She had a good vantage point from this box, just far enough away to be out of the range of blood and sand, but close enough that she could have called out to them, if it weren’t for the roar of the crowd. She could see other private boxes across the sand from her, but they were shrouded in darkness, like dark one-way glass, or an enchantment that protected its inhabitants from prying eyes. Above the private boxes, the lesser seats rippled away, clothes fading to the blue end of the spectrum as the spectators decreased in rank.
Down on the sands, two fighters circled each other. The male fighter, with his back to her, had a gingko leaf embroidered on his tunic to indicate his clan. Both fighters carried long blades, not quite long enough to be called swords. The blades were slender, like filleting knives, and both dripped red with blood.
She heard the roar of the crowd before she saw what happened. A severed hand and wrist fell to the sand. The female fighter had been disarmed, literally. A small figure darted out and picked the severed arm up, shaking the blade free from the limp fingers. Like a ball-boy in a tennis match, he ran off, carrying the body part close to his chest.
The fighter’s missing arm was shooting blood out of her stump, dyeing her sleeve red almost to the shoulder. It had to hurt like hell, but she just scooped up the blade with her remaining hand and took a swing at Gingko.
The fighter from Clan Gingko had lunged in for a counterattack as soon as the arm-fetching ball-boy left the sands. He missed.
She lunged at Gingko with her blade. She missed Gingko’s forearm, gashing him across the chest instead. The crowd sighed in disappointment. As she turned around, she revealed the logo on the back of her tunic, three cypress trees in a row.
Gingko swung his blade low, and the home team fighter hopped back. She almost wasn’t fast enough. Her leg shone white with exposed bone, and then gushed blood. She limped for a second, but the leg stayed attached, and the blood stopped gushing.
Gingko crept forward, swinging at legs then arms, feinting. The disarmed fighter looked pale from blood loss, and she swayed, barely dodging. Kit had her fingertips curled, touching her nails to her lips, unable to turn away.
Finally, Gingko wore his opponent down enough that he was able to swing at her neck. Kit sucked in her breath as the flashing blade, already dripping red, scored another crimson line across the female fighter’s collar bone. She lurched forward.
And then stood up, grinning triumphantly despite the hideous wound on her shoulder and torso. White ribs shone through the gash in her chest, flesh gapping open like a ripped sack of dog food.
The crowd roared. Kit peered at the sand. Gingko was lying on his back, blade still pointed at his opponent, his face a mask of rage and defeat. “What happened?” she said aloud.
“She severed his legs,” Elder Elsos said from behind her. “A Jal-Dit player can fight with only one leg, but not with zero.”
The two next competitors were Indel, one with a sycamore leaf on the back of his tunic and the other with a linden leaf. A gong announced the beginning of the match, and the two were at it with flashing blades. Within seconds, the sands glistened with fresh blood. Linden had her thigh flayed open from hip to knee, and Sycamore was missing two fingers on his left hand.
“Would these wounds destroy a person, if they happened in the dying lands?” Elder Elsos had a disingenuous tone.
“Not the fingers, but the leg wound, maybe. Blood loss or infection could do it.”
Linden swung at Sycamore, but she seemed to be discomfited by her wound. She managed to gouge his forearm, but the arm remained attached. Sycamore switched the blade to his other hand and feinted at her bloody thigh. Linden swung her leg out of the way, and Sycamore reacted by swinging for her neck. She stabbed at his own neck in defense, but it was too late. Her head tipped back and rolled free. Her body collapsed soon afterwards.
“Well done!” Elder Elsos shouted spontaneously at the decapitation.
Sycamore lifted his blade in triumph. The hilt of his competitor’s blade protruded out at a 45 degree angle from his collarbone, but he didn’t seem to care.
“I am certain such a wound would have slain someone in the true lands,” Elder Elsos said. “I have gleaned enough from our studies of your world to deduce as such.”
“And yet these are only weakly skilled Indel. We are early in the season, and these are the lowest ranked teams, though they have great hopes for Issy Cypress. None of these you have watched today would have stood more than four breaths against Faco.”
“What’s your point?”
“If you go home, Faco will slay you.”
“Not if I kill him first. He got lucky and snuck up on me unawares.” Even the greatest Jal-Dit player ever known can’t defend against a shotgun to the chest.
“You may speak bravely, but the facts say that you and Faco have met, and you lost your head while Faco did not.”
Kit frowned. This wasn’t going to plan. She had meant to convince him to send her home as soon as this was over, but it didn’t seem like Elsos would let her go so easy.
Elder Elsos reached towards her head, almost touching a strand of her hair, which had been coiled into and wrapped around parts of the headpiece until it wouldn’t come off. “I like what they have done with your coiffure. I am not the most artistic person, but it seems to me that this russet complements the brown of your hair. Have you noticed that brown hair is rare among the clans?”
She didn’t say anything.
“Rare, but not unheard of. They say that Clan Apple often had brown hair.”
“Clan Apple?” that clan didn’t sound familiar to her.
“The lost Clan. They were once sisters to the Yew, but Dalde Apple angered the senndil of your mistress, and she transformed them into an orchard. This happened long ago, before most of my clan were born. We Vargel don’t speak of it often. For us it is a tragedy, but it is also a lesson not to anger the Old Ones.”
“What was her name?”
“No, the senndil.”
Elder Elsos shook his head. “Omuta, I think, but I would have to read again to be certain. They say your mistress lost her leaves in grief when he died.”
“Surely he must have, as you are here in his stead.”
Kit watched the servants clean the sands and rake it smooth, walking backwards in a labyrinthine pattern to ensure that no footprints remained when they’d left. Her mind was going over all the gardens she’d seen here in the palace, trying to remember if she’d seen one without walls. Elder Elsos was silent for so long she wondered if he’d left the box, but when Kit slowly turned back, Elder Elsos was still there, looking immovable.
“You can’t keep me here. I will find some way to go home.”
“Can you cast your own portal to the dying lands?”
She glared at him. He knew very well that she couldn’t.
“Well,” Elder Elsos said. “You may learn eventually. If enough days become nights, even a human can become a sorceress. Your teacher awaits you.”
“Jis Tamarisk. She has a stellar reputation. Over half of the Queen’s Guard credit her teaching for their skill at sorcery. She has expressed enthusiasm at the challenge of educating a human from the dying lands.”
Kit felt a pang. A sorcery teacher. If she could learn how to enchant people like a faerie…
But what would Fenwick think, if he were standing at the altar and she didn’t appear? She frowned. Maybe if she didn’t take too long, it would be okay. After all, when would she ever get an opportunity like this?