When the champion Typhon died, I wasn’t very sad.
I didn’t even feel like crying, even though I was secretly wishing he would win. When the gladiators smile and have nice jewels in their teeth and long ropey dreadlocks and lift me up with just one arm, I never want those ones to die. I hope that they won’t, and when Annaz isn’t looking, I make sure the scoops of blood pepper I give them are heaped a tiny bit rounder.
Annaz is my boy cousin. I help him at my uncle’s market stall and sleep at his house at night. He is thirteen and sometimes plays tricks. When the watchmen pass by he pretends to kick sticks or play with our shop dog, Urlo, but his face is very serious. Only the watchmen don’t know that. They don’t care much about a boy’s face. My job when that happens is to drape an apron over the small sack of blood pepper under the table until the watchmen get far away.
Our stall is so close to the arena that I get to meet nearly all the gladiators. Annaz told me that a lot of times in combat nobody gives up, so somebody has to die. That’s why I can’t be sad as many times as gladiators die. I would be sad all the time.
The day before he died, Typhon the champion came to our stall. He told me he was born in the shade of the arena. He bought powdered luck lilies and hare’s claw. And a lot of blood pepper too. He said it was because he trusted my face and so would the watchmen, and also because Annaz’s prices were fair.
Typhon had a lot of scars on his arms and I could not tell which were from taking blood pepper and which were from being slashed in combat. He had a booming voice and a mushed nose, but his eyes were gigantic and his lashes almost as long as the dreadlocks on his head.
Blood pepper is very precious and hard to make, that’s why I’ve only tried some twice. Annaz has tried it four times. Urlo kicked a whole sack over once and spilled it the very same day my uncle gave it to Annaz, and for that Annaz hit him with a stick.
When I first had blood pepper, we had to poke my finger with a pin. It didn’t hurt that much. Then Annaz put a dab of blood pepper into a dish and rolled my cut finger around in there. That was so some could get into my skin. I remember the dish looked scary from the tiny, rusty blood pepper dots floating in the drops of my blood. I didn’t like that part.
Afterward I was trying to feel what I felt.
It was a happy feeling, I think. Anyway it was not a bad feeling. I suppose it could make you strong. I didn’t mind it because I felt like a gladiator.
Annaz and I work very late, because sometimes the gladiators want to buy blood pepper after a victory in the arena or even after they lose. We dry herbs and grind spices with Annaz’s mother in the morning hours until the sun shines like a lemon. Sometimes Annaz’s dad has a new sack of blood pepper for us too, which only Annaz gets to carry.
Then we hoist our spices, powders, and pastes onto our shoulders using a padded rod and two baskets. I balance the light rod. When I’m twelve, Annaz will let me carry a heavier one, but he says it still won’t be as heavy as his unless I beat him in combat.
The morning after Typhon died two watchmen came to my uncle’s house. They talked to him outside the door while my baby sister, Tela, howled and howled in my arms. Then they left.
The rest of the day, Annaz was very quiet. We set up our stall in a thinking silence. Annaz was usually full of instructions about which wares to display at the front and which prices to adjust. It felt strange to lay the table out without his voice calling my jobs. I cradled the sack of blood pepper last, and set it down very softly at my feet behind our stall. Then I lay a swatch of burlap over it to protect it from flies, watchmen, and of course Urlo’s sniffs.
The day crept slower than the sun, even though market-goers ringed our stall the whole time, giving me busy hands. I watched Urlo’s ears flap away midges while I explained that ganzana root made into a paste with oil and rubbed on the jaw would stop a bad toothache. My voice sounded bored to me but the lady still bought two knuckles of ganzana.
All I wanted to do was go home and do chalk drawings of the baby. I wished I could find my friend Ishaq on the other side of the market and tell him about Typhon and his long lashes, which no one would ever see now. I thought that with one of Ishaq’s baked chocolate conches today might have been better. I could have had small delicious bites of it between selling powders.
Every time I looked at Annaz he was still simmering. Being thirteen seemed a bad time. I did not want to become so serious as Annaz. He kept his hair so short and tidy now, and hated to get his ankles dusty playing with Urlo.
Annaz seemed pretty lucky to me. He had a dad and a mom and only one room in his house had a leaky roof. I only just got my sister, who my uncle brought home one night in a coddling blanket. He handed Tela to me with a bigger version of Annaz’s serious face on. I didn’t ask about my mother. I could barely remember her. She works near the harbor in a big massagehouse with her friends, which sounds like fun but is actually a bad thing to do. My uncle doesn’t let me visit her.
While I was thinking of how to cheer Annaz up, I noticed a stranger standing behind the belt of customers, trying to make me look at him. The market was still noisy and our stall had a big crowd. I told Annaz I needed to go for a pee and went to find out about the man.
“Small one!” the man called when I was within earshot. I was heading toward him anyway, but in a careful way. I pretended to be looking for someone in the crowd, thinking that that would be Annaz’s way to do it.
“What?” I asked in a slightly rude voice.
The man had no time for greetings either. “I have coin for your rusted gold. Do you have any?”
We usually sold blood pepper after nightfall, so I was puzzled to hear his request. Nobody said ‘rusted gold’ anymore either—that was a name the old ones used before I was born or even before Annaz was born.
I tried to make sense of the stranger without gawking at him in the busy market. He was not tall, but thick in the chest, and he left his legs bare beneath his summer sark. There were big bunches of muscles in his thighs and a ripple of scar the length of my whole arm twisting toward his knee.
Since I started helping at the stall, I can spot a fighter even better than Ishaq, whose uncle is training to be a gladiator. The weird thing is that gladiators mostly sleep during the day because they wake up before sun-up to train and spend nighttime at the arena fighting or betting on others’ fights.
“Are you a gladiator, mister?”
“Well, I do not know you.”
“I am Denniz.”
I suddenly knew who he was. “The challenger who killed Typhon?”
“That’s right, I did.” He showed his mean, wolfish teeth, but then smiled. “And what about the rusted gold?”
Denniz did not look big or strong enough to show Typhon his death, but then I thought that must make him cleverer than Typhon. Typhon’s eyes had been beautiful, but not clever.
“Wait there.” Annaz was surrounded by buyers when I ducked under our stall and opened the sack. Only Urlo noticed me.
I brought Denniz a small scoop of blood pepper in a twist of waxed paper and he unwrapped it. He did not say anything, but his nostrils got big. It made his nose look like a mountain with two tunnels through it.
He gave me a bit less coin than the price of the powder. “What’s your name, small one?”
“Milli,” I said.
“Have you ever seen gladiators fight, Milli?” Denniz asked.
“Never. I am only seven.”
“Well.” He twisted up the packet of blood pepper, thinking. “Would you like to see a fight at the arena?”
“I can take you. All you have to do in return is ask your brother to speak to me about his rusted gold.”
“My cousin Annaz won’t speak to anyone about that.”
“Maybe if you ask nicely,” Denniz said. I really wanted to see a real fight at the arena. And I could promise to ask, but that didn’t mean Annaz would agree. Denniz saw my tiny nod and smiled again.
“Come to the rose garden across from the arena next fight day. I will wait there a while before they announce the animal fights.” Denniz turned to go. “And then we can watch the combat together!” he shouted behind him.
He kept walking anyway until I lost him in the crowd.
The day of the fight, it was hard getting away from our stall early. I spent all my spare time coming up with a good fib. Then I thought of the perfect one.
“I’m going to the cliffs with Ishaq and his sister to watch the fishing boats come in.” It was something market kids liked to do. The lights were pretty to watch on the water and sometimes the fishermen left a half-bucket of slimy fish bait for us at the end of their haul, good for throwing at each other or taking home to flavor a stew.
Annaz didn’t care, but he made me walk Urlo first so he would not poo around the wares, and Urlo was not quick making up his mind where he wanted to squat. By the end of it I really had to run.
On the way I wondered what it would be like. The arena is the loudest place in the world from all the shouts of the spectators. And I wanted to see the way the gladiators would jump and slash and drive in when they were winning. I even wanted to see the way the losers would crawl and fumble, then raise their arms above their heads. I was big enough now. I was not afraid.
When the rose garden came into view I could barely breathe from speeding there. But I was happy I made it. I had my story safe in Annaz’s ears, Urlo was tied up fast with his bone to lick, and I was about to watch a gladiator battle.
Running ahead of my legs, I spied Denniz waiting at the Fountain of Flowers in the center of the rose garden. A small champion, not a mighty giant like Typhon, but a champion no less.
“Quicker, fleet one,” he called to me, already setting off. “It is almost time for the fights to begin.”
I followed him for a time, and when the crowds got thick near the arena gate, he waited for me, then took my hand. It wasn’t at all like holding hands with Annaz, or even shaking hands with customers. Denniz’s hands were hard as figurines whittled from wood. His palms felt like the loofah gourds we dry and sell for scrubbing clean a yellowed skin.
The gate was not far from us, but we were barely moving toward it in the crowd. The sun was half down and shouting was loud from inside the arena. I wanted to ask, “Is that the animal clashes?” even though I knew it was. Without words, I felt itchy next to Denniz. I got a bigger and bigger itch to say any silly little thing. Instead I stayed quiet and thought of the gladiator combat.
No gladiators had come to our stall for blood pepper that day, and I had been too busy to remember to ask Annaz about the fight. It was not a championship; I knew that because champions do not do combat in the arena two weeks in a row.
“Who’s fighting tonight?” I asked before I could stop my voice. At least it was an answer I cared about, not any silly words to scratch an itch.
Denniz took a long time to look down his muscly arm to where I was. Both of us were taking baby-bird steps forward in the line. He drummed our two billets on his night tunic made of wool.
“Well. You will see, small one. One man, Kanos, is a fearsome hulk from Chioth Island. I do not know much about him, except one thing I have heard.” Denniz leaned down. “He does not like to leave a doubt about his wins. Which means he does not leave much of his unlucky opponents behind.
“The second is a training mate of Typhon, from the same stable. He is called Barburo. I think he will want to win this fight, to get his revenge.”
“But how will he get his revenge?” I blurted. “Wasn’t it you—”
The way Denniz nodded he could have been a market cat spying a fresh bowl of goat’s cream.
“Barburo Bravemeat might want to cut me up in Typhon’s name, but even if he gets past the Hulk of Chioth, he will get no further than Sanguine Denniz. The championship is mine and I am known to be selfish about my belongings, small Milli.”
We found our seats. I think Denniz was selfish with words too, because he had nothing else to say until the jackals and hyenas and lionesses finished tearing meat out of each other and the announcer called for Kanos and Barburo. She rang a giant copper bell to summon them to come out through a mouth-shaped entrance, which was funny like they had been waiting inside the stomach of the arena. Then out walked Kanos, and Denniz had a lot to say. He nearly gave me a headache.
“Let’s see your mettle now! Hide behind your knives and leathers, won’t you!”
Our seats were in the common area. I thought champions could get better seats, but I guess I’d never been inside the arena before, so I wasn’t that sure. No one seemed to recognize Denniz either. I thought that was strange, until I thought of how far away the face of Kanos was under its armor. And Denniz had only fought in the arena once. Annaz said he was supposed to lose. But he won.
When Barburo Bravemeat was announced, it made the crowd roar louder than three market streets right on top of each other. I leaned back into my seat until it made creaky noises and pushed my feet into the rail, then I covered up my ears. The arena was a giant ship and I was the steady figurehead in a wild rainy storm.
Denniz did the opposite when the Hulk and Barburo started a funny dance with their swords held low. He leaned forward till I thought he might keel out of the ship, then he stood up clapping and shouted.
I forced my eyes to open wide in case somebody made a killing blow. My head was imagining Denniz fighting the faraway man in the yellow plate skirt instead of Kanos. Barburo moved forward to swipe Kanos’s knees with a sword. Kanos jumped over and my heart jumped even higher. Kanos moved forward and poked and poked with his bent blade. He poked in the direction of Barburo’s chest, then belly, then head, missing, missing, missing—
Then Kanos’s blade trailed away like a sad feather. I saw why. Barburo had stuck him. I closed my eyes. Then I saw a blade come out of Kanos’s middle, and found out my eyes were not closed. The blade was shinier than my baby sister’s warding gem, which is kept under her pillow. It was redder than really expensive blood pepper. When Barburo pulled it out blood gushed from Kanos’s wound. The Hulk’s fingers dropped the curved sword, then he went onto one knee. I covered my eyes with my hands to make sure they would stop seeing.
“Barburo stuck him!” I screamed from the bow of my ship.
The storm of people shouting whooshed even louder. It was the angriest happy sound I had ever heard.
I did not expect Denniz to be in a happy mood after the gladiator battle since Barburo wanted to kill him next.
I tried to be little and quiet as we were let out of the arena. Even though I wanted to hold Denniz’s loofah hand so I would not be lost, I made myself brave. Milli Bravemeat, I said in my head, but that made me feel guilty, like I was killing Denniz by thinking it.
“Small one,” Denniz said as we approached the rose garden, remembering me.
He turned and plopped down to my height. Up close his forehead and cheekbones had hills and valleys, like someone had punched them a lot. His ears were funny too, all sticking out. He squinted at me strange.
“What’s wrong? Too much blood and death for a nest egg like you? Sure not!”
“No,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking about Kanos dying. I was thinking of Barburo. How you said he wants to kill you.”
“Aha!” Denniz laughed. “Do not be so concerned, small one. Typhon could not stop me and neither will his stablemate. Now listen, you’ll remember to tell your cousin about your nice friend Denniz, who wants to talk to him about rusted gold? You’ll remember?”
“Are you hungry? Come, let us find ourselves dinner before I deliver you home. We have had a lot of excitement tonight, and not much for our teeth to chew on.”
I was hungry, I needed to pee, and I was tired. I missed Annaz and baby Tela. But Denniz was right that I was hungry more than anything else.
We went to a water-and-feed near the arena. For a change, I did not feel like saying much. When Denniz asked what I would have, I said, “Anything.” He bought porridge with currants and spices for me, and for himself, a plate of stew piled with lamb chunks and gravy on top. I looked around. Almost everyone in the booths or standing around tall round tables looked like gladiators or maybe people trying to be gladiators. Most of them had plates of lamb stew. The porridge was okay. I wished I had asked for stew too.
The door opened to let in another man and a bit of rain. My bowl was nearly empty, so now I felt tired most of all, and I still needed a toilet. It made me happy imagining telling Ishaq about my night next time I had enough coin for a chocolate conch. It felt weird that I could not tell Annaz.
Denniz gave a chuckle and went up to the man in the doorway. “Ah, the winner!”
The water-and-feed hushed up. I heard Barburo’s name whispered, and Denniz’s too. I felt most scared when Denniz put his hand out, and Barburo scowled. But then the bigger gladiator burped loudly and clapped it. Denniz invited him to our table.
“Tonight, we are all champions. Sit down, sit down, let me start you off with a drink.”
Barburo squeezed into the booth on my side. He was huge and he smelled like some of the cooking spices we kept in boxes with the lids closed, if you sprinkled them on old sandals.
“This is my small friend Milli,” said Denniz.
“Hello Miss Milli!” Barburo said and cackled. He had a girly voice for a giant. It made me less scared of him, but it didn’t make him smell any better. “I’ll have whatever she’s drinking!” he said, and cackled again. At least talking made him smell like drink instead of sandals.
The night went on and on. Every time I thought Denniz was finished telling a tale, or it looked like Barburo was too silly with the drinks Denniz kept buying him to even grunt a response, something sparked them up again. It was like they were snuffling gingerberry powder to keep them concentrating.
Finally it was Denniz who said, “Milli, time to take you back,” and I tried not to look very relieved. He turned to Barburo. “Come, old man. Shame if you were worn down to nubs when it comes time to face you in truth.”
Even though Denniz was smaller than Barburo, as small as I am next to Annaz, he managed to hoist Barburo up as the big giant’s head lolled about. The smell came off him really strong and he muttered, “Your father never teach you point a sword?” and he began to snore with his eyes just slits.
“Jump out, small one,” said Denniz, and reached into his pocket for coin while he balanced Barburo slung over him. “Go on give this to the kind sir there to settle our tab.”
The square-circle-shaped coin was not one I had ever seen at the market. When I gave it to him, the white-haired troughman clucked and took out a heavy and dusty book to find what it was worth. It turned out it could pay for more than a porridge, a stew, and a gallon jug of anise wine, since I got back as many coins as I would make after half a day selling powders.
Denniz was already outside with Barburo when I got done paying. I noticed there were hardly any gladiators left in the water-and-feed, and I wished I knew how late it was. My uncle usually let me come and go as I wanted, but I didn’t think I had ever been out this late. The fishermen’s boats would be floating in darkness, the slimy bait stews eaten up, the children all in their beds.
The door to the water-and-feed was heavy and a birdsong bell chirruped when I shoved it to get outside. “Denniz!” I whispered into the dark. “Denniz!”
I couldn’t see Denniz or Barburo anywhere. The brass money was warming up in my hand. I could have slept standing up, like a pony.
It was not far to my house, but I had never walked the way alone in full dark. The moon wasn’t even out in the sky. Denniz could only have left a few minutes before me, so I squinted into the dark all around for two big shapes. I even tried to sniff Barburo down, but it was no use.
I found them when I went around the side of the water-and-feed. There was a wide path there, leading to the back of the building. Annaz once told me that’s where a troughman and his family might keep a cottage to sleep in. Denniz and Barburo were propped on each other on the ground. Behind me, I heard the chirping bell as the last fighters left to find their stables.
Denniz noticed me. He was not asleep from drink. “Small one. Wait there.”
“What are you doing?” I asked. It was dark. All I could tell was that Barburo was snoring. “I have your coin from the troughman.”
Denniz didn’t respond straight away. He was fiddling with Barburo’s arm—I thought he was trying to find a way to lift him up again, so I didn’t want to interrupt.
“Denniz—be careful, he’s bleeding.” My eyes were getting sharper in the dark, like a cat, and I saw thick trails of red going down the gigantic arm Denniz held, and dripping off the fingers.
“Yes, he is, small one. Beautifully too. Do not wake him, now.”
I took a step back and unclutched the coins, all by accident. They hit the dirt with a sound like a small pillow being fluffed.
My eyes got better and better. I could see where Barburo’s arm was spurting blood. It was not a big wound, more like a hole in a waterskin, inside his elbow. And I saw Denniz was balancing a bladder under the cut. He collected the dripping blood.
“What are you doing to him?” I asked. A big ball grew in my throat, trying to force me to cry. I had not cried since I turned seven because I’m too old now. My eyes did not feel sleepy anymore, but I was more tired than ever. I wanted to hug my baby sister tight and never go to a gladiator fight again.
“Don’t you know, small one? We are milking the ingredients for your rusted gold.”
He hopped on bent knees to the other side of Barburo’s body for a better reach.
“And not just any old ingredients, from the freshly dead or wounded or the smelly unfortunates in the belly of the arena over there, waiting to be thrown to the lions.” He lifted Barburo’s droopy bleeding arm, with its enormous muscles. “Premium quality red, from the veins of a warrior!”
“No,” I corrected him. “Blood pepper isn’t really blood.”
Denniz looked at me funny. “Oh, you don’t think so?” He began to laugh. “Small one, small one. You do not know what game it is you play. If you do not believe me, ask your boy cousin. Or put a little of the stuff on your tongue and taste the steel tang of swords and men for yourself. Careful not to give a little girl a gladiator’s might. Careful not to let the watchmen see you, eh.”
I ran out of words to say but Barburo seemed to never run out of blood. Denniz massaged his arm for what felt a long time, and each time more came out. I got so cold in the dark. The bag began to fill. I saw it get heavy, and it sloshed when Denniz moved it.
Twice, Barburo made some babbling noises. His voice sounded soft and sweet, even when he was sleeping. One time, he began to take quick breaths like they were getting stuck in his neck.
“Come on, Denniz, I have to go home.” Denniz was busy with his bag of blood. “Come on, you’re killing him.”
“Denniz!” I shouted when he would not stop.
“Quiet, Milli, shh. We are almost done, shh.” He inspected Barburo’s arm from every direction, as if there were more pockets of blood hiding on the back of it.
“He will not die, but he will have a headache and a weakness like the worst night of drinking of his life followed by a romp with a questionable lady.”
Denniz stood up and looped a string around the mouth of his bag. “He will not die—yet. Next week, I will make sure he does.”
“One last step,” said Denniz. He bent to Barburo again with a handkerchief he soaked from a bottle. I thought the giant looked pale and weak already, but it was too dark to be sure. He was breathing funny, like he was having a terrible nightmare. Denniz wiped the arm down nice and perfect. The cut welled but Denniz wiped it again and again, then smeared something on it, and the bleeding stopped.
Before we left, Denniz scuffed his sandals in the dirt around Barburo, until there was no blood to be seen anywhere. He took my hand in one of his and carried the sloshing bag in the other. We set off in the direction of the rose garden.
The day after the gladiator fight, I was not allowed to go to the market. I was in trouble with my uncle for coming back from the cliffs so late. He took my set of rolling hoops and my canary whistle. My baby sister seemed angry too. She cried all day, her tiny mouth wide.
Two days after the fight, I returned to the market with Annaz. It felt good to balance my baskets down the road. I did not tell Annaz my secret, and I did not ask him about blood pepper. I didn’t speak to anybody about that, not even Ishaq. I needed to think about it inside my head. It made me feel heavy when I woke up and heavy when I went to sleep, like there were little pebbles all inside my body, especially in my chest.
I asked Annaz about Barburo, but all he knew was that he was Typhon’s stable brother and that he had a contest coming at the arena.
Later, when Annaz went to pay the market commissioner and Urlo wandered away after another dog, I wet my finger and stole a swipe of blood pepper. I brought the tiny rusty fingerprint up to my nose until I could see every fleck in it. I sniffed. It had no smell, but I already knew the heaped sack did. It smelled like swords and forges and butchershops.
The day after that, Denniz came to speak to Annaz.
I wished so hard we hadn’t made a deal. I would have set Urlo on him to bite his arms and legs so he could bleed like Barburo did. But he walked right up to our table and I did what I promised.
“This is my friend Denniz,” I whispered on my toes, feeling like a liar. “I promised he could speak to you for a few minutes about our blood pepper.”
My cousin shrugged and gestured for Denniz to follow him. They went walking in between the hawkers and the baskets full of farm harvest.
Annaz returned alone and counted out a big sack of coin—more than we had made that morning. I watched his every move but his eyes danced away from me. When he came back the second time, the sack of coin was gone, and he was carrying a bag I knew. He set it by his feet and it sagged all the way down. I wondered if it might leak. When Urlo poked around it to see what was inside, Annaz shouted him away.
When there was a break in customers, Annaz said, “They say he’s a false champion. Won with an illegal blow.”
I guessed that Annaz felt heavy inside too, and maybe his pebbles were even bigger than mine, because he did not smile that day, or the next, and it is hard to smile when you’re feeling like that. I wished I could go back to a day when I had never felt that badness. I wished Annaz could go back there too.
The night before Denniz fought Barburo, four gladiators came to our stall for blood pepper. I gave them all scoops of dark sumac, which looks about the same. Sumac powder tastes sourer than green lemons, but none of them came back to complain, so maybe they did not think to taste it.
On the day of the fight, Denniz came to our stall again.
“This is the day, small one.”
“Let us have some of your rusted gold.” He smiled with his wolf teeth, and winked. “Now extra fortified!”
“Try some,” I said, and held out a scoop of blood pepper. Denniz took a pinch and put it on his tongue.
“Ah! I feel strong as a bull already, Milli.”
“Good,” I said. Under the table, I shoveled a heap of dark sumac into a bag and tied a twist around it. “Good luck.”
Milli Bravemeat, I said to my heavy body. Milli Bravemeat. I kept saying this until I could no longer see Denniz’s red sark or his brown sandals or the tufts of dust they raised up along the market way.
Sara Saab loves crunchy nougat, crowded cities, and the sound boxing pads make when you punch them dead centre. She was born in Beirut, Lebanon, near the lighthouse, but now lives in North London. Her flat houses one wonderful human boy, two giant Lego heads, and a silk carpet as ornate as the ceiling of a cathedral. Sara’s fiction is forthcoming in The Dark and Cicada Magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @alixanaeuphoria and at alixanaeuphoria.com.