Ill Met in the Arena [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Dave Duncan
eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook 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, Published: 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2011
* * * *
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 ra