Fire shoots up on each side of me, disappearing and reappearing a total of 3 times. The crowd roars to life in every direction. More bright light emerges in the corners of my vision this time in the form of fireworks. They rain sparks down ahead of me forming a curtain, a few hit me but I don't care, all I can do is grin. This is what I live for. The pyro is put out by streams of smoke that I proceed to walk through. Now the thundering audience can see me causing them to grow even louder. My name is announced through the arena loudspeakers and there is no feeling like it.
"And his opponent, Alariss Bayne"
I do my best to act nonchalant, that I'm used to this. I should be by now but it never really gets old. Ordinarily, I am seen as beneath these onlookers, I'm not a prime like them. But every time I enter the pit I am above them. After all, they're the ones chanting my name.
My opponent tonight is from Dantar, the southernmost member of the allied nations. I seize him up; he's built strong, not brutishly so but enough to know his blows will inflict pain. He carries a scimitar which means I'll have to avoid close combat as much as possible. Duck. Dodge. Throw. That is the name of the game as per usual.
The shatter-proof glass walls rise up blocking us from the crowd, can't let an inadvertent knife throw possibly harm a prime. We start to circle each other as a bell sound is played. We bring down the faceguards on our helmets. I feel my pulse quicken. It's time to fight. I immediately grab a knife from its place at my thigh and hurl it towards his head purposefully missing. I move to grab one of the throwing stars strapped to my biceps but before I have a chance to fling it he's upon me. He takes a swing at my neck and I duck with ease. He's fast but I'm faster. I pull the dagger from my belt and twirl it in my hand taunting him. This angers the man in front of me more, the crowd seems to like it though. He swings again, this time with all of his strength, and I barely get down in time to keep my head. My back hits the dirt floor and I swing my legs knocking him down with me.
I roll back onto my hands and then push up, kicking my legs in the air so I Iand standing. I take the opportunity to toss his blade away while the wind is knocked out of him. While he recovers I play to the crowd, mockingly bowing. They eat it up. Most nights I'm the bad guy but tonight is not one; they don't know my opponent but I've been quickly gaining fame. As soon as he's standing he throws a punch. It lands on my stomach. Hard. I double over as the crowd boos. He grabs his weapon from where I tossed it and swings again. I block it with my dagger but now I'm caught due to the curved edge of his blade. I drop it and roll backward to get out of his grip. Now with a small distance between us, I can throw a knife again. I choose one with a heavier handle and grip it by the blade letting it slide off my hand and right to his shoulder. It misses but barely, the sleeve of his shirt tears. Damn, I'm good.
I could throw another but choose to give him a chance to retaliate. The scimitar slashes at my exposed chest. It's supposed to draw blood, just enough to add some color to the fight, to get the audience riled up, but It goes deeper than it's supposed to. I hiss at the pain. Shit. This is going to scar. The blood starts to gush out and I can see the Dantarian grimace behind the tinted faceguard. He knows he messed up. It's time to end the match. He swings again, this time much slower and I dodge it. I take a few steps back and fling my last knife at him. The force behind it is just right, enough to stick in the armor I know he's wearing beneath his tunic but not enough to penetrate it. He falls onto the dirt and I hold his blade at his neck.
"1, 2, 3" the booming voice on the speaker counts out. "And your winner is Alariss Bayne"
I throw off my helmet and hold my arms out to take in the ovation. For a few minutes, I am a prime as well. This truly is the best feeling in the world. I'm adored, respected, and above all, I'm still alive. The fights may be predetermined but they are still dangerous. One errant swing and I'd be dead. But I'm not. I'm too good at what I do. A medic hands me a microphone before she goes to check on my fallen opponent, partly for show and partly to make sure I didn't do any damage.
"Another one down," I say smugly followed by a laugh "You've got to go all the way to Dantar to get me opponents now? And guess what? They still can't beat me" The crowd cheers at this.
I lower my voice. "That's because no one can. Not any one of you and not anyone down there" I point at the tunnel leading to the underground area I entered from.
"Tomorrow night I demand a shot at the championship." And with that, I drop the microphone and let it hit the ground causing a static sound to echo through the arena. The glass barrier walls darken letting the Dantarian and I exit inconspicuously while some scants run out to clean up any blood.
As soon as I'm underground a few medics usher me away. They make quick work with the cut on my chest, disinfecting and stitching it up in minutes. This is nothing for them, fights end much much worse. Around 1 in every 100 is a fatality. The primes love when this happens, the bloodthirsty pricks that most of them are. The cut stings but I can't help but smile through it when I realize this was my 100th fight. I've beaten the odds. My father said I wouldn't, I'll have to make sure to stop by his block tonight and rub it in his face.
Before I can leave the arena though, I have to talk to Glozell, the old man who books the fights in my city of Wreksten. I have a championship match tomorrow night and I want to know If I'll win it. I've been rising rapidly in the eyes of fans. My merchandise sales are through the roof. I can't walk through the city center without seeing someone, wearing a shirt with my likeness on it. Being champion would be as close to being a prime as I could get without you know, actually being one.
Glozell is sitting in his office looking more haggard than usual, his pale blue hair and trio of gemstones dotting his forehead doing nothing to disguise his age. Upon seeing me he stands up.
"Alariss! Great job tonight honey. You're going to be a star in no time." he says patting me on the back.
"Plage has been calling nonstop making offers but I told them no, she's ours no matter how much you want to pay. Though, if they did offer 100 bilk I may have to consider. No man in his right mind would turn that down, and I am still in my right mind despite what some may say."
A lot of the other fighters are scared of Glozell, after all, he's a prime with lots of power, and we're just trits he can pit against each other for profit. I don't see him that way, sure he's eccentric but he's not malicious at least not to me. I've heard stories of fighters going into business for themselves and "accidentally" dying in the pit. But he kept my dad alive for his entire contract of 20 years. A retired pit fighter is almost unheard of yet my dad sitting at home in his block right now is evidence of it.
"So…" I start "tomorrow night Are you finally going to let me win the big one?" Please say yes. Please say yes.
"Ahhh, I knew you'd want to know, just so hungry aren't you?"
I continue to stare at him waiting for his answer. He breathes in a deep breath.
"No, not yet, It'll be a good fight, but ultimately I have to have Felix win this one."
"Ughhh" I groan. "What more do I have to do?"
"It's not you, there's a lot of unrest in the nation right now. We need a good guy as our champion, someone who inspires the people."
"You heard the crowd out there, they love me," I argue
"Yes the primes do, but the trits want to see you lose. Badly."
I scoff. The king recently ordered a mandatory curfew for trits and scants to combat crime and nobody's happy about it. Just another rule we have to follow that primes don't. Funny how the decree only increased crime, in rebellion more trits have been acting out, the scants, well they don't have time for that.
"You're the one who told me to act that way out there!" I know I'm not going to win this fight but I have to go down swinging.
"I don't know how much acting it really is?"
"Go ahead and trade me to Plage then" I shoot back before storming from his office.
"Your dad would have my head" He calls after me.
He's right though, for as long as my dad lived Glozell would never trade me. He respected the man too much, either that or feared what an angry retired pit fighter might do to him. My dad was not happy when I decided to pursue the same trade as him, but seemed to make a small amount of peace in the fact that it was Glozell calling the shots, and that he could see me every night. I have been on few excursions to other cities for fights, all of them short and all in Aventera.
Waiting outside for me is Demetrius. I guess you could say he's my best friend, but our relationship often has benefits as well. As a famous figure, I can't exactly sleep around. Primes and trits alike know my face from either the arena itself or the broadcasts. Even most scants probably know who I am from billboards around town, not that I would hook up with one of them, the thought is nausea-inducing.
When I debuted almost a year ago, my "whoring" ceased. Now It's just Demetrius, not that he minds. We've been friends for a few years now, ever since he became a trit and we get along great. He's quiet and a good listener, whereas I don't know how to shut up.
"So.. How'd I do tonight?" I ask as he goes in for a hug that I turn to avoid. Unless it's in bed, I try to avoid physical contact. Don't need him getting the wrong idea.
"Your chest? How bad is it?'
I pull slightly at the collar of my T-shirt showing him the cut. "It'll scar but it could be worse, in pre-fight the Dantarian actually suggested blading my stomach instead. Dumbass."
"Lair-" he starts
"I'm fine" I stop him before he can continue. "So where to tonight? I'm thinking Luzz. I deserve some bubbly even if Glozell doesn't think so, the geezer really doesn't think I should be champion, something about unrest among trits and me not being a good guy. Bullshit."
"He has a point Lair, we've been making double the arrests as usual. I'm not sure it's a good idea for us to be at a prime bar with all that's been going on, especially past curfew."
"Come on, have some fun. No one would touch us anyway." This is true, city security leaves me alone and wouldn't bother one of their own in Demetrius unless he did something a lot worse than enter the wrong establishment.
He sighs but I know he'll go along anyway. This is our routine. After my fights, I like to drink. Too much. He says he goes to keep me safe but I know it's really to protect others from me. I can handle myself.
I place my thumb onto the screen on a rack of electric-bikes to rent two. Only primes get cars, but trits are ever so blessed with motorized bikes and scooters to use… if we can afford to rent them, and I am one of the few who can. It's not quite a car, still, It beats walking.
We walk right into the bar and no one bats an eye. Everyone knows I'm not a prime, that my presence here is illegal, but none care. Some even ask for my autograph. Luzz is one of the newer establishments, but it's my favorite. The shiny black walls and purple LED lights are an escape from the grey stone that dominates most of Aventera.
Taking a seat at the bar, Demetrius looks uncomfortable as usual but orders a beer and puts his thumb out to pay. I reach out and stop him rolling my eyes. He always does this and I hate it. Security officers make just as much as every other trit, which is barely enough to get by. I, on the other hand, have more than I know what to do with, merchandise sales and my portion of the gate pay well, more than even some primes make but I can't buy a house, a car, or even any nice clothing like primes so I'm stuck spending my earnings on electric-bikes and alcohol.
"And what for the lady?" the bartender asks.
"Bubbly" Beside me Demetrius shakes his head. He knows it's going to be a long night. The sugary drink is my weakness.
"Is a glass fine?" the man asks
"How about the whole bottle?" I say grinning.
"Rough fight?" he retorts before bending down to grab a chilled bottle for me.
"You have no idea." I can only say. Pit fighters aren't supposed to expose the scripted nature of our fights. The public pretty much knows they aren't legitimate, but many choose to remain in the dark to preserve the fun of watching, and for the primes, the thrill of betting.
I pop the cork and start drinking right from the bottle, drawing some looks. The carbonation and sweetness drown my sorrows and In less than half an hour the bottle is empty. Demetrius sits beside me still nursing the same beer I bought him to start. He isn't one for drinking, in fact, I have never seen him actually get drunk. I think one of these nights I'm going to have to make that a personal mission. He needs to let loose, however, he is security to the core, always on edge.
I am definitely drunk but now I can't quite remember why I was so upset to begin with. I'm Alariss Bayne, an idol to primes; what other trit in year 20 can say that? None. that's who. The pit fights are the one thing that unites stratums. I find myself yelling "shots on me!" to the whole bar, preparing to revel in the attention. Before a response can ring out though, the screens around us flash to life effectively quieting the bar and I'm sure the whole city. An official royal broadcast. I inhale. Either a new law or a new execution, neither pleasant. I cringe just thinking of what we're about to see. A beheading? A firing squad? A hanging? Maybe even someone being fed to the dreki. There hasn't been one of those since before I can remember but they love to play the last one on repeat. A woman being eaten alive by the serpent adorning the crest of the royal family. Poetic. The story goes that she went insane and charged the king with a knife. The dreki is the punishment for assassination or treason, a deterrent and it works.
The screen shows King Terryn Barthel II seated beside his wife Queen Mirella. The dichotomy is severe. Though they have both aged gracefully, the queen is soft-spoken and demure where the king is brash and menacing. Nothing less can be expected from a Barthel, after all, what kind of merciful king would keep a dreki in the moat around his castle. My dad tells me stories of a different time, 40 years ago, before the Barthel's came into power. He says that when he was a young child the stratum divide was barely noticeable, the only thing that class determined was what kind of job you held. Scants and Primes alike could be seen conversing on the street. The Pergas were the royal family and the Barthel's were just one of the high houses. Then the feast of dishonor happened. We were taught in school that the Pergas invited the Barthels to the castle for a feast planning on poisoning them and wiping the whole house out. The cupbearer died after testing the wine, exposing their treachery. The other high houses chose the Barthel's to take the crown, and Lord Terryn Barthel became the King. He executed the Pergas, leaving only their youngest son alive and seemed to take out his anger on the lower 2 stratums in the years that followed.
Now wearing the crown is his son, the man with the dark pointy beard and cruel eyes staring through the camera at me and the rest of the bar's patrons as well as every other citizen of Aventera. The royal broadcasts are mandatory viewing, and every house, block, and tenement has a screen particularly for the purpose.
"Good evening citizens of Aventera. I know that these are difficult times for all of us, however tonight I come to you bearing good news. The time has arrived for the crown to choose a bride for our beloved Prince Macklin" At this, the camera pans out to reveal the third prince. Beside me, Demetrius wears a look of repulsion that I'm sure I mirror. It's not that the prince is ugly, he's not, he's just terrifying. With height and size larger than his already imposing father and an annoyed scowl plastered on his face he somehow makes the King look pleasant in comparison. It doesn't seem like he's a fan of the arrangement.
"We will be making our choice within the next week, and It is my hope that we as a nation can join together to welcome our next member of the crown. Until the next time." with that the king nods and the broadcast ceases. The bar around us erupts in applause. Of course, nothing is quite as exciting as another prince getting married. I tilt my head at Demetrius and he gets the hint. Let's get out of here.
Outside the cool air clears my head a bit as the world spins. Looks like we'll be walking home as I am in no state to operate a bike.
"Poor girl," I say referring to the broadcast "why are they even deciding this now, the year of prime marriage is 25, isn't Macklin in 23?"
"It's a distraction. Keep the nation pacified with a new princess and wedding to entertain us."
I glower at nothing in particular. The ever-present mountain range in the distance is currently doubled in my vision. "Maybe I should throw a huge wedding?" It'll be the biggest trit one ever, but oh wait I'm sure that's illegal."
Demetrius just looks at me like I'm pathetic. He's not wrong, and I'm sure he's tired of hearing me lust after the prime life. It was supposed to be different though, and I will probably never stop being bitter about it. In school, every trit is given an examination in year 16. The ones who do the best on it get a chance to get called up to stratum 1; to get to be a prime. I excelled at the maths portion of the test, a near-perfect score resulting in the coveted invitation to centrum. All prime students travel to the neutral city located in the southern end of Gonde to continue their education and pursue a specialty. All I had to do was excel in Centrum and I would return to Aventera as an engineer as well as a prime. I had my bags packed ready to go when I got attacked in the street one night. It was out of nowhere, a scant jumped me and I tried defending myself. I was arrested, and my invitation was immediately rescinded. The memory still infuriates me. It was supposed to be different. It was my destiny to be a prime and it was ruined by some nobody.
I can feel myself start to tear up. Damn the alcohol, always bringing unneeded emotion. I try to cover it by continuing my rant. "If they want to see entertaining I'll show them entertaining. I am the master of it. But no matter how much they love watching me I will NEVER be one of them. How about tomorrow night I just take the championship, Glozell is in the crown's back pocket anyway; the son of a bitch"
Demetrius is silent. He's used to my rants and knows I'll never act on them. At this point, we reach the group of blocks we live in. The identical cement cubes we're given; beds, kitchen, and lavatory all in one room. So generous of the crown. Maybe the king has the right idea, I do need a distraction just not in the form of a royal marriage.
"So…" I start, placing my hands on Demetrius's shoulders, the world still spinning. "We left early, my dad isn't expecting me yet." I bite my bottom lip knowing he'll understand what I want. This is the last step in the post-fight routine.
He grabs my wrists, removing them from him. "Not tonight lair."
"Come on, live a little" I make a pouting face. He's never this reluctant.
"Maybe you've been living a little too much lately. Get some sleep, you have a big night ahead of you tomorrow."
He's right but I don't like it and don't appreciate the reminder of my upcoming loss. "Fine" I squelch out, turning away before the tears threaten to spill out. I have about a minute to get it together before I reach the block my dad and I share. I don't need him seeing me like this.
He's sleeping but immediately wakes upon hearing me enter. I could have moved into my own block by now but have chosen to stay with my dad, seeing me come home every night gives him comfort. As much as he says he objects to my choice of trade, I know somewhere deep down he's proud of me for carrying on his legacy in the pits. After his retirement I saw him fall into a depression, not having any idea what to do with his life and knowing I would soon be leaving him. That of course, fell through. When I had to choose a trade he begged me to try apprenticing under a chef, a makeup artist, a welder, anything else, but none of those appealed to me in the slightest. Training me gave him a purpose. It's now what keeps us together.
"Hey Dad, That's 100." I smile widely at him
"Always have to prove me wrong don't you?"
"Would you rather the opposite?" I ask. At this, the corners of his mouth turn down.
"Don't get careless." I know he doesn't just mean in the pit. I'm playing with fire living life the way I do. I haven't had trouble yet but that doesn't mean I never will. I know I should stop, to just go about business like a trit should but I can't help myself. One taste of prime life and I need more. And more.
"There's a difference between careless and carefree"
"Alariss" He sighs, waiting a moment before continuing "Don't sleep in too late, we need to work on your sword technique tomorrow." Now that's the Errol Bayne I know. All business.
"Goodnight dad," I say sliding under the flannel covers. My head is already starting to pound but sleep takes me away in seconds.