Letter From The Editor - Issue 39 - May 2014

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Issue 29
Stories
The Butcher of Londinium
by J. Deery Wray
Riding the Signal
by Gary Kloster
Cloudsinger
by Jared Oliver Adams
For Lenore
by Kenneth Kao
Dark and Deep
by Holli Mintzer
The Flower of Memory
by Michael Haynes
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-   -   -   -   P   r   e   v   i   e   w   -   -   -   -

The Butcher of Londinium
    by J. Deery Wray

The Butcher of Londinium
Artwork by Dean Spencer

As the hulking rhinoceros gored and trampled its way through the gladiatorial market in New Rome, there was one thought I couldn't get out of my head:

The carnage was impressive.

When the bestiary guards caught up with it, they unloaded more than sufficient rounds from their tranq-dart rifles to down the savage creature. Unwarranted, perhaps, but unsurprising; they had let it escape from its pen. The men who were shackled to me breathed sighs of relief.

I had, during the rhino's rampage, felt a twinge of worry. Chained as I was, I could neither have run nor fought, but the same would be true in the arena. I have no illusions about my own abilities. When I'd heard my sentence, to be fodder for the games, I knew I'd be dead soon enough; why not enjoy the unexpected entertainment? I just wish it had lasted longer.

"Where's the surgeon?" One man cried out, then another, adding their voices to the screams and whimpers of the injured.

For a moment, I thought they meant me. But they found their surgeon soon enough, what was left of him. His spirit was awaiting its final passage across the river Styx.

"We need a surgeon," a panicked voice cried. "We'll lose the merchandise."

That's when I raised my hand, and shouted, "Over here."

I've never been one to waste an opportunity.

Coal soot smeared the sunset into haze by the time I yanked tight the last stitch of thread through living flesh.

"Six men still live today because of you," a man said. He spoke with authority, and wore the clothes to match - an ankle-length black top coat over a winged collar shirt and tweed breeches. "What's your name?"

"Caro." The blood was beginning to dry on my hands. I let it. "They live for now, but I can't say for how long." It wasn't a sterile environment, not even close. "Infection's a killer."

"I'm Silus, Lanista of the Emperor's personal gladiatorial school. My aide tells me you're one of the damnati ad mortem, and that you were among a shipment we have already purchased for the opening hours of next week's Imperial Games."

I smiled. Damnati ad mortem. "I would have that honor." To be released weaponless into the arena to fight any number of strange and ferocious beasts. To die to whet the appetite of the crowd. It was the currently fashionable sentence for all men convicted of capital crimes.

"A waste." The man tapped his fingers against the buttons on his waistcoat as he looked at the stacked corpses being loaded onto a wagon. "We're in need of a surgeon. Where'd you receive your training?"

"At university, and in practice. I worked ten years at a hospital before my . . . conviction."

"Which university, which hospital?"

The answer to both was the same. I'd grown up but fifty miles from here, among the factories on the east side of the Thames, worked hard to earn the coin to live on the west side, but the city that sprawled both sides went by one name. "Londinium."

Silus's sudden intake of breath, the newly bulging vein above his left temple - I found that first flush of recognition never failed to arouse me.

"The Butcher. You're the Butcher of Londinium."

"I prefer Caro Carvetii, but yes, that is the phrase the papers coined."

"You only killed women? No men. No . . . others?"

"Just whores," I said. "Mothers who traded favors to feed their addictions." I didn't expect him to understand, but his concerns were otherwise engaged.

Silus looked between me and the cart that trundled off with the surgeon's body. "I might stay your sentence so long as your skills dictate. There will be no pay, of course, for such as you. And if you fail in your duties, or otherwise garner unwanted attention, the arena will be waiting for you."

After a night spent in my new cell at the Emperor's Ludus, just a stone's throw from the Colosseum, I made my way down the underground tunnel that connected the two to check out my new working quarters. The main room was larger than I had expected, though between the shelves and cabinets lining the walls, and the three cots marooned in the center, it seem crowded. Not one of the many oil lamps was lit. Pale light bled into the room through two air shafts, the only source of ventilation, and not enough of one to mute the stench of whisky in the room.

Someone coughed from behind one of the cots, a phlegm-filled wheeze, followed by a gulping sound. The source of the whisky smell, no doubt.

I rounded the cots and looked down on a man sitting splay-legged with a bottle clutched in his hands. He had a fretwork of broken capillaries across his nose and cheeks, and tear tracks on his none-too-clean face. If it was not for the metal-framed spectacles perched on his nose, I would have thought him a vagrant who had snuck past the guards.

"The new surgeon?" he asked, slurring his words. "Come to claim his place already?"

I have no patience for drunks. I never have. "And you are?"

"His aide." The man brushed at the snot crusting his nostrils. "Yours now. Name's Blaesus." He tried to stand up, but only made it as far as his knees before he took another swig from the near empty whisky bottle. "I heard it was a rhino what got him. Killed by some beastie like a common criminal." He weaved in place when he finally made it to his feet, his bloodshot eyes blinking wearily at the glass bottle. "I've been drinking to him all night. You wouldn't have a fresh bottle, to make a toast to him yourself?"

I shook my head in disgust. "Does he have a book around here - an inventory of the items in stock?"

"No book, no list. He didn't write, and I . . ." He pointed a wavering finger at his forehead - his ear - his forehead. "I keep it all up here." He stumbled over to the nearest cot and crawled on to it, curling up in a ball with the bottle cradled in his arms. "Just need a bit of shut eye's all." Moments later he lost consciousness; it would be a misnomer to say he fell asleep.

I found a stack of blank papers, a nib and a bottle of ink, and spent the next few hours taking an inventory of the location and number of the items in stock while Blaesus snored away on a cot. I'd just finished with the cabinets lining the back wall of the room when I became aware that I was not - Blaesus aside - alone.

Given the delineation of each of his muscles, the man standing in the doorway would have made a perfect model for an introductory anatomy class. He would have made an even better specimen as a corpse on a slab for dissection. Bare-chested, he wore a green loin cloth and sandals, a sleeveless wool jacket his only concession to the chill spring air. He also wore a traditional manicae - a thick leather and cloth padding - on his right forearm, but a bandage encircled his left.

"You're Caro Carvetii, the new Chirurgeon."

The title, with its slurred start and extra syllable, sounded odd to me. I was used to the more commonly used term - surgeon. "I am. And you're . . . a gladiator."

"Flavus. Your predecessor had asked me to come by today, to have my arm checked."

No man entered the Emperor's Ludus until he had a reputation for excellence in the arena. I hadn't followed the games closely enough to know the names of the most famous gladiators, but even I had heard of Flavus, the Champion of Aquae Sulis. In the three years he'd been competing, he'd never been defeated.

"Come sit." I pointed to the cot furthest from Blaesus. "I'll take a look." Flavus sat down and I unwrapped the bandage from his arm, baring the tear in his flesh. He never took his eyes off my face.

Though sufficient for its purpose, the uneven row of sutures in Flavus' arm would have shamed the meanest apprentice. The skin was not inflamed, but the edges of the wound had not yet healed sufficiently to hold together unaided. "You'll need to keep these in a few more days. The previous surgeon, he applied these himself?"

"No. He had the palsy." Flavus made his hand tremble to demonstrate. "A gift from strangers, I believe, though one he received before the Lanista hired him on. He oversaw things here, but had Blaesus do the hands-on work. He kept him sober, for the most part, on game days and during practice." Clenching his hand into a fist, Flavus flexed the muscles in his arm. "And yet he died at the Market. It can be dangerous in the most unexpected places."

"A fact of which I'm well aware." I retrieved a bottle of antiseptic and some fresh bandages.

"Your actions precede you, Butcher. The Lanista hired you because he needed a surgeon, and he need not pay you. The coin he receives for a surgeon shall instead line his pockets. I, too, am not immune to the call of coin. I could buy out my contract today, but I would not have sufficient means to live as I desire. But neither do I mean to die from a wound that's not fatal. I would die on the sands, or live to make the coin to retire in comfort."

After sluicing the wound in antiseptic, I applied a fresh bandage. "I think you'll find that I excel at my job. Just see to your own."

"See that you stay within the bounds of your job. If you so much as look at a woman wrong . . ." Flavus smiled. "You'll die before you ever reach the sands."

As I shut Caepio's sightless eyes, the thundering roar of the Colosseum crowd crested, washing down into my underground surgical quarters before falling to sudden silence. The silence didn't last long. The final fight of the day continued, but that wasn't my immediate concern. Blaesus was with the second gurney and its bearers in case another of the Emperor's gladiators was killed or injured. I'd left him with just enough whisky to stop his shakes, though not enough to inebriate him. Right now, my job was here.

The Lanista had had a box dropped off at dawn, before the games began, the games I was meant to die in. I pulled off the lid, and rifled past the blank embossed sheets, and the journal that, on cursory inspection, proved to list gladiator names and details, until I found a blank death certificate. Caepio had raised his finger, signaling defeat, and had died to satisfy the blood hunger of the crowd. There was no box on the form for that. Why he died and cause of death were two separate things.

I'd just finished filling out the certificate when the roars of the crowd fell to a hush, then burst out louder than before. Victory, and defeat. I closed the box, set the death certificate atop it, and went to the door to see if I was needed. Minutes later I saw two men carrying a gurney bearing a gladiator, blood seeping from his abdomen, and Blaesus trailing behind them. I recognized him from mealtimes - the foreigner, Alfred.

While the two men transferred Alfred to the middle cot, I was able to make out enough of the wound - a deep slash into the muscle of the abdomen just above his wide leather belt- to begin making preparations. If the slash had penetrated into the abdominal cavity, I had little hope of saving him.

I directed Blaesus to wash his hands, sterilize a needle and grab the silk thread, while I soaked a cloth in a carefully measured amount of chloroform - just enough to put Alfred in a state of clinical anesthesia. Too little, and he'd experience serious disorientation or hallucinations, and still be capable of movement, a dangerous combination. Too much could lead to cardiovascular depression and death. It was a fine balance.

After sedating the gladiator, I washed my hands, pulled on a pair of clean gloves, and cleaned away enough of the blood to get a clear look at what I was dealing with. I liked what I saw: a clean slice through fat and muscle that stopped just short of piercing completely through the abdominal wall. I would need to sew the muscles together, and carefully if I wanted him to be able to regain full functionality. I didn't care one way or the other about his future, but it was the type of challenge I loved. I set to work.

Time passed without my awareness until I was finished. The gurney bearers had long since left, taking Caepio's corpse with them, and Blaesus had cracked another whisky bottle. But none of that mattered. I wrapped a wide swath of gauze about Alfred's midriff, then went into the back room to wash up.

When I returned to the main room, Blaesus had disappeared with his bottle, and Flavus stood beside Alfred's unconscious body. He turned to me, and asked, "Will he live?"

"Unless the wound becomes infected, he will." Despite the best of precautions, there were never any guarantees when it came to infection. "If he has the will to."

"Will he be able to fight again?"

"If he lives, he very well could." I had confidence in my work. "But not for months. He'll need to allow the wound to heal fully, and take care in rebuilding his strength."

Flavus nodded, rubbing at the freshly-healed scar on his arm. "He needs to fight to buy out his contract, to return to his wife and children." He looked back to Alfred, at the bandages that bound his midriff. "Did you know he was captured in battle? A skirmish at the north border of Gallia. He's an enemy of the New Roman Empire, a barbarian. Out there. But in here, he's a gladiator, and a brother to me. I've already lost one brother today."

Though Flavus didn't name Caepio, I knew who he meant. I had nothing to add, so I left him alone. He departed a few minutes later, while I finished cleaning up from the surgery. I had just sat down to record my notes on the procedure when Lanista Silus arrived.

"Flavus tells me Alfred's outlook is bright. See that it stays that way." He walked over to the box he'd had delivered, picked up the death certificate, and studied it.

"I'll do my best, Lanista."

"Good. I'll see this delivered to the Magistrate. Have you started on the notification letter?"

"Notification letter?"

"For the next of kin." Lanista Silus' eyes narrowed. "I covered for your predecessor because his hand shook, and Blaesus' handwriting is illegible, but your script is satisfactory. There's a journal in the box, it lists each gladiator at this ludus, and the address for notifying their next of kin upon their death. Write the letter, cross out the deceased's entry in the journal, and bring it to me. I'll see it posted."

An hour later, a guard admitted me to the Lanista's private study. Seated at a heavy oak desk strewn with papers, Silus took a few minutes to acknowledge me. I handed him the letter, and turned to leave.

"Stop," Silus said impatiently. "This will never do. Caepio died with honor serving as one of the Emperor's gladiators. This reads as if you're notifying the family of the slaughter of a chicken, and not a prized one at that. Rewrite it to express our sympathies, and leave out the description of how he died. They don't need a list of his wounds." He crumpled the paper and threw it at me. "And sign the damn thing. It's a personal letter, not an anonymous one."

Though I didn't see the point, I started the new letter with 'I regret to inform you,' left out the salient details, and signed it Caro Carvetii. While I didn't feel any regret, the Lanista had asked, and I would oblige. After all, they were just words on paper.

By the time two more game days had passed, I'd become used to my new daily routine which is why the sound of the guards yelling in the gallery piqued my interest. I'd been sterilizing needles in the side room, and by the time I ducked back into the main room and made it to the doorway, the guards had moved on. But when I turned around and spotted a small foot poking out from behind one of the cots, I suspected I had found the cause.

"If you come out, I'll give you a chance to explain yourself." The foot snaked back, out of my line of sight. "If not, I'll call for the guards." I wasn't sure that the guards would hear me, but the ultimatum seemed warranted.

A prepubescent boy poked his head above the cot and regarded me for a moment before standing up. Given his shapeless striped shirt and rough canvas trousers, he looked to be a workhouse escapee. His short brown hair appeared to have been finger-combed. "I was just looking for my father. He's to be a gladiator here."

The way the boy was eyeing me, I got the distinct impression he believed his father could beat me up. I never knew my father. My mother had slept with so many men, I don't think she even knew his name. "Your father give you a name, boy?"

"What're you anyway?"

I raised my eyebrows.

"Stolo." He bit at his lower lip before saying, "Your turn."

"I'm the Chirurgeon here." At his blank look, I added, "I sew up the gladiators when they get hurt, among other things."

"So you'll help keep my father safe?"

"I suppose I will."

"His name's Metellus. He's supposed to arrive here today. That's why we came here, to New Rome. We caught a train out when we found out. He'll be fighting in the Emperor's Games next month."

"We?"

"My sister and me. Do you know where my father is?"

I had no idea if the Emperor's newest gladiators had arrived yet, but I did know which door they'd be coming through. It had to be the same door the boy had used. Only the Lanista, his family and guests arrived through the main door. A part of me wanted to point the boy in the correct direction and be done with him, but if he got lost and mentioned to the guards that he'd spoken with me . . . A little time wasn't worth the potential trouble I could be in. "I know where we can find out, if you'll come with me."

"What do I call you?" Stolo asked as he rounded the cots and headed towards me.

"My name's Caro."

The boy stopped. "I don't like that name. I'll call you Chirgeon."

"Chirugeon," I said, correcting his pronunciation. Caro was not an uncommon name. Perhaps he'd known a drunk or a bully of the same name. Or . . . "Where are you from?" I walked into the underground gallery, heading towards the Ludus.

"From Carvetii. In Londinium, on the East Side."

No surprise, then, that he still remembered the name of the Butcher. "Where's your sister?"

"At a linen factory. She got a job as soon as we came here. She's very experienced. We're living out by the ruins for now, so we can stay together. I haven't found a job yet, but I make sure to walk her to and from the factory each day, so she doesn't ever have to walk alone. It's not good for a woman to walk alone. And during the days, I've been exploring the city."

He chattered on non-stop about the harbor, the forum, and the markets for the next ten minutes, until we passed into the hallway that terminated in the service entrance. I'd expected the guards to be present - they always were, guarding the exit - but our timing was more opportune than I would have imagined. Three men, obviously gladiators from their builds and outfits, stood with their backs to me, facing Silus and two men I didn't recognize.

"Father!" Stolo took off running straight at one of the gladiators, the one with the tightly braided brown hair. The gladiator - Metellus, his son had named him - turned at the call, his gruff face breaking into a smile at the sight of Stolo.

I knew that face. I'd only seen it once before, at my trial, contorted in rage as he'd tried to reach me through the crowd only to be dragged away by the police. I'd never had a name to go with the face, though I could make the connection now. His wife's name had been Paulla.

I slipped away before he could see me, though I knew I'd have to face him soon enough.

Two days passed before Metellus found me. I was eating my barley and bean porridge in the common triclinium, a large room filled with tables, and, at this hour, with gladiators as well, which let out onto the ellipsoidal training arena. I'd lingered longer over breakfast than I should have, intrigued by the rumors regarding the beasts from the New World debuting at the upcoming games. It seemed the three new gladiators had been acquired less for their skill in fighting singly, but more for their ability to work as a team, be it in fights against men or beasts.

Metellus came up behind me, grabbed my arm, and shoved me to the ground. He was flanked on either side by the two other new gladiators; I didn't know their names. The room was dead silent.

"You killed my wife." Metellus spit the words at me.

Perhaps there was something I could have said to head him off, but if so, I have no idea what it might have been. I had killed his wife. This was well known. There was no use in denying it. So I said nothing at all.

"You killed my wife." His voice was pitched higher this time, and he followed the words with a kick to my groin. I curled up at the pain, but his friends grabbed my arms and pulled me up. They held me while he beat me, my face and my chest. After the first few blows, I let my legs collapse, hung limply, hoping he'd see me defeated and lose steam. It had worked when I'd been beaten in the past. I didn't think it would this time.

"You think you've had enough, Butcher?" His voice was thick with rage, and something else. Loathing maybe. "That you can kill, and go on with your life, your profession?" He directed his friends to drop me. They held me spread-eagled, my hands flat to the ground as Metellus brought up his booted foot, held it over my hand.

"Enough." Flavus tone was commanding, but Metellus wasn't listening. As he stomped down, Flavus tackled him. Alfred was right behind him, pushing one of Metellus' friends off me. Though Alfred was still only allowed to do light calisthenics, his build was massive and the others backed him up.

Holding Metellus pinned down, Flavus said, "Take him to Blaesus, Alfred, then come back. We need to have a conversation with these men about how things work around here."

Alfred helped me up, and supported me on the long walk to the surgical quarters where he left me on a cot under Blaesus' care. I tried to sit up after he left, but the pain was too much for me. I fell into blackness.

I woke with the metallic tang of blood on my tongue. And to pain. I licked cautiously at my distended lip - the blood seemed to be dried.

"I cleaned you up as best I could." Blaesus words were slurred, as usual. "Don't think nothing's broken, 'cept your nose. Cracked maybe."

I grunted. It might hurt to talk. When I tried opening my eyes, only one obliged, and I couldn't keep it open long. I don't know how long I lay there, listening to Blaesus slurp his whisky, thankful that I couldn't smell the liquor. More thankful that when he occasionally brought me a cloth to sip on, it was soaked in water, not whiskey. That made me want to laugh - the thought of Blaesus wasting whiskey on a cloth.

The next time Blaesus spoke, I didn't understand him at first. I'd been near sleep, and his words were slurred as usual. But he repeated himself, or at least he spoke again.

"Why'd you do it?"

It took me a moment to realize what he meant. But really there was only one thing he could have meant. I didn't choose to be a punching bag.

"Why'd you kill all those women and . . . and-"

"Eviscerate them?" I rasped. That's what the papers had called it. Evisceration. Mutilation. Butchery. "Do you really want to know?"

"There are some what worry about the Lanista's servants . . ."

"I've never touched a woman that didn't prostitute herself." My throat felt like sandpaper. "Water?"

"And the women the guards bring in at night for the gladiators?"

"Water?" I asked.

Blaesus brought me a freshly soaked rag and I waited until I'd sucked enough fluid from it to alleviate the parched feeling before I answered.

"Those women are slaves, bought at the market, and forced to prostitute themselves at the will of their owner, a master not of their choosing. The women I killed chose their master - be it opiates or alcohol - and prostituted themselves for it, leaving their children to suffer and fend for themselves. These women the guards bring - they have nothing to fear from me."

"And . . . the butchery?"

"Post-mortem dissection. I wanted to know what was wrong with them." Tatiana, Camilla, Julia, Luciana, Paulla. My mother all those years ago. I didn't want to think of her, of the sound of her grunting a few feet away, or the coins the man, always a different man, would throw at me, saying, "Go buy more." It was always liquor, at first. Or the day the super evicted us from our lodging for non-payment, not that she was there to know it. I'd found her fornicating in an opium den, her legs spread for any man who would have her. That was the last day I ever saw her.

I heard retching noises. Blaesus, though I had never seen him moved to vomit no matter how much whisky he'd imbibed.

No one ever understood. The women I killed, they were already dead inside. I had seen that, even if Blaesus couldn't. I didn't expect Metellus to understand it either. He'd been away at war. He hadn't seen what his wife had become. She'd told me she was divorced. Had I known she was married, I might not have slashed her throat.

I didn't kill indiscriminately, no matter what people thought.

The crowd fell silent as the Emperor raised his arms. I could barely see him from where I stood, at the back of a group of men behind the gate leading out to the sands. It was nearly noon, the sun hidden behind the awning that stretched across the top of the Colosseum, and the first big match of the day was soon to start.

As the Emperor began speaking - I couldn't hear him, and though criers were provided in each section of the stands with copies of the speech to read, not one was provided for us on the ground - I had to imagine what he'd be saying. It was the anniversary celebration of the founding of our glorious Empire. I was sure he'd go on about that for awhile.

"Gomericus, Gomericus, Gomericus," the crowd chanted.

Another man fitting of mention; I was not surprised the Emperor would include him in the speech. Gomericus, the father of the first Emperor, and the man who'd brokered the deals with the local tribes and won the loyalty of the local Roman troops back when the Roman Empire was recalling its men to fight battles closer to home. A hero to our great nation, but a traitor to his own. He'd defied orders to return to Rome, and had set himself up as ruler instead. A master of military strategy, he united the south and conquered the whole of the island as the old Romans never had. A traitor, but history is written by the victor. Rome fell, and Gomericus' son founded New Rome on the ruins of Camulodunum, made it his capital, and declared himself the first of the New Roman Emperors.

A small rock hit the floor at my feet, followed by another. Looking up, I saw Stolo and a teenage girl - she looked just like her mother - leaning over the sides of the railing above me. He smiled, and waved and pointed at his father who stood up front at the gate.

Metellus was armored in the fashion of the bestiarii, wearing simple leather arm and leg wraps, and a visored helmet topped by a crimson crest that matched his loin cloth. He held a spear in one hand and a small shield in the other. Thomas, to his right, was armed in a similar fashion, but Pictor, to his left, carried a whip instead of a spear and shield.

I'd made it a point to learn the names of Metellus' team. Over the last few weeks, one of the three of them was always shadowing me, though never too closely. Flavus had made certain that I, like a vestal virgin, was never without escort.

The crowd roared as the gates opened. Metellus and his two cronies marched out onto the sands and the gates ground shut behind them. A row of bestiary guards armed with tranq-dart rifles lined up along the gate. From the bestiaries entrance to the Colosseum, I could see a cage containing a gift from the Mayan Emperor being rolled out onto the sands by unarmed men. Damnati ad Mortem. When they reached the center, they opened the cage, and ran back towards the gated bestiaries exit.

Three feet taller than the tallest man on the sands, the terror bird bolted from its cage, chasing the men who had released it. Its enormous beak, terminating in giant hawk-like hook, was lightening swift; it pecked at first one unarmed man, then another, knocking them down at a blow. With the last man down, it began a series of rapid downward strikes, its giant neck thrusting forward to stab its beak into first one body, then another, ripping each to shreds when it pulled back up.

Metellus led the other gladiators across the sands towards the giant bird. I looked back up towards Stolo and his sister, but I couldn't see them anymore. When I looked back, the three gladiators were closing in on the terror bird.

Pictor had peeled off to the left, while Metellus and Thomas circled to the right, banging their spears against their shields to attract the bird's attention. The terror bird's head jerked towards the clanking noise and, with a loud caw, it began advancing on the two men. It seemed only moments before the bird was close enough to lunge, jerking its beak down with lightning speed.

Metellus barely raised his shield in time to block the bird's downward motion, a crack ringing out as hooked beak met metal shield. He stepped to the side, thrusting his spear forward to ward off the bird's clawed wing as Thomas ducked under the wing, thrusting up in an attempt to disable it. But the bird was too quick. Thomas' spear-head had barely punctured its flesh when the bird spun, the claw on its other wing ripping through Thomas' neck. Blood spurted into the air, onto the bird, and down to the sands as the crowd roared.

Metellus danced backwards while Pictor advanced on the terror bird from behind as it stabbed its beak down at the fresh corpse at its feet. Pictor lashed out with his whip, the barbed length coiling about the bird's legs, then yanked back violently. The terror bird, its legs tangled, toppled to the ground, crushing Thomas' body beneath it.

Moving in for the kill, Metellus kept his shield low to protect against the wing-claws. He thrust his spear through the bird's eye, stepped back and lifted his shield high in victory.

The crowd screamed its appreciation, but the bird, still twitching spasmodically in its death, caught a claw in the meat of Metellus' calf. He screamed, stumbling backward, and the claw tore free, gouging out a thick ribbon of flesh with it. A fresh stream of blood stained the sands.

Pictor circled round the terror bird's jerking body and grabbed Metellus under the arms, pulling him back towards the exit as the gate ground open and three men rushed out with a stretcher and bandages. When they reached Pictor and Metellus, two of the men quickly transferred him onto the stretcher, while the third wadded the bandage into the wound and held it in place. As the men rushed Metellus off the sands, Pictor stared after them, at me, his expression grim.

I turned and hurried to my work quarters. I had preparations to make.

It seemed no time at all before Metellus was sedated on the middle cot. After applying a pressure bandage just above the wound, I pulled off the blood soaked linens from his calf, exposing the shredded flesh and muscle.

It would be safest to amputate; most surgeons would. But I knew I could save the leg - not as it had been, strong and agile, but enough that he could walk with a cane. Lanista Silus might sell him then, though it was unlikely; generally disabled gladiators were given other work within the Ludus as a show of good faith to those still fit to fight.

Or I could botch the surgery and let him die, either on the table or by breaking the aseptic operating conditions, allowing infection to enter the wound and turn septic, poisoning his blood until he died in days, or a week. But I knew I'd do neither of these. I've never taken a life simply to make mine easier, and I never will. It was time to get to work.

In the last month I'd spent more time away from the surgical quarters than in the three that preceded it, because Metellus was still there recuperating under Blaesus' drunken eye and I found it more comfortable to be elsewhere. Aside from checking his wound twice daily and applying fresh bandages, there was not much I could do for him. Were I not pleased with how cleanly the wound was healing - not a hint of infection - those checks might have been my least favorite times of the day. But I enjoyed seeing the outcome of my work.

The falling sun, a blood-red orange on the horizon, was my signal to return to the infirmary for my evening check of Metellus' leg. I enjoyed the walk from the outside training area, through the underground tunnel, to my quarters. With Thomas dead, Metellus injured, and Pictor assigned to train with a new team, I no longer had a constant looming shadow or a protective escort. I much preferred it that way.

When I arrived at the surgical quarters, Metellus was propped up on one of the cots staring at a piece of cheap paper he held in his hands, his crutches near to hand. Blaesus, sitting on the cot next to him, was bleary-eyed and near to sleep. After washing my hands, I went to check on Metellus' wound. He'd crumpled the paper in his fist. Just as I started to remove the bandages, Metellus snarled, grabbed one of the crutches, and swung it at my head. It cracked into my jaw, spinning me to the ground.

Blaesus shrieked.

I could taste blood in my mouth; I prodded at my teeth with my tongue as I scrambled away from the cot and turned about, looking for Metellus. He'd stood up, a crutch under each arm.

"He admires you, you sack of shit. You! You're nothing but dirt. Less than dirt, and I'll see you dead."

Blaesus, shocked out of his stupor, fled out into the tunnel.

If Metellus hadn't stood between me and the exit I would have fled as well. As it was, I stood, half-crouched, with an eye on the cots. Metellus might be stronger than me, but with his injured leg, I was the more agile. If I could keep the cots between us, he'd be hard-pressed to reach me. I could circle towards the door, get him to follow, then run. But as I moved to the right, he hobbled further back, slamming the door to the tunnel shut. There was no lock, but it would take time to open the door, time I might not have.

"I'll gut you like you did my wife, string out your entrails, and piss on them."

Did I wait, and hope Blaesus had run for help, and not just fled? Given time, Metellus might find a way to block the door from being opened. Or did I goad Metellus into coming for me, giving myself a chance to break past him or a chance to be taken out by him.

"She deserved it, your wife. She was a drunk and a whore. I did your children a favor when I ripped my knife through her flesh."

"Butcher!" Metellus stabbed his crutches into the floor in front of him, swinging himself forward at a breakneck pace. I held my ground, waiting until he was a body length from me, and committed to his forward momentum, before I ducked to the side, ran around the cots, and dashed for the door. Metellus bellowed as I pulled it open. I ran straight into Flavus' chest.

Flavus pushed me out into the hallway, and he and Alfred entered the quarters, shutting the door behind them. I backed way down the tunnel, towards the closed gate of the Colosseum, and waited in a shadowed alcove. Out of sight, out of sound. Minutes passed - it seemed like hours - before I ducked my head out. The door to the surgical quarters was open.

More minutes passed before I crept back to the surgical quarters and peered in. No one was there. In the silence, I noticed details I'd begun to take for granted: the scent of antiseptic underscored by whisky, and the smoke stains on the ceiling from the gas lamps. And one detail that was new: the crumpled paper on the floor by the center cot. Picking it up, I smoothed the paper out on the surface of the cot.

A letter, the handwriting unpracticed, but legible. It was addressed to Father, signed by Stolo. Certain phrases jumped out at me:

. . . glad to get your letter . . . sorry it took so long to write back . . . excited when you stabbed the terror bird . . . couldn't breathe when you fell, but I didn't cry . . . haven't cried since mother died . . . thank the chirugeon for saving you . . . wish to study surgery, to be like him someday . . .

One phrase I re-read: haven't cried since mother died.

I didn't cry when I found out my mother was dead. It was just black ink on paper, a small mention in the newspaper obituaries nearly three years after I left her. I was working by then, apprenticed to a surgeon with dubious research methods. He'd hired me because I did as he told, no questions asked. Or, rather, no questions asked that didn't pertain to medical science.

That night, my master and I had made our bi-weekly trip to the graveyard. Outside the university most of the corpses that were made available to surgeons for dissection came from the damnati ad mortem, most of which were badly mauled by animals. My master wanted undamaged bodies to study. As we dug up the first fresh unmarked grave we came to - it was his policy never to disturb a marked grave as the family might take note - I wondered if my mother might be at the bottom of it. Might we dissect her, find out what had gone wrong with her? But the bloated corpse, when we uncovered it, had a penis.

I never did find out what had gone wrong with my mother.

Two men with a gurney dropped off Metellus' body early the next morning. It had been found by Silus' guards at the bottom of the stairs leading into the tunnel from the Ludus. They told me he must have fallen on the stairs and broken his neck, but although I could see his spinal cord was snapped, the injuries from the fall were consistent with postmortem damage. I kept my mouth shut.

Flavus showed up as I finished filling out the death certificate. The guards were due back soon to remove Metellus' body for disposal, but for the moment we were alone. I hadn't seen Blaesus since he'd run off the night before, but I figured he'd polished off a bottle of whisky elsewhere to settle his nerves and passed out in the process.

"You've examined the body?" Flavus asked as he came to stand by it.

"I have."

"Then you know?"

I nodded, but there was a question I had to ask. "Why?"

"On the sands, we live or die by our own skill, and by the will of the crowd. Some days we walk off the sands, victorious, but when we leave it injured, it's the skill of the surgeon that determines whether we live or die."

I signed my name on the death certificate. "He didn't see me as a surgeon."

"He was lost to reason," Flavus said. "He would have seen you dead, and damn the consequences. You're the best surgeon we've ever had."

He stood there silently for awhile. I wondered if he expected me to thank him. Would he be insulted if I did? I stayed silent.

After Flavus left, I pulled out a blank sheet and began the notification letter.

Stolo and Pulla, I regret to inform you that your father, Metellus, succumbed to his injuries yesterday.

It was true enough, in its own way. Since his wife's death, he'd suffered from a gangrene of the soul, a devouring desire for revenge that had, in the end, killed him.

Never forget that he loved you, and sought to protect you to his last breath.

It was only words on a page. They held no meaning.

Caro Carvetii.

I rested the nib of my pen in the ink pot as I stared down at my name, a name Stolo knew to be the Butcher's. Tears slid down my cheeks. I brushed them away before they could stain the paper. I hadn't cried since I fled from my mother the last time she spoke to me.

At the opiate house, the day we were put out of the lodging home, after the most recent man had finished with her and stumbled off, I walked over and put my hand on my mother's shoulder. She'd looked up at me, her eyes unfocused, and said, "You want to have a go?" Then she'd named the price she was charging.

After a minute, I scratched my name out and wrote in its place:

The Chirugeon of the Colosseum, New Rome.

Sometimes words matter.

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