Ah, it is that time again. The wonderful FrInnDay, when we come together to learn of the latest happenings in Gertrude Hunt and pass judgement on the silly beings within. Welcome, our honored guests! During our last happy meeting, we met Derryl of Is, a lone female werewolf with a 2×4 on her shoulder, and watched Dina remind Nycati that even though he might be a secret Gaheas prince, innkeepers are a power unlike any other. Today we bring you the Trial of Talent.
Warning: the following chapter contains a brief description of animal cruelty. The Universe is vast and not everyone abides by the same standards.
The light of early morning illuminated Kosandion’s private balcony and the bags under his eyes. He took a sip from his coffee mug and looked at it.
“Why is this so sweet?”
“Because you didn’t sleep last night,” Sean said. “You need the sugar.”
Kosandion frowned at him and took a big gulp.
Orata fidgeted in her seat. “Perhaps, a booster…”
“No,” Kosandion said firmly.
Orata looked at Resven. The Chancellor spread his arms.
“At least some drops for the eyes,” Orata said. “Just for the optics.”
“What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“They’re bloodshot,” I told him.
Some kind of crisis must have occurred, because Kosandion hadn’t slept for almost forty-eight hours. The night before last he dealt with Vercia’s betrayal. We’d gone to sleep close to 2:00 am, and he was still awake. When I had gotten up 2 hours later to deal with the latest Dushegub caper, he hadn’t gone to bed. Last night was the same.
He didn’t say which urgent problem was keeping him awake, and it would have been impolite to ask, but he paced a few times during the night and Gertrude Hunt woke both Sean and me up every time he moved too much, which was why the two of us decided to join him for the morning briefing. I read somewhere that lack of sleep was cumulative. After this event was over, and we got Wilmos back, I would sleep for a week.
Kosandion held out his hand. Orata jumped up, put a small vial into his fingers, and went back to her seat. The Sovereign put two drops into each eye and firmly set the vial on the table.
Resven approached, picked up a dish with one of Orro’s beautiful muffins on it, and held it out to Kosandion as if he were a two-year old.
“Please take a bite, Letero.”
Kosandion just looked at him.
“Sleep or food,” Miralitt said. “You must have at least one.”
Kosandion took the dish and set it aside. “The ratings. Now.”
Orata looked like she’d bitten into a lemon. “Surkar is leading across all categories with an average of 17 points.”
Kosandion shook his head. “Of course he is.”
“It’s that damn show.” Orata waved her arms.
“What show?” Sean asked.
She glanced at Kosandion and he waved her on. Orata tapped her tablet and tilted the holographic screen toward us. On it a panoramic shot of a battlefield rushed toward the viewer, following a bird of prey that swooped down over the field. Bodies in armor littered the bloody ground. Here and there, individual duels still raged, the fighters tripping over corpses. The view zeroed in on a large warrior in antique Dominion armor. He climbed over a hill of the dead to a rock jutting from the bodies. Atop the rock, another fighter splattered with blood roared, brandishing a spear.
The challenger made it to the rock and ripped off his damaged breastplate, revealing a shockingly muscular chest. Miralitt raised her eyebrows.
The two men clashed. Weapons rang, striking each other. They danced across the crag, cutting and slicing. Finally, the challenger leaped and buried his sword in his opponent’s throat. The wounded man clasped his neck, spat out a torrent of blood, stumbled about, waved his arms, seemingly forgetting that there was a blade in his throat…
The hero leaped and kicked the pommel of the sword, driving it into the man and knocking him off the cliff. Miraculously, all the soldiers on the field stopped to watch the body fall. It landed with a meaty thud.
The hero pulled off his helmet. He looked remarkably like the Dominion version of Surkar. If not for the obvious difference in size and pigmentation, they could have been cousins.
“I’d watch that,” Sean said.
Kosandion rolled his eyes.
The hero grabbed a flag, pulling it from under the corpses, triumphantly planted it by his feet, and bellowed. “Warriors! Comrades! Look! The tyrant is dead! Let his death serve as a warning to those who dare claim our freedom!”
“Claim our freedom,” Orata muttered. “It’s not even good writing.”
“They’re not watching it for the writing,” Miralitt said.
“No, but they are watching. In huge numbers.” Kosandion glanced at Orata.
She covered her face with her hands.
“I swear on this field watered with the blood of our brothers and sisters that my blade shall not rest until every threat to our liberty is vanquished. As long as my heart beats in my chest, I will stand for justice and peace.”
The camera panned to the few warriors standing among the carnage below.
“That’s a lot of peace,” Sean said.
“Yes, they had a large budget,” Orata said. “They even got Samrion for the lead. He usually does mystery and intrigue shows. He’d earned a reputation as an intellectual, nuanced actor. We talked before the production. He was very apologetic. Apparently, they paid him an obscene amount of money. I don’t know what they were feeding him to get him to that size…”
“Who are ‘they’ and when did they have time to put all of this together?” I asked.
“They are the Enforee family,” Resven said. “They own one of the largest video channels, and they opposed the Letero’s succession. They lost and now they’re bitter.”
“The identity of the spousal candidates was made public ten months ago,” Orata said. “They put it together pretty quick. A tight deadline but not impossible.”
The hero gripped the flagpole and waved it around, flexing.
The message was clear: the Dominion needed a warrior to safeguard its freedoms and lead it to glory, and Kosandion wasn’t it.
“How do they benefit from Surkar winning?” Sean asked.
“They don’t,” Kosandion said. “Selecting Surkar as a spouse would involve the Dominion in the Horde’s internal squabbles. He brings very few benefits and lots of problems, problems which will keep me occupied and distracted. It’s one of the many stones they hurl into my path hoping I will trip on one of them.”
I wasn’t a Dominion politician, but even I understood that the only way to neutralize Surkar was to shatter his image as an invincible warrior, and I had no idea how Kosandion could do that. He couldn’t exactly order Miralitt to march into the arena and kick his ass.
“What are the rest of the rankings?” Kosandion asked.
“Amphie, Lady Wexyn, Bestata, Prysen Ol, Oond, Nycati, Cyanide, Unessa,” Orata reported. “The show gave Bestata a boost as well, and Oond, who was up, is now down. Also, they really didn’t like Cyanide’s date. They thought it was boring and she was arrogant.”
Resven nudged the muffin toward Kosandion. Kosandion broke it in half and bit into it.
“Is everything ready for the 2nd Trial?” Orata asked. “Do you need anything?”
“No, we have it covered,” Sean said.
We did have the arena covered. The rest was up to the candidates and there was no telling what they would come up with.
“Welcome to the 2nd Trial!” Gaston announced. “Are you ready?”
The cacophony of whistles, creaks, stomps, applause and howls confirmed that the delegates were indeed ready.
A talent show had to have a stage to focus everyone’s attention on the candidates. We raised a circular portion of the floor six feet up and reshuffled the seating arrangements, eliminating the Donkamin, Murder Beaks, and Team Frowns sections, so everyone sat closer to the stage.
We went with filtered light this time, dimming the ceiling so it was translucent but tinted, like the lens of sunglasses. The portion of the ceiling directly above the stage had a lighter tint, and Gaston, who was whipping the crowd into an excited frenzy from the center of the stage, was practically glowing in his blindingly white outfit. When I asked him how many clothes he’d brought with him, he told me he grew up in a swamp wearing rags and he was overcompensating. I didn’t know what to make of that, so I made an excuse and walked away.
Kosandion watched the pre-show with a dispassionate expression. He was on his third cup of coffee, and I told Orro to cut him off before he became jittery.
I did a quick sweep of the arena. Everyone was where they were supposed to be. The Holy Ecclesiarch and his retinue were in place, the Observers’ section was in order, and all of the delegations were present. Tony was above the arena. Today he would be handling the special effects. Sean parked himself near the Holy Ecclesiarch. Apparently, the elderly man specifically requested his presence. His Holiness was still pretending to be decrepit. His performance was suffering at the moment since he and the First Scholar were engaged in a spirited debate and he was waving his arms with a vigor of a man half his age.
Sean looked at me. To everyone else his expression would be perfectly neutral, but I knew better. This was his long-suffering look.
One of Cookie’s helpers, a petite merchant with sable fur and bright green eyes, jumped up and down in the Observer’s section, waving her little paws at me. She could have just requested a call, but she didn’t, which meant she wanted to tell me something personally. I extended a narrow bridge to the Observer’s section, barely a foot wide. A human would’ve walked very carefully across it. The little lees scampered over it like it was solid ground. She reached me, dropped a piece of paper into my hand, and dashed back.
I retracted the bridge and checked the note. On it, in Caldenia’s graceful hand, was written, “It is vital that W goes last and the oaf right before her. Please indulge me.”
I glanced at Caldenia. Her Grace nodded at me.
Surkar sat in the first row, in the center of the otrokar’s section, wearing a long cloak. Not a typical garment for the otrokars unless it was winter. Lady Wexyn was veiled head to toe in a translucent golden fabric.
What was Caldenia up to? Whatever it was, the order of contestants didn’t really matter to me. We would take a break between Candidates 5 and 6, and Bestata had to be Candidate 6, because Tony told me her talent required some setup. There was no harm in letting Surkar go next to last and Lady Wexyn after him. If anything weird happened, Sean and I would handle it.
I tapped my earpiece. “Time to start things up.”
“Please welcome our first candidate!” Gaston boomed and exited the stage by dramatically sinking into it.
I bounced the white light and stopped it under Team Smiles. A ramp unfurled from the edge of the section to the stage. Amphie rose. She wore a silver dress accented with pale gold flowers that flowed over her body like a glittering stream. A narrow ribbon of hunter green wove through her hair, a nod to Kosandion’s outfit during his date with Cyanide.
Amphie descended the ramp, crossed the stage, and came to stand in the center. A slow melody filled the arena, quiet at first, but growing louder. Amphie opened her mouth and sang, her voice spiraling through the music. Behind her a glowing vine with two shoots, one hunter green and the other silver, emerged from the edge of the stage. They wove around each other, spiraling, growing leaves, sprouting buds, branching and twisting, as if nourished by her song.
Super subtle. She couldn’t have made it more obvious unless she finished it off with a neon sign that said Kosandion and Amphie sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Gaston and Tony had rehearsed with the candidates yesterday, and now I understood why Tony called her a simple soul afterward.
The song reached a crescendo. Amphie delivered the final ringing note and fell silent. The vine behind her bloomed with golden flowers.
“Lovely,” Kosandion said.
It sounded like a genuine compliment. Maybe with all the conflicts and crises he had to resolve, raising a child with Amphie was beginning to look appealing. She clearly adored him, and it promised to be uncomplicated.
The arena offered applause and Gaston reappeared to cordially escort Amphie back to her seat and take his master of ceremonies spot back on the stage.
I bounced the light again. Prysen Ol was next. He came down dressed in another blue robe, looking humble and handsome.
Gaston, who had lingered on stage, stepped forward. “Starlight, a poem by Prysen Ol, written to celebrate this once in a lifetime occasion.”
Apparently, Prysen was too shy to announce it himself. Gaston gave him an encouraging nod and withdrew.
The light narrowed into a column with Prysen at its core. He took a deep breath, visibly nervous.
“The darkness is vast. The universe is cold…”
The poem lasted five minutes. It was beautiful and it spoke of every star being a sun to someone. At the end of it the Holy Ecclesiarch teared up and the First Scholar rested his wing on his chest over his heart and had to take a moment.
Oond was next. He performed a dance and by the end of it I needed a moment.
Cyanide sang the song of her people, which was long and very yowling. The Higgra delegation were overcome and joined in toward the end.
“I can’t take it,” Sean whispered into my earpiece. “It’s like a room full of cats being slowly strangled.”
“She’s an expert weaver. Why didn’t she make something?”
“Because she doesn’t give away her secrets to the enemy.”
My poor werewolf. I could practically feel his eyes twitching.
By the time Cyanide finally finished, most of the audience had reached a breaking point. Bouncing the light again was a relief. I settled on Unessa. We needed something to wake us up and she was unlikely to sing. Somehow, I just didn’t feel that Dushegubs put the same value on fine arts as we did.
Unessa practically ran down the ramp with a bounce in each step. Hmmm.
A portion of the stage, twenty feet across, dropped down in a perfect circle and came back up, carrying a big cage. Inside it, green lizards squirmed and hissed, each about the size of a large house cat.
Unessa strode to the cage, pulled a small door near the top open, and snatched a lizard out. The screens around the arena zoomed in on the reptile. A bright red crest snapped erect along its spine. It tried to claw at Unessa, but she held it tight by its throat with one hand and pulled its mouth open with the other, revealing long sharp teeth.
“Venomous,” Unessa announced. “Sharp teeth. Very fast.”
She dropped the lizard back into the cage. A giant screen descended from the ceiling with a digital timer, the 00:00 in bright red.
What was she…
A bell rang through the arena. The numbers on the timer flashed. The cage collapsed, and fifty lizards dashed in all directions. Unessa plucked the nearest one off the floor, quick like a striking snake, and in one smooth motion twisted its head off.
Oh dear Universe.
She dropped the dead body and snatched the next lizard. It screamed in terror, like a frightened puppy, and she snapped its neck, dropped it, and grabbed another one. Oond’s people flailed in alarm, their fins snapping to communicate a predator warning. The otrokars went silent. They were careful hunters, concerned with preservation and management of the animals whose lives they took, and they never murdered for sport. This… this atrocity went against every hunting tradition of the Horde. It was just a pointless slaughter, and the lizards were screaming, dashing and climbing over each other to get away from her. They didn’t sound like reptiles. They sounded like small mammals gripped by sheer panic.
Another lizard. Another.
“Stop her!” Kosandion growled.
I dropped the stage around Unessa, leaving her standing on a stone pillar. The surviving lizards scattered through the arena, leaving corpses behind. The Dushegubs creaked and hissed in outrage.
“I warned you,” Gaston said into my ear.
He had. I made my voice do that loud unsettling whisper thing, sending it to every ear in the arena. “The Sovereign thanks Candidate Unessa Sybate for her demonstration.”
A large Dushegub charged to the wall of their section and fell through the floor as Sean sent it back into the pit. The rest of the trees creaked and shook their branches but stayed in their spots.
Unessa counted the bodies with her finger, pointing at each, and looked up at the timer. “Twelve in seven seconds!” And then she smiled.
“It’s time for a short break!” Gaston announced and escorted her back to her seat.
Tables with refreshments sprouted in each section.
Kosandion looked angry. I had never seen that before, not when he dealt with Odikas, not even when he found out about Vercia’s betrayal. Unessa’s display of animal cruelty caught him by surprise. The anger radiated from him like heat from asphalt in summer.
I should have asked Gaston to be more specific when he mentioned it. But even if he had, nothing Unessa had done was forbidden under the terms Orata had provided to us. The point of the Talent Trial was to reveal the abilities of the Candidates. It was meant to be a surprise and a display of skill. We all knew what Unessa’s special talent was. She told us during her introduction. She was good at smothering.
The Dushegubs had trained her like a terrier going after rats. Where did she even come from? They either purchased or found a human-like child and raised her to be this. What if she wasn’t the only one? Maybe she was just the best of many. What would happen to her after she failed to become a Spouse? I didn’t want to think about that.
Kosandion stopped her, offending the Dushegubs and breaking the tradition. There would be political ramifications, because apparently even breathing too fast had consequences in the Dominion when you were a public figure. I didn’t think he cared. I checked his face. Nope, he didn’t.
Tony was moving things around below. No trace of the stage remained, the floor of the arena once again empty. Stone pillars, each just large enough to support a human foot, emerged from the stone tiles, rising to different heights. The shortest was fifty-five feet tall, the tallest three feet higher, with a few feet of open ground between them.
Tony grouped the pillars into a twisted path that veered left, then right, the left again. Three platforms appeared, flanking the trail where it curved. Each platform supported a long pole protruding above the trail with three bags filled with sand attached to the top of the poles on long ropes. The bags rested on the platforms.
Obviously, an obstacle course. High-risk, entertaining, and best of all no small animals were likely to be harmed. Perfect.
“Ready?” Gaston asked me.
I hid the tables with refreshments. “I can’t wait.”
“And we’re back! Please give a warm welcome to our next Candidate, Lady Bestata of House Meer.”
Bestata approached the first pillar, jumped, catching it with her hands, and climbed to the top, standing on one foot.
“For this demonstration,” Gaston announced, “We will need volunteers.”
The entire otrokar section stood up.
“We will only need three. Please pick among yourselves.”
A brief scuffle ensued while I made the individual bridges from the otrokar section to the platforms. Three otrokars emerged and took their places on the platforms.
“As Candidate Bestata makes her way to the other end of this treacherous path, please do your best to knock her off the pillars and down to the floor of the arena using the sandbags available to you.”
“A savok from my stable to the first person to bring her down!” Surkar roared.
There were few things the otrokars prized more than savok mounts.
“Only using the sandbags!” Gaston added. “She must touch the ground for your throw to count. Are you ready, Lady Bestata?”
She tied a length of black cloth over her eyes. “Ready.”
The crowd murmured in appreciation, anticipating a good show. Kosandion leaned forward, his face showing only interest. No traces of outrage remained. It was still there, he was just hiding it.
A bell tolled. Bestata unsheathed two long slender swords and leaped onto the next pillar, running across them like they were solid ground. The crowd cheered.
She dashed toward the first bend in the pillar path. The otrokar on the platform next to it grabbed the first bag and swung it at Bestata. She shied back, poised on the toes of her left foot, leaning dangerously back on the pillar, her swords held out at her sides for balance. The bag whistled in front of her. She sprinted forward, and the bag swung back like a giant pendulum, hurtling through the spot she just left.
The second bag missed her by half a second. The third went too wide, spinning a full foot away from the vampire knight. Another moment, and Bestata was out of range, running toward the next platform.
The next otrokar, a large red-haired female, bet on strategy rather than speed. She spun the first bag, sending it in a circle toward Bestata, grabbed the second bag, aimed it slightly to her right, and let it go. The first bag curved, slicing through the air. Somehow the vampire knight sensed it coming and leaped to a pillar on the side, right into the path of the second bag.
The crowd froze.
The second bag flew toward her, straight at her chest. Bestata swung her left sword. The black blade whined, priming, and the bag plunged to the bottom of the arena, sliced in half, its sand spilling like victory confetti.
The spectators roared.
Bestata sprinted. The otrokar swung the third bag, but it was too late.
In the Observers’ section, Karat leaned forward, laser focused on Bestata, clearly reevaluating her threat potential. Dagorkun shook his hands and bellowed in his battle voice, “Throw the damn bag! Don’t swing it, idiots, throw it!”
The third otrokar, a lean, powerfully muscled older male, clearly a veteran, must have heard him. I was pretty sure people all the way in Dallas probably would’ve heard him if I hadn’t soundproofed the arena.
The veteran grasped the bag with one hand, leaned back like a javelin thrower, and let it loose. The bag tore through the air and smashed into Bestata just as her right foot touched the next pillar. The bag exploded into a fountain of sand. For a torturous half second, she teetered on the verge of falling fifty feet to the sand floor below.
If she fell, it would hurt. A drop that large would damage even a vampire in syn armor.
If she fell, I had to catch her.
Bestata leaped backward, her arms spread like wings, turning her fall into a jump. Her right sword plunged to the ground. She threw her right arm out, above her head as she flew, and just as her body began to fall, she caught another pillar with her hand and clung to it.
The crowd screamed, House Meer in triumph and Surkar’s delegation in outrage.
“He hit her, he hit her square in the chest! It’s over!” Someone howled from the otrokar section.
“No part of her touched the ground!” House Meer screamed back.
The veteran otrokar on the last platform hefted the second bag, took aim, and threw it. Bestata flexed her arm and leaped straight up, onto the pillar. The bag smashed against the stone missing her by a hair.
Bestata charged forward, leaping with inhuman grace.
The veteran snarled, grabbed the rope of the last bag, and jerked it down. The top of the pole snapped. He caught it, ripped the rope from it, tore the bag off, and swung the rope like a lasso.
Bestata was almost to the final pillar.
“Cheater!” I hissed into my earpiece.
“Do I stop it?” Gaston asked.
“No,” I growled.
“Let it play out,” Sean said.
The otrokar hurled his lasso. Bestata twisted like a dancer on one foot and sliced through the rope with shocking precision. Before the crowd realized what happened, she jumped to the last pillar and pulled off her blindfold.
House Meer surged to their feet, cheering. Karat stood up, raised her hands over her head, and clapped. Next to her Dagorkun stared at Surkar, held his right hand out palm to the floor, and brought it down, as if pushing an invisible lever. A Horde gesture usually reserved for younger people and subordinates who brought shame to those around them. It meant “It’s over, and nothing you can say will fix it.”
Surkar clenched his fist and pounded his chair with it.
The veteran screamed, venting his rage. Bestata pointed her sword at him and motioned him forward. He started to the edge of the platform. Oh no, you don’t. I pulled a tendril from the inn. It grasped him around his waist and deposited him back into the otrokar section.
It took another five minutes to get the arena back to its previous state and to get everyone to calm down and take their seats. Finally, the stage was back, and I stopped the white light under the Gaheas. Nycati made his way to the stage. He held a string instrument in his hands, somewhere between a lute and a zither.
Oh good. Hopefully this would be elegant and soothing, and everybody would calm down and catch their breath.
“I am but a humble student of music,” Nycati said. “Please forgive me for offending you with my inferior talent today. I was prepared to play one of our classics, an ancient melody that many before me have played with much more skill than I could ever hope. But I have been inspired. I bring a new melody to you today, one that has never been heard before. I dedicate it to Lady Bestata.”
Lady Bestata startled in her seat.
Kosandion sat straighter.
Nycati paused, holding the instrument in his left hand, his right hovering above the strings, and strummed it. A deafening electric note tore through the arena and broke into a rapid complex chord, so loud it vibrated in my chest.
The song soared in the arena, furious, fast, struggling, fighting, falling back and returning even harder, beautiful and lethal, like a vampire knight swinging her blade. It built and built, until I couldn’t take the pressure anymore, and finally triumphed, spilling into a heartbreaking crescendo, so moving and profound there were no words for it.
The final sounds died, fading. My cheeks were wet from angry tears. The arena was completely silent, as if all of us conspired to mourn the song’s end. Bestata looked shellshocked. Her eyes were wide open, her face pale, her hands clutching her sword as if it were a lifeline. Nycati nodded to her.
I would never forget this.
The Gaheas prince turned and went back to his seat.
“Amazing!” Gaston boomed. “Where else in all the galaxy would we be entertained like this? Friends, when we are old, we shall wow our descendants with the legend of this day.”
I had to do my job. I wiped my face with my sleeve. I was neither calm nor soothed. I felt restless and upset, as if something precious had been torn away from me and I had to get it back. I wanted to punch something.
“Please welcome our next Candidate,” Gaston prompted.
I bounced the white light between the Otrokars and the Temple of Desire and stopped it on the otrokar section. Here you go, as requested, Your Grace.
Surkar stood up and tossed his cloak off his shoulders. The crowd gasped. In the Team Smiles section, Amphie turned plum red.
Surkar wore a Southern kilt, boots, and nothing else, just as he had been around the fire talking to Caldenia. It wasn’t a ceremonial formal kilt adorned with stitching and leather belts. It wasn’t even a casual kilt otrokars sometimes wore to informal occasions like dinners with extended family. No, this thing was tattered from years of wear and at least two inches too short. He had shown up to a black tie event in his inside-the-house sweatpants.
I glanced at Dagorkun. He covered his face with his hands and swore something harsh and angry into them. Karat reached out and patted his shoulder.
Surkar pulled a large, curved knife from the sheath on his kilt. Technically, it was probably a short sword. It was shaped like a knife, but it was bigger than the largest Bowie, more like a machete. He swung it, flipped it from hand to hand, spinning it over his fingers as if it were attached to him by a magnet, and descended to the stage.
I had asked Gaston what Surkar’s talent would be, and he said, “sword dance.” Surkar’s face didn’t read dance. It read murder.
He stopped directly in front of us and pointed to Kosandion with his sword. “You! Face me if you dare, Sovereign.”
“Prove to me that you’re worth my time,” Surkar bellowed. “Or will you hide behind your throne and your servants like a weakling?”
“…his father was the same. Let’s just say that their deductive powers leave much to be desired. Some people simply must be confronted with the obvious.”
Caldenia. She had convinced him that he needed to demonstrate his physical superiority. In the most obvious way possible. And now he was here, in his kilt, challenging Kosandion who wasn’t even worth dressing up for.
“She better know what she’s doing, or I’ll wall her in her room until she forgets what the sun looks like,” Sean growled.
“Well, Sovereign?” Surkar demanded.
My heart hammered in my chest. Don’t accept, don’t accept, don’t accept… If he went down there, there was no way for us to keep him from getting hurt. She knew our inn was on the line. She knew why we were doing this. Why would she put all of that in jeopardy? Was I wrong? Did I just think I knew what she was up to?
Kosandion stood up. Resven carefully, almost reverently, removed the robe from the Sovereign’s shoulders. He wore a black suit underneath. It wasn’t armor, it wasn’t combat grade, it was just clothes, a form fitting garment that clung to him offering no protection at all.
Kosandion held out his hand. “Knife.”
Miralitt stepped forward, produced a knife, and put it into his hand. It was a black upswept fixed blade about seven inches long with a simple handle.
“I need a path, innkeeper,” Kosandion said.
I did not want to make him a path. I wanted him to sit his ass down right back on that throne.
“Dina,” Kosandion said.
Argh. Fine. I let Gertrude Hunt sprout a narrow bridge curving from our section to the stage below. Kosandion nodded and started down, unhurried and calm.
There was no way around it. Nothing we could do.
He reached the stage. I retracted the bridge.
The two men squared off. They were the same height, but the otrokar was at least fifty pounds heavier. His shoulders were broader, his legs were like tree trunks, and when he flicked the knife, muscles bulged across his huge back.
This would end badly.
Surkar charged, swinging his blade in a simple overhead stroke. It was basic but fueled by his superior strength and guided by years of experience. He was an unstoppable force, sinking all of his mass and momentum into that swing.
Kosandion caught his wrist, pulled him forward, moving with the strike, and hammered a kick to the side of Surkar’s right knee. Cartilage crunched, the sound amplified by the dozen screens zooming in. Surkar’s leg folded, and the power he’d put into his strike drove him to his knees. Kosandion twisted Surkar’s arm and dislocated the shoulder with a brutal snap.
Surkar’s mouth gaped in shock. It wasn’t supposed to go like this, and his mind was still catching up to reality.
Kosandion drew a thin line across Surkar’s neck with his knife, barely nicking the skin, plucked the sword from the otrokar’s weakened fingers, and examined it.
“Thank you for this gift, son of Grast and Ulde. I shall keep it as a memento of this meeting.”
The Sovereign turned. I scrambled to put the bridge back up and it was ready when he reached the edge of the stage.
In the Observers’ section, Caldenia beamed, her face ferocious and filled with pride.
The arena erupted, electrified. Kosandion walked away from them toward his throne, his back to the spectators, and his face was grim and cold.
Surkar finally realized that he was beaten. He looked about, glassy eyed. I could see it in his face – it really happened, and everyone saw it. It didn’t just shake him. It shattered his world. Everything he held true about himself and his place in this life was proven false in a space of a second.
“Sean?” I whispered.
“I got him.”
Surkar sank into the floor of the stage. It swallowed him, closing over his head, and I felt Sean moving toward the medward.
“Please give a warm welcome to our final candidate,” Gaston announced. He didn’t even try to address what just happened. Good call.
Kosandion took his throne. His expression was hard as if carved from stone. Beating Surkar had given him no joy. It hadn’t even vented his anger.
Lady Wexyn stood up. Soft music filled the arena, the melody sad and full of longing. She walked down the bridge from her section to the stage, swaying gently in tune with the melody. Her golden veil slipped off, flaring behind her like the wings of a beautiful butterfly. She let it fall at the edge of the stage. She wore an amber-colored robe embroidered with golden thread and studded with red gemstones. Her hair was an artful cascade decorated with a golden spiderweb, flowers of precious metals, and a tiara gleaming with gems. Bracelets sheathed her arms.
She brushed her right wrist with her fingers, and the bracelets tumbled to the floor onto her veil. She brushed her left, and the rest of the ornaments rained down. She removed the tiara off her head and dropped it onto the golden fabric, discarding it as if it were made of foil. One by one, she pulled the flowers out and let them fall. The delicate gold web came off, and she shook her head, letting the waterfall of her dark hair loose. She touched her embroidered robe, and it slid off her. She stood clad in a simple blue and white gown with a wide skirt and loose sleeves. A gentle breeze stirred, and the nearly weightless fabric moved.
Lady Wexyn stepped out of her golden slippers and spun across the stage barefoot, her hair flying, her body swaying to the music. Her dress floated around her like a cloud. She moved with an unbelievable beauty, ethereal and at once very human. Her dance fought against everything that was bleak and dark. In the world that was anger and discontent, she was a soothing light, indestructible and powerful like love and hope. It was a gift, and it was meant for only one person.
Kosandion sat very still.
There were hundreds of beings in the arena and yet none of us existed. It was only the two of them. It was their moment, and I held my breath so I would not disturb them.