(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)
“The pleasure place has a dungeon?” Adia’s saw the lush comforts of the upper levels vanish as she descended. The soft lamps became guttering torches. Chains hung from the walls at random intervals. A low wind carried a damp, musky scent from deep within the catacombs.
“We service softer pleasures upstairs, but more rugged ones here.” Livia tapped one of the torches, knocking away ash until it brightened. “There is a certain decor which must be kept. Clients expect it. It adds to the mystique.” They walked to a double-barred doorway. Two guards in full armor, chain draped across their faces like veils, barred the way. They opened the door and allowed them to enter. “Welcome to the arena.”
Adia walked a miniature of the training arenas she knew from her time in central Alaque. She expected the weapon racks. Every blade imaginable, from small dirks to massive double-length swords with jagged cuts in the sides, rested in oiled wooden holders. This she expected from an arena.
But she didn’t expect the fountain.
A series of carved lion’s heads spat clear water into a small pool. Tables surrounded a central area decorated with heavy pillows. Fruit and drink of every variety rested in simple bowls.From easy view of the seating area sat an oval shaped fighting pit. Sand, freshly cleaned and lined by a rake, filled the lower area. It was not a full arena, but it allowed the combatants a measure of separation from the viewers
“Ivre’s very proud of its running water, isn’t it?” Adia dipped her fingers under the stream. It prickled her fingers. Cupping her hand, she took a sip.
“Lord Protector Claudius insisted on it. He believed clean water, especially when fed by abundant underground rivers, was a sign of civility.” Livia offered Adia the main seat before the arena.
“So, how does this work?” Adia pushed the soft, rich pillows around. They almost drowned her.
“It is simple. The room is yours for the night, as are the two fighters within. When the door closes, they will arrive, choose weapons and duel for you.” Livia spread her hands, encompassing the arena. “The purpose of the duel is to disrobe your opponent. No damage is to be done to the fighters. After, you may choose to spar with them… or engage in other physical activity.”
Adia set the overstuffed pillows aside and sat on the bare floor. “This should be interesting.”
Livia bowed. “One hopes you enjoy yourself.”
The door closed. Adia pulled a small, round fruit from a nearby bowl. She nibbled on the skin. It burst in a gush of sweet juices.
A door to the arena’s left opened. Two men entered. They wore full helmets which covered every aspect of their face and head. One helmet carried a bright red crest. The other wore bright blue fringe. The only armor they carried were vambraces and grieves. Otherwise they wore loose pants and tunics. A cut would slice the clothing, but not scar the skin underneath.
The fighters selected two long, needle-sharp swords from the armory. They raised the blades in a salute and began the duel. The cuts became a whip-cracks in the air.
Adia leaned forward, engrossed in the dance. It reminded her of Tellus’ ajedrez matches. Move and counter-move, feint and counterattack – the dance of war at high speed.
Red and Blue knew each others attacks. They fought with precision, feints and counter feints matched in the sharp ping of steel striking steel. Blue dipped his shoulder. It was slight, but enough to allow Red a stinging riposte. He drove away the blade and on the backswing, cut Red’s tunic open.
The cloth parted and fell away, revealing an oiled, muscular chest. Scars and curled yellow hair decorated his skin in equal proportion.
“Oh.” Adia took a long, slow sip of wine. “Not bad at all.”
“Well played.” Anton applauded, and tipped over his king.
Tellus shook his head. “It was a near thing. You nearly had me.”
“Oh, nonsense.” Anton took a long sip from his beaker of wine. “I have never seen a midgame quite like yours. Who taught it to you?”
“The best teachers I know: elders in the Red Desert, waiting out sandstorms and the heat in their tents.” An uncomfortable crowd surrounded their table. Other gamers and even couples partway through undressing for further revels watched in awe. Tellus leaned forward, cupping his mug of tea. “Are the games usually so…well watched?
“Oh, no. But this is the first time I’ve lost in half a year. They’re curious.”
Tellus nearly choked on his tea. “Half a year?”
“Does that surprise you?” Anton reset the board in a flurry of quick moves.
“Surely other players of greater skill than I have come by and challenged you? I heard grand masters face three opponents every night, and never play fewer than five games.”
“Oh, very true. And we have many good players” Anton finished his wine. It was refilled before the beaker touched the table. “Do not sell your skills lightly. You should seek out more masters and grand masters. They could learn from you.” Anton raised his hand. “But do not go to the Five Princedoms and try it without gaining more of a reputation. They respond to upset tourneys with assassinations.”
“A fair warning, I thank you.” Tellus finished his mint tea and asked for another. “Though I am still not sure I earned such praise.”
“Then let us play again. I still think you are hiding something behind those lovely eyes.” Anton stretched out, cracking his fingers. “How about a speed variation. It should convince you I’m not playing for a loss to learn your secrets.”
“You would learn such secrets by winning, too?” The tea arrived, poured by a serving man in a long stream into his cup. Jasmine tea, matching Anton’s scent note for note. “And while I am flattered by the compliment – ”
“Yes, I had heard you were a ensayyadin, a man of the faith and oathbound. You follow Atamal, yes?”
Tellus stilled. “We do not speak the name of our god. He may begin to follow us – not the other way around. How do you know him?”
“There is a scholar in the city that hungers for knowledge of every faith he can.,” said Anton. He touched his finger on one of the counselor pieces. “He often discusses matters of faith as he plays.”
“I hope to meet him, then, and play a round or two.”
“And correct him where errs?”
Tellus shrugged. “Should it come to it,” he said. “How shall we time the moves?”
Anton waved over a young woman. In her hand she carried a small pendulum suspended inside a rig. It moved very slowly. Each swing caused a tiny strip of metal to click loudly as it waved back and forth. “Twenty clicks per move.”
“Better than heartbeats between sandstorms.” Tellus rubbed his beard. “This shall be a challenge.”
Anton flashed another smile. “Most excellent.” He nodded to the timekeeper. “Begin.”
The first piece fell like the peal of a hammer. Tellus barely drew breath before his hand reached out and responded. The spare, contemplative moments between the moves vanished. Within the time he would normally take to make his second move, the midgame had already begun.
Breathe, Tellus reminded himself. In every moment, there exist hundreds of smaller moments. Time is a dune sea, with more grains of sand than one can ever count.
Each tick grew longer. Between the ticks lay all the time he needed.
Pieces moved and fell. Anton’s ability to deduce his moves and counter moves astounded him. Every attack was a prelude to another, pushing him into ceding territory on the board. He was relentless.
Tellus imagined Anton as a great dust storm, flowing from the desert. He needed to deflect the storm, to channel it away and onto itself. He built thick walls, channeling the attacks, and left only one way for the storm to travel.
Anton moved. Tellus’ heart leapt. But, before he could reach for his piece, his opponent raised his hand. “Stop!”
The pendulum froze. Anton stared at the board, smiled and laughed riotously.
“Oh, were you not a man of faith I would kiss you.” He tipped his king over. “Congratulations. A second victory.” Everyone burst into applause.
Tellus shivered. The adulation washed over him like icy ocean water. “Please, no, it’s not necessary. This was sheer chance.”
“Nonsense. Our grandmaster got careless after playing the same people over and over.” A woman parted the crowd. Tall and imposing, her eyes and hair were raven black. Thick ringlets fell across her ears and cheeks.
The sword caught Tellus eyes first. It was modeled after a simple soldier’s weapon. But the pommel carried an ornate, hand carved seal: a raven in flight over a city of Ivre’s tower.
“Ah, looks like I’ve been called out.” Anton sighed. “And I have some variety in my opponents.”
“Not enough, it seems.” The woman prodded Anton in the shoulder. “Will there be a third game?”
“I hope so.” Anton looked to Tellus.
“Yes, indeed,” said Tellus. “I would hope grandmaster Malleus would wish to even the score, lady..?”
“General.” She clapped her hand across her chest in a salute. “High General Bellia Ivre of the Raven Guard.” She pulled a low chair from one of the other tables. “But here, I’m just another enthusiast enjoying our Anton having to work for a change..”
Bellia folded her hands across the chair’s back rest and placed her chin upon her forearms. Her eyes were level with the board as Tellus and Anton reset the pieces.
Tellus finished the last of his tea in a deep gulp. A city where ajedrez matches draw generals and priests? This is either paradise or damnation.
When Anton made his first move, Tellus felt closer to the latter place than the former. He picked up his soldier and the game began in earnest.
Adia sat forward, fruit in hand, admiring the scene. It was down to helmets and loin cloths. Red and Blue, as she called them, took a pause after the last scrap of cloth fell away from Red’s legs. Each pieces of felled clothing taught her more and more about the duelists.
One was blonde and the other dark haired. Both were professional soldiers. The scars on their bodies mapped a lifetime of combat. They were fit. She could easily see sweat roll down the muscles defining their chests, bellies, legs and calves.
Red and Blue were lithe and quick. They had a savanna cat’s speed. The duel became an erotic art. By now, Adia knew the dance well. She saw Red’s arm steadily weakened over time. A large scar across the meat of one shoulder, dangerously close to the sinews, explained the fatigue. Even with the best of healers, the damage would create a disadvantage.
Red knew his disadvantage, and compensated with his greater speed, minimizing Blue’s attacks. But Blue knew red. He pressed his advantage with brutal strikes and quick lunges. It forced Red into expending more energy in defense, exhausting him.
Steel pinged against steel, faster than raindrops hitting the still surface of a lake. Blue drove Red back against the edge of the arena. Sand flew in arcs as his feet dug in against the assault. Adia at up. It would be decided here.
“Ha!” Red yelled out and dropped into a squat just as Blue dove forward into a disarming blow. Lunging forward, he caught the tip of his sword in the fabric of Blue’s loin cloth, just as it rested on his hip bone. It sliced the fabric. The loin cloth tumbled to the sand and left Blue naked.
“Damn!” Blue retaliated the only way he could. He quickly aimed his sword downward and caught the knot holding Red’s loin cloth. Spearing it like an apple on a stick, he cut away and left his opponent just as naked. Only their helmets remained.
Adia grinned. “Good job, Red. Exactly the blow I would have struck. Though, I think I’m the only winner here.” She tilted her head. Both were well formed, front and back.
“Now, the victor gets to rest while the loser gets to show me those parries he used.” She stretched and pulled off her boots. “Oh, and take the helmets off. ”
Red and Blue looked at each other and shrugged. Adia pulled her tunic off as they pulled away their helmets. No sense in further damaging her only clothes.
When she opened her eyes, Ulfric and Cormac stood in the sand, tired but smiling.
Adia brushed her hair back and laughed. “Really?”
“Yes. The guard pays well, but everyone has living expenses.” Ufric, once Red, leaned against a pillar and wiped sweat from his brow. “Besides, it was Cormac’s idea to start.”
“It was my idea to teach sword fighting to others. It just happened we could do both, together, for a lot more money this way.” Cormac grabbed two practice swords, and a jug of fruit juice.
Adia watched him place the swords before her as she peeled off her pants. Ufric stretched, working the muscles in his shoulders and back. They were so unlike the men of her tribe: rough and unshaven both above and below the waist. Hair curled around uncut members in untamed thatches. No fear of grove mites, or ritual cleanings with envenomed blades to keep the skin smooth for them.
“Thank you.” Cormac passed Ufric the juice jug, and followed it with a kiss. Adia held her breath. It was a simple kiss, quick and on the lips. But they lingered, touching hands and feet. Ufric brushed sand from Cormach’s cheek, and their eyes reflected nothing but love.
Jealous, Adia? she thought. No, not quite. But there was tint of envy. Lovers came and went. Life was cheap, especially under Mother Mangrove’s arms. Her tattoo kept her from unwanted children and unwanted attention; the venoms of her tribe’s sages kept disease at bay. Should she want a lover after the heat of battle, she could always find one. She was luckier than most.
But not as lucky as these two.
“Do the Raven Guard allow fraternization?” Adia hefted one of the swords, and took a practice swing.
“It depends” Ufric stretched his arm, glancing at the old wound.
When his lover was not forthcoming, Cormac shook his head and said, “It was once a tradition in the Gallatian Empire. Lovers were paired together in fighting units. They would fight as one, and if one died, the other would go into a killing frenzy.”
“Relations between men is considered a blight against purity by the church of the New Sun. Only places created by the exiles keep the tradition.” Cormac exchanged his juices for a blade. “It is why we never stayed with the Legion or joined any of the mercenary companies from the Five Princedoms. The unit chaplains…” He shuddered.
“Stop!” Adia playfully batted him on the ass. “Past is the past. You’ve survived it. You’re here, now, with a man you love in a place which lets you be you. Now, do you want to dance?”
Ufric smiled and smacked Cormac’s unadorned asscheek. “She has paid for the night. Can’t disappoint her, now can we?”
“No, that we can’t do.” Cormac walked into the arena. Adia followed, standing beside him and mirrored his stance.
“Good.” Adia nodded. “Now, show me that parry you did. Then, Ufric, you pulled this one low lunge I’d like to see.”
Cormac nodded. He took a starting stance. Adia mirrored it, and then she lowered her sword. “Just to ask, are you two only interested in each other?”
“We never would have suggested this if we weren’t interested in you.” Cormac brushed against her, lifting her arm back into place. He let a little ripple of breath hit the nape of her neck. Gooseflesh rose along her skin.
“I hope I stay interesting, then.” Adia put her hand behind her back, toying with the curly hairs around Cormac’s cock. He responded quite well. Laughing, he returned to his stance and walked her through the parry. They mirrored each other, sweat dripping onto the sand.
After a few more mirror passes, Adia and Cormac began to dance in earnest.