Chapter 23:

Rumble at the Siro Peccatrice

The Songstress of Avalon

A mixture of cheers and boos greeted me when I entered the arena. As the man threatening to break up the 'engagement', I had inadvertently become the champion of the romanticists and instigators - the proverbial 'other man', if you will. It was the furthest thing from the truth, but this was the kind of story that the press was spinning.

Since I was the challenger, I was the first to be introduced. Afterwards, I waited patiently as one of Prince Ayling's retainers entered the arena so he could introduce him. Much like myself, he also seemed to divide opinion, with jeers accompanying the applause that he received. It seemed like not everybody was buying the papers' narrative.

Prince Ayling seemed to delight in the fact that his presence triggered a visceral reaction from the spectators. He strutted over to where I stood, his arms outstretched before him, and looking like the very picture of royalty.

"Now then, hero, shall we get the show on the road?" he grinned at me; despite his fighting words, he did not bother to adopt a fighting pose.

I thought I'd make him regret it by attacking first, swinging my arm in an arc. To the uninitiated, it must have looked like a strange attempt at a punch. Those in the know, however, were fully aware of how lethal this move could be. In an instant, Surtur had materialised in my hand and it was all Prince Ayling could do to throw his body back to avoid getting cut.

Still, he couldn't prevent his fringe from being singed by the tip of my sword.

In a move that was far from princely, my opponent shuffled all the way to the far end of the arena where his retainer still stood. Although I was under no obligation to do so, I stood there and watched as they engaged in a frantic conversation which ended with the retainer producing a greatsword of his own and presenting it to the prince.

"Things seem a little bit more fair now, don't you think?" he was grinning again.

I replied with another lunge, a move which Prince Ayling was surprisingly able to parry. Naturally, he had to grip the oversized greatsword with both hands but, all things considered, he was able to swing it around pretty effortlessly. Despite its immense size, however, it simply couldn't compare with my magic sword.

The sound of steel clattering against steel rang throughout the arena; an even clash too, it had to be said, as Prince Ayling maneuvered his greatsword to meet every single one of my strikes, and without giving away any ground. He attempted a strike of his own, but I blocked, and I could feel the trembling of his hands as his blade rattled against mine.

And then, it ignited.

Fire coursed through Surtur, threatening to melt my opponent's greatsword. The fact that it was still holding firm was a testament to the ability of the craftsman, whoever that might have been. If it had been a shoddier product, it likely would have disintegrated already. Rakshasa's voice echoed in my ears as Surtur's flames burned ever brighter.

"C'mon, Ayato... stop playing around. Finish this guy already!"

Overwhelmed, Prince Ayling sprung backwards. He was panting, the blade in his hand glimmering a subdued red. To his credit, there was no panic in the man's expression, but merely a quiet rage. There was no witty comment from him this time. I could tell he was sizing me up, thinking hard about his next move.

But the good prince's fate was almost certainly sealed. I imagined he was under the false impression that the only difference between us was our weapons. He couldn't compete against a magic sword, so he'd compensate with superior technical ability and a brilliant strategy. 

But he was naive to think that Surtur was my only advantage.

Even though he studied under the finest sword masters in the realm, he lacked the same practical experience that I possessed. In that respect, one earnest battle to the death must have been ten years worth of lessons. And I certainly have had my fill of life-or-death battles - compared to me, what was this sheltered princeling?

The greatest strategy couldn't make up for his inexperience. In fact, this battle could be said to be one completely devoid of wits and schemes. Strategy only mattered in a fight between equals, or in situations where the combatants were equally matched, after all. If I actually had to think against an opponent of this level, then I didn't deserve to be called the hero, so far was I above this man.

And I could prove it too.

I pointed my sword in Prince Ayling's direction. He had the perfect view, and watched in surprise as Surtur's flames began to dissipate before his eyes. I didn't need a flaming sword to win this fight; in actual fact, I didn't need any weapon at all. A devilish idea crossed my idea, as I threw Surtur to the side and assumed a boxer's pose.

"I'm going to knock you out with my fists," I told him straight.

"Are you mocking me?!" Prince Ayling growled, his fingers tightened around the hilt of his greatsword. "Come and try it! I'll cleave you in half!"

I didn't wait for a second invitation. I sprinted towards the prince, completely determined to win this fight in the most humiliating manner possible - I was going to knock him out cold with my bare hands - just like the hero of that manga I used to read as a child, the one with the bald guy who could defeat scores of enemies with a single punch.

In that moment, Prince Ayling looked like a Major League batter. The greatsword was his bat, of course, which, in a strange way, made me the baseball. Digging his heels into the dirt, he swung for the fences. Although I had a long reach, the outcome was obvious. The prince's sword cut across my abdomen first, but far from 'cleaving me in half', it shattered upon contact with my body.

Exposure to the flames of Surtur had rendered his blade brittle. I barely felt a thing. A look of pure astonishment zipped across the prince's face, and then, sheer panic. The latter expression lasted only momentarily; a fraction of a second later, the prince's features were distorted beyond recognition and his body had risen almost ten feet in the air, a natural consequence for anyone on the receiving end of one of my uppercuts.

The announcer declared my victory just as Prince Ayling's body crashed back down to earth.

My eyes darted around the area in search of Arisa, and they naturally settled in the direction of the seat of honour where King Karslake sat looking pensive. Beside him stood Arisa who was clapping in a subdued way. There was no overt happiness in her expression, as though she had been reading my mind during the entire fight, dissecting every arrogant thought.

Certainly, I hadn't been very respectful - not to my opponent, nor to Surtur which dematerialised at the conclusion of the battle, almost as though in protest at my throwing it aside. Perhaps I could have won in a more dignified way. Ironically, the only one that seemed satisfied was Rakshasa, whose congratulations rang in my mind.

"Looks like you didn't need me after all, Ayato! But what happened to frying him up? I was so looking forward to that..."

Steward McOy