*Trigger Warning: This story contains depictions of violence and brief gore.
It’s time for us to go to the arena now. You follow me across town, and I show one of the assistants our tickets. We’re allowed inside the massive stone building where we find seats on the tiered benches. We’ll be staying in Sa Dunas for six days, so you can watch a full kezdin and have a day of rest before we cross the sea. Today is Round One.
We return each day for the subsequent rounds, and I warn you that Round Four is to-the-death. Watch only if you’re willing to see men die.
As you watch the competitions, I tell you the stories of three of the competitors.
* * * * *
The Magic Flute Player was one of the first to sign up for the kezdin. His family owned the furniture store next door to the clothes shop Daija’s family owned. He and Daija essentially grew up together, often playing in each other’s stores while their parents worked. When they were older, they ventured out into the city, finding concerts and plays to attend, trees to climb, and shallow parts of the river to swim in.
The Magic Flute Player had always loved his friend. He had yet to compete in a kezdin because he was waiting for hers. Now it was finally here. His alias was written on the contract, and he was locked in his room in the suitors’ lodgings. The lock was a safety precaution. When the kezdins first started, men would resort to cheating and foul play to ensure they won. He would be kept under constant surveillance until he won the final round or lost an earlier round.
The events didn’t concern him. He was adept at all of them, though he wondered what the second round would be. He hoped it wasn’t anything beyond his capabilities. Fortunately, it was an early round; so even if he wasn’t the best, he still had a chance of moving forward. He had to move forward. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing and seeing his friend marry someone else. There was only one way to ensure he won: He had to be better than the other suitors.
* * * * *
The Zinian Swordsman was also one of the first men to sign up. He didn’t have a choice. In his pants pocket was a cloth with Daija’s symbol and name embroidered on it. She had saved his life last year. If he hadn’t accepted her token, he would be dead right now. He was thankful for a second chance at life. All of his older brothers had died in kezdins. He couldn’t afford to face the same fate.
Because he had to sign up for the kezdin, he was protected from to-the-death in Round One, but that didn’t matter in this one. If he didn’t want to compete in the later to-the-death round, he could lose early on or drop out. He liked his odds and had no plans of leaving the kezdin. If Daija cared about him enough to save his life, then he would give her his best. Perhaps this time his swordsmanship wouldn’t fail him.
* * * * *
The Blue Dancer was the last suitor to sign up. In fact, he was so late, he nearly missed his chance. He had gotten lost trying to find the arena. He had been there a couple weeks ago for the costume ball; but the nearby inns were full, forcing him to stay on the other side of the city. He was from Sa Aratama on the island of Satar. While his skills were great, they weren’t the ones women in his town sought out. He was ill-equipped for courting in his homeland. He had lost six kezdins and dropped out of two before he was killed in to-the-death events he knew he couldn’t win. He had a better chance competing against city folk who valued his skills more highly than his neighbors. Perhaps his ninth try would be more successful.
Given the events at this competition, he liked his odds. Having grown up in the Ni Satar woods, he had an advantage with woodcarving. He had made a point to master every performing art, his favorite being dancing. The footwork he learned for that was easily transferable to physical competitions like hand-to-hand combat and fencing.
The women in Sa Aratama preferred men with skills in craftsmanship and visual arts; and if they wanted a physical event, it was typically archery or spear throwing. The Blue Dancer had attempted to learn all of those things; but he simply didn’t have the talent he needed, so he chose to focus on things he did enjoy. He hoped they would be enough to get him a wife in Sa Dunas.
* * * * *
The first round was a woodcarving competition. There were about two dozen suitors; and each one was given a seat, a block of wood, tools, and two hours. Law enforcers were stationed around the perimeter of the arena in case anyone got any stupid ideas. Cheating in a kezdin was punishable by death.
The suitors set to work carving their blocks of wood. It wasn’t the most entertaining thing to watch, but it was interesting to see their final creations.
The Magic Flute Player knew why Daija had chosen woodcarving. It was for him. She had sent him an invitation to her costume ball and given him a courtship card, indicating her desire to have him in her kezdin. He was one of the finest woodcarvers in Sa Dunas and would be fine in this round.
The Zinian Swordsman was not a woodcarver. Zin was a grassland state far away from any wooded areas. Woodcarving wasn’t a common skill amongst his people. As far as he knew, most woodcarvers in Zin and Kareem lived in the capitals. He guessed the woman had a favorite man in Sa Dunas who was a woodcarver. It wasn’t uncommon for the first round to be tailored to a specific suitor. He just had to hope his carving was better than most of the other suitors’ pieces.
The Blue Dancer smiled as he worked, for he, too, was a master woodcarver. Having grown up on a forested island, there was plenty of wood for him to whittle as a young boy. Woodcarving was one of his people’s specialties. He had no concerns about moving onto the next round.
At the end of the two hours, the men set their final pieces on the ground in front of them. The vishee picked up the first carving and projected a large image of it—using magic—for everyone in the arena to see. She did this for each carving.
The Fabled Warrior carved a dragon, The Blue-Eyed Bowman carved an arrow, Bard of the Night carved a functioning flute, and The Artist’s Muse carved a figure of a dancer.
The Magic Flute Player had carved a tree like the ones he and Daija had climbed as children. It was intricately detailed and demonstrated his superior skills.
The Zinian Swordsman had carved a miniature sword. Though simple in design, it at least looked like the real object and was well finished.
The Blue Dancer had carved a ship, each detail wrought carefully in the wood. His skills were clearly superior as well.
The seven of them and five other suitors made it to Round Two.
* * * * *
Once the suitors were back in their rooms in the competitors’ lodging, they were each given a slip of paper stating what the mystery round was. Each man was to tell a story of his choosing. It could be an original story or one he knew. If he didn’t know any by memory, he was allowed a written copy since one night wasn’t enough time for him to memorize one.
Some men like Bard of the Night and The Artist’s Muse were ambitious and decided they would make up a story on the spot, so they went to bed with little to no preparation. The Magic Flute Player, The Zinian Swordsman, and The Blue Dancer knew better.
The Magic Flute Player had one story memorized—his favorite—and he practiced it quietly for several hours before going to bed.
The Zinian Swordsman didn’t know any stories by heart, so he requested a written copy of one of his favorites. He stayed up practicing his performance skills.
The Blue Dancer knew many stories by heart, and he could also improvise them on the spot. He chose a middle ground approach and added some embellishments to a well-loved classic, one he thought would have the greatest impact on the young woman he was courting.
The next morning, the suitors were given seats along the wall of the arena; and one-by-one, they came to the center of the arena and performed their stories. They always faced the covered seating area where Daija and her family sat.
The suitors went in a specific order Daija chose. Those who demonstrated the least impressive carving skills went first, and those with the best skills went last.
After the Blue-Eyed Bowman and five other suitors finished performing their stories, it was the Zinian Swordsman’s turn. He told the story of the brave sailor who crossed the sea and found the northern continent. Though he had to reference a written copy, he projected his voice well and was enthusiastic with the tale.
Next was The Fabled Warrior, Bard of the Night, and The Artist’s Muse. The Fabled Warrior read from a script and performed his story well. Bard of the Night invented an engaging story on the spot and lived up to his alias, giving a flawless presentation. The Artist’s Muse wasn’t as lucky. He faltered several times during his story as he tried to improvise.
The Magic Flute Player was second to last. He told the story of “Rajyr and the Magic Flute,” no doubt the inspiration for his alias. He didn’t project as well as the Zinian Swordsman and some of the others, but he, too, was enthusiastic and did the best he could.
The Blue Dancer was last. He told the story of “The Healer and The Green Archer.” His performance was masterfully done, and he wove original embellishments into the story with the precision and expertise of a born storyteller.
The seven of them and The Brazen Baritone made it to Round Three.
* * * * *
Round Three was music. The suitors could perform any song they liked using either their voice or an instrument. Those who excelled at both could combine the two if they wished. The three suitors all knew their way around an instrument and were unconcerned with the upcoming event.
The Brazen Baritone went first; and he obviously sang, choosing a song from a well-known opera. The Blue-Eyed Bowman played a harp-like instrument, and The Artist’s Muse played a string instrument.
The Magic Flute Player’s instrument of choice was unsurprisingly a flute. He played the most complicated and beautiful song he knew, letting it entrance Daija and the audience.
The Zinian Swordsman was next. He played an instrument similar to a pan flute; and he chose a song from the southern continent, letting its exoticness charm the audience. The song spoke of warm summer days and green paradises.
Next was The Fabled Warrior. He sang a song from the northern parts, one the miners and lumberjacks sang as they worked in the Da Shairvo Mountains. His voice was deep with a bit of a rasp to it.
Second-to-last was Bard of the Night who was once again in his element. He sang and played the harp-like instrument. The music he produced was dark, as though it were fit to be a villain’s theme song.
The final performer was The Blue Dancer. He also chose to sing and play a string instrument. His voice was higher than The Fabled Warrior’s—much higher. But it was clear and melodic. His fingers caressed his instrument with familiarity. He was a very talented musician and vocalist.
The Zinian Swordsman, The Magic Flute Player, Bard of the Night, and The Blue Dancer made it to Round Four.
* * * * *
Now the suitors were anxious. They had made it this far, and only one of them could win. Two of them would die in the fencing competition tomorrow. Unless they received a token, they were doomed.
That evening, The Magic Flute Player’s door opened, and a small package was tossed onto the floor before it was closed again. He unwrapped the brown paper and found a token inside with a note saying, For your music.
If he accepted the token, it was guaranteed he wouldn’t die in this competition. What would be worse? Dying? Or losing and watching his childhood friend marry someone else instead? Did he want to accept the token?
Part of him desperately wanted to live, but another part hated the idea of seeing his friend with someone else. There was only one way around it. He had to win tomorrow and the day after. But he would accept the token. If he lost and couldn’t live with his defeat, he could always die an honorable death in someone else’s kezdin.
The Blue Dancer also received a token that night. This was encouraging. Even if he lost tomorrow, he knew his skills were desired by the women in Sa Dunas. He could try again. One day, perhaps he would win a kezdin. He accepted the token, but he hoped he wouldn’t need it.
Bard of the Night did not receive a token. While they couldn’t leave their rooms, the suitors could send and receive messages. Bard of the Night’s friend investigated his opponents and found they all had a reputation for being skilled swordsmen. Bard of the Night was passable, but he doubted he could win. Without a token, he would die. Bard of the Night dropped out of the kezdin, and his spot went to The Fabled Warrior.
Though neither The Fabled Warrior nor The Zinian Swordsman received tokens, they decided to stay in the competition. They were both known for their swordsmanship, and their opponents appeared to be more artistically inclined than athletic. They had a chance at winning.
Though they knew they needed rest to be successful tomorrow, all of them had trouble sleeping. Would they be able to best their opponent tomorrow? Or would they die an honorable death? The night dragged on, but at last it was time for them to find out who would survive and who wouldn’t.
The first pairing was between the two musicians: The Magic Flute Player versus The Zinian Swordsman. They exchanged their typical masks for fencing ones. They were made of cloth and had bigger holes for their eyes, allowing them to utilize their peripheral vision.
The two entered the arena with their swords, ready to fight to the death. Both wanted to win. The Magic Flute Player desperately wanted to marry his childhood friend. The Zinian Swordsman wanted to prove she was right to save him from dying in his last sparring match.
The two circled one another for a time before The Zinian Swordsman made his move. This was his area of expertise. He could defeat this woodcarving flute player. The Flute Player couldn’t be talented at everything, and he seemed better suited to the arts than physical combat.
The Zinian Swordsman was quickly proven wrong. The Magic Flute Player was a formidable opponent. The two swung, slashed, parried, and blocked, performing an intricate dance. The Zinian Swordsman was the first to draw blood, staining The Magic Flute Player’s sleeve; but The Magic Flute Player got revenge by slashing The Zinian Swordsman’s leg. The gash was deep, and The Swordsman struggled to put weight on his painful leg.
After that, it didn’t take long for The Magic Flute Player to best him. He knocked him to the ground and held his sword over his chest. “I’m sorry,” The Flute Player said before stabbing him through the heart. The Zinian Swordsman died instantly, his blood staining the arena floor.
Four men approached the duo. One took their swords, one escorted The Magic Flute Player to the hospital, and two placed The Zinian Swordsman on a stretcher, covering his body with a dark blue funeral shroud before carting him off.
The Zinian Swordsman’s fencing skills had failed him once more, but this would be the last time. The young women with tokens were glad they hadn’t wasted one on him. If he used his alias to advertise an activity he couldn’t win, he wasn’t worth courting.
The next pairing was The Fabled Warrior and The Blue Dancer. The Blue Dancer was far more graceful than The Fabled Warrior, his feet carrying him out of harm’s way in an instant. The Fabled Warrior focused more on powerful swings, preferring a broadsword to the slender blade The Blue Dancer used. But no matter how hard he swung his blade, The Fabled Warrior was unable to scratch The Blue Dancer. Meanwhile, The Blue Dancer’s sword found its way to The Fabled Warrior, cutting and slashing him until his arm was bleeding so badly he could no longer grip his sword.
The Blue Dancer ended his opponent with a quick slash to the throat. He returned to his room unharmed and ready for the next round.
Again, the women were grateful they hadn’t wasted a token on The Fabled Warrior. He had been competing in kezdins in Sa Dunas for several years and hadn’t made it past Round Four. His skills clearly weren’t enough.
* * * * *
The fifth day brought the final round of the kezdin: the hand-to-hand combat event. The suitors’ lives were no longer at stake, but their chance to marry Daija was.
The two men entered the arena for the final showdown. The Magic Flute Player was bigger than The Blue Dancer, but The Blue Dancer had proven adept at everything he did. He slipped away each time The Magic Flute Player tried to hit or grab him. It was clear from the start that strength wasn’t everything. But would strength or grace win?
The men fought with each other, but The Magic Flute Player had the same problem as The Fabled Warrior: He couldn’t land a blow on The Blue Dancer. He always managed to slip away. The Blue Dancer finally managed to grip The Flute Player in a chokehold. The Flute Player tried to pry him off, but The Blue Dancer put everything he had into his hold. When The Flute Player was on the verge of losing consciousness, The Blue Dancer released his grip. The Flute Player fell to the ground, gasping for breath. The Blue Dancer stepped back and allowed the vishee to assist his opponent. They weren’t allowed to touch outside of physical events to prevent foul play.
“Good work,” The Blue Dancer said. “I wish you success in your next kezdin.”
The Magic Flute Player was taken to the hospital for healing while The Blue Dancer remained in the arena, unharmed once more. The vishee escorted him to Daija and her family, so she could learn the identity of her future husband. Meanwhile, The Magic Flute Player fainted in his hospital bed. He had lost his childhood friend to a foreigner. As a surviving suitor, he would have to attend their wedding. He should’ve let The Zinian Swordsman kill him yesterday.
* * * * *
Daija knew The Blue Dancer wasn’t Matthew. She had known from the beginning that her friend was The Magic Flute Player. She was heartbroken at his loss, but she was thankful he had survived. She couldn’t bear him dying in her kezdin.
Though sad, she was intrigued to learn the identity of her groom.
The Blue Dancer removed his mask, and the crowd cheered the victor. Her future husband had angular features and keen gray eyes.
Despite not being The Zinian Swordsman—the man she saved and had watched die at the hand of her friend yesterday—and not being her childhood friend, The Blue Dancer had excelled in every event in her kezdin. He had won fairly, and she hoped his mastery of all the activities indicated they were a suitable match. She would find out soon enough as they would be married next week.
The Blue Dancer bowed and handed his mask to his future bride, thankful he wouldn’t have to compete in any more kezdins.