Edvin stared into the flames burning in a small cubby in the center of one of the basement's walls. There was nothing to actually burn, the flames just sprang from a metal plate built into the floor. It was an installation from when Kadessa was first built before anyone realized a floating city would need to maintain heating across the whole city to remain viable.
Edvin liked the fire cubby because it showed how wrong, or at least how short-sighted, the winglies could be, but also because watching the dancing flames helped him think clearly. There was something about staring into the flickering light, and watching bits of flame jumping off the main body then quickly dying, that cleared his mind of all distractions. Although a clear mind was hard to obtain after everything Diaz had just dropped onto him.
Diaz sat nearby, tapping his foot quickly. The man was only truly patient when he was waiting to do something. He could stand like a stone for hours before a fight, but here he was waiting to sit and listen.
"Did anything happen here," Diaz asked. Edvin gave him a questioning look and Diaz added, "no, don't answer. If it were anywhere near as important as the rest you would have brought it up already."
Diaz had told Edvin about everything that had happened after Bearnard had shown up and taken him away. At least Diaz claimed it was everything, and Edvin couldn't imagine anything crazier than some of what he had been told.
"Are you certain of Bearnard's wording," Edvin asked. "About picking our fights based on whether or not you could defeat those...things?"
Diaz looked at him incredulously. "That's what you want to talk about first," he said.
"It has the most pressing repercussions for us that we might actually be able to do something about," Edvin responded. "I thought it would be what you would most want to discuss. You do say I should focus more on what is present and 'real.'"
Diaz let out one short laugh. "I thought you'd be too interested in what happened with the damned dragon," he said. "Blast me, but I have no clue why I'm even still alive." That last had a hint of a question.
Diaz was unparalleled when it came to assessing a man's strengths and weaknesses and planning a fight accordingly. But when a problem couldn't be out-maneuvered he most often turned to Edvin. He claimed Edvin was smarter and far better at figuring out just about anything, but Edvin knew the only real difference was the knowledge he had attained from years of voracious reading.
"There was very little written about dragons," Edvin told him. "The indexes marked places for dragon training, breaking, controlling, and a dozen others that all essentially mean the same thing, but those slots were, of course, empty.
"What knowledge they do have amounts to this: Dragons are intelligent enough to communicate and think critically, but they are the least intelligent of the few species who can do so. Their intelligence is like a drop of water to the ocean of their physical and magical strength. Finally, all that strength is dwarfed by their immense pride. It is the only place I've ever seen the word hubris written. Apparently, they felt the word pride to be insufficient to describe dragons, and so made a new one. There were a few volumes on their biology naturally, and a collection of theories on how they communicate, but none that I've read.
"As to why he let you go and shielded you from the winglies vision, I can only guess it was for his pride," Edvin finished. Diaz remained quiet for a moment and Edvin realized that last wasn't much of an explanation at all. "It is believed the Divine Dragon is much smarter than the rest. When you insulted him he probably assumed the world had forgotten his might, and so displayed it to you that you might remind those who have forgotten." Not that that was at all necessary. The ground had probably shaken all over the city. Edvin had certainly felt it.
Diaz sighed. He seemed not just disappointed, but suddenly very tired. "I had almost hoped," he began trailing off, "no. Nevermind."
"Blast me, Diaz," Edvin said, "you didn't still think...Blast me, but you actually took advice from Helmer? The man is the thick brained son of a thick brained fool. The fact that he named his son Helmer is proof enough of that."
Diaz laughed again. "That's true," he admitted, "but I saw it for myself. That dragon could break free if it wanted. Who knows what else it could do?
"Bah," Diaz said, sounding frustrated. "Forget it. You're probably right. I'd take your speculation over any other man's certain fact. It's just," Diaz paused to look around. The others all slept in the bed stacks across the large basement from them, but Diaz still eyed them for a while before continuing. "I'm going to make it to the ground, Edvin. Whatever it costs me. Blast me, but I just want to feel the real ground beneath my feet before I die. And die a free man at that."
"A hunted man, more likely," Edvin said. "Diaz, we've lived longer than most fighters do, but you sound like a man staring into his grave, planning to live his last days."
"Perhaps," Diaz said, "but a hunted man is free until he is caught."
Edvin laughed, he couldn't help it. Diaz looked at him oddly so he said, "You sound like me. You don't just think of the future, you dream! By Soa, I can't tell if you dream too big or too small, but I do believe I've rubbed off on you."
Diaz grimaced. Edvin gave him a nudge and said, "Come now, it's not so bad, dreaming. Dreamers-"
"Dreamers built flying cities," Diaz cut him off. "Dreamers used their infinite power to achieve the 'dream' of dominating others, then created trivialities to entertain themselves. You were right, now is not the time to dream. We must deal with what is real. Tell me what you were thinking about what Bearnard said."
"Dreamers are always free in a way," Edvin said. "Peace," he added after seeing an angry look cross Diaz's face. "Bearnard's statements. I'm afraid I see nothing good in them."
Diaz said, "My first thought was that he wanted to know whether to pit us against them at all, but his behavior, that infuriating smile, makes me certain he was holding something back."
"It's possible," Edvin said. It was possible that the wingly had had a complete change in personality, but highly improbable. "But it's far more likely he wants to maximize the profit from the fight whether we win or die.
"If you believe we can win I think he will set us up against enemies who will push us to the limit of our abilities. He will want us to barely win the matches. Perhaps he will even want one of us who isn't essential to victory to die. All this will make us seem past our prime, and so not up to the task of taking out these executioners.
"However, if you believe we can't we win, I believe he will set us up to fight very strong opponents we could still easily beat. He would want shows like the one three days ago with the minotaur, minus the death of course. It would be a very difficult balance for him to strike, I'm not sure he even could, but it might convince enough people that we could kill at least one of the executioners, which eventually they would want to see. And if enough people called for it he could probably leverage an insurance payout from the arena in the case of our defeat, and if he plans all our prior fights well, it will be a massive payout."
Diaz sighed again, somehow looking even wearier than before. "If you're right, and again I'd never doubt it, we have no good options. Our best hope would be that they didn't grow bored with the executioners for a long time, but the problem is they've already grown bored with them. This whole thing began because they want to see them done away with.
"Still, I see no better option than to say that we couldn't win, then win. Only, I don't think we can. They have magic, even if it is weaker and less versatile than the winglies', and I don't know how we could deal with that."
"I doubt telling him we could win if he provided us with something, or someone, else would have a positive effect either," Edvin added. "And winning a fight he wanted us to lose...well that reaction isn't predictable at all, but whatever it is it won't be pleasant for us."
"Right," Diaz said. "Any other dark news you'd like to add?"
Edvin hesitated. "Nothing about this. Not at the moment." Edvin had thought of something, but with how Diaz had acted today, and the anger he displayed when he recounted his day, it seemed likely to set him off.
"The trials," Diaz said. "Whatever it is tell me."
Diaz already seemed tight, tiredness had melted away into a carefully neutral expression. Edvin sighed. Diaz would never hide something like this from him.
"From what I can tell," Edvin began, pausing to find the right words. When he couldn't find them, he just stated what he thought the truth to be bluntly. "It's population control."
Diaz didn't move, but after hearing the words he seemed to be on the verge of exploding into movement. "I see how it's the only reasonable explanation," he said, "but why?"
"You know we weren't meant to read the books," Edvin began, "but the librarians ignored us completely, and we lived in the attic after all. One of the books I taught myself on was an account of the wingly rise to power. Most of it was quite vague, but the death count wasn't. King Frahma found something, there was no name or description, and then hundreds of millions died. Whole cities were flattened or incinerated in moments. It was genocide on a scale never equaled. The only wingly deaths were those who had been too close to human settlements, but still, when the dust settled we outnumbered them.
"The winglies were never prolific breeders, now less than ever, but us? By what I've read it wouldn't take too many generations before there were just too many of us for them to handle." As he finished he heard a snapping sound. He hadn't noticed Diaz standing, or gripping the back of his chair.
Diaz tossed the broken chair back aside. "Slaughtered by the dozens every day," he said. "Just for being born?" He remained quiet, but as he spoke his intensity rose. "Well damn the dragons, and may their king rot in his cage. We'll find a way to beat their magic. We'll kill the executioners and with that proof show all the slaves that we can overcome the winglies."
Edvin stood and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. Squeezing lightly he said, "Diaz every man here has no choice but to follow you into this thing. If we're going to have any chance, you can't be ruled by anger. We need you to be the man who never loses. We need you to win this fight. We'll see what we see after that."
Diaz took a deep breath. "You're right," he said. "Tomorrow I have to tell Bearnard we can't win. Then you and I will talk about how we'll find a way to win." He sighed deeply. "Easier said than done. But we will do. I swear it."
Edvin nodded but said nothing as Diaz went to his bed. Easier said than done was a vast understatement. They were up against magic Diaz couldn't understand after spending most of a day watching it. And then he intended to fight the winglies. What had gotten into the man? Madness as much as anything.
Edvin sat down again and stared into the flames. The piece of chair back had landed in the cubby and had just started to burn itself. He watched the wood burn and centered his thoughts.
Humans outnumbered the winglies at least a hundred to one. But one hundred winglies who had their minds set to destruction could make short work of twenty thousand men in open battle. And before today Diaz had known that to his bones. He above all others had insisted that they must be obeyed in all things. So was this change anger, madness, or did he truly have a real reason to believe they could win their freedom? He certainly hadn't told Edvin of any such revelation.
Edvin considered the times he had witnessed wingly magic first-hand. He had never seen strictly destructive magic. But he had seen things heated to melting, and heavy loads that would easily crush anyone lifted without visible effort. Such things could easily be weapons.
He considered the problem, considered magic and how it might be overcome. He now knew his life did depend on it, almost certainly. But he also considered how to bring Diaz to sense about fighting their masters. And what to do if he couldn't.
Zieg sat on a bench in the basement, recalling a time when he ate, slept, and spent most of his life in one. Now he sat in a basement that had been just storage until he started using it to pretend to fight, trying to recapture the feeling of being in the arena. But nothing could recreate the feeling of losing yourself in battle. The rush was unrivaled.
Zieg chuckled. The Unrivalled. One of his nicknames. There had been many. One for each owner, until the one that wanted to see him fail more than he had wanted the money from his sale.
Zieg placed his sword in its rack, then went to the stairs. It was late -he always practiced into the night- but he still heard the occasional noise from above. It wasn't that he disliked the other residents of the house, but they didn't have much in common, and being able to fight for long periods of time had already saved his life once.
He went to the common area curious about who would still be up, and why. To his surprise, Caron was pacing around the room. Occasionally she came to a chair or a table and the object would gently rise into the air and set itself down a little out of her way.
He was almost more surprised to find her alone. She was rarely seen without her giganto. They were master and slave of course, though she called him a friend. He claimed the same though he also talked of some dept to be repaid to her.
"There's an empty hallway behind me, perfect for pacing," Zieg said. "It would certainly be easier than rearranging the furniture every few seconds."
Caron turned around as he spoke, looking surprised. She looked around at the furniture, which seemed to have been placed at the direction of a blind person. She didn't say anything to him, merely walked to a chair set right against a table, which shifted itself to its former position, then sat down.
Caron looked the same as most winglies naturally, but she was far kinder than almost any that he had met. Another chair placed itself near hers while two cups gently landed on a table that itself moved between the two chairs, and two streams of dark liquid flowed from an ornate teapot into the cups.
Zieg sighed quietly, he had never had much fondness for tea, then he took the seat next to Caron. He politely took the cup, murmuring thanks, but did not drink. "So why," he began but she cut him off.
"I can not speak of it," it was odd for her to be so short with someone, but she did seem quite on edge. "Suffice it to say," Caron herself was cut off by a bang coming from the entryway.
In one smooth motion, Caron went from sitting to gliding quickly across the carpeted floor. Zieg followed quickly but stopped at the wall separating common area and entryway. He patted his side where he would have worn his sword, then shook his head. A foolish thought.
He peeked around the corner cautiously. He was allowed many liberties within the house, but others knowing about them could be awkward at the least. He barely had time to register what was happening before Charle hustled past him with a woman floating face-up behind her, and with Caron right on her heels muttering angrily.
The floating woman might have been beautiful, had she not seemed to be half woman and half bruise. There was a fine cut along the white robe she wore revealing most of the right side of her body, which looked to have been caught between a rock and a charging bull.
"Charle, what in," Caron began before Charle cut her off.
"I'll tell you everything later," Charle said, "just follow me. Zieg bring me water in a large pot. Caron, you know where the books will be? She barely waited for a nod before adding, "get them."
Zieg moved quickly to the kitchen, grabbed a large pot, and placed it on the water stand. Zieg hit the button for full, and soon enough the pot began to fill itself with water. When it was he walked back to the common area as quickly as he could without spilling any water, then followed the sounds of Charle and Caron's voices into the dining room.
The woman was now naked and lying atop her robe across the dining room table. Charle and Caron were at her head looking at a couple of different books and discussing the injuries they could see, and the ones she probably had but weren't visible.
"There's something wrong with her skin," Charle said to Caron. "Some small bit of magic, so we'll have to find a way to break it or find a way through it."
Caron nodded along while flipping back and forth through one of the books. "Perfect," Caron said, "so whatever muck you've dragged me into is a little deeper than I thought."
"I don't think anyone is going to miss poor Rosie now. And the other thing was just as much your idea as mine." Caron looked at Zieg as Charle finished.
"Set the water on the table. Leave or stay but don't make a sound. This will be hard enough without distractions." Caron was on edge. Or maybe Zieg had become more accustomed to leniency than he had thought.
Zieg moved to the door but ended up taking a seat against the wall. He had no idea what was going on, but Caron had been here for something important. And the woman Charle called Rosie, which certainly meant her name was either Rose or Rosalyn, must be important too, to have Charle in such a frantic state. Then again Charle treated just about anyone she happened across as incredibly important. Still, Zieg couldn't bring himself to leave.
Zieg might as well have left for all he learned sitting there. Charle and Caron barely spoke except to ask about what one book said about bone shape, or another said about blood flow. He didn't know what the water he had brought was for and only noticed halfway through whatever it was they were doing that the pot had nearly been emptied.
When they finally finished they both slumped into nearby chairs. "Charle, what the hell happened," Caron asked.
"I found Rosy like this on my way back from the palace," Charle brushed some hair from the unconscious woman's face. "I think she was trying to make it here."
"Charle you know what I mean. What happened," Caron suddenly stopped talking and looked at Zieg. "Maybe you should find the girl a bed, Zieg."
Zieg flinched, realizing he'd become so still and quiet he felt like he had been eavesdropping. He hesitated, something most humans didn't have the luxury of being allowed to do, then moved to comply.
"Yes, please do," Charle smiled warmly, "she'll be more tired than anything. Put her in a nice guest room, Ziggy. Try to make sure she's comfortable." Zieg really hated being called that. But any other wingly he had met would have at least beaten him for that hesitation, so he counted that a fair trade.
Zieg went to pick up the woman, folding both sides of the cut robe to cover her, but as soon as he got one hand under her she just lifted into the air. "That will last until you set her down," Charle said. "After you get her settled would you ask Cly to bring her some food and water for when she wakes, then come see Caron and I if he's not too busy?"
"Of course," Zieg started to turn with his now weightless burden but stopped. "Charle what's going on? Why were you out so late? Who is this woman?"
Zieg instinctively tensed, though he knew Charle wouldn't strike out. He was surprised when Caron responded though. "If it were something you should hear then you wouldn't have been dismissed. Charle gives you more leeway than anyone else in the world would. You can show a little respect to that by not overstepping such a clear line."
Charle placed her hand on top of Caron's. "Care please," Charle said soothingly. "I'm sorry Zieggy. We're a little on edge. Care is waiting on bad news, and I'm afraid I've brought it. I can't tell you more than that.
"I can, however, tell you her name is Rose," Charle nodded at the woman Zieg held aloft, "and she is, or rather was, Melly's slave. Please see her to a room now."
Zieg simply nodded then left. He could hear Caron talking about the respect anyone else would give Charle just as he walked through the doorway. Respect! The way Zieg saw it you couldn't declaw a lion, shoo it from room to room then expect "sorries" and "ma'ams" out of it. And Zieg the Unrivaled was no blasted house cat!
Rose woke up feeling grateful to be out of the nightmare, but as awareness returned to her she realized none of it had been a nightmare. That pain had been real. Far too real.
Her eyes shot open wide as full awareness came to her. The pain was completely gone, which was good, but also meant that some wingly had healed her. She didn't know where she was, but she was on a luxurious bed which made her fear she may be back home. Though home was a terrible word for it.
Looking around she realized this was definitely not the palace. There were several vases of flowers, and pictures of animals frolicking in springtime.
More pressing though, was the fact that she wasn't alone. A man was standing by a large fireplace where a fire seemed to be burning logs in reverse. She knew when the logs were whole they would start burning normally again.
"I haven't seen one of those in ages," she said. The man was not startled to hear her speak. He just nodded, seeming like he had already known she had woken up.
He turned around, and she found she recognized the man. Zieg. It had been years since she had seen him fight in the arena but she knew that face. It was a blunt face more suited to challenging glares than welcoming smiles. Not that he even tried on a welcoming smile.
"You're awake," he said. "You got a full night's rest and then some."
"Were you standing there the whole time," Rose asked, sitting up straight. As the blankets slid off her she realized all she had on was her thin robe, which someone had cut along one side. She decided being free of Melbu's sigil was more important than modesty to her, and slid the robe off before pulling the blankets back up around herself. The robe she tossed aside.
"No. I just took over. We thought it would be best if someone were here when you woke up." He must not have known who she was, or at least not the important part of who she was. There's no way he'd be the one waiting if he knew. Or he might have at least looked away while she wasn't covered.
"And where am I exactly," she asked. She had a theory and a fear about where she was. There were very few good possibilities for her.
"You're in Charle Frahma's house."
So she had made it. She had known Charle would help her but she was still Melbu's sister. How far could wingly kindness really go?
"Will she send me back?" It popped out before she could think better of it.
Zieg shrugged. "She said you weren't the king's slave anymore. But really I'm not the one to ask." He really seemed uninterested too.
Rose thought of the time she had met Charle before. She was more kind than any other wingly or human Rose had met, but she had never seen her stand up to Melbu. Though, of course, no one did.
And what if Melbu really wanted Rose back? What if nearly killing her had really just been an accident? She couldn't go back. But she couldn't do anything about it either way.
She looked back at Zieg. He had turned back towards the flames, one arm resting on the mantle, and one finger idly tapping. She thought back to that day in the arena when he had taken another man's life without a second's hesitation. She remembered him thrusting his bloody sword into the air, completely proud of his actions.
An idea formed in her head. It somehow seemed obvious to her, but she couldn't think of how to phrase the question. After all, it wasn't something normal people asked. At least she hoped it wasn't.
"Do you know about anything important happening in the palace lately," Zieg asked. "Something really important?" She was startled when he spoke. He had gotten so still and quiet she had thought he was ignoring her.
"I was rarely allowed to leave the apartments I stayed in. Other humans weren't allowed in there, and me being there was something of a secret. I guess I'm not the one to ask too."
Zieg made a noncommittal sounding grunt. "Well there's food and water on the bedside table," he gestured to her left. "Otherwise make yourself at home." He then turned to leave.
"I can't go back," she said, blurting it out before she could think. She had almost brought it up. Maybe he understood. It was his thing after all.
Zieg gave her a hard judging look. He seemed upset about something. "I have nothing to do with," he started.
"I'd rather die than go back," she said, cutting him off. She was staring at the foot of the bed, and she realized she had started shaking.
She glanced up for a second, then stared at him. He looked angry and disgusted. It was like he was looking at a large insect that had insulted him. The anger quickly faded leaving only disgust as he looked her up and down. She suddenly felt very uncomfortable with how little clothing she had on, and quickly pulled the covers closer to her chin, turning her eyes back to the foot of the bed. She didn't look back up.
She heard the door close and knew she was alone again.