OF THE CONTESTS I watched at the Colosso that day I can recall almost nothing. Save for Anaïs and Dorian, I remember almost none of the palatine and patrician members of Emeshi high society I met, either. Each blurs into the next, perfect faces cast in shades of teak, of bronze, of ivory. They are nameless and faceless to me even as the myrmidons and slaves in the
coliseum below were nameless and faceless to them. It was those fighters who drew my attention, not the giddy socialites. Alis and Light were new and more or less untested. Four others I knew only by sight—I had seen them eating in the mess not a fortnight past. And there was Erdro. Erdro had fought with me my first day in the coliseum. I liked the man well
enough; Erdro was the sort of myrmidon who aspired to the position of gladiator. He made a science of his physical fitness and ate with a measuring spoon.
None of it mattered. The first arrow caromed off his breastplate, drawing a gasp from the crowd and a cheer when he kept on charging the ink-
skinned gladiator captain Jaffa. But the gladiator only cocked his antique crossbow again. And Erdro died. They cheered for that too. The same
sound, the same inflection. Two other myrmidons fell on Jaffa, beat him until his suit locked up and a pair of servitors had to drag the paralyzed gladiator from the field. He would have bruises. He should have been dead.
A familiar feeling came over me as I sat amid all that gold and silk and velvet: the desire to leave. Rocket contrails streaked the southern sky over the flats of the artificial island that rose just beyond Borosevo’s canal
warrens. The graceful lines of the Uhran starship traced themselves against the blackness of my thoughts, and I sat stonily in a padded chair beneath the whir of air conditioning and the piping of soft music while bare-chested
slaves served chilled wines from fluted cups. Below, Umandh slaves were dragging Erdro’s body from the field, and—unnoticed—I set a full cup of wine on the rail for him. No one disturbed it.
But I couldn’t leave. Anaïs and Dorian were near at hand, introducing me to the sons of archons and the daughters of guilder magnates. I could not leave without risking tremendous affront, which I could not afford in the present climate. Anaïs in particular was never far, and she foisted drinks on me in the hopes of wringing tales of the arena from me, and because I was young and somewhat drunk and attended by a woman of no small charm, I will confess I boasted. What’s more, I lied. Where had I learned to fight?
Why, from a Jaddian Maeskolos with whom I traveled for years. Why had I fought as a fodder myrmidon before finally earning my court appointment? That was complicated. I’d lost my letter of introduction, you see. It had taken some time to track down my father’s ships and get a new draft delivered to Castle Borosevo, and a man had to make a living. How had I lost it? Well, Borosevo had its grimy underbelly, didn’t you know?
I told a version of my mugging in Meidua without the motorbikes and transported to the canals of Belows. This titillated my audience even more than the stories of arena combat had, and since it is the peculiar quality of danger to excite those who have never experienced it, Anaïs was not alone in hanging on my arm by the end of the tale. Chained by social convention, by politeness, I knew I had lost the stars. The hangars that held the Uhran
starship and the clunky Andunian were as good as empty. The count had me now. I had made my choice, traded one future for another.
Seeing Erdro die, I couldn’t help but feel I’d made a mistake.
“Is it true, Dorian?” asked a heavy patrician girl with a round face, pouting ever so slightly. “Is it really?”
“You know I can’t tell you, Melandra!” Dorian said, and he pulled the girl a little closer on the swallowing couch on which they reclined. “My fathers would have me in a gibbet if I talked about the triumph!”
Triumph. The Cielcin. They were talking about the Cielcin. Makisomn.
Dorian glanced at his sister, then up at the canopy above us. I recognized the reflex to look for cameras, but no sooner had he done it than he looked round at us all and winked.
“You’re serious?” Melandra asked, leaning closer against the young lord. Her lover? “How’d they catch one?”
Anaïs answered for her brother, as she often did. “Gilliam Vas procured it from the foederati attached to the visiting Legion!”
“Did he really?” asked the son of an industrial guild factionarius from Binah in his thick lunar accent.
Melandra made a face. “That gargoyle?” I snorted under my breath; gargoyle was exactly the right word for the intus. “I suppose that only makes sense. The mutant has demon blood himself.” This was not the first remark I’d heard about the chanter at court. You must understand—inti
scare the nobility. They are what we would all be but for the grace of Earth and Emperor, and a reminder that the palatines have no control over their genetic destiny, lest they risk such mutation. Gilliam Vas was a reminder that we were bound to the Emperor, and a reminder of Saltus’s words to me so long ago: We are both homunculi. I had rejected the statement at the time, but there had been truth in the creature’s words and in the chanter’s mismatched eyes. And like most truths, it was not easy to learn.
Dorian swatted his paramour with a playful hand. “Watch yourself— that’s a priest you’re talking about!”
“He’s a beast, Dorian!”
I had not known Erdro well and had seen many of my fellow myrmidons die since I’d started in the Colosso, but that didn’t make his death any easier to brush aside. Feeling I had nothing positive to contribute to the discussion of the mutant priest, I drifted away from the conversation, carrying my half-finished wine back to where I’d left the spare for Erdro’s shade on the rail.
One of the oiled, nearly naked servers moved to clear it away, but I dismissed her with a wave that felt too comfortable. I leaned against the rail next to it, watching a troupe of Eudoran mummers performing a scene from Bastien’s Cyrus the Fool—part two, I think, where the prince survives
atmospheric reentry by hiding beneath his mother’s skirts. They played the farce in classic style amid holographs and pyrotechnics. Mother would have approved despite the players’ Eudoran blood—she had no love for that itinerant people. Their masks were brightly painted, visible even from our height, and looked splendid on the massive screens for the convenience of the crowd.
“Did you know him?”
I started for the folding knife that was not there. But it was only Anaïs, who flinched, nearly dropping her wine.
“I’m sorry!” she said, clutching a hand to her breast. “I didn’t mean to scare you! You didn’t get any on you, did you?”
“What?” I wasn’t following. She meant the wine. Some had spattered the tiles at my feet, red as the ink with which I write this account. “No, not at all, ladyship. Forgive me, I startle rather easily.”
She laughed then, the hand on her chest relaxing as she withdrew it. “That makes sense. The fighting pits . . .”
I eased back, leaning against the box railing again to watch the Eudorans perform. “I . . .” I thought of my time in the streets, of the times I’d flinched away from the prefects whether I was innocent or not, of the other
criminals, of broken ribs and crying in the night. “The fighting pits . . . yes.” “Did you know him?” She repeated the question, inclining her head
toward the field, toward the spot where Jaffa had felled Erdro with the
antique bow. One of the Umandh slaves busied itself scrubbing the blood from the brick while the troupers performed Bastien’s play at the other end of the field. When I nodded numbly, Anaïs said, “What’s that like? I can’t imagine.”
Though I was somewhat drunk by that time, I knew enough to hold my tongue. A pained smile cut across my face, and I kept my intent focus on the Umandh slave, its trunk stooped, tentacles scrubbing at the spot on the ground where Erdro had bled from his arrow wound. Her question, the
callous detachment of its premise, froze in me. I turned it over in my mind
as if it were a particularly dubious gift, examined its intent beneath the crass disregard. I decided she had meant to give no insult, though I had taken it.
“I didn’t know him very well. You get used to it . . . down there.” I swept a hand over the field, the brick studded with the concrete caps of the terrain pillars. “We weren’t really friends, I suppose.”
As I spoke, I thought of those myrmidons I did count as friends, and though I was not a religious man I thanked heaven it had not been Switch or Pallino fighting Jaffa that day.
“He fought bravely.”
“He did,” I agreed. Bravery had nothing to do with it. Erdro needed money, so he fought. I looked down over the edge, down bare meters of stone wall to the floor of the coliseum. Just past my arm’s reach, a Royse
field glimmered, rippling almost invisibly in the air but with enough latent force to stop a bus launched from a rail gun. And yet I felt exposed,
recalling my failure to remain in my father’s box at the Meidua coliseum and how visible that failure had been.
Anaïs leaned against the rail beside me, making me conscious of the smoky smell of her perfume. I could feel those green eyes on me, but I found I could not turn away from the coliseum floor. It all looked so different from the box. I replayed Erdro’s demise, saw Jaffa cock his
crossbow, only to become Crispin as he fired. Anaïs spoke, shaking me from my vision. “At least you don’t have to risk your life anymore, right? Or do you miss it? We could get you in as a gladiator. Dorian would love that! He’s always wanted to be friends with a gladiator—”
“No!” I said too loudly. Suddenly it was not Crispin with the crossbow at all but me, and it was Switch they expected me to kill. Siran. Ghen.
Pallino. “Black Earth, no.”
She drew a bit away from me, surprised by my vehemence. I wanted to fling myself from the balustrade, to dash myself to pieces on the bricks.
Why had I gone into the coliseum gaol after Makisomn? I was just as trapped as I’d ever been, a prisoner now of the count’s pleasure more than I’d ever been a prisoner of poverty.
The rest of what Anaïs said to me washed by unremembered. When she went away again—called back by her brother or one of the other patrician socialites to some passing fancy or other—I stood alone again and watched Cyrus the Fool survive fire and death by blind luck and pure
simplemindedness. Everyone laughed. I swatted Erdro’s wine cup from the ledge, watched it pass slowly through the Royse field and shatter on the killing floor.