To Be an Aclla

“Achi?”

She held her hand up until it was lit by the moonlight coming through the crack to the side of the curtain and clutched her blanket up under her chin with her other hand. She stared at her hand, turning it in the light. It was the full moon, but that meant nothing now. The people of the sun slept when the sun slept, and Cuzco was silent.

Achiyaku dropped her hand at the whisper.

“Can’t you sleep? Is it too bright?”

Alliyma had a good heart, but Achiyaku could have laughed at the misunderstanding.

“No, go back to sleep. It was a long day.”

Alliyma mumbled something sleepily in reply, but Achiyaku didn’t hear. Her younger sister was soon asleep.

 It had been a long day, but she felt awake. It was the first ploughing, and they had been brewing chicha beer for weeks to prepare. They had left the acllawasi for the occasion, and she had hidden the unease she always felt upon leaving, upon seeing that she was surrounded by lower Cuzco, by the inner mountains that had once seemed so far. Not that Cuzco wasn’t a marvel—its gold blinding in the sun, its Inca nobles walking the paved streets in their rich robes and jewellery, its grand plazas and palaces things to be gawked at—but to Achiyaku the splendour only made her feel emptier. It was far too easy to look beyond the small city toward the foreign houses nestled above on the hill and below on the plain, to the mountain peaks stretching into the distance beyond the terraced hillsides. It was far too easy to look, and be reminded that she couldn’t see far enough to see the ocean.

It had been two years. It was a lifetime and more, and yet sometimes the past still haunted her, an ache that held her back from being the same as her sisters. The others had all arrived earlier, around ten years old, and they had all come from cities long claimed by the Inca’s empire. At fourteen, Achiyaku was the age of some of the younger priestesses, and soon everything could change all over again. Would her weaving skills, the best in her acllawasi, make her a priestess? Or would she be married away?

“Maybe a warrior will take you away and marry you as a second wife! …If he isn’t picky, that is,” Ninasisa had taunted, throwing her head back with a laugh. She was beautiful—they all were, really, it was part of how they were chosen—but Ninasisa’s beauty was like that of the sun: dazzling and glaring. Fittingly, “Ninasisa” meant “fire flower”, a name she had been born to. Achiyaku, as an outsider, had been renamed when she had arrived. It had seemed cruel, when she had learned enough of Quechua to understand that “Achiyaku” meant “clear water”, that she had been named for water by the very people who had taken her from it.

Ninasisa, as a noblewoman of Cuzco and thus one of the Inca ethnic group, would be married strategically to some other noble, but Achiyaku worried about her own fate. She had had enough of change for one lifetime, had only just become comfortable in the routines of this House of the Sun. She knew what life was like here: day in and day out they stayed in the compound, leaving only for ceremonies, and did weaving, spinning, brewing, worshipping, and cleaning. Sometimes she even felt that she loved it, but on other days she felt like she was suffocating, disappearing along with her memories into the confines of this houseIf she married she would be free of this place, but at what cost? What if she married one of the very warriors who had taken down her kingdom, her home, once the last great rival of the Inca’s empire?

Achiyaku turned her head to look at the doorway and focussed on taking slow, steady breaths even as her heart flew. She could see the stone of the small, interior courtyard beneath the curtain, white in the moonlight. She had been taught by the Inca to worship the sun, and she could understood why they revered it in the same way that she could understand why Ninasisa drew everyone’s eye while Achiyaku was overlooked. But she understood other things too. That there was always another side than the bright one, as shown in the symmetry of the great Staff God’s very form: one staff to compliment the other, just as there is night to every day, the sky for the earth, the ebb for the flow of the great ocean’s tide. Her people of the Chimor Empire had always worshipped the moon, for unlike the sun it could be seen in both the day and the night and could pull at the very ocean itself. The adobe walls of the compounds and ciudedelas of her old home, the capital of Chan Chan, had been decorated with pictures of the waves and the creatures of the sea, but here people only looked up. Up to the mountains around them, and higher, to the skies above.

Achiyaku tried to clear her thoughts, to forget as she had so many times before. Normally everything that happened in the House of the Chosen Women was enough to keep her too busy to think—the friends and enemies, the priestesses and newcomers, the work—but perhaps it was the influence of the full moon.

“When the moon is full,” her mother had told her once, long ago, as they had been weaving together, “we are in the hands of the Goddess. On those nights we become like the sea, pushed and pulled by Her tide.

Was she still pushed and pulled by that tide? Did the Goddess still see her? Did she think she had abandoned her? Achiyaku pressed a hand to her chest. She had not wanted to. The Sun and his children had given her a life of luxury and honour, she who had once been a commoner, who had never even laid eyes on food as rich as what she now cooked, who had never hoped to own textiles as intricate as were now her normal garb, but they had taken her from her people. She was no longer one of the Chimù, her ayllu group was not her own. On the day she had left Chan Chan and journeyed up into the highlands and then south, so far south along the royal road to Cuzco, she had lost everything she had once been, and become something she still didn’t understand.

Achiyaku had been one of the only commoners they had taken—one of the only ones they thought pretty enough—and she had not known the nobles she had made the trek with. Some of them had been sent to other acllawasi—most were far more secluded than hers—but she and some others had been sent to Cuzco itself, to more fully tie the newly defeated Chimor empire to the Inca empire, and to make her an example for her people. But, she wondered, would her people even recognise her now, or she them?

Achiyaku closed her eyes and remembered what were now fading images. She forgot the stonework and saw cane and mud brick walls again. She forgot the channelled rivers and saw the great wells, remembered walking down their ramps to fetch water. She remembered the smell of salt on the wind, the deep river valleys and the dry desert plains. She remembered how the city stretched on and on in every direction, farther than she could ever have walked, and the cramped rooms of her neighbourhood. She remembered her father and brothers working with metals, her mother’s lessons, her mother’s smile. She heard the noise of the streets busy with tens of thousands of people, saw the labyrinth of the walls and their motifs of the sea reminding her always of the ocean, so near. She remembered a name, a different name, spoken by those she had loved. She remembered belonging.

In a small stone room in Cuzco, an aclla lay among her sisters, a shaft of moonlight slanting across her sleeping form.

______________________________________________________________________________

Frances Koziar is a Middle American archaeologist specializing in Aztec human sacrifice and ontology. She has non-academic publications in 10+ literary magazines and is seeking an agent for a diverse NA/YA fantasy novel. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Author website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author

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The Milliner of Klausenburg

A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.

~Goethe

Lotte peered at herself, turning her head from side to side, trying to get the best view of herself in the triple mirror.  She was proud of her creation, copied from a Viennese ladies journal: in gold velvet trimmed with brown lace, the hat sat forward on her forehead, its point emphasising the slant of her eyebrows, echoing her wistful chin.  A veil of bronze organza fell from the back; she pulled this round, relishing its effect against her chestnut hair.  ‘I’ll take it home this evening and try it on again after my bath,’ she thought.  ‘Frau Wolff will never know.  Yes, this hat, and the little buttoned boots.

* * * * *

The woman entered Langhuber’s Café, her head darting sideways, as alert as a bird of prey, an effect enhanced by the mass of nodding feathers on her hat.  She scowled at the portrait of Franz Josef hanging above the hatstand: he returned the scowl.  Magda was irritated.  Her niece had written to her asking for this meeting, so where was the silly woman?

‘You are looking for Frau Wolff, ma’am?’ murmured a waiter.

‘As a matter of fact I am!’

‘If you would please follow me,’ and he wound his way expertly around the scattered, polished tables, the chatter of people and the waxy potted plants to a semi-enclosed booth at the far end of the room.  Impeded by her bustle, Magda’s journey was rather less fluent.  She eased herself into the seat opposite her niece with all the majesty of a four-masted barque edging into a narrow berth.  From here she could look up at the tilted mirror hanging on the wall above their snug – this gave them privacy from the other customers, who could see only the tops of their heads, but she could summon a waiter just by lifting a hand.

‘Lise!  What are you doing in the séparée?’

‘I don’t want anyone to see me, Aunt Magda.’

‘Not like you.  What’s the matter, something wrong with your hat this time?

‘It’s not that – though darling Lotte has promised me another.  It’s Hans.  He has another woman.’

Hans!’

‘He’s not so unattractive as all that, Aunt,’ said Lise.

‘What makes you suspect him, dear?  A letter?  A trace of scent?’

‘Oh no!  It’s because he’s being nice to me.  More than he has been in years.  Solicitous, you know.  Bringing me a cushion. Treating me the way he did when I was expecting Martin.  There was nothing he wouldn’t do for me then!  And there’s another thing but…oh dear, I don’t know that I can find the right words – no decent woman should have to.’

Magda glanced up at the mirror.  The waiters were all busy at smaller tables some distance away.

‘You can tell me,’ said Magda, patting her niece’s gloved hand.

‘In the first two years of our marriage, when Hans was still getting established and was fretful about money, he said we’d have to wait to start a family…’

‘I see…’ said Magda, considering the options.

‘I was mortified…the bedlinen…’

‘Ah!  He provided more work for your laundress, you mean?’

Ilse Wolff’s eyes widened.  ‘Do other husbands do this?’

‘You are not the first wife to tell me this.  It’s next to onanism, of course.  An ungodly and unnatural practice.’

‘Well, the other night he did it again.  It was as if he forgot himself, forgot that we are too old – that am too old for there to be more children…and…and out he came!  It was dark.  He can only have been thinking of someone else!’  Lise whimpered, and fumbled for her handkerchief.

‘My dear, do recollect yourself.  You might be sheltered here, but you are still in a public place.  At least pull down your veil.’ Magda raised a finger to the mirror, and a waiter glided over, as smoothly as though he ran on castors.  Her aunt ordered for them both.

‘Father didn’t want me to marry him,’ said Lise, ‘he said an apothecary was merely a tradesman masquerading as a doctor. But he was the best student of his year.’

‘I remember.  But you did marry him, and successfully it would seem, up to now.  Men are unpredictable, though.  Your uncle Albert was nearly sixty when he lost his head to that dancer.  We women have to put up with much foolishness.  So who is Hans’s woman?’

‘I have no idea.  But I have no doubt that she exists.’

‘Be sensible, Lise, and do not confront him.  Not until you have stronger evidence.’

* * * * *

Discretion was the watchword of the establishment on Szappany Street.  So screams were definitely frowned upon – especially when enmeshed in them was a man’s name.  The doors to the other chambers remained resolutely closed, but the servant recognised the one that crashed open on the third floor, followed by the slap of bare feet on varnished boards.  She tore up the narrow stairs. 

‘Maria!’ shrieked the girl.  ‘Hans is turning blue!  He can’t breathe!’

‘Go back to him!  I’ll send the boy for Dr. Goldschmidt.  Otto!

‘But – the scandal!’

‘There won’t be one.  Goldschmidt’s a client too.’

* * * * *

Mendel Goldschmidt drank down the strong coffee Maria had made for him, and said: ‘He burst a blood vessel in his brain, I believe.  I’ve tried to reassure the poor girl that it wasn’t her fault, but she won’t be comforted.  She’s a sweet thing, even with her face all blotchy like that – obviously adores little Wolff.’

‘Will he live?’

‘Hard to say – and if he does, harder still to know now what lasting damage there  might be.  A terrible shock for her, of course, but if he never does come round, well, there are worse ways to go.  Shouldn’t say any of that of course – he’s still breathing.’

‘What are we to say?  About his being here, I mean.’

‘I shall say he collapsed in the street, on his way to see me about a patient.  You came out on an errand at just the right moment, and had him brought inside.’

‘Where did you take him?’

‘To the Hungarian Sisters.  He’s as good as in gaol there, for they’ll let no-one see him except myself and the specialist I’ve sent for from Kronstadt.  And his wife, of course.’

‘Not her, then.’

‘No chance of that, though she’d be the most devoted of nurses.’

* * * * *

The nun sitting at the head of the bed rustled to her feet on Lise’s entrance, leaving the folded handkerchief with which she had been dabbing Wolff’s face on the marble-topped cabinet, next to a spittoon and a crucifix.

‘I must urge you not to tire your husband, Frau Wolff.  Any undue pressure could be fatal,’ she murmured.

Lise looked down at the slack-jawed face, the matted, grey, untidy moustache; the blacking he used every morning had been sponged out of it.  Drool was gathering at the right side of his mouth; she picked up the handkerchief, but finding it repulsively damp, dropped it.  Hans Wolff stared up at his wife, trying to focus.

‘Poor Hans,’ she said, sitting down.  She touched his right hand where it lay inert on the bedcover; it was cold and unresponsive.  ‘I know, you know.’

Hans gurgled.

‘Don’t fret.  I can hardly fight a duel over you, can I?  I don’t suppose you ever would have for me – not that I have ever given you cause.’

A tear seeped from his left eye.

‘Is that regret, Hans?  For us, or because you won’t ever have her again?  You shan’t, you know, even if you do get better.  I shall find out who she is, and then Aunt Magda will speak to her husband’s cousin – you know, in the Postenkommando – and she will be made to leave town.’

Wolff moaned, an inarticulate, bovine sound.  One side of his mouth twitched; saliva dribbled out the other.

‘Meanwhile, I must struggle on, and find comfort in small things, and in the esteem a respectable woman is held by her neighbours.  In fact, I shall face them today.  I shall go shopping,’ she said, stroking her gloves.  ‘Lotte has sent word that my new hat is ready, bless her.’

The man in the bed groaned, trying to rise, but he jerked uselessly like a puppet on only one string.  The door clicked and the nun billowed in.  Wolff continued to moan and twitch.

‘Frau Wolff, whilst I am sure your presence comforts him, your husband mustn’t be overtaxed.  Depending on what the doctor says, you should be able to see him again tomorrow.’

Lise rose.  ‘Good’bye, Hans.  I do love you, you know.’

* * * * *

Lise peered at her expression in the mirror in the hospital wash-room.  ‘I look too angry,’ she said to herself.  ‘I need to look anxious, devoted – people must look at me and see the strain but tell themselves that I am bearing up wonderfully.’  She experimented, grimacing at her reflection, then when she was satisfied she had found the look she needed, she pulled on her gloves, fitting each finger carefully, and let down her veil.

* * * * *

At the milliner’s, she was disappointed that Lotte was unavailable – indisposed, apparently.  The other girl didn’t have Lotte’s delicate touch, and Lise was sure that she had come close to stabbing her with a hatpin from sheer nerves, but – oh!  The hat was magnificent!  Now she felt ready for her coming task.

* * * * *

The desk intimidated Lise Wolff.  It was an absurdly showy thing, all glossy rosewood and gilt and as incongruous in that plain back-shop as a Steinmüller organ in a country oratory.  Though it could profitably have been sold, when he’d inherited it aged twenty-one Hans Wolff had still nursed dreams of a glittering medical career: receiving illustrious patients in his clinic, dispensing cures seated at this very same piece of furniture.  Instead he was an apothecary, catering mainly to the respectable German-speaking merchant class, and his wife was rummaging for evidence of adultery.

Frau Wolff took her time.  As long as Hans was under the care of the nuns, that woman, whoever she was, couldn’t reach him. ‘So unfortunate that he had to keel over right in front that place…a house of assignation!…’, she thought, ‘but if that servant hadn’t come out at that precise moment and shown such presence of mind he might be dead by now…but how on earth am I to thank such a person?  Fraulein Nicolescu – a Wallachian to boot…  Oh dear, I must make sure everything gets put back just as it was or he’s sure to notice.’  Then she remembered the warning the doctor had given her; even if he lived, Hans might never enter this room again.

For some customers the receipts went back years.  ‘He could have been a good doctor,’ thought Lise, ‘such conscientiousness.’  She schooled herself not to look at names as she untied bundles of correspondence.  Mendel Goldschmidt’s confident, sloping hand occurred regularly.  Her hands trembled when the word ‘mercury’ swam across her vision.  ‘Do keep calm,’ she told herself.  ‘No-one ever got the maladie française from reading about it.’

Three hours later she found the envelope, wrapped in an advertisement in Hungarian for bismuth powders.  The photographer’s name was scrolled across the bottom of each stiff little piece of card; Lise Wolff did not recognise his name but she knew the street name by repute – not good repute.  There were five images in all, of the same naked girl, her hair piled high on her head, yet topped always by an elaborate hat.  She was posed awkwardly, looking at herself in a cheval glass, so that the spectator saw her both front and rear, but frustratingly her face was either obscured by the hat or by her hands.  In one photograph her weight was on her right leg, whilst the left was held awkwardly behind her, on tiptoe.  In another she wore buttoned boots: Lise thought this the most obscene of them all; she noticed too that though the photographs looked new, the edges of this card were not quite as crisp as the others, suggesting that it had been picked up more often.

‘A rather common little body,’ thought Lise, ‘plump legs, too short, the back too long.’

She splayed the photographs across the blotting pad.  In a row they looked like a child’s zoetrope, except that here there was no swinging monkey or flying bird.  ‘I suppose anyone can buy these things,’ thought Lise, ‘some little trollop down on her luck, so half the husbands in Klausenburg get to gawp at her.’ In one of the photographs the girl’s chin and coyly smiling mouth were reflected in the glass, and in another her fingers were latticed over her face, her eyes peeking through and glittering in the mirror – but none of these disparate features amounted to a recognisable person.  ‘At least she had enough sense of shame to hide her face,’ thought Lise.  The anonymity of the photographs gave her the courage to look more closely, though her heart thumped as though she feared discovery, despite the locked door.  The breasts were small, lifted up by the raised elbows, revealing dark smudged armpits, the nipples as dark as Kreuzer coins.  ‘Mine aren’t like that,’ thought Lise.  ‘I wonder – ugh! – do they rouge them?  No letters, then – just some dirty pictures.  I expect he forgot he even had them.’

Lise pushed the photographs together as though stacking a pack of cards.  Then just as she was about to fold them back into the advertisement paper, she noticed something about the hat the girl wore in the uppermost image, and looked more closely. ‘You have to have style to carry off a hat like that,’ she told herself complacently.  ‘It would have looked a lot better on me.’ The hat came forward to a point on the girl’s forehead, and was trimmed with dark lace.  And at the back of her head, a veil shadowed the rounded white shoulders.  Lise dropped the photograph as though it burned her and ran to the little mirror Hans used to refresh the pomade on the tips of his moustaches.

‘Oh my poor hat, my lovely hat!’ she cried, and seizing the veil, began to shred the fine organza.

______________________________________________________________________________

Katherine Mezzacappa is an Irish writer living in Tuscany. She has been published by Erotic Review magazine, Ireland’s Own, Henshaw Press and Severance Publications. Her favoured genre is historical fiction, but she also publishes short romances under the pseudonym Kate Zarrelli (with eXtasy Books). Katherine is represented by Annette Green Authors’ Agency. Her full-length historical novel Merripen is currently out on submission; this novel was longlisted (last 14) for the Historical Novel Society’s New Novel award 2018. As of October 2018 Katherine is a reviewer for Historical Novel Review.

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The Gladiator’s Lover

My dearest Min,

I never wanted it to end like this. I never wanted to say what I felt only through ink on papyrus. That is what always set you apart from my other lovers – the things I could say to you in the afterglow, things I would never say to another in this life. But there are some thoughts that even I am too ashamed to speak out loud. Thoughts I had hoped to take with me to the grave

Grimy shadows clung to the walls, hiding from the daylight above, a haven for the rats. Torches guttered in iron brackets around the arena’s dungeons. Scented sawdust was scattered across the floor, masking other, fouler odours: the stench of enraged animals, the dull aggravating bite of vomit.The metallic taste of spilt blood in the air.

A brief howl echoed through the stone walls, before vanishing back into the depths. Frightening and strident, it set fear even into stout hearts who knew the sound; it was the angry bellow of a lion, prodded and tortured and thirsty for blood. Soon, Aiolos knew, it would have all the blood it desired.

Like the vermin in the shadows, his attendants scurried about. He lay down on the armoury’s thinly padded bench. One worked on his broad back, carefully bandaging an old wound. Another oiled his legs, rubbing and smoothing the taught muscles with his strong fingers. A dull roar shook the walls, and a cabinet bolted to the wall rattled. Aiolos cursed, and his servants fled. He stood, almost brushing his head on the beams of the roof, and opened the cabinet. The bandages pulled tautly across his back, and he felt a small trickle of fresh blood run down to his wide belt.

You have never heard me question my place in the world before. There have been times I nearly lost my nerve, shook so hard I thought I would drop my sword, but I have never before asked the simple question – why do we fight?

 The answer seems so obvious – freedom! Freedom lured me in when I was a young man – freedom from my masters and the total freedom of the battlefield both.

The weapons were finely crafted, of good Iberian steel. They were his tools, with edges honed sharp enough to shave the hair from his forearm. One knife went inside his boot, the other on his waist. Lastly, he slid a plain gladius home into the leather sheath on his left hip. The protruding hilt of the short sword was unadorned, worn smooth from use. Aiolos pulled a short greave onto his left leg. Next came a linen manica on his right arm. He placed the helmet, gaping and fishlike, on his head. Lastly, he hefted a Murmillo’s rectangular shield.

He was ready.

As he left the armoury and climbed the stone stairs that ran through the wooden cages of the slave-pit, the throbbing roar grew louder. It shook sand from the walls and pulsed in time with his heart. His ascent stopped as he reached the arena’s entrance chamber, and the roars grew into a single coherent mass that dulled the senses. Aiolos knew that, once he reached the open air, the noise would pound on his brass helmet like a hammer.

It was not only that I desired to earn my manumission; the infamia that comes with being a gladiator means I can never climb the heights of the nobilitas like your husband, after all, so how much joy could I find in buying up property, statues and other trinkets? What thrill could the struggles of a normal life present me? 

The entrance chamber was narrow and oppressive, and sunlight filtered down through grates overhead. On either side of the corridor, weapons were ceremonially hung beneath inscriptions of names. The former champions of the arena were remembered here, if nowhere else. Their deeds – the number of opponents they had slain, the emperors whose favours they had gained – were not recorded. All that was written was the manner of their deaths.

A fighter waited, sitting well back from the heavy metal gates, wrapping a dirty bandage around a thin cut in his arm. His fight had already been fought. He glanced up as Aiolos’s shadow fell on him.            

‘I heard you were free of this place, Murmillo,’ said the warrior, revealling a deep spear-gash in his side as he twisted to face Aiolos. His festival season was over. Aiolos nodded his head, feeling no give in the straps of his heavy helmet. The warrior spat noisily in the dirty sand.

‘You couldn’t keep away, eh? Well, watch yourself. I’ve seen this one fight. He’s fast, and he’s got a vicious sweep.’ He stopped as a lion’s roar briefly silenced the crowd, and they both looked up at the sunlight tricking down through the grates overhead. The fight was over, and ten thousand voices briefly subsided. An announcer listed the men who would fight next, and they began to chant. 

‘I always liked you, Murmillo,’ he said, dragging himself to his feet as slaves took up the chains that lifted the gates. ‘And I’ve got five sesterces down for you to win. Don’t die out there today.’

While I was still a slave, I burned to be free. But the arena offers me complete freedom, of the most savage and vicious kind – the freedom to fight, to bleed and spill blood. The freedom to kill.

That is why I came back when I won my manumission and became a libertini, again and again. You never understood why I did it – why I continued to risk disfigurement or death once I was free and my patron no longer required it – though you thrilled each time I came back to your bed, sometimes with wounds still bleeding.

But, as my esteem and wealth grew along with my scars, I began to realize that, for us, there can be no freedom from the arena.

His opponent waited for him on the sand.

The gates jolted open. The slow chant gave way to a bloodthirsty roar. The crowd’s appetite for blood had been whetted by the first rounds, by the captives being massacred and the lions running wild. It had been indulged by the clumsy new fighters and the elaborate set pieces recreating the victories of Rome’s history. But their appetite had not been satisfied. Women sang, men bellowed, children heckled, and a barrage of noise bore down upon the two gladiators.

Amongst it all, the Emperor sat, wrapped in regal purple, finely dressed nobiles in the seats all around him. Aiolos could hear nothing within his heavy bronze helmet – the crunch of his feet, the shudder of his breath; all else was swallowed up by the crowd.

Perhaps you believed you truly meant it when you asked me to give up this life, let this contest be my last. But we both know that the only reason you took me to your bed in the first place was because I fight, and no doubt you will find another victor to satisfy you after me. The gods know the nobile ladies do not seek us out for the handsomeness of our scarred faces and oft-broken noses. Any of the thousands of commoners in the crowd would suit you better. 

Aiolos advanced, swapping shield back and forth as he stretched his arms out. The sand crunched beneath his sandals. It was raked smooth throughout the arena, with one exception – by one of the walls, a blood-mad lion lay dying, a hamstring cut, a blood-splattered spear buried in its ribs. It purred for a moment with the deep, terror-inspiring voice of the big cats, before the blood in its lungs choked it back into silence. The beast was doomed, but the groundskeepers knew to stay well away.

His opponent waited for him, patient, unmoved by the lion’s call. He was short, with the lithe and fluid carriage of a dancer. He had the weapons of the Thracian: the vicious sickle-sword, the small shield, the side-plume and the heavy mail belt. The trappings were those of a defeated Roman enemy; this gladiator, however, carried them with pride, for he had cut down more than his share of Murmillos and Hoplomachi. Aiolos wondered if they would be the last thing he ever saw, before he dispelled the grim thought from his head and focused on his breath.

He glanced up at his opponent’s master; the man sat close by the Emperor, beaming at the attention, and betrayed no nervousness in the way he moved.

Aiolos moved to the centre of the arena, drew his sword, and waited. Blood pounded in his ears. He fixed his legs to the ground like pedestals and forced out a deep breath. It whistled through the mouthpiece of his fish-shaped helmet.

The emperor signalled. The blaring horns cut through the din.

The fight began, and the crowd roared.

They could have been just like me, those sitting behind the walls. Perhaps some of them hope that, one day, it is they who will know the glory of the arena. But they do not realize that it is they that have the glory; the teeming masses that surround us are the only reason that we fight. It is for them that we endeavour and struggle. It is for their sport that we die.

Their voices rose exultantly as the two fighters moved together. The two fighters circled one another, and with each subtle lunge or hint of a thrust they gasped and held their breaths for a moment. A vicious thrill whispered across ten thousand faces with the piercing noise of the first blow, metal on metal.

Aiolos stepped quickly back as the Thracian advanced. He swung his unadorned sword, and his opponent swayed aside, but before Aiolos could recover the smaller man was stepping in, flicking the curved sword at him like it was a whip. The Murmillo raised his heavy shield, and the shock of the blow radiated through the wound in his shoulder.

He roared to match the crowd as he smashed his opponent’s blade aside and lunged forward, sword low, the disembowelling thrust of the gladius which the legionaries had used to conquer the enemies of Rome.

The blow had been his trademark move, fast and difficult to anticipate, but his opponent glanced it aside with his tiny shield, Aiolos’s blade slashing at the air a finger’s width from the Thracian’s exposed ribs. Before he could think Aiolos was behind his shield, charging, and the Thracian stepped aside from the felling blow. They broke off and began to circle once more.

The silence of the skirmish vanished, and the crowd’s roar beat down upon the warriors in full force. Aiolos kept back, lashing out probing jabs with his sword. His blood began to flow, the wound on his shoulder matched by vicious nicks from the sickle sword that began to dot his legs and arms. But this fight was not stopping for first blood. Aiolos was a head taller than the Thracian, and his shoulders were far broader, but the crowd could tell that the smaller man was quicker and had the advantage. Aiolos was past his prime.

And amongst them sit those in whose honour our lives are thrown away – the nobiles. Men like your esteemed husband, whose wealth allows them patronage over the games. The raw emotion of the crowd they are united, but it is they who moved stone and metal to build the arena, and it is they who buy and sell men as though they were naught but beasts of burden, to pit them against one another, until eventually, if they live, they may be set free.

And so long as the nobiles preside over this blood-soaked illusion of freedom and choice, the crowd loves them.

Aiolos cut wildly, and the Thracian parried the blade over his shoulder, knocking the gladius from his hand. Aiolos backed away, hiding behind his shield as he reached for the knife on his belt, but that too was knocked from his hand with the next parry. He grew still, forcing himself to breathe as he saw death approaching on the shining edge of the sickle sword. The crowd cheered in delight as his opponent moved in for the winning blow.

The lion roared as it pounced on the Thracian. The dying beast had dragged itself up, and the warriors had been too immersed in their struggle to notice it approaching or the enthusiastic cries of the crowd. The Thracian looked up and dove aside at the last second, losing his sword in his mad scramble to get away from the enraged beast. The lion’s claws raked at the back of his legs, rending muscle and tendon into shreds of meat.

The Thracian screamed. He pulled himself free with his arms, his lifeless legs dragging behind him in the sand. He threw a terrified glance over his shoulder, but the lion was finished; it collapsed to the ground, air rushing from its lungs. It had lived long enough to take one final revenge on its tormentors.

Aiolos put one foot on the lion’s corpse, pulling the spear free from its ribs. His shoulder burned with the effort. He walked over to his opponent, lying waiting on the sand. Their gazes met as Aiolos approached. The Thracian closed his eyes, face twisted in agony.

Aiolos lay the spearpoint over his throat and looked up at the Thracian’s patron. The man’s head was in his hands.

The crowd roared for blood.

The Emperor gestured.

Aiolos hesitated only a moment.

Yet even though I have seen through the illusion, I still play my part in it. And even though I am rich enough to live out my days in comfort, still I come back to the arena. For the false freedom of a normal life is no better than the freedom of the blade, and playing along with the illusion is no worse than never seeing through it at all. If that means the end for us, then so be it.

Your husband is a good man, for all the blood that is spilled in his name. May you be happy with him to the end of your days, Min.

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Patrick Harrison is a writer of historical fiction from the South Coast of New South Wales. He studied Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, graduating with distinction in 2011, and his fiction has been published in the Tertangala student magazine. He has also worked as a freelance copywriter, journalist, youth activist and retail worker. 

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