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Equirria


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February 27, 77AD

Azarion's heart hammered in his chest as he checked over the horse's harness one last time. He had made modifications in the past few days, after finding out the Whites were participating in the Equirria races on the Campus Martius. his chariot and two horses were also ready for the run later that day... but right now, he was not looking after them. This horse, from the White's stables, was not assigned to a chariot yet; not fully trained to run alongside someone else, or keep a steady pace. Which suited Azarion just fine.

The festival, in honor of the old ways of Rome, started with horse races, rather than chariots. Romans were much more fond of the pageantry of charioteers now, especially when all four factions were represented - but still, tradition was tradition, so the tracks were cleared for riders. Azarion had caught glimpses of the others - mostly young men who were riders in the Circus as well. They had good horses, and experience. But Azarion had something they didn't.

Stirrups.

He had been considering this for a long time, but stirrups were no use in a chariot race. This was an opportunity he did not want to pass up. To ride again like they used to, in Sarmatia. He was not sure if Tiberius and Tiranes were going to show up for the festival, but he knew his cousin would go out of his mind. Azarion did not let anyone in on what he was preparing for. Not even Marcus.

He was wearing the uniform of the Whites, but without the reins wrapped around his body this time. He tied his growing hair back as much as he could manage. Patting the horse on the nose - in his mind, he called him Pagos -, Azarion was ready to walk out to the starting line, when Marcus made an appearance...

@Sharpie

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Marcus made it a habit to go around the horses and drivers (or riders, in this case) in the half-hour or so before a race started, unless his presence was required in the stands as it sometimes was; it was not unknown for the patron of the day's races to request the faction leaders attend him.

He did his best to treat his slaves, employees and the other members of the faction with impartiality, but allowed (within the recesses of his own thoughts) that he might have a slight bias where the mute Sarmatian was concerned.

Azarion was holding the reins of a young horse, one not yet used to the harness of a chariot, but that promised to be a fine runner given the chance. He had tied his hair back; Marcus had smiled when he first realised that he was growing his hair out - it gave him more of a wild look than usual, especially as it had reached that awkward length when it was nearly impossible to do anything with it.

Something about the horse's gear caught his attention and he shook his head. Really. Stirrups... he should have guessed Azarion would assert his own wild ways on this horseback race.

Well, he deserved the chance.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, drawing closer.

 

@Chevi

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Azarion stopped, looking at Marcus with hesitation. He had not really disclosed his plans to him before the race, so it would have been in the faction leader's power to tell him to turn around and go back to the stables. He noted the way Marcus looked at the stirrups and the rest of the harness. He was Parthian, so he probably had seen this before; at least he did not look terribly shocked.

"How are you feeling?"

Azarion blinked, then gestured in the direction of the race tracks. He wanted to take part in the race, and do it in his own way. He had not ridden a horse with a proper harness since he had been captured by the Romans. He missed it. He gestured at the horse, prancing and ready to go, then at the stirrups. I can ride faster.

@Sharpie

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"Yes, I daresay you can ride faster with them," Marcus said, dryly. "You'll throw the entire city into an uproar over this outlandish idea and the next thing you know they'll equip all their cavalry soldiers with them. At least you're not going to give them a demonstration of just how effective they can be for an archer - oh yes, I know that much about your people." The Sarmatians, like Marcus' own people (well, his grandfather's people; he himself was born Roman) were consummate riders and archers, devastatingly effective with both.

Perhaps that was why the Romans hadn't extended their own borders further east.

He clasped his hands behind his back. "I hope you won't be too disappointed if they decide to disqualify you due to having an unfair advantage."

 

@Chevi

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Marcus knew what stirrups were, and knew how useful they could be.

"Yes, I daresay you can ride faster with them. You'll throw the entire city into an uproar over this outlandish idea and the next thing you know they'll equip all their cavalry soldiers with them."

Azarion scoffed. The Romans had been watching the Sarmatians across the border for decades; they fought them captured them, even recruited them into their cavalry, but they never bothered to learn the stirrups from them. They were not about to start now. Unless it was for races. But then at least it would be a challenge.

"At least you're not going to give them a demonstration of just how effective they can be for an archer"

Oh, he wished. Azarion's eyes probably spoke volumes. He wasn't sure if Marcus had heard about his little stint at the ludus. But he missed archery...

"oh yes, I know that much about your people. I hope you won't be too disappointed if they decide to disqualify you due to having an unfair advantage."

Azarion shrugged. He just wanted to ride, and make the Romans watch him win. If they disqualified him after, they would have already seen it anyway. He looked up at Marcus, arching an eyebrow in question. They shared some simpler hand signs now, since their first meeting with Tiranes. Marcus was a quick learner. Do you punish me? Would he, if Azarion participated in the race?

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Marcus could only guess what destruction Azarion might wreak if he were allowed access to a bow and arrows, although he had settled down somewhat from the half-feral youngster who'd first joined the Whites.

Not completely, though, as evidenced by the addition of stirrups.

Well, a bit of fire was a good thing, especially in the cut-throat world of chariot racing. And it seemed Azarion didn't much care if the organisers did disqualify him.

"Am I going to punish you? For what, trying to bring a bit of sense to riding?" Marcus folded his arms and arched an eyebrow. He was rather fond of the boy, Ahura Mazda help them both. "You do like to push things, but no."

He'd weather the storm later, if there was one. The serious business was the chariot racing, anyway; actual riders racing was done more from tradition than because it was taken seriously. The Romans far preferred the spectacle of the two- and four-horse chariots thundering around the Circus.

"Just, try not to push things too much, all right? I might have to actually rein you in, and neither of us would like that."

 

@Chevi

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"Am I going to punish you? For what, trying to bring a bit of sense to riding? You do like to push things, but no."

That was all Azarion needed to hear. If Marcus had threatened him, he probably would have still raced. But he knew that the leader of the Whites probably secretly wanted to see just exactly how much attention a stunt like that would get. Azarion turned back to checking the harness, and then vaulted up into the saddle. Gods, so much easier with a stirrup.

"Just, try not to push things too much, all right? I might have to actually rein you in, and neither of us would like that."

Azarion quirked an eyebrow at Marcus. Rein in?... He gave a smirk, and tapped the sides of Pagos gently, trotting forward to join the other racers. They were still behind the starting line, but he was already getting some curious glances.

Azarion had no doubt he would win the race, barring any sabotage, or Pagos changing his mind. The question was, how big a spectacle it was going to be. People around were still milling and chattering about; the traditional horse races were a mere warm-up to the chariots. Probably Azarion was the only one actually looking forward to them.

The signal was sounded. Everyone lined up. Horses huffed and neighed, and riders got ready. Azarion did too, enjoying the simple feeling of riding properly, for once. No chariot, or reins wrapped around his body.

And then they were off.

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"You really need to stop pushing, for a bit. Let someone else risk their hide for once," Marcus said, and watched the boy put one foot in the stirrup and lightly settle himself on the horse's back with an ease that spoke to long practise at it (even if he hadn't actually done it in years). The Sarmatians, from what Marcus knew, were practically born in the saddle. They were famed as riders and archers - and Azarion had it in his blood.

He didn't need to worry that the boy would somehow be thrown, or fall, unless through the actions of another rider - but he had the most secure seat of any of them.

The trumpet sounded and the race began.

 

@Chevi

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"You really need to stop pushing, for a bit. Let someone else risk their hide for once," 

Azarion ignored that last piece of advice. There was no one else, really.

The trumpets sounded, and the race was off. Hooves thundered as the horses rode out, neck to neck for a moment before some pulled forward and some lagged behind. Azarion heard the people cheering with excitement (although with not as much force as they did for the chariots). He just enjoyed riding, at full speed, again, in the saddle like it was meant to be. And having stirrups. It was clear from the start to anyone watching that Azarion moved in a different way from the others; in sync with his steed, not putting as much effort into staying in the saddle and being balanced as everyone else. He was used to riding, and he had ridden around the Circus for practice before. But the harness made all the difference.

Pagos pulled forward, leaving other riders behind. Azarion paid attention to where they were, but not to the glares they shot his way. The sound of the crowd changed too, getting louder and more excited, although with a hint of confusion on the side. It didn't matter. He could deal with all of that later. For now, he just enjoyed being in the saddle, riding, and leaving a bunch of Romans in the dust.

@Sharpie

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Normally, he should be sleeping or playing dice with the other agitatos. Or taking care of some of the horses; his favorite was a sturdy stallion, all muscle with a shiny black coat. In his mind, he named the horse Procella. Not exactly the most creative given Procella's strong-hearted temperament and dark coat, but the horse was a born leader when it came to charioteering. Every one of Paullus's commands, Procella has followed without question. Stop, start. A tug of the reins here and there. Sometimes a slap with them. He'd never hurt a horse the way other have hurt him. Only a small bit of urging, and the other three follow Procella's command. What he wouldn't give right now to brush Procella's mane, to sneak him a carrot or two out of eyeshot of the stable keepers. 

Instead, Paullus is stuck here. His manager's decided that he is apparently in need of it.

The two of them watch from the wings as the race begins. He likes feeling the ground quake beneath his feet from the thundering of the horses. It feels familiar. It feels like home. 

A beautiful woman with long, thick tresses of dark brown hair catches his eye from the stands. How stunning her eyes would look lit by the flickering of candle flame. Paullus winks back and gives her a crooked smile, but the manager interrupts the moment with a harsh elbow to his side. "We are here to examine our rivals, not find a lay for the night." Properly chagrined, Paullus returns his attention to the races. One of them stands out in particular. Nothing too remarkable; slaves with small frames are a sestertius a dozen. He was one of those too, but the past is dead and buried. Wait, how's he getting that far? No charioteer worth his salt has poor eyesight. Paullus looks all over. His feet tap against the ground as the manager glares at him. The reins are the same. Cues are similar. What's going on?

By now, the horse has cleared enough of its rivals that Paullus can get a good enough look. Wishbone-shaped pieces of leather dangle from the saddle (he thinks they're shaped like that, at least); the rider has his feet in them. Manager isn't happy to be losing to the White Faction. "What's he doing?" To that, Paullus scoffs, though some of it is to mask a cold slash of fear.

"He's riding the barbarian way and getting lucky. Outfit us with the same foot-hooks and the gimmick is over." 

@Sharpie@Chevi

Edited by Insignia
clarity
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The riders finished the first lap with Azarion firmly in the lead. He wasn't even trying, really; it wasn't a kind of sweaty, life-or-death race, more like a free ride he had been craving for years. Properly saddled for once, Pagos felt the ease of his rider, outpacing the other steeds. Marcus had told Azarion not to show off too much, but honestly, it was hard to do. As he finished the first lap, he caught a glimpse of people from the various factions keeping an eye on the race from the wings, yelling and cheering (and probably screaming profanities at him, but it was hard to hear). He caught a flash of red from the corner of his eyes. Good. The Reds needed to see that their old rival had some new tricks up its sleeve.

The race was three laps total; they were in the second one now. Azarion was determined to enjoy every moment of it. He paced himself right, not wanting to torture Pagos. By the time the third lap started, the noise of the crowd was louder. They were seeing something they had not seen on these teacks before. He wondered if there was anyone among the spectators who had seen his kind ride this way before. Maybe from across battle lines, back in the day... he knew he was going to pay a price for this. But Marcus was fine with in, and what could they possibly do to him now?

He won the race. Obviously. By the time he trotted back to the entrance to the stables from the finish line, there was a whole lot of yelling going on. Some of the Reds, Blues and Greens were making gestures at the judges of the race, no doubt demanding to disqualify Azarion. He wouldn't mind if they did, he'd already gotten what he wanted. Marcus could deal with the rest of it. Azarion slipped off the horse, patting Pagos on the neck and on the nose. He caught the eyes of one of the young Red charioteers, and flashed him a cheeky grin. Do it after me, loser.

@Sharpie @Insignia

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Paullus watches, face poorly hiding back his anger. He and the other charioteers had to work hard to keep their balance and use those proper Roman saddles, while this little kid decides to show up with a distinctly barbarian one and win? It wasn't fair! Paullus was extremely good at racing on horseback using his own people's style of riding, back when Boduoc and C___-

They never stopped caring about you. Seasons have passed, and they might still be looking fo-

Shut up! Shut up! They're dead!

His eye twitches; Manager looks at him with a bit of concern as Paullus pinches himself in the arm quite hard to forget about it. Point was, he was literally beaten into adopting Roman equestrian practices under the contest being advertised as fair for everyone. It was important to use the same equipment to prevent exactly what was happening now, one person having an unfair advantage because of a piece of hardware. Exactly the same kind of scummy practice he thought the judges would have the common sense to stop. 

And then the actual child has the temerity to stop by, make eye contact with Paullus, and grin. If he wants to play with the big boys and get turned into sauce by horse hooves, he sure can. But don't expect anybody to play nice; there's no babysitters out on the racing track. Paullus flicks his eyes deliberately from the stirrups to Azarion and shakes his head. His face contorts into a grin of laughter. Alright, pipsqueak. You're on.

@Sharpie @Chevi

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The Red charioteer made a show of looking over Azarion, and the stirrups on his horse. The look was clear in its meaning: You only won because of the gear you had. His sentiment seemed to be echoed in the noise from the spectators, who were loudly discussing whether or not the win was valid, shouting to sway the judges. Azarion was fairly sure he could have won the race regardless of stirrups. Also... others might be better with stirrups too, but I was the one smart enough to use them. He shrugged, looking at the gear and back at the Red, as a stable boy led Pagos away.

The Red charioteer was grinning at him. Azarion didn't know his name, but he only looked a few years older than him, tops. Which meant, he couldn't have that much more experience. He walked a few steps closer to him, holding his head high. This was a challenge, even with no words spoken. Azarion gestured towards where the chariots were waiting for the real races to begin. He knew the Red couldn't read his Sarmatian sign language, but he'd probably get the gist anyway. I can beat you at that one too.

@Insignia

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Paullus's thoughts go haywire. Oh, this little kid really wants to go, huh? Alright, the child might have some potential. And he certainly has some guts if he thinks he can win every race through dishonesty. But guess what, the Romans sure as Orcus aren't going to let him get away with it. Guess what, knee-high. You've been here four days, I've been here four years. And I know that for every time you think you're going to get ahead, you'll get pummeled right back down. If you're not first, you're last. No, Azarion isn't some riding prodigy. He's gotten lucky, and that's that. 

Though, the hand gestures confuse Paullus. He looks at Azarion, considering him for a moment. Who uses hand gestures, and ones that aren't anything like what he's seen with the town orator? Oh. Oh. He's either deaf, or he can't talk. Eh, he won't rib him about that. Brings up unpleasant memories about how close Paullus himself was to being silenced. Instead, Paullus rolls his eyes. This is Rome. You can't say "I'm better than you" as a comeback to everything. 

Before he can continue, Manager nudges him to get into position and stop making stupid faces at that random boy, we have a race to start. Paullus saunters to where his respective chariot is. Procella is at the left side of the yoke. He can't help but check the harnesses again. The benefit of having a one-track mind is that Azarion turns from an annoyance into inspiration, and Paullus's soon getting balanced in the chariot, feet against the edges, weight slightly forward. Watch and learn, boy, he thinks. This is how a real race is done. He thinks all this despite being even more of a cheater than Azarion.

@Chevi @Sharpie

Edited by Insignia
was dumb and tried speeding ahead (no pun intended)
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Marcus couldn't say, in all honesty, that he was surprised by the outcome of the race, nor by the fairly predictable reactions of the other teams' riders, although judging by Azarion's expression it had been more than worth it.

If the Reds' rider thought that Azarion was going to give a single foot to him in the chariot race that followed, he clearly hadn't been paying attention.

"Don't get cocky," he warned Azarion, although he was resigned to the fact that his words would be falling on deaf ears. Well. He let Azarion hand his horse over to Nisus before taking his place in his chariot.

"Stick to more conventional tactics for this race, I daresay the spectators have quite enough to think about," he added, before stepping back to let Azarion prepare for the next race.

 

@Chevi @Insignia

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Well, at least Marcus was not furious. Or he might have been, but he was storing it for later. Seeing two charioteers square off, that was the stuff people came to see. Azarion glared at the Red, aware that he wouldn't be able to respond even if his rival issued a verbal challenge. Damn. But instead the Red just gave him a glare, and got into his chariot. Azarion did the same. They were lined up next to each other. Obviously. People came to the races to see rivals side by side.

Marcus followed, talking as Azarion wrapped himself in the reins.

"Don't get cocky. Stick to more conventional tactics for this race, I daresay the spectators have quite enough to think about," 

Azarion rolled his eyes, gesturing at the Red in the next chariot. He's cocky. I can beat him. The other charioteer had started the fight. Maybe he was too keen to win it.

They lined up, ready for the race to start. Azarion shifted his weight subtly, feeling the horses' tension through the reins. He glanced over at the Red charioteer. He held himself with confidence and ease. At least he would be a worthy opponent. Of course he did not need to know that. Azarion grinned at him, gesturing at the knife at his belt. He signed, although the Red seemed confused by his sign language. He'd get the gist.

Better make sure you have yours. You're gonna need to cut yourself free when you fall...

@Sharpie @Insignia

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Honestly, his mind has already switched into race mode. Here, there aren't any distractions. His blood pounds in his ears like the beat of a war drum; it speeds up but he wills it to keep steady. Time crawls on while he's waiting for the race to start. A flicker of movement from the corner of his vision gets him. It's the White charioteer, the little kid. He points at the knife and Paullus knows at once what he is talking about. But he won't need it, not this time. And if he falls, he'll make sure to trip up the other's chariot and get gore all over his tunic. And the symbol on the other's arm. Those dreaded letters. Paullus looks dead ahead. There can only be one rebellious slave figurehead in here, and it's going to be him.

One rein on the left, other on the right. He may be another illiterate slave despite all his rage, but he's no idiot when it comes to racing. He'll lead from the front for now. Gaze ahead. Reins steady. Procella shuffles impatiently. "Just a moment, 'Cella,'" he whispers. 

Usually, horses thunder around the track. For Paullus, it's too quick for thunder. Instead of noise, it's a blissful silence, a mental charging of the air around his chariot reminiscent of when lightning robs the air of its humidity, making hair crackle. And then, a small yet distinctive snap as soon as the horn sounds. Procella only needs a strong tap to get going. The force would knock any untrained charioteer straight on his back, but Paullus has two and a half years under his belt. He pulls ahead for the first lap.

@Chevi @Sharpie

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The moment the race started, they moved at the same time. Borena and Tabitha were well trained; Azarion kept just enough tension in the reins to feel their movement and so they could feel his, and steer them as the other chariots thundered around them. The Red pulled ahead right away. Even with the face that was begging to be punched, he was not bad at racing at least. Azarion paced his horses well. He didn't need to beat the Red right on the first lap. He just needed to outpace him on the last one.

The first turn was already ahead of them. It always spaced out the chariots; not everyone could turn at the same time, so some raced ahead, while others held back to avoid crashing, choosing tactics over showing off. Azarion steered his horses wide, making up the distance with increasing speed, free of interference with the others. Borena and Tabitha found their rhythm, and Azarion balanced himself in the chariot, gaining on the Red ahed of him by the time they completed the first turn.

@Insignia @Sharpie

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Paullus keeps the two horses ahead. The one on the right is a white mare the Romans call something else but he calls Cloud in his native language. That is as how things should be, the charioteer naming the horses. Procella, like his namesake, storms ahead, but Paullus keeps his speed under check by a slight tug in the reins. The stallion has a need for speed, yet it will have to wait. In the end, they end up in the middle of the turn, neither too bad nor too good. One of the others, a Green, is getting a little too big for his sandals and starts hogging the inner turn. It will not be a pleasant one to spurn out of the competition, but Paullus has a few good tricks up his sleeve. 

The second lap, he is a solid second and third place, a position that oscillates between him and White. No time for games. He roots his footing. Falling off wouldn't be very stylish of him, would it? 

@Chevi @Sharpie

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After the first lap, Azarion kept pace shoulder to shoulder with the Red charioteer. One of the Greens pulled ahead, driving at a breakneck speed Azarion doubted he could keep up for the rest of the race. Azarion kept a speed that allowed him to steer more easily; there were still too many chariots nearby to ride all out. Anyone could crash, or tilt out of control any time. But eve if they didn't, Azarion was keeping an eye on the Red driver. There was no way he wasn't going to beat the Red.

They were nearing the end of the second lap where the crash happened. The Green ahead of them hugged the turn too close and knocked a wheel against the stones, throwing him out of balance. Azarion pulled on the reins, changing course to steer clear. Maybe the Red wouldn't be so fast...

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Azarion had found his footing as a charioteer in the bigae, that was clear from the way he had handled his two horses right from the start of this race. Marcus couldn't help grinning as the kid gestured at the wickedly sharp falx in his belt, the curved blade that every charioteer carried in a race in case they ended up in a shipwreck and had to cut themselves free. Bigae drivers could hold the reins without having to wrap them around themselves, although many chose to in preparation and training for the far more challenging four-horse quadrigae chariots.

Azarion was far more level-headed when out on the tracks than he was anywhere else, almost, and Marcus nodded in satisfaction as he allowed his horses to set a pace that would carry them easily around the seven laps of the race. The Red driver was ahead into the very first turn, and still ahead as they came out of it into the back straight. One of the Greens took the tightest curve around the spina as they round the end nearest the starting gates (and Marcus) and managed to hold the lead as the second lap begins.

The roar of the crowd informed him of a shipwreck, although he couldn't see it from his position - probably he'd tried to take the turn too tightly and collided with the spina. He could see Azarion's white-clad figure guide the light white-painted chariot wider at the far end, some natural instinct informing him of what awaited him out of sight.

He was shaping up to be a very fine investment for the Whites - and there seemed to be some sort of rivalry beginning between him and the Red, whose name Marcus would have to find out. Rivalries could be either encouraged or discouraged and Marcus would have to investigate which way this one should go, before it went too far.

 

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He hates the Romans. Their harsh words and sharp whips loved exercising their powers on him, and the endless thrum of the city kept him awake for the first month he was here. They killed his family and stamped out his old identity. However, in this moment, swerving to avoid a mess of horses and rubble and body, Paullus has never felt more alive. He tugs on the reins wrapped around his arms; at the risk of going to the outer part of the turn, he avoids the shipwreck, narrowly avoiding colliding with Azarion's chariot, and swings around to take the new lead. 

The third lap ends with a bang. The brush with injury adds oil to his inner flame, and he has a feral grin on his face as he stays a few horse-steps ahead of Azarion. A photo finish. For now.

@Chevi @Sharpie

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With the Green out of the race (and clearing off the tracks before the next lap was over), Azarion and the Red were now fighting for the first place. With the chariots more spaced out at the front, it was easier to avoid a collision, but they were still close enough that Azarion could steal a glance at his opponent. He was good. Not excellent, but decent. By the time they completed the third lap, they were almost shoulder to shoulder.

The fourth lap took them over the halfway point. Once they cleared the turn, Azarion began to increase speed, trying to put some distance between him and the Red for the final rush. Some of the chariots had the same idea, coming up closer behind them. They would try to edge their way to the front soon.

@Insignia @Sharpie

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It's too far for Paullus to get arrogant. He has to win this. He has to. Manager said that he's a fairly young charioteer, that it's acceptable to not get a perfect ratio, but Paullus doesn't buy any of that. He's here to win and get clean numbers, to become a big shot, and if he's not first, he may as well be last. He has to do this, because if he has no pride in this one thing, he has nothing. Everything good he had, he's thrown away. The unpleasant memories harden his resolve; he moves the reins connected to Procella up and down to create a series of little tap-tap-taps. "C'mon," he mutters. 

One of the Blues tries coming up behind him. Paullus answers by steering his chariot ever so slightly to the right. The unfortunate Blue has no choice but to fall back or risk getting pushed to the outer part of the turn. Grab the reins. Slow down. Turn again. Azarion may be ahead of him by two horse-lengths, but Paullus has a plan.

@Chevi @Sharpie

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The second half of any race was usually the most dangerous part, where the more skilled (and desperate) charioteers would try to make their bids for the lead position. The Greens were down to one chariot, with the other three teams still with both of their drivers in the running. Azarion was doing well, out in front and trying to work out where the Red behind him was. The Blues were in third and the other Red in fourth, with the second White (Flavius) fifth, battling it out with the other Blue and the remaining Green.

The second half of any race was always the more dangerous, as charioteers knew that the time was growing shorter for them to make their move and take the prime first place. The Red seemed to be eyeing up Azarion in front of him to try to move around him, possibly forcing him into the spina which would cause him a shipwreck and put him out of the race entirely - a charioteer who ended up in a shipwreck had a good chance of being killed or sustaining serious injuries, something Marcus had seen all too often in his career, and grown used to. He would be sorry to see Azarion come to such an end, although he had seen a real talent in the youngster and though it unlikely that he would end so ignominiously.

 

@Chevi @Insignia

Edited by Sharpie
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