I. Savager

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Aya the Dishonored

My world was a blood pit. Men died every day in the Arena and escaped it the only way they could, their stiff, dismembered bodies carried off to the world outside, which may as well have not existed. We were caged beasts, abiding by a single way of life: kill or be killed. From behind the bars of my cell, I watched as one Savager disemboweled another for the pleasure of our sultan. On this night, the stands of the Arena were full and howling, a thousand seats filled.

I soaked my head in the oil grease from my last meal and ran the edge of my dagger across my scalp. It left a smooth slippery texture that made me feel clean. I kept the sides shaved and the rest fell in feathery black wisps, longer in the front. Hygiene was important, especially in our squalid dwellings where infection could pose a greater threat than the pit itself.

At night the Cagers hosed us down, and we collected as much water as we could. We each had a washbasin, crockery, rolls of gauze and a waste bucket. Life was simple. Wake up. Eat. Fight. Wash.

My skin had darkened from doing battle in direct sunlight. The Arena's enormous ceiling would split open whenever the blood sports began. Everything functioned through various systems of beautiful machines. One might hear a hissing noise like swarms of rats behind the walls, and then a web of gold chains would go taught around the edge of the ceiling and pull its grand panels away.

The people would gasp in awe at the elaborate mechanisms, impressed even when they did nothing at all but twirl pretty stacks of cogs and gears. Throughout the stands, men and women alike would open paper parasols painted red for the Arena. On a hot day with no breeze, the red hues in their hundreds of fluttering fans would vibrate like a frenzied pulse.

I hardly recognized my own body. My voluptuous flesh had hardened into lean muscles. Savagers wore bandages and rags and we owned almost nothing from our former lives. I had only managed to smuggle in a single earring, a long chain with an iridescent black pearl. I wore it to remind myself that I had been a prize once.

In this wretched place, I found it best to plunge myself into memories. I would remember my childhood when my sister Sana and I would climb out on the roof after Father had gone to bed. He would have killed us if he ever knew. The drop was high enough to have broken our arms and legs, but we never worried. We were careful. We would gaze up at the sprawling night sky so full of glistening stars and talk about our futures.

Sana wanted to see the world. She would have given anything for the chance, but Father would never let her. She would have to marry and go live in her husband's house, an idea I always hated. I knew that it would end these nights of stargazing forever.

We always knew our choice in the matter would be limited, for we had been born in the land of veils, a place where women lived covered up from cradle to grave and were happy to do so in service to God. I couldn't have lived that life if I tried. I had to be reborn, fully submerged, consumed and inducted by the crimson swells of battle.

The Cagers banged on my cell, indicating I would be next to fight. Usually, the Cagemaster pitted me against jackals or coyotes. The animals starved for days before a fight. They would circle me slowly, mouths dripping and ribs protruding. The creatures did not understand why they suffered, and I made it my charge to end their lives and lead them to a blissful oblivion.

Human opponents were more difficult to kill. Fortunately, I had always been a quick study.

"Aya," the Cagemaster said, "You're fighting Thane."

This would be close. Thane Rockwall, one of the greatest warriors of the Arena, was more beast than man, and pitting me against him would please the crowd greatly, for he could rip a person's arms off with his bare hands. The gate to my cell opened to the Arena. I stepped into the ring of bright torches and saw my opponent across the sand pit. Two favorites—one beloved and one despised—were to fight to the death.

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