ABBARR: Ashes and Wings

CHAPTER 2. LIFE FOR A RUBY

Two bodyguards blocked the fragile traveler’s way. But as soon as the traveler, cloaked in black, with a hood hiding her face, gave them her name, two stone beasts exchanged glances and parted, lowering their axes.

Esha came to the desk littered with papers; it belonged to the first organizer of the Great Arena – a short bulky beast with a shiny bald spot and two little horns with delicate gold painting that was supposed to compensate for their insufficient size. Tkharod was one of the most unscrupulous inhabitants of the Desert City.

All the gold of his horns came from vices, passions, and blood deals. And now he was taking the bets on the upcoming fight. Esha elbowed her way through, prompting protests from everyone who was present, pushed away the first person in the line and threw a crumpled piece of paper on the table.

“I’m buying this one, Tkharod,” the Elwing girl deliberately dismissed the polite “Val” traditional for the desert, because the only thing she felt for the organizer was contempt.

Two stone bodyguards stepped forth to take the insolent girl away, but Tkharod stopped them with a gesture. He didn’t look surprised with the Elwing’s arrival, or he simply tried to carefully hide his surprise. Or maybe, the servant, hanging around behind Tkharod’s back, had already whispered him something about her. The plump fingers with long gilded claws unfolded the paper. Tkharod bared his fangs in a filthy smile.

“The birdie seeks the birdie,” he gurgled, clearly happy with his joke.

The poster, torn off the board, showed a kai-reen – a griffin, winged beast with clawed paws and fanged beak. A fancy woven inscription promised an unprecedented spectacle on the Great Arena, a battle “to the last grain of sand” – in other words, to the last fighter.

Esha was silent. Her cross-pupils narrowed, almost turning into points.

“You know, you look much younger and prettier than they say, Ashwing. Or do you prefer ‘White Hand of the Dragon’?”

The beast licked his lips. The Elwing girl just half-arched her eyebrow. She had long learned to hide her emotions, especially while dealing with Abbarrian merchants, where the first rule stated: if you show your interest in the subject of purchase, the auction may result in considerable additional costs.

Leaning to Tkharod, the Elwing girl put her hand in her pocket, smiling at the way the stony faces of the bodyguards behind him tensed. She still had a couple of gems and some coins. She aimed to get them, while the knives were hanging on her hip, and on her belt, and hidden in her boot… In a word, these dummies head nothing to worry about, for now.

The bodyguards clanked their weapons, but Tkharod stopped them with a gesture, again.

Esha opened her hand and showed him a large ruby of excellent quality – crimson like blood, pure as a tear. Tkharod licked and smacked his lips. He hadn’t seen such gems for a while. Since the main mine of Siluria had run dry, a whole fortune could be gained for such a pebble. Not to mention the fact that the sack of bones was worth much less. To be honest, the creature was worth no more than a living gwahr or some meat scraps from the butcher’s shop, third the weight of kai-reen itself. But where have you seen an honest merchant? And Tkharod wouldn’t have gotten to where he was now if he were a decent and honest beast at least by one third.

To agree right away would have been extremely impractical and bad for his reputation. With great difficulty the first organizer of the Great Arena looked away from the gem, because the second rule of Abbarr stated: if you want to get more, don’t show the buyer your desire to part with the goods.

“Nobody will offer a better price for him, Val Tkharod,” a reptiloid Allaty – the assistant organizer – squeaked, but he went quiet the moment his master gave him a disapproving look.

“He has a fight today. And I’ll get more from each fight than your pebble is worth,” Tkharod managed a snort so casual he could actually master, but the gleam in his eyes, a drop of sweat on his forehead and the way his forked

tongue licked his lips three times already was a dead giveaway.

“Are you sure?”

Esha leaned on the table, and a pack of bet receipts got scattered on the floor. The line behind her murmured, more and more displeased. More and more necks were craned to see what was happening, and in the visitors’ whispers ‘Elwing’, ‘ruby’ and ‘Ashwing’ could be heard. Esha banished the thought that the day had finally come; holding the ruby between her thumb and forefinger she brought the stone almost straight to the beast’s face, catching the red glow in Tkharod’s pale watery eyes.

“Break for a quart!” the beast yelled and clapped his hands.

Sand was used to measure time in Abbarr. On the central peak of the Black Flower there was a huge chronometer – The Great Watcher; it was the pinnacle of the Desert City watchmakers’ craftsmanship. And since time literally flowed, citizens of Abbarr used the same way to measure it as they did while measuring fluid volumes. Well, Esha had quarter of an hour at her disposal, though three times less would have been enough.

The bodyguards hurried to push out all the onlookers and shot bolts on the heavy doors. The Death Pavilion became unusually quiet.

“Show the goods, Tkharod.”

“If you ask… Ashwing.”

The beast gestured to his assistant, before leaving the table, and walked slowly to the far door. Esha followed him. The organizer’s bodyguards walked behind them.

As they passed the corridor and the adjoining room, they found themselves in twilight of a long gallery; on both sides there were numerous cells and pens of various sizes and degrees of protection. As soon as the doors were opened a wave of sounds rolled over Esha. The room was filled with hundreds of voices, growling, bleating, screaming. Dozens, hundreds of animals were making all kinds of sounds, merged into a single cacophony of death. Esha closed her eyes for a moment, shielding her consciousness from the agonizing screams. Many of the creatures had long lost their minds, gone completely mad; only rage and hunger for blood and battle could be heard in their voices. Others pleaded for deliverance, howling of their suffering and hunger, of pain in their tormented flesh. Esha separated herself from one voice after another, until only silence and the sound of the beasts’ steps remained. The mental barrier echoed with every sound. If someone dropped a needle in the distant corner of the gallery, Esha would have heard that ringing.

Tkharod and his servants stopped near a large cage. Behind the thick rods a beast lay silently. Asha came close. This was the kai-reen – tormented, exhausted, and crippled, as one of his wings was underdeveloped. He looked nothing like the poster promised. He’d been through many arena battles, and was still alive.

Strength and weakness. Despite his flaw, the animal fought for his life, stubbornly refusing to die even after getting severe injuries. Esha looked at his old white scars and the gore on his feathers, at the swollen eye, at the brown crusts at the sting of his tail and the tips of his horns, at his ragged ear. The griffin was looking back at her with his one remaining eye, orange, like flame. He watched her without a single sound, a single thought. Today’s fight would be his last, and he knew that.

 

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ABBARR: Ashes and Wings