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The Champions.

Fortnightly Fiction

By PETER JEROME.

IT IS THE time of the great Blueskin games once again, and the streets are filled with chanting, electricity and hubbub. There is scarcely an avenue within the Capital that does not hear the murmur of gossip, private whispered theories, and the bolstered, dashed, or fulfilled hopes of audience members staggering to or from the great colosseum. So throughout are the inebriation and gaiety distributed that regular city life – transport, opinion broadcasts, and such – are barely functioning and threadbare. As Blueskins, my fellow men and I are taken from the barracoon each morning and escorted by the guards – the green-skinned guards – as we shuffle in our chains along the side streets and the highways, scooping fermenting detritus from the gutters. We are shepherded along curved streets that radiate outward from a central point like the impressions upon the surface of a wash-bowl into which a haphazard shard of soap has been dropped. These are byways that our blue skinned forefathers architected with ink and quill upon great swaths of canvas stretched out under tallow-fat candlelight – the same byways dug and bled for by three generations of Greenskin lads in times long gone by, sent for by the shipload, who at first blinked dumb in the queer light of this land after emerging from the pitch dark of the cargo hold. Now due to The Equalising it is we who trot along at the pace our manacles allow, snatching whatevers, spent jollies, and other refuse from the pavement. We are all outwardly grateful. Some fellows in the barracoon are not so: they watch us return nightly from refuse duty, with only our hands, elbows and knees in disarray. Even by moonlight we can see how the envy has festered in their tightened eyes, them having worked the day behind the great subterranean engines and furnaces, a rhythm of lashes and burns patterning furrows upon their brows.

There are some that receive a brand of loathing more caustic than even that directed at the Greenskin population during the great bloody uprising, and maybe yet a malevolence more fuming and bitter than is directed at the audience of the great Blueskin games, slop-drunk and rowdy as they are. The recipients of such overwhelming menace and pain-wishing are the very contestants of the games – blue skinned ones so reviled that they are kept apart from the Blueskin mass, in a barracoon that is reserved only for their ilk and fortified against assaults from the rest of us. These Games – that are held at the request of said contestants, it should be well recorded – are the result of decades of ceaseless petitioning and desperation shown to the authorities, for the opportunity to showcase themselves in this particular way. Blind Gatekeepers, one can sometimes hear these men referred to as, for their forefathers standing by as the great Green flood rolled in. Whisperers was thrown about also, for the reassurances that this type gave during the secret enlargement and breed-up of the green-skinned masses. They’re not taking over, said they, as green boots climbed the steps of our palace two hundred and fifty years ago, You are concerned without cause. After the rebellion and with the beginning of The Equalising, they would go on to say nothing further to a blue man, saving all their breath for the new masters.

THE GAMES HAD begun their procession with increasing passion, and today my fellows and I were allowed a higher privilege – to serve the audience of the games with the customary liquors and provisions that are so associated with this time of year. As ever, it was a delight to serve under the open sky and feel honest air in our lungs. The scale of the colosseum was frightening to a number of the men, as they had scarcely seen open space of that magnitude in their lives. Supplementary to the scale was the energy and riotous disposition of the crowd. I may fail to accurately convey the impression that it leaves upon the soul, dear reader, but the prospect of revealing ourselves to thousands of Greenskins brought to a ferocious and deadly rage by the entertainment and the imbibements, throwing out deafening chants and threats of death to us – and further wading amidst them laden with bottles and packages – was enough motivation to induce a panic response and even some kind of schizoid spell among one of the fellows of a weaker constitution. Indeed, I would not be amiss by saying that the majority of us did seriously question whether we would leave those amphitheatre rows alive. However, after a short time the crowd became less threatening to our presence, and the promised violence did not come to be. It was most intriguing being among the Greenskins however, within person-to-person living distance. I noted – and this was corroborated by some other fellows later – a collection of remarks passed among the Greens as we shuffled and served refreshments and dodged various missiles thrown from higher rows. The most curious of which was at one moment where a Greenskin individual inspected the weighty harness of bottles and packages strung about my body and then observed to another that one of their sons might well do this job, rather than a Blueskin. Moreover, he questioned why the room and board for a Blueskin was being afforded by the state, instead of a bit of occupation and some pocket-wage for a set of proper Greenskin lads. He continued on, sharing his preference for Blueskins to hang from the city walls and whatnot, at which point I moved onwards. However, it did offer a idea for me to think on throughout the day, Greenskin young things doing our duties. I wondered how long such an arrangement might last.

From where we operated we were afforded a handsome view of the events, it must be noted. The rows of seating we serviced sloped downwards towards the pit, of which the vast majority could be seen. The pit was formed into a traditional oval and layered with sand underfoot. I have heard before that there was some design built into the entire structure that would permit the pit to be flooded for use in aquatic events and so forth, but I have become quite suspect of this idea since I saw the space in proper light and air, instead of simple sketches passed around the barracoon by fellows who had reported having access for some duty or other. Fortified with my knowledge of the games, I shall attempt to describe what I saw to the curious reader next.

In the first instance there was an upsurging effect upon the crowds when the contestants were revealed. I have some memories of sporting events in the past, but my understanding of such a roar had become dormant in the time since. I was almost in mind to join them with my own vocal cords, so powerful and evocative was the impulse. Some fifteen or twenty contestants filed into the pit at the beginning of that day’s events, each holding himself with an admirable composure, considering the circumstances. Their vestments did not catch my attention until some of the first round’s imbibements had been distributed and I managed another glance down into the arena. However when I did acquire a moment to regard them, I was brought back with a wonderful splash of memory to the very agreeable times I had as a child with my grandparents, who were known only to wear the traditional Blueskin dress of a long flowing garment of bright colour and a number of finely woven ornamental silk sashes. With the times being what they are, I had thought all of the traditional Blueskin dresses to have been destroyed long ago. How lovely it was to see them again after so long! I was so wonderfully pleased with this sight that I stood with mouth agrin for many moments, before catching sight of my master at the end of the row, arms folded and brow furrowed.

The contestants performed a supplicating gesture for the crowd and the judges, and then one by one took to a small plinth in the middle to recite their written pledges. A voice-projecting device was brought in for them by young Blueskin aides, and they began a one-minute speech each. As this was a quiet period in the proceedings, we distributors of refreshments did a lot of work while they spoke. Because of this, and because the speeches were largely in the Greenskin tongue – for which I do not have a strong ear – I could not form for myself their whole narratives. I did however pounce upon a few strings of sentences and occasionally receive a general understanding of the messages they were conveying in Greenskin. One of the contestants, a tell fellow with whom I had shared a week of labour-duty some years ago, spoke the greater portion of his lot in Greenskin, but then switched to Blueskin to address us directly. Whether he knew we would be serving that day or not, I do not know. In fact, I rather suspect the speech in Blueskin was rather designed for those Greens with a dual ear to hear, instead of addressing the Blueskin labour-force directly. In any case, the fellow performed his bit in Green tongue, bowing low to the ground and falling upon his knees, and after reaching his hands out to the crowd he recounted the following in his mother language:

—and to those whose skin I share, I say shame! It is offensive to me that we have a common blood between us. I who stand in the sand here, I am wiser than you all and have awoken to the suffering that our mere presence causes. I offer myself to our glorious masters as a being of less value than the dirt under their feet! I am more aware than any of the other fellows you see in this arena. The most humble also. I claim this Blue skin to be a poison. A burden to the state! No others yet have made this claim – I am the first! I also have created a widely subscribed opinion-cast pamphlet entitled ‘Ten Reasons I Feel Only Hatred for Our Families and Our Skin’. You may have read it! If you have, please subscribe! Vote for me, I beg you, and show this Blue oppressor how he deserves to be treated!

He was a man of some twenty-two hands in height, and of good Blue stock despite his diminutive stature. One could see the strong forces of our genes in his wide brow and blade-like cheekbones, and he wore a rich head of swollen locks in accordance with some of the elder Blue traditions. I will confess to a measure of political strife appearing in my liver upon hearing his words, which was doubtless expected by my master stood at the end of the row. A Blueskin rarely passes his first month in the work camps and the barracoon without receiving a forewarning about the dangers of drawing a reaction from a master with Greenskins present. It has been many times known for a guard to administer a healthy dose of ‘punitive engagement’, and thinking his mercy the end of the matter return to his post, only to have a thrall of lusting Greenskins descend on the broken man for a good bit of sporting. We have lost some fine fellows in that manner, over the years. I think I will make habit of dealing out this kind of warning in times to come, should I be in a lucid and able position to do so. One need only be a distant witness to learn that even considering all the available transgressions, no man can possibly earn a death by such misery as bludgeoning or such horror as flame.

THE CONTESTANT WHO had most recently spoken was conducting a lap of the arena. An iron yoke had been levelled and affixed upon his shoulders, but instead of a design for transporting goods, this yoke was of a different nature. It was barbed, or rather, it appeared to be pronged – the sharpened points being too long to bear any threat to the wearer – and as the fellow was lead by a tether about the circumference of the arena, the patrons formerly seated on the inner rows took to their feet and launched all manner of articles at him. It was a great distance for me to identify the missiles, but I saw a good number of items splash against the sand when aimed poorly, and more yet when successfully caught on the prongs, depositing a goodly volume of mixed solids and liquids. Of course, I have well noted the atmosphere of riot in the air, and this event was only a furthering of the same. Some ambitious young Greens up in the gallery near me also tried their arms, and with a runaway success managed to catch the iron yoke with a magnificently placed piece of brick and almost toppled the staggering fellow, such was the heft of the thing. Perhaps the most peculiar part of the affair was the contestant’s behaviour, however. To clarify, I make note of this as a peculiarity for you, reader, because to my shame and to my disappointment it was not a peculiarity for me at all. The man had stretched his countenance into a great lunatic grin, which – the teeth now bespattered and flecked with the contents of those well-directed sachets (I could see by now that it certainly was not fruit, dear reader) – he cast out to the audience with glee: Thank-you! He giggled, as more detritus and jibes were delivered, My gratitude! I’m understanding your historical suffering! (at this moment, the aforementioned section of masonry brick caught his yoke with a heart-stopping clang) Tee-hee! More yet, my generous masters! A thousand appreciations! I am becoming aware of your cultural pain! His cries were cut short by a mouthful of waste delivered by a beefy punter in the front row, who turned, victorious, to a swathe of audience members crippled with laughter. The Blue fellow was freed from the contraption and helped slowly back to the centre of the arena. Two men at my elbow squinted in thought: —What’s all this about suffering and culture, he was spouting? —Oh, they always make a meal of that sort of thing. —Well he certainly got himself a meal in the end, hey! What a throw! Right in the mush! Friedrich, what’s your take on this nonsense? A third fellow slumped back into his seat and turned a drooling mouth to them: —It’s all the historical hoohah, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what my cultural suffering is: this eternal thirst! Hey You! Blueboy! Let’s have some fizz over here: give us five or six bottles. Is gumfruit flavour alright with you chaps, or what’s happening? Speak up!

I bent for the gentleman to take an armful of the glowing flasks from my neck-brace, and he thanked me with a nod. A single warm blast of siren from across the city marked the turning of another hour, and I stepped into the aisle stairway to stretch my knees and have my stock replenished. I cracked open a parfum batonette as a weathered Green gentleman began to ascend from below, and placed it between my teeth. The contestant had recently established a blaze in what appeared to be an enormous gilded cauldron, which lashed a brief scarlet tendril from time to time and gave an uninterested glow to the fellow disrobing nearby. The Green gentleman picked his footing with care, and when we shared a stair he wobbled to a stop. He raised a balled fist and jabbed it at my batonette, asking if I would not part with one for him. I replied that my pocket was his pocket, and that I would think nothing of the matter, except for at this time I was only in possession of a bundle of 4711s, which were talked of as being old-world, and frequently divided taste. He explained that he was one of the good old sorts, and asked me to snap one on his behalf. The contestant had just about bared himself in full ceremony by this time, and the old sort and I puffed our fumers as we looked on. The fellow in the arena wafted and waved the Blueskin dress and sashes he’d removed, appealing to the audience for more refuse with which to stain the thing. The old sort croaked that he wished the fool would hasten up and get on with it, before gesturing his batonette and returning to his seat, probing for each stair with a stumpy foot as he descended.

Up and upon the blaze sailed the robe. It crumpled itself about one of the logs, as a reptile might upon a branch. The flames were slapped into a humble simmer, and in the memory I retrieve for you, there echoed a final hooof. Yet as if by shared desire, the embers grew with a bubbling, suppressed fury, and all at once the blaze launched into the air, twice the height of a man. Far from being consumed by the flames, the dress almost tripled their force and energy. The contestant circled the brazier with delight splashed in screaming orange upon his chest and visage. The blaze moved to leap and shout, beat its ugly face against every bottle and glass and polished rail, chanting louder than all the audience its support and glee to incinerate its gift of fuel.

I measured out a moment of self-pity, and indulged. Once I had spent my fill, however, I was startled to note that I was the subject of some several attentions. In fact, there were quite a many pairs of eyes cast on my person, and furthermore my duty captain and our master had begun tramping down the staircase from above, jabbing outstretched fingers at the nearby expectant audience members. A dumb moment followed my self-pity moment, but once in turn that had been spent, I snapped to action, and filled my pack with parfum batonettes for the nearby crowd. As the arena stood alight with flame, and the contestant danced about it with pride at his destruction, I felt more consumed than the garment upon which the fire feasted. I was clearly, however, the only one to experience this, as the demand for my distribution services had not to this point ever been higher, and there was much chatting and smalltalk among the event-goers. As I distributed packets of fumers, cracked and warmed up and induced smoke after smoke for the punters, it seemed to me that this moment of the games was perhaps the least paid with attention by the Greens about me. I must say that I encountered quite a challenge in this, as something deep within my person had been licensed out to the flames, and in severe contrast to those about me, I was as absent as could have been. I caught up with the conversations around me in an attempt to bring myself into being, and I managed some small success with it.

The reader might find particular interest in the increasing number of instances where I was summoned into conversation by the Greens, often noting the newly released flavour of fumers that had been prepared in special occasion for the games (I had been mistaken when speaking with the old sort, earlier) and inquiring about whether we Blues might return to the barracoon later with a discreet pocket-load of these things each. And in jovial voices, dear reader! How queer it felt to be addressed suchly, I might never forget. This was of course the exception, and only in a small number of cases overall. The majority of the chatter was Green-on-Green, and in the major there was a trend toward discussing if they might take a break before The Peel, or if an intermission of the ceremonies might be provided for them. An intermission of sorts did come to pass, and plenty of bustle and robe-organising ensued while the audience found themselves with a moment for fresh air and some walkabout.

I was due to replenish my parfum batonettes about this time, therefore I picked my route back to our makeshift server’s depot among throngs of yawning Green ladies and eager fellows jerking their printed programmes in heated anticipation of the game-winner’s announcement. I even picked up several well-developed – to my mind, at least – fan-theories about who among the contestants might secure themselves the title, and the subsequent emancipation from the Blue ranks with an honorary greenhood and freedom. As I wiped a dauber across a vomit-drenched stair, I was privy to a theory that explained how a recent uptake in the number of Blue escape attempts had been reported in the daily opinion-cast, and therefore the only possible conclusion at which the judges could arrive would be that yesterday’s contestant – a confirmed informant against one such plot – was the correct political choice this year. But how shrewd you are! Blotted the man’s companion. There shan’t be a great deal of thought put into the matter, I say. It’s always been an indulgence for the poor buggers. Surely the judges mustn’t toss at night over the result, even if the prize is an honorary Greenhood. I certainly don’t. Naivety, however, was apparently the companion’s chief flaw here, and Heinrich let him have an ear full of it. I stepped around their hollow silence when the roasting had subsided, and caught up with my master as the chest-rending beat of an epic drum threatened the air across the city.

I was flattened by the menace of such a surge, and upon catching some air noted that the instrument had been towed into the arena by a team of beasts. At an eightfold magnitude of their height it made insects of the contestants, who had taken the arena by occupation in the intermission and evidently manacled themselves. They now wore aching forlorn expressions and some had managed to produce pantomime tears. I begged forgiveness for my delay but was instructed by my master that there would be no service during the last procession, and that for our benefit a leave of duty was granted. Hey now, I thought, It may very well be true that I have not serviced these games before, but has it come to the point where a Blue may not even set eyes upon the judges? And was such a threat, this ‘for your benefit’ business thus warranted? I had no mind whatsoever to cede this opportunity – I confess I had become somewhat emboldened above my station by infection from the raucous audience – and I emitted a shortly cut protesting word to my master, which I suppose must have formed something like a rodent’s squeak. My master took a queer gaze upon me, which turned my belly with malaise. He gripped his bludgeon with both hands and tested the flex of it, cording up the vessels in his thick forearms. He ran a palm across the back of his neck, and stepped to within a foot of me. You may choose to end your duty early today, but I shall not enforce it. I saw a gesture form upon his face, a form of concern ten lifetimes more genuine than that displayed by the contestants below. Be wise, he said. I neglected his advice.

The drum made terrible waves across the city once more, and I plopped myself down in the stairway. All about, Greens took to their feet. Men clambered above one another to see, to get an angle upon some happening below. Whispers and sighs scattered around me. As the standers thinned out, the Royal Box was revealed to me in full and the judges themselves stood in place, as warranted and belonging as bastion rocks standing proud against the sea. The judges began a sermon in the Green Tongue, which – in contrast to my master, and the voices of many native Greens – lilted smoothly, forming a bubbling rise and fall without ever bittering to sharpness, or snapping and spitting. I felt the stubble that had grown out on the back of my neck melt into warm lapping waves, and new muscles in my shoulders soften out from where gristle or bone had presumably lurked before. Greens in all rows began nodding, opening their hands to their families, friends, and acquaintances with agreement at the message of the lullaby. Expressions of bliss emerged, as if worldly battles and extant riddles had suddenly been unknotted with a deft and elegant solution. Fellows and ladies alike closed shut their eyes and drew in the words, swooning and gliding their faces the way one would against velvet, or the fur of a cherished pet.

Abruptly, applause shot out into the sky, and one contestant began to spin, bewildered and gay, discovering his joyous fate. The Blue fellows skated across the sand and dust of the arena floor to embrace the man, and for a good while he was mobbed with weeping, sorrowed runners-up. More blasts from the drum called up a dark, vibrating sensation in the air, and since evening had fallen properly great braziers and torches were ignited across the arena. The judges spoke once more, this time with a chant in unison that caught a resonating note so finely that it sunk gripping fingers into my chest and rippled along my skin. The voices grew deeper and brought an echo from the stone stairs and battlements, supported by the drum’s constant rumble. Blue words appeared in the chant: cursed, and thrown out with lashes. A howl pierced the night from a chorus hidden hereabouts, at least fifty voices strong. The audience rocked forward in their seats, eyes wide and blazing, determined. They joined with cries: six, seven, eight times, beating the floor, their chests, their seats.

THE NIGHT HAD begun hot, but with such flames cast about the air was thick and immobile. Down in the sand, the former contestants had backed against the walls and restrained themselves once more. They too yipped and cried with eyes tortured wider than ever. The winner bucked and swayed, threw his body upwards with each howl and burst of the rhythm. He moved in the circle as a gang of robed Blues carried in a chest gilded with carved animal bone at the corners. As the team set down the chest and retreated to the edges of the arena, the contestant’s momentum was cut at the core, and he stilled in place, cold. He seemed to know the contents of the chest, for his shoulders dropped before he even approached the thing. Moreover, it took a goodly amount of time for him to trudge up to the chest. Such time was taken, in fact, that the chorus stopped shut their mouths, and the audience evaporated into silence. Perhaps because of the heat that eve, or perhaps because of what was about to come, the landscape of the arena solidified into one great shared experience. I have scarcely felt anything like it. It was as if every man and woman in the ranks that day – Blue, Green, the lot – had been strung up by a woven thread wrapped twenty times around their liver, and were all connected to the same rope-maker’s wheel in the centre of the sand below, which was being operated at a slow, merciless rate: binding, tensioning, straining us all. I even witnessed the collective bulk of us all be drawn by the belly forward, craning with our bodies toward the action. I felt as if I lived inside the contestant’s throat – had always done so – and was continually being crushed by the forces at play. What those forces were, I was yet to discover, but their effect upon me must have been leached from those in the surrounding.

The contestant approached the chest and ground his bare feet into the sand, forming two sturdy divots for foundation. The crackling sound seemed to ring out to us all. The lid of the chest had clearly been oiled, for it lifted without a whimper. From within the contestant drew a blade, two hooks, and a length of rope. When he turned, I was able to see them each more closely: the blade was finger-thin and curved back above the hand that gripped it. It was set into a poorly made wooden hilt, which like the blade bore scratches all over: the result of many decades’ worth of use and re-sharpening, anxious workers’ fingernails pressing into the soft wood, scrapes from benches, walls, floors. The two iron hooks were similarly beaten, having likely served a previous lifetime in a butcher’s den, bearing the burden of a beast’s load as it was broken down from existence and activity into serving portions. A gambling man might make a wager that the rope also hailed from the same industry as the blade and hooks, as it had darkened in patches with runaway blood, which now flaked from the thick coils at a whim. The rope-maker’s wheel tightened further, and more of the audience members shifted to the lip of their seats to see in more detail. I clattered down the steps to the railing at the edge of the upper tier, and when I glanced over my shoulder realised that I had drawn stares and leaned-over whispers from the audience in many of the rows above.

It is at this point that I ask forgiveness from you, reader. I hope that you will find it possible to grant me this much, for I will now proceed – solemnly proceed – to describe what transpired to complete the ceremony of the games, for that year. I will do it without trepidation or waver in the face of the facts, and will not deliver to you anything less than a full and detailed accounting. For this, please accept my advance warning and my honest apology.

It began with the hooked blade and another gesture of appreciation to the crowd. The contestant shrugged the gown he had been wearing from his shoulders, and surrendered his naked form to us all. He appeared unafraid and bold in his nudity, not at all as if he was preparing for bed or passing waste in the commode. This was a gallant nudity as seen in beasts of the wild. The contestant gave a quick wave of the blade, and then made a quick little twist at the base of his throat, just between the tips of his collarbones. Each step that followed was broken with swift distractions, bringing the tip of the knife to his lips to kiss it, or gesturing the tool out to the audience for a burst of ceremony. He tucked the tip inside the nick he’d created at his throat, and over the space of one shhhhhh breath tore himself a path down to the crest of his belly, spat onto the dust, blew out his cheeks, and then rode the blade onwards with both hands and exited it next to his appendage. After the seam had been opened, the contestant crumpled into a standing knot, bent double and flexed impossibly tight against the grief. Even from my adopted position I could see the sinews along his neck bunch into thick cables and resist the skin that bound them. The winner found the ability to straighten himself up, which flapped him like a newly tailored waistcoat. There was no blood for a sheltered few moments, and when there did begin a thin stream, it was noticeably little – at least in my approximation. Indeed, where he had opened himself there instead lay a jacket of quilted golden fat specked with dark globs of congealed fluid, and where this thinned a web of milk-white fibers emerged from the intestinal structures below. The fellow next passed the blade about his shoulders with a gesture far too deft to be unpractised. There appeared no immediate effect, but when the rock-stiffened shoulder cage fell and the eyes were no longer crushed shut, the canvas about his collar slid apart in two newly-separated swathes. This seam circled his neck cleanly, and connected with the former at the base of his throat. With the extra permission now granted, the skin that previously clothed his chest fell slack and swung lazily when he turned about, slapping a measure of stringy connective tissue to both sides. I heard a hiss nearby as breath was drawn in through the audience’s teeth. Many gripped their fists unconsciously, rubbed their hands between their clamped legs, and craned further forward with eager winces. A round of applause sounded, but it fell tinny and hollow. I noticed that it had not come from the stands but the failed contestants in the arena, who congratulated the fellow and each other, and urged the man onward. The Green visitors viewing the games did not clap, instead shuffled about, making use of their hands for fastening pockets, picking nails, and other business that a person conducts when they are held from applauding while others are permitted. I ventured at the time that perhaps it was an outright refusal to applaud on certain grounds for this year’s event – perhaps this contestant was giving a poor show in comparison to the standard of previous years, for instance. I have since been corrected, my friends, that it is common for Greens not to applaud during the Peel, and in fact doing so would be considered bad form. This information came to me during a later occurrence, which I shall in good faith note and elaborate upon at the appropriate time.

AS THE APPLAUSE dropped in patches, the winner set about the next stage of his demonstration. He took the coil of woven rope across the sand to a knee-high stone stud buried close to the centre of the arena, into which a brass ring had been hammered. The contestant hitched the rope to the ring, as would have been done with a mooring ship, and tested that the knot held fast. A man fidgeted in the row nearest me, and his lover admonished his excitement with a bladed frown. When I returned my gaze to the arena, I found that the contestant had magicked two loops of rope out of the single line, and was struggling to fit each loop with a hook. When successful, he showed to the crowd the two hook-fitted loops of rope that forked out from a knot on the main line and turned his back to the long stretch of rope and the stud to which it was fixed. Passing one hook over each shoulder, he plunged a hook into each of his lapels – his previous cuts had created a jacket-like affair on his chest – and paced back upon himself until he had between ten and fifteen paces worth of slack in the rope. Wisely without hesitating, he took off at a full sprint away from the stud and the brass ring. The audience scrambled to their feet as they were caught by the contestant’s early take off, and most managed to find a view above the blanket of obscuring heads just in time to see the contestant skid his heels and abort the run. The arena was silent as he sobbed his way back to the stone stud and vomited a portion of stringy bile into the sand. He traced the T shape that bled on his chest: the bottom of which ended next to his sexual organs, and the top line of which continued about his neck and met at the back. Many fingernails were bitten in the crowd, pockets fastened and unfastened, beverage bottles thumbed. As if he were a sportsman, the naked contestant padded around the sand in his own time and finally stilled with intent. He bounced on his toes and launched himself, working his hips and shoulders into powerful strides, barrelling hard towards the judges. In the last couple of strides he pitched low and arched his chest up, flinging his arms backward and driving upward with his legs. From neck to mid-thigh he was degloved as easily as twine feeding from a spool, and the walls echoed as if someone had torn fifty wet bed sheets down the middle. While his skin remained, his unsheathed torso, arms and groin travelled onward, ultimately reaching the stoppage at the thigh, lurching over at the waist and pitching down into the dust. My knowledge of the Green language could not assail the wall of noise that exploded into the arena, as seemingly every able person in the place took to their feet and shouted into the void. Some voices begged, others urged, others accosted. The contestant’s head rose from the sand, but to anyone with good eyes, he was clearly not in full-minded control of this action. The angle and rotation of the movement were alien, drunken, and puppet-like, as is often the case following grievous accidents, fires, weaponed attacks, and the like. However the dripping torso had anima within yet, as the arms reached out in advance and began to claw at the dirt, dragging itself forward and – with difficulty – evacuating the leg skin it formerly occupied. At this juncture I must concede that the accuracy of my reporting suffers, as I had become weak in constitution and began to look for a cool surface and available fresh air to keep from abandoning my consciousness. The deafening force from the audience persisted as I came to my haunches and took some healthy breaths, alternately pressing my face and neck against the cold iron handrail to apply some relief. When I regained sufficient vigour to look over the handrail upon the events in the arena, the contestant had almost entirely evicted himself from his previous suit, and was jerking the blade around his ears and jawbone to free the last of it. He knelt in the sand, which had coated every moist and formerly internal surface with which it came into contact, and whatever state his mind now occupied drove his thrashing, wild, attempt to flense his remaining face and loose skullcap. With this completed and the limp suit now discarded in pieces and soaking the dirt, a rhythm was beat upon the great drum, and a small team of Blues rushed forth to hoist the figure up to standing and splash it with viscous, mustard-yellow liquid from a series of buckets. The audience settled into their seats to collect their belongings, and murmured gently here and there. Brightly coloured flower petals and songs were thrown around the arena by the Blue contestants, and the now-unconscious winner was marionetted by his former brothers in celebration.

My master approached the railing at my side and tapped it with his bludgeon. He produced the set of manacles that I had worn earlier that day, and bound me to one of the vertical railing supports. I do not feel violent, if that is your concern, I explained, and he nodded —I’m sure. Gangs of Greens peeled away from their seats in woozy deflation. Many staggered while attempting to climb the stairway, others drifted with aimless, unhurried footing. We had not served intoxicating beverages for some hours, yet each appeared to be subdued in the unmistakable dreamy fashion that follows successful lovemaking or an elegantly portioned meal. Few spoke, save for a group of large and formerly boisterous men who had brought a moist-foreheaded youth along for what I suspect to be his first experience of the games. Why mustn’t we applaud him, Papa? The sprout enquired. A flinch ran through the other men of the party. We do not come for the politic, Swenlob. We have drink and spectacle here, but this is no place for serious thought. A comical eye swept between the hulking men. —Was he not the best competitor then? I thought he was a fine speaker. May I have sausage when we get home, Papa? Papa belched into a closed mouth and blew the fumes away. —You can forget the speeches, Swen. Nobody listens to that nonsense. It is for the other Blue men to hear. Remember the drums? And the flames? What sport it was!

When the rows were empty, my master raised his timepiece to the light and began to release the manacles. Do the winners ever survive to enjoy the honorary Greenhood? Said I. My master bobbed his head from side to side in thought. —Sometimes. Though often they remain unsatisfied and take their own lives. He did not elaborate.

The figure had begun to steam – presumably from the golden humours with which he had been treated – and now writhed where he lay. The celebration continued as medical professionals retrieved him on a wheeled cart and transported him elsewhere for triage. With the Green audience now departed, the hubbub and music only involved Blue contestants and Blue assistants to the games. The music and gaiety continued at full strength, and a series of contestants fought above each other to make congratulatory speeches and proclamation of the grand achievement that had taken place. There was also an organised applause for themselves as contestants, started by a speech-maker who invited one another to recognise each others’ nobility and awareness. In my ignorance and naivety however, I cannot understand how although the honour of their actions was – I am told – present without question, no gratitude could exist without a Green to endorse it. Moreover, and I quote a following announcement here, while there were Green judges, and a prize had been given – or rather, released – at their behest, the establishment, organisation and production of the events was the work of an outstanding team of dedicated Blue agents. Unfortunately, I do somewhat fail in my service to you, reader, as I cannot fully understand or convey to you who has truly succeeded, in whose eyes, and upon whose request.


Peter Jerome, born in West Germany after the Berlin wall fell, is the son of two British soldiers. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Hertfordshire before finding work as a military postman. He once drove (multiple) thousands of miles across the US in a Volkswagen Beetle and has seen and done many things that he can’t discuss in good company, but is happy to talk absinthe, stripping, and being five-foot-three over a glass of cheap whisky – although it’s wise not to let him near the sangria again. Peter’s semi-autobiographical first novel Gum is currently looking for a home – please contact for details of his literary agent.

 

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