Written by Rachael Acks / Artwork by Richard H Fay
And Still Champion
























The dune lion bled from three cuts, its fur in stiff crimson smears. The pain made it angrier, hungrier.
Ditar Loorn, called the Tigress of Azan, crouched ten feet away from the beast, her spear loose and
ready in one hand. Blood ran down her right arm, bright against sun-darkened skin; the lion had caught
her a glancing blow with its claws, just enough for show.

She'd cut her teeth as a gladiator on dune lions and fell wolves; the beast she faced now was bigger
than most, brought in special for her but still no real challenge. Ditar had learned long ago the real
opponent any gladiator faced was the crowd itself. Her eyes were fixed on the lion, but her ears carefully
tracked the rumble of the audience. Kill too fast, too cleanly, and the audience would be disappointed.
Draw a fight out too long and they became bored. Be too cruel, toy with an opponent too long, and the
squeamish ones—they were all squeamish—would look away.

The lion crouched down, snarling at her, then lunged. It was a young cat, fast and light on its feet; she
barely danced out of its way in time, scoring a slash that took off one of the animal's ears. A spray of
warm blood hit her face, salted her mouth.

The audience roared, pitch perfect, approval and excitement and bloodlust free of its civilized veneer.

She circled the lion as it nursed its mangled ear, prodding at it with the spear tip; that was enough to
drive the maddened beast to leap. She drove her spear into its chest.

The full weight of the lion slammed down onto her. Ditar's left knee exploded with grinding pain and
buckled. A scream squeezed from between her clenched teeth, the sound hidden in the lion's death
shriek.

Gasping and cursing, she turned the animal aside as its limbs snapped and twisted in its final throes. The
audience went mad with victory, stamping their feet, shouting her name, saluting. She jerked her spear
from the lion's body and used it as a crutch to struggle upright, fighting to put a triumphant smile on
her face. The sweat that rolled down her cheeks hid tears.

But for that moment, the agony seemed secondary as cheers washed over her, lifted her up, made her
into a god. The audience loved her. She spread her arms with triumph, encompassing them all, and loved
them in return.

~ * ~

"The healer says you've torn something inside your knee, and he can't fix it." Bala Gaan, the arena
master, crossed his beefy arms over his chest. His skin was nut brown and lined with white scars. He still
had the physique of a gladiator, even if his middle had gone a little soft with good living. "That is that."

"What do healers know? I'll be fine. I'll just need time to recover." A light sheen of pain sweat stood out
on Ditar's forehead, though the sensation was distant, chased off by a dose of poppy syrup.

"Don't be stubborn. I had a similar injury in my elbow. It ended my career."

Ditar shook her head. Her hair, short black braids crusted with sweat salt, slapped against her cheeks.
"You wanted to retire anyway."

His thick lips twisted as if he'd tasted something bitter. "Whipping up an argument between us is not
going to change anything."

Had she been in full control of her senses, she wouldn't have said it. Bala had wanted to retire, but he
also hadn't wanted his last fight to be a match against an underfed criminal who chose combat rather
than face being boiled in oil for raping a nobleman's daughter. "My last fight will not be against an animal."

"We don't get to pick."

"No, you did pick. Because you let it go. Well, Bala Gaan, hear me now. I will die in the arena. The crowd
shouting my name will be the last thing I hear."

"You are a fool." Bala spat on the sand-covered floor.

"But I am still your champion."

"Only if you can stand on your own two feet again." The door behind him opened, and he gave the wiry
man who poked his shaven head in a nod. "Think carefully, Ditar. With the purses you have won over the
last year, you can buy in to my arena. With both of our reputations, we'll draw the Emperor's favor and
build a greater ring to house him."

Ditar made a face. "You're a lunatic. A dreamer." Bala had once been popular with the nobility; Ditar still
was. But not popular enough to draw the Emperor, little more than a paranoid old man these days, out
of his palace.

"We shall see."

The slave was joined by three more, their legs and bare feet smeared with red street dust; together,
lifted Ditar onto a wooden litter, well-padded with pillows. What other argument she'd wanted to have
with Bala Gaan flew from her head at the first jolt; she could do nothing but clench her teeth as they
bore her out into the street.

~ * ~

The slaves settled Ditar onto her bed. She gave them each a silver coin from the bedside table, change
left over from a dice game. Her daughter, Sogand, appeared a moment later, holding a steaming basin
and cloths. The herbal smell that wafted from the steaming water was familiar, a concoction Sogand had
invented for bruises and strained muscles.

"Bala Gaan sent a note," Sogand said as she knelt by the low bed. Her heavy black curls were twisted up
around her head to frame a serene face, the loose ends left to cascade on to her smooth shoulders. She
swirled a cloth in the basin, wrung it out, and draped it over Ditar's knee.

"Bala Gaan ought to mind his own business. Or he should have been born a woman."

Sogand laughed. "As much as you should have been born a man." She placed another layer of cloth.
"Your savings are great, mother. I've done my best to be frugal besides. This wouldn't be such a bad
ending to a glorious career."

"I tried retirement once. It did not suit me."

"As you say. I will summon another healer to see to you tomorrow." Sogand laid down a third cloth, then
vanished through the door, taking the basin with her.

Ditar examined her daughter's words for some trace of bitterness; she found none.

Now thirty-eight, Ditar was elderly for a gladiator. She'd had her daughter at the age of seventeen, when
she'd still been a slave and unable to choose her lovers or their timing. She'd bought her freedom before
Sogand's birth, so the girl was born as much a citizen as a woman could be.

She'd had hopes for Sogand. Despite being in Ditar's womb for fight after fight, despite repeated
attempts to purge her like an unwelcome guest with herbal remedies and cheap charms, she'd clung
stubbornly to life and been born, squalling and healthy. Her fighting spirit seemed to have been
exhausted then; she'd been a meek child, scholarly, but not enough to be one of the rare women to
make a career of it. Really, she seemed content to just mind the house, attending to the gardens and
stillroom as if she were Ditar's wife rather than her daughter.

The only thing the girl had been at all firm about was her disinterest in finding a husband. With beauty
and the added glow of her mother's fame, she never wanted for marriage offers. Her occasional fiery
snap of resistance to the idea of marriage was almost charming.

Ditar had retired, temporarily, for the year after Sogand's birth. She'd spent that time bored, depressed,
and filled with rage at the red-faced infant who had ruined her fighting life and deprived her of the
adulation of the crowd. It had come as a relief to everyone, perhaps especially Sogand, when Bala Gaanr
had showed up at her door and suggested she hire a nursemaid and return to the arena.

No, retirement was not the answer. There was not enough wine in the city, in the province, to drown
that kind of angry depression again. She had never flinched from a fight, and this was just another sort
of combat. It had to be.

~ * ~

"There is nothing to be done," the healer said, gently probing at her knee. "Something is torn, badly. If it
were just stretched or stressed, I could heal it. But I cannot knit the flesh back together."

Ditar let her head fall back against the wall with a thump. "Get out." He made no move to depart. "Get
out!" she shouted, reaching for the sword that leaned next to her bed. He was gone an instant later.

For two weeks, she had heard nothing but the same words over and over – it cannot be fixed, you are
not in favor with my god, there is nothing I can do. Two kinds of healers had turned up at her door—real
ones, who clucked their tongues and shook their heads, and charlatans who promised a miraculous cure
and produced nothing but bills.

Perhaps her knee would never heal, and the possibility shook her. She had done nothing but fight and
train and fight more since she'd been bought out of the slave pens as a young girl. She'd caught the eye
of her buyer by scuffling with a grown man over a melon slice someone dropped in the dirt, biting him
until he was forced to let go.

"That's the last I could find," Sogand said from the door. "There are no more healers in Azan, even
disreputable ones."

"Then we shall have to send out, and I will continue to work." She eased herself up and tried to stand.
Her knee buckled, pain shrieking up through her hip. She caught herself on the bed frame as Sogand
grabbed her shoulder.

"At least let me get you a cane, mother."

"No canes! Those are for the old and crippled, and I am neither. Though I will lean on your shoulder until
my leg is strong enough."

Deep in her heart, Ditar knew she was being both stubborn and stupid. Yet what else could she be,
when it meant accepting defeat, accepting an end to everything that was Ditar. Each day, flowers arrived
at her door from devoted fans who eagerly awaited her return. If this went much longer, such gifts
would become fewer and further between until she had been completely forgotten. Then, she could only
imagine herself withering away like a plant that had been given no light or water.

"Yes, mother." Sogand hesitated. "Bala Gaan has sent another message. He wishes to know how your
recovery is going, and when he should expect to schedule your comeback fight."

Ditar snorted bitterly. Bala had learned one lesson; the last time he'd come for a visit, she had proved
her leg hadn't affected the strength of her throwing arm in the slightest. "Tell him it will be several more
weeks. Nothing more than that."

"He should know what the healers have said."

"Don't be a fool. He already does know," Ditar snapped. "Take me to the garden. I can at least keep my
arms from becoming flabby."

She exercised what she could, but it wasn't the same. It was as if her body had broken in half and she
was no longer able to draw power from the earth up through her feet. Helpless rage choked at her
throat with each limping movement.

Sogand's return was almost a relief. "There is a man at the door. He says he can do a special charm to
fix your knee."

Ditar didn't even bother to set down the sand-filled balls she had clenched in her hands. "What is he, the
third today?"

"I think he is serious."

Her daughter's tone, rather than her words, captured Ditar's attention. She twisted to look at Sogand's
face: her lips were stretched thin and pale. "Did he turn the neighbor's cat into a frog, daughter?"

Sogand passed her hand in front of her face. "He wears a veil."

"Show him in. If we have some of the mint tea left—"

"We do."

"Bring that." She did her best to remain still as Sogand left. She was no inexperienced youngster, to be
frightened at the sight of a veiled man. If she felt anything, it was the cruel gasp of hope in her heart.

The man was tall, his face veiled with sheer gray silk that flowed from under his deep maroon turban and
over a robe and skirts of the same color. He wore gloves and no jewelry. As he stepped in the door to
the garden courtyard he bowed, one hand pressed against his heart.

Ditar regarded him warily. "Forgive me if I do not stand to greet you."

"Of course. Word of your troubles has reached the capital. I came as quickly as I could to see if I might
be of service."

"Chabarah? Surely—"

"You have more fans than you might think, Tigress. Many of us vacation here when the weather in
Chabarah becomes too…uncomfortable."

"Please, sit. If I may trouble you for your name, sir?"

He sat on the bench opposite her, spreading his riding skirts to reveal the black inner lining. "Aftah.
There is no need to be more formal than that. I've come as a friend."

Sogand appeared with tiny glasses of cold mint tea; she set the tray down next to Aftah and served
them both, then moved back into the doorway, standing there until Ditar waved her off.

"Forgive me, Aftah. But as you can imagine, I have discovered many friends in these last weeks that I
never knew I had. Many of them have come with cheap tricks they hope I'll pay for."

He laughed, a rich, rolling sound. "Of course. It is easy enough to masquerade as one of my kind, when
we make a policy of keeping our faces covered." He leaned forward, their noses almost touching, her
breath stirring the veil into ripples. With one hand, he lifted a corner of it aside, just enough to reveal a
slash of brown skin and his right eye. The iris was ruby, and faintly shining, the pupil slit like a cat's. A
moment later he sat back and let the veil fall. "As you can see, I am true to my word."

Ditar licked her lips, and quickly took a sip of tea. "I'm sorry to have doubted you."

"Don't trouble yourself. Now…the most important matter: How I might help you get back on your feet."

"I know little of your sort of magic, Aftah. I didn't know it could be bent toward the healing arts."

"Rather, I can make what was broken whole again. It can be done with a wall, or a vase, or…flesh. I have
searched through my books, and I think I've found a poem that will do quite nicely for my purposes. If
I'm to make it work, however…I will have to tattoo the words into your flesh."

"If that's the worst of it…" Ditar spread her hands; her skin was laced with scars. "I think it could only
improve my looks. What will the price be?" She had once met a general with one such tattoo crawling up
his cheek and surrounding his eye; it allowed him to see long distances and meant no arrow he ever fired
could miss. The tattoo had been a reward from the Emperor.

Aftah named a weight in gold, but nothing that would impoverish her. "You have many fans in Chabarah,
Tigress, as I said. I only ask for the small amount that has not already been covered."

"I will gladly pay it! And please, you must tell me who these fans are; so I might salute them the next
time they're here for vacation."

Aftah nodded. "I will write their names down for you before I leave. Now, with your permission…I have
brought my inks with me, and my needles. It will take two weeks to complete the poem, but then you will
be as good as new."

Ditar smiled broadly. "Welcome to my house, Aftah. Welcome indeed. My daughter will show you to a
guest room, and we will dine soon. Is tomorrow too early to start?"

Aftah stood, and bowed. "Tomorrow would be perfect." He followed Sogand from the room, silken skirts
sweeping at his ankles. As they walked, he spoke, his tone careless. "You are the Tigress' daughter? My
mind is so blurred with fatigue, I thought you were a maid. I apologize for not greeting you properly."

Sogand gave him a sidelong glance through lowered eyelashes. "I enjoy service." The small smile on her
lips was a promise.

~ * ~

For the first week, Aftah painstakingly copied half of the poem he had found onto the front of Ditar's
knee. He used black ink and a fine brush to set down the swirling, unfamiliar characters. Ditar had little to
do but think about her comeback fight, and try not to shift as the fine brush tickled her skin over and
over. It was a relief when he replaced the horsehair brush with one tipped in needles; pain was a familiar
friend.

Late on the fourth night of his stay, Sogand knocked on Aftah's door. He answered, veil still in place and
clothing impeccable. "Yes?"

She reached out and lightly ran her fingertips over the smooth expanse of his shirt. "Are you a monk?"

His breath caught, the veil shuddering around his face. "I…no, I am not. The school I went to was not
run by the Order."

As she had many times each day, she gave him a long, steady look veiled by her eyelashes. "I'd
wondered if that was why you hadn't invited me to your room yet."

"You're the daughter of the mistress of the house…"

"And I live to serve." More, she wanted something for herself, and Aftah was soft-spoken, mysterious,
and kind. The kindness made her want to get closer. The mystery made her want to find out just what
purpose he might be hiding. She dipped her fingers lightly under the waistband of his skirts. "And I
hoped for once to serve someone more grateful than my mother."

Aftah gasped, grabbing the door frame with one hand. He drew her inside by her wrist. "I—I would like
that, indeed. But…do not attempt to look behind my veil."

"Whatever pleases you best." Sogand shut the door behind them.

~ * ~

The second week of Aftah's stay, Ditar spent on her back, for the second half of the poem. Too wrapped
up in the excitement of recovering her strength, of imagining the sound of the crowd calling her name,
she didn't notice the looks Sogand directed at Aftah.

On the thirteenth day, Sogand went to the market. It was more crowded, more raucous than she
expected; a large caravan had come in from Chabarah, overwhelming the humble stalls with displays of
fabric and spices.

She stopped to inspect a bundle of tiny red chillies that her mother adored but were hot enough to make
Sogand weep. One of the caravan guards loitered nearby, a big man with a scraggly beard and uneven
teeth. "Little spice for you, darling?" he asked, leering. "I got a big pepper, just for you."

Sogand kept her eyes down like a proper maiden and ignored the man. She bought the peppers, and a
bolt of deep blue linen to make her mother a robe for the start of her comeback fight. For herself, she
bought a headband and a fine steel carving knife.

As she made her way home through the dusty streets, carefully skirting the gummy mess in the gutter,
she noticed a long shadow chasing her feet. A quick glance confirmed it was the caravan guard. She
worried at her lip with her teeth, and tried to turn back toward the busier market street. He cut her off,
grinning to show all the gaps in his teeth. Sogand backed away quickly, but he followed driving her into
an alley.

Sogand caught herself on the wall, still clutching her shopping basket. "I'll scream."

"And I'll break all your pretty teeth. Make it easier for you to suck." He advanced on her, stinking of
sweat, manure.

She slipped one hand into her shopping basket. "Leave me alone!"

"Oh, I'll leave you alone, once we've had a—"

A loud crack stopped the words in his mouth and he toppled. With a squeak, Sogand danced back,
avoiding a splattering.

Ditar stood over the man's still body. She held a short dagger in her hand, reversed to strike with the
pommel. "What are you doing?"

Sogand managed a weak smile. "I was coming back from shopping. I took the wrong way home."

Ditar shook her head. "I thought I taught you better than to get cornered." Her face said it all: Cornered,
cowering, squeaking in the face of a man. Embarrassing.

"You did." Sogand hung her head. "I'm glad you happened to be walking this way…but why are you
here?"

"Aftah needed to take a break. So did I; after a while, listening to him drone on and on is enough to
make me scream. But it's almost done, and my leg could stand a bit of walking." Ditar held out her hand;
Sogand gave her the basket after tucking the cloth that covered it back into place. "What's for dinner,
then?"

"I found some of those chillies you like…so I thought I could put them in a nice curry for you."

"That sounds wonderful." Ditar spared a glance at the fallen man when Sogand stepped over him. "If we
leave him here, he'll likely wake up naked. If he wakes at all."

"I think that works nicely."

~ * ~

"If I weren't seeing this with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it." Bala Gaan grinned broadly. "Is it truly
healed?"

Ditar nodded, balancing on one leg and bending her knee until her heel almost touched the back of her
thigh. "Like new. Better than new, I think. See, I told you."

He snorted. "I was still right, or you wouldn't have resorted to magic. I won't even ask where you got
the money."

"Best not to. Is everything arranged as I asked for it?"

"There are no big names in town, so I couldn't get a famous match for you. I went for quantity over
quality. A lion, a fell wolf, a convict, and an amateur everyone's excited about because he's got big
muscles."

Ditar grinned. "My favorite kind. He'll make a louder thump when I knock him over."

"I know better than to tell you to not be cocky." Bala waved one hand. "Go, get ready. One of my boys is
waiting to lace up your armor."

"And my sword—"

"Yes, and another has freshly sharpened all of your weapons. I was in this business when you were still
scraping shit out of a merchant's stables. Go." He left the preparation room to go into the arena proper;
spectators were arriving, and he always did his best to welcome as many as he could and make certain
that the bets were moving at a good clip.

But first, he stopped in to check on Ditar's daughter; he'd given her a good box seat. She so rarely
came to the arena that he wanted her to feel welcome. She was with a young man, veiled and robed from
head to toe. Bala didn't allow his smile to falter, but his face felt wooden.

"Bala!" Sogand stood. "Bala Gaan, this is Aftah. He fixed Mother's knee."

Bala bowed respectfully. "Thank you, then. You've saved me the trouble of having to find a new draw for
my little arena."

"Not so little," Aftah said. "You've given us a good view."

"Will you be staying much longer, sir?"

"Just for today. I want to see the end result of my work, and then I'm needed back in Chabarah. I've
been away too long as it is."

Bala nodded, a small sigh of relief held in his throat. "Let one of the boys know if you want something."

"Of course." Sogand nudged the basket at her feet with her toes. "Though I did bring a picnic lunch."

"I'm wounded that you don't trust the vendors. Though I wouldn't either." Laughing a little too heartily,
Bala let himself out of the private box. Only when he was down a floor and comfortably away did he
pause to sketch a seven-pointed star of warding on his chest.

~ * ~

The first two fights, against the animals, went smoothly and well. The lion she dispatched quickly, a show
of strength to let the audience know she truly had recovered. The fell wolf, a big one the size of a horse,
she toyed with. She cut its throat at close range with a dagger; the hot wash of blood that followed had
its own roar, blended in with that of the crowd surging to its feet.

After the animals, Ditar paused in the dock beneath the arena floor, a slave armed with scraps of linen
trying to wipe the worst of the wolf's blood away. "Leave some on. Just make sure nothing's going to
make my armor stick." She drank a little wine so thinned with water it was almost tasteless.

Her next fight would be the convict, which she was prepared to find utterly boring. For him, she pulled a
spear from the rack, one with an iron-shod butt. It was her favorite weapon; she liked the extended
range, the feeling she could reach farther than she was tall.

"It's time, Mistress." The slave boy held her helmet out to her, its crimson plume newly cleaned and
flaring. She slipped it on and jogged from the dock, up a ramp into sunlight and swirling dust. In a roar
made of a thousand voices, the crowd chanted her name. She turned and saluted them with her spear,
one hand over her heart, and cried, "Have you come for blood? I will give it to you!"

They howled for her.

Dimly, she heard Bala Gaan call out the name of her opponent, the crime he'd committed; the sound was
all but lost in the crowd's enthusiastic booing. Ditar stood, relaxed, and watched as the man ascended
from the prisoner's dock. He was big, the sort that depended on overpowering an opponent rather than
using his brain. He'd taken a sword and shield, but his hold on them was uncertain.

Bala shouted for combat to begin; the crash of gongs and drums blended with shouts and jeers. Ditar
circled lightly, wanting to give the convict the first shot, to get a better sense of how he would fight.

With a shouted challenge, he charged. Ditar leaned to dance to one side, intending to tag him as he went
past. Her left leg stayed in place as if glued to the arena floor, burning pain shooting through it.

Then he was on her. A wild swing of his sword nicked her arm. She swung her spear around, up, and
between them, using the iron-shod butt to block his next blow, then slammed it into his stomach to
force him back.

Her foot, her whole leg, refused to move as she pulled and strained. While the convict gasped and
retched, she hazarded a quick glance down, her breath hissing through her teeth.

The black, swirling characters of Aftah's poem had gone crimson with blood that squeezed from her skin
in fat beads. Veins of black ink flowed into her leg, the roots of a strangling weed. There was one instant
to feel the shock of betrayal, of desperate confusion, and then she could spare that emotion no more
time.

A shout: the convict moved in again, more warily this time. She could do nothing but defend, only able
to shift awkwardly around her anchored leg as the pain inched slowly higher.

~ * ~

Sogand hadn't enjoyed the first two matches; she'd never liked to see humans making sport of killing
dumb animals. Aftah seemed to feel the same; he'd excused himself midway through the first fight and
had yet to return.

The criminal, she had less sympathy for, and lent her voice to the shouting crowd. But then the convict
charged, and her mother didn't move, struggling as if her foot had been nailed to the ground. Sogand
covered her mouth with her hands, her blood going cold in a flash. Something must have gone terribly
wrong with Aftah's magic, though he'd told her many times that such a thing was impossible.

That made any other explanation a thousand times more damning.

"No!" She stood, jaw clenching, and snatched up her picnic basket, clutching it in her hands like a
protective totem as she hurried from the box and along the upper level hallway. There were balconies all
along it, some occupied, doors firmly shut and voices muffled within.

Another roar from the crowd, and she paused at a door. It was difficult to tell, but she thought there
might not have been a voice behind it. She opened it and peeked inside, spotting a familiar slash of
maroon and gray through the crack.

"Aftah? Aftah, something's wrong…" She fought to smooth her face, to keep her voice confused and
fearful, nothing more.

"Come in and shut the door," Aftah commanded. He was turned away from her, his veil lifted from his
face and flowing in the hot breeze. He held his hands in front of him; between his palms floated a glass
globe, the sun bouncing and flashing from it. It was half-filled with something black, flowing like water—
ink—and streaks of old, maroon blood the same color as his skirts.

"Aftah, what are you doing?"

"What I came here to do. If you interfere, I will send a bolt through her heart and kill her instantly."

Sogand gasped, covering her mouth with one hand. "I don't understand!"

"I'd tell you to look at my face to discover the truth, Sogand, but I doubt you ever saw my father. You
would have only been a baby when your beloved Tigress killed him. He'd been convicted of treason for
saying a stupid thing in front of the wrong person, and he chose trial by combat. My brothers and I
came here to watch. Your mother had him on the ground, disarmed, his neck exposed. She could have
spared him. But the crowd chanted for his death, and she gave them what they wanted." Aftah's fingers
twisted around the globe. "A humiliating death in the arena. I intend to give her the same."

"Please…Aftah, don't. I can't even imagine how you feel, but she's my mother. She's all I have."

He hesitated, and Sogand risked stepping closer. "I've planned this for a long time, Sogand."

"I've asked nothing of you before now. Don't kill my mother."

"She isn't much of a mother. She treats you like a servant. She abandoned you to a nurse as soon as
she could, to return to the arena. What a selfish creature."

Sogand laughed bitterly, edging closer. "She came to my school when I was quite young, perhaps seven
or eight. All the children had mocked me for having no father, for having an indecent mother. But oh,
when she showed up, they fawned over her readily enough. They asked for her to make her mark on
their papers, to answer their questions and perform little stunts for them. And she basked in it. I know
what she is. But still…she is all I have."

Aftah glanced at her, warmth showing in his eyes around all of that cold rage. "Perhaps you have me as
well."

She hesitated, then shook her head. "What sort of daughter would I be, if I loved a man with my
mother's blood on his hands? The gods would strike me down."

He laughed. "The gods are not nearly as frightening as you make them out to be."

"Please…"

"I could release her after she's been crippled. If you won't let me take her life, I will still take this from
her." He indicated the arena with the jerk of his chin.

"Thank you," whispered Sogand. She set down the basket and moved forward, hand out to touch his
arm. "Thank you, Aftah…"

"It will be over soon—"

Sogand's other hand moved faster than a snake striking; there was the flash of sunlight from a blade,
then she plunged a knife into Aftah's chest. It slid between two of his ribs as if his flesh was made of
butter and found his heart.

~ * ~

The convict wasn't stupid; he figured out after the second run she couldn't move her leg. He used it,
coming in on her left side again and again. Ditar did her best to fend him off, but the pain, the inability to
move took its toll. He scored a deep cut on her shoulder, another down her leg, though she barely felt
the pain over the burning creep that moved steadily toward her heart.

Ditar listened to the crowd's growing confusion, gritting her teeth. The convict lunged in for another
strike, and—

—suddenly she could move. The throb of the cuts remained, but the searing poison evaporated from her
veins as if it had never been there. She leaped back, bringing her spear around in a wide, long arc. It
slipped down across his chest, the razor-sharp blade cutting through his leather armor, drawing blood
from sternum to hip.

The crowd roared.

Ditar grinned at the convict. "No more tricks."

~ * ~

The words died in Aftah's throat. He turned his head toward Sogand, his eyes wide with surprise, and
then he simply dropped as if he had no bones. The glass ball fell as well, striking the floor with a musical
chime.

Sogand took a quick glance out into the arena, in time to see her mother jump back from the convict.
She let out a small sigh of relief, then bent to search out the glass ball on the floor. With great
deliberation she stepped on it; the grass cracked and shattered into sand under the heel of her sandal.
The ink, still shot through with crimson threads, ran across the floor, leaving behind a dark stain.

She tested it cautiously with one finger, but it seemed to have sunk into the wood. "I'll have to apologize
to Bala," she murmured, an uncertain giggle that ended with a hiccup escaping her lips. She turned back
to Aftah's still form and squatted down by him. The hilt of her new carving knife jutted from his chest.

Years ago, she had made friends with the butcher who lived down the street. She'd learned how to slide
a knife through the ribs of hanging pigs, how much power it took, how it felt when metal grated against
bone. It was different, to have done it to someone who lived, to someone she might have loved.

Her fingers trembled as she reached out to gently touch Aftah's slack face. He was not what most people
would consider handsome, his nose too long and his skin pockmarked. But he had never been anything
but gentle to her, and while she had cultivated a relationship with him out of paranoia, she desperately
wished she had been wrong, that the few days of happiness he'd given her hadn't been a lie.

"I'm so sorry, Aftah…but you must understand. So I will tell you something else about my mother." Her
voice sounded thick in her own ears. "After she had drunk all of their adulation dry, I saw my mother go
to each of the children who had been cruel to me. One little boy she lifted from the ground by the front
of his tunic, just one-armed, as if he didn't weigh anything. And she told him that if she ever heard of
him pulling her little girl's hair again, she'd twist his arms from their sockets. No one troubled me after
that. I don't know how she found out who had hurt me; I'd never told her. But she found out all the
same."

Sogand swallowed down a sob, her voice shaking. "She may not be the best mother in the world, or the
mother you would have chosen for yourself. She may think I am weak and stupid and a disappointment,
and maybe I am, because I do not wish to be her. But all of my life, she has watched over me and
protected me. And I stayed in her house and put up with her tempers and her irritating habits because I
knew one day, it would be my turn to save her."

Echoing through the arena, the shouting of the crowd became jubilant. Tears already drying on her
cheeks in the breath of the hot wind, Sogand looked out over the balcony and added her shaking voice
to the roar of the crowd.

~ * ~

The convict lay dead at her feet, bleeding out into the sand of the arena. Ditar planted her spear firmly
next to her. Around the arena, men and women rose, their shouts twining together to become one roar
of approval, one voice chanting her name.

The audience loved her. She spread her arms with triumph, encompassing them all, and loved them in
return.
THE LORELEI SIGNAL
Rachael Acks is a geologist and writer. She has had
short stories published in Strange Horizons, Penumbra,
Waylines, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as her
series of steampunk mystery/adventure novellas from
Musa Publishing. Rachael lives in Houston with her
husband and their two furry little bastards. In her
not-so-copious spare time, she bikes and practices
kung fu.

Learn more about Rachael Acks and see her publication
list on her
website and follow her on Twitter