It was the official position of Gedi and the Eastern Kingdoms that blood sports were barbaric. This was true in all seasons and territories except for once every eighteen years when the Festival of the Sickle Moon came to the capital. Once the champions arrived bearing glowing letters from empresses and presidents alike, and when airships of every make and machination dotted the plains that ringed the city, bookmakers ruled.
The twelfth such festival promised to be explosive. The men’s tournaments were all but decided, Mabruto of the Wanga dynasty would win. His victory was settled after a showcase where he fought a lion and won. Sure it was a pet, raised in a cage, but a lion is a lion.
In the women’s tournament, initial odds favoured Princess Khaliset of Gedi. She was an exceptional fighter, blessed with speed, cunning and an unflappable calm. When the merchant house clerks came to place their bets, they made loud proclamations of her abilities.
“Quiet as a desert well. Keen as a hunting leopard. If her sister is the storm then she is the sea wall.”
The bet makers were dismayed. If one could not count on a festival dedicated to watching the children of kings and king-makers rip each other to pieces, then what was the world coming to? Then, just as the ledgers were about to close, a boy spying for the bookmakers burst into the tents. Gasping, he said that a special request had come to the council.
“Namu….Namubire is fighting. The Wangas will pay the fine.”
The bookmakers stepped away for a few moments and returned with new odds. Princess Lise was now the favourite to win by only two to one.
Namubire was the daughter of the Wanga king’s third wife. As far as high-born daughters went, she ranked low in all the estimations that mattered. The Wangas had only just taken back much of their territory from the Karamoja clans. They had raised an army with the help of the Maa and been allowed to go to war by the quiet ascent of King Makazi. And there lay the fishbone in the throat.
In Mabruto’s first fight, where he all but tore off the arm of a Mughal prince, he presented in a lion mane’s crown with the skull of a jackal strapped to his thigh. The crowd was hysterical. Princess Saira was the only Makazi in the stands but her fury was only visible to her sister watching from the fighters pits. To Mabruto she sent a queenly smile.
They spoke about Namubire in Lise’s private rooms. Saira, her trainer Liyongo and Nyokabi, a high priest and aide to the king, attended.
“What do you know about her?” Nyokabi asked.
“Rumours say that she trained with her brothers. We should expect that she fights like them too.” Liyongo said.
Saira shot a look at her sister. “So she’s a killer.”
“There has never been a death in the women’s bouts.” Nyokabi broke in.
“Did you see her in the arena? And that beast wore our sigil around his thigh like a whore’s token.” Saira said.
“Calm down, sister.” Lise said.
“The princess may be right. Even if the grudge between the families is set aside, there is the personal grudge. I believe that the Wanga king…”
Saira snorted, “King”
Lise rolled her eyes and gestured for Liyongo to continue, “He is not satisfied with his son’s triumph and at Namubire’s urging, has chosen to pay the fine for the chance to prevail against a Makazi.”
“How can he even afford it? His people are starving and he drops a sack of silver to bypass tournament rules?”
“Saira.” Lise said.
The younger princess heard the note in her sister’s voice and had the grace to look placated. She moved to stand by the window overlooking the royal gardens.
“Namubire wants a true duel. It would be wise to reconsider our stance.” Liyongo said.
Lise let her guests leave after that but Saira stayed by the window. Saira took out her pipe, gods knew how she could hide anything in the assemblage of scarves she preferred to wear. She packed it with more care and concentration than Lise ever saw her show with anything else. She lit it and the silence continued as the sweet smell of hashish filled the room. She passed it to Lise who took a few drags and then gave it back. At last, Saira sat down.
“You will be queen. Representatives from hundreds of nations have come to see you. We all admire your restraint and love of mercy.” Lise smiled. Perhaps her people admired those things but Saira did not. “Our great-grandmother carved out this kingdom with the edge of a blade. Our gogo defended it on the point of a spear and when they tried to defy us, mama put them down with her hammer. The tenth child of the fucking Wanga will not draw blood from a daughter of the Makazi and live.”
Lise felt something cold settle in her stomach. In all the excitement over Namubire, she had not considered what a loss would truly mean. Not her utter humiliation or even her death but Saira’s rage unleashed.
“It will not come to that.” Lise said.
Saira left the room unsatisfied, the red glow of her pipe lighting the corridors.
Lise and Namubire tore through their opponents in the tournament. Lise presented at each fight with two weapons, a finger knife in her left hand and a wooden staff with a short blade at one end in her right. She had a snarling jackal tattooed with henna on her back. She met combat with the grace of a cat and the efficiency of a hawk.
Namubire brought a shield and a sword. She shattered bone and severed limbs. When it came down to four fighters, the bookmakers changed the odds again. One half to one in favour of Princess Lise.
Liyongo chose to meet with Namubire’s trainer in the back of a tea shop. The room where they sat was well known as Saira’s favourite hole. It smelled of hashish, coconut wine and magic.
“May I say, before the unpleasantness begins, I am honoured to speak with you. I walked the entire distance between Makueni and Voi to see you fight.” The trainer said.
Liyongo bowed in appreciation. Although he was a southern man, Swahili by way of his grandfather, he lacked the social graces of his people. He only knew the language of the body, the ways of tension and release.
“I thank you for that. But I fear we must speak of the unpleasant.” He paused, “The princess wants a bloodless trial. She is the superior fighter but, sorry to speak like a merchant, she seeks satisfaction and nothing more.”
Namubire’s trainer opened and closed his mouth three times before he spoke.
“You know my fighter’s motivations. I do not doubt that there can be a bloodless fight, the future queen’s defence is unbeatable. But…unless she can fight for eternity, blood is necessary.”
“Are you able to sway her?”
The trainer laughed, “I thought I’d swayed her from entering the tournament. She may meet the princess if you can arrange it.”
Liyongo thought he could just manage it. If he could keep it away from Princess Saira and ensure that enough people knew about it that could make it so that no one knew about it.
“I will send a message tonight.” Liyongo said.
The meeting was set for midnight after the last of the contenders were done away with. It never took place. Namubire walked into the semi-final fight with a champion from the Kongo, a cousin of the reigning family and commander of her own legion. The crowd watched, chanting with excitement as Namubire ran her through with her sword. For the first time since the start of the tournament, Princess Saira’s grin slipped. The odds changed again. Three to one, Namubire wins. The council set the final bout for a week later.
The bettors’ tents heaved with the masses of people casting their lots. In the midst of the chaos, a boy posed a question to his older brother.
“Why won’t the princess draw blood?”
“She has the soft heart of her father’s people, the worshippers of Thoth. Scholars…” He spat at someone’s sandals and lifted the boy onto a barrel of honey wine bringing him closer, “Do you know she may be the greatest fighter of our age? Better than my bastard father ever saw… and she’ll have her throat slit by a brawler still smarting from girlish snobbery? Ha!”
The boy already knew about Namubire’s grudge and he didn’t think there was anything girlish about it. When Lise came of age, King Makazi asked her to select eight women from the nobility to join her personal guard. Still in exile, Namubire put her name forward. She arrived at the capital with two of her brothers and an emissary of KwaZulu but was not even allowed to enter the palace. She remained at the gates for three days until the king’s guard removed her. Her family did not return to Gedi until their victory against the Karamoja. Even with the little that the boy knew about blood feuds, that humiliation met all requirements.
On a morning with clear skies, the arena filled far, far beyond capacity. Hawkers sold caricatures of the fighters, Namubire’s wore a lioness crown and Lise’s was an imitation of Anubis the jackal-god. Mabruto took a seat in the stands opposite Princess Saira and King Makazi. Brawls broke out and discordant songs rang all across the city. The younger princess smirked at the acolytes of Alexandria who were warding the arena against incantations. Nyokabi had personally delivered a warning from the high priests that very morning.
After a petition to the Mother of the Harvest, the fighters came out. Princess Lise, tall, lithe and deathly calm. Namubire, shorter but powerfully muscled, shuffling her feet with her sword raised in the air. The rules were stated. The winner was decided in three instances. First, by surrender or expulsion outside the circle of combat. Second, by the drawing of first blood followed by concession. Third, by incapacitation or death.
They circled each other for long moments. Namubire lunged first and paid for it with a fist to the stomach by Lise. She came again and this time brought Lise to the ground but miscalculated a punch and wound up trapped beneath the princess with her arm behind her back. It went on like this for an hour and more, Namubire attacking and Lise countering with no blood drawn. It was not a fight but a negotiation. The mad cheers quieted down to murmurs and gasps. Lise threw Namubire and stepped away, expecting her opponent to circle but instead, she unsheathed her sword and struck. Moving fast, Lise avoided the blow but blood was drawn. Lise could surrender now. If the fight continued, it would be to the death.
Saira watched her sister examine the cut on her thigh. Lise studied it in that way she had, a cat inspecting a morsel. Then she looked up at Namubire, whose face shone with a predator’s smile and Saira saw the change. All their lives people had looked to Lise with a passing doubt or pity. It was Saira who bore their great-grandmother’s blessing. It was Saira who was chosen of Anubis. But Saira knew that Lise’s restrained bearing and guarded ways were not because she lacked the jackal’s heart. She did it because her true nature was untempered by any sacred calling.
Namubire tackled her to the ground and raised her sword. Mabruto stood, smashing his hands against his chest and calling their family’s name. He frowned as the sword fell uselessly to the ground and began to tear through the crowd as his sister’s convulsing body was thrown off to the side.
Lise stood. Her face, neck and chest were covered in blood as was the hand still holding the finger knife. She looked to the presiding council official and he raised the flag bearing the jackal’s sigil. Behind her Mabruto cradled his only sister and wept.