
He did not deserve this woman’s beauties. He had much sin upon his head and much filth upon his body. He would no sooner kiss a priestess of Kitari, the goddess who was considered to be the most beautiful and demanded her priestesses be of rivaling beauty.
“Then you must be rewarded in some other way,” she spoke up. She seemed to cast about in her mind for a solution, but then she smiled. “You will dine at table with me tonight.”
“My dear!” The protest was meant to be cajoling, but the jenden had barked it out with too much force. He corrected his tone when she shot him an acidic glare. “Your grandness, you will forgive me for saying so, but this man … He is little more than a beast covered with filth and mud. Are we all to suffer over our meals?”
“Yes,” she hissed. And that was all. One sibilant yes and the jenden paled a little and backed down, but he did not look happy about it and his eyes were filled with an unholy sort of hatred. But no sooner had the impression registered on Dethan than it was gone and the jenden was smiling with acquiescence.
“Anything you desire, my dear.”
“Yes. Anything I desire,” she said. These were not the words of a spoiled, childish girl, however. Merely the powerful words of a woman who knew what she wanted and what she had the right as grandina to ask for. “You will come with us. Grannish, I wish to return home now.”
“But we only just arrived. You were so looking forward to coming,” he hedged.
“I have seen all I needed to see for today. The fair will be here for a week, and tomorrow is another day.” Then she spoke to Dethan, whom she had never turned away from during her exchange with Grannish. “Since it is clear you do not come from here and do not know the way, you will walk behind us and we will go slowly. You will rest, wash yourself, and we will find you some proper clothing.” She brushed her hand absently down the front of her gown, drawing his attention to the long length of her brown skirt. The bottom hem, which settled just above her toes, was made of brown leather for a full forearm’s length before the bottom. The rest was of a much finer and softer fabric. One could see the intelligence in the design, for the leather was spattered with the mud that seemed so prevalent in the city. The rest … It made him wonder what she had hidden beneath so much fabric. More burns perhaps? In his time, in his city, clothing had been short, light, and much less cumbersome than this was. Everyone could see what was to be seen on others they met. Then again, he could understand the design of their mode of dress, for it had been cool and wet the entire time as the day had worn on.
He wanted to turn her down. He had far more pressing things to attend to. But the sad truth was that he was hungry and he was dirty and he was in need of proper clothing. It was true he could have bought all those things now, if the weight of his new purse were anything to judge by, but he had other provisions to think about and there was no knowing how far his new coin would stretch. The journey across the desert promised to be an arduous one and he needed to be careful. He might be immortal, but he would feel every moment of the suffering being stranded in the desert would heap upon him, and he’d had his fill of burning and suffering.
Thinking of that made him look at the lowering sun once more. He had maybe two hours before it set entirely, by the look of it. Two hours to get fed and get out of reach of anyone else.
“Very well, lovely grandina,” he said, touching his fist to his heart. “But I cannot stay long, for I have a long journey ahead of me.”
“A journey?” she asked with some amount of incredulity. Then she waved off the reaction. “Rest assured, we will eat within the hour,” she guaranteed him. “Then you are free to do whatever it is you will. Come. Follow us to the fortress.” She turned away from him and, lifting her skirt in one hand, she began to walk away. When she turned back to see if he was following and saw him standing still, she laughed at him. “Come. I promise I will not bite you,” she said, holding out her hand blindly, as if she knew someone was going to take it for her. And surely someone did. The jenden was there to grasp it like a well-trained gormlet. She waited until Dethan took his first step, and then, with an expression of pure satisfaction, she let Grannish lead her away.