Making two kills entitled me to return to my crawl if I wanted, but I stayed. Jalka Adan would be fighting one-on-one, and I wanted to see what he was made of. I had a feeling HekVar wanted to pair us – some kind of Hsktskt inside joke, putting me with Big Blue, whose species probably hated Terrans.
The lizards had a weird sense of humor.
Jalka had watched enough bouts to enter the arena on guard, which was good – they matched him against a very tough Baduvarti male named Mengud with plated skin and half again Jalka’s muscle mass. They started out circling each other, sizing up the assets and watching movement rhythms. My bedmate was paying close attention, not allowing the shouts from the stands to distract him.
Good, I thought, leaning against the view grid of the observation crawl. Keep those white eyeballs open, don’t look away for a second.
Mengud didn’t have much imagination – he just barreled his way through his bouts – but he was solid and it took a lot to hurt him. He came at Jalka first, head-on, testing the waters with sweeping cross-cut to the midsection. Jalka spun a second too late and caught the tip of the blade, then returned the favor with a lateral thrust. His eyes widened as he felt the jolt of the blade hitting and sliding off the Baduvarti’s thick abdominal plating.
Numbskull. I grabbed the grid slats, wishing I could stab him myself. Can’t you see the thin spots on his chest?
By then they had crossed swords and dug their feet in, wrestling for control. Muscles bulged, sweat ran, and yet neither of them gave in. This bored the spectators, who started jeering, and a guard shouted out a warning that thankfully Mengud understood.
“Break!” he snarled into Jalka’s face before shoving him away. He followed through with a fist to the Jorenian’s jaw, but didn’t land the blow squarely and only made him stagger back. Mengud stooped and took a handful of sand, and flung it in his face before tackling him.
Shit. He wasn’t going to make it.
“Come on,” I said under my breath, digging my fingers into the grid as I watched them roll, blades flashing. “Come on, get up, get up! ”
Mengud made a funny sound and went flying backward, and Jalka rose to his feet in a single fluid motion. Suddenly, he had claws, lots of long, sharp blue ones. Mengud saw them but he couldn’t get up, something was wrong with one of his legs. His sword had been knocked from his hand and was a good twenty yards away. He began crawling toward it, but from the expression on his flat face he knew the game was over.
The Jorenian looked up at the spectators, who were screaming for the kill. He shouted something in his lingo and flung down his blade.
“Jalka!” I tried to remember what he’d said during warm-ups. “Fa klaree n’oal! Now!”
He glanced my way, and for a second looked even more pissed-off. Then he went over to Mengud, and raised his claws. The Baduvarti dropped his head back, to make it easier. Jalka used a single strike to rip out his throat, and he was dead before he slumped over on the blood-soaked sand.
The spectators loved it.
As they cheered, the Jorenian he walked over to the grid and looked down at me. He showed me his hands, and the Baduvarti’s blood dripped from his claws. But it was his expression that made my chest hurt. He wasn’t angry or bitter or disgusted.
He was sad.
Jalka gestured back at Mengud’s body. “Thees sah-hucks, Mah-ar-ree.”
Yes, it did.
As the guards led him away and dragged Mengud off the sands, someone came up behind me. I heard the metallic clink of the uniform, but I didn’t bother to assume the position of response or even turn around. Let them zap me.
“Gnat.” HekVar’s talons tugged my hand away from the grid. I was bleeding, too. “It is time to cleanse.”
I went through the sprayers and the dryers like a drone, then marched back with the other fighters to my crawl. Jalka never showed, so I assumed HekVar had decided to move him to another tier. It was for the best – Kos told me after scrubs that as I suspected, Jorenians weren’t too fond of Terrans. And I had hated seeing that look on his blue face after the kill.
I used to look like, once. A long time ago.
I took the extra rations and rest intervals that were my privileges for winning, but I couldn’t eat and I didn’t want to sleep. When someone opened the door and threw something at me, I barely felt the sting.
I opened my eyes and saw Jalka standing over me. He was wearing a wristcom and holding another one out to me. I took it, put it on my arm and activated it.
“The centuron with the scarred head gave these to me.” He smiled a little. “We can speak and understand each other now.”
“Yeah.” And I had nothing to say. “Terrific.”
“Your pardon, lady. I can see you are not well.” He looked me over. “Were you injured in the arena?”
Only where it didn’t show. “No, I’m fine.” I sat up and curled an arm around my knees. “How about you?”
He touched his hip. “I received only a minor wound.”
Which reminded me. “Do you want sex?”
He looked stunned, and checked his wristcom as if he thought it were malfunctioning. “What say you?”
“You know.” I put my hand on his good hip and rubbed it. “That’s why we’re roomed together. Male to female.”
He didn’t say anything at first. Then he removed my hand. “I cannot share such intimacy with you.”
“No problem.” I wasn’t insulted; plenty of slaves preferred their own kind or gender, and to tell the truth sex had always been kind of a chore. “I bet you have a lot of questions.”
“I do.” He crouched down by my pile of grass. “How long have you been here?”
That he wanted to know about me kind of threw me for a moment. “I don’t know. We’re not permitted to keep records or anything.” I never thought about my first life and the raid that had ended it; surviving in my second life kept me busy. “I was taken when I was little.” I frowned. “I’m not a child, you know. I think I’m almost fifteen.”
“Indeed.” He stared at the sword scars on my legs. There were a lot of them. “Why did they not leave you behind?”
The Hsktskt were pretty famous for leaving the children of the colonies they raided to starve in the ruins.
“One of the raiders kicked me out of the way, and I kicked back. He decided I would be good arena bait.” I let my lip curl on one side. “HekVar kept me off the sand and had me clean out crawls until I was old enough to fight.”
He looked at the ceiling for a moment. “What of your kin?”
“They were all killed when I was taken.” I sighed. “Look, we need to talk about what’s expected of you here. You have to follow the rules, or you won’t live very long.”
“I am not one to . . . follow rules.” He rose and held a six-fingered hand down to me. “We should go.”
I couldn’t stand up, I was laughing too hard. Finally I got myself under control. “Um, no. We can’t.”
“If you haven’t noticed, Jorenian, this place is lousy with Hsktskt, and they don’t like their slaves trying to run away.” His expression didn’t change, and I rolled my eyes. “Okay, so you aren’t afraid of the lizards. Besides them, there are security monitors and alarm sensors all over the place. We stay here or we die.”
He hauled me to my feet. “We will die if we stay here.”
“I’ve done okay so far.” His gentle touch bothered me, and I pulled my hand from his. “You haven’t seen what happens when someone gets caught trying to escape.”
“They are punished?”
“They’re executed. Tied back to back and thrown to the guards in the arena.” I checked the door, but no one was listening in. “We could be punished just for talking about this, so drop it.”
“You’re afraid of death.” He folded his arms. “I am not.”
“Don’t let me keep you.” I gestured to the door. “Life is cheap around here, and there will be someone to replace you tomorrow.” There was always someone.
“You called to me in the arena.”
I shrugged. “I don’t like breaking in a new bedmate.”
“You do not wish to kill any more than I do.” He moved to tower over me, but like in the arena, he wasn’t angry. “I saw it in your eyes.”
“Shut up.” I pushed him away and started pacing. “I have six rotations to train you, Jorenian, then I’ll be punished for your mistakes. And if I have to take a zap or a beating because of you, I’ll strangle you in your sleep.”
“You will not.” He looked out at the darkening sky, then gave me that little smile again. “Very well. Tell me what to do, Mary.”