Tournament of Losers | Chapter 10 of 19

Author: Megan Derr | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 3643 Views | Add a Review

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SORTING

Three days later, Rath felt worse than he ever had about anything. He anxiously swept his gaze over the crowds as he headed out of the city and down to the fairgrounds, but no matter how hard he looked, he still saw no sign of Tress. But it had always been Tress who had found him, and if he were in Tress's position, he'd be making damn certain Rath didn't see him.

And as he'd stupidly pointed out the night of their fight, he knew nothing about Tress that would let him find the man somewhere else. His only hope was that since Tress had admitted he was one of the marriage candidates, Rath would eventually see him somewhere on the fairgrounds.

Strictly speaking, the candidates and their families were not allowed to interact with the competitors, since it could indicate favoritism, cheating… If they got caught together, Tress would be in a world of trouble, and Rath would be disqualified. Which meant he'd have to pay back the ten slick.

So it was definitely for the best that he'd driven Tress away.

Rath still felt wretched and sick at heart about it, even three days later. He shouldn't, but should never had much to do with anything.

When he reached the blue tent he was thoroughly sick of, he slumped to the ground and wished the whole stupid day was already over. Hopefully today, he would finally get to do the maze. The first day they'd drawn lots, and Rath's number had been all the way at the bottom. Technically, the whole thing was supposed to run five days, but the criers had said to show up two days early because things tended to move quickly, since as one person finished the maze, another was sent straight in.

"You've been looking rather glum for a person who's made it this far," Kelni's familiar, friendly voice greeted.

Rath pushed to his feet and mustered a smile. "Tired, sore, would rather be abed, you know?"

"Mmm," Kelni said. "I do miss home, but I'd rather win a new home that'll see me and mine never live on fish heads and stale bread six months of every year, while the nobles throw out more fish than they eat."

"Very true," Rath murmured.

He was grateful the horns rang before the conversation could continue. He didn't want to talk to anyone but Tress. The only good thing about the past two days was that he'd found time to work, get his laundry done, and buy some staples to keep in his room.

"Competitors!" The crier announced from his barrel. He clapped his hands until everyone had quieted. Once they'd done so, he rattled off the ten starting numbers. Only twenty or so away from Rath's number. He'd be waiting a few hours, but that was better than waiting the whole day. He might actually be able to buy some food and ale and just relax in his room for the night.

The first ten shuffled off toward the enormous maze that had been constructed in the large field beside the fairgrounds. Time was marked for each person as they entered the maze, again when they reached the center, and at the end when they came out of the maze.

When everyone was finished, their times would be combined with their melee and duel scores, and the top ten would be competing for 'the honor of marrying His Royal Highness Prince Isambard'. The next fifty would compete for the six duchies, the next hundred for the seventeen earldoms, and the remaining for the fifty-four baronies.

At least it was a maze. Even Rath's foul mood cheered slightly at the thought. He'd always loved the little mazes they set up for children during the Spring Festival and the Harvest Festival. They were one of his fondest memories, some of the only days where he was allowed simply to play. There hadn't been much chance for leisure growing up, but even his Counter-Fate mother had always taken him to the city celebrations on festival days. He'd do the mazes over and over until he got hungry or someone made him stop. Had always felt a pang walking by them on his way to or from work once he'd gotten too old for such things.

He found a bare strip of grass and stretched out, wrapping his threadbare cloak about him to ward off the worst of the chilly morning. A couple more weeks and there'd be frost. The tournament was not going to be fun going then, but there was too much work to be done to do it any other time of the year.

If he was a fancy lord whose fate was resting on the tournament, a lord who generally preferred to have his nose buried in a book, where would he be? Rath sighed. He'd be safely in his comfortable home reading a damned book and forgetting completely about the ungrateful whore who'd told him to go away.

Rath was such a fucking fool.

He dozed for a bit, stirring whenever the horns announced another competitor had completed the challenge. He was about to go mad with waiting when they finally called his name. Practically leaping to his feet, he hastened over to the crier, who motioned to one of the two north-facing entrances.

The clerk stationed there consulted a fancy little watch that was slowly becoming popular amongst High City folk. He marked something by Rath's name, then looked at him. "You are not allowed to mark the paths, walls, or anything else within the maze. You are not allowed to speak to any other competitor you may encounter. When you reach the center, you will be given a flag by the officials there. I will give you a slip of paper that they will request. They'll return it with the flag, and when you come out of the maze again, give both to me or another clerk. Once we've marked you, take both to the high table. If you do not emerge after two hours, you automatically fail the challenge and default to competing for the baronies. Any questions?" Rath shook his head. The clerk jotted something on a small scrap of paper and handed it to Rath. Once he'd taken it and tucked it away, the clerk said, "Begin."

Rath headed into the maze, heart pounding, mind scrabbling frantically. He shouldn't care, but now that he was doing it, the desire to do well sprang to the fore.

He went left at the first split, heart pounding harder when it didn't immediately lead to a dead end. The second split he went right and that did dead end. He backtracked carefully, kept going, marking every twist and turn on his arm with his nail the way he'd done as a youth while still trying to learn the city and the docks without getting hopelessly lost.

How long it took him to find the center, he had no way of knowing. It felt like at least an hour had passed, but hopefully, the way back would move faster.

There was a cluster of guards and clerks at the very center of the large square. One clerk snapped his fingers. "The slip of paper they gave you at the start."

Rath pulled it from his coin purse and handed it over. The clerk grunted, looked at him with something that almost seemed like approval, and said to one of the guards, "Purple."

"Really?" The guard smiled as he bent to pull a small square of purple cloth from the chest in the center of the cluster. He handed it to Rath, and the clerk handed over the slip of paper again with new markings upon it. Tucking everything away once more, Rath gave them an awkward salute and trekked back, following the marks on his arm to get out of the maze.

Winding up where he started, he promptly dug out the slip of paper and purple flag and handed them over. Like the other clerk, this one gave him a startled look. He gestured to the nearby guards. "Gold."

"Gold it is," the guard said with an easy grin and pulled a bit of dark yellow cloth from the sack at his hip. "There you go."

"Thank you," Rath said. The clerk handed back his slip of paper and purple flag, and Rath carried it all over to the tables.

The clerk there perked up the same as the other two. Had he done well? Done poorly? He wasn't sure which he preferred, but it didn't matter since he had every intention of doing whatever it took to lose the first challenge of the final round.

"Well done, competitor," the clerk said formally but with a smile. "What's your name?"

"Rathatayen."

Her expression turned sympathetic. She glanced at the slip of paper, nodded to herself, then shuffled through the papers in front of her and made several marks by his name. Half the names on that page had been completely marked out. Had they not shown or something?

Looking up again, the clerk said, "Report here tomorrow at the market bell, just in case everything finishes early. If it looks like the challenge will continue throughout the day, they'll send you away, and you should come again the same time the day after. If you are not here when the sorting announcement is made, you will be disqualified. The challenges will begin on lenday and will take up all of your time for the next three months. Make certain that you tell anyone who needs to know. You will be given suitable time for rest, food, and so forth. Should you ever fail to complete a challenge, you will be immediately disqualified. Further rules will be explained after the sorting ceremony. Any questions?"

"No," Rath said.

"Give me your left hand, then," the woman said. Rath frowned but offered his hand. She wrapped a bit of string around his second finger, then made more notes by his name. "All right, you are free to go for the day."

"Thank you." Slipping away, Rath slowly made his way back to the city, once more looking anxiously around for any sign of Tress. But even in and around the spectator seats, Rath could not spot him. Well, what had he expected? For Tress to seek him out after everything Rath had said? Rath was more likely to win the tournament.

Not that he had forgotten what Tress had said, either. It was completely like a noble to sling around those kinds of insults the very moment they didn't get what they wanted. He hadn't realized how much he'd wanted Tress to be different until he'd proven to be just like all the rest.

Rath still kept hoping they'd both been wrong and might make amends, even if they once more went their separate ways in the end.

He tried to shove the fretting over Tress aside as he reached the gates. He had plenty of other matters to worry about and also happier things to focus on. Like going to see his mother to tell her all was well for the present. He might even have penny enough to buy her a sweet.

Yes, that was what he'd do. Buy his mother a sweet and tell her the good news. It was too late in the day to pick up work, anyway, and Trin wasn't expecting him, so he could enjoy a few hours with his mother and then have the whole rest of the night to himself.

Heading quickly across town, he waved to Anta as he slipped in the back door and quickly climbed the stairs to his room. He washed his face and hands, combed his hair, then retrieved his money from its hiding place in the wall behind his bed.

All set, he hit the streets again and headed out on the long walk up Low City, bound for the common bridge. He'd almost reached the end of Apple Street when men grabbed him up and shoved him into a narrow alleyway—too narrow for him to slip by the three men blocking him into it.

Rath swore loudly. Had his father pissed off Friar again already? But no, he knew most of Friar's goons, and at least one familiar face would have come along—if only for the personal pleasure of getting back at Rath for some comment he probably shouldn't have made.

These guys were unfamiliar and wore the kinds of clothes that wealthy people, or the goons that worked for wealthy people, wore when they were trying to blend into Low City. Tress dressed similarly, but on him it had somehow been charming.

On these men it was ominous because it meant he'd pissed off someone with money, which in Low City usually meant he was going to wind up floating in the harbor.

The man in the center of the cluster sneered. "Been looking for you, you uppity little whore."

"Piss off," Rath said. "I haven't been bothering anyone."

"You're bothering plenty," the man in the center said, baring his teeth in a smile probably meant to be threatening. It lacked something due to the missing and broken teeth. He surged forward and grabbed Rath by the front of his shirt, twisted, and slammed him into the wall. Pain burst in the back of Rath's skull and his thigh, where it struck a broken, sharp-edged bit. He could feel blood, hot and sticky, soaking into his pants and running down his leg. "If you know what's good for you, you'll not show up to the tournament tomorrow, understand?"

"If I don't show up, they'll want back the marks they gave me!" Rath said. "I don't need the city guard coming after me anymore than I need you."

The man thumped him against the wall again, then dropped him to the ground and kicked him in the stomach. "Guess you'd better get out of it quickly, then. You ain't gone after the first challenge, you'll find yourself regretting it sorely, understand?"

Rath would have happily replied that he did, but he was too busy not being able to breathe. The man gave a mean laugh, kicked him again, then bent and rifled roughly through his clothes. Rath tried to push him away, but the man just swatted his hand off, slammed his face into the ground so hard that Rath's nose started bleeding, and finally found the coins stashed in an inner pocket of Rath's jacket. He fumbled around a bit more, then after a painful warning squeeze to Rath's injured thigh, signaled to his men and departed.

Tears stinging his eyes, Rath just concentrated on breathing until it mostly didn't hurt to do that. Then he focused on sitting up, a difficult task between his scraped palms, injured thigh, and two solid kicks to his gut.

Standing was even less fun.

There went his plans to visit his mother. Not wanting to distress her aside, all his money was gone. Trin wouldn't let him work as banged up as he was. Even working the streets wasn't an option. And he wouldn't be able to work in the morning, because he still had the tournament to endure.

Friar hadn't been wrong about Rath making people mad. But why? He was nobody, a laborer and whore and occasional pickpocket. He'd been planning to fail out of the tournament anyway, exactly like he'd told pretty much anyone who'd asked. There was no reason to go beating him up in the alley.

He sniffled as he limped slowly to the edge of the alleyway, then forced the tears back. They wouldn't lessen the pain, and his face hurt enough from the mistreatment and lingering soreness from the fire powder. Looking carefully around, he crept out of the alleyway then slowly, painfully headed back home.

Preferring to avoid people, he walked around to the back of the house and stepped into the kitchen door, relieved that Anta wasn't there. He made for the stairs as quickly as he could, then climbed them step by agonizing step until he finally reached his room.

All he wanted to do was collapse in bed and stay there, pretend he hadn't just gotten beaten and robbed in an alleyway. Thank the Fates he'd already paid rent.

Lowering himself to the floor, he slowly pulled off his boots and set them aside. Bracing his hands on the wall and gritting his teeth, he pulled himself back to standing and worked on peeling off his bloody breeches and drawers. Both were so stained, and the breeches so badly torn, that there would be no salvaging them. He only had one other set of day clothes, damn it, and only four total pairs of drawers, and one was a nice pair to wear with his temple best.

He threw the ruined clothes in a corner to give to Anta later. She could at least do something with the bits that were salvageable. Stripping off the rest of his clothes and hanging them on their hooks, Rath limped over to the washbasin and cleaned up his bloody face and leg as best he could. Thankfully his nose wasn't broken, and the wound on his thigh should stop bleeding now he wasn't constantly stressing it.

Limping over to the bed, he carefully stretched out on it and pulled up his blankets. That would be more laundry to deal with, but it was too cold to go without blankets. Sniffling into his pillow, he let pain and misery drag him down into sleep.

When he woke, it was to the early morning din of people headed out to find work at the docks or with various merchants, milling about to talk to the lamplighters still snuffing lamps and the night-cleaners heading home. Every part of him hurt, even more than when he'd lain down. He slowly sat up, wincing at the rough fabric rubbing against his injured thigh. Sitting would obviously be a fun endeavor for the next several days. He shouldn't have been so quick to give away those twists of medicine.

A different hurt entirely flared in his chest, settled there like a bruise. Rath stared at the little book and charm lying on the floor next to his bed. He'd barely paid either any mind since he'd put them there, but in the past few days, they'd been a constant reminder of the words he would give anything to take back.

He bent over and picked the objects up, ran his thumb over the already-flaking paint on the cheap little charm. Setting it on his pillow, he traced the fancy lettering on the cover of the book. Beginning Manners and Etiquette for Young Persons of Quality. He wasn't certain what baffled him more: that High City folk needed books to learn manners, or that this was a beginning book.

Curious and grateful for any distraction from the pain, Rath flipped the book open, frowning when it stuck and wouldn't open. He ran his finger along the pages and swore when it scraped over metal unexpectedly along the side. A catch. The book locked? Why in the Fates…

He caught the tiny catch with the edge of a ragged nail and flipped it up, then finally opened the book—and dropped it in shock, sending pennies rolling and scattering over the floor.

Disregarding pain, Rath went around the room retrieving them, wincing and swearing the whole time. When he was finally done, he resumed sitting on the bed and carefully put all the pennies back in their slots. The book wasn't a book at all, but contained two 'pages' filled with special little slots meant to hold pennies. The slots were too small and shallow to hold any other coin. All told, the book held twenty-four pennies—one short of a shilling.

It was more money than he'd ever had at once that he got to keep. And Tress had given it to him… why, exactly? Rath would never know.

Damn it, he'd gotten rid of Tress for good reason. Look how nasty Tress had turned at the end. It just confirmed that Rath had done the right thing. If he'd let it continue, let himself get attached, how much worse would it have been in the end? He'd never wanted to be the plaything of some hoity-toity, anyway.

It didn't matter why Tress had given him the money. Twenty-four pennies was nothing to someone like Tress. Fates, he'd left an entire mark on the pillow after their night together.

A night where he'd done nothing but give Rath food and wine and read him stories. Rath sighed and set the book aside, standing to get dressed as the morning prayer bell began to ring. He only had about an hour to get to the fairground, and he'd just barely make it, given how slowly he was moving.

When he was dressed, he picked out two pennies from the book then tucked it away in his hiding place. Limping out of the room and downstairs, he headed out the back of the shop and around to the street, waving to Anta on his way and pretending not to hear when she called after him.

People thronged the streets, a mixture of the usual morning bustle threaded with bumbling out-of-towners. Rath paused at a vendor near the gate to buy breakfast, savoring the taste of fresh bread sticky with honey.

He tensed when someone bumped into his shoulder, jarring his whole body and making him hiss in pain—but they continued on, and Rath tried to relax. The muggers had delivered their warning, and they'd said to be certain he lost in the first challenge. They probably wouldn't bother him again until after that.

When he finally reached the fairgrounds, he resisted the temptation to sit down. If he did that, he wasn't certain he'd be able to get back up. Given the maze was gone and a stage had been set up in front of the stands, clearly the sorting challenge was over, and they'd be announcing the sorting that day.

Instead, he simply found a bit of empty space where he could see most everyone coming toward him, and tried not to jump every time he heard footsteps close behind him.

The back of his thigh felt hot and sticky, which meant his only other pair of everyday breeches was ruined, but there was nothing he could do about it. At least they were dark enough that the blood was probably going unnoticed.

Why. That was what upset him the most. He was nothing, no one. One of hundreds of competitors who would be competing to marry into one of the fifty-four baronies. At most, if the Fates were feeling particularly perverse, he might have ranked high enough to compete for an earldom. So what? Who cared if he competed to marry the third daughter of earl number fourteen? It wasn't like he would have succeeded in doing so anyway, the way everything was rigged. Even the laziest idiot could pick the false peasants out of the crowd. Just glancing around, Rath could see three of them. Nothing stood out like a wealthy person trying to pretend they'd grown up poor.

Why beat him up over a matter that had been settled years ago?

Whatever, it didn't matter. They weren't telling him to do anything he hadn't been planning to do already. That didn't keep him from stewing over the question incessantly anyway, and acerbating his foul mood.

Nothing had ever sounded sweeter than the trumpets signaling the beginning of the official sorting.

"Competitors!" called a crier, throwing out his arms, voice pitched louder than any Rath had so far heard. He was dressed in blue and purple livery trimmed in gold braiding, marking him as the crier in charge, though Rath didn't know the exact title. He stood in the center of a large stage. "Welcome and challenge well met. Congratulations to you!" He turned to his right and said, "Honored nobles, be most welcome! Your Most Royal Majesty, we are most honored by your presence."

Rath swallowed and turned around. He'd been so lost in thought that he hadn't properly appreciated that the stands were filled with people. And all the way at the top, hidden behind thin, gauzy material to retain some of their privacy and safety, were the king and queen, and possibly the whole royal family.

The nobles were a mass of rich, vibrant colors and the occasional flash of gold and jewels. Now that he was paying attention, Rath could smell snatches of perfume on the air, succulent food piled on tables for them—food he'd never be able to afford even with nearly a whole shilling to his name.

And for the competitors… nothing. If this went on long enough, they might hand out ale, bread, and cheese like they had the other day. How typical of the hoity-toity to feed themselves well but give scraps to those toiling away on their behalf. Rath's lip curled as he turned away.

"Competitors, first we will call the names for those competing for the honor of marrying into the family of our most honorable Earls. As your name is called, please come to the stage to collect your competitor ring and return to your place once you have it."

Rath sighed as they began reading out the names of the one hundred people competing for the earldoms, his mind drifting right back to fretting itself to death, until a horn sounded again, and they moved on to the duchies. At least there were only six of those, though it still took some time to list off the fifty qualifying competitors.

Could he just leave? No, they probably had rings for the three hundred-odd competing for the baronies, so he'd have to remain to collect his once they were done with the others.

When they finally finished the duchies, he was cranky and in pain enough to want to cry, and would it really be all that difficult to pass around ale or tea or something?

The crier raised his arms for silence, lowered them slowly a couple of minutes later, and called out, "Now, honored guests and brave competitors, we announce the ten remarkable people who will be competing for the incomparable honor of marrying His Most Royal Highness Prince Isambard."

Rath huffed, shoulders slumping with fatigue and pain. Ten names. He could make it through ten more names and shuffling through a long line to get his stupid ring.

"Terra Cobbler," the crier announced, and a small woman climbed the stage with a happy grin. She was handed a ring, then a guard motioned for her to stand at the far end of the stage. "John Black!" A small smattering of cheers as a large man climbed the stage.

"Helena Copper! Sarie Thatcher!" Two more women climbed the stage. "Jessa Tanner." A tall, thin, handsome man climbed the stage, one of those Rath had picked out earlier as not-actually-poor. The pleased, not even remotely surprised look on his face only confirmed it.

Fates, he just wanted to be done with the whole rotten day. And it had barely begun. Would anyone miss him if he just went back to bed and stayed there until tomorrow?

"Rathatayen Jakobson!"

Rath's breath stopped. What? He stared wide-eyed at the stage, certain he must have misheard.

Then someone—Warf—hissed his name and came rushing over, gave him a gentle shove.

Swallowing, trying to get his lungs to function properly again, Rath walked on trembling legs to the stage. A guard smiled warmly, clapped him on the shoulder, and presented him with a small copper ring. Rath took it, saw his name and a strange mark inscribed on the inside. The outside was decorated with swirling, curling lines—Fate lines, they were called. You couldn't enter a temple without tripping over the pattern.

Rath still couldn't breathe properly as he was shuffled across the stage and took his place next to the smarmy man whose name he'd already forgotten. Rath hadn't done anything. He wasn't supposed to be on stage and headed for the final round of challenges. He certainly shouldn't be on stage as a competitor for the royal family. Oh, Fates, he was going to pass out.

The remaining names were called, but Rath didn't hear them. He looked around the crowd in front of the stage, the nobles off to the side. He didn't belong here. This was stupid. He'd just wanted to pay off a debt. How in the names of the Holy Fates was he competing for the chance to marry a prince?

And what about the men who'd beaten him yesterday? Had they known? How?

More importantly, would they really let him live long enough to lose the first challenge?

When they finally let him off the stage, Rath hurried away as quickly as he could, ignoring everyone who called after him, pushing his way through the crowd even though doing so hurt. He got as far as a scraggly copse of trees before he lost his breakfast.

Rath sat back in the grass when there was nothing left to heave up, stomach hurting anew from the unpleasant treatment, sweat drying tacky on his skin, entire body throbbing with pain, and his thigh hot from the abuse. He just wanted to be left alone. No beatings. No threats. No scrambling desperately to come up with alarming sums of money. No more whoring. Just work and the pub and the occasional day off to do something fun.

How had his situation gone from bad to worse? He didn't want to marry a damned prince. He didn't want to marry anybody.

Even if he did, there was nobody in the world who wanted to marry him. Not with his whoring background. Not with his troublesome father. Not when it was known he was tangled up with Friar. He was a loser, and even a tournament intended to improve the lot of losers was never going to change that.

Drawing his knees up, Rath folded his arms across them and buried his head in his arms, focused on breathing and calming down and not succumbing to the urge to start screaming.

"Rath?"

The voice was a kick in the gut far more brutal than the two he'd received last night. Rath dragged his head up, praying to the Fates he was imagining it.

Hope shattered like an egg dropped on cobblestones as he stared up at Tress's stupid, handsome face.

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Car
Absolutely wonderful
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