“Remarkable find,” he quipped, turning to the man who first approached Max about it.
“Indeed,” his aide replied, “his markings are most unique and exquisite, aren’t they?”
“Actually, I was talking about that fighter,” Mr Bertona informed him, sweeping one hand in the general direction of the arena below as Max finished yet another fight. “He has made it a lot farther than I first expected him to. In fact, his skills seem to improve with every match he fights. Maybe it’s for the best that he put up such a fight about it…”
Bandit, meanwhile, still sat in the same cage, having been wheeled into the box with Bertona, only now very much awake and in a most understandably foul mood.
“Yes,” the man conceded, “though at the time I had little choice, since I’m fairly sure they were going to be leaving Bodeen very soon. And we couldn’t have him going around making a scene, just when things were finally settling down for Nikopol.”
“I suppose not,” Mr Bertona shrugged, “but so far, this boy is bringing in a lot of money. I knew that what we needed all along was better fighters. Better fights means bigger wagers. It’s such a pity we couldn’t get that Cyexian to fight.” Though a rare occurrence, there were no specific rules against women fighting in Nikopolas. “By all accounts, she’s said to be tough, even by other Cyexians…”
“I don’t know about that…”
“Why not?” Mr Bertona snapped his fingers, and one of the robed girls started massaging his shoulders. “She’s a bounty hunter. She should be used to fighting for money.”
“Maybe so,” his aide admitted, “but she’s also said to be a lone wolf who doesn’t stick around long anywhere, and I’m told she’s very stubborn about the bounty she’s after.”
“A pity he wasn’t here, too,” Bertona mused, “that would have been the perfect high-stakes grudge match!”
“I really don’t think the rest of the House would have gone for it. That man is infamous for being more trouble than he’s worth. They’d probably be more interested in cashing in on that insane bounty on his head.”
“Of course they would,” Bertona snorted, “and then they would thank me for it when I show them our profits. That’s how it always works with overly cautious old farts. They don’t want to take any risks, but they’ll always accept the reward.”
“Oh well, in either case, now that you mention it,” the aide brought up, “I’ve been hearing rumors that he got killed in some backwater islands, and by some nobody, at that.”
“Too bad,” Mr Bertona commented, then turned his attention back to the matter at hand, saying, “Now, as for this boy, we can’t have him getting overconfident, now can we?”
“No, sir, we cannot.” Knowing exactly what Mr Bertona meant, for he could already tell, from both his expression and his tone, that his boss had already decided to play for keeps.
“Make sure that in the next tier that kid has to fight him. That will be as far as he goes. His winning streak ends here.”
With that, his aide left the box to carry out his instructions as a servant delivered a platter of fresh seafood.
As he ate, he glanced over at the cage, which he had had placed in here in the hopes that this Max could see it even from down there. Both as a motivator for his fights, a reminder of the stakes, and ultimately a carrot he could never reach. Something to rub his nose in for rubbing him the wrong way from the start.
All the same, though, he was fast beginning to dislike the way that cat was looking at him, now that he wasn’t doped-up on tranqs. Had originally wanted this magnificent specimen as an exotic pet for his manor grounds up on the hill, a regal feline symbol of Nikopol’s power, but he now suspected that there was entirely too much of the wild, the untamed, left in him. As such, he couldn’t help thinking it such a waste that such a stately creature would be as uncivilized as the rude boy he sailed in with.
Now he was starting to conclude that if his groundskeeping and security staff couldn’t tame it, then it would make just as proud and noble a symbol stuffed and mounted in his main hall.
As if sensing his captor’s thoughts, Bandit regarded him with a low, threatening snarl that promised blood and mayhem if not for the steel bars between them.
“Your boy will leave this place the same nobody he was when he walked in, when I’m through with him,” Bertona told the big cat. “Whether you like it or not, you’re mine now, one way or the other. The House always wins. I always win.”