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CHAPTER 1 – MAXIMUS
As Brutus Maximus stumbled into the dank alleyway next to his favorite bar, the ruffians jumped him.
"Wazzis?" Max slurred, taken completely by surprise.
His reply was a flurry of blows—inexpertly delivered, but powerful—raining down on his shoulders, back, and head.
Lights flashed before Max's eyes, and the world blurred. Then his iron will, honed by years of arena combat before he retired to become a promoter, reasserted itself.
He ducked, letting the ambushers' fists glance off his broad back, and kicked backward with his left foot. His heel found an attacker's knee, and Max heard a satisfying "Snap!"
That man howled in pain and collapsed, but all three of his fellows—each a hulking brute—kept fighting.
Max surged upward and threw a devastating roundhouse right at the jaw of the nearest man. But a night of drinking Barbarossan Ale Maximus had dulled the former gladiator's aim as well as his wits, and Max's fist merely glanced off the bearskin covering the ruffian's shoulder.
The man laughed and punched max in the nose.
Lights exploded again, and a gush of warm blood ran down Max's black moustache and into his unkempt beard. He crumpled, smashing his knuckles on the dirty cobblestones as he fell.
Defiant, despite being on his hand and knees, he muttered, "Gityouferthat!" But even in his drunken state, Max knew it was an empty threat. If the ruffians had caught him sober, the outcome would have been different. Now he would be just another corpse lying in the foul-smelling backstreets of Colossa. His friends—if he still had any—would never even know he'd died.
The ruffians laughed as they pummeled him to the ground. Every moment, Max's world grew dimmer. Soon, there would be nothing left.
Then, a flash of red, and someone called, "Ho!"
Did the voice belong to one of the ambushers? It seemed higher and more refined than their rough laughter.
Max's drunken mind only had a moment to ponder the question, and then the world went away.
Max expected to be dead when he woke up. Dead and standing before the All-Seeing Eye. Or perhaps in the scourging pits of the Savage Gods. At best, he might stand before the court of the Gods of the Nine Seas. He'd never really adhered to any one faith when he lived, so who could tell where he might end up afterward?
But, if he could wonder about such things, was he really dead?
In a darkness beyond time and space, he reassessed his situation.
Perhaps he had survived. Was that good, or bad? Good to be alive, certainly—but bad in that he was likely to wake up in a dank cell only to be escorted to the headsman's block. What good would it be to live, only to be executed later?
Death or life? And in which order? Those were the questions.
For a cell, though, this benighted place didn't smell bad. In fact, it smelled of flowers, or perhaps incense. Too good to be a dungeon . . . or hell, for that matter.
I must be alive, Max decided, holding no illusions about somehow sneaking into paradise after he died. Warily, he opened his eyes.
The room he woke in was lavish, even by the standards Max had been used to when he was the top organizer of Colossa's gladiatorial games. Brightly colored frescoes decorated the walls, and expensive rugs covered the marble floor. Fluted pillars supported the room's high ceiling—which was painted with stars on a cerulean sky. The low tables, chests, and chairs were made of ebony, gold, and ivory.
The divan Max was lying on was covered in red and gold silk, and it felt wonderfully smooth to his rough fingers. Water lilies floated in an exquisite bowl—Neftet Dynasty, probably—next to his couch. Globes of light, each the size of a man's head and probably magical, glowed softly atop silver holders.
The room was so fabulous that, at first, Max didn't notice the three people at the far end of the room. The pale-haired man on Max's right—either an elf or a half-elf—wore a scarlet tunic and carried a Dai-Nippon-style sword: fine steel, slightly curved, with an embossed wave pattern on the blade and a single razor-sharp edge. The man on the far left might not have been a man at all. His slight frame was completely covered in a rough brown robe with a hood that shadowed his face.
But it was the man in the middle that commanded Max's attention. He was thin and tall, dressed in scarlet, purple, and gold, with a tall golden headdress and glittering armbands and rings. Max had seen royalty many times before, and this dusky-skinned man was clearly a king.
Max sat up, confused but not wanting to offend. His head throbbed from the effort.
"Awake at last," the king said, his voice mellifluous. "Excellent."
Max didn't feel excellent; he felt worried. What was he doing here?
"Your highness," he said, "I don't believe I've had the pleasure." Despite his best efforts, a remaining tinge of alcohol slurred Max's words.
"You should bow before Prince Amontet," said the man with the sword.
Max tried not to show the stab of fear that cut into his belly. "I will," he said, "just as soon as I can manage it." He swung his legs over the edge of the divan, but didn't feel steady enough to either stand or bow competently. He'd heard of the Wizard-Prince Amontet—Who hadn't? Amontet was both respected and feared throughout the World-Sea—and didn't want to make any false moves, not even a bad bow.
The robed figure next to the prince tittered, though whether at Maximus' efforts or some private joke, Max couldn't tell.
"Have I done something to offend your majesty?" Max asked.
"I only ask because, if I've done you some wrong that I do not remember, you might as well kill me now, before I bow, rather than after," Max said. "I'm sure I've learned whatever lesson I needed to from the beating your men gave me, so we might as well get my execution over with."
"Those were not my men." Amontet's voice was neither amused nor angry.
The answer surprised Maximus, and his hang-over prevented him from masking his surprise.
"In fact, it was my man who saved you from your attackers," the prince said, indicating the swordsman. "Do you know who they were?"
Maximus shrugged. "Thugs sent by my creditors, I suppose. I've had trouble securing work since I fell out of favor at the arena."
". . . And offended the Church of the All-Seeing Eye," put in the swordsman.
"Yeah. It could be them, too," Max admitted. "Truth to tell, my enemies seem to outnumber my friends nowadays. So, which one are you, your highness?"
"Friend, I think."
"Well, then permit me to bow." Max knelt and bowed, then reseated himself upon the divan.
"Would you like a drink?" the prince asked.
"Yes, please. Nothing strong, though. I'm still a little foggy from last night—or is it from the beating?" He looked at his hands, but, surprisingly, his knuckles weren't skinned. His arms weren't bruised, either, and even his face didn't ache. He rubbed his nose experimentally; no sign of a break. "How long was I out?"
"Not long," the swordsman replied.
"You fixed me up, then?" Max asked the prince.
Amontet's dark eyes flashed. "Not personally—but, yes."
"Nothing for the hangover, though."
"There are some things even I cannot fix," the prince said wryly.
Max nodded. "One more thing, then . . . Why?" In his long years as a gladiatorial editor, he'd learned never to take gifts at face value.
The prince raised a golden, cone-shaped cup, and took a leisurely drink. "As I said, we are to be friends."
". . . And?"
A slight smile cracked the prince's dusky lips. "And I want you to do something for me."
For a moment, Max's stomach twisted with worry. But he knew that enemy, and he quickly fought it down. "What kind of thing?"
"A tournament, of course," the prince replied. "Why else would I have had Seth following you? And how fortunate for you that I did."
Max looked at the swordsman; definitely a half-elf. "So you rescued me from those four by yourself, Seth?"
The half-elf scoffed. "Four cuts. Four fine cuts they were not worthy of."
"Seth is a perfectionist," the prince said. "That is why he works for me. I have high expectations of all my employees."
"Is that what I'm to be?" Max asked. "Because I work better on my own."
"Not well enough to avoid your current straits, it seems," the prince said smoothly. "Ah, here's your drink."
Max didn't remember the prince ordering the drink. I suppose that's the wizard part of "Wizard-Prince", the former gladiator mused.
A delicate curtain draped over an entryway parted, and Max's heart skipped a beat as he recognized his server; he hadn't seen her in a long time.
"Rogina!" he enthused, unable to stop himself from grinning.
"Hi, Max," the slight, brown-haired woman replied.
Max turned back to the prince. "You think of everything, I see."
"Most things," Amontet agreed. "A man in your position would have to be a fool to refuse my offer. I anticipated your acceptance, and convinced your former adjutant to assist you."
Max took a drink from the cup Rogina offered him. He couldn't place the taste, but the liquid was sweet, and vaguely flowery. "But I still don't know what your offer is, your highness," he noted.
The robed figure on Amontet's right giggled.
Looking apprehensive, Rogina came and stood at Max's elbow.
"Oh, you said you wanted me to organize a tournament," Max continued, "but why go to all this trouble? Why me?"
"Because you are . . . or were, the best," the prince said.
Max bristled. "I'm still the best."
Amontet didn't seem to notice the interjection. "And I have specific needs for this tournament that are . . . unusual." The wizard-prince rose and walked slowly across the room to an exquisite ebony statue of a cat. "Have you ever heard of Shumakai?"
Rogina gasped, but Max merely rubbed his beard. "Some kind of mythical island, isn't it?"
"Lost," the prince corrected, "not mythical."
"That which was lost is found!" declared the small, robed figure. It was the first time he had spoken, and his voice sounded like sand rubbing on stone.
"Recently," the prince continued, "one of my ships encountered the island—so now Shumakai is found again. On that island is a tower, and in that tower is something I want and am willing to go to great lengths to obtain."
"So, why don't you just go get it?"
The robed figure tittered.
"I have reasons to want other people to handle this particular task," the prince explained. "Unfortunately, the perils of the tower are too much for ordinary hirelings—as my ship's crew discovered, to their misfortune."
Max leaned forward, trying not to seem too interested. "You strike me as a man with resources," he said. "Why don't you just send your own armies or elite guards?"
Amontet stroked the head of the cat statue. "I encourage neither initiative nor innovative thought among my minions. I find those undesirable traits in hirelings. . ." He glanced at Seth. ". . . With few exceptions. This challenge, though, demands the ability to improvise. It also requires a specialized array of talents and abilities—a mix not found in my armies. To conquer the tower, one must be more than just a good soldier."
"So, what does this have to do with me?" Max asked.
Amontet drew himself up to his full height and looked directly at Max. The Wizard-Priest's dark eyes shone with fierce intensity. "You will create a tournament for me. I will tell you my requirements, and you will design a series of tests to select individuals who meet my needs."
"And what do I . . . what do Rogi and I get in return?"
The prince smiled. "Deliver to me what I want, and you can both name your own price."
Max stood and began to pace the room; Rogina followed, falling into her boss' familiar stride. "That's very nice," Max said, "but the kind of thing you're talking about will take money to set up."
"You shall have it."
"And I'll need people—the best people: at a minimum, one for machines, another for beasts—Herrin and Ilsa Gorvald, I'm thinking. They won't come cheap."
"Isn't Gorvald in prison for her . . . association with Hel Blitzka?" Seth interjected. He raised one pale eyebrow.
"Convicted, but never imprisoned," Rogina said. "A friend in Colossa bought her freedom—back when he had money." She looked meaningfully at Max.
Max kept pacing. "I'll need others, too. What kind of time frame are we looking at?"
"As soon as possible," the prince replied. "Our window of opportunity is short. Even my seer cannot tell when the island may vanish again." He glanced at the robed figure—apparently the seer—who cackled with glee.
"Time is fluid, ever changing, never set," the Seer rasped. "Here tomorrow, gone today."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Max asked. "Let's get to work!"
TO BE CONTINUED...
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