" Duncan is a superb storyteller! His 40th novel is a totally enthralling romantic adventure. The characters seem to live and breathe, especially the charismatic hero... He grabs your heartstrings on page one and doesn't let go until you discover his fate. " - Romantic Times
" Complicated politics and family scandals twist through this tale of courtly intrigue from prolific fantasist Duncan... made fresh by matter-of-fact female supremacy and its midlife hero's view of youthful warrior culture. " - Publisher's Weekly
" Two thumbs and a stack of timbers up for this fun novel... The love story is in the periphery and doesn't disrupt the flow of action as the past and present are woven into a masterful tapestry. " - SFRevu
" Another well thought-out fantasy from the reliable Duncan." - Kirkus Reviews
" Duncan quickly pulls us into a reading experience that is like watching a game: not always reasonable, but lots of fun. " - Booklist
" In summary, if you are looking for an interesting change of pace from standard fantasy fare, you will enjoy Ill Met in the Arena. Duncan shows his experience as a fantasy craftsman and brings us a book with a little of everything packaged in a refreshing format. " - BookSpotCentral.com
He was a slim youth with dark curly hair. I recognized his grin.
"The unbeatable Mudar of Quoin?"
I bowed. "The very same. And I assume royal Jasp of Lemma?" Jasp was the fifth child, nearest in age to Mandola, but more than a full pentad older, she having been an unexpected afterthought. Jasp was the one to watch, according to Egma‘s information. He had enjoyed competing and had entered--and won, of course--more tourneys than were seemly for a hegemonic. He had recently been appointed consort to the heir of a sizable realm in Seric. What was he doing back home again instead of attending his mistress?
Enjoying himself, obviously.
"You have caused quite a stir in my family, friend Mudar."
"How is your royal sister?"
He shrugged, dark eyes gleaming with amusement--they always gleamed with amusement. Jasp saw life as one enormous joke. "Eating, I expect. She just ended a two-day hunger strike, her third. Threatens suicide right after dessert."
"I would do anything to save her life."
Jasp sighed. "No, it is hopeless. Mother offered to buy you and appoint you Mandola‘s majordomo or chief bodyguard or anything else she wanted, short of consort. The child is adamant. She wants your body."
That was both flattering and exciting. "The desire is certainly mutual. Your noblest mother disagrees?"
He chuckled and lowered his voice, although no one was daring to approach us. "I have never seen the old goose cackle so! No offense to your noble person, Mudar. It is your heraldry she cannot abide. She called us all in and made us swear that you shall not pass."
"Crushed lifeless, blood draining gently into the sand?"
"Too messy, too obvious. No," Jasp said sadly. "As a last resort, if you are not eliminated sooner, one of those horrible javelin accidents. We decided that would be simplest and comparatively painless. I was volunteered."
I have never known a death threat more beautifully delivered, nor more believable. His range and strength would certainly far exceed mine; even the lifetime ban on competing would mean nothing to him now he was paired. The supreme authority in Quartic, his mother, was hardly likely to press manslaughter charges.
"It is very brotherly of you," I admitted, "to go to such lengths to save the fair maiden from my baseborn lusts. But--you will forgive my wondering--suppose the victim and victor were somehow transposed? These things can happen, no matter how carefully we choreograph the catastrophe."
He shrugged. "Then your death would be considerably slower and more painful than mine. But let us not dwell on such morbid thoughts. I never miss." Still he smiled, and so convincingly that I honestly could not tell if he was serious or joking. I was relieved when a referee and linesman arrived to start the flyby.
The three dark-horse brothers had not been seeded. Since I was, absurdly, seeded number one, I was the last to launch. As I soared past all the grandees in the hegemonic box, I braced for the usual hefting attack, but none came. What did come was a sending: I love you! Win this and win me, darling. I was getting messages like that quite often now, but I knew who was conveying that one, and it quelled any doubts I still had. Obviously Mandola had won the concession she wanted from her mother--pairing with me, conditional on my winning the crown that day. Then the old tyrant had called in her sons to make certain I would lose.
Hegemonic games require an extra event to cull the field. Cuneal uses a sport called rollerball, played by teams of four with a marble ball about five feet in diameter. First goal wins. Lifting such a monster is out of the question. It takes a good team even to roll it over the sand, especially when four equally good men are hefting in the opposite direction. Although the ball, forced in opposing directions, may sometimes squirt unexpectedly sideways, that day was the only time I ever heard of anyone being hurt in rollerball. A cub in the third match had an apoplexy brought on by the heat.
In theory, the rollerball teams are chosen by lot. No doubt the hegemon could have arranged for all three of her sons to be on one team and me on the other side, ready to be juiced, but--as Jasp had said--that would have been too crude and obvious. Mandola would have cried foul. Because no man can choose his teammates and no one ever has an opportunity to practice rollerball, it contains a large element of chance. That is another reason why hegemonic games attract so many contestants--sheer luck can often weed out the favorites before the real contest even begins.
My team won. So did the team with Jasp and his brother Harfang on it. Also the team with Destin, eldest of the three brothers. The suns shone and all four of us were through into the second round. The hegemon had gotten what she wanted. Was that surprising?
I fully expected to be eliminated in the hefting contest. I already knew I was going to be matched up with Blue, alias the hegemon‘s second son, Harfang of Ohone. A balk of wood is a balk of wood, and to try and match strength mano a mano with a hegemonic was insanity. He could probably lift thirteen or fourteen of them, many more than I could. There was no wind to topple a tall pile, as often happens.
The fact that Harfang was broad, brutish, and unusually hairy was quite irrelevant to his psychic strength, but I would have felt irrationally happier had he looked effete and poetic. He definitely did not belong on display in a fighting tabard. Egma knew little about him. He had competed only twice, the minimum needed to acquire a silver crown, and his only known interest was hunting, so I could be thankful I was not meeting him in the javelin event. He was rumored to be unhappy with his pairing and his new home, somewhere in farthest Pelagic, but men often whine about the unfairness of life.
As we waited for our turn, I bowed. "Royal Harfang of Ohone?"
He gave me a surly nod. "Why are you doing this?"
"I am in heat." I thought that remark reasonably witty when the marble wall at our backs was hotter than a forge.
"You are insane. You‘d better lose to me, sonny. You don‘t want to go up against Destin."
"I swore to give my best and I will." What a fool kid I must have seemed to him!
"So did Destin. He‘s going to break your legs in the wrestling."
I believed him and my insides lurched. "Nice of him to resist my neck."
Harfang shrugged. "And if he doesn‘t, Jasp will put a spear through you. Women like our mother do not tolerate defiance from smartalecky young bastards, Mudar! She has given us specific orders. This is your last chance to walk away a whole man."
I spat in the sand. "That for your mother and her orders. Do your worst, killers."
He ported twenty feet away, leaving me to brood.
When our time came Harfang and I flew over separately and set down on opposite sides of the stack. Being unseeded, he played first, floating a balk across to me. I capped it and returned it: two. Was I going to bow to their threats and throw the match to him? Four. I could win one round before I had to decide. Six. I didn‘t have a hope anyway. Harfang could play this game with me sitting on the stack and never notice the difference. Eight. I had never managed ten, not all the way.
Royal Harfang of Ohone lifted a wall of nine, which gracefully leaned forward and clattered down on the stack.
The crowd said, Oooooo!
I bowed to offer sympathy. Harfang‘s scowl almost boiled my eyeballs.
Of course we all have unfortunate accidents sometimes, and it must be a long time since he dressed for the arena, but...
I began the second round. Some atavistic, hairy competitive instinct kept me going. We both played flawlessly until he sent me back eight. That was when I must decide whether to chicken out with all my bones intact or preserve my honor. Common sense said I should not risk making him attempt ten. Even for a hegemon, that is tricky. Honor won. I decided to do my best. After all, only very rarely did I successfully send over nine.
That time I did.
Harfang lost control of his response before he began to move it horizontally, so he had to make a hasty exit or be crushed to death in a rain of timber. For a moment I stood with my jaw hanging open while the crowd‘s roar echoed and re-echoed in the great amphitheater. I had beaten the son of a hegemon!
No, the son of a hegemon had lost. That was not quite the same thing.
I ported over and offered a hand. For a moment I thought he was going to bite it with his great apish teeth. He shook it instead, not mangling my fingers too seriously. We flew back with applause ringing in our ears. I had won!
I said, "Thanks."
"Remember what I said about Destin."
"Do you know when he‘ll do it?"
"Right away, likely. He hates the arena. Shy, he is."
That sounded very much like a hint. I was encouraged to think that royal Harfang was a true gentleman.
Destin and I would be the final pair in the wrestling. Jasp of Lemma won his bout easily. He ported to my side and had me recount the entire story of Hyla while I waited. He never lost his smile, but his questions were shrewd and penetrating. I found that encouraging, too. Perhaps he had been sent to form an independent appraisal of the upstart? Perhaps he was actually on Mandola‘s side? Perhaps I was deluding myself. A touch of madness would not be unlikely, for sunlight reflecting off the sand and the marble walls was stripping the flesh from us. Cuneal Amphitheater is the worst oven I know, even hotter than Bere Parochian, which stands right on the equator.
I looked along the line of patiently melting contestants. "Is royal Destin a good wrestler?" I could hardly expect all three sons to defy their dam as Harfang had done.
Jasp snorted. "Strong enough to maim you, which he has promised Mother he will. He‘s always been a good momma‘s boy."
"He sounds like it," I said.
The laughing eyes lost their twinkle. "And he doesn‘t have mistress problems like Harfang does. Those can really throw a man off his game, highborn Mudar. Name any price you want short of my sister, and it‘s yours. You have my word on it. I do beg you not to be a fool. This time you are in real danger."
Destin was as weedy as Harfang was burly, but lack of muscle did not mean he could not snap my bones if he wished. He was also fair of skin, which that afternoon meant that he was extremely red of face. According to the gossip Egma had picked up, Destin of Hurr was a patron of the arts and a great dandy. He did not look it that day. His hair hung in rat-tails, his tabard was sweat-stained and dirty. I was in no better state, but I was used to it.
I ported to him and bowed.
He curled a lip at me and ported away.
Seeing that the preceding pair were into their third fall, I called for a waterskin and took a long drink. Then royal Destin and I were ordered out and the crowd applauded.
"Isn‘t that wonderful!" I exclaimed. "Oh, I do love the little people! They make us seem so effete! We nobles are so over-mannered, don‘t you think, so foppishly clean? Every one of the smelly darlings knows that you have to stop me at all costs or your mommy will spank you. Just look--thirty-seven thousand of them, all waiting to hear my bones crackle, my ligaments snap, my screams for mercy."
Destin shuddered and did not reply.
The senior referee rattled off the rules in a bored voice. "Turn and start walking. When I shout ‘Go!‘ you may begin."
The first half of the word had barely reached me when I ported. I bounced twice--once into hefting range of Destin, and out again before he could get a psychic grip on me. I came forth forty feet away, and I swear I heard his yell and the ripping sound for a second time. I waved the remains of his tabard in the air like a flag. Destin was so appalled that the tug of the tearing cloth and his own efforts to cover his privates threw him off balance. He teetered wildly, but managed to port himself upright before he hit the sand.
"Hold on the play!" quoth the referee.
Destin did not hear her. Destin had not stayed around to wait for a replacement tabard. Arty dandies do not belong in the arena at the best of times, certainly not when stripped naked before thirty-seven thousand shrieking, guffawing, practically hysterical witnesses. A man who leaves the arena forfeits the match.
The noise rolled on and on. By now everyone knew that the real game today was the unbeatable Mudar against the hegemon‘s sons.
Two down, one to go.