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In the centre of the town Civil Guards are still out in force because of the tension that hangs over the city. Wild rumours abound about cancelled elections, planned coups, bribery and assassination. It's even whispered that the Royal Family has been buying drugs from the Orcs and selling them to the population.
The Guards challenge us. "Urgent business for Praetor Cicerius," I roar, and gallop on towards the Stadium. I have with me a bag of gold from Cicerius and instructions to bid as high as is necessary to obtain the Prince's letter of credit.
The Stadium Superbius is situated just inside the city walls, over on the east side of town. It's an enormous stone amphitheatre, built by King Varquius a hundred years or so ago, and it's a very important place. It's the setting for circuses, theatrical performances, religious ceremonies, gladiatorial shows and, cause of my recent misfortune, the chariot races. I love the chariot races. Twice a week during the racing season the amphitheatre is packed full of race-goers from every stratum of Turanian society. Praetors, Prefects, Senators, priests, society ladies, Sorcerers, high-ranking guild officials: all mingle with the huge mass of proletarian Turanians there to enjoy a day out and maybe pick up a little money on the side. Prince Frisen-Akan is an enthusiastic race-goer with his own stable of chariots. Even the King sometimes attends. Naturally, the Stadium Superbius also attracts a swarm of petty criminals, and most of the bookmakers are controlled by the Brotherhood or the Society of Friends.
We dismount from the landus and stride into the giant, dark building. Makri has a torch with her.
She lights it, casting weird shadows on to the old stone walls from the statues of famous gladiators and charioteers of the past. No one is in sight.
I take out the strip of Red Elvish Cloth I wrenched from Hanama's hands in the sewer, and rip it in two.
"Tie this round your neck."
Makri looks perplexed.
"If Sarin's here then so is her associate Glixius Dragon Killer. This strip of cloth will act as a spell protection charm."
"Are you sure?"
"Not sure at all. But it might."
We round the Triumphal Arch through which the victors parade at the end of the games. In front of us, in the shadows, a figure lies prostrate on the ground. We draw our swords and advance carefully.
Makri kneels down.
"It's Sarin," she hisses. "She's been clubbed on the back of the head."
First Hanama and now Sarin. Someone's making my life easier. I glance around. No one's in sight, but down by the wall there is a small pile of dull white powder. I reach down, poke my finger in it and taste.
"Dwa. Looks like Sarin had the sacks with her and someone seized them."
Makri also pokes her finger in the powder and tastes it. This does not seem strictly necessary to me but I let it pass.
I kneel down and start searching Sarin. "She might still have the letter. No point paying for it if we don't have to."
Sarin has been clubbed quite viciously and I'd swear she'll be out for a long time but to my surprise she suddenly opens her eyes. To my further surprise she yanks my long braid in a very painful manner and sends me tumbling away in the dust. She leaps to her feet. Despite her recent lapse from conciousness and the ugly wound on her head, she faces me in a fighting crouch.
"Lost your crossbow?" I jeer, and charge in, aiming a blow of my own. A cunning street fighter, I feint with my left and land her with my right. At least that's the theory. Sarin avoids both blows and kicks me in the ribs, sending me hurtling backwards. I pick myself up, fairly puzzled at this turn of events. I hurtle in again, figuring to overpower her with my weight, but Sarin performs some fancy move which I don't exactly follow, except I end up on the ground again. I get pretty mad because I notice out the corner of my eye that Makri, instead of leaping in to help like she should, is actually laughing. I draw my sword. Sarin takes out a small knife. We circle each other. I can't find an opening. I can't understand it at all. I wasn't lying when I said I'd run her out of town before. How the hell she has returned as a hardened warrior is beyond me.
We exchange a few blows. I'm starting to get short of breath. I've been fighting and running around to excess in the last twenty-four hours and I don't seem to have eaten or slept. The heat is getting to me. I lunge at Sarin and she parries again and kicks my legs from under me, so I fall very heavily to the ground.
I struggle up again and turn my head towards Makri.
"Will you stop standing there like a eunuch in a brothel and give a man some help?"
"Just giving you a chance, Thraxas. You told me you'd be down on her like a bad spell if she showed her face again."
I glare at Makri then make another assault on Sarin. I'll show her who's number one chariot round here. She parries my sword with her small knife then hits me so hard with the flat of her hand that I'm sent spinning into the wall where I once more slump to the ground.
Before Sarin can follow up, Makri decides she's had enough laughs for one day and appears above me with her sword drawn.
She confronts Sarin. "Thraxas tells me you can't fight."
I clamber painfully to my feet. "Well, she didn't used to be able to."
"Three years in the warrior monastery at Kvalir," says Sarin, and almost smiles.
"I take it you weren't studying religion," I say, grateful for the chance to catch my breath.
"No. Just fighting. I used to find it annoying the way people could defeat me. No one defeats me now."
"You weren't looking too good when we found you."
"Someone crept up behind me." Sarin the Merciless frowns, and looks a little puzzled. "Normally no one could do that."
"Maybe your pal Glixius Dragon Killer decided he didn't want you around any more."
She shakes her head. "Glixius is no longer my associate. Horm and Glixius double-crossed me.
After I cleared the way for them with my crossbow, they tried to edge me out of the operation. They didn't like sharing their profits with a third party. Particularly a woman."
She shrugs. "So much the worse for them. I out-smarted them. And it was not Glixius who clubbed me. He wouldn't be capable."
She casts her eyes around, and looks troubled. "My horse has gone. And the dwa." She reaches into her tunic and produces the Prince's letter. "But I still have this. And it will cost you ten thousand gurans. Unless you would like to try and take it off me?"
I'd as soon not. I remain silent.
"To business," she says.
"I believe that letter is mine," comes a voice.
A tall figure in a rainbow cloak strides out of the darkness. It's Glixius Dragon Killer. He glowers at me with hatred in his eyes.
"I presume we are seeking the same item," he says.
I grunt in reply.
"You are wasting your time, Thraxas. The letter is mine."
"You seem to be having trouble holding on to it."
"I was not expecting such treachery from Sarin the Merciless."
I turn to Sarin. "So what are you going to do now? I doubt if your warrior monk training is going to enable you to fend off me, Makri and Glixius."
Sarin sneers. I haven't impressed her.