The last bout of the afternoon ended in an instant. Recovering from a dive, the thunderbird tangled itself in its tether, and the human sorcerer simply took a handful of rattlesnakes and hurled them at its eyes.
Boreas the satyr, beastmaster of the Circus of King Minos’ Masque, saw the noble bird personally to its hearse. He touched the bare skin below its eye, plucked one enormous feather from its wing. Misty-eyed, he tacked up the feather next to a lucky centaur shoe on the crossbeam of the Lethe Square gate. Then he knuckled the blur from his vision and made his way back through the menagerie.
Overhead, the ten thousand seats of the Circus of King Minos’ Masque emptied slowly, its human patrons tossing chestnuts and popcorn aside and scattering into the streets of New Ilium. Piss-colored wine dripped from the cheap seats, sparkling in the desert light that angled in from the arena.
Only the gods knew what the human masses did in the City of Centaurs after the Circus closed its gates. Boreas didn’t want to guess. He never left the Circus, not if he could help it. As far as he could tell, the only thing keeping the human population of New Ilium alive from hour to hour was the prospect that, a little later on, they might get to watch some beautiful monstrosity rip one of their centaur masters apart.
Boreas’ cloven hooves, aching from a long day’s work, dragged to a stop at the edge of the minotaur pit. His body was sticky all over, bits of hay and animal filth clinging to his sweat. He thought about finding a pig trough and submerging his head. But his day wasn’t over.
Eurytus, lord of the Labyrinth Ranch, ruler of the City of Centaurs, owner and proprietor of the Circus of King Minos’ Masque, sorcerer, murderer, pathological liar—Boreas’ boss—had reserved the arena for the evening. A private bout. Any minute now, the second champion would arrive. He had until then to pull himself together.
Hitching up his overalls, Boreas climbed onto the crossbar of the fence and let his legs dangle. He found his corncob briar in a pocket, packed it with bearberry leaf. He squinted into the sun. Three hours, he guessed. Three hours before nightfall.
The bull-headed, tattooed monster in the pit glanced up at his sigh, no sign of recognition in its milky gaze. The minotaur, sculpted and scribed for the purpose of violence, had endured the Tartarean ruckus of the Circus with the patience of Orpheus. Amazing, thought Boreas. He’d been at this job half his life; every bout still left him a wreck. Eurytus said Boreas cared too much about his charges. He couldn’t deny it. He loved what he did, even on a day like today.
He puffed at his pipe, let it dangle from his mouth trailing smoke into the sunbeams.
Every detail of this monster’s life, from the forest of sorcerous tattoos on its hide to its fine diet and impeccably groomed auburn curls, served only to prepare it to die on its master’s behalf. Boreas wondered if it understood that. Eurytus understood, at least. The nameplate on the fence was blank. Boreas would have liked the name “Ariadne”, were the minotaur’s male gender not so readily apparent. Maybe he’d call it that anyway.
Somewhere in the menagerie’s bowels, a gate growled open, massive timber pivots creaking in protest of the winch. The river gate. Something large and unnatural bellowed, hurled its bulk against a support. The Circus shook.
Boreas tumbled from his perch. The briar pipe flew out of his lips and into Ariadne’s pen. The comforting must of hay and weeks-old shit gave way to the sinister stench of a monster in rut, the pack of coyotes locked in the menagerie’s first cellar started up their horde-of-rabid-children din, and suddenly every living thing in the menagerie was screaming.
Everything except the minotaur.
Against the shimmering blindness of the open gate, beyond which the River Acheron lay flooded with reflected sunlight, a black silhouette loomed. Boreas skidded to a halt.
It couldn’t be a bull. Some kind of prehistoric buffalo. A uroch. It was as wide across as a locomotive. A human slave dangled impaled upon one of its horns. A dozen other slaves dragged behind it on tether-ropes, bruised and battered, nearing panic.
The bull sidestepped sharply. A centaur stallion stumbled out of the glare, slammed hard against a pillar and recovered with a snarl. Nessus. Keg-chested, twenty-one hands at the shoulder, one fist wrapped around the butt of a colossal revolver holstered at his withers, the other scraping sorcerous symbols in the dirt with the end of a prod. It was clear that the inclination towards the gun was winning. Nessus had outdone himself. Created an aberration beyond his control. “Boreas,” he growled. “Where have you been?”
If it occurred to the bull to turn around, it could escape onto the docks. Boreas studied the branding scars that covered its skin from hock to horn and wondered how many of the Circus’ patrons it would trample to death if it did.
He had to beat Nessus to the draw.
Boreas ran up to the titanic bull, snatched his trusty ‘A’ harmonica from the hindquarter pocket of his overalls, and commenced an impudent hornpipe right in front of its nose. It pawed the ground and bellowed. Hot breath, sick with the reek of decay, pushed Boreas’ curls back from the knobs of his horns. Inside the bull’s mouth were things like wolf’s teeth wrought of iron, caked in gore.
Boreas kicked up his hooves and took off down the corridor, blowing at the mouth-harp like his life depended on it, leaping over fallen slaves, hoofing loose chickens out of his path. The bull thundered after him, gnashing and snorting.
He risked a glance back. The slaves were still hanging onto the ropes. “Let go, you idiots,” he gasped. “Circle around—get the Big Pit ready!”
The dead slave came dislodged from the monster’s horn and was pulverized beneath its hooves. Blood and bits of brain splattered Boreas’ face. He stumbled over something tawny and squealing, barely rolled out of the way as one of the bull’s hooves descended, rupturing the piglet’s spine. He turned a corner, did a tight lap around the hogs’ wallow to slow the thing down. Ariadne’s pen flashed by on the right; he gave it as wide a berth as he could. A brief crossfire of flying feces from the apes—he swore a massive sacrifice to any god who cared to listen if the bull could just manage not to smash open the cages—and the black orifice of the Big Pit yawned ahead. The slaves had raised the grate. Boreas measured the inch-thick, steel-tipped prods in their hands against the titanic thing behind him. The prods would snap like toothpicks.
At the lip of the Pit he skidded to a stop. He took in the hard-packed dirt four fathoms down, the array of feed sacks secured by netting and guy ropes among the beams, the bull bearing down three strides behind him, and Nessus, who stood safely on the far side of the room, arms folded, a sickly yellow bruise forming across his shoulder. “If the beast breaks its neck in the fall,” Nessus said, “I’ll kill every one of you.”
Boreas blew a last desperate arpeggio and dove aside. The slaves closed in, prods trembling in their fingers.
“Get back!” he screamed.
The bull pounded to a halt, horns swinging.
Boreas gathered himself off the floor, traded the mouth-harp for a skinning knife from yet another pocket, and sawed through one of the guy ropes. A half-ton sack of chicken feed swung down and slammed into the bull’s ribs.
The monster tottered. One tree-trunk foreleg lost its purchase, then the whole massive bulk fell, thudding into the floor of the pit like a blow from Hephaestus’ hammer. A fine trickle of cornmeal descended after it from a rupture in the sack.
Boreas and Nessus limped to opposite edges of the pit.
The bull shook its head and snorted, then set about attacking the growing heap of meal as though bearing it some personal grudge.
Boreas sank to his haunches. He fumbled in his pockets for his pipe and found it missing. Slaves fussed over him, fighting to be the one allowed to clean his face of gore. He waved them off. “Get back, you buzzards. Go mop up Ilus. And close the river gate.” Couldn’t be too careful these days, what with the rumor of rebels.
Nessus’ disapproving expression did not fade. Cradling his bruised arm, he stalked around the outside of the pit and disappeared into the corridor. A few overcurious goats bleated amiable greetings. He returned with one slung like a sack across his uninjured shoulder—a heavily lactating, cream-and-charcoal-spotted nanny goat.
“Listen, Nessus,” Boreas was grumbling, still patting his pockets. “I’m beastmaster here. Just because you’re... doesn’t mean you can just.... You brought that abomination in here, and it killed one of my.... Petunia! How did you get out here? You ought to be looking after Zephyrus. Nessus, what are you doing? That’s Petunia. She’s a milking goat. Wait! Don’t—”
Nessus upended her into the Pit.
Petunia brayed, trembling, her velvet ears flattened against her head. She tried to get up. One of her hind legs folded beneath her, the slick white of bone protruding from the flesh. Then the bull’s enormous, scarred bulk blocked Petunia from view. There was the sound of bones being crunched between iron jaws.
“Petunia!” moaned Boreas.
“Stop bawling.” Nessus extricated his foreleg from Boreas’ embrace. “He hasn’t eaten since this morning. I want him ravenous, not starved. You’d rather I sacrificed another slave? Next time I suggest you show up to do your job.”
Boreas clenched his teeth. His vision blurred. “This is your fault, Nessus.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you. In fact, I’ll let you make amends.” Nessus closed a fist around the strap of Boreas’ overalls and hauled him to a standing position. He flicked a speck of skull from Boreas’ bib. “You’re going to help me win this bout.”
Boreas found a scrap of hankie, wiped the last of the dead slave from his face. “You can’t be serious. You feed my favorite goat to your man-eating buffalo, and then you expect me to help you? Against Eurytus? This was supposed to be my night off!”
Nessus lifted him up off the ground. “Buffalo?” he asked. “You are referring to the Bull of Heaven. Impressive, isn’t he? I made him myself.”
Boreas craned his neck, realized he was dangling above the Pit. The Bull of Heaven roared like a steam engine as the last of Petunia disappeared down its gullet.
Boreas swallowed. He tried not to look.
One corner of Nessus’ broad mouth curled up. Coward, said his sneer. “Perhaps you were unaware of the significance of my wager with Eurytus. You’ve heard of the slave uprising at Epimethea.”
The mine. Boreas had heard. Arguments about it had trickled down from the stands all afternoon. By most accounts the revolt had been brief and bloody. Eurytus himself had been present. Some even claimed he’d instigated the fight—that he’d baited the slaves to attack him.
“Eurytus captured the ringleader alive. That’s his stake in the wager: Hippodamia, the mastermind of the rebellion. But the only way I could convince him was to offer a prisoner of equal value: the savage prophet, Scylla.”
Boreas nodded slowly. The rivalry between Nessus and Eurytus was as old as the centaurs’ rule. Nessus would love for a slave rebellion to succeed: he’d waited decades for the opportunity to seize control.
“What you’re going to do for me is this. Find out which of the beasts quartered here is his champion. Make sure it doesn’t survive.”
The nameboard on Petunia’s stall was hand-carved and hand-painted, bordered with purple flowers on whimsical vines. Boreas rested his forehead against it and tried to think. He missed her already.
He’d made the rounds of the cages and stalls, making sure the damage the Bull of Heaven had inflicted was repaired, herding escapees back into confinement, doping a few of the rowdier apes, trying to calm everyone down. Everyone except the minotaur. The minotaur he’d found puttering about its pen, as quiet as before. He’d found his pipe, too: clutched in one of its fists.
For the moment, he’d switched from smoke to liquor as the means to calm his nerves: an eight year-old, rust-colored bottle of bourbon bearing the spiral stamp of the Labyrinth Cellars––one he’d been saving for rather a different occasion.
Boreas’ son, Zephyrus, thrust his head from between the slats of the next stall and bleated. He had Petunia’s eyes, glazed with that faraway look, the pupils squashed flat as though they’d been stepped on. Boreas patted the kid on the head and burst into tears.
Petunia wasn’t the first goat he’d loved. He told himself she wouldn’t be the last.
He’d sent a lot of beautiful, noble, gentle creatures to their deaths over the years, and mourned their passing. But never once had he interfered in a bout, or tried to give a favorite some advantage. He liked to tell himself he was only giving his charges up to fate.
He took another mouthful of the buttery, burning, oak-scented liquor and began to pace unsteadily, running a hand across the rough slats of the stalls, practically begging for a splinter.
It wasn’t just Ariadne’s life in his hands. If Eurytus won, the two prisoners would die center stage at the Circus, under torture, giving up everything they knew. Eurytus would rob them of dignity, hope, faith. If they had any left.
If Nessus won, he’d likely hide the rebel figureheads away, letting their fame and significance grow. Then he’d set them free like captured pheasants at a shooting range, hoping they’d distract Eurytus long enough to let Nessus shift his aim. The two rebels would still die—but at least they’d have a chance to run.
Boreas shook his head violently. Why should he care what happened to two humans? He’d seen enough of them killed, collateral to the glories of the Circus. There were always more to fill the seats.
But these weren’t just humans. They were icons. He’d thought the savage prophet Scylla just a myth. Eurytus maintained that the diviner’s gift had died with Chiron, father of the centaurs. No wonder he wanted to kill her.
The inevitable splinter bit into Boreas’ thumb. He hissed and stuck it in his mouth. Was he prepared to condemn the last hope of the slaves? How did one rig a bout?
A couple of point-blank shotgun blasts to Ariadne’s head would do it. Or there was poison: anything from mescal to rattlesnake’s bane to turpentine. Or maybe he wouldn’t have to do anything. Ariadne against the Bull of Heaven? Any fool would bet on Nessus.
Be serious, Boreas. How long have you had this job? And how many times have you seen Eurytus lose a bet? It was the first rule of business at the Circus, the first thing the midwife had said when she slit the goat’s womb to make way for Boreas’ head. You didn’t cross Eurytus.
Boreas saw himself lying on the floor of the arena, his smooth human arms tied to the minotaur, his furry goat legs to the Bull. He saw Eurytus and Nessus each cracking a whip, and himself torn apart at the seam.
Out the window above Petunia’s empty bed, a buzzard circled in the ice-blue desert sky above New Ilium. The clang of steamships’ bells drifted from the docks. He thought of running. Leaving the menagerie, his friends, all the creatures who depended on him. Going out into the wilds from whence all those creatures had come, where he must depend on them.
Boreas laughed raucously. He wouldn’t last the night. Zephyrus started and fled to the back of the stall.
There had to be a way, he told himself, to sabotage Eurytus’ chances so subtly he’d never find out. What he needed was the balls to pull it off. The bourbon wasn’t helping. And he couldn’t get comfort from Petunia anymore.
There was only one other place to go. Two hours until sundown, according to the monolithic dial outside in Cronus Park. High time he got a break. Boreas gave Zephyrus a carrot and a sympathetic pat, then headed off to take a bath.
Clean and shaved and studded-up in a pearl-gray silk top hat, thumbs in the pockets of a matching minotaur-skin coat, bone-handled cane tucked under his arm, Boreas strolled up to the colonnaded entrance of the Circus’ private bordello feeling not quite five feet tall. He hadn’t wrung the reek of liquor from his breath or the waver from his walk, and for that he felt a twinge of guilt. These were women of class, despite their situation. On the other hand, they were whores, and he had his own troubles.
“The Nighted Carriage of Persephone,” proclaimed the caption of the frieze above the columns—yet the frieze itself depicted the centaurs abducting the Lapith women. Eurytus had commissioned it. Even today, it made Boreas smile.
Six human eunuchs stopped him at the entrance, ornate armor gleaming, anachronistic-yet-functional spears leveled at his chest. Special precautions, they explained, what with the rebels. They patted him down, took his cane and his coat, then bowed low and swung the doors wide.
The atmosphere inside was a haze of lavender essence and veils and calumet-smoke, softening further the soft curves of bodies, blunting the edges of desert shadows as they wandered the carpeted floors. Time, spent in the Carriage, had the tendency to wander ahead and leave one behind.
And Boreas passed this grand dilation in the naked lap of but a single woman. Such selfish single-mindedness gave him a twinge of guilt; he was a satyr, after all. He told himself it was grief at the loss of Petunia, or preoccupation with the prospect of his delicate choice between grisly deaths. Besides, she was his favorite. Ever since the marred woman had arrived here some weeks hence, Boreas had wondered what it was about her. A deep red scar split her left eyebrow, crossed the bridge of her nose and obscured what might have been a laugh-line before thinning to invisibility against her throat.
She had obviously been beautiful. Yet without altering the native richness of her skin or the lines of her cheekbones and nose, the scar transformed that, inverted it, granting her instead a monstrousness as profound and enrapturing as though it were beauty. As though he were lost in contemplation of the face of Janus, of Persephone herself, of Fate. It seemed to separate her into human and animal, sentient being and beast—not that there was any real distinction. He might imagine, if he chose, the spark of comprehension like a jewel in one rouged, iridescent eye, the mere gloss of animal blankness in the other—but he knew it would only be an imposition. The scar made her a monster—like himself—and he loved her for it. Though perhaps it also had something to do with the fact she never spoke.
Not for the first time, he found himself regretting this weakness. His tendency to empathize with living things had brought him success, an illustrious career—but it isolated him. He sighed and buried his face between the ugly concubine’s lovely breasts. She stroked his curls and murmured wordlessly.
He awoke to the sun in the west windows, dangling its reflection across the River Acheron like a red sword suspended on a golden hair. Boreas shook off the twisted bedsheets and crawled about the room collecting his clothes. The gold pocket-watch in his waistcoat gave him half an hour. Someone had stuffed a wad of women’s undergarments into his hat.
Once he was decent, he lingered a moment at the bedside, his hand on the curve where the scarred woman’s hips met her spine. She slept.
“Don’t flatter yourself,” said a voice. “Scylla knows your love for us is as false as the centaurs’.”
The speaker sat in the corner on a divan, a human woman Boreas had never seen, legs languorously crossed, a heap of wilted flowers at her feet. Her pale skin and haughty eyes marked her a daughter of centaurs—yet like the rest she bore the spiral brand upon her calf. It looked fresh.
Perhaps the whiskey or the decadence of toxins in the air distorted his vision. She seemed to be carving the shapes of birds out of the hearts of roses with a razor.
Boreas brushed his smooth chin. He felt against his breast for the shaving razor the eunuch guards had missed. It was gone.
She set one of her birds on fire with her breath; it sailed across the room to death. “Does the pleasure you’ve shown her absolve you of slavery? You think just because you don’t rape her and beat her, it makes you enlightened? Pretend all you like, beastmaster: you know the difference between animals and kings. If you and I and the centaurs and the pigs are so alike, why do some of us die at the others’ whim? Because you allow it. You are complicit in every death, every cruelty.”
Boreas knew who she must be: Hippodamia, the leader of the rebels. But how could she know his thoughts?
A hand closed over his. The scarred woman—Scylla, savage prophet—was awake. He couldn’t read her face.
There were voices in the hall. The muffled thud of hooves on carpet.
The curtains swept aside, and Eurytus stalked into the room. The sheen of the lord of centaurs’ black mane conspired with the gleam of the copper adorning his chest to drive the haze of drink, sex and smoke from Boreas’ mind with the force of an iron-shod hoof to the head.
Hippodamia lunged out of her seat, a blur of bare skin and flying petals. The razor in her hand glinted red in the sunset, speeding towards Eurytus’ throat.
Jewel-decked fingers caught her wrist and twisted it. The blade dropped to the floor.
Hunched eunuchs rushed past him, manacled the rebel leader and the prophet, and dragged them from the room.
Eurytus quirked a brow. His eyes were irisless, devoid of color: the mark of power long held at bay. He lifted the razor from the floor, folded it closed, dropped it into Boreas’ pocket. “Be careful, my friend.”
He thrust aside the curtains.
The hat tremored violently in Boreas’ hands. One last silky underthing spilled out of it onto the floor. “Master—please. If you don’t mind my asking... Where are you taking them?”
Rich laughter echoed from the vaults. The soft, cleft lips that parted to release it revealed teeth white as sun-bleached bone. Eurytus clapped his shoulder. “Come now, Boreas. The loss of one bitch and one gorgon can hardly detract from the Carriage’s selection. You’ll find another favorite. I think the spoils deserve to see the outcome of the wager.”
The minotaur was sitting on the dead saguaro, head hunched over its lap, exploring its horns with its fingers. The corncob pipe lay in a corner, forgotten.
Boreas ordered the slaves to stand back. He slung his top hat on a fencepost, slipped between the crossbars and climbed down alone. The pipe was still sticky and warm to the touch. He slid it into his pocket, next to the razor.
One intimate gesture, in a sensitive place well-concealed by those auburn curls. If he pierced the flesh quickly, with precision, Ariadne wouldn’t feel his betrayal until it was too late. The minotaur would bleed slowly, imperceptibly, until the exertion of battle widened the tear. There wouldn’t be much pain. Though of course the wound would do nothing to lessen the horror of being crushed alive between the Bull of Heaven’s jaws.
Ariadne stooped to greet him, snuffling. Boreas rested a palm atop its tattooed snout, threaded a rope through the ring in its nose. He met its milky eyes, and they were neither angry nor afraid. One more innocent creature, condemned. “Ariadne,” he said. “I would have liked to know you better.” He felt the trembling in his lip, the pricking at the corners of his eyes. Now, he thought, while your body hides the knife. But he let the moment pass.
He swung open the gate and stepped onto the ramp, tugging gently on the tether. Now, he thought. Stab, then slam the gate closed and you’ll keep from being gored.
But he didn’t. He moved up the ramp. Ariadne followed. One of its ears flicked at a fly.
They stepped up off the ramp, moved towards the holding cage that would transport Ariadne to the ring. The slaves shuffled back a step, struggling to emulate Boreas’ calm. At his coaxing, the minotaur stepped into the cage. Boreas reached through the bars. He loosened the tether, pulled it free. The slaves released a held-in breath.
The Bull of Heaven had broken several ribs and ripped a slave’s arm from its socket before they had managed, using lances and a rack of lamb for bait, to coax it into the most massive cage the menagerie possessed. The thought crept up on Boreas again, despite the odds, that he wouldn’t need to fix this fight. Poor Ariadne would be crushed beneath the Bull, its skull shattered, its pretty curls dyed black with blood and caked with bits of brain. Perhaps that would be best.
But that was the thinking of someone who hadn’t spent seventeen years watching Eurytus raze civilizations, steal cultures—replacing their sovereignty with the chance to jeer and hurl popcorn as scapegoats beat each other to death.
Ariadne pressed its nose to the bars. The ring through its nostrils scraped and clinked against the steel. Boreas brushed his fingertips over the moist, pink skin.
He reached into his waistcoat pocket, closed his hand around the razor. All eyes were on him. The slaves would tell Eurytus, but he couldn’t help that now.
He withdrew the pipe instead, clamped the stem between his teeth and gave the word.
The slaves engaged the winches. The holding cage was hoisted onto a track that ran along the ceiling. It creaked into motion. Slaves in tow, Boreas trotted out into the open air of the arena.
He took his place at ringside: a towering black chair carved with animal totems, behind a foot-thick barrier of plate glass. Endless rows of silent seats rose all around him into a sky purple with dusk. The desperate roar of a puma reached him, begging, it seemed to Boreas, if not for freedom, then to be allowed to fight.
Boreas packed his pipe with leaf, struck a match, and puffed until the smoke enclosed him like a cell. He looked to Box Nine, Eurytus’ customary seat, but it was dark.
Footsteps on the service stairs. The sound of chains. Slaves came bearing candelabra, a table, backless chairs, raw meat and wine. Behind them followed the heavier tread of centaurs.
Eurytus shoved the two bound concubines to their knees. Nessus took a slice of tenderloin from a platter, dropped it down his gullet, and favored Boreas with a conspiratorial leer. “We thought we’d keep you company. Join us! Have a drink.”
A slave began filling their glasses. Nessus took the bottle, backhanded him away. He poured out libations to Fortune and Death.
The wine was a red so dark it might as well have been black. The taste was bitter and complex, evoking blood and belladonna. The centaurs emptied their draughts. Boreas, distracted by the way the dusk enhanced the prophet Scylla’s scar, set his glass down barely touched.
Oil lamps flared to life along the arena’s rim. The Bull of Heaven grew impatient, battering itself against the confines of its pen. The Circus resounded with its bellow.
Startled back to himself, Boreas found the eyes of the centaurs upon him.
He closed his hand around the bell-pull beside his chair.
The holding pens clanged open. The monstrous combatants emerged. Ariadne walked out to the raised place at the center of the ring and seemed to look up at the sky. The Bull of Heaven snorted, pawed the sand, and charged; the wine in Boreas’ goblet shuddered with its stride.
The impact of the Bull’s head flung the minotaur a dozen yards. Ariadne tumbled to a stop, lay still. Nessus thumped the table and burst out laughing. The Bull rounded, casting up a cloud of dust. It lowered its horns.
The tattooed sigils on Ariadne’s back pulsed blue. The minotaur groaned as though even now Eurytus stood over it searing its flesh with a white-hot needle—but its bulk barely shifted. The Bull closed in, black jaws slathering, its enormous weight fissuring the parched earth of the arena floor as though what passed across that ground were no mortal creature but some god of elemental strife.
Boreas chewed at the stem of his pipe. His two masters’ knuckles stood out white against the armrests of their chairs. The savage prophet Scylla knelt motionless, silent, head bowed to her chest. How could she be so calm?
Unless she really was a seer, a diviner. Unless she already knew the end of this fight, and her own end, and his.
Nessus’ voice rose in an inarticulate shout. Eurytus surged from his chair. The minotaur, an instant before the Bull’s hooves struck, gathered its legs and leapt aside. As the Bull careened past with the force of a train, Ariadne raked its horns across the Bull’s flank, digging troughs in its hide, releasing blood that splattered Ariadne’s auburn ringlets, exposing the Bull’s ribs ghastly white against the red. The Bull’s charge faltered; it veered away, stumbling. Its bellow echoed across the Circus like a thunderclap.
The gladiators faced off, circling, horn to horn.
Boreas would never have believed the complacent Ariadne could react so fast. Then he looked at Eurytus, standing there frozen, jaw clenched, his every muscle taut, oblivious to everything else in the world, and he thought he knew why.
The minotaur was nothing but a puppet—a shell to hold Eurytus’ will. That was why it had no name. Boreas, who’d built his life on knowing what was in a monster’s mind, had failed to distinguish between a real, living creature and an empty sack of flesh.
Shame hit him like a wave of black wine. He had made himself a party to this. He had profited by it. The thunderbird’s death, Petunia’s—and now the death of the human rebellion. He felt the eyes of Hippodamia upon him, cold and condemning.
Dangling from a leather sash at Eurytus’ withers, Boreas noticed, was a ring of keys.
He took a long drink from the glass of black wine and set his pipe on the table.
He slid down from his throne. He thought about ducking underneath the table, crawling, then dismissed it. The centaurs had forgotten he was there. The slaves would see it all, regardless. If they wished to stop him, let them.
Quietly he moved to stand at Eurytus’ flank. He drew the razor from his pocket, opened it, pressed the blade against the fabric of the sash. He sliced through it. The keyring jangled as it fell into his hands. Eurytus didn’t even twitch his tail.
Boreas crushed the keys in his palm to silence them. The faces of the slaves had drained of blood, but none of them moved or said a word. He went around behind Nessus. At the end of the table he crouched, inched his way towards the prisoners, just beyond the centaurs’ line of vision. Nessus was oblivious, goading on the Bull with strangled shouts. It was as though Eurytus wasn’t there at all.
On his knees between the prophet and the rebel leader, Boreas rifled through the keys. Experience of years spent locking deadly things in cages led his fingers as by instinct. The lock clicked open on the second try.
It took what seemed eternity for Scylla to lift her wrists free of the chains.
Boreas glanced through the plate-glass into the arena. By some acrobatic feat, Ariadne now sat astride the Bull of Heaven’s neck, those articulate hands wrapped with steely strength around its gore-stained horns as the Bull rocked and bucked and shook its head in rage.
He led the two women away from the table into the menagerie.
They hurried past the empty challengers’ pits, the hogswallow, the apes’ cages, the aviary, the snake and reptile terraria, the freshwater tank, the stables. The animals were quiet. They looked startled, as though they didn’t recognize him.
He reminded himself it was he who didn’t know them.
When they reached the river gate, Boreas stared expectantly at its waist-thick timbers for a moment before he realized there were no slaves to raise it. He’d come all the way through the menagerie without seeing a single one.
He found the winch that controlled the gate, practically heaved himself off the ground trying to get it to budge. He was too small. Hippodamia laughed and took a place beside him. She growled; her body went taut.
The gate protested, then swung ajar. Cool night and the peaty brown scent of the river spilled through the gap. Boreas felt dizzy.
Maybe the slaves had run away. He himself was setting free two leaders of the rebellion. But he wasn’t going with them. He wouldn’t last the night.
Hippodamia took Scylla’s arm and pulled her.
“Wait,” he said. “Please, just let me ask her...”
Hippodamia rounded on him. “Ask what?” she demanded, her voice dripping with derision. “Let me guess. You want to know about the scar.”
He shook his head—there was so much more than that—but he couldn’t find the words.
“She took her own voice when she was captured. To prevent them from hearing it. She’ll never prophesy again. Except to me. She meant to take her beauty too.... It seems she failed.”
Half of Scylla’s face registered regret. The other half was fierce, uncomprehending. Or else they were the same.
“The razor,” Hippodamia said. “Give it to me.”
Scylla came and pulled the blade from his breast pocket. She smiled briefly, patted his chest. He fixed that smile in his mind.
Scylla passed the blade to Hippodamia, who flicked it open. They ducked beneath the gate.
Hippodamia’s voice addressed him from the dark. “This doesn’t absolve you. Not to me, at least. Two lives saved would never weigh against the thousand you’ve condemned—not if I were Queen of Hades.”
Boreas still had the keys in his hand. He went back to open the cages.
Hoots, howls, yelps, and screams were spreading across New Ilium as Boreas stepped through the menagerie gate into the Circus of King Minos’ Masque, a wild and joyful chorus echoed and answered from all points of the compass. Above the empty balconies, the shapes of eagles and macaws passed, black against the first stars.
Behind a labyrinthine web of cracked plate-glass, the Bull of Heaven’s severed head lay apart from its body, haloed in blood. The minotaur lay in between, motionless, dead. Its heart had burst from the exertion. Eurytus and Nessus sat at the table exactly as Boreas had left them, save for the smoke that curled from the revolver in Eurytus’ hands. Their attendant slaves lay scattered, rent by bullets, in a ragged ring surrounding the female prisoners’ empty chains.
Nessus’ jaw hung as if broken. Eurytus’ trigger finger twitched. They turned to regard Boreas, their expressions inscrutable save for disbelief.
A yowl came from over Boreas’ shoulder. A jaguar bounded into view, eyes glittering green in the light of the lamps. It went straight for Eurytus. Jerkily, he shifted his aim and pulled the trigger—but the cylinder clicked. Empty.
Nessus drew the handcannon from his withers and shot it in the throat.
Then he aimed the gun at Boreas.
Return to Issue #9