Minver’s tight-lipped wife waits for me to count out eight anasters before she hands over two hard-boiled eggs and six fried fish wrapped in lak leaves. I’ll be fed at the amphitheatre, but I’m always hungry, and I like Minver to get my coin. We grew up together on the wharves.
“I hear you’ll be up against Goll of the Greys tomorrow. He’s tough. They say he’s never tasted defeat.” She says it as a challenge. Shray’s a hard woman and never much liked me. That’s because I’m ugly. The gods only favored me with muscle. Having a nose I’ve broken twice, plus an assortment of scars, hasn’t improved my looks. But I’m used to her ribbing and don’t take it to heart.
“Yes, Goll’s tough. But I’m tougher.” I grin.
Shray’s other customers laugh, and more than a few hands slap me on the back.
“Trushi the Trusty!”
The hopes of the small folk of Quuam ride on my back. When I win, they win, too! Our tiny island’s far from the mainland, and sometimes gets overlooked by the rest of Bazcuz, so we’re always proud of our own.
I keep grinning as I make my way past her stall and through the crowds, still hearing the sound of my name called out behind me. I head east, away from the center of the city, towards the wharves. That’s where I like to eat my breakfast, listening to the cries of folk working the fishing trade, looking out on the water. No Quuamite likes to go a day without the sight or smell of the sea. I could’ve headed west, past the amphitheatre, where the fashionable houses sit and the sleek pleasure vessels ride the water. But I still live in the Eastern Quarter and like it best. It doesn’t take me long to finish the eggs and start in on thekawali. I blink at the stripes of light on the sea, swinging my legs over the pier like a boy. Far across the waves, Aunt Tilse will be eating her morning eggs now, I think, and smile. The sky’s bright blue, cloudless, the water so dark it’s almost purple. Before I finish the last twokawali, it’s time to go.
I slide through the dark alleys like a wharf rat. It’s faster this way during the morning rush. I haven’t gone long before I hear a noise behind me. My body takes on the fighter’s stance it learned first in these alleys. But when I spin around, I see there’ll be no fight.
A skinny, brown mutt accosts me with a smile on her grizzled muzzle, even though her eyes seem sad. Oh, yes, dogs can do that; they’ve learned what mix of pitiful and agreeable makes folks surrender the most food.
“Smelled my kawali, huh?”
She cocks her head, then sidles closer. Her enlarged nipples prove she’s a veteran mother. And judging by the old rip in one ear—the one that won’t prick up—she’s a veteran of the streets, too. I kneel and offer her the half-eaten fish, which she yanks from my fingers and wolfs down. She wags her tail. I have to laugh at her persistence. She seems so sure I’ll give her more rather than kick her away. I scritch her behind the ears, careful of the one that’s torn. She wags her tail again.
“Oh, all right. You need it more than I do.” I surrender my last fish, dividing it into smaller pieces so she won’t choke. Dogs have no sense when it comes to food. I can’t help myself from taking a little of the last piece; I sure do love kawali. The dog bends to her meal. I move on, licking the oily bread crumbs from my fingers.
It’s hot. I’m already sweating. As I emerge onto the wide Avenue, I have to shade my eyes. The sloping whitewashed buildings, looking like stacks of sugar cubes, glint in the sun. I’m steps away from the amphitheatre when I pass one of the priestesses from the Dancer’s temple.
My body tenses. The Dancer has never danced for me. But I always hope. This priestess is pretty, gold-skinned, with golden-brown hair twisted up high that falls back onto her shoulder so that it swings as she walks, and her breasts swing, too. I can’t help but hold my breath; will it be me she dances for this time? I hear the skk-skk of her beads as she passes.
No. Of course not.
But in a matter of seconds, I know she dances for someone. The whole quarter falls silent. The people facing me stop walking, stop everything they’re doing. I turn to watch.
The goddess has come. The priestess’ body looks different. Taller and shining. She circles the chosen person with her arms held high above her head. When she turns my way, I see the way her face has changed, no longer her own. The Dancer’s face is always a mask, no matter how beautiful it looks. The goddess never smiles, and her eyes don’t see. They say that means she’s impartial, doling out good fortune without favor or forethought.
The person chosen is a man, an ordinary man with a dark beard and tired eyes. Why him and not me? Why is it never me? I have to forget that, swallow it down. I wonder what he’s wishing for.
The Dancer swirls around him now, faster and faster, her turquoise skirts a blur, the beads on the bottom hitting the ground and sounding chrr-chrrr-chrr, like a tambourine. When she stops spinning, a handful of coins spill from her skirts. Coins. Another fool’s wasted his luck. I’ve seen people grant themselves a mere bit of pastry or a joint of fowl or worse, unable to see beyond today’s empty belly, tomorrow’s wager, tonight’s whore. When my mother’d been danced, she wished my father his own boat, so he’d no longer have to work hauling kawali for some other man’s profit. It changed our lives, that is until the boat was lost at sea and changed our lives again.
People clap and holler their good wishes. The priestess is herself again, but beaming. They always look so joyful afterwards. I guess they’re proud at having served the goddess. Granting somebody else’s happiness must make them feel good. The man pumps her arm, bows, shakes her arm again. They both laugh. Men and women help him collect the coins, congratulating him on his good fortune. Of course no one keeps any for themselves. No one would try to steal another’s luck.
I suppose it’s some flaw in me that keeps the Dancer away. Is that why I’m so ugly? That flaw lives in my face, for everyone to see. My mother always told me not to worry, that not being danced didn’t make me bad. She was convinced the Dancer would come for me someday—who’s ever heard of someone who’s never been danced? But Mama died when I was ten; eighteen years later it still hasn’t happened.
I wouldn’t waste my dance. I’ve held tight to the same wish since I was a man grown: a wife. There’s some women love the games enough to make even the homeliest warrior her own for a night, maybe more, but I mean someone who’d not just put up with this face but brighten whenever she saw it. I picture her a pleasant armful, with rosy cheeks, and oh how she loves to laugh! I take the time to pray: Goddess, Dance me a wife.
Movement starts up again, everyone resuming their own lives. I enter the amphitheatre through the main arch, not having to go around to the small side entrance since there are no fights today.
“Morning,” I salute Mi’hylo. He’s already going through the stash of shields used by the weyns like me, the lower level fighters not rich enough to buy their own armor.
I sit on the bench beside him and start repairing broken and loose straps, oiling the leather to keep it strong. I always come early to help the armorer. I like the work—not just using my hands but fixing broken things, making them better than they were before; I can’t be handsome myself but I can polish a helmet and make it beautiful. I’ve got nowhere else to be, anyway.
One by one the other warriors stream in. Tadinus picks up a shield and works alongside me. Most of the men warm up, stretching their arms, practicing lunges. Others, like Janso, lounge around, puffing themselves up with talk about how superb they are in battle or what woman they pleasured last night. Kastra, Mi’hylo’s wife, emerges from the kitchen. After twenty years of marriage, she still gives him a flirtatious smile whenever she sees him.
“The pig,” she tells her husband. “Hello, Troosh.”
Mi’hylo and I hoist the pig onto the spit. Kastra and Eshal, Drato’s wife, prepare it. It’ll roast for hours while we work.
“The pig roasts on the spit, the weyns roast in the pit,” I say just to hear Kastra laugh, and she does. Eshal rolls her eyes. Mi’hylo’s daughter Lavis carries out trays with our breakfast: bread, cheese, oranges, smoked herring, mugs of lemon-beer.
I’m swallowing my last morsel of herring when Drato enters the pit. I leap to my feet. I fear his displeasure just as I did when I was a green boy of fourteen.
“Stop stuffing your gullets, you lazy whelps!” he bellows. “Are you here to fight or fill your bellies?” A stranger would think him harsh, but it’s just his way. He’s a big man, and a loud one, a warrior through and through. Still lean and muscled, in spite of that compact grey beard.
“The ships arrive in three hours. Let’s review tomorrow’s program. Hiam, you’ll be going against Sekaray of Porin. Tadinus, you sparred against him last year—or was it two years ago?”
“Two,” Tadinus says through a mouthful of herring. “I won.”
“Yes, yes, but do you remember how close it was? What made him lose?” Drato remembers every fight he’s ever witnessed. He notices everything. He’s our manager, the owner of the amphitheatre, but also our trainer. He’s the greatest man I know.
“I struck his shield arm and he lost his shield. It threw him off. He never recovered his game.”
“Yes! His left arm’s weak. Forcing his attention there makes him lose focus. Remember that.”
Hiam strikes his open palm with a fist, as if to hammer this into his memory.
“Trushi goes against Goll of the Greys,” Drato says. “He’s never been to Quuam so I’ve never seen him fight. Any of you buffoons ever gone against him?” Our warriors aren’t all local lads. Most hail from throughout the realm of Bazcuz, though I’m the only native Quuamite. A few come from other realms and some, like Stamnet of Hikai, only joined our team a few years ago.
Everyone shakes their heads.
“Well, Troosh, you’re on your own. Except”—he waves his hand dramatically, to show he’s not completely in the dark—“I’ve heard of his fight against Remi the Ostalyan in Rukal. They say he was like lightning on his feet—striking here, there, everywhere, exhausting Remi till he got careless. Don’t know of any weaknesses, except”—that hand-wave again—“I hear he almost went down against Brekard the Bull. Brekard slashed his leg and slowed him. Keep that in mind.”
“Right,” I say.
“As for his being undefeated—he’s never come across the likes of Trushi the Trusty, has he, boys?”
“Troo-shi! Troo-shi!” they hoot my name like the crowds in the amphitheatre. I’m not the best fighter, but I’m good, and when we work in teams I don’t let my men down. I cover their backs.
Drato analyzes every warrior’s opponent, reminding each fighter of his own strengths and weaknesses. He knows us better than we know ourselves.
“All right, you garbage scows, limber up! Five times around the pit to make your blood flow!”
As I jog around the pit, I look up at the empty seats, the way the sun strikes the stone arches at the top, leaving other parts in cool shadow. I love the way it looks now, deserted, just as I love the surge of energy when the crowds come in, all the colors and the noise, the way you can feel their excitement and pleasure and know you’re why they’ve come. I feel my body waking, remembering it belongs to a warrior.
“Yotis, you codfish! You’re lagging behind! Maybe I need to keep you away from your girl; she’s sapping your strength!”
We laugh, making rude jokes about Yotis. We huff ourselves red in the face until the fifth circle’s done. I collapse on the bench next to Mi’hylo. Lavis brings us water in a brown jug. I soak my head first, dribble more on my face, then drink.
“On your feet!” Drato commands. “Shilef, with Hiam. Kethmaar, with Yul.” He pairs us off for sparring practice, having us trade partners after every win. Drato watches each team, calling out corrections, criticisms and the occasional praise.
I’m fighting against Janos. For all his talk, he’s the least man on our team—more wind than fire. I’m driving him back, back, getting in a good whack with my sword now and again. I look forward to smacking this windbag into the wall. A vintner’s son, some say a lordling’s by-blow, he bought his own armor without having to fight as a weyn. To my mind, a man should earn his armor in the pit. I’ve just about driven him to the wall, when I hear something through the clack of wooden practice swords.
“Kylan! You old sea-dog!” Drato greets the man leading in the band of challengers. “What manner of whelps have you brought me this time?”
My sword strikes Janos’ arm—that’ll bruise. I rap his knuckles so the pain makes him drop his weapon.
“Yash’s balls!” He spits into the dirt, which is his way of acknowledging he’s lost.
One by one the pairs notice the entrance of the newcomers and stop fighting.
“A more ragged band of jackals you never saw,” Kylan says, “and they’ll still shove your alley-cats’ asses in the dust.”
The two men laugh. Kylan is some ten years younger than Drato, but his belly rides before him like a tug toting a barge. In their youth, they fought together in the pit. If they went at it today, Drato’d knock Kylan senseless in a minute. Kylan runs the amphitheatre in Olami but he earns as much sending his men to fight matches in other realms. If he kept away from fine wines and gambling, he’d be rich. Quuam’s team used to travel, too, but Drato prefers to stay at home. He hates the sea—unheard of in a Quuamite, the only thing we’ve ever found to rib him about.
“Welcome, men,” Drato says. “Stow your packs, wash and rest from your journey, and return to the pit in an hour. Leave your differences on the ship that brought you. Save your fighting for the pit. That’s how we do things here in Quuam.
“Trushi, show the men their cells.”
I lead them through the far arch to a ring of cells below the stands. Damn, that shade feels great! I point to the stairs leading down to the privies and the baths. The rooms are small, but good enough for visiting warriors to sleep in for a few nights. Sometimes a few of our own men live there, the young ones waiting for enough victory winnings to earn their own keep. I spent much of my boyhood there. The smell—straw and leather, man-sweat and dried blood—takes me back to those youthful days.
I rejoin our team under the canopied tables and joke with Tadinus and Mi’hylo. I hate the day before a fight. My whole body feels overwrought, different from the energy you get the day of a fight, when it’s useful. I keep tapping my foot, drumming my fingers on the bench.
Finally the challengers emerge. Drato pairs us off and we start sparring. Our men still work only with our own, and Kylan’s with theirs. I hear that in some realms you spar against the members of the other team, but Drato feels that takes the edge off the real fight. Not to mention, men can get carried away and injure each other, without a crowd’s cheering or a victory prize to offset the cost. I keep glancing over to the other team to see what form they’re in. Bet I’m not the only one who hopes my future opponent will catch a glimpse of my prowess and quake with fear. I recognize some of the other fighters, but haven’t heard anyone call Goll’s name. There are six or seven men who could be him.
I win a quick match against Hiam. Now I fight Tadinus. We know each other’s moves from too many years of practice fights. This is more like play.
The aroma of roasting pig distracts me. Drato always feasts us the night before a fight. We’re not allowed to eat ourselves sick or get drunk but he insists we be well fed. When I was an orphaned boy those were the best meals I’d ever had. I didn’t even mind when I lost those early matches, I was just glad I wasn’t scrounging the streets for odd jobs, cleaning fish, getting stints on boats with men who’d fished with my father and felt sorry for me. Aunt Tilse did the best she could, but with three boys to feed there wasn’t always enough. When I came to live at the amphitheatre, Drato let me eat my meals at the house, sharing the table with Eshal and his daughters. I knew I wasn’t family so I never let myself eat my fill, afraid they’d feel I was a burden. I walked around hungry all the time. But the feasts with the warriors! Then I could have as much as I wanted, a warrior in training, eating with the other men!
My mouth waters, my stomach arguing it’s time for dinner. I smash onwards.
“Yield,” Tadinus gasps. “Save your fury for Goll.” He slaps my back.
I scan the pit for another free man to partner with. There isn’t one. I can tell by Drato’s stance that it’s almost time to quit. He catches my eye and nods me towards Mi’hylo’s bench, where some of the other men are already waiting.
“That’s it!” Drato shouts. Our men stop, attuned to him. A few of the challengers keep fighting.
“E—nough!” Drato roars in his loudest tone. His voice could pierce through metal. All weapons drop.
“Fighting’s over till tomorrow. I don’t want you whoresons using up your strength. Weapons away, see to your wounds and then we feast.”
Sweating and sore, I help Mi’hylo collect the gear and store it. By the time we finish, the men have seated themselves at the long wooden tables. Kastra and Drato’s daughters carry out trays of olive bread, almond rice and artichokes while Eshal carves and serves the pig. Drato allows the warriors one glass of wine each; after that, we get only watery lemon-beer.
I find an empty spot near the middle of the second table. To my right sits a black-bristled giant with dark, spikey hair.
“Beris,” he introduces himself, ripping off a boulder of bread from the loaf. “They call me the Bear.” Big as I am, he makes me feel petite as a maiden.
“Ah, so you’re Trushi the Trusty.” He smiles wide. Gods, even his teeth are huge. There’s a gap where he’s lost a few. He’s almost as ugly as I am. I like him.
“I hear you downed Tesar in Galay. He got the best of me six months ago.”
“Ay, he’s a slippery one,” the Bear says. “Fights like Goll—quicker ’n a temple dancer.” He points his head toward a man across the table and two down, who turns at the mention of his name.
So that’s Goll of the Grey Isles. He’s older than me but still in fighting prime. He has a trim body and impressive, tattooed arms. His tightly curled dark hair, more grey than brown, tops a long-nosed face. A handsome man, but not a jolly one. He doesn’t joke with his neighbors but mostly listens. Sometimes his blue eyes dart around, studying the amphitheatre, the pit, the men on the opposing team. Including me. He turns away when our eyes meet.
The forks slow. Plates are shoved away. Eshal and the women join us at the tables. As Eshal eats, Drato snakes an arm behind her shoulder, the other crossing to caress her thigh. Only a subtle shift in her body acknowledges him. I look towards Byna and Tedora, Drato’s daughters, who’ve squeezed in next to their mother. Tedora looks tired, snaps a little at her younger sister before she enjoys the meal. She used to light up at the littlest attention, the corner of her lips twitching to the side before the smile spread to her whole mouth. It’s sad she’s grown so crotchety, more like her mother. The girls pay us no mind. Drato’s daughters are married and outgrew ogling the warriors years ago.
“You married?” I ask Beris. He laughs.
“Got me two wives. One in Rukal, wild as a tiger, and one in Olami—best cook in town. Have a herd of kids with each. Course they don’t know about each other. They keep me busy, but I wouldn’t trade either of ‘em for a sack o’ gold. You got a family?”
“Nah. No wife yet. My family’s dead, all but my aunt and my nephews, and they’re in Liros, on the mainland. Eleven years it took me to save up all my victory winnings to buy them a farm. My nephews won’t have to die at sea, like our fathers.”
“You didn’t want to go, too?” he asks.
“What do I know of farming? I know what I am: a pit warrior. Mostly likely I’ll die in the pit.”
“Been a weyn since I was fourteen. If anywhere’s home, it’s this amphitheatre. Might have led a more easeful life, maybe a more prosperous one, out in the country. But I know who I am, too: a child of Quuam. My city’s dirty and crowded but she has her charms, and they suit me. Can’t imagine breakfasting without smelling the salt of the sea!”
I hear such talk around the tables, replacing the loud jokes and battle tales from before. I guess this time of day is when a man’s thoughts stray to wife and home. Goll sits silent.
“By Cherma’s eyes, look at that!” Beris gapes at the sky. The sun’s going down in a glory of flames.
“Guess you’ve never seen one of the famous sunsets of Quuam,” Kylan says.
“You might believe the gods are kind, seeing that,” Drato remarks. Quuamites are proud of our sunsets, as if we made them ourselves. “See those reds and golds unfolding like a flower? They’re the Dancer’s skirts. And that long slash of purple? We call that Yash’s Spear. See her jumping over it?”
The stars join us, like women carrying candles to usher in night-time. And indeed, Lavis brings out lanterns that she sets, flickering, on the tables.
“Time to get going, Troosh,” Tadinus says. He rises and salutes the company. He’s the first Quuamite to leave but soon the others follow. We go from two packed tables to one that’s half-vacant. Kastra stands up and murmurs some motherly instruction to Lavis. Mi’hylo gets up, too, and waves farewell. As they walk off, he wraps his arm around Kastra’s waist; she leans her head upon his shoulder. Now only Kylan’s men remain. I linger.
Lavis collects the platters with the leavings. That tray’s too heavy for her so I get up and help; she’s such a little thing. Drato’s and Kylan’s voices make a pleasant drone, a kind of music, as they talk over business matters. Night-talk always makes me sleepy and content.
The visiting warriors begin seeking their beds.
“Good to meet you,” Beris tells me. He stands and stretches, looking more the bear than ever. He slaps a comrade on the shoulder and moves off to the cells.
Kylan points to two of his men, commanding them to help clean up. Goll and—I don’t catch the Morrudman’s name—remove the pig carcass from the spit. We follow Lavis into the kitchen, where the other women are already busy scrubbing pots.
“There.” Lavis directs the men to deposit the remains of the pig onto the large table. As Goll hoists the tray, the sleeves of his tunic fall back, revealing the blue tattoos on his arms, three large linked circles.
“What’s that?” Lavis asks.
“What does it mean?”
Goll sucks in his lips. Most men love to talk about their tattoos; he looks as if he’d sooner get punched in the jaw. He finally answers, his voice rough as sandpaper.
“Means I’m a slave. Bought and paid for by my master, and rented to Kylan.”
“Slave?” She looks aghast. “I didn’t know they had slaves in the Grey Isles! We don’t believe in slavery here in Bazcuz.” She puffs herself up proudly.
Goll laughs softly. “Then it’s a good place to live. Maybe I’ll stay on here after tomorrow.”
“I was promised. One thousand victories and I win my freedom. Tomorrow is the thousandth fight. Tomorrow I become a free man.” His blue eyes glitter like sunlight on water. A smile loosens his features for the first time.
“After the fight, I get a new tattoo. One that shows the chain is broken!” Words gush out of him. “Maybe I’ll take a new name, one I give myself. Maybe I’ll marry! Maybe I’ll stop fighting and do something new—I don’t know what! Who knows, little one? Maybe I’ll decide to stay here on Quuam. It looks to be a pretty island.”
“Too pretty for the likes of you,” Kylan says. He’s been standing in the doorway, listening. He taps Goll’s shoulder lightly with his sword. “Move away from the maid. You’re not free yet.” I’m reminded of the lions I saw at the amphitheatre in Rakul. How some idiots couldn’t resist poking the beasts with sticks, finding it sport to watch their helpless rage.
I could stand up for Goll, explain the conversation was harmless. He’s not bothering her, merely answering the child’s questions. But this isn’t my business.
The Islander steps away from Lavis. She begins scrubbing plates. I think she thinks Kylan will leave the slave alone if she’s not nearby. Goll grits his teeth but doesn’t argue or even defend himself. He flexes his arm. How it must irk him, that tattoo! I hate to think of a man in chains, even ink ones.
Kylan prods the Islander outside.
“What happens if you lose tomorrow?” Lavis asks before he makes it across the threshold.
“Then I must fight again. And again. Until I make my thousandth victory.” Goll gives her a tender smile, such as any man might give a child who’s been kind enough to spend time with him.
He notices me now, the wrong man to have heard this exchange. I turn my back and busy myself scraping plates.
“To your cell,” Kylan slurs. He’s put away more than his share of the wine—he’s not a fighter, so he doesn’t need to keep to just one glass.
“Goodnight, miss,” Goll murmurs over his shoulder. Kylan wobbles after him.
I help Lavis load the platters into the huge sink.
“How sad!” she comments. “Who is he fighting tomorrow?”
“How sad,” she mumbles into the tub. It’s the first time someone’s faith in my skills as a warrior makes me feel rotten.
Only the two managers remain outside. Kylan nods over a last glass, a purple blotch staining his tunic.
“Eshal!” Drato calls. “Come, help me get him to his room.”
Eshal comes out, scowling at her guest, and grabs one arm. Kylan will be staying in the family’s quarters.
“Goodnight, lad,” Drato tells me. “To tomorrow’s victory.”
I trudge through streets mostly empty, the day’s business long done. The whole way, I can’t stop thinking about how my win could deprive Goll of his freedom. I walk past the blue door of my house. Keep on to the wharf.
The water sloshes, sloshes, in its lazy way, and the boats creak as they’re dandled by the waves. Can’t see much below me, but it smells of saltwater and fish, and I can imagine the knots of seaweed washing up against the pier.
Above me, the star patterns my father first taught me to see shine brightly. There’s the Ploughman, Yash the Warrior, the Great Fish. I seek out the Dancer. I think of my wish, all these years ungranted, and picture a wife wide-hipped, dimpled, smiling. A home. A family.
I think of Goll of the Greys. These things out of his reach, too, but also out of his reach all the simple things I’ve got: my own room, coming and going as I please. I’ve never realized before that I feel sorry for myself. I’ve never felt like I had many choices in my life.
But I have! I chose to become a fighter. Chose to buy my nephews their farm. I could have spent my winnings on armor. Could’ve drunk or whored them away. Goll earns no money of his own; his winnings belong to his master. Never has the choice to sit by the wharves on a summer night staring at the stars, listening to the slosh of the sea.
A thousand fights. So much pain and sweat, so many injuries. Always the possibility of death. How many fights have I fought? I’ve never counted them, but they must be a little more than half that number. How many years has he been waiting, counting every win?
These thoughts weigh on me as I take the alleys home. I’m in a dark stretch, halfway there, when I hear the sound behind me. Skk-skk. Can it be at last? And no one else in this deserted street! I whirl around.
The priestess walks toward me, her face a mask. Already the Goddess has come. I wait. She swirls. Alone with me in the darkness. Yes, I feel it, just as my mother described it. A warmth on my skin, like sudden sun, and in my blood, like strong wine. They say the Goddess reads your heart—you do not have to frame a wish.
I cover my breast with my hand. Have I lost the chance for a wife so Goll can be free? “No!” I shout.
The Dancer’s silent.
“I don’t have to give away my dance,” I insist to the speechless woman. “I could throw tomorrow’s fight. I’ve never broken the warrior’s code.” I’ve heard of others losing on purpose so they can share the winnings with some rich gambler, earning more than they’d get from the victory purse. “But this time—maybe—is it the right thing to do?”
No. Lose my honor for some stranger? Why should I? If I win, Goll can fight again the next day, or the next.
But what if he loses? What if tomorrow’s fight is his last chance? What if I’m the one that keeps him from it? It’d be as if I locked him up in chains myself.
Why should I give him my Dance? It’s mine! I ball the hand over my heart into a fist.
The Dancer whirls faster, her blank eyes never noticing me. Why does She dance blind? I’ve never thought about it before. Why give one woman a good husband, another a drunkard? Why make one man free and another a slave? If it was in my power, it wouldn’t be like that.
Aunt Tilse used to go on about how much she wanted her own chickens, so she could eat fresh eggs every day. Every morning I imagine her collecting those eggs, cooking and serving them to her sons—with what relish she eats them!— and I’m grateful, grateful that I made that happen. It’s the happiest time of my day.
I lower my hand.
“Dance Goll his freedom,” I say. I hang my head, the loneliness welling over me. My chance for a family pulls away, like a fishing boat heading out to sea.
The Dancer stops. The priestess shakes herself free of the goddess’ control. She looks at me shyly, grips my hand. I take it, for we have shared something.
“Thank you,” I say. But it is unnecessary. The priestess laughs open-mouthed. She presses my hand in blessing, and continues down the alley before me, her beads rattling a happy music.
I can feel it without needing proof. I know what the Goddess has granted me. And I am no longer sorry that I gave my Dance to Goll. I glow with a greater happiness than I feel after winning a victory purse. Why, I feel like the priestesses when they wake from their trance—full of what they’ve given the one they’ve danced for.
You know how after days of rain, when the sun’s just come out and sunset comes, and the Dancer spreads her skirts all golden and it’s like the sky’s been ripped open and the heavens are pouring out? I feel like that! Not worrying what a simpleton I look, I trot and hop and kick my way back west.