I haven’t done a Friday Flash Fiction Challenge in a while because (a) I haven’t been inspired lately and (b) I fell off the blog wagon for a while. However, last week was a recycled challenge–go to iTunes (or whatever you use), hit shuffle all songs, and write a story based on that song title. I cheat (partially because I have embarrassing music and partially because I can) so Circus was the second song. This is actually part of a nascent idea which may become a longer story.
The conversations of the masses as they milled outside the walls were tinged with more bitterness than usual.
“It’s not every day you see something like this. One of Them in the ring. Bout damn time, I think,” one older man said, the tattoos along his cheeks testament to time served in the Wars.
“Centuries of them watching and doing nothing. Revenge at last, eh?” a middle aged woman sneered to her companion, her beak-like nose hardly detracting from the pattern of scales across the left side of her face.
“Don’t let anyone hear you say you feel sorry for her—even if you feel that way,” a young man gripped his companion’s arm, the intricate detailing around his eyes tightened as he glanced nervously at the encircling mob.
Iona heard none of this, only the rumble of voices and the endless shuffle of feet as she leaned against the wall of her subterranean cell. The massive weight of the stone above pressed upon her and she wondered at the strength of the arena that it did not collapse as the thousands of spectators filed in. Weak sunlight filtered down through a grille set high in the wall and she stared at it until her eyes ached, hoping it would help her vision adjust more quickly once she was outside. There was a thump against the heavy wooden door and she straightened, lifting a hand to the steel crest that arched from her forehead to the back of her skull—a parody of a helmet from a long dead warrior culture. It fit close against her skull and the hammered metal fins were feather-light, but she felt the weight of it nonetheless. She checked the clasps on the shoulders of her gown—deep purple and plunging in the front and back, with decorative silver plates across her breasts and stomach. They might turn a knife. Once. The gown pooled on the floor in artistic whorls that were more suited to marble floored ballrooms than dank stone. She heard the massive bar lift and the keys turn in all three locks.
The door swung inward and she stepped forward, keeping her chin up. They led her through the narrow twisting warren of corridors, past other barred doors, until the floor began sloping upwards. She stood still while they fitted light metal braces over her forearms—braces like steel lace, more decoration than protection. She noticed that the pattern mimicked the white and gold designs that covered her arms. It was lighter here and she could see the way the ceremonial tattoos flashed in the sunlight. Iona shut her eyes and breathed deeply, reminding herself of her mother’s words as her skin was inked. Drink in the pain, force it to become part of you, do not let it overwhelm you . They opened a cabinet where the gleam of bronze and silver glittered. Swords, spears, tridents, axes. There were two short swords, over-sized daggers. She gestured and one of her guards took them. She would not be able to touch them until they sent her out into the arena. She could hear the roar more clearly now as the crowd began to chant for the entertainment to begin.
She remembered her first fight—watching in the cool, shaded box high above the hot sands. The servants kept their silk, wing-like fans moving in time to make sure it was never too hot or too drafty as their mistresses sipped wine flavored with honeyed peaches. She was twelve and tried unsuccessfully to mimic her mother’s effortless posture as she reclined in the cushioned wicker throne. Her current lover stood behind her, toying with a long platinum curl that tumbled artfully over her shoulder. Iona’s wine was mainly honey and peaches, but by the time the drums began to pulse, her tongue felt thick and her eyes heavy. Her mother’s cool touch on her arm roused her and she sat up straighter, wine forgotten, as the drums began to beat faster and faster, filling the walls of the arena before bursting into the cerulean sky.
The honeyed peaches were less pleasant as she retched in her bedroom hours later, unable to forget the way the blood looked as it leaked into the sand, how the floor of the arena was spotted with dark stains by the end of the afternoon. She had been unable to tear her eyes away as men fought each other, fought women, fought beasts whose hunger was evident in the lines of their ribs, in the way the skin sagged from their empty bellies. Her mother herself brought Iona cool water with orange slices floating in the bowl and coaxed her to drink until the foul taste of the wine was gone, bathing her forehead with the dregs of citrus-scented liquid. Iona tried to think of the fresh smell of oranges as her guards herded her uphill again, towards the sunlight and the hot sand.
She stood in the shadowed arch, blinking against the glare that flared off of the smooth golden pool. The sand was raked into pleasing patterns and swirls—once again mimicking the tattoos that covered her skin. She felt the ground thrum under her sandaled feet as the drums began, felt it in her breast. She breathed and let her heartbeat quiet, matching the slow pounding. They did not speed up their cadence. These were funereal drums. She held out her hands and felt the leather bound handles of her chosen weapons slide into her hands. The leather was rough against her palms as she felt their balance. One of the guards put his hand on her elbow and she turned to stare at him until he took a step backwards, releasing her. She stepped forward into the light as she heard her name.
“We give you today in a fight to the death, the once majestic, once all-powerful ruler of the land–” The crowd bellowed their displeasure. “–the former Imperial Empress, Iona Augustin.”