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Short Story

Big Head, Bad News

By John O'Bryan

“Who's watchin' the till?” I ask.

“Who’s watchin’ the till?” I ask.

Sherap—the stick of a man taking weapons at the door—looks at me with bug eyes, scared he’s done somethin’ wrong.

“Ryo. Ryo’s on the till tonight,” he says.

“Get two more on it,” I tell him.

It’s a big night—lot of spenders. Last thing I need is some lowlife makin’ off with the profit.

Sherap scurries off. A couple seconds later he comes back with two of my heaviest hitters. After they join Ryo at the coin box, I check back on the action in the arena. The place is packed, crammed to the doors with nobodies, somebodies, and everyone in between—people with nothin’ much in common, except a hankering for blood. And they’re about to get it.

My star combatant, Prahn the Flayer, has just finished his long, sauntering entrance. His chiseled body is painted entirely green, and he wears a small buckler on his left forearm. His infamous whip sword, painted to look like a viper, remains coiled on his belt as he enters the pit to face his opponent. The challenger—some Shuriman guy… is it Faran? Farrel? I’ll learn his name if he wins—stares a hole in him, his hands up by his shoulders, itching to grab the twin daggers sheathed on his back. He’s come halfway around the world for this, and he’ll be damned if some local golden boy is going to show him up.

With a wave of the pit officer’s scarf, our show is on. The fighters circle each other in the center of the floor. Always the entertainer, Flayer draws the whip sword and snaps it all around his body. (He’s one of about eight people in the world who can do this without cutting his own face off, and he loves to show it off.)

Insulted by the taunt, the Shuriman draws his daggers. He sprints across the pit, throwing himself into a whirl of blades, slicing the wind at unnatural angles. Flayer is surprised, but not off guard. He parries a dagger with his buckler, throwing the Shuriman off balance for a split second.

It feels like an eternity. The Shuriman’s body is turned off kilter, hands by his waist, his entire torso a wide-open target.

In a single, fluid movement, the Flayer swings his whip sword clean across the throat of his opponent. The Shuriman drops to the floor in a growing pool of his own blood. The crowd erupts.

“How’s that till?!” I shout to the boys in the back.

“Got it, boss!” replies Sherap, as the eager throngs swarm the vestibule to settle their bets.

Back down on the floor, I see the pit crew loading the Shuriman onto the corpse cart. A few feet away, Flayer celebrates with some of his fans. He’s got a look on his face. I know it well. It’s not relief. Not contentment. He’s getting a big head, and it’s going to be bad news.

About an hour later, the crowd has gone home, and the till has been emptied and counted. Just when I’m saying goodnight to the crew, guess who stops me at the door?

It’s the Flayer. He’s holding a fat bag of coin, but he don’t look happy. Says he’s got a bone to pick. Here we go.

I ask him what’s the problem. He just won big in front of a record-breaking crowd. He says that’s just it: he drew a record-breaking crowd. He should get a cut of the till. My till.

Now, I understand where he’s coming from—same place I was coming from when I took over this whole thing. But just ’cause I understand what a fella wants don’t mean I gotta give it to him. I tell the Flayer no.

Then the guy blows up. He starts telling me how lucky I am to have him in my pit.

“Do you know how many people in the world can do what I do?” he asks. “Nine!”

“Nine. Huh. Guess they must’ve added one,” I say.

He keeps mouthing off, says I’ve gotten fat and don’t remember what it’s like to risk my neck in the pit. By this point, a bunch of my crew is starting to listen in. Seeing how I can’t have people thinking I’m soft, I figure it’s a good time to remind Flayer who’s the boss, and who’s the employee. But he’s not havin’ it.

“You’re just some washed-up ex-champ in a fur coat, tellin’ us real fighters what to do,” he says. “Anybody could do your job.”

That does not sit well with me. I tell Flayer we can go toe-to-toe in the pit, and he’ll find out just how much of a fighter I still am. I guess at this point he feels like he can’t back down, because he accepts my offer.

“If I win, I take your pit. And all that comes with it,” he says.

I nod. He waits, like he’s expecting me to add my own stipulations. As if he’s got anything I’d want.

All I ask is that we do it in front of a crowd.

“Let’s get paid for it.”

Fight night comes, and there’s so many people on hand they’re spilling out the doors of the arena. I’ve got five of my heavies on the till tonight.

I walk out to the pit, drums beating, crowd roaring, and see the Flayer standing across from me—green and hot-headed as ever. My vastayan sense of decency kicks in. I tell him all he’s got to do is tell this arena full of people how wrong he was to disrespect me, and we can call off the fight.

He spits on the ground and angrily cracks his whip sword overhead. He ain’t backin’ down.

By the time the pit official waves his scarf, the Flayer is halfway across the floor. He flings his whip sword at me, and before I can react, the shifty little cuss takes off a piece of my cheek. He snaps it a couple more times, coming dangerously close to my throat. Then, while I’m trying to deal with his weird, floppy blade, he nails me in the face with his buckler. I land flat on my back, seeing double.

He draws his whip sword back. We’re not even a minute into this, and already Flayer is going for the kill.

This ain’t happening.

His blade comes lashing at my neck once more, and this time I grab it. With my bare hand. Flayer’s eyes bulge from his dumb green face.

My blood gets pumping. My hair stands on end. I feel a little growl escape from the corner of my mouth. I barely feel the blade cutting into my palm, or the blood running down my forearm, as I stand and pull the Flayer by his sword, yanking him into my other fist.

I repeat the motion a few more times, my brass knuckle-duster chewin’ his face to pulp.

When I finally stop punching, he coughs out a tooth, and tells me I’m making the biggest mistake of my life.

“What’re you doing? I’m your biggest draw,” he says.

“Flayer, you’re losing to a washed-up ex-champ. Who’s going to pay to see you fight now?”

With his last ounce of energy, he hocks a big mouthful of blood into my face—right there in front of the gods and everybody.

I can’t have an arena full of people thinkin’ I’m not the boss.

So I pick the guy up by the throat, and slam him, hard as I can, smashing his greedy fat head deep into the floor of the pit. He twitches for a second, then stops.

The crowd eats it up.

Late that night, I stop by momma’s house, like usual. She’s in bed already, so I quietly leave a nice sack of coin on the dresser and give her a kiss on the forehead.

She wakes, and smiles at the sight of her boy standing there at her bedside. As I touch her cheek, she notices the bandage on my hand—where I grabbed the Flayer’s blade.

“Oh, Settrigh, what happened?” she says, all concerned.

“Nothin’ big. Just cut myself building,” I say.

“What did you build today, son?” she asks.

“An orphanage. For orphans, ma,” I say, as I give her one last kiss goodnight.

“Such a good boy,” she says.

Her eyes tear up as she drifts off to sleep, like she’s proud knowing her son’s making a respectable living.