Morning came. Mari was awakened by a sunbeam across her face. She startled for a moment until her brain reminded here where she was. Then she looked to the left and saw who was still in bed with her.
Ash had turned to the side sometime overnight, and was sleeping softly, his hand clutched beneath the pillow. His torso was still bare, and Mari’s eyes trailed over his lean frame.
She chuckled and gave him a nudge. “Wakey wakey,” she said.
Ash rolled over, opening his eyes briefly, and then closing them again. “Oh god. It is too early to be dreaming of hot girls in bed with me.”
“Sorry to wake you up from that,” said Mari, whacking him with a pillow.
Ash laughed, and caught the pillow, tossing it back at her and slowly rising up. He had never bothered to find his clothes from the night before, and was still stark naked. “So, was I able to provide you with a ‘little bit’ of fun?” he asked.
“More than a bit, I’d say,” she said. “I do hope I performed well.”
“You’re definitely a lot gentler than Jayna,” said Ash, nodding.
Mari laughed. “You and Jayna, huh?” she said. “Why am I not surprised?”
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” said Ash. “And friends scratch each-other’s itches.”
Ash chuckled, and then grabbed his boxers and slipped them on. He then turned around and swore violently, starting as he saw Zane sitting in the corner. He was dressed in his traditional garb and fiddling with a blank canvas and a paint set.
“You two were asleep when I came in,” he said, as he filled in a blue sky. “So I didn’t want to disturb you. Have a good time last night?”
Ash laughed. “I did Zane, thank you, Mari?” he asked, looking back to her as she buried herself in the covers.
“Yeah, fine,” said Mari, muffled by the blankets. “Good times all around.”
“I’m glad,” said Zane, not looking back. “If you guys ever want to do this back on the ship, just put a sock or something on your door, alright?”
“I don’t think our doors have door knobs.”
“Magnets are a wonderful thing,” Zane said, smiling. “Jayna says her family is having breakfast in about thirty minutes, her sisters got in this morning.”
“We’ll be down in time,” said Mari, still from under the blankets. “Now, I know this is technically where you and Ash were assigned, but…”
“Say no more,” said Zane, putting the finishing touch on a cloud before sitting up. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”
Zane headed out and Ash turned around to offer her a bathrobe.
“Well then,” said Mari. “I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.”
“Famished for something other than food,” Ash said, looking her over again. “Hm. But I guess pancakes could do for now.”
“If this is what you’re going to be like, then this is going to be interesting,” said Mari, chuckling. “Come on, let’s get showered and dressed. We smell like old bedsheets.”
“Fair enough,” said Ash. “I’d say let’s shower together to save time, but there’s like, five bathrooms in this house.
“After showering in Songbird, I am going to take my time in a proper bathroom,” said Mari. “Don’t wait up for me.”
“Won’t do,” he said, and grabbed a few things to hit a shower himself. “Your bathroom is up on the left. See you at breakfast.”
Breakfast turned out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth affair.
“Somehow I was expecting, like… caviar waffles in champagne sauce,” said Zane, as he cut off a piece of his perfectly ordinary pita.
“Caviar waffles would taste terrible,” Theo said. “Maybe edible gold-leaf waffles would be better.”
Jayna snorted a bit of coffee.
Nia came in not long after, seating herself in the largest chair and helping herself to a bit of everything.
“Good morning, everybody,” she said. “I trust everybody had a good time last night?”
“I think that’s safe to say,” said Zane, turning to Ash and Mari and giving them a wink.
Jayna couldn’t keep the grin off of her face.
Ash smiled back, biting into another piece of bacon.
“The flight in definitely wasn’t too bad–lot of cute guys on the way into the games,” Alexis said, reaching over Jayna to grab the butter.
“A lot of cute girls too,” Andreia added, with a grin. “Everyone’s really excited about this year’s game. Especially the archery contests. I think it’s going to be a really good competition.
Mari blushed. Then she cleared her throat.
“I hate to put a damper on breakfast,” she said. “But we heard something kind of interesting last night.”
She gave a protracted version of the conversation she had in the bar the night before.
Nia frowned. “Jayna told me they ran into a little bit of… discontent as well. We’ve added some extra security just in case, but these games always makes some of the fundamentalist citizens a little loony. Not too much to be concerned about. But thank you for letting us know.”
“This place always seemed so laid back,” said Ash. “If you don’t mind my saying so. How much political discontent can you really have?”
Nia chuckled, and looked down. “When you get this many powerful women in one place you’re bound to have some discontent.”
“And anyone who messes around with her will be swiftly dealt with by means of fifteen rounds of bare-knuckle-boxing,” said Jayna. “That’s how we settle all our disputes.”
“It is not,” said Nia, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, well, it should be!” chimed in Theo, earning him a biscuit thrown at his face.
Alexis laughed. “Aww, c’mon mom. You’re still built like a tank, you can’t get upset with us for bringing it up,” she grinned.
Nia rolled her eyes. “I’m a long way away from my helmet and spear throwing days, girls. You know that.”
“Speaking of,” said Theo. “If any of you want to attend the Games, you can consider yourselves VIPs.”
“Somebody pinch me,” said Mari. “Can I stay here forever?”
“Not with your paycheck,” Ash murmured. “Pass the bacon?”
Mari sighed as she slid the plate over.
“I don’t know about you guys,” said Zane, “But I think I’m just going to take it easy until the Games.”
“Fair enough–we’ve got a pool out back with a pretty nice cabana. The opening ceremony doesn’t start ‘til around three. We’ll be taking the helicopter in so we don’t have to worry about traffic,” Nia said. “I have a bit of business to attend to, but before I do that… I wanted to know if you guys have done anything suitable for breakfast conversation,” she smiled.
Mari and Ash both became very interested in their bacon.
“I painted a chicken,” said Zane, with some pride.
Alexis and Andreia laughed. Nia chuckled. “I meant while you were out taking my daughter to the depths of space.”
“Oh!” said Zane, deflating slightly. “One or two things. Maybe. …It may have to be a long breakfast.”
“We’ve got nowhere to go, at least for now,” Nia said with a smile.
After a very long breakfast, accompanied by some artful dioramas made out of scrambled eggs and bacon, and then some sunning and swimming, they finally were on the way to the arena.
“Wow,” said Mari, peering up at it. “This city has some impressive buildings, but that… takes the cake.”
“Forget the cake,” said Zane. “This takes the whole bakery.”
To be fair, they hadn’t looked very hard at the building before now… mostly because it had been floating above their heads for most of the time.
Ash had told them that Jayna’s people had found a gimmick and stuck to it. But the floating islands that cut through the clouds were a whole other kettle of fish. Two spiraling walkways led up from the parking garages in a glorious double helix that seemed to shimmer in the sun at its zenith.
But those seemed to be only temporary, and they would untether from the mainland once the games had started. The island seemed like a floating garden, with lush greenery creeping down the sides, concealing some waterfalls, natural rock outcroppings and gorgeous floral displays. Two openings were also concealed within as well. Once you moved past the landscaping though, there were towers that rose from all four corners, sculpted in the classic style and created the canopy that sheltered the stadium from the sun directly, opening up on the field proper that was divided up into four or five quadrants for the different contests.
Jayna and her mother both looked absolutely radiant, beaming with pride.
“The jewel of the island, they call it,” said Jayna. “Most of the time, true. But during the games… ‘Jewel’ is an insult.”
“Absolutely beautiful,” said Ash.
Mari gaped as they landed on a nearby helipad. “It’s amazing,” she said simply, settling her hand on the window as they moved to the front, where two sculptures stood, holding open the facade curtains that led to the main entryway. The two women were dressed in armor, wearing plumed helmets. In their other hands each held a spear. Jayna could have stood as a model for either of them.
They walked in through the entrance, the statues towering a few dozen feet above them.
There were enough bleachers to comfortably seat most of the population of the island with room for them to bring their children and pets. In the middle of the field, a group of women were performing some sort of weapons drill, while giant screens projected it for all to see.
Alexis and Andreia were participating in the games in the armed combat competitions. The rest of the family were seated in a private box up near the top of the stadium, with their own personal television. Ash couldn’t help but be a little jittery throughout–He knew they probably had the tightest security there, but he still couldn’t help but wonder.
“Pardon me for asking the dumb question,” said Mari, looking up at one of the screens, “but there’s no actual bloodsport involved here, right?”
Jayna laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s all the combat is simulated,” she said. “The weapons are all blunted and the armor has sensors in it that detect a ‘lethal’ hit. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t hurt when you get whacked with one.”
“I mean, I’m pretty sure most of the women in the competition wouldn’t need a weapon to do some serious damage,” Ash said, settling down on one of the plush recliners near the screens. “So… after the opening fanfare or what have you, what comes first?”
“Track and field events will be first,” said Nia. “Footraces and the like. Then some contests of skill, like archery. And the day will close out with the first of the gladiatorial events. As the week goes on, we’ll have more variety, like sporting events and strongman contests.”
“Rugby’s very popular around here,” said Theo.
“And it’s all female?” Ash asked. “I mean, the men of the must want to participate sometimes?”
“Not really, no,” said Theo with a shrug. “With such a huge difference in average size and strength, it would be too dangerous. Foreigners of any gender don’t compete either.”
“Oh, obviously not… against each other… but I just figured. Theo, can I ask you something?”
“Clearly, inquiry is well within your capabilities,” said Theo, earning him a swat on the back of the head from his mother.
“Don’t be a smartss,” she said, smirking at him.
Ash got to his feet, beckoning Theo out to the hallway. “I’ll buy you a beer, we’ll walk and talk a little,” he said.
“Mom always taught me never to turn down a drink,” said Theo, as he followed Ash out. “What’s on your mind?”
“Is it ever hard to… I dunno, this is probably a dumb question, but. Is it ever hard to deal with literally every woman you meet being physically superior to you?”
“I dunno,” said Theo. “You grow up surrounded by it and it’s normal, y’know? It’s not like women get preferential treatment, there’s just… a difference. Not too different from anywhere else, just a bit more drastic here.” He smirked a bit. “My dad used to say that complaining about most men not being able to enter the Games would be like complaining about most women not being able to enter a dick-measuring contest. Usually after he’d had a glass or two of tallen.”
Ash nodded. “I suppose if this is your normal, than it makes sense. I just get the strangest sense of vertigo here.”
Theo smiled. “It’s probably the nosebleeds from looking up. Don’t worry, you get used to that too.”
The two guys made their way down to the concession stand, but when they turned the corner, the stands were… closed. And no one seemed to be very concerned with that.
Ash’s gut, which had kept him out of a lot of trouble, began to churn. “…Gates opened hours ago, right?” he said, looking around for concerned looking managers and finding none.
“Yeah, something like that,” said Theo. “Usually the stands can’t churn out the gyros fast enough, but I guess something’s busted. Shame, I really wanted that beer.”
Ash looked around a final time. “No… that’s not how this works… if there was something busted, someone would be out here with a popcorn kiosk and a keg waiting to take people’s money. Something’s wrong.” He slipped his gun out of its holster, thankful he had brought it with him.
His fears were further cemented when he heard heavy footsteps churning across the concrete towards him. He pushed Theo back into the small entryway to the concession stand.
“What’s-” began Theo, before Ash clasped a hand over his mouth. Then he gestured for Theo to look out at the newcomer.
As they looked back out, they saw a woman making her way into the hallway back up to the VIP boxes they just left. She was wearing black from head to toe, and her head was completely covered. She looked like she was carrying some serious weaponry as well.
Ash and Theo looked at each-other.
“Tell me that’s some sort of traditional garb,” said Ash.
Theo shook his head, eyes widening. “Obviously not,” he said, and sprinted off behind her.
Ash pulled further ahead, pulling Theo back. “Look, we don’t know what’s going on in there–I can’t let you go in guns blazing,” Ash said. “Especially with no guns.”
“I’ll make myself useful elsewhere,” said Theo. “Get moving!”
Ash didn’t need to be told twice, taking off in the same direction as the black-clad woman.