Bewildering Stories

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Galen the Deathless

part 1

by Danielle L. Parker


I have lived this moment too many times: the sky, azure; the giant white-hot sun with its cornea of scalding blue; the tidal roar of the crowd and its beast-body of a million faces. There are the smells, the floury dust of the swelling pellicles beneath my sandals and what they hold, fluids and sweat and blood, many kinds of blood. It is with experience that one can distinguish between the smells, strongest the musky choking odors of the chimera-wolves mingled with the lesser metallic tang of their victims, the ever-dying Penitents. Here and there are the splattered feathers, the bitten beaked heads of the panicked fowls that ran from the joyfully pursuing dire-ferrets in today’s Comedia. And I have smelled the last, the exertion and blood of my body and of Aquila’s, many times before, just as I have seen the expression in his eyes, though he himself never remembers these moments.

I wait. The glassine floating eyes drift near, and the crowd grows frenetic in their anticipation. It is the women who always scream the loudest for the blow to fall. But the choice is his, and I wait, and slowly, slowly, his distant hand rises, flashing in the sunlight with its many rings, and signals. It is the expected signal. He is not known for mercy.

“Aquila,” I say to the man at my feet, “You always die too well.” He has never answered me.

Afterwards I went down to the apodyterium by the hidden egress and its ancient stained stairs, finding, as I always do, my trainer Marcus awaiting me. I saw Tacitus on another stool, his naked leg outstretched before him. He had this time survived his round, but there was a physician treating the ugly triple gouge in his thigh. He was long of face, for such a wound stiffens and impedes one, and he could only look forward to his death at next week’s games.

“I saw,” I said to him. “I warned you. Cillius is a cunning one. Beware his reach even when you think he is done for.” Cillius had pretended death, and in his moment of happy triumph, Tacitus carelessly allowed himself within the reach of the trident Cillius so aptly wields. He paid for his negligence. Cillius died with a blood-bubble burst of laughter on his lips, knowing he had taken his enemy with him, and knowing also that Tacitus would have a bitter week to brood upon his coming end.

“Galen the Deathless,” he retorted, sour with defeat and pain. The physician wrapped new pink flesh around his thigh as he spoke, but it would not be enough to save him next week, as we both knew. “I will live to see that name changed!”

You will not remember it,” I told him, which left his mouth pursed thin as a sword-edge. He knew the truth of my answer. This Tacitus was already the thirteenth of that template, and many unremembered dyings lay behind him. I saw his envious eyes burn upon me as I took off my kilt and sat down on my stool amidst my trio of body slaves.

Marcus said, “You’ll have another scar from this one.” He was not pleased. We looked at our images in the long mirror that forms the facing wall of the apodyterium. We were not alike. Marcus is old and heavy of belly and short of stature, like the contented kitchen god that housewives pour out their cooking wines for, except I have never seen his swarthy face smiling or jolly. I am giant and alabaster white, and my body as hard as adamantine. The new mark along my left arm showed its thin line of red starkly against my pallor. There were other, older marks, many of them, here and there upon torso and limbs, white thin seams of past encounters. Aquila does indeed die well.

“You are thirty,” he muttered, his mood sour even for Marcus. “There are too many scars now, Galen. Too many.”

That the body was no longer perfect in its fleshly covering I knew displeased him greatly, though where there are no scars I am still as smooth and lustrous as that great platinum statue of Zeus-Arcturus in the Imperator’s private garden. One of the body slaves was shaving me then, so I did not answer. Marcus sat scowling, a sour squatting lump of dissatisfaction, as he watched the physician smooth the long narrow rectangle of nova-flesh across the new cut.

“There is another party tonight,” he said at last. “Your patron Lucullus begs your attendance.”

There was no need to answer that aloud either. I shrugged. Lucullus could not be refused: he was the patrician aedile of the Great Games. It was customary for him to display his most prized protégé to his friends after a Game: they were gay and high-blooded then, and the wine and the food and the dream-sticks sweet until other pleasures distracted them, those that were not too drunk for lust. I remembered vaguely that once I too had enjoyed the pleasures of such evenings, but I had been as another man then. Now it was only hollowness to me: the plump aristocrats trembling with daring lust for the tall white killer; the sly soft hands of those with more sickly desires; the many unremembered pleasure-slaves of no name and no self-will, offered as casually as a cushion. There had been too many such nights in my ten years of service. All my memories had blurred into a chaotic endless stream of open mouths and naked torsos and animal noises, as repulsive as the vomit the over-sated lords spewed upon their tables as the dawn came.

“Tomorrow,” Marcus said finally. “I will see you in the training ring when the bell tolls mid-day.”

I nodded. I watched him feel for his cane and get to his feet, a slow and effortful rise, and discreetly motioned to the nearest body slave to help him. There was a new one among them this time, besides my old Argus and silent tongueless Cleius. This one was a pretty beardless youth with long dark eyes too knowing for his age and curled thick hair flowing down past his shoulders like a girl’s, and he helped Marcus up deftly. I looked at the boy more closely as he did so. I have been offered such before and refuse them always, which Lucullus knows. This one perhaps had offended, and had been turned out of his soft love-nest to attend a less indulgent and less illustrious master for his shaming. “You,” I said to him, “who are you? I have not seen you before.”

“Theo, master,” he said with the soft pure accents of a Delian, and bowed low: a pretty flourishing court-bow, one he had been taught. “Lucullus sends me to attend you.”

“And how have you offended Lucullus, young scamp?” I demanded.

The youth grinned wide suddenly, as unrepentant as a thieving squirrel. He had fine sharp teeth, white against his dark complexion. “I put a fire ant’s nest in Cratan’s bed,” he answered. “He tripped me when I served wine, and I wanted to get even with him.”

“Well,” I said, “do what Argus tells you, and if you are obedient, he will not beat you. You will not need to serve me as you did Lucullus; I am not one for children. If you are dutiful, Lucullus may forgive the fire ants’ nest.”

“I do not care,” the boy said, and his dark eyes glowed. “I would rather serve Galen the Deathless.”

All die,” I said. “Even Galen the Deathless will perish. Fool, think not to honor one with the blood of hundreds upon his hands. You would do better to honor the Penitents. At least they die guiltless!”

“They are weak,” the boy retorted in contempt. He was an impudent one; I saw why Lucullus had thought to rebuke him, in spite of the long-lashed eyes. “They can do nothing but die and die and die. You are strong, master! I have seen you in the Games, as mighty as a god!” He waved his thin arm in imitation of a sword-thrust. “Like Hercules! Like Mars!”

“Fool,” I said again, unreasonably unsettled by his childish praise, and cuffed him lightly. He fell to his knees and looked up at me wide-eyed as he cupped his stinging jaw. “You tempt my fate by such blasphemous praise. I tell you again: it is not the killing or the killer that should be honored, but the willing sacrifice made in praise of the gods. Go, young imp, and attend to Argus, or you will feel my fist again!”

But the young never heed until life teaches them its lessons in their own pain and blood and shame. I felt his gaze upon me as I rose to my feet, bright with childish marvel at my naked size. The taste in my mouth was flat and salty, the taste of the blood I had swallowed. “Go,” I said to them all. “Go!”

Afterwards, when I had bathed many times and dressed in a new linen kilt, I went to pay my respects. Down below the churned floor of the arena are the workrooms and quarters of those of us who serve the Imperator in the Great Games; yet below, where the ancient stairs wind down, and down, and down into the heart of Nova Roma’s earth, are the deepest rooms of all. The sun is but a warped fantasy of Tartarus here. Yet there is light of a kind, which never ceases night or day, and an unvarying cold more draining than the waters of a frigidarium. Servants too this Underworld has, those they name the orpheusites: soft silent beings whose faces are as worm-pale as their bodies and whose torsos are garbed in the blinding sterility of their realm. It is well said that Death has a white face, though I know some have said it of me.

And there, like the Conqueror of old, we lie unchanging in our coffins of crystal, waiting our turn to live or to die. The young man too lies there, perfect in his form as a sleeping panther, with his strong sinewy arms crossed across his smooth bared chest. I have aged ten years in the service of the Imperator, but he has not. Eternally twenty he is, and never does he remember me. Aquila, I say to him, Aquila! Forgive me again.

I stood there for a long time. Often I seem to forget other things in the world, even the world itself, while I am there. Then as at last awakening I turned to go, I felt suddenly the presence of another beside me. There stood a tall old man with long gray hair that swept the shoulders of his plain brown robe and straight ditches graven beside his mouth. His feet were bare, and his hands, resting beside mine on the smooth metal bar that ran outside the glass, were large and knobby, the hands of a man who has worked with them as tools to earn his living and not merely as instruments of pleasure.

“You are a Penitent,” I said to him in my astonishment. Never had I spoken to one in my ten long years of service to the Imperator. Indeed though I knew this one, for almost every Game I saw him die: usually by a chimera-wolf, whose great gaping mouth needs only two bites, one for the upper, and one for the lower body. Sometimes it is the legs the chimera-wolf devours first. Then have I seen this same noble face lying looking upwards from the shining pool of its own blood, waiting for death with that sad dignity that dooms his kind to their eternal cycle of the Games. Yet as I thought back I remembered that I had not seen him today. Only the women had fed the chimera-wolves this time, to the noisy delight of the crowd. It is a fickle beast, and grows bored even with the spectacle of martyrdom, and shows less mercy than a Maenad in the throes of her madness.

“Socrates is my name.” His voice was deep and slow, deeper than I would have expected coming from that gaunt chest, and the accent was as his hands, that of a commoner in its thickness. Yet it was a voice that had a quiet power in spite of its coarseness. “You are Galen the Deathless. I have lived again only one day, but already I have been told of you.”

I gripped the metal bar with my hands. Even my strength could not warp that unspeakably crafted metal, though I saw my knuckles blanch as the bones thrust through the skin. “You mock me, old man,” I said. “You of all people should know that none are deathless. Even Galen the Deathless will one day die.”

He nodded slowly. The lines in his cheeks were slit deep as sword-slashes, and his aging eyelids dragged at their corners, weighted down with the unyielding pressure of a longer life than I had yet known. Only his mouth and his shoulders did not sag, and I saw that for his pride he was accustomed to making an effort he would one day lose in spite of his will.

“You have come to visit your victim,” the Penitent said. “To ask his forgiveness, I think.”

“He has died by my hand one hundred and twenty-four times,” I said. “Tell me, Penitent. Will any god besides mad Mars accept the stained hands of Galen when he is at last no longer the Deathless?”

He did not answer me at once. There down the aisle was another glass-fronted room, and there they dreamed, all the templates of the women who had fed the chimera-wolves this day, until they woke to their weekly nightmare. He must have known them, or at least some of them, in the days of his true life. He looked toward that room with such longing in his face that I, even I, turned away. It was like seeing a face look up from the bottom of a well to unreachable light.

“There is no help to be found in the gods men worship here,” he said at last. “You may only offer what appeasement lies within your power in the hope of one more merciful than they. Perhaps it will be enough. I do not know.”

“I never knew any god but bloody Mars,” I said. “I was never told of any else who had power in the world. Go, old man, and pray also for me, to whoever you pray to.” I left him then and went up the long stairs once more. I was late already for Lucullus’s party, and however drunken he is, that is one who never misses a slight, nor fails to repay an insult with less than its full measure.

The mismatched pearls of the moons were all three visible as I walked in the drugging sweet air through the parallel lines of the fascination trees. Deformus, last moon of the three, sat upon the horizon like a gouged eye. The white-blossomed boughs bowed in the slight breeze and cast their morphetic perfume to the nostrils. A man, if he were unwary, might succumb to them, and dream of decay until his body softened to the texture of his dreams. Yet there is no more heavenly scent engendered by any flower, not even the rose of Old Earth. Mordant bats sported in the wisps of clouds, graceful at a distance that spared the eye their monstrous faces. There, too, does beauty lie in the embrace of horror.

“Galen.” There was a deep-buried spark in those eyes when I found Lucullus at last, lying on his couch with a scant drape of silk across his loins. It was a glint I could see even through the thick smoke of his dream-stick. The music of distant gongs tinkled through the clouded air. A slender blonde girl, perhaps fourteen, knelt at his feet, anointing his limbs with salve. I recognized the indescribable licentious breath of it and felt its slime in my nostrils. The dream-sticks kill other pleasures when used too often, and of late even Lucullus has needed aid, lest he lose another of his precious pleasures.

“Do we bore you, Galen?” he said, and smiled at me, that tight small smile he gives to those who should be wise enough to fear it. There fell a sudden listening silence from his companions; I saw many glittering speculative eyes through the smoke, avid with anticipation. It seemed not even the Game had whetted their taste for blood. “You were not timely in your attendance tonight. Even my lord Kratur has come, and asked for you, and I was shamed to tell him of your neglect of us.”

I knelt. Even then he needs must look up, which I knew deeply displeased him. He is not a tall man, in spite of the platforms he wears secretly beneath the cover of his fine purple-edged togas in the Senate chamber. “My lord,” I murmured, and no more. I could not bring myself to ask his pardon.

He looked at me unspeaking for a long moment as the boy beside him offered up another dream-stick. The boy’s pale thin nape remained bowed as if for the sword even when Lucullus, without looking away, took the stick from his small fingers. The child trembled at his brief touch, a fine faint all-over quiver like a twanging string. I saw then the boy was too young to have hair upon his loins. I was sorry for him, though Lucullus is too shrewd to be needlessly cruel to his slaves, not unless there is true provocation. Others, like Kratur, are not so lenient.

Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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