ON THE FLOOR OF the coliseum, a team of four douleters worked with stun rods to bring the azhdarch to heel while three others worked to clear the remains of the slaves who had been sent out to fight the offworld beast. I watched one work with a spade to throw sawdust on the bloodstains, since like many people I found the alien predator hard to look at. It was
something in my cells, a deep memory of what life ought to look like that stemmed from the days when the curve of Earth bounded our collective universe. And the azhdarch was just wrong. In many ways it resembled a pterosaur, those bat-lizards of antiquity, with its leathery wings. In other ways it resembled a dragon out of fantasy with its long, spine-covered tail
and hooked claws. But the neck—nearly twice as long as a man—was open from its vestigial head to the start of its thorax and lined with hooked,
snarling teeth that hinged open and closed like the mandible-leaves of a fly trap.
I saw one brave douleter—a red-haired young woman—lash out with her stun rod and catch the thing in one leathery flank. It let out a gurgling howl and lunged sideways, dragging the other three douleters by the great
chains they held. The crowd gasped and cheered, and the beast blew sputum from its open throat. Even from the safety of the lord’s box above the shield curtain, I could see the blood in it.
“Devils are up next,” Crispin said, punching me in the arm. “You ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” I turned back to the book in my lap, rubbed the blade of my right hand. The charcoal there had started to smudge the image,
clouding the profile I had drawn of Lieutenant Kyra’s face. We’d been sent, Crispin and I, to attend the opening day of the Colosso season in Father’s
stead. He was away with our grandmother in Artemia, discussing matters of state.
As a boy I’d hated the arena. The bluster of it, the blood and
circumstance. The violence offended me. The shouting and screaming all battered my ears as the trumpets blared from on high, amplified by the
coliseum’s massive sound system, and the announcer’s voice cut above it all. The smell of unwashed bodies mingled with that of grilled artificial meats and the iron stink of blood assaulted the nose even as the screaming did the ears.
Yet it was the offense against life that wounded me most, the callous spending of humanity. The fighters were slaves, I knew, and perhaps that
excused the violence for many, but I had just seen three men torn to ribbons by a flying xenobite monster and seen children squealing with delight and terror in the stands. Bare-chested men, their bodies painted red and gold or red and black, beat on each other and sloshed cheap beer onto themselves, shouting and laughing at the spectacle. The sight of blood sickened me as the news of Cai Shen and the massacre had not. For here was something immediate, concrete. And the people reveled in it.
I often wonder what the ancients would think of us, of our violence. I have heard it said that those generations that killed Old Earth had derided such violence in their everyday lives. It was ironic that the same people who had enacted nuclear war on the Homeworld, who presided over the refugee camps and rotted the ecosphere, had balked in the face of blood
sport. Would they call us barbarians, those men of ancient days?
I darkened the line at the edge of Kyra’s face with my pencil. Enough philosophizing. Crispin was cheering now. “I get to go on after the first bout!”
“What’s that?” I did not look up from the image on my lap, accentuated one curl of hair. My mind was on other things. On Cai Shen, on my father. On Crispin himself. In my mind I kept hearing my father’s words to me beneath the Dome of Bright Carvings. Who ever said you were to rule after me? It was meant for Crispin after all. Every bit of it. I was to be discarded, packed away. Married off to some Baron or Baroness like an ornament or forced into the Legions.
“I get to go on!” Crispin smiled, looking genuinely excited at the prospect. “Father said I get to fight today.”
“Oh.” I looked at him only briefly. “I knew that. You keep saying.” I pressed the pencil so hard against the page that the charcoal snapped, marring Kyra’s slim nose. I cursed inwardly, realizing that I resented my brother. I already hated him, but hatred is something pure, like a fire in the belly. Resentment, though, sat in me like a cancer. I did not want what was his. Rather, I resented that he had taken something that I had implicitly understood was mine. I did not wish to win my father’s throne, as I said. I only wanted Crispin to lose it.
“Father says I can only fight the slave myrmidons, but I could take
Marcoh, I know it. Couldn’t I take Marcoh, Roban?” Crispin stood up in his seat. My brother had dressed in armor for the occasion, in a suit of titanium and ceramic accented a deep red. Black leather had been stretched over the muscled breastplate, the Marlowe devil embossed there, drinking the light like blood. He wore a half cape over his left shoulder, all rich velvet,
crimson where it caught the light, black where it did not.
The round-faced knight ran a gloved hand over his tightly curling hair. “I’m sure you could, young master.”
“He favors those big swords—what do you call them?” Crispin took a drink from a glass of some blue energy drink, snapping his fingers at
“A montante,” I said. I scratched Kyra’s name in small, neat letters in the bottom right of the picture above the date with a second pencil removed from the leather kit between my feet.
“That’s the one!” Crispin burbled a low laugh, grabbing another pair of olives from the china bowl on the small table between us. “They’re so
Roban did not stir from his place by the door. “The young master is quite right.”
“Short sword and main gauche are better,” Crispin declared, planting one foot on the table and upsetting the bowl of olives. It shattered on the floor, olives bouncing and rolling across the tile. Crispin ignored it, ignored the servants as they rushed forward to collect the fallen olives and smashed china. “Do you know who they have for me to fight?”
Sir Roban shrugged. “Just some of the slaves, I imagine.”
“More than one?” Crispin’s teeth flashed in the dim overhead lighting.
His back was to the coliseum floor, his face in shadow.
“Perhaps, sire.” Roban jounced his helmet under his right arm. “I was not informed. They left that up to the Colosso’s vilicus. I was told he would come looking for us when they were ready for you.”
Crispin swung back down into his seat and snatched up his drink with a gauntleted hand as he leaned forward over the rail. On the field below, the Meidua Devils emerged from a lift along the right side amid tumult and the sounds of trumpets. They were dressed in the ivory and scarlet of Imperial legionnaires, their faces blank armored swaths the color of bone, their names stenciled in red across their backs above identifying numbers. Tom Marcoh stood in the middle, the number nine huge on his back. He was a broad man with stripes on the white ceramic of his upper arms to mark him as a centurion, not that he was any such thing. He was a performer, a toy
soldier, and as nothing next to the true soldiers I had known. “It was the summer of ’987!”
The announcer’s voice filled the coliseum, rebounding off the cheering masses with their banners and hand-painted signs, screams and shouts of “Devils! Devils! Devils!” nearly drowning out the artificially amplified
tones. It was enough to wrench at even my attention. I knew the date, knew what it was we were about to see.
“The last men of the 617th were stranded on Bellos, their ship crashed, their brothers and sisters slain! No one was coming to save them!”
On cue, the lift at the far end of the platform was raised, spilling thirty men and women out onto the field. Slaves, all. They were felons to a man, it being the practice on Delos—as in much of the Empire—for felons to be forced into such a life. Their nostrils were slit to mark their crimes and their foreheads tattooed with their offenses. Some lacked a hand, others an eye or both ears. All had been shaved bald, their bodies painted white to make them look more like Cielcin. Though it was impossible to tell in their black jumpsuits, I knew the male slaves had all been castrated and that the breasts of the female slaves had been removed to make them more like the Cielcin
—neither woman nor man—and to demoralize them. They were meant to die there on that day. Meant to fit the narrative in which the survivors of the 617th Centaurine Legion repelled a Cielcin horde that had ravaged Bellos
The seven men of the Meidua Devils wore body shields and armor; the slaves had none. The Devils carried plasma rifles and lances, set low so as to cause only superficial burns. The slaves had crude steel blades and
cudgels—the Cielcin abjured firearms. It was not a fair contest. But then, it was not meant to be.
This was the Colosso, the great sporting event of the Empire, and it was a bloody thing. First the baiting with the azhdarch; then this melee, a chance for the conquering heroes to get their blood up; then the smaller bouts,
champion against champion. And first among those battles would be
Crispin, the young and dashing son of their lord, resplendent in his finest
armor, gallant with his bright sword and stylish hair. The whole thing struck me as perverse in that moment. Perhaps the ancients were right. Perhaps
Valka was. Perhaps we are barbarians. I wanted away, wanted my rooms back in Devil’s Rest.
“See our noble heroes surrounded by the Pale beasts!” the announcer
continued. With their stun rods, red-uniformed douleters prodded the slaves into a ring about the seven Meidua Devils. “See our noble heroes, the only thing standing between the poor people of Bellos and their fate as food for the monstrous Cielcin! See them make their heroic stand!”
A gong sounded, filling the arena: sonorous, doleful, oddly serene. The ringing of that gong echoes within me still, shadowing my own future. The crowd shrieked with ecstasy. I turned away, flipping to a new page in my book and sharpening my broken pencil on the little scalpel I carried in my kit.
The first shouts as the plasma fire cut into the attacking slaves burned me. They could not do anything but fight. The douleters around the perimeter had glowing lances that would drop them in an instant, force them to fight another day or kill them where they fell.
Beside me Crispin was entirely out of his seat, brandishing his unsheathed sword, the ceramic blade gleaming razor-sharp above the heads of the groundlings below our box. He shouted incoherently with the crowd, spurred on by the violence. I thought of Sir Felix then, of the boxing round the ears he would’ve given Crispin for drawing his sword so needlessly. I’d worn no weapon myself save a long knife, telling Roban I needed no defense other than his presence. That had gladdened the knight, but I felt foolish and terribly small, underdressed beside my brother, armed and
armored as he was.
One of the Meidua Devils brought his foot down on the face of a slave, breaking the man’s nose. Red blood ran down his cheeks and chin, carrying
flakes of white paint where it went. He brought his foot down again, and the crowd gasped, then cheered. The boot rose, stamped again on the slave’s face. The slave didn’t move. He was dead—had been dead. This was
showmanship: gratuitous, meaningless. It was not for me. It was for
creatures like my brother, like the hollering serfs and plebeians in the stands with their kebabs and spun sugar delicacies, their sweetened drinks and
“Young master Crispin.” A harsh, masculine voice sounded from the back of the box. I looked around the side of my chair and was surprised to see that it was a woman who had spoken: squat and with sharp brown eyes, her hair a tangled, sandy whorl cut just above her ears. Her ugly,
windburned face twisted into a grotesque smile. I reached up and grabbed Crispin by his absurd half cape.
He sloshed blue drink onto the floor as he turned, leering at the sight of the ugly woman. “Is it time?”
“Yes, young master.”
Crispin practically wet himself with excitement, abandoning the drink on the table and almost running to where the fat douleter stood just inside the open door to the hall. The sounds of the crowd wafted in through that open portal, clearer, sharper without the muddying effect of the box’s
shields to help block the noise.
“Are you coming, Master Hadrian?” Sir Roban took a step forward. “No, Roban.” I turned away, rubbing at the smear of charcoal on the
blade of my hand and succeeding only in dirtying my left thumb in the process. I fixed my attentions on the page before me and not on the bloody work on the killing floor. The truth was that I would gladly have gone with Roban if the lictor were bound for any place other than the gladiators’
annex at the entrance to the field. “Shall I stay here, then?”
“No, no. Crispin will need you more than I. The box locks.” “Yes, sir.”
Alone in the lord’s box, I sat in the chair meant for my father while below seven men kitted out as Imperial legionnaires butchered thirty prisoner-slaves with plasma burners and energy lances. The smell of burned flesh and singed fabric began to rise from the killing floor, mingling with the smells of kebabs and popcorn rising from the stands. It was an
unsettling, disgusting aroma. I flipped through the pages of my sketchbook: images of people and places around the castle.
I had loved drawing ever since I was a child. As I grew up, however, I realized there was something singular about the process. A photograph might capture the facts of an object’s appearance, colors and details rendered perfectly at a higher resolution than any human eye could
appreciate. By the same token, a recording or RNA memory injection might convey a subject with perfect clarity. But in the same way that close reading allows the reader to absorb, to synthesize the truth of what he reads, drawing allows the artist to capture the soul of a thing.
The artist sees things not in terms of what is or might be, but in terms of what must be. Of what our world must become. This is why a portrait will
—to the human observer—always defeat the photograph. It is why we turn to religion even when science objects and why the least scholiast might outperform a machine. The photograph captures Creation as it is; it captures fact. Facts bore me in my old age. It is the truth that interests me, and the truth is in charcoal—or in the vermilion by whose properties I record this
account. Not in data or laser light. Truth lies not in rote but in the small and subtle imperfections, the mistakes that define art and humanity both.
Beauty, the poet wrote, is truth. Truth, beauty. He was wrong. They are not the same.
There was no beauty in that arena, but there was a truth. There, while men shouted and died on the killing floor, executed for the diversion of
seventy thousand spectators, I saw it. Or heard it, rather—heard it behind the screams and cheers and laughter of the adoring public as Crispin
stepped onto the field amidst smoke, as the douleters and servitors dragged the bodies of the dead slaves toward the lift. A silence. A profound, echoing quiet. Not a quiet in the ears but in the mind. The crowd—for it was a
singular being—was shouting to drown out the loud silence in their souls.
I heard it, but I did not understand what it was. What it meant.
Buttoning my jacket, I turned, crossed to the door, and left the box. I needed air. All at once I found I could stand to watch the tableau no longer. It was not my world, not a thing I wished to inherit along with the rest. The peasants cheered as I left the box, cheered for Crispin.
He was welcome to it.