It took Claudia a while to get out of bed on the day of the match. She unenthusiastically washed and dressed. Her stomach revolted when she tried to eat breakfast, so she settled for a cup of tea—hot for once.
Headsplitter is undefeated, but it seems impossible that a man like Reginald could fail. He was Sallith’s greatest guard and he’s a far more worthy opponent than the thugs and rapists Headsplitter usually cuts to pieces. I’ve never seen one of these arena death matches, why should I start now?
Her door rumbled when Rat knocked, still sensitive from how hard Augustus’ thug had wrenched it open. “Claudia, are you ready?”
“Just a minute.”
Rat and Claudia walked to the Colosseum without saying a word. They’d known each other only a short time, but it was as though they’d been friends for years.
I guess I’m okay with him reading my thoughts. Claudia raised her eyebrows. But maybe that’s just because he doesn’t react to them unless he should. Anyway, he trusts me with his secret. That counts for something.
They stopped outside the south entrance of the Colosseum on Street Seven.
“This is where I leave you,” said Rat.
That didn’t help Claudia’s stomach. “Oh?”
Rat leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Remember when I said crowds are a problem for me? This many people at once, as little as they actually think, is still too much.”
“All right.” She started to sweat. “Will you come back when it’s over?”
“There are a few other criminals fighting for their freedom after the Captain. Do you plan to watch?”
“Then I’ll be right here after Reginald’s match.” Rat waved her on.
She turned and walked through an arch untouched by the sun. The loud hum of the crowd rumbled above her. She walked toward the wide stairs that ascended to the ring of seats.
Claudia stepped into the bright sunlight and the cacophony of the crowd.
“Flowers, miss?” a man yelled from behind a small stand.
The stand was brimming with color. It reminded her of the roof she and Rat were standing under the night he told her about his ability.
“Two silver for a bundle, miss.”
“What are they for?”
“It’s good luck to throw flowers in the pit when your fighter wins. I knew this match would bring out the crowds. It’s going to be a good day!” Nine of the ten collapsible pots hanging on the front of the stand were empty. The man held out a pink flower and winked. “Can I not tempt you? Surely one of the fine beasts down there will catch your eye.”
One certainly has. “I don’t have any coins on me, but thank you.” They were hidden under the bathtub in a corner of Claudia’s apartment. Good luck? I wish Rat were here. He could tell me if the man made that up or not.
“Not to worry, dear. Enjoy the match.”
Claudia made her way up the steps along with the other latecomers. There were quite a few ladies with flowers-in-hand sprinkled among the crowd.
The best seat she could find was in the upper level. Claudia sat down and stared at the red sand. I wonder how much blood has actually been spilled here.
“Good people of Mirek, wait no longer!”
The loud din of the crowd turned into cheers and howls as soon as the announcer’s magic-enhanced voice broke over the Colosseum.
“Headsplitter, our undefeated champion, will fight his ninety-first match to the death. His worthy opponent is none other than...”
Claudia wasn’t interested in listening to the description of Reginald and his crimes—which would no doubt offend her. Other less-than-reassuring thoughts flooded her mind instead. She felt a thump, then another, and the portcullises began to rise.
Two men in tan leather armor stepped onto the sand. Like Headsplitter and his halberd, Reginald casually wielded his great sword in one hand as they walked to the center of the arena. If not for Reginald’s impressive height, it would’ve been impossible to tell them apart without their weapons.
“Begin!” boomed Sallith’s voice.
Claudia was suddenly energized. She felt certain that this would turn out all right. She gritted her teeth and stood up with the crowd. “Kill him!”
Juxxa winced at the King’s voice. After this match I’ll only have to hear that wretched word from him nine more times. He analyzed his opponent as he waited for him to make the first move.
Reginald was a real fighter. He wasn’t concerned or frustrated by Juxxa’s strategy. He orbited the Ozarian, calmly waiting for his chance.
Reginald charged, holding the long blade up and back in both hands. He looked like a scorpion poised to sting as he lunged forward. Juxxa sprang into the air as Reginald swept the great sword down at his legs in a huge arc. Damn, almost got a leg and a half, thought Reginald.
Juxxa swung the halberd above his head and diagonally at Reginald who spun away, barely escaping the sharp blades before they scraped a deep gash in the red sand. Reginald pointed his massive weapon at his foe.
The thrill of a challenge awakened Juxxa. He twisted the ball of his foot into the momentum-killing sand. I’d wager that he’s not used to fighting on this mush. He lowered his chin and stared his first worthy opponent in the eye.
They rushed each other. The halberd and great sword collided repeatedly with resounding clangs. Juxxa and Reginald thrust and parried back and forth, sweat flying off each man as he dodged, ducked, and spun away from death’s slice more than once.
Matches were usually over before the audience could organize a chant. But today, instead of Juxxa’s usual quick slaughter, the people were seeing a proper battle. The bloodthirsty crowd’s baying for blood was replaced by rhythmic chorus of “Headsplitter,”-the crowd’s delight ringing through the name of their hero. But Reginald's name wasn't entirely lost on them either.
“You’re skilled.” It was the first time Juxxa had ever spoken to an opponent before he’d defeated him. “But your strikes are not true.”
“Latalla!” Reginald shouted to the sky. “Let me serve you or let me meet you! I gratefully accept either fate!”
Juxxa and Reginald rushed each other. The fighters grew more daring with each loud clash of metal. Juxxa blocked Reginald’s sword with the long pole of his weapon, pushing or thrusting the great sword away and swinging his halberd in return. Juxxa’s counterstrikes often came over his head or out of a spin, whatever the momentum dictated. But Reginald was extremely agile at dodging Juxxa’s deadly metal, and just as adept with his own.
Reginald’s sword crashed down onto Juxxa’s raised halberd. He fell to one knee, whipped the halberd away, and rolled under the sword as he swung for Reginald’s legs. The former guard stabbed his blade into the dirt in time for it to stop the halberd’s axe with a dull clang. Reginald plucked his blade from the ground, lifting sand between them.
There was a sudden pain in Juxxa’s side. The wound above his right hip wasn’t deep, but his armor was pierced and turning the color of the sand. The champion retreated to the side of the arena, keeping an eye on his opponent.
Reginald took off toward Juxxa with a wild battle cry, leaping into the air to deliver his blow. Juxxa lifted his halberd and jutted the spear through the center of Reginald’s breastplate. The spear broke through Reginald’s back. It was a perfect impalement.
Juxxa held Reginald up like a banner, the pole growing red from the draining wound. Juxxa pulled back his weapon and raised it above his head. Reginald coughed up blood as he stumbled to his knees.
The crowd cheered like never before. Flowers began raining around the edges of the pit, for some reason. There even seemed to be some cries in favor of Reginald’s skill and bravery.
Reginald struggled to remain upright in the pool of his own blood. Despite the frenzied crowd, he thought he heard someone crying out to him.
“A good effort.” Juxxa swung the axe down, splitting open Reginald’s head and chest. Not a perfect cut. The next one will be. He dislodged the gory mess from the halberd with his foot before leaving the arena for his fountain.
Rat was waiting for Claudia at the south entrance of the Colosseum. People were starting to file out.
Another amazing fight.
The best yet.
Rat slowly shook his head. A man Claudia could’ve loved is dead... and I funded it. She was desperate and I just wanted to help.
A good man was gone, and no amount of money could fix that. Rat needed to get a few drinks and think about how he was going to make this right. He headed for the Dry Stalk. “I’m sorry,” he said as he walked away.
Claudia sat in the arena for hours. She wasn’t watching the minor matches. Eventually night fell and the guards had to force her out.
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