Chapter 4 (A royal argument)
Kkaj bowed to King Koi-Jankorest then turned to the other four monarchs sitting at the table, bowing to each. This is an awful mess.
Saffer and Roffor stiffened when they met Queen Foi-Refejung eyes. Both of his assistants dropped to their knees and touched their foreheads to the floor. Queen Foi-Refejung nodded and the crocobear of a man behind her, Moofuj, grinned.
Why is the strongest Penta from RulFer here with Queen Foi-Refejung? Kkaj bit into his lower-lip. Blood coated his teeth and rolled past his tongue. The coin-like taste twisted his stomach, and he clamped down on his lower-lip even harder. She can’t be expecting negotiations to fall into blows, can she?
Fruits, sweet pies and hunks of meat covered the large table where the four monarchs sat. Had they been eating? And what about the tournament?
Kkaj glanced towards the window overlooking the arena floor.
Cheering citizens packed the stands, focused on the fight. Did the monarchs not care?
Kkaj wondered who was fighting but squished the desire to edge closer to the window.
Around the room, now that his interruption had been forgotten, all five monarchs shuffled trough a stack of papers. The high ranking noble standing behind them would offer advice while pointing to certain lines of the document. Though, Junkoi, the chairman of the Empty Bottle Club, made no such move to help King Koi-Jankorest. King Koi-Jankorest was also the only king who didn’t have a Penta hovering over his shoulder.
A lump formed in Kkaj’s throat.
Besides Moofuj, Yazar’s and Runtef’s scarred faces stood out in his memory. The jagged scar that crossed Yazar’s forehead where her eyebrows should have been was a gift from Kkaj in their last fight. Runtef had similar love marks from her countless fights against him. He had never fought against Moofuj or the lanky Penta standing behind King Boi-Robejind, but they were probably just as tough as the two women. How long had the four of them been glaring at Kkaj?
Junkoi coughed. “Kkaj,” he said in hushed tones, “over here.” He waved to the corner. When had he moved?
A sigh slipped from his mouth, and he strolled across the room as if he weren’t nervous.
Why was Junkoi grinning like a fool? He reached out and rested his hand on Kkaj’s shoulder. “How did the initiation go?”
Cramps raced across Kkaj’s chest, and his joints seized up.
Junkoi’s face blurred.
Kkaj wobbled left then right.
“Kkaj?” Junkoi tightened his grip. “That bad, huh? I told the king that you hadn’t found out about his request.”
Request? I have my own — The muscles in Kkaj’s lower-back gave out, but Junkoi’s hand prevented him from slumping over. “Failure.”
“What are you talking about?”
“At what? The time it took you to find new Pentas?”
Kkaj shook his head. His mouth opened, but his voice failed him.
“No Pentas this time, huh?”
Kkaj’s chest heaved, and he closed his eyes.
“Worse?” Junkoi’s voice cracked.
Rustle. Scrape. The sound of the monarchs turning towards them said that Junkoi had been too loud.
The world lurched, and everything went black. Something pressed into Kkaj’s chest thirty times. Soft, honey-flavored lips touched his before air was forced into his lungs twice. The pressure returned to his chest then another two breaths. More pressure.
Kkaj coughed, and his eyes shot open.
Roffor froze just above his face, her lips inches from his. A deep crimson blossomed in her cheeks, and she scrambled backwards.
He started to sit up.
A small hand stopped him. “Rest for a bit,” King Koi-Jankorest said in a high-pitched voice. Was he really a man? He sounded —
No. Don’t think about your king like that. Kkaj rubbed at his eyes before looking around him.
Saffer knelt to his left side while Roffor climbed to her feet and turned her back on the two of them. The five monarchs and Junkoi stood around him in a circle, blocking off the rest of the room.
“I’m fine.” Kkaj’s stomach undulated harder than a ferry on white water. “I just need some water.”
King Koi-Jankorest clapped his hands, and a moment later, Junkoi stepped through the throng of monarchs with a glass of water.
Kkaj sat up and took the glass. He drained it in one quick gulp. “Thank you. I’m much better now.” With Saffer’s help, he rose on wobbly legs.
Junkoi looked between King Koi-Jankorest and Kkaj. “We should speak before the tournament gets too far along.”
A wide smile spread across the other monarchs’ faces while King Koi-Jankorest smirked. King Koi-Jankorest strode towards the balcony. “Yes. I need to hear Kkaj’s report on the initiation.”
Kkaj’s heart sprang into his throat, each beat suffocating. He nodded the followed Junkoi and King Koi-Jankorest out onto the balcony.
On the arena floor, over twenty fighters climbed onto the raised stone ring. The judge pulled out a small pistol and held it into the air.
Adrenaline pumped through Kkaj’s veins, and his heart rate increased. Thump-thump. Each beat choked him a little bit more. He slapped his hands over his ears.
Bang! The violent sound rang through his bones, and the match began.
He ground his teeth and curled his toes. Calm down. Calm down. Calm down. Despite how far the gunshot was away from him, his mind reeled, falling into his memories.
His shirt tightened around his neck, and his jerked back and forth. Smack! Something struck him across the face. “Get ahold of yourself,” Junkoi said. He lifted his hand again.
“I’m fine.” Kkaj freed himself and glanced back down at the ring.
Four fighters had already been thrown to the arena floor, and six others lay in heaps. A bulky man who stood twice as tall as the other fighters danced about the center of the ring like a man half his size. Ice vapors rose from his hands and feet.
Kkaj turned back to Junkoi, and the king then sighed. “You two know how I feel about loud noises.”
“Still?” King Koi-Jankorest asked in a higher pitch than usual. Did he not believe Kkaj?
Junkoi laughed. “I told you he wouldn’t accept your request.”
King Koi-Jankorest crossed his arms. “I haven’t even asked him yet.”
Kkaj’s lips curled into a frown, and he arched an eyebrow. “What request?”
“We’ll get to that later.” King Koi-Jankorest made a shooing motion. “For now, tell me how many Pentas you brought back and how strong they are.”
King Koi-Jankorest’s eyes bulged. “At least tell me there were some strong Specialists.”
“Where are they now? In the palace with my steward?”
“Some are at the bottom of the Lokab River, but most were buried under random piles of rubble.”
King Koi-Jankorest blinked. “What do you mean?”
“They’re all dead.” Kkaj’s voice was flat. He took a deep breath and clenched his gut. This was not the time to get emotional.
“How?” Spittle flew from King Koi-Jankorest’s mouth.
Kkaj spun back towards the arena as tears rolled down his cheeks. “I —” His voice cracked. “— killed them. All of them.”
The king and Junkoi gasped. The ring blurred, but it was clear only three fighters remained. The graceful hulk of a man. A busty woman wrapped in fire. And a one-armed man — or woman — with no element visible. The three circled each other. The busty woman locked eyes with the hulk then the two of them charged the one-armed man.
Someone tapped Kkaj on the shoulder.
He wiped his eyes with the sleeves of his shirt before turning to face the king and Junkoi. “That’s why —”
“How could you do that to my new subjects?” King Koi-Jankorest’s voice snapped like a whip. “I needed that increase in military power to push these trade negotiations forward.”
“You have less than that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Orakab City is nothing more than an oversized pile of rubble.”
Junkoi fell to his butt. “Impossible.”
“I wish,” Kkaj said. More than you’ll ever know. I wish it were a lie. A dream. Anything other than the truth.
“How —” King Koi-Jankorest stumbled backwards. “— could you let this happen?”
An inferno raced through Kkaj’s blood, and he gritted his teeth. After taking a step forward, he jabbed the king in the chest with a finger. “How could you? I requested more Drunkzards. You said no. When I asked for regular guards, what did you say?” He poked the king again. “That’s right. You said no.”
Junkoi grabbed Kkaj by the wrist. “No need to shout.”
Kkaj inhaled through his nose and exhaled out his mouth, relaxing the tension in his muscles. Using the breathing technique his Drunkzard arts master had taught him a few more times, he felt peace wash his emotions away. “King Koi-Jankorest the twelfth.” He knelt and bowed his head. “I humbly ask for access to the map.”
“What map?” King Koi-Jankorest asked.
“In order to stop anything like this from happening again,” Kkaj said, “I need access to Lucidity.”
Kkaj looked up.
King Koi-Jankorest shook his head back and forth faster than a magic-enhanced horse could gallop. “No, no, no. Absolutely not.”
“It’s a royal secret.”
“But others have been to the Lucidity distillery.”
“Not using the map!”
Why does he sound so offended by the idea? “What does that matter?”
“It’s the only thing that matters!”
Rage spun Kkaj’s blood into a violent torrent and slammed it into his brain. He bared his teeth, and a growl rumbled up his throat. “Cut your crocobear shit and stop acting like a spoiled brat!”
“What did you just say to me?”
“I said you’re being a spoiled little child who cares more about some old folklore than his own people!”
King Koi-Jankorest’s jaw tightened. “Get out of my —”
Junkoi clapped. “Children! Calm down.”
A snarl tugged at the edges of King Koi-Jankorest’s lips. “No! He needs to learn —”
Junkoi cleared his throat. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“No? What would I — Oh, yeah.”
What are they talking about? Kkaj scratched the side of his neck.
King Koi-Jankorest smiled like a mischievous child. “I have a way that you can make up for your insult.”
“What insult?” Kkaj clenched his fists, and his arms trembled. “You mean when I told you the truth?”
A low, rumbling growl climbed from King Koi-Jankorest’s chest. “You will fight in this tournament as my champion, and I will forget your treasonous words.”
“My treasonous — Did you just say fight?”
Next: Chapter 5