The young women approached the box to pay their respects to the Governor.
“Daddy,” Cecily said.
“Governor,” said Rosa, wondering exactly when she had stopped calling him “Papa Guy.”
“Daughter,” said the Governor, beaming at Cecily. “The fight is just about to begin.” Guy Gisborn was as blond as his daughter, though larger and fatter. His hair hung to his shoulders, and a reddish beard dominated his face. He gave Rosa a curt nod.
A voice announced, “The Governor’s champion.” A large man of about thirty, wearing an open robe over briefs, strode out and bowed before the Governor. The spotlight reflected made his shaved head sparkle and he sported well-defined abs.
“The challenger.” The young man who walked out couldn’t have been any older than Rosa and Cecily. He wore only shorts, and while he, too, had amassed a fine crop of muscles, he was not nearly so large as the champion. Black curls covered his head, and when he smiled at the women his whole face lit up.
“Sister, The Sprite was right,” Rosa said. “Truly a beautiful young man. But so young. He should not try the champion.”
“Agreed,” said Cecily. “Daddy. May we speak with the challenger?”
The governor waved a careless hand. He was deep in conversation with one of his aides.
“Young man,” Rosa said. “You are brave to try the champion.”
The young man blushed.
“Brave, but foolhardy,” she went on. “He is stronger and more experienced.”
“Indeed,” said Cecily. “He has killed more than one in the ring, and crippled others. There will be no shame if you withdraw.”
Rosa nodded in agreement, though she knew full well that Cecily was wrong. A man who challenged, and then backed down, would certainly be an object of fun, even among those men who were not so foolish as to issue a challenge themselves.
The young man said, “I am not here for my pride, but for the purse. I am orphaned, and my father had little to leave me. If I can win the purse, and the job as champion, I can keep my bit of land and take care of the old woman who raised me. Not being educated, I have no other way to earn my keep.”
“But if you die, you can do nothing,” Rosa said.
“If I die, I shall have no further duty,” the young man said. “But cheer me on; with two such supporters I cannot help but win.”
“Our hearts are with you, then,” Rosa said, though her heart was heavy. She knew too much of fighting to count him as having much of a chance. “What is your name, that we may call it out?”
Cecily pressed his hand, but after he left she said under her breath, “Men are such fools.” They took their seats in the box, Rosa taking care to sit as far as she could from the Governor.
The rules of these fights were simple: No weapons. Other than that, anything was permitted—groin strikes, eye gouges, knee kicks. This one started innocently enough as a basic kick-boxing match. After circling his opponent, Roland came in with a sudden kick. The champion blocked it, and moved in with a fist to the head. Roland shifted just in time to avoid it, and followed with a back kick. They repeated variations on these moves, and then the champion faked a punch and, moving with Roland’s duck, grabbed the back of his neck with both hands, dropped to the ground and sent Roland flying over his body. The move was designed to break either a neck or a back.
The crowd cheered, Cecily gasped, and Rosa gripped the chair arms. But Roland relaxed, went easily with the throw, and came lightly to his feet as the champion jumped up.
“Oh, brave Roland,” Rosa shouted. As the words left her lips, the Governor glared at her.
Roland grinned ferociously at his opponent, so different from his sweet smile to Rosa and Cecily. The two men exchanged ritual kicks and punches once again, as they looked for an opening. Suddenly, the champion came in with a fast punch to the face. Cecily covered her face with her hands, and Rosa felt certain Roland would be hit.
But at the last possible moment, Roland moved in, taking hold of the champion’s wrist with one hand, and snaking his other arm across the man’s throat. He dropped to the ground, dropping the champion’s back onto his knee. Everyone in the suddenly quiet arena heard the man’s spine snap.
Roland laid the other man gently on the ground, got to his feet, and bowed toward the Governor’s box. The audience, ever fickle, roared with approval, and even the Governor smiled. He stood, and gave a nod to the medical crew that stood by. A stretcher crew ran out and hauled the unmoving champion away.
The crowd continued to cheer until the Governor raised his hands for silence. “Young man, you have fought bravely and well. We are well pleased. What is your name?”
“Roland de la Cruz, sir.”
The smile faded. “Son of Jaime de la Cruz?”
Rosa felt her breath stop. Deny it, she willed him, whether it be truth or not.
Perhaps the young man did not know he should lie. More likely he was a man who would never deny his father, no matter the cost. He said, “His only son, sir.”
“You fought well, young man. Would you had been born to another father.” The Governor turned his back and left the box.
Ardent Forest is free through the end of November at the Book View Cafe bookstore. Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent BVC ebook is Walking Contradiction and Other Futures, a collection of her science fiction adventure stories. She also recently released Ardent Forest, a retelling of As You Like It set in post-apocalypse Texas. Other BVC e-books include Conscientious Inconsistencies, a collection of short fiction first published in print by PS Publishing; Flashes of Illumination, a collection of very short stories; and the novella Changeling, first published by Aqueduct Press. Her short stories and essays are also available in most of the BVC anthologies.