Val wasn’t fond of fights to the death, especially not when they were ones she was likely to lose.
“This is your first death battle, I believe?” Kinslayer asked. Val wasn’t sure if the heavier woman was literally made out of stone or if her muscle definition was simply so advanced that she might as well have been.
“Not my first. Hopefully not my last either,” Val said, suppressing the urge to whistle at the sheer size of Kinslayer’s blue skinned arms.
“Ah, there’s nothing to worry about there,” Kinslayer said as she pulled her gloves on.
“You think she’s going to win?” Jim asked. He was busy unpacking the medical supplies kit they’d brought along but paused waiting for Kinslayer’s answer.
“In the Grand arena? Everyone has a chance in the Grand Arena. The fights wouldn’t be very interesting otherwise.”
“They’re not broken up into weight classes though are they?” Tam asked.
“No, there wouldn’t be any point to that,” Kinslayer said. “The audience wants to a see a contest between equals. Just because one fighter is smaller than the other doesn’t mean they’re any less dangerous.”
“That’s the angle the announcers will be playing with me, right?” Val asked.
“I think they’re going to talk about the enchantments you’re carrying to start with,” Kinslayer said. “Most of the audience will be sitting far enough away that they won’t really see the size difference between us except up on the giant projections that get cast over the stage, and everyone knows those skew the sizes because of the point of view they’re sent from.”
“So they’re going to make you look like the underdog?” Val asked, shaking her head, but still smiling.
“One of the advantages of being the home court star,” Kinslayer said. “Don’t worry, I’ve lost folks enough money when they bet against me that there’ll be plenty of folks in the stands who will be rooting for you.”
“People really want to see you dead that badly?” Tam asked.
“Well, dead in a death match? Sure,” Kinslayer said. “There’s some who wouldn’t mind seeing me permanently ended either – I’ve been dealing with jerks like that since I started fighting – but most folks just want to see some good back and forth with a decisive win at the end.”
“Doesn’t get much more decisive than death,” Val said, standing as Kinslayer gestured for her to rise.
“That’s why the Death Matches caught on so much for the Grand Arena battles,” Kinslayers said. “The smaller venues go with a lot of other win conditions and different combat scenarios but the Grand Arena is the end of the road all of the seasonal tournaments build towards, so we don’t get to experiment much here. For the Grand Arena, the fights always end in death. Which brings to why I’m here. What sort of death would you like to go with?”
Anna watched as the first pair of fighters leapt onto the central stage. They didn’t exactly resemble frogs but their overall shape was close enough that Anna had a hard time thinking of them as anything else.
“The Bedni are are the champions from one of the junior leagues,” Careema explained as the two fighters began to hop around the ring, circling each other in a manner that was far more serious than their somewhat comical movements would suggest.
“They’re underaged?” JB asked, nibbling on a roasted vegetable that had been dipped in a shockingly bright pink sauce which gave the dish a light sweetness.
“No, no, no,” Careema said. “Underaged participants aren’t allowed in the Grand Arena. The league itself is a junior one. It’s only a few decades old now, because the Bedni were isolated for so long.”
“How old are the senior leagues?” Anna asked.
“Our oldest league is the K’ra Circle,” Careema said. “It’s traditions go back tens of thousands of years. Sadly their tournament cycle only culminates once every century so we won’t see them fight for another forty three years.”
“Your world’s history must be fascinating to study,” JB said, going back for seconds of the mild dish.
“Oh, don’t get me started on that,” Careema said. “It’s been one of my passions since I was little. Sadly not one which is widely shared however.”
“If our negotiations work out, perhaps we can arrange for an educational exchange,” Anna said. She was sipping from a mildly toxic beverage which Careema had poured for them both. It wasn’t alcohol but it had many of the same properties, though supposedly without the danger of hangover afterwards.
“I imagine we’ll be able to work out at least that much,” Careema said. “The rest of the items you’ve spoke about may be a harder to sell to some of my associates though.”
“Not to open the discussions too early, but which do you see as being challenging?” Anna asked. There was a balance between waiting to make her case equally to everyone and walking into the meeting with a solid strategic understanding of what factions existed and how they were likely to react. From her read on Careema, Anna felt reasonably secure that if she over reached a little, the native ambassador would do no more than gently correct her.
“The trade and cultural exchange items you have on the agenda should be ones we can reach preliminary agreements on easily enough,” Careema said. “There will be contention between the ambassadors on my side around whether our standard models for welcoming a new island to the fold can be applied to a new world as well.”
“I can see where there might be significant differences to overcome there,” Anna said. “From what I gather your world as a whole can boast far greater diversity than mine, but your ‘melting pot’ states were planned as such where ours arose more organically.”
“That alone will bring the more scientifically minded on board,” Careema said. “The chance to study such a mix of cultures is something they won’t allow the rest of us to pass by, regardless of what other costs there might be.”
“And there will be other costs,” Anna said.
“Yes, that’s likely to be where the real sticking points will arise.”
“Your world has a global consensus on the illegality of slavery, doesn’t it?” Anna asked.
“The global powers are in agreement on that point,” Careema said. “The Lost Islands are left to practice their own laws, but in general overt slavery is not present even among the ones we know about.”
“Perhaps that could be a starting point then?” Anna asked.
“It might win some allies to your banner,” Careema said.
“But others will be driven away by the call to action putting a stake in the ground like that represents?” Anna’s guess was driven by her experiences with the humans she’d met and worked with (or against) over the years, but it seemed to be an accurate predictor of alien mindsets as well.
“Exactly,” Careema said. “When your benefactor first made contact with us, many jumped at the offer of access to a whole new world of information and discovery. Back then the trip was far too difficult to do with more than a few people a few times per year.”
“You learned quite a lot even from that though, it seems,” Anna said, raising a yellow and silver flower from her plate with her fork and taking a bite of it. The food was not only safe (for values of safe which included toxins similar to alcohol), but delicious as well.
Anna had been the one to request a meal with locale cuisine which Careema had modified only by suggesting that they stick to local dishes which were safe for humans from Anna’s world to consume. While enchantments could render nearly anything edible, it was considered a sign of respect to the cook and the host to partake of their food without such filters in place.
“Less than we would prefer, but enough to know that dealing with your world can be a volatile affair,” Careema said.
“That will be a difficult point to argue against,” Anna said. “While we may present some unusual challenges though, I would guess they are not unique in terms of ones you’re world has already been faced with.”
“True,” Careema said. “We’ve had islands where civil wars were routinely fought, where the divide between classes had grown perilously wide, and where internal diplomacy broken down as often as it succeeded. Your present circumstance however goes well beyond anything in either of our histories.”
“Unfortunately that is accurate as well,” Anna said as she watched one of the frog warriors catch the other with a perfectly timed kick. The victim was thrown out of the ring to land on the twirling spikes just below the stage. Losing in the Grand Arena was an ugly thing, but Anna knew that losing at diplomacy would look even worse.
Val and Jim had moved to the entrance to the Grand Arena along with Kinslayer, but they all moved aside as the Bedni warrior who’d lost the fight was carried past them on a stretcher.
“I really thought I was going to be able to dodge that kick,” the fallen warrior said.
“I spent the last two months practicing different timings with it,” the victor said, walking beside the stretcher. “I knew I’d be able to sucker you in with it eventually.”
They kept talking, reviewing the details of their battle as though one of them wasn’t pierced through in a dozen places and leaking blood like a sieve.
“So the Death Matches really are survivable,” Jim said, nodding in acceptance of information he hadn’t believed until he saw it with his own two eyes.
“Well of course they are,” Kinslayer said. “Everyone knows there’s an element of theater to the matches, and for most of them it’s only enjoyable because they can see through the illusion enough to know that no one is really getting killed.”
“There’s still some danger though right?” Val said without glancing over to Kinslayer. The Grand Arena lived up to its name, with a ring that was several times larger than the ones Val typically fought in.
“Yeah. Always,” Kinslayer said. “I know you’ve been checked out, so our medics can fix you up if something goes wrong, but I’d still like to avoid overworking any particularly fragile spots on you.”
“Humans don’t deal terribly well with head trauma,” Val said. “If you’ve got an opening though, go ahead and take it. I’ve got more protective charms above my shoulders than anywhere else.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Kinslayer said. “It’s pretty much the same with me. I like keeping my face pretty so I make sure it’s pretty well hardened up. If you’ve got any cutting or piercing attacks, they’ll bounce right off. Go for my arms or legs with those. Lots of blood there, the crowds love it.”
“Are you sure you want to win this?” Jim asked.
“Of course,” Kinslayer said. “But what’s more important is putting on a good fight. I could win every match I was in and lose all my fans if I made it a boring but technically perfect fight.”
“So this is really just entertainment then?” Jim asked.
“No. It’s a real fight,” Kinslayer said. “Once we get into the arena, I’ll be coming at Val as hard as I can. I gotta give the crowds an honest effort.”
“It’s better if we’re on the same page to start with,” Val said. “And the more we know about each other going in, the faster we get to the good parts of the fight.”
“If we’d never met before stepping into the ring together, we’d spend a whole bunch of time sizing each other up, and feeling each others styles out. It makes for a slow start. That’s why most of the fighters get to know the other people at their level in their league pretty well.”
“It’s a lot easier to dance when you know what your partner’s steps are going to be,” Val said and held out one glove for a fistbump.
“Oh, we’re going to put on a great show today,” Kinslayer said, tapping Val’s glove with her own.