The chains clamped around my wrists as cold and hard as stones. I stared ahead into the darkness, waiting for the young guard, who was not much more than a year older than I, to open the door to the arena. I had come here not because I had stolen treasure, attacked a servant, or murdered an innocent peasant. I had come for the same reason as the ones before me: because I existed.
I had dreaded this day since I was a young boy who finally understood the laws of the land—since that day my mother and father had gone before me. But there was no reason for fear. My parents had taken places of honor at the king’s table, and I visited them on every full moon. Soon I would see them and the king every day.
The metal door creaked open. The guard gestured for me to hurry up and get out the door. As I passed him, he whispered, “Friend, the beast won’t hurt ya if you be quick about it.”
I nodded my thanks and strode forward into the empty arena. My sweaty tuffs of copper hair clung to the nape of my neck as I gazed around. Not only was there no lion, but there was not a human being in sight besides the king in his royal box. The only other beings interested in my Transition seemed the mobs of hornets buzzing about and pecking at me arms every now and then.
I had heard audiences had been small lately, but I hadn’t expected to meet such a crude pair of eyes blinking lazily in my direction and not much else. King Maximus sipped his wine from the glamorous throne decked with gold and sapphire. Good for him, to be in that box with a canopy and attentive servants waving long, feathery fans to keep out the heat and the insects. Would I only end up fanning him as well?
But now the emptiness of the arena glared into my face. Where was Pa? Mum? My brother, Marcus? I had witnessed many Transitions, but most had mobs of blood-thirsty citizens, yearning for a fight. I supposed people had tired of telling their neighbors that all that had happened was the same old surrendering to the king’s will instead of slaying the lion. Not that it was an unpleasant decision to take a seat at the king’s table—by all means, it was the best choice my parents ever made. They didn’t have a clue about killing wild creatures, anyhow. Neither did I, so they didn’t bother coming, I guess, since they knew they would surely be feasting with me tonight.
King Maximus, from high up in the royal box, ushered me forward. “Just say the word, lad, and I won’t even bother bringing the lion out.”
I bowed before the lofty ruler. “Thank you, sir, but I haven’t made the decision yet.”
He narrowed his eyes down upon me. “So… you want to end up with the first of the rebels? Those fools that died—let’s see—about eight years ago?” He scoffed. “I thought my dear citizens had learned their lesson by now.”
I kept my head down in practiced humility. “No, sir, and I truly would be honored to sit at your table and eat with you.”
“Then that settles it.” King Maximus commanded his servants with a wave of his hand.
I glanced at the armor laid out on the dirt that awaited anyone fool enough to try. Dust had gathered on it during those long eight years. I didn’t know why I considered it—maybe for my dignity or my pride—or perhaps because the lion, if killed, would set us free from the “honor” of feasting with the king for the rest of our days. I didn’t want that honor. That was meaningless. Maybe those rash young men all those years ago had died, but they had died knowing that when all were free to live ordinary lives outside the palace, they could use their freedom to care for the poor or the sick or the imprisoned, to pursue righteousness without the king suppressing them with gold and jewels.
The servants unchained me with smiles on their faces and urged me toward a door on the other side of the arena, opposite of the door I had come from. One strolled on ahead and the other followed suit behind me. Their confidence swept me away along with them, until I couldn’t go any further. How could I miss this chance? How could I stand the eternal burden of regret? Continue reading