Page 11

She surveys the people around her.  They are shouting and pumping their fists in the air.  She tries to ask a question but gives up when she realizes even she can't hear her own voice.
When the noise stops, everyone drifts away.  Some men come and start taking down the stage.  All guards except two exit the fenced in staircase.  The referee hops down and disappears into an alleyway.
“A beautiful thing, isn't it?”
She turns slowly to see an unfamiliar face.  A man in his fifties is smiling at her.
“What’s beautiful?”
His smile diminishes.  “All that work he put in.  Years, probably.  And then it all comes true… you know, to fruition… to Ascension.”
“You mean his head getting cut off?”
The man looks around quickly.  “Don't be crass, friend!  Ascension is a holy moment!”
“Right.  Of course.”  She nods.  “I just haven't eaten much lately.”
He shakes his head and walks away quickly.  The crowd is gone.  The voting booth is empty.  The stage is in pieces and being packed into a truck.  She ducks into the first alley she sees and hides in the shadows.  Laying on top of a dry piece of cardboard, she curls herself into a ball and falls asleep.


Page 10

They move skillfully.  They feint at one another, testing.  The crowd yells.  “Come on!”  “Hit him!”  “Take him down!”.
She looks around the crowd again for the young girl.  She is gliding along the edges, scanning the ground.
“That kick, that left kick!”  The man behind her, the one who grabbed her wrist is shouting.  She quickly realizes the words aren't directed at her.
She's lost sight of the girl.  She wanders around the crowd, occasionally looking up at the stage.  At one point, she ends up next to one of the fighter’s coaches.  “Jab and sweep, James!  Jab and sweep!”
There are some heavy exchanges of strikes and then the ref breaks the action.  The crowd murmurs at one another and shout at the stage.  “He's gonna kill you with that hook!”  “Yeah!”
The fight starts again.  One fighter catches the other with a roundhouse kick to the head and drops him.
Cheers and boos erupt simultaneously.  The ref grabs the standing fighter’s hand and raises it high in the air.  The two men walk around the stage once and then over to the metal staircase.  The crowd becomes silent as the fence door opens.
The guards step aside and allow the fighter to walk up to the metal door with no knob.  There is a click.  The door opens.  The fighter pounds his chest with both hands and strides inside.  A moment after disappearing into the darkness, his decapitated yet bloodless head comes rolling down the metal staircase.  The door swings shut.  The crowd roars


Page 9

A curtain falls down, revealing an enclosed metal staircase filled with armed guards.  At the end of the fenced staircase is a brushed chrome door with no visible knob.  A substantial portion of the mob split off and hurl themselves at the fence.  The guards remain unphased.
“Meet your fighters…” The announcer’s voice is drowned out by cheers, fence rattling and people placing bets on the next fight.
She watches through the noise as the two new men walk onto the stage.  Unlike the previous pair, these two stride with confidence.  Maybe arrogance.
A man grabs her wrist from behind.  She twists it free as she spins around.
“Who do you have for Ascension?”  His breath is heavy with alcohol.
He laughs.  “Yeah.  To win the damn fight.  Who do you think is gonna win?”
She shrugs.
“Well you look like a fighter.  The knife, you know?”  He points.
She covers the hilt with a hand.
“Here we go!”  He shouts.
She moves to the balls of her bare feet, ready to attack.  He isn't looking at her anymore.  She turns.  The fight has started.


Page 8

Taking off her socks and stuffing them in a pocket, she glances from crowd to stage.  Two men are punching at one another.  A third man stands slightly apart, observing.  A referee.  A fight.  Many of the people in the crowd clutch small scraps of paper as they cheer.  Betting slips.
They are sloppy fighters.  Wild punches and stagnant footwork.  One hook finally clips a fighter in the jaw, sending him to the mat with a dull thud.
Before the ref even calls the fight, a clump of people swarm the betting booth to collect their winnings.  Others spit and grumble at their losses.  She take the opportunity to scan the crowd for any vestiges of the thief.
A young girl of perhaps 14 catches her eye.  She seems to be one of the few people not reacting to the knockout but instead surveying the people in the crowd.  They exchange a silent salute.
The referee’s voice claws at the crowd.  “The gate!  Ascension!”  The horde howls.  “The next fight, my friends, is for the right to ascend!”  An even louder howl arises.


Page 7

She can’t run anymore.  It isn't clear why.  In fact, it isn't clear she had ever been able to run.  Not really.  Maybe she shouldn't have run.  Ever.  Never run.  Could be.  Now the possibility is being removed.  Had been halfway removed.  She was losing skin.  Her foot was a snake shedding skin.  Too tight.  A snake that can’t run.  But snakes can’t run, can they?  No.  They’d given up their feet eons ago.  Their entire legs, gone.  But she had only lost…
She woke up to the feeling of something tugging off one of her boots.  She kicked, hard.  The thing or sensation or person stopped.
She leapt up.  Stood up lopsided with one boot gone.  She saw someone wriggling under the cart that walled in her hideaway.  She scrambled in pursuit.
“Boot!  Damn boot thief!”  She could see the footwear tucked beneath the culprit’s arm.  An arm that slithered through thin crowds and was quickly disappearing.
The pursuit exited the market quickly and took several dark turns.  A night lit by a half moon and an occasional feeble street lamp.  A final turn brought her to a stage surrounded by gawking onlookers.  A quick look and her direction was lost.  The boot burglar now nothing but a venomous memory.
She took off her other boot and set it on the ground.  “No use for one boot.”


Page 6

The men in purple come running.  Their heads swivel about in search of movement.  They spot her, squatting on the ground munching on her half eaten roll.
“You, thief.  Stay where you are.”  One of them points a finger at her.
She bolts into the crowd.  There are crashes and shouts behind her.  The men are yelling to one another, splitting up and trying to corall her into a corner.
A closed cart blocks her way forward.  She rolls under and finds that behind the cart is a narrow alleyway that goes back about 4 feet before it hits a locked gate that opens to another street.
“Left!  She ran left over by the pork merchant!”  The voices are fading already.
She waits until the shouts fade altogether.  The pink sunset fills the top of the walls of the alley.  She closes her eyes, hoping that sleep will mask what remains of her hunger.


Page 5

The run brings her to another alley.  A still life filled with city leftovers.  One shoe.  A ripped shirt.  The front half of a cat skeleton.  Indistinguishable paper bits mashed between clumps of dirt and leaves.
No food.  She nods, acknowledging outwardly her new found hunger.  She tries to imagine hunger in the detail she imagined stabbing Thaxton.
Instead, her mind returns to the market.  Where there is food for sale, there is food wasted.  She walks again, dreaming of feasts made from bread scraps and fruit rinds.
The crowd merges with a smell of cooking meat to lead her back to the market.  Within 100 steps the air is filled with the scents of sweets, spices and sweat.
The sun is an hour from setting.  Some stalls are closing.  Most are open, their merchants still calling out prices to the wandering multitudes.  She walks by a shuttered fruit stand and plucks two discarded apples from the ground.
Walking and eating, she spots two men in purple who are watching her.  She slows down, slips behind a bread stall and sits on the ground.  By the time she has finished both apples, neither of the guards has made their way to her spot.
She picks up a half eaten roll from under the wheel of a cart.  To the left, she spots a girl with darting eyes carrying a bag of bread running.  She tries to follow but it's like chasing a drop of water over glass.  She slows down and chews the bread.