“And what of his wife,” the official continued, “who takes Rome’s treasures for her own? A piety, we’re told, to rid the city of idols.”
Again, he was mocking, accusing Eucher’s mother of coveting the jeweled necklace that once adorned the statue of the goddess Vesta but now adorned her neck.
“As a Roman,” Eucher shouted, “I appreciate what’s Roman.”
“Unlike the Vandal Stilicho,” said the official. When his gaze slid toward Gallus, Eucher’s followed.
Gallus’s eyes were still closed. It was his usual habit when forced to attend the shows. Eucher recalled an old saying: a man has as many enemies as he has slaves. Nevertheless, Eucher couldn’t think of Gallus as an enemy.
“Quite a charming boy,” the official said. “I wonder what price he’d fetch. What talents do you suppose he possesses?” He nudged his friend. “The tribune brought his boy and sits him in the podium like a senator. I’d say he’s making a tool into a man, but that kind of power belongs to a god, or maybe an emperor. Certainly not an idle nephew.”
The dull friend leaned forward and laughed along.
Gallus’s eyes were suddenly open, and though he stared ahead, he was listening, not watching.
“My father’s all that stands between Rome and the barbarians!” Eucher shouted for the official to hear.
“And who stands between Stilicho and Rome?” the official shouted back.
“Rome needs no protection from him.” Still, the accusation was well-aimed, and Eucher responded, “He protects Rome from barbarians. He’ll protect her, even from pigeon-keepers!”
When Gallus sighed, Eucher leaned toward him and spoke in Greek, something he often did when he wanted only Gallus to understand.
“You don’t agree?” Eucher asked. “Honorius can’t keep the barbarians away. He calls men who worship the gods ‘atheists.’ He refuses to honor the true gods and keeps those who do out of the army. He spends his days training his pigeons. Whatever attention he gives to the empire only weakens it more. Then Father has to find a way to strengthen it again. Honorius puts his faith in the Nazarene, who doesn’t help him any more than he helps that criminal.” He pointed at the man cowering on the tower. “That’s why I bring you here. Put your faith in me, Gallus. I protect you, like Father protects Rome. Without me, you’d die. Just as Rome would die without him.”
“The Augustus does nothing the Patrician doesn’t approve,” Gallus said in Latin. Greek was his first language, one few Romans learned. Gallus never spoke in Greek only because Eucher wanted him to. Gallus possessed a passionate disposition that made every action one of principle.
Exclamations from the crowd drew Eucher’s attention back to the arena.
The two chained men couldn’t see what the audience above could see. They were surrounded by potted trees and wooden scenery built to resemble an African savanna. They leaned this way and that, knowing something stalked them but not what until, after a time, a predatory vision rewarded their search.
With black spots spilled across its hide, a tawny leopard sniffed and picked at victims of the morning’s show before settling down to gnaw on the tattered remains of an ostrich.
The men ran, but the iron links joining their legs one to another jerked their bodies to a stop. The force spun them. When they tumbled to the ground like toys, they drew a roar of laughter from the crowd. Scrambling to their feet, they staggered in an uneven pace toward the tower where the man with wings still cowered.
The ostrich remains continued to occupy the leopard, so a beast-fighter released a tiger. Gloriously white, enamel dripping hunger, it spotted the chained men.
They tried to climb the tower, fighting each other as they glanced back, but the tiger reached them before they had made much progress. Feeble hands flailed, desperate fingers slipped, and knees unstrung.
The spotted leopard arrived with belated curiosity, tail twitching.
The distance from the cats to Eucher’s seat eroded the screams. Only the murmur of the surrounding audience filled in the gaps. Exciting as it had been, the quick executions made for bad sport. The crowd’s murmur grew into disappointed grumbling, punctuated by shouted demands for the “flight of Icarus.”
Slaves had been fanning fires around the arena, and now they lit another under the tower at the center. As flames rose, so did the crowd’s enthusiasm. In their elation, they encouraged the man to trust his useless wings, to take flight and try to escape.
Finally, like Icarus, who trusted his own wings to escape the Minotaur, the man launched himself toward the sky. As wax slid down his back from the heat of the fire, he spread his arms in a great gesture of faith and plummeted toward the floor like a flaming ballistic. When he hit, blood shot out in two streaks from his head to stain the sand. Burning pitch puffed from his tunic, raining tiny fires all around.
The arena thundered with the crowd’s delight.