Against all probabilities, he had arrived in New Rome alive. Priscus had paused for a moment in the creaking corridor linking the starship to the elevator, grabbing a quick glimpse through the dirty window before the press of the shuffling men behind him forced him onward.
But he knew what it looked like, having seen the images all his life. The huge city, hub of the human universe, lay within a ring of countless towers, topped by the space elevators that exported its power to the stars. Immense ships departed for distant planets, carrying the weapons to subdue them, the soldiers to police them, the prefects to govern them. On their return, they discharged metals for New Rome’s industries, luxuries for its indulgences, slaves for its entertainment.
At New Rome’s precise centre lay the Colosseum, greater and better than the original, long lost in the mists of history. Scholars had dug through electronic archives, sifting through the myths and deliberate fiction, seeking to reproduce the old as much as possible, while bowing to the modern demands for comfort. Around it throbbed the largest and most vibrant city of the galaxy, consumed by its commerce and its pleasures. Priscus had dreamed all his life of coming to visit, perhaps even of coming to live.
He had never dreamed of coming to kill.
He stood now waiting in one of the air-conditioned passageways that led to the Colosseum’s vast floor, a bug-eyed, twin-plumed helmet that covered his entire head tucked under his right arm, his left hand resting lightly on the hilt of the primitive sword strapped to his side. He knew that in a twin passageway on the opposite side of the amphitheatre, another young man stood with a similar helmet under his arm and the same little rivulet of sweat snaking down his spine. When the great gong sounded, the grills before them would lift and they would stride out, meeting before the high seat, to pay their respects and to see their opponent’s face for the first and last time before they replaced their helmets over their heads. Only one of them, at best, would walk out. Priscus struggled to swallow and moisten his throat, but his parched mouth felt like sandpaper. It was always like this.
The assistant, the most attentive he had ever had, saw the movement of his throat and passed him a bottle filled with specially-formulated water. She patted his arm with a shy smile. Had his life gone differently, had he not encountered Calgurian slave traders on that ill-advised camping trip to the Boradran Asteroid Belt, he could have come here a free man. He would be inviting her out now to one of New Rome’s famous shusa restaurants, instead of meditating on how the New Romans coddled you with comfort before you died for their pleasure.
He wondered if his family had given up hope yet, if his mother cried herself to sleep, if his hothead older brother Verus had figured out where he had gone and come looking for him. Priscus wished he had, and hoped he hadn’t. It was bad enough that one of them had been stupid enough to dare the Belt. He reached for the water bottle again and rubbed the knuckles of the other hand into his eyes. Enough of that kind of thinking. That was the kind of thing that got a man killed. On the other hand, dying would almost be a relief. He had put a sword into too many bellies already.
She took the bottle back and ran her hand along his arm. “Of course I couldn’t have asked her out,” he thought incongruously. “Slaves aren’t allowed out on the town.” He twisted a broken smile in her direction.
The gong sounded. The grill slid up. He slipped the helmet over his head, hoisted the red-painted shield into place and stepped out. On the far side, his fellow combatant angled also toward the high seat where tonight’s guest of honour awaited them. Priscus matched the pace of the other, discreetly studying him for clues that would help him. Something about the man itched at him, like a melody that insists on staying just out of memory’s reach. As he drew closer, Priscus saw the nasty scar slanted across the man’s abdomen. How could he have survived a wound like that? He must have pivoted back so that the sword had slashed across without going deep. Quick on his feet then.
They converged before the high seat. In careful unison they leaned their shields against one leg, pulled their helmets off and raised their swords in salute to the woman seated there, whose name Priscus had already forgotten. The mayor? The prefect? She raised a limp hand in acknowledgement. They turned toward each other for the ritual pre-combat crossing of swords.
Priscus froze. The sword fell from his hand, narrowly missing his foot. He barely noticed.
The other’s eyes widened and he slumped down onto his knees with a long, drawn-out groan that made the hair rise on the back of Priscus’s neck. He staggered forward and wrapped his arms around the other.
“Verus! Great god, what are you doing here?”
His brother sobbed, rocking back and forth on his knees. Priscus babbled something, anything, to try to console him. Verus clutched at his arm.
Priscus raised an imploring face to the high seat. The woman leaned forward on one elbow.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Get on with it.”