By Michael R. Colangelo
“…Rappelez-vous l'objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d'été si doux:
Au détour d'un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux…”
- Une Charogne, Charles Baudelaire, 1861
They call him Rapax.
And it never occurred to him when he was younger, that one day he might make enough of himself, to be called anything.
He has never died. He has never suffered an injury that might keep him from a fight.
He just keeps fighting and fighting and waiting indefinitely for the odds to slant the other way.
At some point when he was still young, they branded him. The words servo spiritus burned across his bronzed back with a heated iron. The words mean keep breathing in the language of the Church.
They explained the brand once. It's a catch phrase to make him more appealing to the crowd. His slogan has become a joke amongst the betting nobles and his adoring public. The temple-worshippers enjoy reviling him as a pagan villain. It is all theatrics.
He thinks he's a dangerous actor, though, and so do the fools who meet him on the sands.
He has fought so long that it now affords him a modest home inside the city walls. He has also been gifted four youths. But unlike many of his peers, his sexual tastes do not swim in these channels. So between his times training and spilling blood inside the arena, he teaches them how to fight too.
In the spring time, he will have enough victories to choose between buying his freedom from the games or purchasing a running water system for the house - the same design owned by the Emperor himself.
Except for the engineering of human slaughter, the mechanics of the arena do not interest him. He is not a stupid man, but he is an uneducated one. The workings of the betting tables make as much sense to him as the Gods - the Church versus the Temple - do.
All he knows is that he has amassed a small fortune in exchange for blood. He decided, long ago, that he likes the killing too much to ever end it.
So when the time comes, he has already decided that he will take the running water mechanism.
Vecchia handles all his business for him. Unlike his boys, she is a channel that he swims in with frequent enthusiasm. If he is one day crippled and unable to fight any more, he has discovered another sport that he enjoys almost as much as the fight.
Two of the boys massage his calves and his thighs with vigor. In his old age, he finds that his bones and joints are often sore under the burden of his muscle mass and his old injuries.
The other two spar on the stone floor before him. It's a little like watching himself out there. Only they are younger and faster... and more prone to making critical errors.
Tomasos, for example, loses his footing on a straightforward thrust. If this was the arena, he would be dead in moments. Even martyrs and galley slaves do not make such grievous mistakes.
Remarkably, Eisen does not catch the mistake. He retreats from the sloppy attack rather than press forward. He is too busy trying to outmaneuver an already outmaneuvered enemy. Both of them would be dead already if this was not practice.
Eisen still manages to hit Tomasos in the face with his wooden stick.
Tomasos' blood drips on the well-stained floor while Eisen glances in Rapax's direction. He expects some indication of approval. But there is none, for he was lucky - not skilled.
Rapax turns his thumb down for their poor performance. This is just a game of the... game, but the Emperor knows his entertainment. He would have both youths crucified for their atrocious display.
The pair shuffle away without a word.
Approval-seeking, enthusiasm, and hope - these are things that have no place inside Rapax's home.
That's when Vecchia glides through the open archway of his home.
He does not like her presence in the company of other men, and so he dismisses the pair at his feet with a swipe of his arm. They scatter away to join the others in the wings of the house.
After all of these years, he is still enraptured with the way that she moves. Although the long seasons have stolen some of her grace, there is still elegance to her motions that he has never seen before, inside or outside of the arenas. This small and simple mystery is the one thing that has kept him loyal after so lengthy a time together.
She sits on one of the raised steps near his chair and hands him a square of blanched parchment.
It's a flier for a fight that hasn't happened yet, filled with foreign language characters that he cannot understand.
There are the faces of two men drawn in the center of the flier. One man he recognizes as himself. The second man, a dark and swarthy visage with intensity highlighted in his eyes, he does not recognize.
He knows the faces of all of the fighters inside the city. He has killed most of them, or is planning on it.
She can tell that he is confused, and so she explains.
“They have been organizing games on the new continent for years and it has always been too expensive to transport you there... but the Emperor's engineers have designed a new boat, and you are about to make everyone very, very rich.”
She takes the flier from his hands and smoothes it out on the flat of the stone step.
“They have been doing this for years on the far side of the sea. Your opponent - he is a regional prince. He is your equal - very rich and undefeated in battle.”
Again they wish to use him as a monster. He will play the part of the foreign occupier intent on destroying their popular local leader.
He sneers. His expression is not pointed at her, but the sentiment is strong enough so that she rises to her feet and prepares to leave.
“I'm leaving. If you don't want to listen to me, you won't. But you should prepare, Rapax. You will be leaving soon, too.”
He lets her go, and suddenly everything seems soured. He is property of the city and he is sick of it. He has just finished planning to install a great plumbing system, and now they decide that he must uproot to travel overseas to fight for their amusement.
He realizes that it isn't the killing that he minds. It is them.
Eisen is summoned to the main chamber again. The boy looks expectant, as if Rapax has summoned him back to praise him for his poor display from earlier.
“There are enough monies in the vault to purchase my freedom from the games,” Rapax tells him. “Take it and deliver it to Senator Auxilius.”
The boy hesitates.
“What do I tell him?”
Rapax muses. Tomorrow's sunrise would bring him the first taste of his freedom, and for once, he did not need to prepare for the event.
“Tell him that I have retired.”
The morning does not bring freedom.
He awakes on his chair to find Eisen holding his bag of coins. The boy's battered and blackened expression carries a look of shame and failure upon it.
Auxilius has rejected his bid for retirement, and had his guards beat Eisen to show his full resolve regarding the matter.
Rapax is not surprised. The rich old men have not become rich old men without careful control of their assets. That is what Rapax is: an asset.
“Give me the coins and go.”
He climbs down from his stone chair. His back aches.
How many days has he sat on his mock throne without leaving? He has lost track.
The days blur.
The law states that he is not allowed to house his own weaponry. If their tools are not regulated and confined, the Senate fears their fighters will organize their own versions of the games, or worse, rise up and overtake the city themselves.
Before he leaves, he fetches a meat knife from the cooking room near the back of the house.
There is a sundial outside the old temple and Rapax notes that it is midday. This means that Auxilius is taking his meal between Senate proceedings - likely at the old city aqueduct.
The aqueduct has been uncovered and sealed at both ends by the city engineers. It has been turned into a small pool located within a Public House. It is where important political men go to relax when they did not want to face their public outside.
He finds the Senator quickly. Auxilius is lounging near the still waters of the open duct. He is chatting to a heavyset man who also wears the white robes of public officials. Rapax does not recognize him, but it is of little consequence. Auxilius has no time left for introductions.
The Senator's eyes manage to register Rapax's approach with fear. Moments before the point and edge of the knife go to work and sever all of his important veins and arteries with swift violence.
When he is done, he kicks Auxilius into the duct.
Then he rams his blade deep into the Senator's friends' gaping and surprised mouth, before sawing across his fat belly and emptying his steaming guts into the pool to join his dead friend Auxilius in eternity.
Nobody moves or speaks. Good. Death can come swiftly when he is in the room. He tucks the knife away and then retrieves his bag.
Without flourish, he dumps the contents. Coins spill from the bag to spin and bounce across the blood-slicked floor. The high, musical sound of the money echoes through the silent chamber and it amuses him.
Vecchia is furious with his actions against the city officials.
There is a fight. Poor Tomasos is shoved with such force that he loses his balance and falls against a burning brazier of oil that sets him, and the house, aflame.
She stares at him with fury in her eyes. This is Vecchia's way of daring him to rise and make good on his words of violence.
But he could never harm her.
It's her expression, her eyes. They unsettle him the most. They remind him what might become of things - of him - if she was to go.
So he leaves first, and he finds himself, by himself, on the road outside of the city.
He is free and alone.
When the rich have problems, they turn to the Oracle. She lives up a mountainside among the old temple ruins.
The journey is a challenging one. By the time he has reached her home, he pulls himself onto the flat shield of granite breathing heavy. His lungs feel scorched by the climb.
She lives inside a dome carved from the mountainside. It is a marvelous construction, built by men far older than the Empire, who would put its engineers to shame. Still, the location of the dome makes it impractical to serve of any use to all but the Oracle herself.
He climbs between the broken remains of old columns and shattered pottery. Then he squeezes between the shattered pieces of the wall's structure. The main entrance to the dome is full of traps. It is rumored that the Oracle eats human flesh. Those journeying to the Oracle who do not know any better become dinner.
Her eunuchs greet him as he enters. The Senate has banned the practice of genital removal for many, many years, but distrusts the Oracle's lusts enough to make an exception with regards to the servants they send her.
She waits for him crouched low beneath her altar. On the stone, a mutilated corpse bleeds. Her victim has had the flesh flayed from its body. On the ground beneath her feet, she sorts through a pile of blue-black entrails and feces - seeking clairvoyance.
“I knew you would be along sooner or later,” she tells him.
“I barely believe in this. I barely believe in you.”
“Do you realize that many in the city do not believe in you?”
He supposes he has always feared this truth. In all of his years of fighting, of all of his victories on the sand, there is an acute possibility that the fighting has been fixed.
Still, he dismisses her prodding. It is a ridiculous assumption. No man agrees to his own painful death. The thought of such things is extraordinary.
“We are not playing shell games out there, hag.”
“You came for a reason, yes? Quickly, please. The season is turning, and it is one filled with chaos and death.” She gestures towards the remains on her altar.
He tells her what he is looking for and as he speaks steadily, she quietly strips off her rags to don the skins of her altar victim. When he is done speaking, she responds to him.
“I've worn a man's skin and witnessed the insides of your mind, Rapax. You are sick and festering. I am bemused that the maggot wishes to escape its carrion meal.”
It is an insult. She is an insult. Even as he approaches her, she continues to talk.
“Like the worm, Rapax, to escape is to transform into the blowfly, or die writhing outside of the rotting carcass.”
Dying, yes. He wraps his hands around her throat. He shrugs off her servants like the bear swats away biting insects.
Transformation. He is less pleased with the prospect, especially given his current company. But he realizes that he can do no better.
Pressing his thumbs into the soft part of her neck, he draws her close.
“I am aware of my shortcomings,” he whispers. “But I am interested in transformation - whatever that entails.”
“Then this is what you must do...”
She chokes out her instructions and he listens intently.
He listens so intently, that he misses the skinning knife she has managed to grab from beneath the pile of guts at their feet.
No man agrees to his own painful death.
The thought of such things is extraordinary.
Bio:Michael can be found here. http://michaelrcolangelo.wordpress.com/fiction/