Hugh bobbed in the current of the stream as it slowly meandered towards Polity. Soon, he was floating by the cliff encampment. Thousands of workers and soldiers were erecting stone walls. Some stopped to watch him float by them.
He got out of the water near there, shaking the cold water off of him. He stood there for a few moments, dreading his return. He felt he had chosen incorrectly at the fork.
There was no one waiting for him. The twins weren’t even home. He sat on a bench in the interior garden, just enjoying the quiet. He found some bread in the pantry and tore off large hunks of it in his mouth. It was stale, but it was some of the best stale bread he had ever eaten.
After sitting some more in the garden, he heard someone shout his name from the entrance of the house. It was the twins, and they ran up to him and hugged him.
“Glad you’re up and about,” said the dwarf.
“We have interesting news,” said the giant.
“We’re going on a trip!” said the giant.
“We’re going with the athletes to the Triumphant in a few weeks. We take a boat and get to stay on this island for a while, then we compete in these games where they award prizes and make you famous if you win.”
“They’re going to cut my hair and bind my chest so that I can pass as a boy,” said the giant. “Apparently, women aren’t allowed to compete, but it’s common practice for a few women to wear men’s clothing and enter anyway.”
Hugh nodded to what they were saying, but they spoke so quickly that he didn’t quite catch it all. They had competed against each other their whole lives, so perhaps they had been training for this since the beginning.
Except… when they actually started training, Hugh felt like he was in unfamiliar territory. Theoson acted as their trainer, and he would be sailing out with them to the island, Tauro. Theoson had them practicing all day and well into the night for almost the entire week, then gave them a day off before they were to board the ship.
Together with thirteen other athletes, their trainers, as well as several horses, they boarded a large boat and set sail early one morning. They docked the next day, shortly after sunset. The twins were checked off a list at the registrar, and they had two days before the competition to continue training and to see the island. On the first day, they spent most of it training, but Hugh decided to take a walk around Tauro.
It was like no other town Hugh had ever seen. The city proper was full of enormous marble structures. Between towering columns, he could see enormous statues of men and women, many in dramatic action poses. He entered one of the buildings large enough to accommodate his size, and he was immediately confronted by a statue even bigger than as himself.
The man had a long beard and shoulder-length wavy hair. He sat on a gargantuan throne, up several steps. The fact that all eyes turned to Hugh belied the statue’s towering presence over the room.
Hugh looked at it some more, walking slowly around it to take in the details. The closer he got, the more realistic it became. The veins were visible in the arm. You could see every delicate fold and wrinkle in his hands. The eyes of the statue almost seemed to follow you, and they were strikingly yellow. Upon closer inspection, Hugh decided the iris must be inlaid stone of some kind.
Back outside, Hugh noticed hundreds of small statues lining the street. They depicted young men, many engaged in throwing something, others looking like they are running or about to fight someone. He bent low to read some of the inscriptions. They seemed to be statues put up by past winners.
Hugh walked around the city some more until he came to a fish market. He bought several dozen small, salted fish and went off to find the twins. Together, the four of them had lunch.
“What was your best event?” Hugh asked Theoson.
“The combat events, considering I went undefeated for three Triumphants in a row.”
“Yeah, you’re lucky you fight like a bull, because you can’t throw worth a shit,” said the dwarf.
Theoson backhanded the dwarf so hard that he toppled off the bench he was sitting on. The giant laughed, and got backhanded as well.
“Both of you are slow,” said Theoson. “If an old man like me can hit you, what do you think those young bucks are going to do?”
The dwarf got up and sat back down. “To be fair,” he said, “I’m actually going to expect it when I get into the circle with those guys.”
Theoson smacked him again. “See, you should have expected that one, but you still were too slow.”
“Come on! I still have fish in my mouth!” groaned the dwarf.
Theoson slapped him once more. “So you talk with your mouth full?”
The giant glanced over at Hugh and smirked. Theoson wound up big to hit her, but she put her hands up. Theoson put his hand back down and nodded. “Good.”
They spent the rest of the day sparring while Hugh watched.
The next day, they went around the city together, taking in the sights. Hugh did his best to explain what he had ascertained, and at times, Theoson corrected him. It turned out the statue of the man on the throne was of a Diva named Dyas, who founded and and in whose honor they hold the Triumphants. He was also the sun god, though he had given up his seat on the chariot of the sun some time ago to his niece, partly so that he could go off and found Tauro.
Theoson led them a little outside of the city to an outcropping of land flanked on three sides by the sea. There was a large, circular building with a gate around it. They stood at the doors for a bit, and then were invited in.
It was the Temple of the Tauron Sibyl. They made a sizable “donation,” and then were led into a room with luxurious seats. Hugh looked at them and decided it would be best if he sat on the floor. One of the priests ran off and came back with a pillow. The room was intricately adorned, will every sort of fancy, flashy item resting upon dozens of shelves. The walls were painted with elaborate depictions of someone wrestling a snake, as well as accents of geometric mosaics made of gemstones.
A priest came by to take their names down on a piece of paper. He left the room and they sat looking around at everything for a long while. Another group of athletes came in, had their names taken, and began talking to the giant and dwarf about where they were from, what events they plan to compete in, the usual sort of jock banter.
The priests ushered Hugh’s group into another room, where they were read the answers to questions they never asked.
“To Lang the Giant: Everything but wrestling and all-in.
“To Kane the Dwarf: Many of them, but not all of them.
“To Hugh Mungous: No.
“To Theoson the Dog: Before next winter.”
The giant seemed most pleased by the response.
“I want to speak to the sibyl,” said Hugh.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” said the priest. “I cannot allow you to speak with her. Strangers make her very distressed.”
“Most people seem distressed when they meet me,” said Hugh. “I know how to put someone at ease.”
The priest smiled and nodded. “I believe you, but again… I am extremely sorry to inform you that the sibyl does not receive uninvited visitors.”
“How do I get an invitation?” asked Hugh.
The priest chuckled and shook his head. “Tell me, Hugh, are you upset with the answer you received?”
Hugh stopped and thought for a moment. “Yes, but that isn’t why I want to meet her. I am genuinely interested in meeting someone who says they can read the future.”
“No no no no no,” the priest muttered. “I am sorry, you must be misinformed. The sibyl does not ‘read the future,’ as you say. She becomes possessed by the Diva who writes the future. She often cannot recall much of what she’s said after she is no longer under His influence.”
Hugh blinked. “Okay… so what is the difference between that and reading the future?”
The priest shrugged. “It’s quite a complex process, but we know this: the very asking of the question can affect the outcome.”
“How do you know that?” asked Hugh.
“We asked the Diva, and he said so.”
Theoson looked at Hugh, but said nothing.
“How do I even know there is a sibyl?” asked Hugh.
The priest gasped. “Hugh… I assure you, the sibyl is real. If you…” he sighed. “If you stay in the city after the Triumphant festivities and wait until most everyone has gone home, I might be able to grant you an audience with her.”
“Might,” he repeated.
“How long would I need to hang around before ‘might’ became ‘will?’”
The priest held out his empty hand. “It may not be a matter of how long, but how much.”
The giant dug her hand into her purse and pulled out several coins. “How much?”
The priest smiled at her and pulled his hand back. “My dear, it is not something that can be bought. We do not put prices on our services. Rather, the Diva smiles down upon those who honor his greatness.”
Theoson leaned in and said, “Right, ‘donations.’”
The priest scoffed. “Like you are one to talk? I would think a man who subsists solely on the kindness of his peers would be receptive to the idea that while it would be unholy to demand payment… one has to eat.”
“Tell me,” said Theoson, “Who’s eating the gold, silver and jewels? I should like to pick through your sewage sometime.”
“Ah,” said the priest, “You’re in luck: our sewers are open to the public.”
Theoson shook his head and let out a rare, awkward burst of laughter.
“Now, if you please, I will need to escort you back out to the waiting room. Feel free to peruse all our fineries for as long as you like before leaving, and don’t forget to fill out a clay tablet with an account of your experience. Be sure to come back if it turns out to be true, assuming you are able to make the journey. If you should like to meet the sibyl, there are shops all throughout the town stocked with gifts the Diva would be most appreciative to receive.”
They browsed around the waiting room a bit more while the twins mostly fraternized with the other athletes.
The next day, they were awoken by horns. The dwarf and giant went off to compete. They were competing in the novathlon. It took place over three days, with three events on each day. Each day began with a race, which weeded out a third of the athletes. Then, a projectile-based event would eliminate half of the remaining, or a third of the original athletes again. The final event was a combat sport, which determined the day’s winner.
Those eliminated in the first race of the first day could not compete in day two or three, while those who were eliminated in the race on the second day were disqualified from competing on day three. Everyone wanted to win on day three, and the ultimate prize was to win on two or three days. Still, people talked as if winning day three would be more important than winning both days one and two, but losing on day three.
The first event was a race over land, mountains and sea. The race was several miles long, and was roughly in the shape of a triangle. They started off running on gently rolling plains, and this gave way to steep mountains that required one to climb at points. Near the top was a pole, which everyone had to touch with one of their hands. It was kept coated in a dye that stained their hand purple, indicating they reached that marker.
They would then turn towards the sea, which would lead them to a cliff several meters high. They then jump into the water and swim to a small island where the second pole is kept coated in a red dye. They then get back in the water and swim for the shore near where they started the race, where they finish by placing them hand on a final pole, where their fingers and palms are inspected for the water-proof dyes In the event that two people touch the final pole at seemingly the same moment, the hand higher up on the pole is declared the winner.
As they lined up at the start point, Hugh couldn’t feel more proud if they were his own children.
To be continued…