He barked a laugh, then sighed out contentedly. “So just make yourselves comfortable until the fights,” he offered blithely, as if they were in a four-star resort, and not a cage with a dirt floor. “And speaking of fights, the winners, they can stay and work for me. Get enough people to bet on you and I’ll even let you go free afterwards. Losers,” he added thoughtfully, “if they survive, well, we keep those.” His eyes flashed in Leta’s direction before he eased backwards from the cell and walked off with his men, still wearing that grin.
Once Traze disappeared, a heavy silence descended upon the chamber. Leta stared after his retreating back, her mind buzzing as if she had insects in her ears. Then she looked to Fiearius in wild, uncontrollable alarm.
“Combat ring,” were the first words she said, breathing out a quick exhale as she tried to grasp the situation. “Combat ring? Where people fight one another. For entertainment? And people bet on it?”
Fiearius looked like he did not particularly want to answer her, but he muttered, “Sounds about right.”
“These things are illegal across the span — they were outlawed like ten years ago — ”
“So was smuggling,” Fiearius muttered, raising his eyebrows pointedly. “But lo and behold … “
His shoulders lifted in a shrug and he turned to the back of the cell, beginning to pace in thought. “I’ve heard of this kinda shit. This lanky creep,” he lifted a shoulder in the direction Traze had gone, “owns the arena, sets up the matches and Goddora provides…eh…participants.” He grimaced uncomfortably and shook his head. “It’s a pretty frowned-upon practice even amongst frowned-upon people.” He cocked a brow knowingly at her, his features marred with disgust. “Call me what you will, but I ain’t got nothin’ on these sick bastards.”
Leta’s stomach gave a nauseous twist. It was just as barbaric as she’d feared. Combat rings were completely archaic. She’d never heard of such a thing happening on Vescent — people solved their problems with money on Vescent.
And now she was supposed to enter that ring and fight for her life.
Leta stopped in place and regarded herself, almost against her will. She was tall, nearly five-foot-nine, but decidedly … scrawny. Now she wished more than ever she’d taken care of herself better after Ren’s capture and actually eaten three meals a day; then maybe she’d be broader than a broomstick. It wasn’t something she’d spent much time thinking about, generally. The hospital had needed her to be quick on her feet, that was the only real physical requirement.
Fiearius seemed to be thinking along the same lines.
“You ever been in a fight before?” he ventured, sounding as skeptical as he looked.
Did he really even have to ask? The most physical action she’d seen occurred in the last month aboard his ship. And in all those altercations, she had a gun. And her hands weren’t bound with rope. And she had the help of pirates. And …
“I punched a girl in the face when I was in high school,” she provided flatly. “For making fun of my dead mom. Other than that … ”
Fiearius rolled his eyes, apparently accepting her inevitable slaughter. “Perfect…”
Leta met his eyes, then turned away from him sharply and started to search the floor for something useful on the ground. A rock, a piece of brick, anything with a sharp edge. But when she kicked around only dirt, she stopped and looked up once more.
“I can’t win this,” she said finally, watching Fiearius closely. “We both know that. I’ll probably be killed.” To her relief, her voice sounded conversational.
“Relax,” Fiearius replied instantly, his tone flippant. “Cy’ll notice we didn’t come back soon enough and come find us. Just gotta hold out ‘til then.”
A beat of silence passed through the chamber, full of doubt.
“Right,” said Leta. “Right. Cyrus will notice we’re missing and come storming in here and free us before the fights tonight. Okay. So let’s say that doesn’t happen,” she began, “and I just, you know, die. Or have to stay here.”
That latter possibility was much more horrifying, actually, but she did her best to keep her expression muted, despite the visceral lurch in her stomach. She ignored it in favor of staring evenly at him, like they were discussing business. Well, perhaps they were.
“Let’s say that happens,” she continued, turning toward him so her shoulders were pressed against the wall. Her body slanted slightly against the brick, but her stare never left his face. “I don’t make it out, and you do. You have to still go after Ren, Fiearius. Promise me you will.”
Fiearius met her eyes calmly, saying nothing. After a heavy silence, he finally replied, sounding entirely careless, “Nope,” and turned away from her to keep pacing the room.
At once, Leta felt shock in her chest — shock and hurt. Then she remembered why she was stuck in this cell in the first place, and whose fault that really was. At that realization, her features darkened, her hurt shifting toward fresh anger.
“No? What do you mean, no?” she demanded.
“I mean no, I’m not gonna risk my crew and my resources to save your boyfriend if you’re dead,” he clarified, though it didn’t help — what she’d said was not really a request, after all.
“How can you even say that?” she said, her voice straining. “How? He needs help, we’ve come this far, you know exactly where he is. And you told me you would do it,” she reminded him bitterly. “Out on the ramp that night.”
“Yeah, I told you I’d do it,” he replied dully, sounding more and more apathetic by the moment. “And I will do it. But not if you’re dead. How d’you think he’s gonna feel when I show up to rescue him bearing the great news that his girl’s been killed on my watch?” He grimaced, pained. “Conversation I’d rather not have if ya don’t mind.”
Leta advanced toward him. “Yes, I mind! They tortured him, Fiearius! They probably still are!”
“And how’s that my problem? Tons of poor saps are getting tortured everyday, but don’t see me rushing to their aid, do ya?” he muttered. Before Leta could open her mouth again, he talked over her brashly, “I’ll save your boyfriend. But don’t ever think I’m saving him for his sake. I’m saving him for yours,” which stopped Leta in shock. His eyes glinted oddly in the low light of the cell. “You want him saved, then … you best keep yourself alive.”
Tense silence filled the cell, like thick smoke. In painfully equal measures, Leta had the urge to yell and shove him hard and the urge sink to the ground in defeat.
She did neither.
“Fine,” she finally said coldly. “Fine. You think there’s some way I can survive this, then teach me.”
Fiearius opened his mouth, then hesitated. “Teach you?” he repeated curiously.
She looked through the bars toward the rusty metal door down the hallway. Somehow, she knew it was the entrance to the arena. Then she looked sharply back to Fiearius. “Yes. Teach me to how to fight.”