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Flights of Fancy

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Hamar-saphi-Lakhim of Melka. You remember every detail of the sneer he wore on his face when he told you his name on that night, as the ancestral homes of the Gaiar burned.

"Behold... the last descendant of the Great House Gaiar!" Bharat's voice echoes throughout the vast indoor arena, signalling the guards to haul you out into the light to raucous applause.

Most fighters who gained fame in Bharat's fighting pits, whether slaves or freemen, would have this time to play to the crowd. But you are special. You have been carefully, painstakingly tamed so that men, women and children alike can all see the prowess of the fearsome Gaiars for the right price. When you were first brought to Melka, the guards had to drag you bleeding across the floor to move you a single inch. Now you behave as they parade you about; you barely feel the chill brushing your bare chest, the muzzle digging into your face, the tugs on the leash, or the cold iron binding your hands behind your back. You think only of one name and one face, and grind your teeth on the bit in your mouth.

Then you see the flying machine they have chained to the wall, ready for you to pilot.

It is your machine.

It is not a replica; every little scrape and dent in the hull is there. Most of those were from your father's battles, but the newest scars, you wore with pride. With this machine and a light steel blade, you earned the title of Sophit Slayer, a title which many warriors twice your age cannot boast. You had thought it destroyed that night along with the rest of your House.

Instead, Hamar had it preserved so it can share your fate, dancing unarmed on the end of a leash.

Before you can choke on this fresh indignity, the guards shove you into the machine. They attach your collar to a ring in the seat that must have been installed for the purpose, unshackle your hands, and slam the door shut.

"As you will soon see," Bharat announces, "the last Gaiar still retains his skill, even in chains!"

Despite everything, your own machine's controls feel exactly as you remember. You start up the propellers and look out over the arena. Three machines armed with iron swords – piloted by Melka mercenaries, judging from their paltry banners – float lazily in and take their positions around you. Today's entertainment will be to see how long you can dodge them while tethered.

The gong sounds, and the three lunge. They are not used to flying together; as you evade their charge, their whirling blades scrape along their companions' hulls. That gives you an idea. You centre your machine a little way above theirs and make sure your chain has enough slack. They circle around, watching for their next opening. You can't speak, but you can slowly, deliberately waggle the lower end of your machine at them and draw hoots of laughter from the audience.

"Pray to your gods!" one of the fighters roars, and they all dive in baying for your blood, heedless of their swords clashing against each other. You relish the sound as you swing under them again. There – the one who shouted has his blade out of position, pointing away from you. You seize the chance and ram your machine into his, adding your momentum to his missed strike. The entangled fighters smash into the stone ceiling, and the crowd goes wild. They're not done yet. You know well it takes more than that to destroy a flying machine.

But then you see it. The crash has knocked one of their swords loose.

You throw yourself towards it. Your lunge out of your seat sinks your choke collar into your throat. Blood hammers in your eyes and ears and spinning head, your machine shudders as your chain goes taut, and still you pull – your machine cannot be strangled. You slam on the controls to extend your machine's grabbers to the fullest. The sword is about to fall beyond you, and you feel it brushing past the grabbers as though it was brushing your own fingertips.

Somehow, that is enough for your faithful machine to snatch up the sword. It locks into your machine's weapon fixture with a satisfying click. The whole arena resounds with the crowd's cheers; this is all part of the show. Now – soon – you will show them how a Gaiar flies. You bat aside the recovering mercenaries with natural ease as you spin up your strike, and you bring the sword down on the wall where your chain is fixed in a shower of splinters. You pull. Not yet. One more strike –

The violet fire of a singing amethyst surges through the chain and seizes your machine. You hear nothing but your scream as it sets your entire body alight.

That night, you lie in your cage, bound hand and foot, your collar heavy on the fresh bruises around your neck as you gulp down air past your bit and muzzle in ragged gasps. Bharat counts his gold and the guards recount your escapades, so fortunately ended by Bharat's safety measures.

You think of one name, and one face.