This was illegal.
That was her first thought when she saw the sheet. Six other names, lined up and carefully put together, with lines connecting them upwards. There were two open spaces for new entrants.
“This is all… legal, right?” Asked Ana.
“It’s not illegal,” said Temari.
She knew the score here. If she said it wasn’t illegal, that meant it was certainly illegal but people turned a blind eye to it out of convenience. They were probably running bets on it, and gambling was formally outlawed in Kallin. That, and Ana also doubted that the bloodsport that they were running was a wholly licensed enterprise. At least, it was supposed to be. The Quarter had a tendency to shrug off laws like rain, especially this close to the docks.
“So, here’s the game. Eight contestants. Three rounds – five ruble payout for anyone who makes it to the second round. Seven more to anyone who makes it to the final. Seven more again for the winner of the grand prize.”
Sol nodded knowingly as Ana stared down at the sheet.
“All you need to do is get to the second round.”
Ana was quiet. She had been on this side of the law before. It used to come naturally to her. Now it was making her jumpy. She straightened her back and collected herself before she probed further.
“What’re the rules for the fights?”
“Four foci maximum. No blades, no going for the head, when the referee – Mishel – says to stop, you stop. If you don’t, I can’t guarantee he won’t start beating the shit out of you too.”
Temari gestured to Mishel. He was a short, barrel-chested man who gave Ana a sharp glare as she looked at him. She locked eyes with him, and for a moment his eyes softened behind his heavy brow. He then huffed, and went back to looking down at the ring, drinking from a tin cup. He then produced a pipe, stuffed it with tobacco and began to smoke. He kept his eyes on her but Ana doubted he was seeing her as a threat. Not right now, at least.
“Anyways, where was I – oh, yeah. I’ll examine the foci beforehand. Really, the most important rule is this: don’t do anything that could kill anybody. Not your opponent, and especially not the audience. Corpses bring more trouble than they’re worth.”
“Got it,” said Ana.
“Do you? Because last year we had problems.”
Ana tried not to roll her eyes.
“This isn’t my first fight, Temari. I’ve been on the street in Tyeka. Shabahad through Gebel Lane.”
Temari seemed to recognize the name – the long row of misery, gin and laudanum that sat in a dusty corner of Ana’s mind. For a moment she almost seemed impressed before returning to a hard, debonair grin.
“I don’t really care where you were from. See the ring?”
It was a simple, precise circle, a little smaller than the theatre.
“Get knocked out of it more than three times, your opponent gets a point. Get pinned to the ground for more than fifteen seconds, you’re out. You faint for more than ten seconds, you’re out. First to three points – outs – whatever – wins.”
Temari produced an inkwell and a pen, which she placed in Ana’s hand. She set the bracket down onto the wooden bleacher for her to write on.
“Your choice, sweetheart.”
Sol put a hand on her shoulder, and gave her a serious look.
“You don’t have to do this. I can find you a different job.”
Temari scowled like she had just smelt something bad.
“Sol,” she said, tutting, “You’re supposed to back me up.”
He grinned widely in a mimicry of the look that had been wiped off Temari’s face.
“You were the one who said that it was her choice. I’m letting her know what taking the other option looks like.”
“If I have to find another fighter besides that Sondi-”
“Aw, I know, I know. I still owe you a favor.”
Sol looked at her again. He wasn’t expecting something – he was waiting. It was a calculating, soft look.
Ana sighed, picked up the pen, and signed carefully as Merya.
“I’ll be coming in a cloth mask. You don’t have to name me.”
“Ooh, a mystery contender! That’ll fill seats,” said Temari happily, “First fights are this weekend. You’ll be up second. You get in free, come in through the side door.”
Sol nodded approvingly and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Good luck,” he said, “You’ll need it.”
It was misty on the afternoon of the first fight – a low, colorless sea-fog overtaking the beaches and the streets until it reached the Quarter. It was quiet. Most had stayed in. The sky had turned the same color as the paving stones. Ana trod alone through the streets, the wet air settling into her scalp. The warehouse loomed as she approached. Rain trickled from the rusted chains and down into the gutters.
She heard the crowd before she saw them. It was a general bustle of bawdy murmurs and yells. She opened the thin side-door to a stall that had been converted into something of a changing room. Along the sides were small, cheap-looking compartments that had been built into the floor¸ and through the center was a long bench. Ana was starting to think that at some point this had been a legitimate attempt at a fencing salon, but at some point there it became a fighting ring.
At the far end, there was a woman, a little shorter than Ana. She had dark skin, and long wild hair that fell in tressess around her shoulder. She wore a loose garment that looked more like a half-way between a jacket and a robe, with a dark red symbol emblazoned on the back. It almost looked like a ring of eyes, all pointing inwards. She was turned away from Ana, and she didn’t seem to notice her entrance.
Silently, Ana watched as she started to pray.
“O, gods,” she said, “You will not look not on the violence I am going to see upon my fellow man. You are blind fools, all of you, and I will bring my wrath on your creations.”
A long stave sat rested in the crook of her neck. Two loose rings of brass sat atop it, with a third loop where another ring could be inserted. They clinked together as the woman sighed. She was a pagan – a Sondi, by Ana’s guess. Ana tried to not pay her any mind as she opened her case and donned the cloth mask she had made from a kerchief. She had heard of them, the fools that believed many little gods lived in the stars and sun.
“All Heavens are my enemy,” continued the woman, “All gods are my enemy. As I don this mask, I will hide from the enemy. Parjat, you are blind to my face. You will not recognize me at the Gates of Heaven; you will let me pass freely. I am pure. My cause is just. I am the master of my fate.”
She set the stave down to the floor with a clank, and stood up. She donned a mask as well, though she didn’t get a good look at it. A serious-looking man entered.
“Manguyaat? You’re up.”
The woman nodded, and walked to the door. Ana opened the case and checked it. Sol had loaned her out two foci to supplement her set. She didn’t feel up to asking questions about where he was sourcing the things yet. She laid the ward around her neck and put her wand at her side. Sol had lent her a small focus in the form of a bracelet – a looped thing of string, copper wire and a speckled black stone all woven into an obscure pattern.
Ana didn’t ask where he got it. She felt like she wouldn’t enjoy the answer.
It felt rough around her wrist, but she appreciated the favor. She picked up the last one, a short steel rod, and walked out to the slow roar of the crowd. Ana made her way to the first row of the stands amid a stream of other people, to Sol’s side. He waved as she approached.
The pagan’s opponent stood just outside the ring, still waiting. He was heavily-built; not particularly tall, but equal parts fat and muscle in every other area, hirsute and shirtless. He wore a mock crown of iron, and a long walking staff rested tight in his grip. Ana couldn’t make out the carvings on either, but she suspected that he had verdure mana at the very least. It was a rare thing to see a crown used as a focus without the use of verdure as well. His face was fierce, bearded and already covered in sweat. His heavy brow made his eyes seem deep and sunken.
The pagan seemed serene by comparison. She rolled her shoulders back, and waited as Temari walked down the aisles to great applause.
Ana couldn’t get a full head-count and people were still coming in, but there must have been nearly seventy in total, with more off of the stands lurking about and making bets. There was no discrimination for age or gender. She saw just as many men betting and whooping as women. She even thought she saw an old couple in the crowd, well into their grey years, smiling through rotten teeth.
Eventually, Temari reached her place at the center and placed a wooden megaphone to her lips.
“Thank you, my fine ladies and gentlemen of Blackwood!”
Ana was almost startled by how loud she was. Her voice, once debonair and cheap, now took on a menacing tone. She waited for her applause before continuing.
“Thank you, thank you for all coming out on this lovely morning. You all know how this goes, but if anyone wants to settle a bet, here are the rules.”
She explained the rules once more, throwing in a bawdy inflection on the word pin that made some people in the crowd whoop louder than the rest.
“Now… to my left, a long time favorite, Surraen!”
There was a mixed reaction – some whooped and hollered while others booed.
“Fucking monarchist!” Yelled a woman nearby.
Ana grimaced. Now she wanted to boo with them, but she felt like it’d be seen as poor form. She tapped Sol on the shoulder as Temari continued to pontificate on Surraen’s achievements in previous fights.
“Is he actually a monarchist?”
Sol nodded solemnly.
“He’s an odd duck. He claims to be descended from nobility fairly openly. Gets into a lot of scraps over it. I can’t vouch for who he votes for, but I think it’s a fair guess.”
“And to my right – a fighter only known by the name Manguyaat! By her own description, a sailor and nomad from the Empire of Sondi. Now, I don’t know about you, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a pagan fight. Let’s see she’s got it in her to beat a Koletyan on his home turf.”
There was another murmur of boos and disapproval, mostly towards Surraen. The same, clearly-opinionated woman yelled from behind Ana.
“Fucking traitor! Worm!”
Ana looked back at her – a girl who couldn’t have been older than fifteen. The girl looked back with a vague smirk, glad to have caught the attention of an adult. Ana rolled her eyes and gave her an approving thumbs-up back. She didn’t have a mandate to stay relatively apolitical anymore.
“Alright, alright, settle down, make your last bets people.”
The referee rose and aimed a pistol towards the ceiling. Ana silently hoped that it was loaded with a blank. The two fighters entered the ring on their signal, waiting at the very edges.
The pistol shot rang through the warehouse, and the pagan rushed forward. She didn’t even seem to bother with mana at first – she strode through the blackpowder smoke without a care, and Ana got a better look at her mask. It was a foul, demonic visage. Red and black pigment made out a grimacing face; just the whites of Manguyaat’s eyes were visible through the slits, the space around them swollen up to give the impression of someone who had been horribly bruised, or perhaps the face of a dragonfly. Her first blow sparked with verdure as she slammed it to the paving stones.
Whatever she had done, it dispersed the smoke in an instant, landing right between Surraen’s feet. The crowd whooped and yelled. Sol frowned.
“Manguyaat,” he said, “That’s odd.”
Verdure sparked again down the length of the stave as Surraen took a step forward. There was a jolt and a pop of rarified air as the mana erupted out of the top-most ring into a cross-bar. Ana gasped for a moment. She had him hooked, leveraging until he went stumbling to the edge of the ring before he regained his balance. She leaned over to Sol.
“How is it odd?”
“The Sondi have superstitions around fighting. Manguyaat is a name only taken in times of war.”
Manguyaat stood in the center of the ring, stave still held in one hand. Surraen made the first move this time. There was a jolt of verdure from his crown, and fear filled her belly – a primal fear that made her feel distinctly off. It took all her muster to keep looking at him as he drew a line in the ground with his stave. It was a calling, keening feeling. Eventually, Ana placed it as a desire to kneel. The pagan flinched but held her ground; most in the crowd didn’t, yelling and booing in disapproval for the tactic. He drew a line with his own stave.
“Fucking Saint’s sake,” said Ana, “Fuck! Does he always do that?”
“Yes,” said Sol, “I’m pretty sure that crown-”
He shuddered and flinched as a thin stream of verdure crackled between two of the crown’s points. Surraen flicked his own staff up, and the lines of dust he had made in the dirty paving stone erupted into the air, buffeting the pagan in a spray of dirt and stone. She stumbled and narrowly avoided a swing from Surraen.
What followed next was almost too fast for Ana to follow – it was a single, elegant motion as Manguyaat lunged forward, a flash of mana as she brought out her stave’s cross-guard again, and a simple pull that brought the broad man toppling under his own weight. The next brought the stave down next to his neck, and the cross-bar of mana made a fork about his neck. The crowd roared. What was once trepidation had turned into a tumult of noise and yells.
“Kick him! Kick the bastard!”
Manguyaat must have heard the request. She made a calculated stomp on the faux-king’s nose, his crown rolling away and blood spurting from the broken part. The referee began to count and the crowd quickly joined in.
“One! Two! Three! Four…!”
The man screamed something incomprehensible – his face was so red that it looked as if there was as much blood in his face as there was pouring out his nose. He battered against the pinning stave. The pagan seemed unperturbed. Her sleeve had rolled back slightly in the conflict, revealing the tight, shiny muscle of her forearm; she hardly seemed to strain, keeping her distance from the man’s flailing limbs.
“Thirteen! Fourteen! Fifteen! You’re out!”
As soon as it was declared, the pagan whipped her stave away, and let her opponent rise. The crowd roared, and she took a bow. Sol whistled and clapped, and Ana politely did the same. She felt a little conflicted. On the one hand, seeing a monarchist’s face get bashed in with the heel of another person’s boot was a pleasure she hadn’t got to experience in a long while. On the other hand, Manguyaat looked like a horribly strong opponent.
“She’s clever for a pagan,” said Ana as Sol sat again.
“She’s plain clever,” said Sol, “Don’t underestimate pagans. I’ve been in a few scraps with them, and they’re just as sensible as any Sepulcherite. Maybe more.”
“Fair. Someone once told me something like that.”
The exact words were “The one thing that you can assume about a witch is that they are smarter and more prepared than you.”
The gist was the same. Sol squinted.
“Oh,” he said, “That’s where I remembered it.”
“The name. Manguyāt. It means One That Takes Revenge. I was trying to recall the exact translation.”
Ana didn’t know how to react to that. Sol was an odd fellow. In the week she had lived with him, she had scarcely seen him. Most of his time was either spent out doing errands or squirreled away in his room. She looked back down to the pagan. There was something deep and fierce in her eyes through the mask.
One that takes revenge for whom?
Surraen was spitting and screaming obscenities. He had more than a few choice words about how Manguyaat had stolen his victory. Meanwhile, money was changing hands like it was a bank. Silver jangled around in pockets and through the crowd in a wave. The pagan walked to Temari to collect her own fee.
Ana exhaled heavily, and began to descend the bleachers to the edge of the ring. She could investigate this Manguyaat later. She was up next.
Ever so slowly, the people quieted from the previous match, and a man emerged from the crowd. Her opponent.
He was a tall blond fellow, wearing a short shirt that showed off his arms. His hair was like the color of shiny straw, close to white in color. He wasn’t unhandsome at all. Ana would almost think of him as boyish, if she had to put a word to it. There was a heavy beat to his movements that made her feel as if he was distinctly in tune with his body – not a strongman or an athlete necessarily, but a man with a great sense of physicality. It was in short a charismatic form of movement matched by his face, smiling with white teeth and reddish lips.
A little idol sat in his hand. She couldn’t make it all out, but she spotted a small skull in the mix, with twine and metal making up its core. A small loop of the twine connected to his hand, so he wouldn’t drop it. In the other was a metal object, mostly obscured by his palm. Ana guessed it was a ward, but she wasn’t immediately certain. She wouldn’t make assumptions.
“Alright, alright, settle down, if you need to fight over your money take it outside or settle it in the ring after,” yelled Temari, returning to her place, “Please, please, Dzhohan! Sit the fuck down, Dzohan! No one cares about your drinking money! We’re running a classy institution here, people!”
A man in one of the lower rows – Dzhohan, presumably – slurred something incomprehensible back before being dragged away by half-a-dozen others, all laughing and yelling.
“Up next, we’ve got one of your favorite contestants… Korel! Give it up folks, give it up! Blackwood native, as you all know and love, bringing some new foci today as I understand it, so we’re in for a surprise.”
Temari turned her gaze to Ana.
“And speaking of surprises, let’s hear it for our second mystery contestant of the competition!”
The crowd gave a surprising round of hushed ‘oohs’ and applause. Ana felt her heart swell with a false sort of pride. She didn’t like it. It felt sinful, and as much as she tried to banish it, the attention made her feel quite nice. She adjusted her cloth mask.
“She’s from upriver, but besides that, my lips are sealed. Let’s see what you’ve got. Step into the ring!”
The two of them followed orders, putting their feet on the very edge of the ring. Ana cooled her heels, pushing herself up and down, ready to run. The referee had already reloaded his pistol.
“Three. Two! One!”
The pistol fired again, and the smoke cleared in an instant. Ochre mana sparked about the totem in Korel’s hands, and he ran forward without hesitation. Ana flicked the wand from her waist in a straight chord across the arena as she let verdure flow through it. Fire erupted from the dirt. It’d sputter out shortly. It was all dry dust and stone, not anything flammable. Still, it’d be enough to deter him. Then she realized what was happening.
She stepped forward enough that she stood little chance of being thrown out of the ring, and widened her stance. At ten paces from her, he lept, and he moved without any gravity for a brief few moments, over the growing flames. He twisted in the air, and she moved in kind.
She felt the air rush past her cheek as his boot missed it narrowly. He kept moving until his face hung in the air next to her own, grinning wildly. As she turned to meet him, she saw he was pushing verdure through the metal amulet in his hand. It was putting him in place – like Edam’s-
She slammed her fist into Korel’s back and he collapsed to the ground, the fire behind her quickly dimming. She couldn’t be thinking about the past right now. Ana managed to make her knee meet his chin on the way down, and he jumped back, near to the edge of the ring. Somewhere in the distance the crowd yelled and whooped.
Ana exhaled and pressed the advantaged. She flicked the wand again, and started to draw out a corridor around him. It was a basic tactic that had always stuck in the back of her mind. The point of a fire wand or any way of delineating where an opponent could or couldn’t go wasn’t to make sure where they wouldn’t go there. It was to buy enough time to deal with either option.
Soon, she had built her own half-ring within the circle, surrounding Korel. She started to flick the wand inward, widening the ring and forcing him further towards the edge. Korel’s face flickered and distorted through the heat, the flames rising up to his chest.
It was hard to make out the orange spark through the fire, but the rest was obvious. He lept further than any human could, floating some five feet above the licking flame. He then held himself in place with the little metal focus.
Ana raised her wrist until it was in line with her eye.
Just like aiming a pistol, she thought, Just like Sol told you.
She let verdure flow through her bracelet and into the black stone just as Korel let go. The verdure sparked, and reached out like a bolt of lightning on the plains right into his chest. The air popped, and Korel went flying all the way into the bleachers, people yelling and jumping out of the way as he made impact. It was slow – he was still far too light – but the wooden seats battered his back. It certainly didn’t look like anything Ana wanted to do. The crowd looked at her in awe even as she felt the verdure drain her. She panted from the slowly growing pain of the headache, and looked at Temari.
“Does that count as a ring-out?” Ana yelled up.
There was a moment of hushed silence, then uproarious laughter and hollering. Ana basked in it for a moment, and the headache cleared as she let herself recover. Korel walked down from the stands, still shocked.
His expression shifted – from wild joy to an even wilder determination. He wasn’t going to make the next round easy. Ana was certain of that much.
One point for her.
Now to get two more.