The desert sun was already high and hot as Alibesh was led out of the keep in chains, lowering her face and squinting to shield her eyes from the sudden bright light, as well as the stares of the reptile citizens of Stigia. There was no throwing of fruit or vegetables at her, no screams of her being a defilement to what the Empire stood for. The female gecko was not surprised by this. Here in Stigia, the citizens would not part with any food, even if it was half rotten, lest they might starve the following day. And although they were obedient to rule, they did not shout out in support of it. She had ignored the Emperor's requests for two days, infuriating him to the point that he had decided to keep to his word about forcing her to fight. The Stigian arena was on the east end of the walled city, next to the barracks and the armouries. Amilkar was practically being dragged along behind Alibesh, also shackled. She paid no attention to him or the guards who led them onward, instead taking in every detail of the city as she walked. Horned lizards scurried in every direction, anxious to keep out of the soldier's way as they performed their tasks.
Alibesh knew what was ahead. There would be no wooden swords in this arena. Stigia's reputation for brutal exhibitions with real weapons and real blood was legendary, a tradition supported by each emperor who had assumed the throne of the Empire. To be victorious in battle in the arena meant that a soldier would be considered among the elite of Stigia's armies, and many had died trying to achieve such recognition. Only the most highly skilled and experienced fighters would dare enter, as the arena was ruthless as much as it was bloody.
Her thoughts were interrupted as one of the guards yanked on the rope tied to her shackled wrists, dragging her suddenly forward. She did not change her expression to give the guard the satisfaction that he had affected her in any way.
They continued through the city streets, and the two captives remained the center of attention to passing citizens. Alibesh watched without attracting attention as they passed the stables. Inside she could see large Iguanas and tortoises ready to be saddled. But her eyes came to rest briefly on wasps, ready to take wing once untethered and brought out into the open air. She had but a moment to see them, the guard yanking on her restraints again. She lowered her gaze so as not to allow her captors to realize what she was looking at.
As the entourage drew closer to the arena, Alibesh could hear the shouts and cheers, punctuated by the clash of steel. As they met with the back of the crowd gathered around the battle, Alibesh could feel eyes upon her. She turned, looking back behind her, seeing only Amilkar and the remainder of the guards escorting them, the citizens in the streets nothing more than an unfocused blur. Her eyes went upward, to the dark spires of the keep. There stood a dark figure high above, staring down at them. It was the Emperor. Alibesh stopped in her tracks for a moment, returning his stare defiantly, until the guards yanked her by her bonds, pulling her forward once again.
The crowd parted for them, still jostling and shouting at the fighting already engaged in front of them. The lizards near them stared at Alibesh in disbelief as she was led through them toward the outer stonework of the arena. They halted at the edge, looking down into a pit with a sand bottom, surrounded by elaborate stone walls separated every ten feet by columns. The crowd peered down at two reptile combatants, fully armoured and armed with swords. One of them was a horned lizard, clad in the copper metal of the soldiers of the Stigian army. He had a copper shield along with a short sword, dodging the swings of his opponent. His adversary was taller and slender, a monitor from the badlands to the north. His armour was a dull, unpolished steel, and the long sword he clasped was curved cruelly. They danced around and toward one another in successive clashes, the crowd cheering them onward.
Alibesh watched with interest, even as she felt the stares of some of the spectators upon her. Her vertically slit irises observed the two reptiles fight, her brain registering each move, each strike and defense in a very analytical way. It was second nature to her. And she was very aware of who would be tasked with fighting against the victor in the battle before her. SHE would be the next to enter the arena. She could still sense the Emperor watching her, waiting to see if she would give in and submit to his wishes. She dismissed his gaze, pushing the thought from her mind. Alibesh knew that it would only aggravate him further to be ignored. It brought the slightest beginnings of a grin to her scaled face as she watched the fight continue. Her hands ached restlessly for her sword. She could feel her pulse quicken slightly, could hear her own heartbeat in her ears as she watched the two fighters attack each other again and again. Sand flew as they lunged back and forth in the arena, each strike and parry of steel bringing a noisy reaction from the crowd surrounding them.
The heat beat down mercilessly. The clash of metal, the grunts of effort played out in slow motion in front of her. It was a ballet in her mind, and her eyes watched each move, each muscle of the two fighters. Her analysis suddenly shifted gears, and she began to see the openings that they left in their defense. Momentary holes that Alibesh knew she would have capitalized on in combat. Instantly.
Her grin grew a bit wider as she continued to watch the exhibition. What more could it be? They were amateurs at best. The horned lizard of Stigia lunged forward in short-sighted attacks, while the monitor defended, trying to use his height as an advantage over his shorter rival.
“This is where we will die.” whispered Amilkar from behind her.