The crowd roars as the bodies are dragged from the arena and fresh sand scattered over the quickly drying blood left behind. Restless and hot beneath the high sun, the spectators grow tired of minor skirmishes and quick deaths. They cheer and howl in anticipation of the main event, a showdown which promises to offer far greater entertainment – and more interesting wagers.

A square of darkness opens up in the middle of the arena as a trapdoor falls back and the crowd’s frenzy increases. From the empty space a second platform rises, bearing on it the source of an entire colosseum’s ardor. Flanked by the crouched and hissing bulk of a tiger, The Tiger Prince raises armored arms to receive the praise. Bright bronze armor accents the young man’s sleek, muscular form and the black domino mask which covers both eyes and right jaw allows a glimpse of his self-assured smirk. Unbound black hair falls around his shoulders, the single stripe of orange against his temple supposed proof of the legend by which he earned his name; it is said this son of wealthy nobles was born so brave he’d slain a tiger when he was just an infant and had inherited the tiger’s soul and ferocity. Certainly he seems an imposing and fearless warrior, bearing as he does no shield and only a single weapon, a long foreign sword which has spilled the blood of countless slaves in this arena.

That another slave’s blood might be spilled this afternoon is what so many attendees, both peasant and noble, eagerly wager. The Tiger Prince’s next opponent is a true rarity – a slave who has won every battle into which he is sent, no matter the kind or number of opponents. He has become a legend and the crowd gathered is here to see him as much as the handsome nobleman. Cheers and good-natured booing answer the slow rolling open of the slave door at one end of the arena. Out of the gloom steps a man near The Prince’s age, though his scars, blade-thin body, and plain dark clothing age him. Called “The Ghost” as much for his black garb as for his eerie white hair, the slave is a crowd favorite for his deadly speed. Into his tarnished silver vambraces, the only armor allowed any slave, he has carved the word “death”. In one hand he grips his only weapon, a dagger made from what looks to be a sharpened piece of a soldier’s helm. The Ghost makes no motion to the crowd, only stands within the arena and gazes steadily out to where The Prince fixes him with an arrogant smile. In return The Ghost places his left hand over his heart and keeps it there, a strange and inexplicable capitulation which he retains throughout every fight.

A single red rose falls from the stands where the arbiters of combat sit and the fight begins. The Prince takes immediate control by going on the offensive, rushing at the slave with a roar and the sword gripped in both hands. The Ghost evades the first powerful blow like a snake slipping away from the strike of a tiger. He darts in as The Prince recovers but the other twists away as well, and so the dance continues. The Ghost never takes the offensive; he lets The Tiger Prince come to him, using the overreach of the sword to come in under his opponent’s guard. Sparks fly as metal strikes metal, each warrior gaining only the briefest advantage with each minor cut or stab. The Ghost’s hand never leaves his chest, yet even one-handed he seems a match for the unbeaten noble. Their movements form a beautiful, intricate dance as The Prince pushes his opponent toward the growling, pacing tiger and The Ghost fights to drive him back.

By the roar in the stands, the fight clearly pleases the crowd, which seems to cheer equally for both men. None have lasted this long against The Prince and even he begins to realize he’s underestimated his opponent. Impressed with the slave’s stamina and determination, he changes tactics and places his own left hand against his chest as if in allegiance. Now they both fight one handed, The Ghost wielding his small dagger and The Tiger Prince his elegant sword. The battle intensifies and soon both bleed from numerous wounds, nothing life threatening but certainly wearying, and their movements quicken as if this dance truly has been choreographed. They even disarm each other in the same move, both blades flying away toward opposite sides of the arena. Gasping for breath and trailing drops of blood, the warriors begin to circle each other with locked gazes.

An odd hush comes over the arena as if even the rowdy spectators sense the battle coming to its climax and want to miss nothing. In the sandy circle below The Ghost pauses and those in the lowest levels can see his dark eyes flicker from The Prince to the tiger still chained in the center of the arena. A cruel smile crawls across The Ghost’s lips and then he’s running – not toward The Prince, but away to where the fallen sword lays gleaming on the ground. The sudden understanding and resulting fury show clearly on The Prince’s glowering face and he takes off as well, running toward the abandoned dagger which lays closer by. His armor slows him in a way his opponent’s thin clothing cannot, though, and as the crowd holds its collective breath, it seems impossible to guess which man will reach his goal first.

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