Excitement was buzzing in the black night air like insects. Patrons flooded the alley toward the back door of the arcade, chattering, singing, swinging bottles in their hands, eager for the evening’s entertainment in the combat ring. If the atmosphere was to be believed, the first round of fights would be the best they’d ever seen …
Twenty feet away, standing alone against a building, Leta stood perfectly still and observed the party unfold. It was difficult not to feel disgusted: these people had a sick definition of entertainment.
Gritting her teeth, Leta swept her hood over her head in one swift motion, ensuring it concealed the angles of her face as she fixed her eyes on the entry doors. Freed from him she may have been, but she didn’t need Traze or any of his people to recognize her here. Just as Aiden had told her before she’d departed the ship, it was essential that she blended with this crowd. No matter how deeply it sickened her, she had to become someone who got a thrill from watching these death matches.
Aiden was right, of course, but Leta found herself tuning out the other advice that came from him and the rest of the crew. It occurred to her they were quietly doubting her ability to pull off this stunt. New at clandestine pirate dealings as she was, Leta still did not share their doubt. Somehow, even half-petrified that this would go terribly wrong, the adrenaline she felt coursing under her skin told her it just might go terribly right.
And with that, Leta bounced on her heels for a moment and then strode forward, crossing toward the entry doors. No one paid much attention to the young woman who wove through the sea of people with authority, pausing only to push credits into the hands of the door guard.
She had nearly made it inside when a man caught her by the arm. At once Leta’s heart jumped into her throat and her hand in her pocket closed around the grip of her gun.
But all the man said was, over the noise, “Don’t forget! Who ya puttin’ money on tonight, miss?” and gestured toward the betting table near him.
Leta froze, and her hand slowly relaxed. She hadn’t considered actually betting on these fights at all, but suddenly, before she could think to do otherwise, the name “Soliveré” blurted out of her lips. She nodded toward the sign that read ‘The Red Fury’ with confidence.
“300 on Soliveré.”
The man let out a long whistle of approval — she’d bet more than anyone else so far it seemed. It was also all the money she had left in her name. So much for staying unnoticed, she thought, but she did not regret signing the register and dropping the credits in the bin. Then she slipped inside and swept downstairs toward the ring.
The basement was packed. Patrons jostled shoulder-to-shoulder, vying for a good spot before the show began. For the moment, the large, oval combat ring was empty. The sight of it, even empty and innocent, made Leta halt in her tracks, an icy streak running up her spine. The back of her neck prickled. Fiearius would be in there soon enough …
She hoped she’d never see this place ever again — except, perhaps, to burn it down. But now she had just as good of a reason to be here, she thought, recovering herself. She’d made it out of there alive and Fiearius was going to do the same. There was no alternative; she couldn’t face an alternative. Fiearius was obnoxious at best, cruel at worst, but he wasn’t going to be killed here like this, for this crowd’s entertainment …
Although there was no sign of him now, she noted, her eyes scanning the room — he must have still been in the holding cells. Feeling suddenly uneasy, Leta stepped forward and melted into the sea of people, pretending to join the fray.
When she found a spot in the back, a sudden odd hush swept over the room like a cold breeze, and for a moment Leta couldn’t see why. She brought herself to tiptoe and then understood: Traze. He stepped into the spotlight of the ring, arms outstretched, positively beaming as he wound in a circle, a proud host.
“Ladies! And! Gentleman!” boomed his voice over the ring. “Tonight … tonight! You are in for a treat. All the rumors, all those rumors you’ve heard … of the Red Fury … the maniac that we can barely keep caged …” He paused, his grin glinting eerily in the light. “Those rumors are true!”
He swept his hand to the side and Leta watched, transfixed and horrified, as three guards pulled the unsteady, stumbling figure of Fiearius forward into the ring. Leta almost did not recognize him. This — this was not the captain she knew.
His swagger and confidence were gone: he was not putting up a fight with the guards — in fact, it looked like he wasn’t entirely aware of where he was. His shoulders were sunk, his hair limp and dirty, his eyes deadened with exhaustion as he gazed emptily over the ring. Beneath the floodlights especially, he looked completely washed out, drained … certainly in no condition for a fight …
Leta could not take her eyes off him. Her fingernails dug into her palm, hard enough to draw blood. While she was fighting the wild blind impulse to push through the crowd and pull him away from this like an angry mother lion, the crowd around her was roaring and roaring with approval for what would likely be his demise …
Traze went on, “Tonight, you will witness the bloodiest — the dirtiest — the most vicious man this city has ever seen!”
Now, the screams were deafening. Leta nearly lost sight of Fiearius as everyone’s arms shot in the air.
And that, surely, was her cue.
Quickly pivoting on her heel, Leta slid her way back through the crowd and navigated herself away from the commotion. She’d cut it close now, perhaps too close — if the gasps of the crowd behind her were to be believed, the fight was just beginning —
Quickening her pace, Leta sidestepped one of the guards (he, too, was enthralled with the fight) and found the quiet back hallway of the holding cells. Leta purposely did not look to see if any prisoners were still locked inside — she wasn’t sure her heart could handle that in this moment, since it was threatening to burst out of her chest already.
Mercifully, she found the back door — she was worried she had dreamed or imagined it — and immediately pressed her palms to open it, listening to it creak noisily. For one horrible moment she glimpsed nothing but the dark alleyway outside. Where was the crew? Where was —
“Over here,” breathed Cyrus as he stepped into the shaft of light. Leta saw he was not alone. Behind him stood the shadowy, eager figures of nearly the entire Dionysian crew. Aiden, Corra, Rhys, Javier, Nikkolai, Maya, Bartley, Tihla and even Ludo were all ready to commandeer the basement, some of them chattering excitedly.
“Hurry!” Leta breathed, stepping aside. “The fight’s started!”
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When the guards wrenched him to his feet from the dirt floor of the cell, Fiearius didn’t even try to fight them off. He didn’t fight when they pulled him down the hallway, nor when one of them kicked open the metal door and the roar of the crowd reached his ears.
He supposed he ought to save his energy for this. Round two then, gentlemen? he wanted to say to the guards, but the truth was he felt too tired even to taunt them. The words swayed through his mind and fell short, forgotten.
For hours and hours during the day, he’d slumped against the wall of the cell, dozing on and off, ignoring the taunts and yells from Traze’s cronies on the other side of the bars. At some point, someone had shoved a couple slices of dry bread in his mouth and poured some foul-smelling brown water down his throat, leaving him to long achingly for Amora’s enormous heavy dinners on the Dionysian.
Really, he’d been hoping that Cyrus and Aiden would’ve come back for him by now. How long would it take for them, two geniuses, to figure this shit out? Of course they had to take Leta away from here first; she had been in far more danger than he was even now. But he hadn’t actually given them permission to just leave him here …
They were chanting something, he realized dimly as he was pulled toward the ring. The crowd was chanting something. He strained his ears and realized their cries of ‘red fury! red fury!’ were for him; he really was the main attraction. For once, he did not agree. He felt he was far closer to starving and weak and dizzy than he was to ‘furious’.
Though Traze certainly seemed to think differently as he gave his introductions in the center of the ring. Bloody, dirty, vicious? Boy, was he going to be disappointed. Fiearius watched numbly, his eyelids heavy, feeling oddly detached from the scene …
Fiearius felt one of the men prod him in the back, ushering him into the ring like cattle. Staggering up the steps, Fiearius dropped his gaze abruptly and noticed the guards had forgotten something: the binds around his hands.
With a jolt, he called, “Hey!” and shook his wrists pointedly in their direction. One of them did glance backward. And then he nudged the other. And they both laughed.
Fiearius stared after them a moment longer. Then he closed his eyes for a moment and turned to face the ring once more, hoping that would be the last unpleasant surprise of the night.