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Iada flicked her long black hair from her face and deftly twisted it behind her head, securing it tightly with two ebony needles that could be used as weapons in a pinch. She would leave nothing to chance. Her opponent was large. In his human form, he outweighed her by at least seventy pounds, all in the form of sleek, firm muscle. Her first impression was of the wide expanse of golden skin across his chest, long black hair tied at the nape and unusual gray eyes.
"Name's Gabriel Alvarez. His mother was human," Mateus said as he slicked oil over her skin. That explained the eyes, Iada thought, but not his presence in the pit. Access to the city was generally restricted to those of pure blood, and judging by the vicious nature of the insults coming from the crowd, there were many who were outraged by the violation.
"He shouldn't be here," she muttered, watching as the stranger paced restlessly, moving as much to avoid becoming a target for the crowd as to keep his muscles loose. No one stood beside him. She felt a pang of pity. He was even more alone than she was.
Mateus wiped his hands on the damp rag hanging from his waist and straightened slowly, gesturing toward the wall that enclosed the pit. Light from the torches cast wild shadows over the carvings, stylized figures changing from man to jaguar to man again in a running sequence around the circle. In the flickering light they almost seemed to be moving. The glyphs below were nearly worn smooth but she knew what they said. They detailed the sacred law of their people, a law as simple, brutal and direct as the Yaguara themselves.
When the old king died, a tournament was to be held within the fortnight. Any Yaguara could enter. The fights were restricted to human form with the contenders challenging one another until there was only one left standing and the champion was named the new king. He controlled the city, the coffers and the warrior guard. His word was law for the duration of his reign.
Mateus pointed to a stone halfway around the circle and Iada named it. "Any Yaguara may compete."
He nodded, clearly pleased that she recalled the old lessons. "The laws of the tournament say he can fight. Not even your uncles could stop him." His black eyes glittered. "Though they did try."
"Vin said that no one would accept a mutant as a true Yaguara." And she'd believed him. After all, there was a cold black hole in the temple floor where only two centuries ago they were still sacrificing the children of mixed blood to the fires.
"Vin was wrong." Mateus chuckled. "The mutant went before the interim council and recited all the arguments your uncles used to get you in as the first female. They had to concede or give you up."
Iada smiled tightly at that. She couldn't remember the last time anyone had outmaneuvered Vin and Arturo. She rarely attempted it herself. They would be furious. She pushed aside the bone-deep weariness that came with the thought and scanned the crowd for her uncles, seeing no sign of them yet. They would time their entrance for the most dramatic effect, entering just before the thick golden doors swung closed to give the illusion that it was their presence that signaled the beginning of this final battle. As she turned her head, her eyes caught on the stranger again, paused in his pacing, facing down the crowd of full-blooded Yaguara with no sign of fear.
"How did he even make it so far?" she asked with a touch of bemusement.
Mateus's gaze hardened and he tapped her lightly on the cheek, drawing her complete attention. "That one is nasty as Vin and ruthless as Arturo. Don't underestimate him. He's earned his right to be here."