I DID NOT SLEEP. Could not. I sweated instead. No rarity on that sweltering world, save that the sweat ran cold as the blood in me. I left the other
contract myrmidons to their fitful dreams and wandered out into the
corridor where sconces flickered in the dull cement walls, solid and close. I did not mark it as I padded into the hall, but mine was not the only bed left empty in our vaulted and pillared hall. I was not alone in my dreamlessness.
The world was different at night, and the coliseum hypogeum even more so. By day it churned with activity, with the shouting of men and the braying of beasts and monsters. Ghosts, I thought, were only the echoes at night of that which we expected to find by day, haunting our consciences.
The coliseum was built somewhat above sea level. In most coliseums, the dormitories, kennels, and dungeons of the hypogeum were literally that: underground. But Borosevo had its peculiar quirks, built as it was on a marshy atoll. Still the stone walls dripped, and here and there runnels of
condensation could be seen collecting on the metal piping of overworked climate control systems and on weeping windowpanes. The arched ceiling hung so low above me that I could trail my calloused fingertips along the smooth stone, and I did. I walked a long time, heart in my throat as it had never been before. I felt as the prisoner feels on the eve of his execution, praying that the prior or his lord will pardon him—a feeling I know all too well now.
Cat’s plague-shrunken form seemed always to lie at my feet or just behind my back, and I found my gaze dragged constantly downward. It didn’t seem real, death. None of it did. Not the coliseum hypogeum, not the city without, not the rotten years since I’d awakened there in chaos and in fear. If you have ever awakened in the dead of night and questioned the
cosmos down to the space between its atoms, you will know how I felt. In my dread and in the sickness of my heart, even the flesh of my own two hands seemed alien. I found myself thinking of the morrow’s combat—my first—but I could not dwell on it, and always I would retreat to some other memory. To Mother’s operas, to tales of Simeon the Red and Kharn Sagara. To Gibson’s lessons, to sparring matches with Crispin. To Cat’s smile and our time in that abandoned tenement. I remembered the pain of broken ribs and the night when Rells’s thugs had dragged me from my cardboard hutch in the streets of Borosevo.
I stopped outside the entrance to the showers, listening. There was a faint sound of water running, droning over something scuffling, snuffling— an animal sound almost too quiet to hear. I froze then, cocked my head. The door was open, and it swung silently inward, spilling harsh white light in a wedge upon the opposite wall. Barefoot as I was, I made almost no sound
as I stalked into the gray bath chamber. The shower stalls ran along the far wall, each fronted by an oily white curtain. The last one in the row was running, belching steam into the quiet air, not quite masking the animal
sound I’d heard from the hall. There were no clothes upon the single metal bench, nor any other sign the place was occupied by anyone but my ghosts.
But once I was inside, the scuffling noise was clearer. It was weeping.
“Hello?” I decided I’d best announce myself, feeling suddenly that I’d intruded too far upon something private. I cannot say what made me do it or why I did not simply leave. Perhaps it was my native curiosity, perhaps I
was simply nosy, perhaps . . . perhaps I was lonely and very, very scared.
The occupant of the shower started, and I heard a dull thunk followed by a curse, a sniff. “What?” After another moment of snuffling, “Is that you,
It was Switch, of course. I moved to shut the door to the hall. Ghen was secure in the prison block on the lower levels with Siran and the other
criminals, but I dreaded the thought of someone like him interrupting. Not that night, not before a combat. In a voice pressed as dried flowers, I said, “Switch? Yeah, it’s me.”
The young boy cleared his throat. “I . . . I couldn’t sleep, you know?”
Seating myself on the low steel bench between the bank of showers and the bank of lockers, I nodded, not thinking that the younger man could not see. After a moment had passed in silence, I said, “I know. I’ve never done
this before either. Fought in the Colosso, I mean. I had a chance once, a long time ago, but . . .” The words caught in me, and I looked down at my hands. I heard Switch suck in a breath, and I knew I’d made a mistake. The younger man was just starting to believe in me, and here I was undermining that.
“I’m going to die, Had.” He said the words with a lack of emotion that shocked me. “Why did I do this? Why am I here?” Switch made a choking sound, and I was about to say something—to commiserate—when he said, “Maybe I should have renewed my contract with Master Set after all. It’s better than dying. Ghen’s right—I’m not a fighter. I’m just some whore.”
My head between my hands, I looked up, glaring at the featureless white plastic of the shower curtain. “Ghen’s an idiot, and that’s exactly what he
wants you to think.”
“It’s the only thing I’m good for!” He sounded almost defiant in his self-loathing.
“Well, you’re rubbish at sword work.” I tried to smile, sensing that even a bad joke was better than pity. When the younger myrmidon did not reply at once, I reached out and slapped the edge of his stall. “No one’s going to die, man. And you’ve gotten a lot better since we started.”
Switch kept his peace a long moment. “I should have stayed on. Master Set wasn’t tired of me yet. I could have done another tour, held out for better pay. I thought this was going to be better, but . . .” His conviction lagged. “But at least I wasn’t going to die there.”
“Hmm.” I grimaced, glad Switch could not see. Switch couldn’t have been more than eighteen standard. How long had he been in this Set’s
employ? A year? Two? Five? It was honest work, legal, which was more than could be said of my past few years of living, but the thought of what he’d been offended me. Sold into indenture by his parents and only a
child . . . No child should have to live like that. Again, I did not offer him pity. I did not think he would accept it. “So . . . how’d you end up in this fix, eh?”
“In the pits?” Switch asked. I could hear him moving in the shower cell, just out of sight. “Thought I’d make a change, only none of the other
ships’d hire me. I can’t fly or do hydroponics or nothing. Just . . .” I imagined Ghen making an obscene gesture to fill the silence. “I figured it was this or go back to Master Set. And I’m done with him.” He spat loudly, and there was a hint of fire in his words as he said, “Filthy old man. This
seemed like a better idea at the time. Thought I’d learn to fight like . . .” He broke off, embarrassed.
“I can’t say.” A dull thudding came from Switch’s shower cell, and I guessed he was hitting his head on the wall. “You’ll laugh.”
I quirked a small, unseen smile. “Try me.”
The words seemed almost squeezed out of Switch’s chest. “I wanted to fight like Kasia Soulier, you know? You ever see those films? Or Prince Cyrus, maybe. I wanted to be a man, you know? A proper man. Someone who could stand up for himself.”
I did laugh then and pinched the bridge of my nose. I could hear the embarrassed silence boiling off the younger man, and I said, “I know
exactly what you mean. I wanted to be Simeon the Red.” “Simeon’s not a fighter.”
“No,” I agreed, thinking of the time I’d told Cat his story that day on the canal. “But he had to be, when the time came. That’s what I’m saying. It doesn’t matter what you are, Switch. You have to stand when the time
comes, and the time is coming.” I told him a bit about my mother, about her storytelling, her art. For a moment it was as if all the torment and pain the past few years had gone behind a cloud and I was lit by the rosy light of
childhood. “I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a proper man, Switch.
My father wanted me to be a priest, but like I said . . . I always wanted to be like Simeon.” I grinned. “I wanted to see the universe.”
It was his turn to laugh at me, by rights, but he was quiet a long time.
“Guess we’re both in the wrong place,” Switch said, a weak humor in him.
I snorted. “I guess so. But a man’s got to make a living. Money’s not too bad here if you can collect.”
“If we survive,” the younger man corrected. “We’re not really paid until the end.”
“None of that,” I said, perhaps too sharply. “We’ll be laughing about it this time tomorrow.” I broke off, glancing at the clock above the door back into the hall. There were just about two watches left of the night—five little hours. So many and too few.
“No, we won’t.” A tiny choking sound broke from the shower stall, part laugh and part sob. “It’s hopeless.”
“It’s not,” I snapped back, glaring intently at the shower curtain as if I might burn a hole there with my gaze. “Don’t worry about hope. Hope is a
cloud.” It was one of the many balancing aphorisms Gibson used to maintain his scholiast’s apatheia. It felt strange to say such things again. Strange, but right. Looking around that low concrete room, I felt a sudden pang for the loss of the old man. What I wouldn’t give to see him again, to speak to him. But that too was not of the apatheia, and I tried to grind it
away, though it would not go. “You’ll do what you have to do. We all will. Hope doesn’t enter into it.”
“But what if we don’t make it?”
“What if we do?” I countered, struck by a thought. I pulled my legs up under me and sat like a sage beneath a tree in meditation. “What if you make it through the year and earn your keep? Did you give any thought to that, or did you come in with a death wish and the hope of a few decent meals?” He wouldn’t be the first who had. His silence betrayed him. The boy had no plan, no ambition. Just a dumb, vague hope and a childish fancy
—not unlike some other young man I knew. Well, he wasn’t the first for that, either. A heavy sigh escaped me. “Tell you what,” I said, slashing against the fear in his broken voice. “Why don’t we stick together, eh? I don’t have any friends here either. I could use one.”
“I’d like that,” the other man said. “You’re the only one who hasn’t mocked what I was.”
I was thinking of what I’d told Cat so long ago: I wish I had my own
ship, wish I could travel. “I don’t want to stay here. I’m trying to save up for a ship, or we could at least sign onto one as hands.”
“I don’t know anything about that!”
“After a year you’ll know how to fight!” I snapped back. “Ships need security! Guards! You just haven’t thought it through! A year’s a long time.” I couldn’t bear his hopelessness, having so recently overcome my own.
Switch twitched the curtain aside and glared up at me. He was sitting all curled up at the bottom of the stall, fully clothed, his back against one wall, red hair plastered to the sides of his face. The boy narrowed his eyes at me. “That sounds a lot like a hope to me. I thought you said not to hope.”
“I said hope was a cloud,” I countered. “That doesn’t mean there’s no hope