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IN A SMALL ROOM beneath the largest of Sharakhai’s fighting pits, Çeda sat on a wooden bench, tightening her fingerless gloves. The room was cool, even chill compared to the ever-present heat of the city. Painted ceramic tiles lined the walls. A mismatched jumble of wooden benches and shelves that had clearly seen decades of abuse made it feel well loved if not well cared for. Were Çeda any other dirt dog, she would have sat in one of the rooms on the far side of the pits, the ones that hosted dozens of men and women. But Çeda was given special dispensation, and had been since winning her first bout at the age of fourteen.
By the gods, five years already.
She tightened her hands into fists, enjoying the creak of the leather, the feel of the chain mail wrapped around the backs of her hands and knuckles. She checked the straps of her armor. Her greaves, her bracers, her heavy battle skirt. And finally her breastplate. All of them had once been dyed white—the color of a wolf’s bared teeth—but now the armor was so well used that much of the leather’s natural brown shone through. Well and good, Çeda thought. It felt used. Lived in. Kissed by battle. Exactly the way she liked it.
She picked up her bright steel helm and set it on her lap. She stared into the iron mask fixed across the front—a mask of a woman’s face, cold and expressionless in the face of battle. Affixed to the top of the helm was a wolf’s pelt, teeth bared, muzzle resting along the crown.
Echoing down the corridor came a voice that sounded old and hoary, a mountain come to life. “They’re ready.” It was Pelam.
Çeda glanced toward the arched doorway with the blood-red curtains strung across it. “Coming,” she said, then returned her attention to the helm. She ran her fingers over the many nicks in the metal, over the mask’s empty eyes—
Tulathan grant me foresight.
—stroked the rough fur of the wolf’s pelt—
Thaash guide my sword.
—then pulled the helm over her braided black hair and strapped it tightly on.
As the weight of the armor settled over her, she parted the heavy curtains and hiked up the sloping tunnel into the heat of the noontime sun. The walls of the fighting pit towered around her, and above them, arranged in concentric circles, were the seats of the stadium. It’s going to be a good day for Osman. Already there were several hundred waiting for the bout to begin.
Roughly half the spectators called the city of Sharakhai home; they knew the pits inside and out, knew the regular dirt dogs as well. The other half were visitors to the desert’s amber jewel. They’d come to trade or find fortune in a city that offered greater opportunities than they’d had back home. It rankled that so many came here, to Çeda’s home, and lived off it like fleas on a dog. Though she could hardly complain—
A boy in a teal kaftan pointed to Çeda wildly and called, “The White Wolf! The Wolf has come to fight!” and the crowd rose to their feet as one, craning their necks to see.
—the pits paid well enough.
A ragged cheer went up as she strode to the center of the pit and joined the circle of eleven other fighters. The money men in the stands began calling out odds for the White Wolf. She hadn’t even been chosen to fight yet, so no one would know who her opponent would be, but many still flocked to be the first to wager their coin on her.
The other dirt dogs watched Çeda warily. Some knew her, but just like those in the audience, many of these fighters had come from distant kingdoms to try their hand against the best fighters in Sharakhai. Three women stood among those gathered—two well muscled, the third an absolute brute; she outweighed Çeda by three stone at least. The rest were men, some brawny, others lithe. One, however, was a tower of a man wearing a beaten leather breastplate and a conical helm with chain mail that lapped against his broad shoulders. Haluk. He stood a full head and a half taller than Çeda and stared at her like an ox readying a charge.
In response, Çeda strode toward him and pressed her thumb to an exposed edge on the back of her mailed gloves. She pressed hard enough to pierce skin, to draw blood. Haluk stared at her with confusion, then a wicked sort of glee, as Çeda stopped in front of him and pressed her bloody thumb to the center of his leather breastplate.
The crowd roared.
A new flurry of betting rose, while the rest of the audience jockeyed for position against the rim of the pit.
Çeda had just marked Haluk for her own, an ancient gesture that not all dirt dogs would respect, but these would, she reckoned. None of them would wish to fight Haluk, not in their first bout of the day. When Çeda turned away and returned to her place in the circle, all but ignoring Haluk, the naked anger on his face was slowly replaced with a look of cool assessment. Good, Çeda thought. He’d taken the bait and would surely choose her if she didn’t choose him first.
When some but not all of the betting flurry had died down, Pelam stepped out from another darkened tunnel. The calls of betting rose to a tumult as the audience saw the first bout was ready to begin.
Pelam wore a jeweled vest, a brown kufi, and a red kaftan that was not only fashionable but fine, save for its hem, which was hopelessly dusty from its days sweeping the pit floors. In one of Pelam’s skeletal hands he held a woven basket. As the fighters parted for him, he stepped to the rough center of their circle and flipped the basket lid open. After one last check around him to ensure all was ready, he shot his hand into basket’s confines and lifted a horned viper as long as his lanky legs. The snake wriggled, swelling its hood and hissing, baring its fangs for all to see.
Pelam knew his business, but the snake made Çeda’s hackles rise. Bites were rare but not unheard of, especially if one of the fighters was inexperienced and jumped when the snake drew near. Çeda knew enough to remain still, but foreigners didn’t always follow Pelam’s careful pre-bout instructions, and it wasn’t always the person who jumped that the snakes chose to sink their fangs into.
As Pelam held the writhing snake, each of the fighters spread their legs wide until their sandaled or booted feet butted up against each other’s. After a glance at each of the fighter’s stances, and finding them proper, Pelam dropped the snake and stepped away.
It lay there, coiling itself tightly. The crowd shouted to the baked desert air, their voices rising to a fever pitch as each yelled the name of their chosen fighter. The fighters themselves remained silent. Oddly, the snake slithered toward Pelam for a moment, then seemed to think better of it and turned to glide over the sand to Çeda’s left, then turned once more. And slithered straight through Haluk’s legs.
Silence followed as a pit boy ran and snatched the viper by its tail, lowering it back into its basket as the snake spun like a woodworker’s auger.
Pelam calmly awaited Haluk’s choice.
The big man didn’t hesitate. He made straight for Çeda and spat on the ground at her feet.
The crowd went wild. “The Oak of the Guard has chosen the White Wolf!”
Oak indeed. Haluk was a captain of the Silver Spears, and a tree of a man, but he was also a particularly cruel man, and it was time he learned a lesson.
Like jackals to a kill, the news drew spectators from neighboring pits. The stands were soon brimming with them.
As the rest of the fighters exited the pit, a dozen boys jogged out from the tunnels bearing wooden swords and shields and clubs. Çeda, as the challenged, would normally be allowed to choose weapons first, but she followed ancient custom; she had marked him, and thus she was the true challenger, not Haluk, so she bowed her head and waved to the weapons, granting first choice to Haluk.
Most would have returned the honor, but Haluk merely grunted and chose one of the few weapons meant for both him and his opponent: the fetters.
The noise of the crowd rose until it was akin to thunder. Some laughed, others clapped. Some few even stared with naked worry at Çeda, who had clearly just been put at a severe disadvantage by Haluk’s choice of weapon.
The fetters was a length of tough, braided leather. It was wrapped tightly around one of each fighter’s wrists, keeping them in close proximity and ensuring a brawl.
While glaring intently at Haluk, Çeda held out her left hand, allowing Pelam to slip the end of the fetters around her wrist and tighten it. Pelam did the same to Haluk, then took a small brass gong and mallet from one of the boys.
The pit was cleared so that only Çeda, Haluk, and Pelam remained.
The doors to the tunnels closed.
And then, after a dramatic pause in which Pelam held the gong chest-high between the two fighters, he struck it and stepped away.
There was slack in the fetters, a situation Haluk would quickly attempt to remedy—his best hope, after all, lay in controlling Çeda’s movement—but Çeda was ready for it. The moment Haluk lunged in to grab as much of the leather rope as he could, she darted forward, leaping and snapping a kick at his chin. When he retreated, Çeda charged, a move he clearly hadn’t been expecting. His eyes widened as Çeda grabbed his clumsily raised arm and sent her fist crashing into his cheek.
She could feel the chain mail dig deep into the fighting gloves she wore, but it was worse for Haluk. He fell unceremoniously onto his rump, his conical helm flying off and thumping onto the dry dirt, kicking up dust as it went.
The crowd stood and howled its delight.
As his helm skidded well out of reach, Haluk rolled backward over his shoulder and came to a stand, so quickly that Çeda had no time to rush forward and end it.
Haluk raised one hand to his cheek, felt the blood from the patterned cuts the mail had left in his skin, then stared at his own hand with a look like he’d disappointed himself. And then his eyes went hard. He’d been pure bluster before, trying to intimidate Çeda, but now he was seething mad.
None so blind as a wrathful man, Çeda thought.
Haluk crouched warily and began wrapping the fetters around his left wrist, over and over, slowly taking up the slack. Çeda retreated and pulled hard on the fetters, putting her entire body into it, making the leather scrape painfully along Haluk’s arm. He ignored it and continued to wrap the restraints around his wrist. Çeda yanked on the fetters again, but he blunted the tactic with well-timed grips on the leather, the muscles along his arm rippling and bulging. He grinned, showing two rows of ragged teeth.
Çeda sent several kicks toward his thighs and knees, attacks meant more to test Haluk’s reflexes than anything else. Haluk blocked them easily. She was just about to yank on the fetters again when he loosened his grip and rushed her. Çeda stumbled, pretending to lose her balance, and when Haluk came close she dove to her right and swept a leg across his ankles.
He fell in a heap, the breath whooshing from his lungs.
He grabbed for Çeda and managed to snag her ankle, but one swift kick from Çeda’s free heel and she was up and dancing away while Haluk rose slowly to his feet.
The crowd howled again, many of the foreigners joining in, though they had no idea why. The Sharakhani knew, though. They understood why bouts like this were so very rare.
Haluk hadn’t been defeated in more than ten years of fighting in the pits. Çeda had rarely lost since her first bout, and she’d lost none in the past three years. Everyone knew how widely the story of this bout would be told, especially if Çeda took him in so cleanly a fashion. Few would dare utter the tale within Haluk’s hearing, but the entire city would be alive with it by the end of the day.
And Haluk knew it. He stared into Çeda’s eyes with an intensity that reeked of desperation. He would not be so easy to take again.
As the two of them squared off once more, the crowd went completely and eerily silent. The only sound was of Haluk’s ragged breathing and Çeda’s strong but controlled breaths from within the confines of her helm.
Haluk took one tentative step forward. Çeda stepped away, snatching up some of the slack in the fetters as she went. Haluk did the same until they both held a quarter of the length in reserve, leaving them a scant few strides from one another.
Haluk took two measured steps toward her. He was trying to close the distance, but he was no longer reckless. He was cautious, as a man who’d become a captain of Sharakhai’s guard should be.
Çeda kicked at his legs again, connecting but doing little damage. That wasn’t the point, though. She had to keep him on his guard until she was ready to move in. She snapped another kick and retreated, but she could only go so far. Haluk had drawn up more of the fetters, so Çeda released some of hers. Haluk strode forward, taking up more of the braided rope. Which forced Çeda to release more. Until she had none left.
He drew sharply on it, keeping his center low, his balance steady, and Çeda was drawn forward until she was just out of his striking range.
The crowd began to stamp their feet, the sound of it reverberating in the pit, but otherwise they were silent, rapt.
Haluk pulled again, harder now that they were so close. And that’s when Çeda moved.
Excerpted from "Twelve Kings in Sharakhai"
Copyright © 2016 Bradley P. Beaulieu.
Excerpted by permission of DAW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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