The tunnel leading to the arena was dark and cold and clammy, and the hot wind whispered around the cracks of the door with the light.
Nemeliah’s heart pounded as she listened to the blare of trumpets and the roars the crowd beyond. She could just make out the shapes of the others in front of her, twitching and checking themselves. One of them, Merinda probably, was doing a bad job of hiding her sobs and Nemeliah alternated between wanting to hug her or slap her.
Beside her Binjay fidgeted, pulling at his armour.
“Be still,” she said.
“But it’s itchy…” Binjay whined.
“You’ll get much more than an itch if you take that off. Put up with it.”
“Citizens of Keeron!” the announcer’s voice boomed through the doors and Nemeliah went rigid. “Please welcome to the arena the contestants for the crown!”
The roars blasted in with the heat as the doors opened. Nemeliah squinted against the harsh light and started walking forward. She tightened her sweating grip on her spear as Binjay gripped the folds on her baggy trousers.
Handmaiden of Destiny, she pleaded, let my thread run.
They were the last ones out and as they reached the door an assistant grinned at them. “May Aspect grant you luck and favour!” she said cheerfully. “Have fun!”
Nemeliah just stopped herself from nicking her ankle with her spear.
They emerged, blinking, into a large earthen coliseum the seats packed with people cheering and unfurling and waving banners. Silken dancers covered in sweat ran out of the arena alongside people carrying large drums. The other contestants spaced out: Dandrion, a whip wrapped around his chest, waved nervously to the crowd; Scala ignored the crowd, her face a mask of focused fury, chakrams held tight in her hands; Merinda sobbed, arakhs loose in her hands and some assistants consoled her, as she was almost carried to her place; Eyroo stood tall, sword point down and smiled and acknowledged the crowd.
Boruc, a bandolier of knives wrapped around him and dressed in heavy armour, strutted about, grinning and blowing kisses to the crowd. He pretended to attempt a backflip before ducking out to laughter and cheers.
Nemeliah turned her gaze away and marched towards an open spot, Binjay trotting to keep up with her. _Ignore them, Nemeliah thought. _Just keep focused. Keep focused on what is important.
She halted in place and took a deep breath. She was dressed in light, leather armour, a spear held by her side. Beside her, her twelve-year-old brother Binjay was lightly armoured, with a helm on his head and a short sword held in his loose and sweating grip.
Nemeliah glanced up at the balcony that projected slightly over the arena. The balcony had a woven drape laid over the top, shielding it from the sun, and three figures sat inside. One was her uncle, wearing loose robes of purple and black and a crown of red and white, his expression stoic. Behind him sat the Games Master. And next to her uncle…
She squinted. It was the only white figure in the arena. White of face and white of clothes, an ornate jacket with gold thread bearing a silver insignia: two I’s shaped to look like a lightning bolt.
_The High Inquisitor? Why is that Neverbeen here?
A twitching brought her attention back to Binjay. His eyes were fixed across the arena and Nemeliah glared across at Boruc. He grinned at them and dragged his thumb across his throat.
Binjay flinched and turned away. Nemeliah put her hand on his back.
“Don’t worry Binjay, I’ll keep you safe,” she said. “And then I’ll kill myself.”
She was about to knock on the door when she heard voices. Soft voices. She gently pressed her ear to the door.
“…if I and Nemeliah die, I want you to run away.” Binjay’s voice kept low.
“B-but that’s not going to happen!” The other voice, a bit hoarser, a slight rattling edge to it.
“It might. Nobody can predict which way the contest will go. Did your sister tell you anything before she left?”
“N-no…nothing…she just disappeared…”
Nemeliah stifled a grin and then burst through the door, causing the two people inside to jump in fright. “What’s this I hear?” she boomed. “Sounds like treason!”
Binjay’s wide eyes morphed into a glare as he recognised her. Behind him cowered a sancon about the same size, with white fur, two small horns poking up from his forehead and a tuft of fur hanging from his chin.
“Oh, it’s you…” Binjay muttered, relaxing. “It’s all right Tomay, it’s just Nemeliah being stupid.”
“Oh…oh right…thank…Mistress Nemeliah, I’m glad…” Tomay stuttered.
Nemeliah jerked her head. “Scram Tomay. I need to speak with Binjay.”
“Y-yes of course.” Tomay scampered towards the door. He paused as he passed Nemeliah. “I-I just wanted to say that I’m s-sorry that my sister ran–”
“I said scram.”
Tomay hurried out of the room.
Nemeliah shut the door and flopped onto one of the mounds of cushions. Binjay glared at her. “You shouldn’t be so mean to him,” he said.
“Sorry I have little patience for them. Not after my best friend in all the world ran away.”
Binjay snorted in derision. “What are you a child? Of course she ran away, you and I would do the same.”
“We were friends Binjay. I never treated her as a slave.”
“No. But maybe she noticed the way you got mad as a kid and broke your toys. Maybe she wondered what might happen if you got mad at her.” He regarded her. “You could choose to be her friend. She couldn’t.”
Nemeliah waved her hand in irritation. “We have more important things to discuss.” She leaned forward. “The Tournament is tomorrow and you’re going to be the winner.”
Binjay slumped slightly.
“Why? What’s the point of me surviving?”
“Because you’re my little brother and I’m not having you get killed.” She sat back and twisted her hands. “I thought you’d want to survive. If you have your great dreams of liberating the sancon.”
“Oh, yes, of course. That will happen. I’m sure the nobles, and the merchants and the advisers and Imperial Centre will allow that.” He scoffed.
“There’s more support for it than that. The nobles wouldn’t like it and some of the merchant guilds, but a lot of them do. And so do the commoners, I mean it practically already is the case in many of the rural areas. As for Imperial Centre, what can they do apart from harsh language? Besides you read Acorn’s speech delivered to the Chamber, on his project? Word is the Emperor is inclined to go through with it.”
Binjay looked away. “I know all that,” he said, quietly. “But I don’t want you to die.”
Nemeliah took in a breath and steeled herself.
She took advantage of Binjay looking away to wipe her eyes. “I’m not sold on the idea either,” she said, injecting humour into her voice. “But there isn’t another way.”
“Couldn’t you win and then concede? I could spare you?”
“Only the winner lives. That’s the rule.”
“It’s a stupid rule.”
“Most traditions are. But there they lie as solid as rock.”
“Rock can be worn away.”
“Over a substantial period of time, yes.”
Binjay looked at her, tears stinging his eyes. At the sight, Nemeliah’s control slipped and her smile wobbled. Binjay ran into her arms and they hugged and held one another and cried.
Throw it into the Nowhereland, Nemeliah! What happened to ‘no crying’?!
“If I win can I build a statue of you?” Binjay asked.
“What do you think I’m letting you live for?” she replied.
“I’ll have Tomay build you a big and beautiful one.”
“Yes. Not as big as the Handmaidens, but close.”
They held one another and shook together.
There was a knock at the door and they pulled apart, Nemeliah wiping her eyes. Binjay didn’t bother. “Yes?” Nemeliah asked.
A Sabre poked his head through the door, tri-finned helm brushing the top of the doorway. “Nemeliah,” he said, “Grand Duke Keeron wishes to speak with you.”
She walked along the carpet towards the great door, two members of the Sabres standing guard outside. As she approached a man walked out, clothed in loose-fitting robes of red with an ornate hat. He had several rolled-up sheets of paper under his arm.
Nemeliah stepped aside and presented her palm to him as he passed. He smiled at her and drew his hand back through the air.
“Nemeliah, how are you feeling?” he asked.
“Good, Games Master,” she replied. “I hope all is going well in the preparations?”
“Oh yes, quite well, quite well,” he laughed, joggling the papers under his arm. “It should be quite the spectacle. Quite the arena.”
She gave him a tight smile. “Any hints?”
He laughed. “Oh no, I couldn’t do that! Only the Grand Duke gets to know.” He winked. “But there may be a few surprises in store for you.” He gestured to the door. “Go ahead, Raziel is waiting for you.” He carried on down the corridor.
Nemeliah continued to the door, her heart pounding in her chest and she licked her lips. She passed through the doorway and the Sabres shut it behind her. The room was large and semi-circular in shape. The carpet led up some steps to a throne and, behind the throne, the room opened onto a large balcony. The cool night air whispered in and Nemeliah ascended the steps and walked onto the balcony.
Grand Duke Raziel Keeron leaned on the balustrade, looking out into the dark. Noises of celebration and amusement wafted up from the streets. The moon shone down brightly and the contours of the three statues of the Handmaidens, facing one another at equidistant points of the city, were clearly visible. Nemeliah swallowed as she caught sight of the coliseum.
The place where she was going to die.
“Nemeliah,” Raziel said without turning around. Nemeliah crouched and proffered both of her palms. “If I find that you’re offering me your palms I will smack you.” Nemeliah stood up in a hurry and whipped both hands behind her as Raziel turned with a smile. He was dressed only in a loose red gown with gold accents and beige trousers. He looked strong, forceful, but weariness was visible in the lines of his face.
“Uncle,” Nemeliah said.
“Niece,” Raziel replied. He gestured to a small table and chairs on the balcony. “Shall we sit and converse?”
“I would like that.”
They sat on the chairs and Raziel poured water from a pitcher for her.
“How are you feeling?”
“Oh great, really.” Nemeliah drank and struggled to swallow her water. “My legs feel like they’re going to give way. I feel like crying all the time. And my stomach is churning and tightening as if I was menstruating. Though minus the stabbing sensation so there’s that I suppose.”
“No, the stabbing will come tomorrow.”
Nemeliah barked a laugh that verged on hysterical.
Raziel winced. “Sorry. That was a little close to the bone.”
“There’ll be lots of that tomorrow as well.” Nemeliah grinned and Raziel returned a tight smile.
They sat in silence a moment and listened to the noise of theatre, cheers and play coming from below.
“I’m sorry Nemeliah,” Raziel said. “I would have liked to have spared Binjay this, as my youngest brother was. Had I known that…that I didn’t have long left I would have abdicated sooner.”
“You weren’t to know,” Nemeliah said quietly.
“I wish I could have had time to arrange a hunting accident for Boruc…but the chance never came. And I suspect the bastard is too canny to be caught out with the old ‘look at that down there!’ and then punt him off the balcony trick.”
Nemeliah smiled. “Does that really work?”
Raziel grinned. “Oh yes! Happened to my cousin. She was the finest swordsman in these lands and we all expected her to win. Then my younger brother tricked her and shoved her off a cliff. She was hopelessly trusting and naïve.” His chuckle morphed into a cough when he saw the look on Nemeliah’s face. “Sorry, that probably isn’t helping.”
“No, not really,” Nemeliah replied, fighting the urge to vomit.
They sat in silence.
“Do you have any questions?” Raziel asked.
“Just…what’s it like?”
Raziel’s face flickered. “Like nothing you can prepare for,” he said softly. “You spend your whole life loving some of your family and hating the others and then when the moment comes…you take advantage of the hesitation in the ones that love you, and you struggle over killing the ones you hate. My eldest sister and I had that. I hated her, always had done and she’d never liked me and yet as we came to strike the killing blows we hesitated.”
He paused, staring at nothing. “I got over it fastest,” he whispered. “I guess I didn’t have any memories of her as a baby to hold me back. And then the fireworks went off and I’d won. Didn’t even realise we were the last.”
He was quiet. Nemeliah sat silently, not even wanting to touch her water lest the movement break the moment. Eventually, Raziel looked up, a slight expression of confusion clouding his face as if he’d just remembered where he was.
“You’re Boruc’s equal in combat Nemeliah,” he said, moving on as if nothing previous had been said. “In a fair fight, it would be very close between you.”
“So it comes down to luck then? That’s reassuring!” She tried to make it a light comment, but the rise in pitch gave her away.
“Well yes. That’s why I plan to make it unfair.” He leaned in. “It’s going to be the Island Game. Study it Nemeliah.”
Nemeliah was taken aback. “You’re…cheating…”
“Everybody cheats one way or another,” he said, dismissively. “You either win or you die. And I want Boruc dead.”
“He’s your eldest son.”
“And a monster.” His fist clenched. “I’m sorry, Nemeliah. I wish I could say this is out of love for you and Binjay, but I’m telling you because I think you’re best placed to ensure Boruc dies.” He focused his eyes on her, deadly serious for perhaps the first time in the conversation. “Don’t hesitate, because others may not; don’t listen to pleads or bargains, for they mean nothing; keep focused on your mission to keep Binjay alive; and remember that at the end of it, you won’t have to live long with the memories.” He sat back, head lowering into shadow. “Take some solace in that.”
Nemeliah left the room with the burning sensation working its way up her chest and she was just about to hurl when a laugh stopped her. She looked up and saw Boruc striding towards her, his sword strapped to his side.
“Ah, my father’s favourite child!” he said, cheerily. “Or maybe it was Merinda? Either way, you’re the two I’m most looking forward to killing.”
“A cutting remark. I hope your spear work is better than your wit.” He grinned and looked down at her, Nemeliah rising to glare into his eyes. Their foreheads were almost touching, one grinning the other snarling.
“I will kill you…” Nemeliah hissed.
“That is the point of the exercise,” he replied. He slunk back and walked past her. She glared fire at his back and then turned to go.
“Oh by the way!” Boruc swung back and Nemeliah looked over her shoulder. “Did you ever find Selene?”
“No,” Nemeliah replied, gritting her teeth.
“Ah, a shame. You were both very close growing up. But I guess you can’t trust a sancon can you? I suppose we all have to learn that lesson at some point.”
“She’s an ungrateful bitch.”
“I can understand that sentiment.” He nodded at her. “Get a good night of rest Nemeliah. Anything can happen in the arena after all.”
He turned and stepped through the door.
Nemeliah shivered. What the hell was that about? More mind games? Or was he actually being genuinely sympathetic? She shook her head and walked down the corridor.
It didn’t matter. She needed to study. One thing was for sure though: heavy armour was out.
Nemeliah looked down as Binjay shook her arm.
“Nemeliah,” he said. “They’re coming.”
She glanced across and saw one of the assistants approach. She smiled and gently took Binjay by the arm. Binjay clutched tighter at Nemeliah.
“Come this way,” she said kindly, prising him loose. “I’ll put you over here so you’re near your sister. Unlucky for you to have just come of age!”
“Yes…just my luck…”
“Hide Binjay,” Nemeliah said, keeping her place. “I’ll find you.”
He nodded and the woman led him to a spot a few metres away from her. Nemeliah looked around. All seven of them were evenly spaced, a few metres apart, looking into the centre. She inhaled through her nose to the diaphragm and then breathed out through her mouth, counting some seconds between each one, forcing her body to take on a natural rhythm and calm itself.
Grand Duke Keeron stood up. “Citizens,” his voice boomed. “Thank you all for attending today. We come together to witness the birth of a new Keeron.” He held out his hands to the combatants. “My children…niece and nephew…I ask your forgiveness for what I am putting you through.”
“Father!” Merinda wailed, as if in hope that he would reach out and spare her.
Raziel ignored her. “I hope that whoever triumphs will remember those who fall and bear the lessons they learn today. May it guide your spirit and bring you the wisdom of Aspect. To those that fall, do not fear. The Handmaiden of Destiny will guide you to your moment. The Handmaiden of Death will bring you to sleep. And the Handmaiden of Dreams…” He broke off, forced himself to swallow. “The Handmaiden of Dreams…will ensure your rest is beautiful,” he finished.
Nemeliah’s heart hammered in her ears and her gorge rose.
You know what’s happening… she thought, focusing her mind. It’s the Island Game. You’ve prepared for this. The others don’t know. You can swim, your armour is light. You can do this. You’ve studied it. You can do this.
“Now a moment of silence, please,” Raziel said. “To mourn those who we will lose. And celebrate the one who will be born.”
Silence dropped on the crowd as they bowed their heads. If there was any noise in the arena, Nemeliah couldn’t hear it over the thumping of her heart.
The atmosphere changed, from tension to anticipation. She looked up. Raziel was slowly bringing his hands up. Every eye fixed on him. Nemeliah gripped and un-gripped her spear, fingers tapping on the haft, hand sweating.
Grand Duke Keeron brought his hands up so they were either side of his head–
–and the crowd roared as the ground burst apart and walls started to flood up from the ground. Boruc spun, pulled a knife and hurled it at Dandrion, catching him in the throat, and he continued his spin and hurled another knife at Nemeliah, who twisted her spear and knocked the knife away. Then the wall rose and covered over Boruc.
Her heart pounded as the walls stopped rising, creating a maze of separated partitions. The crowd was high enough up to see over it and down and they cheered again as someone–Merinda?–screamed and the scream suddenly cut off.
Nemeliah looked around her, panicked.
Where’s the water? Where the fuck is the water?!
Had she been tricked–no, no!–Uncle wouldn’t do that! Something must have changed, a last-minute change perhaps? But why–
It didn’t matter.
“Binjay!” she screamed, running to her exit. “I’m coming to find you! Stay hidden!”
Raziel’s eyes widened in surprise as he looked down. He’d seen Scala take Merinda’s head off and she now wove through the partitions, encountering a dead-end and then moving on. Eeyroo picked up his sword and cautiously approached the direction of Binjay, who cowered in his partition, unsure where to go. Nemeliah had panicked, and now raced out.
“I thought you said it would be the Island Game?” Raziel said, leaning back towards the Games Master.
The man looked apologetic. “Ah, I’m sorry your highness,” he said. “We found that the reservoirs did not have enough water to facilitate it. So a quick alternative was found.”
“Hmmm…” Raziel murmured sitting forward.
“Come now, Grand Duke Keeron!” Joshaman, the High Inquisitor, said brightly. “Surely the surprise factor makes it more entertaining for you as well?”
“I wouldn’t call watching my family kill one another ‘entertainment’.” Raziel glanced at Merinda’s corpse. He remembered picking her up and holding her after she’d skinned her knee. Her love of books…how she was still afraid of the dark…
He’d wanted to run down to her when she’d cried, and hug her and tell her it was all right, that she didn’t have to participate…
“What’s your betting on who is going to win?” Joshaman asked. “I haven’t seen the full running order, but I understand Boruc is a favourite?”
“Yes, I suppose in terms of the competition he is…” Raziel said absently, drawing his eyes away from Merinda’s body. Wait…where is Boruc…
He scanned the arena–
–his eyes widened–
Nemeliah swore and kicked the dead end and made her way back, noting the dusty marks of her footprints and turning the other way. Binjay! She wanted to scream his name but dared not in case his answer gave his position away.
“Nemeliah!” his cry pierced her ears. “Help!”
She ran, ran as fast as she could–
—please please Aspect guide me, guide me true—
–and rounded a corner into Binjay’s partition.
He cowered back against the wall, short sword held tightly but wobbling ineffectually. Eeyroo stood in front of him, sword down, trying to calm him.
“It’s okay Binjay,” he said, softly. “Just be calm. I promise I’ll make it quick.”
Nemeliah levelled her spear–
–Eeyroo heard and instantly whirled around, raising his sword.
“Get the fuck away from him…” Nemeliah growled.
Eeyroo did so, circling to the right as Nemeliah circled to the left.
“Nemeliah,” he said. “We don’t have to do this.”
“Yes we do,” Nemeliah replied. “I double-checked the rules and they’re quite clear.”
He gave a weak smile. “No, I mean we don’t have to exhaust each other. Let’s team up. We can fight Boruc together and then once he’s dead we can kill each other.”
Nemeliah looked at him. She licked her lips. The offer was tempting. She could use all the help she could get against Boruc, especially now her planning was thrown off.
Together…we could take him…
Her spear wavered and dipped–
–Eeyroo reached into a pouch and threw sand at her eyes–
–Nemeliah spun her body to protect her eyes and then ducked on instinct–
–Eeyroo’s sword whined just over her head–
–and she whirled along the ground, gaining distance and raising her spear again. Her heart pounded, her body shook. Eeyroo pointed his sword at her, their positions exchanged. The crowd exploded into cheers.
You idiot Nemeliah! You fucking idiot!
In the corner, Binjay wailed in terror.
“Well, that almost worked…” Eeyroo said with a lopsided smile, disappointment lacing his voice.
Nemeliah snarled and charged forward, Eeyroo crouching slightly, pulling back his sword with the point staring at Nemeliah.
Nemeliah threw her spear into the air, over Eeyroo’s head–
–his eyes flickered up to track it at the same time he swung, making his swipe wild–
–Nemeliah slid under the strike and raised her hand, catching her spear on its descent–
–and spun and slashed through Eeyroo’s spine.
He howled and crumpled to the ground, blood dribbling down his legs, sword spilling from his grip. He hissed in pain and tried to pull himself forward, reaching for his sword–
Nemeliah kicked it away.
Eeyroo sighed and moaned and rolled himself over, so he could look up at her. She planted her spear tip on his neck, keeping her distance, with her elbow bent so she could quickly and easily apply pressure.
“That was a dirty trick,” she said.
Eeyroo laughed. “You’re the much better fighter,” he said and coughed, blood bubbling from his lips. “Can’t blame me for trying.” He looked up at her and raised his hand. “Good luck Nemeliah.”
She stared down at him and didn’t move.
“Please Nemeliah, I’m finished. I’m not so spiteful that I’d try and kill you when I know it’s over.”
Nemeliah shook her head. It hurt, by Aspect’s Heart it hurt. “I’m sorry, but I can’t risk it.”
Eeyroo looked more pained than when she cut his spine. “That’s okay,” he said, dropping his arm. “I understand. Binjay!” he called. “I’m sorry. I hope you live.”
“I-it’s okay…” Binjay said.
Eeyroo looked at Nemeliah. “Whatever you do, make sure Boruc dies.”
Nemeliah nodded. Then she applied pressure and cut off Eeyroo’s head.
She looked at the blood pooling out from his neck and being absorbed into the earth. She ignored the cheering of the crowd.
She just stood.
Then she shook her head and grabbed Binjay’s arm and pulled him after her. He was crying and couldn’t take his eyes off Eeyroo’s body.
“Come on,” she said. “By my reckoning, there’s two left. Hopefully, Scala and Boruc have mortally wounded one another.”
And then I can get rid of these memories.
Cautiously they rounded the corner into Boruc’s partition.
Scala looked over at her in surprise.
“Nemeliah?” she said. “Did you kill Boruc? If not we can team–”
Nemeliah threw her spear at her. Panicked, Scala raised her chakram to block and the spear flew through the hole in the centre and split her skull. She dropped back onto the ground and Nemeliah walked over and tugged the spear out of her head.
Binjay shivered at the edge of the partition, breathing hard, cold sweat slacking his skin. He took his helm off and it dribbled off his fingers and he tried to breathe deeply.
“Boruc must be left…” Nemeliah mused. “Scala didn’t kill him then, more’s the pity…Neither had Eeyroo. So where is the bastard…?”
Binjay pointed at a wall and she frowned at it. A series of knives were planted into the wall, stuck in deep, running from the ground up to the top of the wall. The way they were placed made them look like…
…look like footholds…
Nemeliah’s breath caught, her eyes widened–
–Boruc wore heavy armour–
–Boruc brought knives but his favourite is the sword–
—“Anything can happen in the arena after all”—
–The Games Master winked–
–“There may be a few surprises in store for you!”–
She spun around, face contorting in terror–
“Binjay! Run!” she screamed.
Binjay didn’t have time to register her words, only her expression before the knife split the air and smashed into his head.
He toppled to the side as Nemeliah ran to him, screaming, all sense of where she was forgotten–
A shadow fell on her and she turned in time to see a glint of steel and she instinctively raised her arm to block–
–and Boruc severed her left arm at the elbow.
Nemeliah screamed as she spun away, blood droplets arcing in the sky, as her arm tumbled to the ground. She roared with rage and spun back, lashing out at Boruc with her spear, but her strikes were wild and telegraphed and he blocked them easily with his long knives before sweeping past her guard and slashing precisely at her face, taking out her right eye.
She didn’t feel pain. Just shock and disorientation at the immediate loss of vision on her right side. She could feel blood leaking down her cheek and dribbling out of her severed arm. She dropped her spear, staggered forward a few steps towards Binjay, Binjay who wasn’t moving.
At least it was quick, she thought as she collapsed to her knees.
She heard a sigh behind her, as the crowd fell quiet in anticipation.
“Ah, Nemeliah…” Boruc said. “I’m…Six Tits of the Handmaidens I’m disappointed!” He shook his head and walked in front of her. She looked up, squinting into the light, just able to make out his face. “I’d been anticipating this for so long, Aspect’s Balls I was even nervous about it! The two best clashing. A fight for the ages! With the roars of the crowd! And then it’s just…it’s just over…” He gave a helpless shrug. “I can’t believe you let me down like this.”
“Just get it over with,” Nemeliah croaked, not caring that she was crying.
Boruc sighed. “All right.” He raised his knife. “Do you have a preference? Through the heart? Throat cut? I’d offer to take the head off but this thing isn’t really good for it.”
Nemeliah dropped her head. She was so tired.
“All right, throat cut it is.” Boruc moved over and stood behind her. He clasped her forehead and tilted it back, exposing her throat.
She’d done her best. But there was no point struggling now Binjay was dead. She’d join him soon. She’d done her best.
The knife whined as he flourished it down to her throat.
Boruc had an unfair advantage in the end. There wasn’t anything she could–
“Oh shit! Shit! I nearly forgot!” Boruc shouted, smacking himself on the leg and drawing the knife away.
Nemeliah let out a pained groan, her head slumping.
Why couldn’t he just kill her?
“You see I had this thing I wanted to tell you!” Boruc said, shaking his head and laughing at his own silliness. “But I almost forgot. I thought we were going to have this epic battle and then when we were both wounded and exhausted I was going to throw this at you and set up the finale. But you went down so easily it slipped my mind! But I remembered just in time!”
“I’m so happy for you…”
Boruc crouched in front of Nemeliah. He tilted up her head with a finger so she could see his grin.
“It’s about Selene, your best friend, the bitch. She never ran away; I kidnapped her.”
The world went quiet. It went dark. Nothing was left except Boruc’s gleaming eyes and gleaming smile.
“What…?” The word slurred as it left her lips.
“Yeah, I grabbed her and locked her in one of the abandoned dungeons. I told her you were looking for her. Man, the things she did for a bit more bread and water.” He chuckled.
The world started coming back into focus, Boruc became more than smile and eyes, he became a face, something she could hit–
“By Aspect, I was so annoyed that I hadn’t kept her alive when you gave me the bitch comment, it would have been great to see the expression on her face!”
–Nemeliah’s lips peeled back, strands of spittle connecting her teeth, her eyes narrowing–
“But I haven’t fed her in months so she’s definitely dead…I did once not feed her for two weeks and came back to discover she’d eaten her fingers! Imagine that! A herbivore!”
–her hand scrabbled in the sand, trying to find something, anything, and they alighted on some stiffening fingers–
“But she always believed that if she held on you would sweep in and save her.” He shook his head. “Tragic…anyway,” he continued brightly, flipping the knife, “I thought you should know that. Might ease your passage back to Aspect to know–”
Nemeliah screamed and swung her severed arm, smashing it into the side of Boruc’s head.
He crashed to the ground, knife spilling, and screamed, disorientated. “Fuck! You piece of shit!”
He heard a roar behind him and he turned to see Nemeliah leap onto him, holding his knife. She drove it down at his face and Boruc caught her arm and tried to hold the point away as it pushed towards his eye. Spit bubbled from Nemeliah’s lips as she howled and pushed, pushed the knife until the point inched into Boruc’s eye, which burst like a ripe grape.
Boruc screamed and pushed back, snarling, fighting–
–Nemeliah slammed her stump onto the pommel and drove the knife through Boruc’s skull.
He went still, brain split.
She stumbled back, panting, sweating and she collapsed to her knees and screamed at the sky in hatred and self-loathing as the crowd erupted and the fireworks exploded.
They watched the medics flood into the arena and grab Nemeliah as she screamed and kicked and flailed, the crowd chanting her name and applauding.
Joshaman looked stunned. The Games Master’s jaw had dropped in horror.
Raziel felt tired.
“Well…” Joshaman coughed. “That was unexpected.”
Raziel gripped his chair in cold fury.
“Games Master,” he said voice like a sea of sand.
The Games Master gulped.
“I suggest you run far and fast.”
The man didn’t bother trying to protest. He just stumbled to his feet and fled.
The crown of red and white was placed onto her head. She sat on the throne, a bandage wrapped around her right eye and another one wrapped around cut of her left arm. Raziel stepped back and smiled.
“All hail Nemeliah, The Champion, Grand Duke of Keeron and First Assistant to the Handmaidens,” he announced.
The Sabres, lining the throne’s hallway, slammed their spears into the ground three times.
Nemeliah stood. “Bring him forward,” she said.
Two guards brought Tomay forward, manacles clamped on his wrists. He stumbled, and fell to his knees before the throne, eyes wide and fur matted.
Nemeliah stepped down to him.
“G-Grand D-Duke N-Nemeliah,” Tomay bleated, white showing in his eyes. “I-I’m so sorry about Binjay. He was…he was a great friend. And I’m sorry a-about my sister, but I-I swear I will n-never–”
Nemeliah flourished a key and unlocked the manacles. They clattered to the floor. Tomay looked down at them in surprise and then back up. Nemeliah smiled at him and then she stood.
“Let this be a symbolic moment!” she declared. “From now on, all sancon in Keeron are to be freed. As Grand Duke, I will not suffer or tolerate the holding of slaves in this territory. Send the word.”
The Sabres bashed their spears on the ground, and they filed out of the room. Raziel walked over to Nemeliah and put a hand on her shoulder. “You will make a very fine Grand Duke,” he said.
Nemeliah snorted. “Yeah, for all of the five months the nobles and the Inquisition will let me sit in the seat,” she replied.
“Oh, their bark is worse than their bite. You’ll manage.” He looked at her and seemed on the verge of saying something else, then decided against it. “Right, I’m off to work on my Siege skills.” He left the room, humming a soft tune.
It was just Nemeliah and Tomay and she smiled down at him as he looked up confused. She reached down her hand. “Tomay. I hope you can forgive me for frightening you with that gesture?”
He took her hand and she helped him to his feet. “I-it was–”
“You can speak freely.”
“It was a s-shitty thing to do.”
Nemeliah laughed. “That it was.” She put her arm around his shoulder and they walked to the balcony. The cool breeze of the morning whispered over them with the haze of the newly risen sun and halo. The streets below were quiet.
“Binjay said you were good with sculpture?” Nemeliah said.
“Oh, well, I don’t know about ‘g-good’. I made some things out of clay but…”
“I want to build a statue of Binjay. A decent size, but not quite as large as the Handmaidens.”
“I-I think he would have hated that…” Tomay said. He quirked a slight smile. “But it would g-get him back for that time he stole my piece of cherub fruit…”
Nemeliah laughed. “Did he really? Little holier-than-thou bastard…” She stared into the distance. She swallowed and held back the tears. “But first…I need to talk to you about your sister…and tell you how very sorry I am. And how I’m going to make things up to her memory.”