The arena was filled with red mud and surrounded by seats carved from white stone. From above, it resembled a giant mouth, open and gawking hungrily at the sky.
In the middle of the arena walked an old man and a boy. The man wore a plain brown tunic, but the boy was clad in a tunic of purple and gold which collected mud with each step.
“And that, Ixonius, is what comes your way for not heeding me,” the old man said, squinting at the boy, who was trying to scrape mud from the hem. “Did I not warn you to wear clothes of the field?”
“I have no clothes of the field,” Ixonius grumbled, digging his fingernails into the fibers of the cloth.
“There was a tunic hanging in your closet. I told you this morning, and twice last evening, but you did not— Ixonius!”
The boy had given up cleaning his garment, and was now jumping up and down, kicking up gobs of mud wherever his sandaled feet landed.
“Ixonius!” The old man ran towards the boy, wincing as mud squelched through his toes, and seized Ixonius by the ears.
The boy screamed, tearing at the man’s knuckles.
“Release me— please, Artellus, release me—“
Artellus obliged, and Ixonius crumpled to the ground, now entirely soaked in mud.
“Rise up,” Artellus said. “Our time is slipping.”
Ixonius stood, holding his ears tightly. “The heat is choking me,” he whined. “Why can we not eat melons in my father’s house?”
“Heat builds up the man. Do you remember what our task is?” Artellus asked.
“No,” Ixionus replied, his voice strained and resentful.
“A shock for the ages,” Artellus said sarcastically. “We are here to wash out the quarters.”
“Do they not have slaves for that task?” Ixonius grumbled, as they resumed their walk.
“So why must I learn?”
“Because our city is a chariot. One day, gods smile on us, you will be king, and you will have to comprehend how every part of the chariot spins so that you may steer it.”
“For how many days will we do this?”
“In the arena? Only today. Tomorrow you will assist the men who thresh your father’s grain, and the day after, those who spin your father’s wool.”
“Why are we starting here?”
“So I can lock you in the quarters if you continue to babble like a goat.”
Ixonius followed Artellus in silence. Every few steps he tried to kick mud at the old man without being noticed.
“Who is that?” Ixonius asked. They had approached a man dragging a wheelbarrow.
“One of the slaves. How turns the sun?” Artellus called out at the man.
The man turned from the wheelbarrow, and raised a hand in salutation. “The sun turns slowly,” he replied.
“Did you fight today?” Ixonius asked.
The man looked at him. He had very pale eyes, as well as pale skin.
“No. I used to fight. Now I clean.”
“Gods above, Ixonius,” Artellus said. “The gods gave you eyes, do not waste them. This man is in the sunset of life. You think he is fit to carry a sword and shield?” He turned to the man. “Are the quarters emptied?”
The man nodded. “Indeed, Artellus. The quarters are ready for you to clean.” He pointed with his hand, and as he did, Ixonius noticed his other hand was missing.
“What happened?” Ixonius blurted out, staring at the raw stump of wrist.
Artellus scoffed. “How did the fighter come to have no hand? Use your imagination, young prince. Maybe a bird carried it away to feed its chicks. Or a rat from beneath bit it off.”
“You lost it in a fight…” Ixonius muttered. “Another fighter cut it off with a sword.”
“Claps for the young prince, wise beyond his years!” Artellus laughed savagely, striking his palms together. “And I thought your skull was filled with sand.”
“Fighters… can lose their hands?” Ixonius asked. His breathing had slowed.
Neither the slave nor Artellus answered the boy. Then Ixonius stared into the wheelbarrow, and heaved, the contents of his stomach rushing out onto the mud before him.
Inside the wheelbarrow was a body of a fighter, with skin tight and dry across sharp ribs. From his belly spilled his entrails, bulging like red bags.
“You are finally using your eyes,” Artellus said.
“They die. They fight and die.” Ixonius said to himself.
“What did you think happened in this arena?” Artellus asked. “Dancing? Jesters playing with wooden swords? The enemies of our city are brought here in chains to entertain the nobles. That man in there,” he pointed at the body in the wheelbarrow. “From the northern forests. Look at his skin. Pale. Like his.” Artellus pointed at the one-armed slave.
“You are also from the north?” Ixonius asked. The slave nodded.
“Come, Ixonius.” Artellus led the boy away from the slave and the wheelbarrow.
Ixonius took great care not to kick up mud as he followed Artellus.
“Why do the men of the north have pale skin, and the men of our city dark skin?” Ixonius asked, as they approached the wall at the edge of the arena.
“The sun shines brighter over our city. You have seen maggots under a dark log? It is the same with the men of the north. Pale as maggots. Pale eyes, pale skin, pale minds.”
“Barley grows tall in the heat of the sun. So do the men of our city, and the buildings of our city. In the north there is little light, and therefore, little growth.”
They entered a door in the wall, and a wave of hot putrid air hit their noses. Ixonius gagged, but had nothing more in his stomach to spill.
“Take this,” Artellus handed a shovel to Ixonius.
Each room in the quarters was large enough for one fighter. Prisoners here slept and soiled themselves on the same floor.
The man and the boy shoveled one cell, then another. After hours, Ixonius stretched his back and scratched his neck, digging up sweat and loose skin under his fingernails.
“Can we return to my father’s house?” he pleaded. “They have cold baths, and fresh melon and ale—“
He coughed, spitting out dust onto the floor.
He thrust again, and his shovel struck something hard. Ixonius blinked, eyes stinging with the salt from his forehead, and reached downward.
It was pale green crystal, unlike anything Ixonius had seen before. It had been carved to resemble a woman, with such intricate detail on her face and fingers that no sculptor in the city could ever hope to imitate it.
“Ixonius! We must make haste!” Artellus coughed.
The boy threw the figurine in the fold of his tunic, and continued shoveling. They had been here almost half the day.
“The final room,” Artellus said, wiping dirt from his eyebrows and opening a door to the last cell.
Ixonius entered, and was about to thrust his shovel downward, when he saw something lying in the corner.
“Artellus,” he said.
“What are you bleating about now?” The old man bent down, his fingers examining what Ixonius had found. It was a metal shield, covered in dents from countless games in the adjacent arena. Artellus lifted it, and a wave of cool air blew from a hole beneath.
Both of them leaned towards the stream of air.
“Who dug this?” Ixonius asked.
“One of the fighters who slept in this room.” Artellus crawled into the hole. “It is cool down here. Wind from the outside.”
“To where does it lead?”
“Out,” Artellus said, his voice echoing from below. “Leads out into the street. We must report this. If a prisoner found this, he could fly out like a raven.”
“Will I get a reward? For finding it?”
“Perhaps a lighter beating for soiling your tunic.”
“Make way, I shall join you.” Ixonius lowered himself into the hole, and stood by Artellus. “Do you think they used it to escape?”
“If a prisoner had disappeared, the guards would have noticed when it was time to compete. They would have filled in the hole immediately.” Artellus laughed. “Escape was right below their filthy feet! Just as I said, Ixonius. Pale minds. Never even try to run free.”
“Artellus…” Ixonius murmured, bending down. “Someone has stood here recently. Fresh footprints—“
“So they are,” Artellus said. “But whose?”
Ixonius stood, examining the wall of the tunnel. “Is this writing?” he asked, as Artellus leaned in.
“One of the prisoners crawled down here,” Artellus said, tracing his fingers over the unknown characters. “Wrote on the wall. Look!”
Carved into the stone was a small shelf, which held a figure of the same green crystal, slender enough to serve as a stylus.
“A prisoner was down here, and wrote, but did not escape? Returned to his cell in time for the games?” Artellus asked. “Why?”
“Not just one prisoner. The writing is different. These footprints are varied. Different men have been down here, and carved words, and left this stylus.”
“But why?” Artellus wondered.
“You said that if someone escaped, the guards would discover the hold and seal it. Perhaps each prisoner who found this hole decided to return to the cell. To maintain the secret and allow the next prisoner the chance to escape.”
“That is— that is impossible,” Artellus said. “The men of the north cannot think for tomorrow. They are like animals! Eating, breeding, survival. If they saw a chance to escape, they would seize it.”
“But none of them have escaped, you said it yourself. Yet we know they have been down here.” Ixonius said. “And look—“ he held up the stylus. “This crystal does not grow in the city. They brought it with them. If they were like animals, how could they carve something so intricate?”
“Give it to me.” Artellus threw the stylus under his muddy sandal, and ground it against the stone until it was powder. “We are finished with today’s toil. We shall report this, and the guards shall fill the hole. The prisoners should have escaped when they found the opening. Pale minds,” he scoffed.
He climbed back into the cell and led Ixonius away from the quarters.
“I think a nice cold bath will be welcome.” Artellus said. “Cold melons and fresh ale. And tomorrow, the threshing fields. You shall be a wise young prince before the next moon.”
Ixonius didn’t listen. His hand was inside the pocket of his own soiled tunic, tightly wrapped around the intricate figurine from the northern forest.