“What did you just do?” Claudia said, rushing up the steps. All suspicion due to Rat’s hesitation had disappeared with him.
“Follow me, please,” Merrian said, waving and turning to walk back into the atheneum. “The moonlight makes my head shine.”
“I want to know what you’re doing—now.”
“Well, well, you’re a bit stupid, aren’t you?” Merrian said. “You’re not informed, so don’t treat me like the enemy just because you’re confused. To explain, I’ll need to tell you some things. Things I won’t say in the middle of the street. Follow me.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then you learn nothing, never save Rat, and you will be unable to fund the matches for your arena contract. I imagine Sallith won’t appreciate you offending him twice, now will he?”
Faced with no answer, Claudia had to clamp her teeth and follow the woman down, into a lower area through a narrow set of stairwells. Here, it was too cold on her bare arms, and she hugged her torso on the way through this sparkling cellar. It was about the size of her mother’s home, but an open expanse of solid rock. The only thing lighting the place was a glittering, bizarre ice which coated the ceiling and much of the walls. It had a clustered, octagonal, crystalline shape, but was clearly the source of the atheneum’s cold breeze.
Wait, she said I had offended Sallith twice. How does she know such a thing?
When Claudia inquired exactly that, Merrian let out a mewling sneeze.
It must have been a signal, because a broad male figure jumped in front of her from the corner of the cellar. Something tripped her, and she landed on her back, bashing the back of her head. Her vision melted and re-shaped. Circular pressure on her forehead made tears well in her eyes.
A man loomed over her, one hand gripping his halberd and using the opposite end as a weight on her forehead, holding her in place.
Damn, it’s that thug who dragged me to Augustus, right before I met Rat… what is going on?
Then she really noticed the halberd, glimmering from the dynamic blue sparkles.
“It was you,” Claudia said.
Merrian was taken by surprise. “So, you meant to see him killed and did not even know his face?”
“Not surprising,” Headsplitter said. “I am only seen by the public from far below.”
The woman came into view. “Here’s the truth, you alleyway garbage: I went to the King, and Headsplitter, and told them what you’re doing. I have my own plans for the arena.”
“Surprise, whore!” An unpleasant, throaty voice exclaimed from behind her. She tilted her eyes up and saw Augustus upside-down, so tall that his silhouette looked like a warped tree. “I’m good friends with Headsplitter. You went to the worst person for help. Merrian pulled her connections and found the only person who could contact him and set up a meeting: me. And I was all too willing to help.”
“What is this?” Claudia shouted. “Help me! Someone!”
“This room is secured,” Headsplitter said. His voice was plain, almost boyish, but stained with the desire not to waste effort on her. “No one will find us.”
I’m going to get through this. I got through being caught by Sallith… because Reginald sacrificed himself for me. No, I can find a way! They’ll pay. They’ll all beg me for mercy when I turn this against them!
“Don’t worry,” Merrian said, “I’ll be able to pick up the slack in your arena plan. I don’t expect those Ozarians to win against him, which is pivotal in my plan.”
At this, Headsplitter only blinked, and pushed the halberd harder. Claudia couldn’t even grit her teeth, let alone scream. It felt like any movement in her head would be the breaking point.
“Thank you, Claudia,” Merrian said. “My idea would not have been possible without you. So perhaps you shouldn’t feel too bad about whatever happens to Rat. After all, he got you into this.”
“I don’t want to rush you along…” Augustus said, rubbing his throat to keep phlegm out of the way of his words. “But, when will I have what I was promised?”
The agonizing weight of the halberd left Claudia’s forehead, and Headsplitter made a nonchalant jab that painted dark syrup all down Claudia’s face and bosom.
“Oh, Seers,” she said.
Augustus wheezed and stumbled beside her. Tiny droplets pattered her ears, and the towering merchant fell into a curved kneel, and she watched as his cupped hands filled with viscera at his midsection. A single stab from the spear and axe had opened his entire gut and cracked his spine.
“Merrian can translate Elven,” Headsplitter said, “and she knows more about what the elves are planning. I don’t need you anymore, and your interests repulse me.”
Augustus fell to the side, his weight crushing Claudia just below her ribs.
The pain and the trailing lines of fluid on her skin had pulled her mind away. She thought nothing, had not reacted or perceived what was happening, until she felt Augustus on top of her.
“Can you just… let me touch you… before I die?” His hand landed on her stomach and the fingers crawled like spider legs from her navel and downward.
“No!” She realized the halberd was no longer weighing down her skull and she scrambled to her feet, but hit some sort of invisible wall right at the base of the steps.
“I set a Torrach barrier,” Headsplitter said. “You will not escape.”
"So you can cast the fourth rank," Merrian said. "Astonishing! And don't bother, Claudia. You couldn't possibly scratch a barrier of this kind."
“Help me!” She clawed at the unseen wall, but it was smoother than oiled ice. Still, her nails scratched some of it free. She could feel it, something powdery. Then a biting force in her shoulder pulled her back. Headsplitter had used the rear point of his axe blade as a hook.
Strangely, Claudia’s shoulder strap did not redden with blood. Somehow, the blade hadn’t pierced her skin.
“Vextrus,” the Ozarian said, holding out a palm to Claudia. Her skin pulled taught around her face-up side, as if she weighed ten times as much as usual. “I have you bound to the floor, so don’t try to move. You could tear your skin—stop!”
Claudia wriggled against the invisible force. The pulling within her neck, sides, arms, and legs was agonizing, but never felt like she was going too far, even though her reckless instinct drove her to move at any cost. She felt like an animal chewing off one of its limbs to escape a trap.
“Since I’m not heartless, I’ll tell you something, Claudia,” Merrian said. “Rat is safe, for now. And you’d ask how I could possibly know. That’s because I can read his mind.”
Claudia slowed her thrashing.
“You see, Rat’s not the only one with that power, although mine is different. Rat experienced his as he grew up, but mine was something I had to unleash at the right time. My power attaches to a single person, once, and no matter the distance, I’ll always be able to hear their thoughts, forever. I chose Rat.”
She leaned into Claudia’s view by bending over.
“That’s right. I have known Rat’s thoughts for over a decade. I knew what he thought of you, his desire to help you, and through his more recent thoughts, every step of your plans against the King. To be honest, they line up very well with what I’ve been working on myself. It must have been fate that Rat finally came to me of his own volition. Reaching out would be too suspicious, you understand. I even invited Kaj and Kimora to the city months in advance, knowing this opportunity would come.”
“What are you?”
“I call our kind the Chosen. At long last, I understand why we have these powers. Who gave them to us. I understand the futility of this world. It all needs to change. You and Rat will play separate roles. Besides, he was going to tell you something very personal about me.”
A wave of hot blood ran all through Claudia. She wanted to smash Merrian’s head against the floor until nothing remained. Suddenly, as if it had somehow affected Merrian, the bald woman pinched the middle of her brow, like staving off a headache.
“Can you put her to sleep without hurting her too much?” Merrian asked Headsplitter.
“Easily.” Then a heavy-footed sandal stomping on her head closed off the light in Claudia’s world.
Many days later, it was time for the match.
A guard in toxic armor rolled Claudia forward in her shackled wheelchair, the only thing holding her together. She could not possibly move, mostly due to hunger, thirst, and having had nearly every joint dislocated.
Rusted iron clamps, biting her forearms and shins for days on end now, would leave long-lasting indentations, if they ever actually parted from her flesh. Her armpits were tight and tingly, with little remnants of burnt hair. She had been shaved well there, to better focus a candle flame over them while her arms were affixed for days.
That she was now in the Colosseum was obvious, but her only way of knowing a palace guard was moving her were the heavy, clinking steps and nose-burning odor. It took her a moment to realize how high up she was on this shaded platform. Then she saw the simple throne, Sallith one step away. He turned back, leaned backward, and then turned to someone on the other side of his seat.
“I thought you had killed her for a moment!” the King said. “She looks a foot taller! Have you no restraint, woman?”
Claudia’s eyes veered in his general direction, then lazily returned to staring ahead and down to match her drooping head.
“She did not scream, not once,” Merrian said. “Besides, it is important that she be weakened, to not pose a threat, my king.” Her high cadence was burned into Claudia’s memory. “Remember what we discussed.”
“Yes, yes, fine.” He crossed his legs, which she could not see, but heard in the flexing on his drake leather grieves.
Merrian had her own plans, ones she had formed well before Claudia's. Somehow, Merrian had used Claudia's arena scheme to enact her own, which was still unknown to Claudia. Her ability to read Rat's mind had given the royal teacher a guide for exactly when to act.
When Merrian first entered Claudia's cell, she explained this to her. "I just want you to understand—there's nothing you can do about it."
She had thrashed, back then, bound to a diagonal table and chained by her wrists and ankles. She swore revenge, demanded explanation, made threats, assured her Rat would come back from wherever he was, but then Merrian spoke.
“We have Daliah,” she said, turning the gear as the two halves of the rack moved apart. Her skin tightened, even at the scar tissue on her back. Her eyes, involuntarily, began to leak at the itching of those low, old wounds. “Resist, and she dies.”
That brought her mentality to where she was now. Merrian had adjusted the rack far too much, but it didn’t matter. Things continued to pop and split while she was left in the dark. The pain kept her from wondering how her skin would not just tear away, or how the candle flames hadn’t burned it down to muscle or bone. Merrian hadn’t remarked on it either way, as if that was a given fact that Claudia’s skin could not be pierced.
She only saw a single moon in the small window of her cell, and it had turned from full to half since she had awakened on the rack. When Merrian finally took her down and had servants wash her filth-caked body to see the match, she shrieked and retched as the bones and joints of her arms, pulled for what seemed like forever, moved unnaturally in the water.
They were surely broken, perhaps beyond proper healing, even with magic. The agony was her only gift, covering most of the humiliating sensation of hands touching her. Once dried and dressed, she had been forced into this chair.
And now, Merrian is here as well, to watch Headsplitter murder Kaj and Kimora, Claudia thought, since naturally she could have warned Headsplitter about their strategy against him, if they had one. Might as well make this as horrible as possible. In the tiniest of graces, the guards had moved away, now that she was in the right spot to witness the arena. The odor was much weaker now. Why bother? Overwhelm me, Merrian. Push me until something truly important bursts or crumbles. Let me die.
The crowd rumbled with impatience. The match was going to start soon. She shut her eyes as tears streamed down. I don’t want to watch. Just let me die.
The aristocratic teacher, meanwhile, shielded her eyes from the sun with one hand, although there were thick clouds all over. She too had a bit of welling in her lower lids. My eyes are weak from reading, she thought with a smile. This is a wonderful day for a marksman. Well lit, but no glare.
It hadn’t been easy, taking the deal for herself and convincing the fighters not to back out. Her biggest fear was they would ask to see Claudia or Rat, but she had gotten around that by her best skill: poisoning the soup of truth with vague lies. Claudia and Rat were away, for a different issue that needed to be addressed. She also had to raise the payment considerably, which made her now wish that they’d succeed. As long as Kimora got hurt, her trap would finally spring—and if Headsplitter lost, well, he had outlived his usefulness anyway.
And so, the King, his reluctant assistant in an important matter, and a decrepit, broken ex-jurist all waited until the announcer’s voice buzzed from a separate platform, each consonant and vowel soaring from end to end of the stone arena.