Authors: Frances Smith
Table of Contents
This is for my grandparents, who saw Michael born but could not see him grown to manhood.
A Man of Chivalry
In the confines of a room half again as broad as his shoulders, with a doorway of metal bars securing him like a rabid dog, Michael Sebastian Callistus ban Ezekiel bowed his head and prayed for death.
Almighty Turo, Master of Seas and Oceans, grant that I may fall upon this day. I pray you grant me a noble death, a good death, a hero's death that will in some measure redeem the sins that I have done in life.
I do not ask for your forgiveness, God, for I am not worthy to receive such. All I ask is one small mercy, from you who have always been merciful to courageous men: that I may see my mother and brother one last time before I am consigned to the Maelstrom's torments.
And please, God, take care of our Amy, wherever she may be.
Michael heard people coming towards him, footsteps sounding in the corridor outside. He looked up at the barred door of his cell as Jonathon Dolabella ban Nathan came to stand before it, accompanied by two of his guards, who bore short swords at their waists and spears in their hands, to say nothing of the leather cuirasses that armoured them. Pater Dolabella himself was dressed to entertain: his pristine toga was green and fringed with golden thread, his hair was slicked back, his beard was oiled and combed straight in the Tyronian style. Michael could smell perfume, and the torchlight in the corridor beyond glittered off the golden bracelets on Pater Dolabella's wrists. For today was the last day of celebrations of the Sea Covenant betwixt God and Man, and the master would watch the games in the company of the Imperial Proconsul, the Quaestor and the High Priest of Corona, and afterwards he would share a feast with them. It would have been astonished had he not been rendered the most presentable his house slaves could make him.
"Michael," Dolabella said. "How are you today?"
Michael brushed his long black hair out of his eyes.
I stand uncertain of God's grace, and that is an ill place for one of the Coronim at Covenant time.
But Michael was the slave, and Master Dolabella was the master, and so Michael did what was expected of him and said, "I am as contented as ever, sir, and I thank you kindly for asking."
Master Dolabella stared at him for a moment, his grey eyes wary. "If it were not for your loyal service I would not grant you this request. You're a champion, a convict match like this is beneath you and your skill." His tone was as formal and courteous as if he spoke to a great lord of the Empire. Such courtesy was one of the reasons Michael was glad to serve his master, as was the fact that, in spite of his grumbles, he had agreed to let Michael face the convicted rebel in the sands today.
"You would have me fight the fire drake from the western wilds there's been much talk of, master?" Michael asked. Actually, the talk in the mess had been of a lizard-man, but Michael was learned enough in the lore of old Corona to guess that it was a fire drake from out of the old stories, one of the ancient smiths and craftsmen of the gods. It was rare luck indeed that had placed one of them for sale in the slave auctions.
"It would be a rare fight, I do not doubt," Dolabella said.
"If God wills then our paths will cross again," Michael said, and under different circumstances he would have leapt at the chance to test his blade against one of the elder races. "But I could not abide to hide in my cell while other men slay traitors upon my behalf. It would seem like cowardice in the face of the Rose. Rest assured, sir, I will deliver a good show against this rebel."
Dolabella regarded him keenly. "Don't lose your temper. It's entertainment the crowd wants, not butchery."
Michael nodded. "I will hold your council dear as if it came from my own father. Thank you, sir. May I wish you a good day, and Turo's blessings upon you and your family."
Dolabella nodded. "Thank you, Michael. God's blessings on you, as well. Do me proud."
Michael straightened his back and shoulders. He may have wished for some champion of great skill to end his life, but he always fought to the best of his abilities; to do any less would stain his honour and shame him before the gentry, the common crowd, Almighty Turo and the long line of his ancestors. "Do I not always, master?"
Dolabella nodded, and walked away. Michael heard his footsteps die away down the underground corridor.
The guards would come to get him soon. Master Dolabella would not be with them then, of course, he would be in the box besides the other notables. No, other men would come to drag him from the underworld and birth him for a little while into the light of the world. Michael closed his eyes again, and prayed for Miranda. He prayed that she was well, that her wealth and fame would continue to increase and, in a prayer that he was willing to concede was a little selfish, he prayed that she would come and see his fight. It was vainglory, really; the hero wanted someone to weep over his dead body, if he fell; to lay their head upon his breast where he lay slain and cry out in despair, as Simon and Aurelia had wept for Gabriel.
He had no idea if his sister would come. She did not, always. When she did come she spent most of her time scowling in disapproval. What would his baby sister do, if she watched him die? Try and save him, most likely. Hopefully he would expire swiftly, having slain his foe, before she could do aught. Would it pain her? Michael did not know; Miranda did not seem to like him very much any more. Was it cruel of him, to want her to watch? That was a question for wiser men than he.
He leaned back upon the straw that was both floor and bed to him, looking up at the ceiling of brown stone. He wondered if the spirit plane, where the dead wandered who did not receive the proper funeral rites due to a Turonim, was as boring as this cell.
It was easy for Michael to pray for death, because the truth was he only felt alive when he was in the arena, fighting for that life. The rest of the time he was dead, and in the underworld where grey ghosts roamed.
He leaned back, closed his eyes, and waited for some messenger from the gods to come lead him back to the land of the living.
Michael could not have said how long it was before he heard more footsteps approaching his cell. He opened his brown eyes as he heard the rattle of keys in the lock, and saw Mark and Matthew outside as the door opened with a clanging sound.
"It's time," Mark said.
Michael stood up and took off his tunic. The crowd liked to be able to see wounds clearly, and Michael would rather not ruin his mourning tunic by having it cut to ribbons. Matthew and Mark - guards in the employ of Master Dolabella, with leather cuirasses covering their chests, short swords on their hips and bucklers on their wrists - waited for him to dump his tunic on the straw, then ushered him out of the cell and up through the corridors towards the armoury. He emerged naked save for a loincloth to preserve his modesty and a crimson cloak draped across his shoulders, as much a newborn babe as a shade returned to life.
"How are the games?" Michael asked.
"Alright, in the main," Mark said. He was the slightly shorter of the two, closer to Michael's own height, and friendlier as well. "Though Thomas just lost his bout with an Olabrian."
"Is he alive?"
"Yes," Matthew replied.
"He put on a good show and the crowd liked it, so the Proconsul spared his life," Mark elaborated.
Michael grunted. He did not like Thomas very much, he never had.
"At the moment, Magdalene's fighting some girl from Simonheyr. Looks like a tough fight," Mark went on.
"Pity we have to miss it," Matthew muttered.
"I know the way to the armoury well enough, if you would like to go," Michael said. "You know me well enough to know that I'll not flee, nor embark upon some mad rampage. I am no man of the Rose."
"No, but you're a slave, so shut it," Matthew said, cuffing him on the back of the head.
"There's no need for that," Mark said mildly.
"You can shut up as well."
They led him to the armoury, a square room bathed in yellow torchlight, where Michael prepared for battle. First he wound seven oxhide strips around his wrists and bound them tight, clenching his fists to make sure that he still could. The leather felt rough against his skin, the odd strands of hair still clinging to the strips made his palms itch a little, and Michael could have sat there scratching the rough, uneven, hairy leather for a good while if he had not needed to put the rest of his gear on quickly. Iron manicae were fastened on both his arms, each piece strapping on tightly, interlocking as they crept from his wrists to his shoulders like the armoured scales of a centipede. The plates ground against one another when he moved his arms, making a thin, metallic rattle. The weight of them was an old companion to Michael; it felt more natural to be wearing them than to not.
I rise from the underworld a brazen ghost, now I am fit to be reborn as a man,
he thought as he ran his fingers up and down the iron plates, feeling the little bumps beneath his fingertips where one ended and the other began. He liked the way they felt beneath his touch, the way they felt upon his arm; they felt real as few other things did.
Lastly he took up his blades. First the sabre, gently curving towards its point, single edged, a blade for hacking like some fierce barbarian out of the west, for carving foemen like joints of meat, a blade for fury and for savage work. Then the spatha, the blades of the soldiers of the Empire, the straight and doubled edged swords of three feet long that had toppled ancient thrones and sent realms of antique lineage crashing down. A sword for discipline, for virtue, for the triumph of civilisation over barbarism.
Virtue and fury, blended in him in perfect harmony. Or such was the ideal. Michael usually found himself favouring the sabre.
Once he was garbed for war and ready to make his final ascent to the living world, then Mark and Matthew led him to the tunnel where he would wait until his fight was called. It was a dark, cramped place, lit only by the light of the sun filtering in through the heavily barred door separating the tunnel from the arena proper.
From outside the tunnel Michael could hear the clash of blades, the grunts of weary warriors, the roaring of an excited crowd, and knew it must be Magdalene's bout that was enthralling them. He tried to squint through the bars, but he could make out nothing distinct, so swift where the whirling movements of the two combatants.
Magdalene will not fall, she is too swift,
Michael thought. He did not approve of women fighting in the arena, as a rule. He did not greatly approve of women fighting, for since the earliest days of Old Corona war had been the province of men even as had the worship of God. Despite that, he could respect the fleetness of Magdalene's feet.
She will not fall.
The sounds of fighting reached their crescendo, someone cried out in pain and then the crowd began to roar in ecstasy. Michael closed his eyes and imagined that that ambrosia of the ears was for him.
"Rachael of Simonheyr has slain Magdalene of Lover's Rock!" the herald called. "She is the victor!"
"What a salted waste," Matthew muttered as he opened the gate and went out to retrieve the body. It would be given a proper Turonim funeral once the games were over.
Michael saw Rachael then, standing over Magdalene's fallen form, her spear-head red with blood. She had long dark hair hanging loosely down her back, and she was armoured in a cuirass of black leather. She looked into Michael's eyes for a moment, her look confrontational, challenging. It was a hunter's gaze.
Michael stared back at her. Ordinarily he would have bowed in recognition of her skill and triumph, but in the face of the stare he could not but feel that such an act would be interpreted as weakness.
She went for the kill. She meant to slay Magdalene.
Michael himself might court death, and prefer to die gloriously, in the heat of battle as Gabriel and Ameliora had, than to live with the shame of defeat, growing old and withered until any chance of glory or greatness was far out of reach, but most gladiators fought to defeat their enemies, and let the crowd decide if the defeated would live or die. To seek out a mortal blow was...unusual.
"What a salted waste," Matthew repeated as he carried Magdalene's body inside.
"You're next," Mark said.
Michael nodded. "I am a gentleman of Corona, I am a gentleman of Corona," he whispered to himself, to keep his armour strong. He would need it more than ever against a rebel.
The clamour of the crowd without began to ebb, and like a raging storm which beats upon the shore till mighty Turoth raises his hand to calm the wrathful waters, so did their noise lessen and cease altogether.
The voice of the Proconsul Isaiah Asturius ban Samuel, Imperial governor of Corona Province, echoed from source unseen into the gladiators' tunnel, "Friends, Coronim, citizens of the Empire and loyal subjects of His Imperial Majesty, Demodocus the Second; throughout these celebrations in honour of Turo, and the covenant our ancestors made with him, we have seen many examples of courage displayed by our gallant warriors here in the arena." The current Proconsul was one of the Coronim himself, risen high in the Imperial service. Michael thought that that in itself ought to have been enough to prove the Crimson Rose mistaken in their carping and their wrath alike.
"Now we must take on the more solemn task of witnessing an example of God's justice, and the justice of the Empire, as a condemned prisoner is given the opportunity to win his freedom in the arena. Bring forth the prisoner!"