Blood for Blood 2.5

Korel rolled his shoulders as he re-entered the ring. The referee held up his hand and began to count for them to begin again. Ana returned to the starting line. She could see Sol smiling down at her from the stands. People whistled and hollered – some for Korel, more for her. A tiny part of her swelled with pride. Like going up to the front of the class in grammar school and getting an answer right. More than a few looked angry with her. Betting against her. 

She flicked a few stray hairs off of her forehead, thoroughly plastered there by beads of her sweat. Ana felt its pulse and veins strain with the verdure’s drain on her. She was pretty sure that she didn’t have a nosebleed yet – she would notice it dripping into her mask. 

Ana put her wand into her belt, and took the metal rod in its place. She didn’t want him to figure her out too quickly.

Mishel counted down. Three, two, one.

The crowd hushed. Korel kept his back to them as she ran forward. She raised her hand high and let azure flow through it. 

It was maybe the crudest focus she had ever worked with outside of a blood weight. It jerkily expanded itself to the length of her forearm, then wider and longer as she brought it down. Korel raised his hand with a metal amulet of his own. 

There was a flash of green light, and the blow ricocheted away. The symbol of the ward stood projected outwards. A whorling, deep design. A maze of recursive carved lines and sloughing curves inwards. At the very center sat an image – a horned figure.

Ana felt her jaw go slack a moment too late. By the time she realized what she was dealing with and looked away, Korel had gently taken her focus from her hand and thrown it somewhere far away.

“Sorry, this is a dirty trick,” he said, as if excusing a small mess in his home.

He then grabbed her by the shoulder, and she managed to come to her senses. She tried to punch him in the gut, only to come up against the hot raw mana of the ward. It crackled in contact with her skin, making her sweat suddenly feel dry. It was a strange feeling, touching it, punching into it – it was like pushing into a brick wall and a pillow all at once. 

She stared Korel in the eye as she brought the fist back. His bracelet rattled as he threw a punch of his own. It struck her in the chess, and she stumbled back. He held up the ward again, and she averted her eyes, trying to focus on his eyes. 

Blue or grey? The Godhead wards and protects me, I am resolute. Blue or grey? The Godhead wards and protects me, I am resolute.

It was one of the first things that they taught her. The force of mana was far more easy to defeat than anything produced by witchcraft. It could be repelled with the right focus and application of prayer. She had done it a few times before.

That didn’t make it any less annoying. The symbol itched at the edge of her vision, glowing against the dark floor. 

Another leap.

Then, he let go. The orange sparks around his wrist ceased. 

In an instant, Korel fell on her with a punch to her shoulder. Before she could even raise her ward, his legs were tightly tied around her hips. She hit the ground hard, and she gasped as the hard ground hit her back. The crowd began to count again. She could hardly make out the numbers over the rush of blood in her ears. He scrambled for a pin – Ana managed to get just enough space to strike him in the ear, then again in the cheek.

He fell off-balance and yelped as Ana got a solid foothold. She threw him over and gritted her teeth. She was in control now. A successful pin would win her the match here and now. She just had to secure it. She could hear the crowd more clearly now.

“Five! Six! Seven!”

Ana put one hand around his throat, and the other around her ward and let mana go through it. He slammed against it with his own ward, once, twice, before reaching into his pocket. 

“Eight! Nine! Ten!”

She tried to angle him away, first with a knee, then with her fist. She missed and scraped her knuckles against the rough stone ground.

Korel pulled the focus faster than Ana could see. It struck into the heptagram like a hammer, and she felt the mana crack and shatter, the force flinging her hand away. The next blow struck her chest, and her foot slipped in the dirt. Time itself seemed to stand still for a moment. If she kept in place, he’d be in the perfect position to put her into an even worse position.

Ana rolled over and scrambled to her feet just in time for Korel to raise his own ward up from the ground. She cringed and flung herself out of its path. The crowd gasped. She clenched her eyes up.

The crowd then laughed, jeered and gave great applause. She looked down to see herself fully over the line, only one foot remaining in. Korel walked back to the center and to the otherside, bowing and showing off for the audience. Ana scowled reflexively.

Mishel yelled down.

“One point each. Get to your position.”

Ana had him. All the fury and pride filled her heart in a way she had not felt in years. She breathed out and felt the whole of her body exude the emotion like hot metal bursting from a poorly-made cast. She had put her pride away – that little tiny inkling of true and honest pride that had grown in place of a missing tooth in the back of her jaw. It was a vainglory that was all bloody knuckles and broken bones and the liquor she drank at fourteen to prove her mettle to the boys – a glowing, pulsing feeling that dripped from her nose and bruised her cheek and knew that she could take it. 

She licked snot and blood away from her nose. The coppery, sour taste mixed with her spit. The feeling was almost foreign, and yet totally familiar. It was a feeling that she had felt before, as a child, and again when she knew Edam and truly started to love her.

When the referee reached one again, Ana felt alive. 

She felt her pulse, through her feet, into the ground, into her breath – she felt her mouth dry and wet in equal measure as she hacked up phlegm and readied herself for the charging Korel. She could see him, and his grinning white teeth, and the beads of sweat on his brow, and the tight clenching of his fists around his foci. In one, the ward, and the other a strange, dull spike of polished wood. 

Somehow, she was certain he felt the same as her.

Ana was ready this time. She slammed her fist into Korel’s elbow, and received his charge all at once. They tumbled, dust and grit and limbs all mixing together. He tore at her shirt wildly and for a moment they were nothing more than animals in the dirt, screaming, yelling animals as the crowd whooped and yelled in kind. At some point, she parted him from his bracelet; he parted her from the wand, thrown towards the audience. His ward sparked time and again, but between the prayer and the rush and his eyes it was no use. She eventually gained enough purchase to put a blow square into his chest. Then another. He kicked her away, and then there was silence as they both scrambled to their feet again. 

His face and grin fell, and the rest of his body promptly followed as he collapsed, totally exhausted. The crowd was deafening. 

She gave a bow, and began to walk up the bleachers to Temari, to the smiling crowds. People surrounded her, exclaiming their excitement, congratulating her. Temari was waiting, letting herself show a sly smile. She nearly had to yell herself over the noise.

“Great fucking fight! I’m pretty sure that counted as wrestling, not sparring, but I like your style! Keep it up!”

She counted out the five silver coins into her gloved hands, and then put them into Ana’s. Ana grabbed them and held them close in her shirt pocket, feeling their weight. You didn’t let that kind of money go easily. Sol soon joined her side as the crowd calmed. Ana breathed heavily. 

“You want to watch the rest of the fights?” He asked. 

Ana felt the heaviness in her bones. The brief rush that she received in the fight hadn’t been a total cure for her pains. She felt very alive. Before it had been exhilarating. Now it meant that she felt bruised and broken and more than a little exhausted.

She shook her head.

“I’ll be walking back to your place. Thank you. Thank you for this- this-”

She couldn’t describe it. Her mouth failed and she sputtered on her nosebleed.

“Any time, Merya.”

He nodded to her, and she walked off, picking up her lost foci as she went. 

Ana rubbed the sore muscles on her back as she re-entered the changing rooms. Surraen was waiting for her. The summer had gotten to him as much as her. Ana silently thanked Tros and then the Saints and the Godhead for giving him the wisdom to put on a shirt. She wouldn’t bear to look at such a disgusting man’s chest. He leered at her as she began to stow her foci into the case. A mostly-empty bottle sat at his feet, a mix of spittle and whiskey swirling at the bottom. His face was somehow even redder now than it was before.

She continued to put her things away, still feeling his eyes on her. Eventually, she couldn’t bear it any longer.

“What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“You’re looking at nothing?” 

He leaned back and stared her right in the eyes.

“Yeah,” he said slowly, “I think I’m looking at nothing.”

Ana sighed. She really didn’t want to deal with this but she didn’t have the wherewithal to be diplomatic about it either. 

“Why the fuck are you mad with me? You lost the fight to the pagan girl. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“I’m not angry about the fight. I’m angry about your accent.”

“My accent?” Asked Ana, quite skeptical.

“You speak like a city-peasant. A gutter-rat, hiding behind a mask.”

Ana stared at him for a long time, trying to process this. Eventually she came to an answer. 

“I’m a rat? You’re one to speak, worm. People like you are why Blackwood still exists.”

She shut her case a bit harder than she should have, hefted it, and walked past him as fast as she could. He raised his hand to stop her and she brushed it away.

“Hands off. You’re just pissed because you don’t get to lord your father over everyone else. Get your money somewhere else.” 

She felt Surraen rise from his seat. She turned and leapt out of the way just before his fist met her neck. The man growled at her, filled with rage.

Ana straightened her back. She had met men like Surraen before. Boys at the orphanage and in the street, pretending that they had great, noble lineages, playing dress-up and acting entitled. Or when she was older – the rich rakes with their cheap smiles and expensive clothes. Entitled to riches, to service, to sex, to the lives of their lessers. 

She’d met women who were like that too. They just were less likely to inherit the land and money.

“I really don’t have the time,” she said.

“I think you do.”

“What if I told you my last name was Metremte? Would that make you not want to touch me? Or are you going to cut me open and bring me to your blood-sucking relatives? Is that what you want?”

Her nose twitched with annoyance.

He grabbed her by her collar without warning. For a man with so much fat and muscle, Surraen moved like a viper. Ana could smell his breath. It was laced with rotten teeth and alcohol and old food. 

He raised his fist up high like a hammer.

It was just then that Korel entered. The bruise she had placed on his cheek and ear had turned a soft purple. The door creaked on its hinges. The crowd was far away and raucous, still arguing over bets. She had been the underdog. 

“Surraen you’re drunk. Sit the fuck down, will you? Or I’ll call in Mishel.”

He released Ana from her grip and walked towards Korel. He turned to her.

“You’re fine?”

Ana nodded slowly. He seemed like her best bet.

“Let’s get out of here.”

She followed him out into the light of day, but kept her mask on. The clouds had cleared from the morning temper and the sun had made wisps of most of them, shining bright white through blue sky. The ocean rolled in the distance and the gulls were all squawking and screeching; and somewhere Ana was almost certain that she caught a fragment of an ancient sea-shanty.

“Don’t feel like we got a proper introduction,” said Korel as he extended his hand, “I’m Korel.” 

Ana took it with caution. He shook it softly.

“Merya,” she replied, “But you shouldn’t spread it around.”

“Pleased to meet you, Merya. I’ll keep that in mind. I’m headed out towards the docks. Mind if you walk with me?”

In spite of all her exhaustion, his voice felt charming. She needed friends – Merya, at the very least, needed friends. She walked with him, through the aging warehouses and docks. It was still early enough that a few lazy merchants had not yet set up their stalls in the street. People gave her bad looks, and slowly parted as she and Korel walked. 

“So, you’re from Blackwood?” Asked Ana.

“Born and raised. You?”

“Rather not say, if you don’t mind.”

She couldn’t reveal too much. It wouldn’t be long until the inquisitors did reach Kallin, and when they did they’d sweep the streets the best they could. The wrong details could put them back onto her trail.

“I don’t mind at all,” he said, “Alright, here’s a question. Why the mask?”

“Don’t like crowds. Still needed the money. I, well – I wanted to thank you for the fight. It was good.”

She meant it. She felt happy in a way she hadn’t for a long time. It wasn’t the same as the happiness that Edam had brought her, but it was something.

The docks came up on them fast. The bay was quiet today and the air warmed Ana’s skin. The ocean was dark and deep as tar, or the wood in the buildings. White surf breached it and lapped around the many crowded docks. Ana doubted she had ever seen so many ships in so many different configurations in one place in her entire life. Sailing ships, rowboats, foreign merchant ships all arranged. Flags and pennants flew high. Most from Veleda and Agora, some from the Gveert lands, sailors climbing over the decks like fleas on dogs.

It was nothing like the dreary docks of Tyeka. It was all colour and life. Ana smiled and puffed out her chest. She felt like she was on parade.
“I guess I have to thank you too. It’s been a while since we’ve had someone that really shook things up around here,” Korel said. 

Eventually, they both turned onto a dock that had nothing but an empty row boat tied next to it. The ancient stone was worn nearly smooth by the ages of rain and tide. Korel sat, leaving his feet mere inches above the foamy water. There wasn’t any silence. The air was still filled with the low sounds of the city and sea. Still, it felt very quiet for a moment. Ana considered leaving him there for a moment, then sat with him. Blood – his or hers, she wasn’t certain – had splattered onto his shirt. He undid it button by button, revealing all the bruises she had left on him. He was very well muscled, but more like a runner than anything else. She watched as the cords of muscle strained under the purple-dappled skin of his back. He lowered his shirt into the sea water and scrubbed at the spots of blood with his thumb.

“At any rate, you’ll probably be going up against Shosef next. Tshika’s a jobber. Not her fault. I presume you don’t know him.”

Ana shook her head, then let it roll back in the summer sun. The salty air dried her sweat. She slowly removed her mask. The cloth was crusty with blood, dark streaks running through it. She leaned down and gently placed it in the water. The red dye spread out into the dark water. 

When she looked over next, Korel was staring at her. Smiling.

“Alright. I’m in. What’s your price?”

“None at all,” he said, “Well, one thing – don’t hit him too hard. Between you and me, his looks are his best asset.”

Ana gave a chuckle as she tried to wash it her cloth mask a little deeper. 

“Well, how do I know you’re not sabotaging me?” She asked.

“I swear on my honor as a scoundrel, a thief and a bastard that I would never deceive my fellow man,” he said, “But… I’ll put a bet on you. Three kopeks for your win.”

“Mhm,” she said as she pulled the mask back out and wrung it as dry as she could.


He trailed off, still staring at her as he did the same with his shirt. 

“Your face. It’s got – ugh, come here,” he said. 

He took a handkerchief from his pocket and gently wiped it across her face, pulling away all the blood from her backlash. She let Korel do it. He was quite careful about it; precise, like a painter or sculptor trying to remove the form of her face from the dried blood. 

Ana stood when he was finished, tired and triumphant. 

“I’ll take your deal. Thank you.”

“Alright. Meet me here next week, before the fight. I’ll tell you what he’s planning on bringing in.”

She nodded and lingered with him for a moment in the quiet din, watching him as he continued to wash his shirt as best he could in sea-water.

“Well, I’ll be going,” she said, “Nice to meet you, Korel.”

“Nice to meet you too,” he called back, smiling as she walked away.

Even though her legs felt like they’d been cooked over a spit for several hours, and her nose itched like hell, she felt like there was a spring in her step. She finally got back to Sol’s place, used the spare key that he had given her, and walked in. She went to the central little courtyard behind the house, and started to pull up water to prepare a bath for herself. 

The itch in her nose intensified, and spread to her throat. She coughed several times into her sleeve, and felt something trapped at the very back of her mouth. After a minute of hack and coughing, it fell into her hands. A ball of blood, phlegm, and twitching insectile parts. Most of them were unrecognizable – single locust emerged whole from the ball, spread wings and flew away.

Fuck you too, Tros, said Ana, You can’t even let me have this?

As she thought it, she hacked and coughed, and another locust crawled from between her lips. Ana threw the thumb-sized ball to the ground, crudely covered it with dirt, and forced herself to smile. She’d lost almost everything else.

She wouldn’t let Tros take an inch more. 

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