They called it the City of Gold, and under the heavy dark-gold light of a westering sun it was easy to see why. The light gilded the weathered limestone walls of the great Hippodrome into glowing golden ramparts, and played with the colours on the four enormous banners snapping above the track in the brisk breeze blowing into the harbour from the sea.
Beyond, behind high palace walls, a cascade of domed and tiled roofs and open terraces gleamed through the thick foliage of lush gardens and spilled down toward the shore. Smaller palaces clung to the side of the hillside further in along the Narrows that guided ships inwards towards the Great Harbour and the Inner Sea; on the far side of the Narrows, rows upon rows of houses crowded together on steep streets leading down to small wharfs teeming with fishing boats and ferries, and then yet more houses, built out over the water on stilts.
In this light Simonis first saw the place—Visant, the queen city, the jewel of the Empire. She did not recognise the shape of the Sacred Palace. Hippodrome-bred, though, she saw the flags on top of the curved golden wall and, although it was far bigger than she could ever have imagined one could be, knew it for another Hippodrome, the one for which she and her family were bound. But she wasn’t given a lot of time to look—by the time that the small cargo ship on which Simonis and her family had taken passage swept into the Narrows, the shadows were already long, rapidly swallowing the city; the small lamp that had been lit and hung from the curved prow of the ship, where Simonis had taken up her perch when the ship came close to the city, was no match for the encroaching night. Full dark had fallen when the ship finally turned in towards a waiting wharf lit by pitch torches and a few oil-burning lamps. In the red half-light and dancing shadows, men waited on the wharf, ready to help haul the ship in and tie her up.
Behind Simonis, on a ship’s deck piled high with packages and baskets and bales, a commotion of movement and raised voices told of a flurry of activity as the ship sidled in to the side of the quay.
“It’ll be too late to unload her tonight, we’d better look to a guard on the quayside until first light.”
“Hoy! Hoy there! Watch that oar!”
“Throw us the stern rope! Get a move on there!”
And, almost lost in the deeper men’s voices, a woman’s call, her mother’s.
“Simonis? Simonis! Where are you? Come here this instant! Simonis!”
Simonis scrambled down from her perch on the prow, where she had been conveniently out of sight behind several mammoth bales, and came sliding down to a thumping halt at her mother’s feet. She was too heavy, at five, to be quite lifted off her feet by the scruff of her neck like an errant kitten, but it came close enough to that as her mother’s hand closed around the back of Simonis’s shift. And then the hand fell flat on the child’s back, between her shoulder blades, and propelled her forward.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to stray?” said Apphia, Simonis’s mother, sounding tired and exasperated. “I have Danelis to watch, she’s only three, and there’s the baby—but you ought to know better than to get lost like this. Now come on, we don’t have much time. We have to gather up our things, as soon as they’re tied up we have to be off the boat….”
“But they said they would wait until morning,” Simonis said.
“Wait for what?”
“To unload the ship,” Simonis said, trying to get her feet under her as her mother, practically dragged her back to the family’s bivouac on the deck.
“Unload the cargo,” Apphia said, with a trace of impatience. “We aren’t cargo. We’re getting off tonight.”
In a fold of cloth against Apphia’s breast, her month-old infant stirred and whimpered and Apphia instinctively let go of her older daughter to cradle the baby with both hands.
“Now he’s awake. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t scream all the way to the Hippodrome,” Apphia said, trying to rock the child back into sleep. “Your bag is ready, Simonis, your father has it, go run ahead. Watch out for Danelis, and don’t stray from us when we get off the ship. This isn’t Cyrenais, where everyone knows you. You don’t want to get lost in the city.”
There were only a handful of passengers on the small vessel—there was no room for many people on a ship whose business was ferrying cargo to the ever-hungry wharves of the City of Gold. Aside from Simonis’s family, there were only two more passengers who stepped ashore once the unsteady gangplank was laid across the narrow ribbon of water between the ship and the wharf’s edge. One of them had been silent and taciturn throughout the voyage, and had been on the ship already when the family had joined it in the small town of Cyrenais on Kypra, one of the islands of the Middle Sea; they had never even learned his name, and he slipped off without a word.
The other passenger had been more gregarious, and he lingered with the small family as they hesitated on the wharf, unsure of what to do next.
“There will be someone to inspect your papers,” he told Batzas, Simonis’s father. “They let in those who have family in the city, or some legitimate business to pursue; you have to have a reason to come here. But you’re fine, you have the letters from the City’s White Jewel people…although, really, they ought to have sent someone to meet you. It’s criminal, letting a provincial loose on the city on their own, especially one with small children in tow. No offence.”
“None taken,” Batzas said. “There may be someone beyond the barricade on the city side. I can’t see from here. Thank you, friend. If there is nobody, then I shall make my way to the Hippodrome.…”
“If I were you, I would wait until morning before I’d present myself at the Hippodrome,” said the other man. “The people you need to see do not reside at the Hippodrome itself, and their offices would be closed by now, and you have no idea where to seek them at their lodgings—and even if you were lucky enough to find them there, if indeed they have sent nobody to greet you at the wharf they may be none too pleased to be accosted by you at their home after their working hours. I would find a hostelry somewhere for the night, you and your babies, get yourselves a good night’s rest and then go to the Hippodrome fresh in the morning.”
“Where would I look for a hostelry?” Batzas asked.
“There are signs. You will know. Just avoid the really loud ones with women lingering by the doorways.” An eloquent glance at Apphia more than explained the reasoning behind that piece of advice, and Batzas took its meaning immediately.
“I thank you,” he said politely, and the other man gave him a wide smile.
“Eh, you can pay me back,” he said. “Let me know who I can bet on when the races start again in the spring. It’s always good to have a friend inside the Hippodrome. Good luck to you.”
He shouldered his bag and strode off into the shadows towards the back of the wharf. Batzas, staring after him, could not help a small sigh.
“At least he’s coming home,” Batzas said. “I wish I had his confidence. He’s right, we’d better have the papers ready for inspection.”
He led the way forward, fumbling in his satchel for the letters of appointment he carried from the city’s White Jewel faction, one of the two major players in the Hippodrome games, always bickering for top billing with their sworn rival, the Golden Crown. Both factions had secondary groups, the Scarlet Banner for the Jewel faction and the Obsidian Knife for the Crown—but only the two main groupings maintained their own menageries within the Visant Hippodrome, and could employ keepers and trainers for their animals. It was for this purpose that Batzas had been brought from Cyrenais.
Simonis followed her father, keeping close behind and almost treading on his heels, clutching her own bag with one hand and clinging to three-year-old Danelis’ hand with the other, dragging her forward at a pace that had the younger girl whimpering quietly to herself. Apphia, cradling the baby against her breast with one hand and steadying a large bundle of belongings on her shoulder with the other, brought up the rear, crooning to the infant quietly to keep him quiet.
“Hold. You seek to enter the city?”
“I have a letter of introduction,” Batzas said, thrusting forward the rolled-up scroll which bore his appointment. “I am expected, I am an animal trainer—I have been sent to the city Hippodrome from my own—there, see the seal of the White Jewel.…”
The challenge had been peremptory, brusque; Batzas had come to a sudden halt, with Simonis blundering into him from behind. Now she looked up diffidently, biting her lip, to inspect the man who had halted them. He wore the kilt and sculpted breastplate of a soldier, with a round metal helmet, gleaming in torchlight. His features were angular, and his mouth a thin arrogant line as he pored over the letters. But the soldier finally rolled the scroll back up untidily and handed it back with a small sharp motion.
“New assistant bear keeper, eh,” he said. “Well, welcome to Visant, bear keeper. It’ll be a while before the Hippodrome opens its doors again, though.”
“Gives me a few months…to settle in,” Batzas said carefully, unsure of whether it was better to make small talk or simply to mutter thanks and press on.
“Indeed,” the guard said. He peered down to where the two small girls crowded behind Batzas’s knees, and reached out to tilt up the chin of Simonis, who was closest. She flinched, just a little, but then she lifted her eyes and met his, squarely. He chuckled, letting go of her and straightening up. “Your girl has spirit,” he said, and there was a tinge of approval in his voice. “Pass. All is well.”
Batzas hesitated, and then decided to try and trade on the man’s apparent goodwill.
“Please,” he said, “we were advised to seek a hostelry for tonight…would you know where…?”
But the soldier’s face had settled back to its harsh lines; his moment of warmth done, he was a guard once again, on duty at the city’s borders.
“Ask as you pass into the street,” he said. “I know nothing of hostelries.”
“Thank you,” Batzas said, with a small sigh, and motioned his family forward. Simonis needed no urging, scurrying forward with her head down and her eyes on the paving stones at her feet.
“We don’t have much coin,” Apphia murmured from the rear of the column.
“I know,” Batzas replied in a low voice. “I will see what I can find for us. Tomorrow…will be better. Tonight will be hard.”
“I wish they had sent someone to meet us,” Apphia said in a small voice.
“I am not a charioteer,” Batzas said, “or a prize horse. They probably barely know I am coming. There, ahead—that’s a light. It might be a place to sleep. Stay close. Watch the children.”
He didn’t like the look of the first place they approached, nor the next—the first was too close to the wharfs and apparently serving a potent brew, with large brawny off-shift cargo handlers staggering unsteadily against doorways and walls and each other and picking fights in broad dockside patois and half a dozen foreign tongues; the second had two women who appeared to be waiting patiently in the half-shadows under the single lit torch above the hostelry’s door, and Batzas remembered the warning of his fellow passenger, veering away. But by this time the baby had set up a thin, persistent wail and the older girls were weaving as they walked. Batzas finally admitted defeat and at the next hostelry in their path he threw caution to the winds and begged for any available corner where his family could rest for the night.
They might have avoided the place had Batzas had a chance to look—it seemed rather classier than they could hope to afford. But the city smiled on them and gave them the first and perhaps the only real free luck that they would find in its walls—they crossed the path of the proprietor of this particular inn on the rebound from a consultation with a wharfside astrologer who had given him dire warnings that some previously committed sin would catch up with him and exact its own price if he did not forestall matters by doing a random good deed to a stranger. Seeing the tired little family adrift in the night he saw his chance and seized it, and although his businessman’s soul, astrologer or no astrologer, could not quite allow him to offer them accommodation for nothing, at least he gave them a room in the back at only half his usual price. Danelis and Simonis were asleep on their pallets almost before they were fully horizontal; the baby took a little longer to settle but finally, warm and fed and swaddled comfortably at the foot of his parents’ bed, he slept too. There were a few whispers exchanged between the man and the woman, but they were quiet and tired and doled out sparingly. Soon they, too, slept. There would be much that was new to be faced in the morning, and they were grateful for the chance to defer it until then.
The innkeeper’s generosity—or the scope of his repentance—did not stretch to a free breakfast. Batzas and his family, gathering their belongings together in the morning, found that they could afford to ask for nothing more than directions to the Hippodrome.
They had still been in the narrower, poorer streets, the ones leading down to the wharf and the main trade harbour—but now they abruptly found themselves in a mixed area. Houses of well-to-do gentry—with closed gates set into blank walls facing into the streets, hiding private gardens and courtyards—stood cheek by jowl with homes of lesser folk, with balconies or open windows thrust out over the street, complete with curious faces peering out at the strangers passing by. Once or twice they turned into narrower, unpaved alley-like streets where Batzas could have touched the walls of the houses on either side if he stretched out his arms; there were no windows here, just bare gratings in the blank walls, and doors that opened straight out into the streets. But despite the odd mix of social and architectural levels, on the whole, the streets became wider and better kept and busier with what was obviously a higher social caste of people, as they steadily climbed the slope of the hill towards the top of the ridge and the centre of the city.
Itinerant food sellers began to appear on the streets wide enough to accommodate them, shouting out their wares. Having ushered his family back on the road without breakfast, Batzas halted a couple of the vendors and handed fresh figs and a small earthenware pot of honey to his enthusiastic daughters. They paused to allow the children to rinse their sticky hands and take a drink from a standing pipe of running water on the corner of a street, having first carefully observed several locals do the same, and then to take stock of the increasing rush and bustle around them.
The street was filling with hurrying people. Several patrician-looking gentlemen thundered past on horseback, and a number of others, obviously less well-off, made do with mules or donkeys laden with mysterious packages. Once a sedan chair rocked past, carried by four strapping young slaves with skins so black that Danelis, who had never seen human beings that shade before, squealed and buried her face in her mother’s skirts; the sedan chair’s curtains twitched a little, but did not part.
“A lady of the palace, perhaps,” Batzas said. He reached out to ruffle Danelis’s dark curls. “Nothing to be afraid of, little one. Gone now.”
“I’m not sure that travelling like that would not be worse than the boat,” Apphia said. She had been miserably seasick on the voyage over to the city, and the swaying of the sedan chair had forcefully brought back that feeling of queasiness. “I don’t know why they can’t just walk….”
Simonis pointed, with a five-year-old’s complete and utter lack of self-consciousness. “Yes, they can. Look, there comes one.”
A woman wearing a plain head-dress which covered her hair had turned into the street, followed by three attendants carrying various packages and parcels. The attendants, one of whom was as black as the sedan chair bearers had been, glanced over at Batzas and his family; one of them even gave them a thin ghost of a smile. Their mistress ignored the pointing child with an arrogant tilt of her head, apparently absorbed in studying the houses she was passing. She halted at one door, not too far down the street, and motioned one of the attendants to knock. The door opened, and she and her entourage were admitted, vanishing into the house.
“Come on,” Batzas said, “the morning is wasting away. We need a proper place to sleep tonight, and the man to whom I must present myself still needs finding.”
Before long they were out of the warren of narrower streets and had stepped into one of the spacious paved forums, which opened up every so often along the wide straight road that cut across the city from the Bronze Gate into the Palace to the great gates on the outermost walls, scented with a heady mix of herbs and spices, piled in boxes and barrels and hempen sacks and displayed on low wooden tables. There were more people there than Batzas’s girls had ever seen together in one place before. Traffic threatened to sweep them aside and apart from one another—people pushed past on foot or drove carts along the main road simply assuming that everyone else would get out of the way. Batzas had to snatch one of his daughters out of the path of the plunging horse of an oblivious soldier in the dusty attire of someone from the field; he was closely followed by a long-legged boy riding a mule. The boy, his flaxen-haired head bare and gleaming golden in the sun, half turned as if to apologise for the horseman’s actions—but he didn’t have much more time than to catch Batzas’s gaze with his own and give a small abrupt nod before the mule claimed his attention again and he had to kick its dun sides hard, digging in the scuffed heels of his unfashionable country boots, boots that told even Batzas that here was another bewildered soul newly come to the city and still coming to terms with it.
Their friend from the ship had told them about this road. He had mentioned the spice market; he had also spoken of an entire city block on the broad avenue where the silk sellers hawked their wares, or another of the open forums, the one closest to the Palace gate, where the sweet scents of the perfume-makers paved the path to the bronze Palace gates and the Emperor’s own front door. Danelis was entranced by all this; Simonis was fascinated; the baby, its ears assailed by the racket and its tender nose offended by the strange new smells. Before the city distracted them any further, Batzas, pausing only long enough to ask for the shortest way to the Hippodrome, steered his little family down a side street where a number of weavers and spinners and dressmakers plied their trade. It wound down a slight slope and then climbed back up again to spit them out facing an expanse of wall made of glowing golden stone.
Batzas reached out and leaned his hand, open-palmed, on the wall, like a blind man who had been lost but had now finally found his way back to something familiar, something safe, something he understood.
“This is it,” he said. “We are here.”
“Where’s the gate?” Apphia asked, glancing around, shifting the baby to a more comfortable position.
“We follow the wall,” Batzas said. “There will be a gate in it somewhere.”
There was one, but it was the wrong gate—they first stumbled onto the smaller, narrower back gate of the Hippodrome, known as the Gate of the Dead because this was the door through which the dead bodies were carried out back in the days when the Hippodrome’s entertainment still included fights to the death between slave-born gladiators. It was locked—but Batzas knocked anyway, without great hope. It was hard to say who was the more astonished when the gate actually squeaked open at this summons—Batzas himself, or the wizened old man who stood in the opened doorway.
“I have come from Cyrenais,” Batzas said helplessly. “I am to take up a position as animal trainer. I need to see Amantius. The…the head of the White Jewel faction.”
“Here?” the old man said, glancing around at the gate he tended. “Do you habitually come knocking at the back door? No matter. Come in, now that you’re here. You may as well cut across on the inside.” He moved aside as Batzas handed Apphia and the girls through the door, where they paused, waiting for further instructions. The old man closed and barred the back gate behind them “This way,” he said, and then managed a crooked, toothless grin which sent Danelis backing away cautiously, grabbing for her mother’s skirts with both hands. “Welcome to the Hippodrome,” the old man said.
“Where…?” Batzas began, but the old man was already pointing.
“Out of the portico, there’s a small stair on your left just before you enter the arena—that will take you into the tiers, you can walk along the first row, go all the way across—they just raked the season’s sand over the race track, I wouldn’t go walking across that if I were you—ask again when you get to the Crown Portico, over at the far end. There should be someone there to direct you to the offices.”
Batzas nodded his thanks and swept his family before him in search of the stair the old man had described.
They struggled up the few shallow stairs and emerged into the first row of marble-faced seating, separated from the racing track only by a low stone wall. Behind them, rows upon rows of similar seats sloped sharply up towards a tall colonnade of marching columns linked by curving arches, impossibly far away and high enough to scrape the sky. The place was empty now, except for a couple of silent workers who were busy on esoteric tasks down in the arena itself, on the Spina that rose down the middle of the track, full of ancient obelisks of crumbling stone brought back in triumph from forgotten foreign conquests and pillars upon which statues of ancient emperors and a particularly beloved or renowned charioteer or two gazed down upon the race track with sightless eyes. But the ghost of its races clung to the Hippodrome. Even empty, with its horses safely in their winter stables and its chariots put away into oiled wraps for the winter hiatus, with the voices of its crowds stilled until the new season opened, there was an echo of a many-throated roar that hung above the marble seats and the statues and the sand on the tracks.
Win! Win! Win!
Batzas drew in his breath sharply.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go find this Amantius.”
A track sweeper on the far side of the Hippodrome, working right next to where they came down another shallow stair down into what the old man at the Gate of the Dead had called the Crown Portico, pointed them on, and it was mostly by trial and error that they finally found and presented themselves at the office of Amantius, the chief of the White Jewel faction’s administrative wing. Batzas gave his name to a minion in an antechamber, and was announced and ushered in after he and his family were left waiting in the antechamber for some ten or fifteen minutes.
He had handed his letter of appointment to the minion when he had first arrived, and Amantius had this flattened out between two meaty palms on the table before him, glancing up appraisingly as Batzas entered into his presence.
“Well,” he said. “Assistant bear keeper. Well, I’m afraid that the circumstances have changed a little since this letter was written. The situation is no longer the same.”
Behind Batzas, Apphia could not help a small gasp. Sensing her sudden distress, the baby in the crook of her arm whimpered pitifully.
Amantius allowed his mouth to curve into a slight smile.
“Ah, now,” he said. “There is no need for that. It is true that we have no particular need for an assistant in the animal pens right now. But we do need a bear keeper, as it happens, seeing as we lost our old one at the close of the season.”
“Lost your bear keeper? What happened?” Batzas said warily.
“Congratulations, Batzas of Cyrenais,” Amantius said, as though Batzas had not said anything at all. “You’ve just been promoted.” He raised his voice a little, throwing it behind the little family and through the half-open door behind them. “Cantaxas! In here! Our new bear keeper has arrived. Conduct him to his new quarters, and find one of the other animal handlers to show him down below. Well, good luck, Batzas. And don’t worry, we got rid of that bear, the one who dispatched your predecessor. He put up a fine fight in the arena at the end of the last season. And it was all an accident, anyway, with the keeper. How you deal with the rest of your charges will be up to you. I’ll see you in the arena.”
Cantaxas rounded them all up again and ushered them out of Amantius’s presence, back out of the antechamber and into the portico area, and then through a narrow door that opened into the area beneath the great tiers of stone seats.
“Through here,” Cantaxas said. “Out of season, like now, this door is left open—once the races start there will a bar on the inside, and someone on duty to open it when you knock—you will be given the passwords in time. Don’t worry about these first few chambers, they’re just storage—that one’s got the sand for the tracks, and then there’s the wardrobe, back there, for the mimes and the actors. One of these rooms will have your tack, bear-keeper—hunt around, you’ll find it. But go on, go on now.…” He ushered them down a low corridor, lit by the occasional grating that let in a little bit of daylight but didn’t give much of a view and by guttering torches set into sconces in between doors on the inner side of the corridor. Cantaxas finally paused before one of the doors. “These will be your quarters,” he said. “You’re responsible for your own torch, out here. You’ll be shown where to pick up fresh ones.”
He pushed open the door as he spoke, and Apphia, the first one inside, stepped into the room and then stood staring around her. It was large enough, but that might have been because there was not all that much inside to take up any room. Pallet beds were piled up against one wall, behind a half-drawn and worn arras curtain hung about a third of the way into the room. High above them, above the doorway, a narrow window let in some light, but was too high to look out of; the roof sloped on the far side, giving an indication of where they were—buried deep beneath the tiers of seating above, where the crowds would stamp their feet and roar their exhilaration or dismay when the races started. There was a charcoal burning stove and heater in one corner with an exhaust built in and letting out next to the high window. One or two other necessities were there, but that was all—just the necessities, not an ounce of comfort, or softness, or gentleness, or sunshine.
“Well,” Cantaxas said, with a hint of impatience. “We have to go find one of your peers. I think Cletius the lion keeper might be down in the dens right now, if we hurry we can still catch him. You can leave your family and your baggage here, they will be quite safe.”
“Would you…give us a moment?” Batzas said quietly.
Cantaxas gave him a sharp look, and then an unpleasant half-smile. “I will be outside,” he said, stepping out of the room and closing the door behind him.
Batzas and Apphia exchanged a long look over the heads of their daughters.
“It could have been worse,” Batzas said. “Just think where they would have quartered us if I had been a mere assistant bear keeper.”
Apphia began to laugh, but somehow ended on a queer hiccup that was something between a giggle and a sob. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” she said.
“We will make it work. We’re in the city now, there will be chances I could never have dreamed.…” Batzas broke off, glanced back at the door, squeezed Apphia’s hand and then dropped it. “I’d better not keep him waiting. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Settle the baby, and when I get back we will see what we can do about a proper lunch for the rest of us. Hold on, Apphia—all will be well.”
“Yes,” she said reflexively, her eyes straying to the high window and its narrow rectangle of light. “Yes, I am sure it will.”
Danelis was tired and in any event too cowed by her surroundings to do more than simply curl up to where her mother directed her to sit, on one of the pallet beds she had pulled out and laid into a corner of the sleeping area. The baby was fretful and uncooperative, refusing to feed or settle, keeping up a thin and constant unhappy wail.
Simonis didn’t wait in the stone chamber. When her mother’s back was turned, she slipped out of the door and back along the corridor the way they had come in, out of the door, into the portico, up the side stair and back into the tiers of seats. She climbed along the side of them slowly, where stairs had been cut all the way up to the very top of the amphitheatre wall, up where the colonnade was—and at length she emerged onto the flat uppermost terrace, wider than she had thought it might be, stretching out to where only a stone parapet separated her from the emptiness that yawned below.
But Simonis wasn’t interested in looking straight down.
What drew her eye was the view that now opened up before her—the warren of streets through some of which she may well have wended her way as they had walked towards the Hippodrome that morning, the straight slash of the main avenue which they had crossed, the glimpse of imperial gardens behind their walls and the tumbling tiered domed roofs of the palace itself, and beyond all of that the promontory which was the gateway to the Narrows and then, glinting in the golden autumn sunshine, in the distance, the open sea.
It was hard to see it down below, when she was part of the thousands of milling human beings and penned in by streets and walls and harbour guards and the great unknown—but from up here, it all suddenly looked familiar to Simonis, every single stone and cobble and mule’s bray and mosaic tessera of it. It lay as though in the palm of her hand, this place they called the City of Gold, and somehow she knew it. She knew it. She was too young to understand the feeling or to shape it into something coherent or profound—but standing up there high above Visant and looking down upon it Simonis summarised it to herself with simple, forthright logic, a single thought that was formed in the clarity of a child’s mind, as yet unburdened with too many layers of adult complexity and complication. A single word.
She had been born far from this place, in a small town with a tiny Hippodrome of its own—but she had been a baby then, and it hadn’t mattered. The Cyrenais of her earliest childhood was barely a memory now, and she let it go without grief, without sadness, without regret. It might never have existed at all.
This did. This place. This great city at her feet.
I am home.
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