A Stake in Secrets

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Chapter 10 - Finn

Swoosh. Clink. Grunt.

A sword falls to the ground. The sound of ringing brass rebounds throughout the stadium.

A man collapses.

Cheers and whistles followed by the rustling of shuffling money—wagers lost and won—fill the space.

I stand in a pit near the edge of the stage, amongst the Gneiss common folk, chewing on a piece of lemongrass, watching the battle between the Gneiss instructors.

With a few coins and a gold nugget, I had bought myself a gray top, a pair of gray trousers, and a Gneiss worker’s ID.

Swamped by the masses, the guard at the front entrance of the stadium took one careless look at my ID and waved me in.

It’s the annual Rain Festival, a 3-week period of peace between the four Clans where each pledges not to harm another.

It’s also the only vacation the Obsidian King gets every year.

But as per usual, I’m not here to have fun. I’m here for business.

The sound of trumpets resonate, marking the end of a round.

Flamboyant ribbons and jewels embellish the ceilings of the dome-shamed arena.

Only the Gneiss Lord is conceited enough to host such a sumptuous performance for his instructors and clansmen.

Within the Gneiss Clan, instructors are the most powerful.

In the first few days of the Rain Festival, anyone—from the most prestigious clansman to the poorest of the common folk—has the opportunity to challenge an instructor to battle.

The winner of the battle is the one who knocks the other to the ground.

Knives, daggers, swords, chains, dust bombs, nonfatal explosives, bow-and-arrows, and voodoo—I’ve seen them all used on the stage.

Painful injuries are allowed in battle. Intentional killing is not. Nevertheless, the definition of “intentional” is rather blurry, so many contestants have been carried off the stage as lifeless corpses.

The prize of winning against an instructor is taking over their job. Instructors are the closest to the Gneiss Lord, so they reap the rewards of patronage and influence.

For the last four years, however, the instructors have all kept their positions.

When I was young, I thought it was stupid of instructors to show all their skills. It was like laying out all your cards in a game of poker.

But I later realized that if your cards are strong enough, it doesn’t matter.

The tournament is a scare tactic. The awe from watching an instructor easily defeat their opponents could quickly turn to public fear of rising up against leadership.

Propaganda embedded in entertainment. Generic but effective, eh?

I look at the man currently on the stage. He is a young, brawny man with black eyes and angular eyebrows, which forever gives him an angry, ferocious look, like a hound.

Nonchalantly, he takes out a pair of steel daggers, their handles made of mahogany, from his belt and twirls them in his hand.

The room falls silent.

The announcer calls out, “Anyone willing to go against our renown Instructor Vadim Raasch?”

Mumbles and whispers, but no answers. This instructor has never lost a fight in his life.

Suddenly, a boy, probably around ten-years-old, is thrust upon the stage. He catches himself with both his hands and tries to scurry back into the pit on his knees.

He cries, “Please, Mother. Please, I don’t want to. Please! I’m going to die.” The boy’s cheeks are flushed, and tears fill his eyes.

He looks at the scrawny woman, who must be his mother. She takes cash from a man dressed in a fancy suit and hurries toward the exit without looking back at her son.

Poor kid. His starving mother has just sold him to one of those morally ambiguous men who watch the fight for the pure pleasure of relishing its cruelty.

The announcer doesn’t miss a beat. “Ah! Look! We have a brave contestant on the stage!”

The kid tries to jump off the stage, but the crowd won’t let him. The people scream fanatically. They’re thirsty for blood.

Holding a dagger in each hand, Vadim Raasch glances over at the kid and smirks.

Raasch slowly walks over while he slides the blades of the two daggers against each other.

The screeching sound of metal against metal wakes the kid up, and he scampers to the corner of the stage farthest away from the man approaching him.

Sauntering, Raasch plays with his prey a little longer and then lurches forward to attack.

The first cut he makes is in the kid’s thigh. The cut isn’t fatal, but it’s deep enough that the kid howls in agony.

Seeing he has no time to stand up, the kid uses his elbows to crawl towards the edge of the stage. When he’s right in front of me, he turns onto his back.

He comes face to face with his opponent.

Sniggering at the kid, Raasch raises his arm and aims for the kid’s head this time. The kid closes his eyes, ready for his fate, but after a minute he opens them.

The dagger didn’t come down.

Instead, I’m holding onto Raasch’s arm, keeping it high in the air, trembling.

I quickly hop onto the stage. With one swift sweep, I push the kid into the hole in the pit where I was last standing.

While he passes me by, I whisper, “Get out of here.”

Letting go of Raasch’s arm, I proclaim to him and the rest of crowd, “Why! It’s no fun seeing a child get beat up by a man. What do you say about a real battle between men?”

I flex my arms for good show. The crowd roars.

From the corner of my eye, I see two daggers flash. I bend back just in time as Raasch attempts to slice my body in half. Then, I grab the front of his two legs and flip him over so that he lands on his back, stunned.

The crowd roars again, but this time with laughter.

Enraged, Raasch gets up.

I hold both my hands up. “Woah there, my friend, don’t be too excited! I haven’t even decided on my weapon of choice yet.”

Great, now I got myself into a lot of trouble.

I was going to challenge the talented boxer Rima Briggs today because I wanted to test a postulation I had. . . concerning the way she fights.

After I figured it out, I was going to lose to her on purpose. Thus, the only weapon I had brought was a pair of boxing gloves.

Unfortunately, Raasch isn’t as. . . what do you say. . . lenient as Briggs.

So now I’m stuck between winning or losing my life. In case you didn’t know, I prefer the former.

I turn to the crowd and ask, “Pardon my foolishness, but would anyone be willing to lend me a sword?” No response.

I continue, “Unless, of course, you’re willing to let this beautiful face go to waste.”

A few chuckles from the crowd, but no one moves a muscle.

Great, I think, hand-to-dagger combat it is.

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