A hundred candles burned on the altar to the Conqueror. Across the room a fire raged, blistering hot. In the dead of winter the gladiatorial Oratory was hotter than the far deserts. The droning hum of High Polity filled the arches of the colosseum led by the sonorous intonations of the red-robed Kulav. He was an old man, bent with a century of study. Before him knelt a young man who had earned his freedom in the most worthy way, in blood, and was reentering the world under another, purer yoke than that of slavery: service to Ból.

The freedman, Cyril, was not focused on the holy vows he was reciting. Holy oil anointed his brow in a cool stripe and candle smoke— not stinking tallow but sweet beeswax and sandalwood and horsemint— brought back memories of drowning.


His death sentence had seen him resurrected and killing his own executioner before he was finished vomiting up sea water and silt in a fever. Barely out of boyhood he had burned with holy fire— or so the militia had assumed and the Arena had been his lot in life after. If trial by water did not suit him then perhaps his punishment for escape would be better served with trial by combat.


Cyril remembered his first fight more clearly than any that had taken place in the ten years since.


Himself, half-starved with a voice barely broken and a short sword; a pack of half-starved zuayón murmuring encouragements among themselves as they bore down on him. He had pissed himself in mortal terror. He had killed the leaping-hounds and begun to eat one of them before he was dragged off to be rewarded with food, clothes, and a place among those who would fight for the amusement of their god and the masses.


The Oratory beneath the arena became a refuge. Not because Cyril had any particular love of the Kulav but because it held something holy. Those sermons delivered in layspeech railed on and on about the interlopers in the North, the corruption of the South, the lax morals of their own nation and Cyril knew almost none of the highspeech in which the hymns that held truer holiness were sung.


But he knew one word: Praesai.


Ból’s name, after Debellai, Conqueror, was Protector and it was never used in layspeech sermons if the Kulav could help it. Protection inspired less fervor in those unfortunate enough to eke out careers in the Arena.


The last words of his knighting were to be his and Cyril had rehearsed them for a year, murmuring them to himself before every fight: “Er e faci in Debellai d’crament litat e Praesai.” An oath of fidelity of Ból, a prayer for assistance.


He pressed a kiss into the old Kulav’s knuckles. In his peripheral vision he watched another, lesser priest approach. In his hands the red-hot iron brand that would, in one fell swoop of cooked flesh and bright pain, transform him from a slave into a free man.


Cyril obediently tilted his head to the side.

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