The sun was blazing down.
It wasn't in the far distant past - it wasn't even all that long ago. It had only been two, three years at most – looking back on it, Orba remembered far stronger sunlight that seemed to broil the top of his head, and with it, the taste of blood, bitter and like rusted iron, and the anger that raged through his heart.
It had been from that time onwards.
When a brand that would never disappear had been burned onto his back.
Along with other men in similarly tattered clothing, Orba had been brought, practically naked, to the town plaza.
The sun was overhead.
As he stood there, hands tied behind his back, encircled by the sharp tips of spears, dozens of slave traders passed in front of him. All of them raised an eyebrow when they saw his face.
“You a criminal from some other country?” they asked.
Orba didn’t answer. He simply glared at them from the other side of the mask. Even when the soldiers yelled at him and prodded him with the butt of their spears, he kept his mouth stubbornly shut. Smiling coldly, the merchants all lost interest and left quickly.
In those days, Mephian slaves did not only come from Mephius; there were many foreign criminals brought back by merchants who had gone to trade overseas. They would pay money to government officials in those countries for criminals who were in prison awaiting execution, then have them shipped over by boat.
Eventually, a fat merchant stopped in front of Orba.
“Show me your teeth,” he ordered, jerking his flabby chin but, like every other time, Orba refused to obey. That merchant, however, jabbed his fingers into Orba’s mouth.
Orba bit them.
The merchant screamed, and brawny soldiers immediately rushed up and hit Orba around the neck area. Looking down at Orba who was crouching silently, the fat trader said disgustedly – “The teeth certainly seem solid.” Blood was dripping from his fingertips.
“Hey hey, Mr Tarkas, you going to buy him?” laughed one of the other traders who had walked past Orba. “According to what’s written, that mask was fixed in place by a sorcerer’s spell. Who’s to say you won’t be cursed if you bring that back.”
“It’s fine. That’ll be a selling point as a gladiator.”
“He’s not fit to use. I’d expect a cocky brat like him to bite the dust from the get-go.”
Tarkes simply tilted his head, attached to his meaty neck, and laughed without saying anything in reply.
Afterwards, soldiers grabbed hold of his arms and dragged Orba along the road. Those in the same situation walked in a line in front and behind him. Most of them were silent.
The townspeople were indifferent to the somewhat strange scene. Men strode along while, right at their feet, children dashed about laughing. Women, who seemed to be their mothers, were standing around, chatting. While merchants were talking business by the shopfronts whose eaves were lined up on either side of the road.
It was the world that Orba had once been a living part of. He too had strutted down the street as though he owned it, brought things from the shops with what little money he had, heard the laughter of children, and was ogled by housewives with too much time on their hands.
But now, even though he was walking along the same streets, he had been torn away from that world. The shops, the children, the women… none of them made any sense to him at all.
Orba was now a thing belonging to a world of blazing sun, dusty wind trailing at his feet, and the feel of iron pressed against his face.
He had become a slave.
He was flung into a cart along with the other slaves and they travelled like that, pulled along by dragons, for two days. The sun’s merciless heat beat down incessantly. Time and again, Orba struggled violently. His arms and legs had lost their freedom, yet each time he writhed in agony, as though to tear off the ropes that bound his wrist and the chains around his ankles, the soldiers beat him down again.
The bitter taste of iron in his nose and mouth, and the sun always overhead.
They finally arrived at their destination: training grounds jointly owned by the Tarkas Gladiator Troupe and other slave traders.
This was Orba’s new world.
All around, half-naked men were grappling or fighting with wooden swords and shields. Muscles rippling, sweat flying, then the agonised groans of whichever man it was who had been beaten down. In a corner of the grounds, elderly craftsmen were hammering iron armour into shape, their eyes apathetic. Caged dragons, howling fiercely, were being transported around him.
Although the grounds were partitioned off on the east side by a tall fence, women with gaudy makeup were standing side-by-side. They were probably prostitutes returning from work. Some of them were pulling young children by the hand. These women in patched up clothes were watching the men train just to kill some time.
“Hey hey, if you’re that weak-kneed, you’ll be done in no time, yo.”
“Become a man who makes money and come buy us, okay!”
The women revealed their dirty teeth and waved their scrawny hands as they laughed coarsely. Stifling anger filled his heart. That anger was the proof that Orba was now separated from that world which lay just one step beyond the fence. Once upon a time, he too had been ‘on that side’. He too should have been looking at ‘here’ from the other side of the fence, feeling as though he was looking at ferocious animals.
The sunlight was strong, even dazzling.
Training began the next day. The man who introduced himself as Gowen let Orba hold a sword. Orba was confident pretty in his own skill, so he was thinking of killing this guy and escaping. Yet the sword he lunged with sliced through thin air. Nor was that all –
“What? What’s wrong? A short guy like you should always be moving. If you even stop to attack, the weight difference will soon destroy your centre of gravity. Like this!”
As he staggered under the weight of the blows, his legs were swept away, or his shoulders were pushed back, and, every time, he was pathetically sent falling.
“Gotten used to the taste of dirt yet?” Gowen jeered as he thrust the sword towards Orba’s throat. Orba had just magnificently fallen on his face. “In less than an hour, you’ve been put in your coffin more than twenty times over.”
The tanned soldier was over fifty years old. Yet, although the young Orba was drenched in sweat, Gowen wasn’t even out of breath.
“You might think that death would be preferable, but… too bad. You’re no longer free to do anything or have anything. Be it your name, your social position, the clothes you wear or the food you eat – everything will be granted to you by others and you can only wait with your mouth open wide, like a baby chick. And yes, even your life. For a slave like you, even your life belongs to someone else.”
He suddenly jerked Orba’s chin up with the tip of the blade.
“You want to take it back? If you want to take it back, become a swordsman who earns money. Everything that was sold with money can be bought back with money. Got it, Tiger Boy?”
From the depths of his throat, Orba growled like a beast. He rolled over the ground, grabbed a rusty shield, and swung it overhead to strike Gowen.
In the instant in which Gowen was caught by the suddenness of the attack, he hurled the shield at him and started running in the opposite direction. He avoided the men who were clashing with each other, sometimes pushing them away, as he plunged further and further into the training grounds.
The wind crashed against the iron mask and roars arose on either side of him. He arrived in a place where countless cages were lined in rows. Dragon scales shone dully from the other side of the iron bars.
Breaking through the side of them, the figure of a slender woman and a high wall both appeared in sight. Conveniently, a ladder was propped against the wall. A man who seemed like a worker was at the top, probably repairing cracks.
Orba was going to leap onto the ladder.
At that moment, something swiftly tripped him from the side and he went tumbling. His mask hit both the wall and the ladder, but he clung to the latter without stopping to worry about it. Which was when somebody caught him from behind by the scruff of his neck. He would have fought back but whoever it was lifted him up with inhuman strength, and, in only a second, Orba’s feet were floating in mid-air.
He was once again thrown to the ground.
He looked up into the white light of the sun. Against a backdrop of dazzling sunlight, two faces peered down at Orba.
“We’ve got us a lively newcomer,” a man with messy hair like a lion’s mane, and whose huge body was blocking the sun, said to his neighbour.
“For once it’s a handsome man, don’t be so violent with him,” a slender, long-haired man chuckled unintentionally. He was probably the one who had tripped Orba up.
“A handsome man? He’s hidden behind a mask, you can’t see anything about him.”
“Oh my, oh my, your distant ancestors were probably dragons or man-eating Geblins, so it’s so very like you not to care about the finer details. But unlike a common, average person like you, I, who am from the higher classes, have a ‘third eye’.”
While the long-haired man was pointing at his own forehead, the guards belatedly came running. Orba was forcibly made to stand then put through another baptism of kicks and blows. He could no longer resist against them. The harsh sunlight continued unceasingly to burn his skin and wounds.
At long last, that white tyrant which raged from the sky turned the colour of blood, and hid itself behind the mountains.
Orba was groaning from on top of a bed. His entire body was on fire. An old, hunchbacked doctor had given him basic medical treatment. The doctor had not spoken a word and had left silently after mechanically completing his work.
“Is it done?”
A long-haired man appeared in his place. He was one of the pair which had been peering down at Orba earlier.
“It’s not exactly rare for guys to try and escape, but still, there aren’t many who do so from the first day of training. And let me tell you that most of those guys don’t have long lives.”
“What? Did you say something?”
“The ones who don’t live long,” Orba spoke through gritted teeth and swollen lips, “are the bastards who meet my eye. You included.”
The man smiled faintly and shrugged.
“It’s good for boys to be ambitious. But if you want to meet the requirements for that, you’ll have to kill ten, twenty men who are out to take your life. Your own opinion is irrelevant. Although it would be good if you could hold on to that ambition even as you’re smothered by your opponents’ blood and corpses.”
I’ll hold on to it – Orba closed his eyes for a second then suddenly opened them wide.
Staring up at the ceiling, which was hidden in shadows, he felt as though the sun was still burning him from the other side of it. Tomorrow again, it would no doubt be fierce. It would burn his skin, and the top of his head, and his face which was hidden behind the mask. Orba focussed his entire being on that invisible sun, as though he were glaring at the future itself.
Seeing Orba go silent, the man shrugged once more, as though in amazement, but, just as he was about to leave the room, he turned around.
“Ran said something interesting earlier. Ah, she’s the girl that you passed by when you rushed into the dragon pen. That girl doesn’t go in for idle chatter… Actually, that was pretty much the first time I’ve heard her voice, you know?”
“She said that ‘even when that guy came, the dragons didn’t get nervous.’ Anyway, for her to actually speak is rarer than rare, so you should remember it. Even a single element of support is a lot for a gladiator. It can help keep your heart strong. Especially if you get to thinking that you’re special.”
“Who knows if that fate won’t be cut off tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, but… since you’re interesting, won’t you tell me your name? I’m Shique. That big guy from earlier is Gilliam, and the old man who taught you the sword is Gowen. Welcome to a world of eviscerated entrails and dark pools of blood, boy in the iron mask. Let’s hope our acquaintance lasts for as long as possible.”