I ride dressed for war. All in black. Hair wild and bound by goat-gut. Forearms covered with durosteel vambraces looted in battle. My durosteel cuirass is black and light; it will deflect any edge less than an ionBlade or a razor. My boots are muddy. Streaks of black and red go across my face. SlingBlade on my back. Knives everywhere. Nine red crossbones and ten wolves cover Quietus’s flank. Lea painted them. Each crossbone is an incapacitated opponent, who are often healed by medBots and then thrown back into the fray. Each wolf a slave. Cassius rides at my side. He shimmers. The durosteel he received as a bounty is polished as bright as his glimmering sword and his hair, which bounces like coiled golden springs about his regal head. It’s as though he’s never been stood around and pissed on.
“Well, I do believe I am the lightning,” Cassius declares. “And you, my brooding friend, are the thunder.”
“Then what am I?” Roque asks, kicking his horse up beside us. Mud flies. “The wind?”
“You’re full enough of it,” I snort. “The hot sort.”
The House rides behind us. All of it except Quinn and June, who stay behind as our castle’s garrison. It is a gamble. We ride slowly so that Minerva knows we are coming. What they do not know is that I was there in the night just hours before and that Sevro is there now. Mud still sticks underneath my fingernails.
Minerva’s scouts dart across their rocky hilltops. They make a show of
mocking us, but really they count our number to better know our strategy. Yet they seem confused when we ride into their country of high grass and olive trees. So confused that they withdraw their scouts behind their walls. We’ve never come in full force like this. The Howlers, our scouts, ride in full view on their black horses, black cloaks fluttering like crow wings. Our highDraft killers move as the vanguard of the main body—cruel Vixus, craggy Pollux, spiteful Cassandra, many of Titus’s band. The slaves jog about their owners, those who captured them.
I ride forward with Cassius and Antonia flanking me. She carries the standard today. Only a few archers man the walls, so I tell Cassius to make sure we are not ambushed from the flanks in case any of Minerva are about. He gallops away.
Minerva’s fortress is ringed by a hundred meters of barren earth made mud from the torrential rains of the last week. It is the killing field. Step into the ring and the archers will try to kill your horse. If you still do not retreat, they will try to kill you. Nearly twenty horses of both Houses litter the field. Cassius led a bloody assault on a Minervan warband up to the very gates of the castle itself just two days before.
Beyond the killing field is grass. Oceans of grass so high in some places that Sevro could stand tall and still not be seen. We stand at the edge of the mud ring amidst a meadow of autumn wildflowers. The ground squishes underfoot and Quietus whinnies beneath me.
“Pax!” I then shout. “Pax.”
I hurl the name against the walls until their main gate opens ponderously, as ponderously as it once opened that night when Cassius and I snuck inside. Mustang rides out. She trots slowly through the mud and pulls short of us. Her eyes take in everything.
“Is it to be a duel?” she asks with a grin. “Pax of Wise and Noble Minerva versus the Reaper of the Bloody Butcher House?”
“You make it sound so exciting,” Antonia yawns. She’s not got a spot of dirt on her.
Mustang ignores her.
“And you’re sure you’ve no one hiding in that grass waiting to ambush us when we come out to support our champion?” Mustang asks me. “Should we burn it and find out?”
“We’ve brought everyone,” Antonia says. “You know our numbers.” “Yes. I can count. Thank you.” Mustang doesn’t look at her. Just at
me. She seems worried; her voice lowers. “Pax will hurt you.”
“Pax, how are your balls?” I shout over her head. She winces as a drum beats suddenly from inside the fortress. Except it’s not a drum. Pax comes out of the gate. His war axe thumps his shield. Mustang shouts him back and he obeys like a dog, but the beating of the axe on the shield does not cease. We agree that the stakes should be all the remaining slaves between the two of us. A hefty bounty.
“I thought Handsome was the duelist?” Mustang says, then shrugs. Her eyes keep going to the grass. “Where is that mad fellow? Your shadow— the one who leads that wolfpack? Is he hiding in the grass? I don’t want him popping up behind me again.”
I shout for Sevro. A hand rises amongst the Howlers. Mud covers the faces that peer out from beneath the black wolfcloaks. Mustang counts. All five Howlers accounted for. In fact, all our forces save one, Quinn, are accounted for. Still Mustang isn’t satisfied. We are to remove our army six hundred meters from the edge of the mud ring. She will burn away all the grass within one hundred meters of where we now stand. When the grass is done burning, the scorched earth will be the duel field. Ten men of her choosing will join ten of my choosing in creating a circle in which to fight. The rest of hers will stay inside the city, and mine will stay six hundred meters removed.
“Don’t trust me?” I ask. “I don’t have men in the grass.” “Good. Then no one will burn.”
No one burns. When the fire dwindles and the ground is all ash and smoke and mud within the killing field, I leave my army. Ten of mine accompany me. Pax thumps his war axe on a shield emblazoned with a woman’s head, her hair all of snakes. Medusa. I’ve never fought a man with a shield before. His armor is tight and covers everything but his joints. I heft a stunpike in the hand I’ve painted red and my slingBlade in the hand I’ve painted black.
My heart rattles as the circle forms around us. Cassius motions me over. Even in the muted light, he glows with color. He shares an ironic smile.
“Never stop moving. It’s like Kravat, this.” He eyes Pax. “And you’re faster than this gory bastard. Right?” I get a wink. He thumps me on the shoulder. “Right, brother?”
“Damn right.” I return his wink.
“Thunder and lightning, brother. Thunder and lightning!”
Pax is built like an Obsidian. He’s over seven feet tall, easliy, and he moves like a bloodydamn panther. In this .37grav, he could throw me thirty meters or more. I wonder how high he can jump. I jump to stretch my legs. Nearly three meters. I can easily clear his head. The ground still smokes.
“Jump. Jump, little grasshopper,” he grumbles. “It’ll be the last time you use your legs.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“I said it’ll be the last time you use your legs.” “Odd,” I murmur.
He blinks at me and frowns. “What’s … odd?”
“You sound like a girl. Did something happen to your balls?” “You little …”
Mustang trots up with their standard and says something about girls never challenging each other to stupid duels. “The duel is to—”
“Yielding,” Pax says impatiently.
“To the death,” I correct. Really it doesn’t matter. I’m just screwing with them at this point. All I have to do is give the signal.
“To yielding,” Mustang confirms. She finishes necessaries and the duel begins. Almost. A series of pops in the sky above signal sonic booms as the Proctors come to join us from Olympus. They spin down from their high-floating mountain, coming from several different towers. Each wears his or her sign today, great headpieces of glittering gold. Their armor is a spectacle. They do not need it, but they love to dress up. Today they’ve brought a table with them. It floats on its own gravLift, supporting huge flagons of wine and trays of food as they set to having a dinner party.
“I hope we’re sufficient entertainment,” I cry up. “Mind dropping some wine? It’s been a while!”
“Good luck against the titan, little mortal!” Mercury cries down. His baby face laughs jovially and he showily brings a flagon of wine to his lips. Some of it tumbles the quarter mile from the sky to fall on my armor. It drips down like blood.
“I suppose we ought to give them a show,” Pax booms.
Pax and I share a real grin. It’s a compliment, of sorts, that they would all come to watch. Then Neptune, her trident headdress wobbling as she
swallows a quail egg, shouts for us to get on with it, and Pax’s axe sweeps at my legs like an evil broom. I know he wants me to jump, because he’s about to charge forward with his shield to swat me from the air like a fly. So I step back, then spring forward as his arm finishes its stroke. He’s moving too, but upward in anticipation, so I shoot right past his right arm and jam the stunpike into his armpit with all of my strength. It snaps in half. But he doesn’t fall even as electricity courses through him. Instead, he backhands me so hard that I fly through the circle and into the mud. Broken molar. Mouthful of mud and blood. Whiplash. I’m already rolling.
I stumble to my feet with my slingBlade. Mud covers me. I glance at the walls. Their army rings the parapet—couldn’t help but watch the champions fight. This is the point. I could give the signal. The gates are open in case they have to send aid. Our nearest horseman is six hundred meters away, much too far. I planned for that. Yet I do not signal. I want my own victory today, even if it’s a selfish one. My army has to know why I lead.
I come back into the circle. I have nothing clever to say. He’s stronger. I’m faster. That’s all we’ve learned about one another. This is not like Cassius’s fight. There is no pretty form. Only brutality. He bashes me with his shield. I stay close so he can’t swing his axe. The shield is ruining my shoulder. Every strike shoots agony into my molar. He lunges with it again and I jump, pull on the shield with my left hand and launch myself over him. A knife flickers from my wrist and I stab it at his eyes as I pass. I miss and scrape his helmet’s visor.
Putting a little distance between us, I reach for a knife and try a familiar trick. He bats the flying blade away contemptuously with his shield. But when he lowers it to look at me, I’m in the air, landing on his shield with all my weight. The suddenness of it pulls the shield down just a hair. I slam mud into his helmet with my off hand.
He’s blind. One hand holds the axe. One holds the shield. Neither can wipe his visor clean. It’d be a simple matter if he could just do that. But he can’t. I hit him a dozen times on his wrist till he drops his axe. Then I take the monstrous thing and hit him on the helmet with it. The armor still doesn’t break. He almost knocks me unconscious with his shield. I swing the heavy axe again and finally Pax crumples. I fall to a knee, panting.
Then I howl. They all howl.
Howls fill the lands of Minerva. Howls from my far-distant army. Howls from my ten highDraft killers who help make this dueling circle. Howls from the killing field. Mustang hears the dread sound behind her and she wheels her horse. Her face is one of terror. Howls from the laughing Proctors, except Minerva, Apollo, and Jupiter. Howls from the bellies of the dead horses in the middle of the killing field. The ones near her open gate.
“They’re in the mud!” Mustang shouts.
She’s almost right. But she thinks like a Gold. Someone screams as they see Sevro and his Howlers cutting their way out of the stitched-up bellies of the dead and bloated horses that litter the mud up to the gate. Like demons being born, they slither from swollen guts and parted stomachs. A half-score of House Diana’s best soldiers exit with them. Tactus and his spiked hair burst from the belly of a pale mare. He runs with Weed and Thistle and Clown. All within fifty meters of the ponderously slow gates.
The Minervan guards all stand upon the ramparts watching the duel. They cannot repel the sudden blitz of demon soldiers by closing their slow gates. They hardly manage to nock and draw their bows before Sevro, the Howlers, and our allies slip through the closing gate. On the other side of the city, the House Diana’s soldiers will be slowly scaling the walls with the ropes they use to climb their silly trees. Yes. The whistle sounds now from the other side. A guard there has seen them. No one will come to help him. My army moves forward, even the fake Howlers we borrowed from Diana and dressed up to look like Sevro and his band.
We destroy House Minerva in minutes. High above, the Proctors still howl and laugh. I think they are drunk. It is over before Mustang can do anything except gallop away across the muddy field through the still-smoldering grass. A dozen horses set off in pursuit, Vixus and Cassandra amongst them. She’ll be caught before nightfall, and I’ve seen what Vixus does to prisoners and their ears, so I mount Quietus and set off in pursuit.
Mustang abandons her horse at the edge of a small wood to the south. We dismount and leave three men to guard the horses in case she
doubles back. Cassandra plunges into the woods. Vixus follows me, purposefully stalking as though I might know where Mustang is hiding. I do not like this. I do not like being in the woods with Vixus and Cassandra. All it would take is a blade in the spine. Either would do it. Unlike Pollux, they still hate me, and my Howlers and Cassius are far away. Yet no knife comes.
I find Mustang by mistake. Two golden eyes peer out from a pit of mud. They meet mine. Vixus is with me. He swears something about how excited he is to break the gorydamn mare, see what she looks like with a bridle on. Standing there, leering into the brush, he looks bent and twisted and evil—like a withered tree after a fire. He has less bodyfat than anyone I’ve ever seen, so each of his veins and tendons ripple beneath his tight skin. His tongue flits over his perfect teeth. I know he’s goading me, so I lead him away from the mud pit.
Eo didn’t deserve to die a slave to the Society. And despite her Color, Mustang doesn’t deserve any sort of bridle.