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As the huge crowd bayed for blood, Sieben the Poet found himself staring around the vast colosseum, its mighty columns and arches, its tiers and statues. Far below on the golden sand of the arena two men were fighting for the glory of their nations. Fifteen thousand people were shouting now, the noise cacophonous like the roaring of some inchoate beast. Sieben lifted a scented handkerchief to his face, seeking to blot out the smell of sweat that enveloped him from all sides.
The colosseum was a marvelous piece of architecture, its columns shaped into statues of ancient heroes and gods, its seats of finest marble covered by cushions of down-filled green velvet. The cushions irritated Sieben, for the color clashed with his bright blue silken tunic inset with shards of opal on the puffed sleeves. The poet was proud of the garment, which had cost a suitably enormous amount of money and had been bought from the best tailor in Drenan. To have it beggared by a poor choice of seat covering was almost more than he could stand. Still, with everyone seated, the effect was muted. Servants moved endlessly through the crowd, bearing trays of cool drinks or sweetmeats, pies, cakes, and savory delicacies. The tiers of the rich were shaded by silken coverings, also in that dreadful green, while the very rich sat in red-cushioned splendor with slaves fanning them. Sieben had tried to change his seat and sit among the nobility, but no amount of flattery or offers of bribes could purchase him a place.
To his right Sieben could just see the edge of the God-King's balcony and the straight backs of two of the Royal Guards in their silver breastplates and white cloaks. Their helms, thought the poet, were particularly magnificent, embossed with gold and crested with white horsehair plumes. That was the beauty of the simple colors, he thought; black, white, silver, and gold were rarely upstaged by upholstery, no matter what its color.
"Is he winning?" asked Majon, the Drenai ambassador, tugging at Sieben's sleeve. "He's taking a fearful battering. The Lentrian has never been beaten, you know. They say he killed two fighters last spring in a competition in Mashrapur. Damn, I bet ten gold Raq on Druss."
Sieben gently lifted the ambassador's fingers from his sleeve, brushing at the bruised silk, and forced his gaze away from the wonders of the architecture to focus briefly on the combat below. The Lentrian hit Druss with an uppercut, then a right cross. Druss backed away, blood seeping from a cut over his left eye. "What odds did you get?" asked Sieben.
The slender ambassador ran his hand over his close-cropped silver hair. "Six to one. I must have been mad."
"Not at all," said Sieben smoothly. "It was patriotism that drove you. Look, I know ambassadors are not well paid, so I will take your bet. Give me the token."
"I couldn't possibly ... I mean, he's being thrashed out there."
"Of course you must. After all, Druss is my friend, and I should have wagered on him out of loyalty." Sieben saw the glint of avarice in the ambassador's dark eyes.
"Well, if you are sure." The man's slim fingers darted into the pearl-beaded leather pouch at his side, producing a small square of papyrus bearing a wax seal and the amount wagered. Sieben took it, and Majon waited with hand outstretched.
"I didn't bring my purse with me," said Sieben, "but I will hand over the money tonight."
"Yes, of course," said Majon, his disappointment obvious.
"I think I'll take a walk around the colosseum," said Sieben. "There is so much to see. I understand there are art galleries and shops on the levels below."
"You don't show much concern for your friend," said Majon.
Sieben ignored the criticism. "My dear ambassador, Druss fights because he loves to fight. Generally one saves one's concern for the poor unfortunates he faces. I will see you later at the celebrations."
Easing himself from his seat, Sieben climbed the marble steps, making his way to the official gambling booth. A gap-toothed cleric was sitting inside the recess. Behind him stood a soldier, guarding the sacks of money already wagered.
"You wish to place a wager?" asked the cleric.
"No, I am waiting to collect."
"You have bet on the Lentrian?"
"No. I bet on the winner. It's an old habit," he answered, with a smile. "Be so good as to have sixty gold pieces available, plus my original ten."
The cleric chuckled. "You bet on the Drenai? It will be a cold day in hell before you see a return on that investment."
"My, I do think I sense a drop in the temperature," Sieben told him with a smile.
In the heat of the arena the Lentrian champion was tiring. Blood was seeping from his broken nose, and his right eye had swollen shut, but even so his strength was prodigious. Druss moved in, ducking beneath a right cross and thundering a blow to the man's midsection; the muscles of the Lentrian's stomach were like woven steel. A punch smashed down onto Druss' neck, and he felt his legs buckle. With a grunt of pain he sent an uppercut into the taller man's bearded chin, and the Lentrian's head snapped back. Druss hammered an overhand right that missed its mark, cracking against the man's temple. The Lentrian wiped blood from his face, then hit Druss with a thundering straight left followed by a right hook that all but spun Druss from his feet.
The crowd was baying, sensing that the end was close. Druss tried to move in and grapple, only to be stopped by a straight left that jarred him to his heels. Blocking a right, he fired home another uppercut. The Lentrian swayed but did not fall. He countered with a chopping blow that took Druss behind the right ear. Druss shrugged it off. The Lentrian's strength was fading; the punch lacked speed and weight.
This was the moment! Druss waded in, sending a combination of punches to the Lentrian's face: three straight lefts followed by a right hook that exploded against the man's chin. The Lentrian spun off balance, tried to right himself, then fell face first to the sand.
A sound like rolling thunder went up, booming around the packed arena. Druss took a deep breath and stepped back, acknowledging the cheers. The new Drenai flag, a white stallion on a field of blue, was hoisted high, fluttering in the afternoon breeze. Striding forward, Druss halted below the royal balcony and bowed to the God-King he could not see.
Behind him two Lentrians ran out and knelt beside their fallen champion. Stretcher bearers followed, and the unconscious man was carried from the arena. Druss waved to the crowd, then walked slowly to the dark mouth of the tunnel that led through to the bathhouses and rest areas for the athletes.
The spear thrower Pellin stood grinning at the tunnel entrance. "Thought he had you there, mountain man."
"It was close," said Druss, spitting blood from his mouth. His face was swollen, and several teeth had been loosened. "He was strong. I'll say that for him."
The two men walked down the tunnel, emerging into the first bathhouse. The sound from the arena was muted there, and around a dozen athletes were relaxing in the three heated pools of marble. Druss sat down beside the first. Rose petals floated on the steamy surface of the water, their fragrance filling the room.
The runner Pars swam across to him. "You look as if a herd of horses has run across your face," he said.
Leaning forward, Druss placed a hand on top of the man's balding head and propelled him down beneath the surface. Pars swam clear and surfaced several yards away; with a sweep of his hand he drenched Druss. Pellin, stripped now of his leggings and tunic, dived into the pool.
Druss peeled off his leggings and slid into the warm water. The relief to his aching muscles was instant, and for some minutes he swam around the pool; then he hauled himself clear. Pars joined him. "Stretch yourself out and I'll knead the aches away," he said. Druss moved to a massage table and lay facedown, where Pars rubbed oil into his palms and began to work expertly on the muscles of his upper back.
Pellin sat down close by, toweling his dark hair, then draping the white cloth over his shoulders. "Did you watch the other contest?" he asked Druss.
"The Gothir man, Klay, is awesome. Fast. Strong chin. That plus a right hand that comes down like a hammer. It was all over in less than twenty heartbeats. Never seen the like, Druss. The Vagrian didn't know what hit him."
"So I heard," Druss grunted as Pars' fingers dug deeply into the swollen muscles of his neck.
"You'll take him, Druss. What does it matter that he's bigger, stronger, faster, and better-looking?"
"And fitter," put in Pellin. "They say he runs five miles every day on the mountains outside the city."
"Yes, I forgot fitter. Younger, too. How old are you, Druss?" asked Pars.
"Thirty," grunted Druss.
"An old man," said Pellin with a wink at Pars. "Still, I'm sure you'll win. Well ... fairly sure."
Druss sat up. "It is good of you youngsters to be so supportive."
"Well, we are a team," said Pellin. "And since you deprived us of Grawal's delightful company, we've sort of adopted you, Druss." Pars began to work on Druss' swollen knuckles. "More seriously, Druss, my friend," said the runner, "your hands are badly bruised. Back home we'd use ice to bring the swelling down. I should soak them in cold water tonight."
"There's three days before the final. I'll be fine by then. How did you fare in your race?"
"I finished second and so will contest the final at least. But I'll not be in the first three. The Gothir man is far better than I, as are the Vagrian and the Chiatze. I cannot match their finish."
"You might surprise yourself," said Druss.
"We're not all like you, mountain man," observed Pellin. "I still find it hard to believe that you could come to these games unprepared and fight your way to the final. You really are a legend." Suddenly he grinned. "Ugly, old, and slow--but still a legend," he added.
Druss chuckled. "You almost fooled me there, laddie. I thought you might be showing some respect for me." He lay back and closed his eyes.
Pars and Pellin strolled away to where a servant stood holding a pitcher of cold water. Seeing them coming, the man filled two goblets. Pellin drained his and accepted a refill, while Pars sipped his slowly. "You didn't tell him about the prophecy," said Pars.
"Neither did you. He'll find out soon enough."
"What do you think he'll do?" asked the bald runner.
Pellin shrugged. "I have known him only for a month, but somehow I don't think he'll want to follow tradition."
"He'll have to!" insisted Pars.
Pellin shook his head. "He's not like other men, my friend. That Lentrian should have won, but he didn't. Druss is a force of nature, and I don't think politics will affect that one jot."
"I'll wager twenty gold Raq you are wrong."
"I'll not take that bet, Pars. You see, I hope for all our sakes that you are right."
From a private balcony high above the crowd the giant blond fighter Klay watched Druss deliver the knockout blow. The Lentrian carried too much weight on his arms and shoulders, and though it gave him incredible power, the punches were too slow and easy to read. But the Drenai made it worthwhile. Klay smiled.
"You find the man amusing, Lord Klay?" Startled, the fighter swung around. The newcomer's face showed no expression, no flicker of muscle. It is like a mask, thought Klay, a golden Chiatze mask, tight and unlined. Even the jet-black hair, dragged back into the tightest of ponytails, was so heavily waxed and dyed that it seemed false, painted onto the overlarge cranium. Klay took a deep breath, annoyed that he could have been surprised on his own balcony and angry that he had not heard the swish of the curtains or the rustle of the man's heavy ankle-length robe of black velvet.
"You move like an assassin, Garen-Tsen," said Klay.
"Sometimes, my lord, it is necessary to move with stealth," observed the Chiatze, his voice gentle and melodic. Klay looked into the man's odd eyes, as slanted as spear points. One was a curious brown, flecked with shards of gray; the other was as blue as a summer sky.
"Stealth is necessary only when among enemies, surely," ventured Klay.
"Indeed so. But the best of one's enemies masquerade as friends. What is it about the Drenai that amuses you?" Garen-Tsen moved past Klay to the balcony's edge, staring down into the arena below. "I see nothing amusing. He is a barbarian, and he fights like one." He turned back, his fleshless face framed by the high, arched collar of his robe.
Klay found his dislike of the man growing, but masking his feelings, he considered Garen-Tsen's question. "He does not amuse me, Minister. I admire him. With the right training he could be very good indeed. And he is a crowd pleaser. The mob always loves a plucky warrior. And by heaven, this Druss lacks nothing in courage. I wish I had the opportunity to train him. It would make for a better contest."
"It will be over swiftly, you think?"
Klay shook his head. "No. There is a great depth to the man's strength. It is born of his pride and his belief in his invincibility; you can see it in him as he fights. It will be a long and arduous battle."
"Yet you will prevail? As the God-King has prophesied?" For the first time Klay noticed a slight change in the minister's expression.
"I should beat him, Garen-Tsen. I am bigger, stronger, faster, and better trained. But there is always a rogue element in any fight. I could slip just as a punch connects. I could fall ill before the bout and be sluggish, lacking in energy. I could lose concentration and allow an opening." Klay gave a wide smile, for the minister's expression was openly worried.
"This will not happen," he said. "The prophecy will come true."
Klay thought carefully before answering. "The God-King's belief in me is a source of great pride. I shall fight all the better for it."
"Good. Let us hope it has the opposite effect on the Drenai. You will be at the banquet this evening, my lord? The God-King has requested your presence. He wishes you to sit alongside him."
"It is a great honor," Klay answered, with a bow.
"Indeed it is." Garen-Tsen moved to the curtained doorway, then swung back. "You know an athlete named Lepant?"
"The runner? Yes. He trains at my gymnasium. Why?"
"He died this morning during questioning. He looked so strong. Did you ever see signs of weakness in his heart? Dizziness, chest pain?"
"No," said Klay, remembering the bright-eyed garrulous boy and his fund of jokes and stories. "Why was he being questioned?"
"He was spreading slanders, and we had reason to believe he was a member of a secret group pledged to the assassination of the God-King."
"Nonsense. He was just a stupid boy who told bad-taste jokes."
"So it would appear," agreed Garen-Tsen. "Now he is a dead boy who will never again tell a bad-taste joke. Was he a very talented runner?"
"Good. Then we have lost nothing." The odd-colored eyes stared at Klay for several seconds. "It would be better, my lord, if you ceased to listen to jokes. In cases of treason there is guilt by association."
"I shall remember your advice, Garen-Tsen."
After the minister had departed, Klay wandered down to the arena gallery. It was cooler there, and he enjoyed walking among the many antiquities. The gallery had been included on the arena plans at the insistence of the king--long before his diseased mind had finally eaten away his reason. There were some fifty stalls and shops there, where discerning buyers could purchase historical artifacts or beautifully made copies. There were ancient books, paintings, porcelain, even weapons.
People in the gallery stopped as he approached, bowing respectfully to the Gothir champion. Klay acknowledged each salutation with a smile and a nod of his head. Though huge, he moved with the easy grace of an athlete, always in balance and always aware. He paused before a bronze statue of the God-King. It was a fine piece, but Klay felt the addition of lapis lazuli for the pupils was too bizarre in a face of bronze. The merchant who owned the piece stepped forward. He was short and stout with a forked beard and a ready smile. "You are looking very fine, Lord Klay," he said. "I watched your fight--what little there was of it. You were magnificent."
"Thank you, sir."
"To think your opponent traveled so far only to be humiliated in such a fashion!"
"He was not humiliated, sir, merely beaten. He had earned his right to face me by competing against a number of very good fistfighters. And he had the misfortune to slip on the sand just as I struck him."
"Of course, of course! Your humility does you great credit, my lord," the man said smoothly. "I see you were admiring the bronze. It is a wonderful work by a new sculptor. He will go far." He lowered his voice. "For anyone else, my lord, the price would be one thousand in silver. But for the mighty Klay I could come down to eight hundred."
"I have two busts of the emperor; he gave them to me himself. But thank you for your offer."
Klay moved away from the man, and a young woman stepped before him. She was holding the hand of a fair-haired boy of around ten years of age. "Pardon me, lord, for this impertinence," she said, bowing deeply, "but my son would dearly like to meet you."
"Not at all," said Klay, dropping to one knee before the boy. "What is your name, lad?"
"Atka, sir," he replied. "I saw all your fights so far. You are ... you are wonderful."
"Praise indeed. Will you watch the final?"
"Oh, yes, sir. I shall be here to see you thrash the Drenai. I watched him, too. He almost lost."
"I don't think so, Atka. He is a tough man, a man of rock and iron. I wagered on him myself."
"He can't beat you, though, sir. Can he?" asked the boy, his eyes widening as doubt touched him.
Klay smiled. "All men can be beaten, Atka. You will just have to wait a few days and see."
Klay stood and smiled at the blushing young woman. "He is a fine boy," said the champion. Taking her hand, he kissed it, then moved away, pausing to study the paintings on the far wall. Many were landscapes of the desert and the mountains; others depicted young women in various stages of undress. Some were of hunting scenes, while two, which caught Klay's eye, were of wildflowers. At the far end of the gallery was a long stall behind which stood an elderly Chiatze. Klay made his way to the man and studied the artifacts laid out so neatly. They were mostly small statuettes surrounded by brooches, amulets, bracelets, bangles, and rings. Klay lifted a small ivory figurine, no more than four inches tall. It was of a beautiful woman in a flowing dress. There were flowers in her hair, and in her hand she held a snake, its tail coiled around her wrist.
"This is very lovely," he said.
The small Chiatze nodded and smiled. "She is Shul-sen, the bride of Oshikai Demon-bane. The figurine is close to a thousand years old."
"How can you tell?"
"I am Chorin-Tsu, lord, the royal embalmer and a student of history. I found this piece during an archaeological survey near the site of the fabled Battle of Five Armies. I am certain that it is no less than nine centuries old." Klay lifted the figurine close to his eyes. The woman's face was oval, her eyes slanted; she seemed to be smiling.
"She was Chiatze, this Shul-sen?" he asked.
Chorin-Tsu spread his hands. "That depends, lord, on your perspective. She was, as I told you, the wife of Oshikai, and he is considered the father of the Nadir. It was he who led the rebel tribes from the lands of the Chiatze and fought his way to the lands now ruled by the Gothir. After his death the tribes roamed free, warring on one another, even as now. So if he was the first Nadir, then Shul-sen was ... what? Nadir or Chiatze?"
"Both," said Klay. "And beautiful, too. What happened to her?"
The Chiatze shrugged, and Klay saw sorrow in the dark, slanted eyes. "That depends on which version of historical events you happen to believe. For myself I think she was murdered soon after Oshikai's death. All the records point to this, though some stories have her sailing to a mythic land beyond the sea. If you have romantic leanings, perhaps that is the story you should cling to."
"I tend to hold to the truth where I can," said Klay. "But in this case I would like to believe she lived happily somewhere. I would guess we will never know."
Chorin-Tsu spread his hands once more. "As a student I like to think that one day the mists will be opened. Perhaps I might find some documentary evidence."
"If you do so, let me know. Meanwhile I shall purchase this figurine. Have it delivered to my house."
"You wish to know the price, lord?"
"I am sure it will be a fair one."
"Indeed it will, sir."
Klay turned away, then swung back. "Tell me, Chorin-Tsu: How is it that the royal embalmer runs a stall of antiquities?"
"Embalming, lord, is my profession. History is my passion. And as with all passions, they must be shared to be enjoyed. Your delight in the piece brings me great pleasure."
Klay moved on through the gallery arch and to the Hall of Cuisine. Two guards opened the door to the beautifully furnished dining room of the nobility. Klay had long since lost any sense of nervousness on entering such establishments, for despite the lowliness of his birth, his legend was now so great among the people that he was considered higher than most nobles. There were few diners present, but Klay spotted the Drenai ambassador, Majon, engaged in a heated discussion with a fop in a bejeweled blue tunic. The fop was tall and slim and very handsome, his hair light brown and held in place by a silver headband adorned with an opal. Klay approached them. Majon did not at first notice the fighter and continued to rail at his companion.
"I do think this is unfair, Sieben. After all, you won--" At that moment he saw Klay, and instantly his face changed, a broad smile appearing. "My dear chap, so good to see you again. Please do join us. It would be such an honor. We were talking about you only moments ago. This is Sieben the Poet."
"I have heard your work performed," said Klay, "and I have read with interest the saga of Druss the Legend."
The poet gave a wolfish smile. "You've read the work, and soon you'll face the man. I have to tell you, sir, that I shall be wagering against you."
"Then you will forgive me for not wishing you luck," said Klay, sitting down.
"Did you watch today's bout?" asked Majon.
"I did indeed, Ambassador. Druss is an interesting fighter. It seems that pain spurs him to greater efforts. He is indomitable and very strong."
"He always wins," said Sieben happily. "It's a talent he has."
"Sieben is particularly pleased today," Majon put in icily. "He has won sixty gold pieces."
"I won also," said Klay.
"You bet on Druss?" asked Sieben.
"Yes. I had studied both men and did not feel the Lentrian had the heart to match your man. He also lacked speed in his left, which gave Druss the chance to roll with the punches. But you should advise him to change his attacking stance. He tends to duck his head and charge, which makes him an easy target for an uppercut."
"I'll be sure to tell him," promised Sieben.
"I have a training ground at my house. He is welcome to use it."
"That is a very kind offer," put in Majon.
"You seem very confident, sir," said Sieben. "Does it not concern you that Druss has never lost?"
"No more than it concerns me that I have never lost. Whatever else happens, one of us will surrender that perfect record. But the sun will still shine, and the earth will not topple. Now, my friends, shall we order some food?"
From the Paperback edition.