Sick Heart by J.A. Huss


Cort van Breda’s body conjures up images of sculpted marble, the pages of a master’s sketchbook, or the god Adonis come to life.

Eyes are drawn to him and once your gaze lands, it’s caught. Like a prisoner. He is a cage with steel bars and bulky locks with large keyholes.

His dark hair is cropped short, but he runs his hand over his skull like maybe just yesterday there was something there. Something to feel that has since been removed. He pauses for a moment, taking in the ship and the people around him. This gives the reporters an opportunity to swoop in, but one of his entourage pushes the people back with force. And even though I can’t hear what he’s saying, I read his lips.

“Get back! Get the fuck back!” He’s pushing them. Hard. Making a scene.

But it works, because Cort is ushered into a cleared area by some mercenary types and I get an even better look at him as he’s led down the stairs closest to me. No shirt, so I can see the dozens of tattoos on his upper body with perfect clarity as he walks towards the command center.

He looks over his shoulder, down the main deck of the ship. His father’s ship, so he’s probably been here many times. His expression is flat and unreadable and if I were pressed to pin an emotion on him, I would call him indifferent. Maybe even apathetic.

I’m six stories up in the reception room above the command center. Which is not that close, so maybe I’m wrong.

But I doubt it.

I’m very skilled at reading men.

I’ve read up on Cort van Breda. He’s the reigning superstar of the underground fighting ring my father and his ilk are obsessed with. Cort was on the cover of Ring of Fire three months ago when this match was announced, and after my father was done with the magazine, and I was sure he wouldn’t notice that it went missing, I took it and read every word about the man they call Sick Heart.

He’s ruthless, they say. Undefeated for the past twenty-two years, which is almost unheard of in this world we live in. He has won every fight they’ve put him in since he was placed in his first fight-to-the-death match at age five.

There are no real records of those fights. No vids or even an article. Five-year-old fighters aren’t newsworthy. They almost never turn into a Sick Heart. But I wish there were. I would like to see those fights. My mind begins to picture this man as a boy, all those years ago, and all the things he’s had to do to stay alive since then.

I quickly rein those thoughts in. There is no point.

He is six foot two, a hundred and seventy-five pounds, and covered in tattoos. The Ring of Fire article was obsessed with his body art and so am I.

Skulls. He is partial to skulls. And each one—if the rumors are true—represents someone he’s killed. He didn’t admit that in the article, of course, so it’s just a rumor. But there are rumors and then there are reputations. Cort van Breda, the Sick Heart, is more of a reputation guy at this point in time, so even if you’ve never seen him fight it’s not hard to imagine that the rumor might be true.

His eyes in the photographs I studied were a deep, soulful, silver-gray and when his gaze wanders up the side of the command center it feels like they land right on me.

I take a quick step back from the window. I don’t want his attention. No one in their right mind wants his attention. Men like him—men who fight in these fights—they don’t make it to twenty-seven years old still psychologically intact.

It’s not even remotely possible that Cort van Breda is sane.

The article didn’t mention much about his personal life. Didn’t say anything about his wives or where he lives. Didn’t give anything up about his hobbies or interests. In fact, it talked more about the entourage of friends following him down on the deck right now than it did him.

Two are not fighters themselves, but trainers in Cort’s camp. All the Ring of Fire fighters run training centers. It’s the only way to keep these fights going because there is a dead body at the end of every match.

These men, they only exist to kill one another.

This is Cort’s last fight. I overheard my father saying so a few weeks back and Cort is not the favorite tonight. He’s been around too long and at twenty-seven, he’s two years older than his opponent, Pavo.

That’s two additional years of abuse.

Two additional years of hardcore training. The type of training that breaks a body down quicker and quicker with each passing year.

Two years is a big deal in the ring. Cort has had at least a dozen more fights than his opponent tonight and in this world, too much experience is a liability.