Just Anaz

written and illustratedy by

Kaleb Schad

Part 3

“You can wake now. Anaz. Wake.”

White light above him. A blanket and cool earth beneath. The smell of blood and mint.

The shape of the hospital room solidified and Reyn kneeled next to him wearing a simple blue sari over a white blouse.

“Alive,” he said. His voice was like two stones dragged across each other.

“Barely. Drink.” She tipped a small cup of water to his lips.

“Vlaknak.”

“Dead.”

Twenty-two. He had ended twenty-two lives. Creatures who had maybe loved someone, maybe had woken on that last day a little scared, a little eager. A part of the hsing-li. Killed.

He said, “I thought I was going to die.”

“Do you remember learning about Master Musashi from your tribe? He once said, ‘Only the dead can fight without fear of death. To win, be dead.’”

“I felt relieved. He kept cutting on me, but in some way, I was relieved that it was all over, that I didn’t have to try anymore. I wasn’t afraid. I just felt it was okay.”

“That is when your hsing-li came. I have only ever seen my brother Jin draw so much.”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“We never do.”

Anaz wiped at his eyes. He said, “I don’t like who I am, Reyn. I’ve lost something. And not just my family or our ways. Something deeper.”

“Ascenics hear a song others can’t easily hear. But with it, comes the need for stillness. You have drowned the hsing-li in the noise of ‘me’ and ‘I.’”

“Help me to be quiet?”

Reyn nodded and took Anaz’s hand in hers and they sat for a long time. Anaz stared at the ceiling and felt the press of the bandages, the burn of the Anathesian sun through the open windows. He watched the curtains curl and unfurl, white flags of surrender being waved by the world.

“I can have a bath filled for you,” Hakkana said as they entered Anaz’s chambers. After two weeks in the hospital, Hakkana had come that afternoon and told Anaz to dress, that he was going home. Where you belong, he had said.

A bath. Gods that would do wonders for this beaten body, Anaz thought.

“That sounds…” Anaz looked around his room, at the heaps of unworn clothing, at the stone tomb of his bath, deep enough to bury a family of four.

“I won’t need a bath,” Anaz said.

“You say that like there should be an ‘ever’ in there.”

“Ever.”

They stared at each other.

“I won’t be staying.”

“You won’t be staying.” Hakkana sniffed. Stepped closer. “You’re hurting. Not thinking straight. Give it some time. What are you going to do? Live like them?” He pointed out the balcony. “Beg for water from my men at the well like a fucking peasant?”

“None of this matters. I remember that now. There is nothing outside of myself that can bring me happiness.”

Hakkana grunted. “So you say. Just remember,” he made like he was going to pat Anaz on the cheek, but instead, patted lower, on the neck. On Anaz’s slave collar. “There are things outside of yourself that can bring you unhappiness.”

Anaz heard the latch to his door lift. He stayed still, pretending to be asleep, when he heard Hakkana enter his chambers. The man smelled of wine. He stood over Anaz for several minutes, when his wheezing skipped, sobbed. A whisper. “He has taken two.”

It took eleven bags to carry all of Anaz’s clothing and the water to the khatras district.

“You didn’t let me keep anything.”

“You keep saying that.”

“I haven’t even worn half of these.”

“Then they will last longer for those who will.”

“Airim’s breath, Narek would be furious if he knew.”

Anaz had to stop and rest often and each time Reyn would quietly take an extra bag from him, so that by the time they entered the khatras she was carrying eight bags to his three. They stopped again just as they entered the district. Reyn reached for another bag, but Anaz grabbed it.

“I can do it.”

“You are hurt.”

“Somebody will notice.”

Reyn looked him up and down. “You should give away those clothes, too.”

Anaz flapped his plain brown jerkin. “This is all you let me keep.”

“Not the shirt. The opinions of others. They fit you poorly.”

He handed her the bag and bowed.

The khatras district was a sprawling city of canvas and animal skin tents stretched across ropes. It creeped out of the shadows of the High City like moss. They had to step over streams of filth, excrement and slops tossed into the dirt streets or flowing from the High City. Anaz wished a stronger breeze would pick up.

Within a block of entering the district, children began following Reyn and Anaz. First three or four and by the time they made it into the central square, more than twenty.  They had come to the elven enclave because they were sized most like Anaz. He looked at the elves squatting under their tents, watching him with hollow eyes, thin, dried creatures. Most wore only a loin cloth, or a sari tied loosely and mended so often that it no longer lay naturally. Almost none had sandals. He realized that people dressed as he and Reyn coming into the khatras was a frightening site. Even those with slave collars and dressed plainly didn’t look like one of them. He was too healthy, despite his injuries. Too well fed. Too well watered. When men dressed like pramguan came into the khatras, someone usually left in a slave collar.

In the central square, they set their bags down. Reyn opened them and handed Anaz the clothing. Embroidered crimson kurtas, sequined shirts and pants, six pairs of boots made from Yote leather that had never been laced up, gloves and belts. He lay them around the bags, like laying out evidence of his insatiable appetites. And there, kneeling, surrounded by his shame, he waved at the children to come forward.

“Take them,” he said. “For you or your brothers and fathers.”

A small elven child with blond hair, maybe nine, approached. His eyes stayed on Anaz as he crouched next to an emerald dhoti. His legs were tense, his weight on the balls of his feet, as he rubbed the silk between his fingers.

“Peace, child,” Anaz said. “Take it. It is yours.”

He waved at Reyn and she reached into one of her bags and pulled out a calabash filled with water. “And this,” he said, offering it to the boy.

The boy’s head jerked up as he heard the water slosh. He licked his lips, but they were as dry after as they were before. He took the calabash, unstoppered it, sniffed, then sipped the water.

A woman called in elven and the boy turned and shouted something back, the boy gesturing at Anaz as he spoke. The woman stomped her foot, a cough of dust twirling up around her, and snapped at the boy.

“I know you,” the boy said to Anaz, smiling. “You are the Hero of the Pit.”

“I’m just Anaz now.”

“Hero of the khatras now,” the boy said, and snatched up the dhoti and turned and ran to his mother. He gave her the calabash and she held it tight and looked from the boy to Anaz, then bowed to him. Anaz returned the bow.

Within minutes, Anaz and Reyn had given away all of their clothing and another two dozen calabashes of water. Reyn rested her hand on Anaz’s shoulder as the children drank and ran to their parents with clothing and water and the parents held the clothing up to themselves and laughed and teased each other.

Anaz watched all of this and he knew he was smiling and that he probably looked like a fool, but he couldn’t help it. Didn’t want to help it.

Reyn rested a hand on Anaz’s shoulder and said, “Just Anaz.”

“This’ll never work.”

“Look at the filth. It flows through their home,” Reyn said.

It was only a week later and they were back in the khatras. It had been a good week. Hard, but good. After working with Reyn, he had felt a weak trickle of the hsing-li for the first time since his fight.

Now they were back and standing before a hole cut in the rock face under the High City. A thick slurry of waste glopped from it, streaming into the khatras behind them.

“But why do I have to stand in it?”

“Because that is where the rock that is willing to move sits.”

“I don’t sense it.”

“You will.”

“I can’t even get the hsing-li to open.”

“You will.”

Anaz shook his head and looked around. Dozens had begun watching. Probably wondering why Anaz and Reyn were looking at a stream of shit and trash as if it held a secret. But maybe it did.

“They’re going to laugh at me.”

“A thing is better done than talked about.”

Better done, Anaz thought. He pulled up his lungi, bunching the cloth and his pride around his knees, and stepped into the stinking soup. It was warm and fouler than he had imagined it could be.

He closed his eyes and tried to draw the hsing-li. One breath. Two. He could see a trickle of color within the corruption. That was a start at least.

A minotaur standing behind him barked. He said something and several others around him began hooting. It was as if the beast had pulled a gag from the khatras’s throat and the whole of it was laughing now.

Anaz tried to block out the sound, focus on the hsing-li. One breath. Two. He couldn’t sense anything. There wasn’t any fucking stone willing to move under here.

“Did your feet smell too pretty, pramguan?” someone shouted.

Anaz opened his eyes and kicked the slurry, spatters flinging across his face. If he had thought they were laughing before…

He stomped out of the sludge and past Reyn. “Was that the lesson? To make an ass of me?”

The crowd scrambled out of his way, holding their noses and pointing.

He was thirty paces away when he heard someone say, “Her too?”

He turned and saw Reyn standing where he had, her sari pulled up, her head bowed. The laughing stopped when the ground began to growl an eager, earthen roar and Reyn was thrusted up along with seventy feet of stone forward and back. When the dust settled a curved stone wall met the slurry pipe, redirecting the waste away from the khatras.

A young human girl, with a blind eye and short red hair was on her tiptoes on a crate next to Anaz. She said, maybe to herself, maybe to Anaz, maybe to the heavens, “For us?”

As if being covered in filth wasn’t enough, Anaz’s chamber door was open when he returned. Hakkana stood just inside his room with Palina next to him.

“By the gods, boy, we smelled you on the stairs.”

Anaz looked at Palina and said, “What are you doing here?”

“He brought me.”

“Change that jerkin,” Hakkana said. “I can’t fucking breathe around you. What were you doing?”

“I’ll get you a new one,” Palina offered, then, looking around, “You’ve cleaned.”

“Haven’t seemed like yourself since Vlaknak,” Hakkana said. “Thought a friendly face might help.”

“I need a sandcloth and cup of water, please,” Anaz said.

“Or a bath,” Palina said.

“Where are your clothes,” Hakkana said, a question on a knife’s edge.

“A bath would be nice,” Palina said.

Anaz pulled off his jerkin, the cracking of dried mud loud in his ears, and thought about how to answer a tottering question like that.

Finally, “Gone.”

“Gone,” Hakkana said. “Huh.”

“Hon,” Palina said to Hakkana, a smile and a flirting touch on his arm, “Let me help him clean up.”

Hakkana raked his eyes across Anaz, unswerving and merciless. “I raised you better than this. If I can smell you upstairs, you’ll be sleeping with the fendliths tonight.”

After Anaz’s door closed again, Palina laughed and said. “What were you doing?”

Anaz blew out a breath and scratched the back of his neck, trying to dig a finger under the slave collar. “What a fucking day.”

“Well, here.” She shook a wineskin. “Let’s take the edge off.”

“What are you doing here,” Anaz said.

“I wanted to see you.” He could hear the courage it took for her to ask her next question. “Don’t you want to see me?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I need to be alone.”

“What’s happening to you?”

“Please.”

“Is it that girl?”

“Reyn.”

“I fucking knew it.”

“Her name is Reyn.”

“When I saw you that day and she said those things, I could tell.”

“I just want to be alone.”

“And then you kept moving away. Like you were ashamed of me.”

Palina walked towards Anaz, that poisonous promise of sex in her sway. “You just need to loosen up.” She put her palm on his belly, her fingers pointed down. Anaz grabbed her wrist.

“She was right,” he said.

“Don’t. Please. I need you and you need me. Okay? I said it.”

He pulled her hand away from him.

“I was there when you bought the nickellock,” she said. “You don’t get to pretend you aren’t covered in shit.”

He kissed her knuckles. “I didn’t understand the value of what I was placing on the scales.”

Anaz let the hsing-li flow through him. He opened his eyes and watched the colorful energy come up from the floor into his folded legs, through his body and down into his cupped hands. It was easier this morning, not easy, but easier. The black corruption lingered, but Anaz thought it might be less than it had been in the last year.

Like ripples in a lake, the color of the hsing-li changed and Anaz could sense Hakkana coming towards his chamber. He kicked in the door. It wobbled on its hinges. Anaz allowed the sound to pass over him and he released his hsing-li.

“Get up,” Hakkana said.

 

When they got to the stables, Anaz saw twenty of Hakkana’s guards mounted in full armor. Narek and Reyn were already in the carriage as Hakkana and Anaz climbed in. They rode in silence for a long while until Narek turned to Anaz and said, “The dublo? In the khatras district? They aren’t fit for my fendlith's blankets and you give them my masterwork?” He shook his head, looked at Reyn, then out the window and said, “She’s not good for him.”

“I’m realizing,” Hakkana said.

 

The guards’ chainmail chimed as they pulled into the khatras, a punishing procession. No children ran to greet them.

They stopped in the elven enclave and stepped out. Reyn had her eyes closed and Anaz could sense the hsing-li flowing into her. He tried to summon his own, but his fear made it like trying to thread a needle on a galloping horse. Hakkana jerked Anaz by the collar into the center of the square.

“Recently, my property unlawfully gave away my property.” Hakkana turned as he spoke. “We are here to reclaim it.”

Narek strode into the tents, a squad of soldiers behind him, and began stabbing a finger at any clothing he recognized as if spite alone could strip these people. One by one, the soldiers snatched the men and children wearing the garments, dragged them into the square and tore the clothing off of them. Anaz heard an elderly man cry out as one of his ankles snapped when the soldiers ripped a pair of boots off of him. More shouts began to fill the square and Anaz watched several families flee.

“It will go better for those who freely return them, than for those who don’t.”

Anaz spotted the elven boy who had first trusted him and his mother. The woman had converted the dhoti into a type of skirt. She crouched behind a tent flap and Anaz could tell she was trying to get it off. Narek spotted her and pointed. Two guards descended on her. The boy shouted something in elven, bent, picked up a stone and whipped it at one of the guards. It clanged off of his breastplate. The guard lunged at the boy, wrapped a gauntlet around his thin throat and haled the boy up.

Like two dogs whose leashes had snapped, Anaz and Reyn tore into the guards. Even with his injuries, Anaz was twice as fast as them. His hsing-li surged within him, liquid stone coursing through his muscles. He  channeled it to create a blast of wind that tore a sword from the grip of the nearest guard. In one motion, Anaz scooped up the sword, flipped it in the air to catch the hilt and rapped the flat side of its blade against the guard’s jaw, knocking him unconscious. He broke the blade on the ground. He wouldn’t kill these men, but nor would he allow them to hurt anyone else.

Together, he and Reyn had dropped another six guards before he felt the beetles crawling inside of him. The collar. It had been years since he had felt this. Last time Hakkana punished him, he had done so with a terrorizing slowness. This time, the agony erupted like a thunderclap. Anaz fell, dirt filling his mouth and eyes as he wailed.

He tried to hold on to his hsing-li, to stay separated from this experience, the way Reyn had, but he couldn’t. Fear and pain drove it out of him. He could do nothing as the guard tossed the elven boy next to him in the square. Hakkana unspooled a barbed whip six feet long and cracked it across the boy’s bare back. Anaz thrashed, his bowels burning. The whip landed again. Again. The boy’s mother threw herself over her son’s body. Three guards dragged her off of him and began ripping at the dhoti while Hakkana swung at the boy again. Anaz was filled with the dual images of insects feasting on his guts and the elven boy dissolving under the lashes into a heap of tattered bloody meat.

When the boy stopped breathing, all Anaz could do was scream.

Anaz sat at the edge of the roof resting his chin on his knees, his toes curled over the lip. He could make out the khatras district from here, even in the moonlight. He wondered what the woman was doing now. Was she grieving alone in a tent? Was anyone with her? How do you comfort this? A grief that cannot be contained.

“How do you fight this grief,” Anaz asked himself.

“You don’t.” Reyn lowered herself next to him. They had been locked in their rooms after returning. She must have climbed the tower the same way he had. She had been beaten, her lip swollen and split, her left cheek shadowed with bruises. He touched her face.

“Flick,” she said. She laced her fingers through his. “Let your grief go. Don’t fight it,”

Anaz looked back at the khatras district. “It will consume me.”

“When a rock falls down a mountain, it shows its belly, then its back, then its belly, then its back. When it is done falling, it stops. Tolerate your grief. It will stop when it is done falling.”

“What have we done?”

“You didn’t hold the whip.”

“I tried to sleep, but all I could hear were his mother’s screams. All I could see was his skin peeling away in ribbons. His ribs. So white.”

Reyn rested her hand on his. “Leave there and then. Be here. Be now.”

“I hate it here.” Anaz rubbed his eyes. “He’s going to make me fight my last fight in two months. If I win, if the magistrate keeps his word, I won’t leave without you. I’m getting you out of here, Reyn. Back home.”

“Scheming. Pushing and Pulling. You are starting to unbind yourself. Be careful you don’t replace one shackle with another.”

“You’ll see Jin again.”

Reyn leaned in and kissed Anaz on the cheek. Her swollen lips felt lopsided and stiff. Electric. She smiled and patted his hand. “You have a good spirit, Anaz. Your father would be proud.”

Anaz and Reyn weren’t allowed to see each other outside of training after that day and guards were posted at their doors at night. Without planning it, they began meeting on the rooftop every evening. They watched the city sleep. They spoke little. They would meditate for hours, allowing the hsing-li to fill them. His legs would stiffen and he worried that he was doing it wrong, that he was missing something important. Reyn reminded him that his posture was the important thing, that it helped him own his self, that if he slumped his mind would drift and he wouldn’t be here. So he held the posture.

He lost his appetite for succulent foods and portions that could feed four. He dumped all of the wine from his chambers and refused it at the table. And he limited his water to that which a man in the khatras might afford. He became sick at first, but within a week, he began to feel as he had six years ago when he came to Hakkana, light and alert. He noticed things he missed before. The way Reyn would hum to herself as she climbed down the tower, a beautiful, tuneless song. The way the sandstone would leave a thin layer of grit on the bottom of his feet after climbing and if he took a couple running steps then stopped he could slide across his room’s polished floor. He laughed so hard and for so long after the first time doing it that his guard entered to check on him.

Training was different, too. Lazinal pushed Anaz in a way he had never pushed him before. Since the khatras incident, he wouldn’t speak to Anaz except to give orders. Gone was any humor they might have shared. Now it was drilling, punishment if Anaz missed a swing, or appeared too slow, then more drilling.

But the thing Anaz waited for every day was his sparring session with Reyn. As his hsing-li returned to him, they worked against each other in a sublime rhythm. They became so fast that Anaz heard Lazinal mutter to himself that he couldn’t see what they were doing, couldn’t keep up. Anaz would attack, his hsing-li tripping Reyn’s feet while she would retaliate by using hers to pull his head. Always in opposites they went at each other, finding the hsing-li’s balance. Sometimes Anaz would leave himself open, for just a breath’s moment, baiting Reyn into closing the distance and, if he timed it right, he could charge her and the two would collide in a surprise hug, her body against his, her breasts pressing into his chest, the heat of her breath. By the third time, Anaz caught Reyn smiling as she closed and he realized she had recognized his game all along.

All the while he planned. He paved a path in his mind that would lead Reyn to freedom. She wouldn’t be abandoned to the Pit the way Anaz had been. Nobody had tried to save him, he’d be damned if he was going to allow the same to happen to Reyn.

At midnight, before the Virna star set and the sun rose, Anaz would climb down from meditating with Reyn and drop into his bed exhausted and empty, yet full. By the time he fell asleep, he would already be missing her. He slept like a man dying in peace.

Losing the guards had been the easy part, it turned out. Finding Galdna’s house without someone recognizing him, hoofing across the city, up the foothills, head hunched like the beast hauling a labor of love that he was, that had been the first real test.

“Hakkana know you’re here?” Galdna asked as he entered the sitting room. He wore a purple robe open in the front revealing a furious wedge of hair.

Anaz had practiced his plea on the walk across the High City. Maybe open with something about earning his freedom and being his own man. These people liked that kind of talk. Now, standing across from Galdna, with skin in the fight, he felt a quick thrust was all he had nerve for. “I want to free Rey,” he said.

Galdna stood at the buffet, his back to Anaz, holding a flask of wine. He set it down, then picked it back up and turned to Anaz. “Wine?”

“No, sir. Thank you.”

“That’s right. Hakkana said you’d given the stuff up.” He filled a goblet and sat.

“Hakkana would never sell her rights to me.”

“The Ascenic girl.”

“But maybe he would to you? And maybe I could then buy them from you?”

“So it’s true. You are smitten. I didn’t believe it myself. Figured she was just another notch on the belt, so to speak.”

“Will you help me?”

“Sit down.”

Anaz sat down and so did his heart. He hadn’t been kicked out. Second test passed.

“Did you know you’re the only — well, the first — purchase he’s ever made that he didn’t include me in?”

“You’ve said, sir.”

“You and now that girl. Gods, what he spent on her. It might ruin him, you know. You’ve driven up the price of Ascenic slaves something like one hundred fold.”

“I have money.”

“Not this much, you don’t.”

“Freed, I can earn more.”

“You’d keep fighting?”

And there it was. Every move of this game had been played through to its fatal end hundreds, thousands of times in Anaz’s head over the last months and every time it ended with this question. He thought about his life these last six years, about coming-of-age covered in blood, the torture, the flailing at anything that could mean something for even a moment. He wouldn’t leave Reyn to repeat what he had endured. One Ascenic life was enough.

“If I had to,” he said.

Galdna swirled his wine cup and examined Anaz. “Thantalis likes you,” Galdna said.

“Sir?”

“Why would Hakkana sell her?”

“She won’t fight. He’s using the collar and Flick and anything he can, but it won’t work. He’ll kill her. You could convince him of that, tell him you want to try. Maybe he’ll be desperate to get back some of those drips he spent on her?”

“That damn girl.”

Galdna stood and walked to the buffet and refilled his goblet and said, “I need Hakkana back. Ever since this Genitor’s Peace nonsense, he’s been obsessed with finding a way to keep you. I told him to just let you go, but he won’t hear it. Getting both you and this girl out of Abaleth would be the best thing for him and our business.”

Anaz didn’t move, scared that any noise or motion might spook Galdna into the wrong decision.

“You in my pocket and the way Thantalis talks about you. Could be we can help each other. Sixteen hundred casks. That’s what he spent.”

“But that’s…” Anaz said. He closed his eyes. “I have a quarter of that.”

“She’s not worth a drip, if she won’t fight. I’ll see if I can get her for an even one and you can earn the rest. I’d need your four up front.”

“I have to wait until I’m freed. Otherwise Hakkana can take it from me.”

“Two weeks is fine.”

“Thank you,” Anaz whispered. He wished he could put more into it, but he wasn’t sure he had passed this third and final test.

“I have to say, I’m impressed,” Galdna said. “The old Anaz never would have come up with a scheme like this. Hakkana has taught you something after all.”

It was as the Virna star eased itself to sleep, that Anaz dropped onto his terrace and was three steps into his darkened chambers before he realized Hakkana was there. He was sitting on Anaz’s bed watching him. They stared at each other for a long time, two specters searching for something amongst themselves, then Hakkana stood and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

 

The next morning Hakkana gave back Anaz’s privileges to the estate. He removed the guards from both Anaz’s and Reyn’s rooms. He didn’t explain why. Something to do with a decision or a realization. There was no manipulation in the announcement. He didn’t treat it as if he were giving Anaz a gift or expecting something from Anaz in return. Rather, he said it with resignation.

Then he asked Anaz if he had made up his fucking mind yet on what he would do after his next fight, but he asked it like he were asking the sun “must you rise today?” Anaz knew he didn’t have to answer, but did anyway. “I’m leaving you.”

“I see it. How could I not see it before?” They were in the gardens standing in front of the sandfury. Reyn had brought him here, now that their privileges had been returned. They had summoned their hsing-li and Anaz could see what he had never seen in the two years Hakkana had kept the elemental in their gardens. An inky stream of energy snaked out from the creature and wherever it touched the colored flow of hsing-li, the colors dissolved into tiny particles. The strands moved a hair’s width at a time, seized by the magic holding the creature. Anaz found himself both enthralled and horrified.

“And now you understand,” Reyn said. “It undoes creation. That is its purpose.”

“How do you destroy it?”

Reyn shook her head.

Then Anaz saw the flow of hsing-li acting odd around the creature’s base, as if it were colliding with an invisible force. He squatted, careful to avoid the black streams, and tried touching it. His fingers brushed against the magic shield holding the creature.

“It will wear out,” Reyn said. “Their enchantment fights against the hsing-li rather than redirecting it as we do. Nothing can stand against reality for long. That is why their magic never lasts. Where we encourage reality to grow or change to our will, theirs tries to create a new reality, but can only imitate it and only for so long.”

“How could I never see any of this before,” Anaz said.

“You see it now.”

He stood up and looked at Reyn. He had to catch himself. He had seen her every day for months, had admired her each of those days and thought her beautiful from the first, yet now, here, in this gloaming, her beauty ambushed him. It wasn’t any one part or thing. It was the lines of her neck, the hollow at the base of it. It was the small smile that lived on her lips no matter if they were swollen from violence or not, as if all of life amused her. And it was her absolute and unshakeable peace. The winds themselves would still within her presence and the boiling sea would settle to a gentle roil by her wading into it. He wouldn’t leave her to these people. She was the only thing worth fighting for. “I see a lot now.”

He took her hand and led her from the gardens. “A lot.”

Something was wrong. It was an hour past when they normally met and he had been about to risk the climb down into her room when he heard her at the edge.

Anaz first saw her bandaged hand grip the side, then she pulled herself up and he saw the bruises. One eye was swollen into a morbid wink, black and purple blotches mottled her face.

Anaz scrambled to the edge to help her. She had needed her hsing-li to reach the roof. She clenched her teeth as he pulled her up.

“Why,” Anaz asked.

“Hakkana was there today. He wished me to fight a centaur.”

“Manan. And you wouldn’t,” Anaz said.

Reyn laid back on the roof and rested her fingers on her collar. “I couldn’t feel the beating. Hakkana was using the collar. That was all I could feel. I saw them kicking me, but didn’t feel anything. I think that made them more angry.”

“I’m going to kill him,” Anaz said. “All of them.”

Reyn looked at Anaz. Her swollen eyes were sad and beautiful. Brown mirrors of life in all of its perfect imperfection. Anaz wished he could close them and that when she opened them again she would see a different set of stars, a different world.

“To what end,” she said. “They would return to the hsing-li never knowing any difference for what they have done. But you. You would have to go on knowing what you had done. Who would be the punished one?”

“I won’t leave you here alone, Reyn. I’m not going anywhere after my fight. Not without you.”

She turned back to the stars. The air smelled dry, like a sand storm was coming.

“He uses me to jail you,” she said. “In two weeks you will earn the Genitor’s peace. He hopes that you will fall in love with me and stay.”

Anaz took Reyn’s hand and pressed his thumb into her palm. “It might be working.” Love. Was that the word? Could desperation and love feel so similar?

“Only if you allow it.”

“You just have to hold on for a little while,” Anaz said. He hadn’t planned to tell her, but he needed her to not give up, or rather, to give up just what she had to to keep herself alive long enough for him to save her. “I made a deal. With Galdna.”

She rolled her head to look at him.

“He’s going to buy you from Hakkana. You’ll live with him until I can win enough to free you.”

“Win,” Reyn said.

“It’s a lot of drips.”

She sat up and the world sat up with her, all of gravity leaning on him.

“In the Pit.”

“There’s no other choice.”

She slapped him, an iron palm crashing into his jaw and she screamed — screamed! — “There is always a choice!”

“I love you.”

“You would use and end others’ lives for your own happiness?”

“For you, Reyn. For you.”

“You have learned nothing.”

“Where are you going?”

She swung her legs over the edge of the roof and gripped the shingles with her bandaged hand. She wasn’t drawing her hsing-li, something else fueling her.

“Wait. Just wait.”

“You are as foolish today as the day we met. Learn to let go, Anaz, Hero of the Pit. You cannot have what cannot be had.”

She disappeared behind the roof.

There were no nightclaws in the sky, no cries of life, no Virna star. There was nothing. Nothing.

Anaz spotted Magistrate Thantalis outside their tower too late to avoid him. Anaz hadn’t seen Reyn in the last week and had been too occupied hoping that today would be the day she would be in the training hall to notice Thantalis being loaded into his carriage. The fendliths stomped their hooves and blowed against the sand storm that had lingered.

“Come here, boy,” Thantalis called.

He reached through the carriage’s window and rested a hand on Anaz’s shoulder. His gold eyes reflected everything. “You really were amazing,” he said. “Seventy-five years I have watched warriors in the Pit. I’m glad I lived to see you in there, boy. People will miss their Hero of the Pit.”

“Thank you, lord,” Anaz said, but he felt as if he were saying thanks for his own eulogy.

“It’s too bad about the girl. It would have been fascinating if she could have challenged your record.” Thantalis patted Anaz’s head and sat back in his seat.

Anaz felt dry, brittle.

“But Hakkana knows what he’s doing, I suppose. The man is viciously capable, I’ll give him that. It’s why I keep him around. Keep his wings clipped and he’ll flap around and amuse you for years. And does he ever have a plan to amuse us with this last fight, Anaz. It will be legendary.”

Thantalis rapped on the side of the carriage and the driver snapped the reins. “It’s been ever charming, boy,” he said.

 

The training hall was empty except for Lazinal. He was rearranging the weapons rack, setting aside blades that needed polishing. Anaz walked towards him, thinking about Thantalis and “too bad about the girl.”

“Where is she,” he said. Lazinal startled and spun holding a training sword.

“Airim’s grief, boy. Make some noise when you walk.” He turned back to the swords.

“Where is Reyn?”

“No training today. Go back to your room.”

“Why? Where is Reyn?”

“Because it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Anaz grabbed Lazinal’s shoulder and turned him. “Where?”

“Gone.” The word came out of him in a sad fog. Then Lazinal said it again, and Anaz felt like he was reminding himself to be firm or angry when he said, “Bitch was useless to us anyway. You don’t keep a fighting dog that has no fight in it.”

“Where is she,” Anaz said. Quieter this time. More to himself.

“You put it down or you use it for the other dogs to amuse themselves with.”

They were silent for a long time.

“Please,” Anaz whispered.

“You didn’t think that would work, did you? With Galdna? She’s gone, Anaz. She’s gone. Sold. Dead. It doesn’t matter. Let her go.”

© 2017 Kaleb Schad

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