Neira to My Heart – Part 1
by Vicky Morgan-Keith
The metallic tang of blood lay heavy over the hastily raked sands of the famed Arena Eviscorita, the grandest gladiatorial arena in all the Neiran Empire. It’s infamous displays of gory violence drew more spectators than biteflies as travelers from all over Neira and even star systems beyond flocked through its massive stone archways. Once inside, they found shaded seats beneath brightly colored awnings, the cloth specially treated to resist fading in the world’s triplet of suns. A steady roar of savage anticipation rolled and tumbled about the stadium, spilling from its walls to be heard even at the very fringes of the city as gladiators fought and died on the pale lavender sands. Other arenas in lesser cities might trade in staged or even nonlethal combats, but here in the great Neiran capital of Zu Jiin, heart and soul of the Neiran Empire, combat was often entertaining, frequently exotic, and always to the death.
One particular spectator hoped for more than mere entertainment this day. Nuvos, House Aoth-Kol’s Chief Merchant, turned from accepting a glass of shasberry wine and a skewer of tender grilled shoth from a vendor’s serving slave as the crowd roared excitedly. Absently waving the slave away, he took a sip of his wine, then leaned forward for a better view of the current combat. On the sands below, a muscular Alanti of the psygrif subspecies had been pinned to the ground by a vrak’ulgo, a dangerous ursine indigenous to Neira. The Alanti had lost his weapon, but was savagely biting the vrak’ulgo with his razor sharp teeth, tearing away chucks of flesh even as the creature’s maw closed about his chest. The crowd cheered as the Alanti’s head fell heavily to the sand and the vrak’ulgo shook the now limp body like a youngster’s target doll.
Nuvos refrained from cheering, but applauded politely. After all, the Alanti’s spirit in the face of death was admirable and deserved some token of acknowledgement. Besides, he didn’t want to risk offending his host. Normally Nuvos would have enjoyed the games from the booth reserved for important members of his powerful House. Today, however, he was the honored guest of Ramosh, Chief Steward of the Arena Evisicarta, a direct servant to the Royal House itself! Until he learned the reason behind Ramosh’s invitation, he wished to avoid starting any potential negotiations at a disadvantage.
His host drained his cup, then beckoned a slave to refill it. Swirling the fresh wine in his glass, Ramosh addressed his guest. “I wish to offer my congratulations on your successful thwarting of the attempt on your life, friend Nuvos. The loss of you as Chief Merchant would have been a great loss to House Aoth-Kol…and many other Houses.”
Nuvos stiffened at the mention of the attack. Three evenings ago he’d been accosted by two Shadowsister assassins while returning home from a party thrown by a lesser House. Fortunately, he’d not been injured, but two of his personal guards had been slain and a third badly wounded while protecting him. One of the assassins had escaped into the night. His remaining guards cornered the other, but she managed to kill herself before she could be restrained and interrogated. Nuvos’s fury had been so great he’d almost killed the surviving guards for their carelessness. Practicality alone made him merely have them flogged. He needed the answers the Shadowsister might have revealed. What House had dared the attack? And why?
Vohalfa, his House’s warlord, or Jamad, displayed only cool displeasure regarding the incident. After all, Nuvos was only a male. A mere merchant, not a huntress or clansister. It wasn’t as if a House had dared to attack a true warrior of Aoth-Kol. But Nuvos knew Vohalfa was secretly outraged. She placed great value on Nuvos as the master trader and steward of her mighty House. And he knew although he’d insisted on meeting Ramosh in public with only his normal contingent of guards, Vohalfa would have at least a huntress and several clansisters among the spectators, alert for any danger to him. In spite of his bravado, Nuvos breathed a small prayers of thanks to the goddess Aoth for his lover’s protection.
He studied Ramosh through narrowed eyes as he took a measured sip from his own glass. His host seemed to exhibit no more than neutral interest. Keeping his voice steady, he replied, “You are too kind, Chief Steward. But surely that’s not why you’ve invited me here? Our past dealings have always proved profitable–for all parties involved.”
“Ah, but it is!” Ramosh assured him. “As you will soon see!” Looking to the arena, he smiled. “Here, my colleague,” he bade Nuvos, gesturing to the sands now cleared of both the victor and victim of the last conflict. “Attend! You in all prudence seek another bodyguard, do you not? Perhaps I can offer you a solution. Witness this truly rare exhibition! Our glorious Firstmother surely blesses all of our spectators today!”
Nuvos looked in the direction Ramosh indicated. A lone Shrinaar male strode through a far gate into the arena, and many of those attending cheered at the sight of him, tossing coins and other tokens which spattered the sands about him like a brief shower of rain. Nuvos could not recall seeing him before, but it was obvious the Shrinaar was a successful gladiator and a favorite of the crowd. He was large, even for one of his kind, powerfully built, with heavy muscles rippling beneath dense striped gray fur, marked here and there with white. Yet for all his size, he moved with a deadly fluid grace that promised speed and agility. He wore a breastplate, grieves, and bracers, but no helm. His only other attire was a simple loincloth marked with the emblem of the Arena Evisicarta. His weapons were a set of metal battle claws, called Shre’quo’ro by the Shrinaar, on both front paws.
Nuvos raised an eyebrow, giving his host a dubious look. Annoyance flashed through him at this waste of his valuable time, swiftly giving way to disquiet. Perhaps this invitation was merely a ploy to expose him once again. With all his will, Nuvos keep his voice offhand. “A Shrinaar?! Really, Ramosh! I admit he’s an impressive specimen, but such gladiators are anything but rare!”
The Chief Steward of the arena settled himself more comfortably in his cushioned seat and sipped his wine. His mouth relaxed in a wide, maddening smile. “Patience, my esteemed guest. His opponent has yet to appear.”
Retaining an air of skepticism, Nuvos resisted the urge to glance toward his bodyguards. He stared at Ramosh thoughtfully, deciding Aoth-Kol would have little to fear from an agent of the Royal House. He returned his gaze to the arena, his curiosity getting the better of him. He wondered what the mystery combatant was to be. He knew Ramosh too well to think his host would arrange a bout presented before, no matter how spectacular. So what could it be? Did Ramosh intend to pit the Shrinaar against one of the strange humans, the newest race of arnts to join the loathed Galactic Council of Worlds? That would indeed be rare. Neirans had not encountered many humans so far, but if what Nuvos had heard of them was true, a human would stand little chance against this particular Shrinaar. While perhaps unusual to see, the combat wouldn’t prove to be much of an entertaining fight.
Cries and shouts of astonishment roused Nuvos from his musings. Several spectators had leapt to their feet and were gesturing wildly, pointing at the wall below the booth he and Ramosh occupied. Intrigued, Nuvos leaned forward to peer over the ledge. His breath caught at the sight of the creature emerging from the gate below them, moving cautiously into the arena on six undulating tentacles. He had never seen its like before, but he had certainly heard tales of the alien creature from the huntresses and Jamad of his House. Momentarily forgetting his dignity, Nuvos excitedly pounded a fist on the ledge as he watched the alien cephalopod move warily toward the Shrinaar, a strange metallic axe studded with blue spheres held ready in its grasp.
Ramosh chuckled as a thrilled cry burst from Nuvos’ throat.