A few days later, Juxxa was swimming in the Colosseum. He exhaled all the air in his lungs and sank to the bottom of the pool. The sound of the rushing fountain massaged his ears, an occasional tiny bubble escaping his nose.
Juxxa’s ordained mate, Selephere, birthed Minah in their small stone cottage. She was perfect. After being cleaned and fed she was quiet or giggling, but never cried.
Selephere needed to rest and Juxxa took Minah in his arms. He walked outside with his newborn daughter secure at his shoulder. Minah was very alert, watching everything behind them as her father carried her down the hill covered in yellowing grass.
Juxxa stopped to show her the honeysuckle flowers and their many cones, each with one drop of sweet juice. He pointed across the vast countryside at the stone village, green with moss.
“Don’t ever get bored of this world,” he said.
“Gah.” Minah tapped his nose with her tiny palm.
As Juxxa began walking back to the cottage he heard ear-shattering screams. He snapped to attention like a cracked whip and clutched Minah tightly as he tore up the hill.
Ozaros was home to hundreds of unique monsters. Some were even imported just to be hunted, so that the Ozarians could perfect their skills. In turn, some of the beasts were fond of human prey.
Juxxa kicked open the door and cautiously stepped inside. Selephere’s savaged ribcage, right hand, and half of her left forearm remained on the bed. The blood trail led to an open window. Juxxa looked at tiny Minah. He was thankful that her eyes were facing away from the carnage, and that she had been born before the monster took her mother.
Juxxa wanted to say Selephere’s name—to apologize—but he was underwater and didn’t have the breath. He forced himself to think about something else.
He’d raised Minah to be independent. By the time she was three she could use a knife to peel fruit. She was climbing trees by the age of seven. He didn’t approve of that, but he couldn’t stop her love of high places.
Thinking about his daughter started weighing on him heavily. Juxxa pushed up from the bottom of the pool, thankful to rise up and out of those memories. The water flowed out of his ears and he breathed in slowly.
“Ah, there you are.” Sallith was sitting on the edge of the stone pool and lazily rolling the toy dog forward and back.
Juxxa wiped the water from his eyes. He wanted to squeeze Sallith’s hand over Minah’s toy until the metal erupted out the other side. He imagined the King appealing to his supreme authority, then threatening, and finally begging for mercy as his knuckles and bones were mutilated beyond repair.
“I have some interesting news.” The King stood up. “Your next opponent is my dishonored palace guard, Captain Reginald Frost. He’ll be your most formidable foe yet.”
“Why is he dishonored, my Lord?” Juxxa stepped out of the pool.
“He refused to reprimand a palace intruder. Or rather, he took the blame for her.”
“I’ve never heard of her.”
“That hardly matters. But I think you ought to know that Reginald can use a great sword as well as you can use a halberd.”
I doubt that. But he said nothing.
“I do want you to win, you know.” The King strolled over to the black wall where Juxxa’s halberd was propped. He grabbed the long pole and attempted to swing it above his head. The weapon crashed to the ground, nearly taking off his arm.
“Thank you for the warning, Your Majesty.” Juxxa picked up the steel pole with one hand. Whether the King’s weakling can use a great sword as well I can use this is of little concern to me.
Sallith raised an eyebrow as he walked up the stairs. “The match is in four days. Best of luck.”
Juxxa eyed the King’s ivory bow and polished black armor which shone like obsidian. I’ll have that armor, and the bow will be a perfect gift for Minah.
Claudia put on a long white tunic. She picked up her red strophion and tied the cloth cord tightly around her breasts—to accentuate them and hold the tunic in place.
She knocked on Rat’s door and they made the walk to Calceria Stockade. Two guards escorted them to Reginald’s cell.
“Will you be going inside?” asked a guard.
Claudia looked at Rat. His black hair looked gray here. “No,” she said.
The two guards turned and walked away.
Reginald stood up. For some reason, Claudia laughed like a smile gone out of control. Then she felt stupid.
“You’re looking better.” Reginald studied her figure and face through the iron bars. “You’ve been eating.”
“Yes. Thanks to my new business partner here, I got a rather unexpected influx of coins.”
Rat put up his hand. “Hello. Pleased to meet you.”
“Hello,” said Reginald. “An Arena Council member came to see me. Sallith seems to have had a change of heart. He’s giving me a chance to fight for my freedom.”
“Oh, I know.” She smiled.
“How do you know?” Reginald looked at them.
“We paid the council a mighty sum to get you on the register,” said Rat.
Reginald’s face went blank. He looked back and forth at them. “You two did it?”
He doesn’t look happy. Claudia cleared her throat. “Please tell me I didn’t make a mistake.”
“We both got loans to pay for it. They took all of mine and most of hers to make the adjustment,” said Rat.
“No, you didn’t make a mistake,” Reginald said.
“I owe you, and certainly don’t expect you to pay us back,” said Claudia. “Anyway, we’re going to bet on you... to pay off the loans. It’ll be a full double and extra, because, well, you’re not favored.”
“I see.” Reginald rubbed his forehead.
“I just assumed...” Claudia stepped up to the bars.
“I appreciate what you and your friend have done.” Reginald looked her in the eye and gave her a small smile.
Claudia untied her strophion. Her unbound tunic fluttered and Rat couldn’t help but take small glances here and there.
“This is my only strophion.” She held it through the bars. “Come back alive and you may pull this tunic from my body.”
Reginald wrapped the strophion around his right bicep. It snuggly encircled the fully flexed peak of his muscle. “Latalla will guide my sword.”
The breeze picked up as they left Calceria Stockade. Claudia hadn’t thought about the practical purpose of her strophion before she gave it away. She made Rat walk ahead of her on the way home.
Claudia shut the door with a firm slam. “That’s better.” She tied a sleeve from her chemise around her tunic. “Now then, lunch.”
A beam of sunlight was shining through the window, onto the dozen thyra eggs in a straw-filled basket next to the washbasin. The sky blue of the eggs was a lively counter to the omnipresent fire colors of the city.
Claudia buttered some biscuits and opened a bottle of wine. “Sit,” she said as she handed Rat the biscuits. “Those cost almost fifty coins. If only this city grew wheat.”
“Sounds like a business opportunity.”
Thyra eggs were huge and mostly yolk which wasn’t surprising since thyras were half as tall as men. The eggs turned hard and brittle when fried. Claudia cracked an egg into the cast iron skillet on the wood stove. She knew it was done when it looked like an edible yellow disk with a thin ring of white.
She bisected the egg with her spatula and slid each half onto a plate. She served Rat before she sat down.
Claudia bit into a piece of crunchy egg. “Hmm. I love these. So, what do you think?”
“It’s strange.” Rat shoved a piece of buttered biscuit into his mouth. “He’s not certain he’ll win, but he’s not scared. And he doesn't resent us.”
“I’m not going to answer that,” Rat said, holding up a hand. “The man is entitled to some privacy.”
“I just want to know, in case...”
“You should assume he’ll win. When he does, you can ask him yourself.” He stuffed the last bite of biscuit into his mouth and finished his wine. “Personally, I thought it was adorable.” Rat stood up and headed for the door.
“I should leave you to your thoughts,” Rat said with a grimace. “They’re getting a little too graphic for me.”
Claudia blushed. “You’ve had years to get used to reading minds and that still bothers you?”
“It’s... never mind.”
“Before you go...”
“What do we know about Headsplitter?” He perfectly replicated the cadence of her thoughts.
“Can you let me speak?”
“Sort of a reflex, sorry.” Rat lightly slapped his mouth. “Anyway, Headsplitter is an Ozarian. He’ll be hard to beat, but he’s not invincible.”
Claudia nodded, distracted.