There were three types of arena bouts – singles, in which one slave fought against another; pairs, which were two on two; and meleés, groups of slaves against guards, which were always bloodbaths. Most slaves fought singles in the beginning, for physical evaluation and to weed out the weaklings, and then were put in paired bouts after they proved themselves. Meleés should have been called executions, but the Hsktskt liked the slavers who paid to watch to think we always had a fighting chance.
We didn’t, of course. No slave had ever killed a Hsktskt in the arena.
That afternoon I was paired with Paddala, a bad-tempered Trytinorn who hated bipeds like me. He had lousy peripheral vision, and nearly accidentally stomped on me as we entered the arena. Next to him, I really was gnat-sized.
I picked up the short sword one of the guards tossed down from the stands. Every slave was given the same size blade, as the Hsktskt thought that kept things even. I eyed the other blade thrown in for my partner. Considering his size, it was like throwing him a toothpick. “Are you going to use that?”
“Idiot Terran.” He reached down with his nasal appendage, grabbed me, and hoisted me onto his back. Then he picked up the weapon. “Keep quiet and watch my hindquarters.”
“Easy job, considering the size of your ass.” I watched the other team enter from the opposite side of the crawls. One was a snake-like Tingalean, the other a three-foot tall spider being. “Oh, no. Is that an Aksellan?”
“Yes.” Paddala trumpeted his displeasure. “What did you do, little one, spit on a guard?”
Both of our opponents were relatively new but effective fighters – probably because they each packed enough natural body poisons to wipe out the entire crowd. There was no way to spar with their kind, we had to knock them out or kill them immediately. That meant we had to be very fast and strong. The Trytinorn was strong, I was fast – but that was all we had going for us.
I heard alien laughter. Some slaver must have made a special request, thinking the match would be amusing.
The snake and spider were splitting up, each going to either side of the arena for a flanking attack. No more time to sit and cry over my bad luck. I grabbed Paddala’s shaggy neck fringe and leaned over. “Insult me, and do it loud.”
“What?” He didn’t get it.
“You blockheaded behemoth! Can’t you follow simple instructions?” I shouted, thumping the top of his skull with my fist. “All you’re good for is hauling waste!”
The low, hollow groan he gave wasn’t from pain. “Shut up, pipsqueak, or I will use you to polish my tusks.”
“Did I ask for your opinion, you stupid oversized piece of meat?” I watched our opponents, then added in a low tone, “Throw me so that I land between them, then pretend you’ve gone crazy.”
“This had better work, or I won’t have to pretend.” Paddala’s appendage curled around my waist, and he lifted me high over his skull.
“And don’t try to help me,” I murmured. I made a show of struggling and screamed, “You colossal idiot! Put me down!”
“Gladly, runt.” He tossed me to the enemy.
He didn’t throw me too hard, so I had to make it look like a bad landing. I hit the sand and rolled, dropping my sword as I shrieked and clutched at a non-existent injury to my arm. At the same time, Paddala started snorting and cursing and stomping around, waving his blade wildly.
The ploy diverted the Aksellan and the Tingalean, who turned to converge on me, the easiest kill. I continued the bogus act, howling and crawling across the sands away from Paddala. There were shouts from the stands and the crawls, so I must have looked pretty convincing.
That was the other thing I was good at – faking.
The guards didn’t like us to rush the finale, but both the Tingalean and the Aksellan were naturally quick strikers, and they closed in fast. I measured the evaporating space between me and death, and when I judged the time was right, I curled over and brought my knees up under me in a surrendering pose.
Not yet not yet not yet. I heard the Tingalean hiss, and I tensed. Almost there. Almost.
Any slave who made a kill was given special privileges for three rotations after a bout, so both the snake and the spider jumped at me, eager to be the first to sink their blades and fangs into my hide. My death represented more food, warmth, and possibly an interval with a professional pleasure-giver.
Only I somersaulted out of the way.
The Aksellan tried to rear back, but the Tingalean followed his species’ tendency to bite whatever moved on a killing strike. In self-defense, the spider bit back. They stabbed each other with their swords, then went down as their wounds and poisons went to work on each other.
I didn’t like watching them die, but it had been them or me. I wondered when I would stop caring if it was me.
Paddala stomped over, picked me up and placed me on the curve of his brow. “Very clever, little one. I hope I’m never matched against you.”
I covered my guilt by reaching down to pat his cheek. “If you are, I’ll make it quick.”