Art Pact 124

Bruekner shaves with a razor blade. No razor - just the shiny metal rectangle clamped between his thumb and index finger, dragged slowly over his arm in slow strokes, down from the shoulder to the elbow in one long movement, then back up the same smooth path, across a little bit, repeat. His upper arm is the smoothest, most flawless skin I have ever seen, not the slightest hint of the dark hairs that crown his other shoulder, and bronzed to perfection by the sun. I want to touch it, but I am sat on the other side of the waiting room, the smaller side reserved for women, and it would be foolish at best to cross over. Alston sees me watching and nudges me, winking and sticking her tongue out.

"Oh, go boil your head," I tell her. Her mouth bunches up into a mock prim expression and she shakes her head sadly, as if I have failed her in some way. Her edges ripple, as though there is a wind in the ether that is dragging her away from me, and I notice that every few seconds she shifts as though anchoring herself against some current. Next to Bruekner is the man I have not seen here before, and he stares past me with a curious expression on his face, which makes me think that he can see her to. This is possible - I cannot be the only person here with the touch, and although it is usually women where I come from I know that there are towns where the misfortunate are predominantly men.

The bell goes, announcing that whoever is involved in the next round must be ready. It is Bruekner next. We are not supposed to know this, but Alston left earlier to sneak into the overseer's offices, and she has been indicating the order in which we are to be sent out. Bruekner first, with the new man, the unfortunate, then Creevers, then me. There will be others - five acts behind me, it seems - but I do not care about them. There is no way they can affect my chances of returning alive.

"Come on," the unfortunate tells Bruekner. His voice is raspy, as though he is ill, but he seems otherwise to be in perfect health. He's smaller than Bruekner, but the muscles of his calves are so well defined that it seems his legs are made of a loose collection of straight lines jumbled together.

"One second," says Bruekner.

"We don't want to be late."

"They'll wait for us!"--Bruekner laughs, and his laugh is like a rickety table with an expensive cloth covering spread across it. I can tell that he is frightened, that he makes the crowd wait not through arrogance but through a desire to eke out a last few moments of living.

We, of course, are cursed (or perhaps blessed) with some true uncertainty. In the lower cages the fighters know that they will die. Everything is set against them. They are poorly fed, therefore weak. They have no training except whatever it is that they have done in life to bring them to this point (sometimes that is enough, but usually not). They are ill-equipped compared to us.

In the "chamber of heroes" (so we sarcastically refer to the upper rooms) there are equal but opposite certainties. The crowd not the council would suffer them to die, or even to win a fight in a less than triumphant manner. They are coddled: trained, armoured, well-fed even by the standards of ordinary citizens. Their passage into the arena is lined with adoring fans, not the hateful mob that attend the corridor that leads from the lower cages. When either of these two groups are called onto the court they understand that the outcome is not up to them, that it has been decided by men in grand rooms over the course of centuries. It is simply the way it is.

But we, the middle tier of contestants, do not know who we will be facing. Will we be facing the unbeatable Heroes or the unlucky Lowliest? Once we know, we can be sure of our fate - to be defeated by the one, to defeat the other. But in our preparation rooms everything is flux and doubt. That is why Bruekner laughs the way he does, the harsh barking laugh that covers up what would otherwise be sobs of fear, that is why he lingers.

The unfortunate drags him to his feet, though, and now that Bruekner is standing there is nothing he can do. He follows his companion out into the antechamber, and the open door permits a brief burst of sound to rush into the room with us, the screams and cheers and jeers of the waiting crowd. Then it is gone again.

So is Alston.

At first I assume that the spirit has just moved to somewhere else in the room. She's never left me during a show. Not until now. A horrid fear grows within me, pressing on my insides so forcefully that eventually I give birth to it via a little scream - too quiet for anyone to notice, thank god, but alarming. I will be killed. I cannot remember a fight in which I did not have Alston's comforting presence hovering somewhere nearby to warn me of an ambush or a greater threat. Without her presence I will surely be killed - I am no great fighter, merely passable, and not as strong as even some of the Lowliest.

There is still time, though, and I hold onto that. Bruekner will come back first, then Creevers will go out, then it will be my time. If Alston is back before my bell rings, I will survive as long as I am not pitted against one of the Heroes. So I wait, gripping the bench so tightly that my fingers go white.

The outer door opens to admit Bruekner, but it does not admit Bruekner. The unfortunate, covered in blood, limps back into the preparatory chamber and sits down. The door closes on Alston, who shakes herself free and then drifts towards me. She looks shocked, and her face confirms my fears. Bruekner is dead.


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