25. Joah

I tossed in bed all night, my skin crawling with every breath. Perhaps I drifted in and out of wakefulness a number of times. It was impossible to tell, the wizard’s scratching words followed me into my dreams and back out again. When the sky lightened it came as a relief–I could give up on sleep and distract myself with work. I left the Ludus in a hurry, leaving the loathsome chanting behind, in search of animal feed.

The sun bulged into the sky like a growing pustule. Its light oozed across the city. It lent an unhealthy pallor to every face. I avoided people’s eyes, looked instead at their mouths. Moist lips shaped humid breath into human sounds. Occasional glimpses of fat, slimy tongues behind yellow teeth.

“No, not even the stems,” one man told me. I’d been coming to him to years, buying vegetable castings by the bushels. Today he refused to part with anything. “They can be boiled in a stew. It’s not much, but it’s more than nothing. I’d rather sell them to hungry Romans than throw them to animals.”

His fellow Romans would turn on him faster than any of my animals would. The chaos in the Suburra demonstrated that. But I knew better than to point that out.

The first butcher I relied on for offal and bones wasn’t available.

“He has family in the Suburra,” his neighbor informed me, a crone with cracked lips and dusty words. “A sister, and a nephew, and their families. He’s gone to fight with them.”

The second butcher was shuttered, along with every storefront on his street. Too close to the fighting. No one dared leave their homes. No one would unbar their businesses, leaving them vulnerable to looting.

Worry settled into my stomach, first as a pebble, then growing into a rock. Those of my animals that weren’t slaughtered in the games could well starve to death in their cages if the famine didn’t break.

“Joah!” A strained voice, shouting in gasp.

I turned to see Erik barreling down the street. His flaxen hair billowed out behind him as he ran. He waved for me desperately.

“Joah! Wait!” He almost collapsed at my feet, panting, but forced his words out regardless. “The animals. They’re loose. All. All of them.”

I left him in the dirt, running as fast as I could back to the Ludus, careening past shouting pedestrians. My sandals slapped the ground in time to my pounding heart, thumping in my ears. The press of too many bodies slowed me, a thin forest of fleshy pickets.

Screams. From down a branching street. I rounded a corner, nearly fell in my haste to stop, and darted back behind the apartment building. Oh, no no no.

I peeked out again. A pack of snarling wolves ringed an old man brandishing a cane. At his feet lay a young woman, her voice lost from screaming, her mouth only producing hoarse gasps. Her calves were torn out, pumping blood into the street. As I watched a wolf jumped forward and sunk its teeth into the flesh below her knee. The old man swung his cane, catching the wolf in the skull, and immediately two more of the animals leapt onto his back, teeth flashing. One caught his neck and he fell in a spray of red.

I turned, ran away. This wasn’t happening.

The next street down, a bull bellowed rage. A group of six young men had cornered it in a dead end, brandishing improvised spears. The wolves weren’t the only predators who hunted in packs. Numerous wounds scored the bull’s flanks, leaking steady rivulets of blood. If the boys brought it down, their families would eat well for weeks.

The bull snorted, stamped, turning in a tight circle over and over, as the spears jabbed its side. It kicked out, eyes rolling, and finally turned and charged straight at the group. They scattered, all but one, a hungry boy no more than thirteen. His skin stretched taut over jutting ribs, each one clearly visible. He brought up his spear with emaciated arms, leveled it at the bull’s nose. The onrushing bull took the point between the eyes. It broke, tore a gash up its face, unheeded. The animal plowed into the boy, his frail body crumpling over its head, and with a flick of that massive neck tossed him like a rag doll. He pinwheeled up until he was level with the fourth-floor windows before crashing back down. The bull was already past, and the remaining young men gave chase.

I couldn’t run anymore. In horror I stumbled for the Ludus. Unthinking at this point, just reflexively holding to my current path.

I rounded a final corner and saw the crushed masonry where elephants had careened into a building. Carts lay strewn about in splinters. The Ludus faced the Colosseum; the wide street between them had teemed with blood-hungry spectators waiting to enter. They hadn’t been able to get out of the path of the stampeding elephants in time. Splattered human remains coated the broad way. Screams of the mangled choked the streets. And was that… yes–in the mouth of a nearby alley a tiger sat couchant, a man’s still body under her paws. She gnawed on a bloody arm lazily.

Oh God. This meant my death.

Could I risk going back for the money I’d saved up? It was a stupid thought. Of course not. I should have planned ahead, should have hidden something outside the city. I’d become so complacent. Now I’d have to flee with only what I had on me. A few coins and my clothes were my only tools for evading capture, then surviving until I made my way to another city.

It wasn’t impossible. Maybe I could have a life again. There were places in the Empire where a literate, numerate slave would be accepted without questions.

Along with the horror came a sick joy. I wanted to stay and watch. A queer solace bubbled up within me. A sense of justice being served. This wasn’t even a hundredth part of the massacre they’d visited on my animals over my years here, and I wanted to take it all in.

I looked over the scene of carnage. I would no longer alleviate any beast’s suffering. Their lives, and their deaths, were no longer my responsibility. I smiled, feeling lighter. A burden I hadn’t realized I’d been carrying was finally lifted.

It occurred to me I would never see Aurelius again. For a mad instant I thought to go to him, ask him to run with me. But I didn’t have the time, and he wouldn’t come anyway. An old Jew, a hunted slave… what could I offer an angel like him? I would never taste his lips again, and he wouldn’t even miss me. I hadn’t realized just how much that would hurt. It was like leaving half my heart behind. The joyful half. But it beat torture and execution. I turned to flee.

A hand clamped onto my shoulder. It gripped like a vice, fingers digging into my flesh. Titus’s rough, sneering voice at my ear: “Leaving so soon, Joah?”

My heart stopped.

I sat up in my bed, gulping the air, heart pounding in my chest. Wet sheets tumbled to the floor. Darkness enveloped me, greasy air sluiced down my throat. Underneath it all, the wizard’s horrid chanting words squirmed over my skin, into my mouth.

I groaned as I flopped back onto my cot. None of it had happened. I still had my life.

I waited until my trembling subsided before getting to my feet. I didn’t trust myself to sleep again tonight. I was coming to dread closing my eyes.


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First line of next week’s chapter: “You’re kidding, right? They’ll never accept me!”
First line of this week’s author’s notes:  I kinda feel like this chapter is cheating.
Word-count of chapter 25 deleted content: 95

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