I remember screaming myself hoarse watching the chariot races. If you’ve never been to the City, if you’ve never sat in the Stadium, you can hardly imagine what it felt like then. We’d shout for Andronikos as he careened around a curve, outer wheels catching air with the tightness of the turn. And Marcus! He was dirty and mean and a cheat and we loved him for it.
The real thrill, though, never came from the charioteers. The real thrill came from knowing that all through the Stadium, Blues were shouting with you. That feeling of being swept up in the Faction, like a wave in a tempest. To cheer with the Faction was to feel the power of a storm. To feel your own petty frustrations buried beneath the rush of the race. I remember screaming myself hoarse for victory—and to vanquish the Greens.
The Greens. It was like a battle, sitting in the Stadium with them. Shouting them down. I don’t know how they did it, but somehow they found drivers worthy of the depths of our hate. Cocky, preening Damianus. That brute Stylian. If you weren’t sick of them from the track, your stomach would turn if you overheard them in the public square, mouthing off about this or that. At the baths, you’d hear stories about what they did at parties in private villas in the countryside. I was glad not to be a Green.
In my family, we’d been Blue for as long as anyone knew. My grandfather, though, remembered days when the Greens had some drivers he admired. It hadn’t always been like this, he said: The Greens had been better once. Back then, he’d even had Green friends he’d feast with sometimes before races and contests.
I couldn’t understand how. And not just because I was used to herb-rich glazes instead of the thick, too-spiced sauces Greens liked so much, or because I preferred wine to yeasty farm beer. I just wouldn’t have known what to talk about. Even if I’d held my tongue while they discussed the personalities and passions of their drivers, there were so many other things we didn’t see eye to eye on. There was the war. The way taxes were collected. Not even Jesus could bring us together, because we disagreed about whether he had truly been both God and a man or just a God who happened to have a human-looking face. And, in my somewhat limited experience, you couldn’t have a conversation about any of those things without it turning into another race. Who won the war mattered less than who won the point. As on earth, so for heaven: Jesus himself lifted up like just another standard to be waved. Crucified on our flag poles.
How had it been for my grandfather? For him and his friends, perhaps, the Stadium had been one more place in the City—just like the docks, or a church, or barracks. In my days, the Stadium was the City, in its most concentrated form. Or else the whole City was just an extension of the Stadium.
The City is different now. There are no races. What would have seemed unthinkable to me as a boy seems inevitable in hindsight. The Stadium stands quiet. It’s the streets that roar.
Andronikos was one of the first to die. We were crushed because we’d thought he was going to become the year’s champion. So strange to think that’s what we cared about when he could no longer breathe. The space between glory and ruin is so small. He’d just been on a journey east, soaking in adulation as the guest of a governor there who was a Blue. The plague came from the east first, along the same trade routes that gilded the governor’s palace. Andronikos must have picked it up there.
He and others must’ve brought it back with them. And though the Emperor insisted the races go on and on, too many drivers and grooms finally died to keep the horses running.
The Greens immediately blamed us. Not Andronikos, not the palace. Certainly not their own merchants streaming back into the City as the plague shook the provinces. They blamed the whole Blue faction—and that felt as familiar as the storm-winds picking up over the sea.
Disputes between the factions had started gaining force a few years before the plague arrived.
I was just old enough for a thin, patchy beard the year Marcus won the season’s last race and Greens took to the streets in anger. Damianus had slipped as the chariots collided around the final curve. He’d fallen, but with his foot caught on a strap as the horses surged forward, so that half the skin on his face was left in bits along the track by the finish line. The sight of that too-pretty face torn and oozing eclipsed even Marcus’s garlanding. The space between glory and ruin can be so tight, so stiflingly tight. There were accusations. Threats. Intimations of conspiracy.
Blues took to the streets, too. The last win of the season was supposed to mean something. How dare they take away from that moment? Honor is a prize forged from unspoken consensus. For them to withdraw their portion of the winner’s honor, to break the prize in half, was nothing less than an attack on the race. If we let them take that, it seemed, the whole games would lose their meaning. And with the games? Our drivers carried earth and heaven on their backs. It was a slight to the soldiers they represented, to the God they served, if their honor was taken away.
I suspect that it was Greens who started shoving first. They were the ones with the open wound. But Blues were ready. Waiting, even. After all the cheering, shouting, cursing—after all the calling for blood, Blues were ready to shed some.
We’d been itching to join the contests and the riots gave us a chance to scratch.
A month ago, I saw a man with his eye scratched out. The fingernail shapes of the scars right on the edge of the empty socket.
I’ve wondered since what he really suffered that injury for. At its root, was it really the war, or the plague, or the nature of Christ we fought each other over? Maybe the thundering of the Stadium was the echo of everything we already felt.
Or maybe the Stadium was the source. Maybe where you sat in the Stadium is what taught you how to see a soldier or a crisis or the face of our Lord. And to treat another view not as a matter of balance but as treason or folly or heresy. Maybe the way we cheered in the Stadium is what taught us to look for what an opponent wanted and then use any tactic to block their way. What taught us to exult in crossing them.
If you make a habit, for competition’s sake, of positioning yourself between people and all they long for, sooner or later the claws will come out. Claws we all carry.
In the years just before the plague, riots broke out again and again. Every summer, there’d be something. Usually it would start in the Stadium and spill out onto the streets. Sometimes trouble would start on the street, or in a shop, or at a church, then boil into a brawl at the Stadium. Every summer, a few people died in the fights: some stabbed, more just trampled. And there were always those who, despite warnings to leave, got stuck in houses or shops set on fire.
The Emperor did nothing. The Emperor liked nothing more than a good contest.
There never seemed to be fighting in our neighborhood. Almost everyone on the block was a Blue, which might have helped, though plenty of Blue streets were attacked at one time or another. We were rich. That makes a bigger difference. The rich always worry because we have more to lose, but rage can smell scarcity. Still, even I found myself getting more and more aware of the Greens around me on the streets through the summers. Always primed for something to start. Ready. Waiting, even.
And when the plague came, the Greens were ready to blame us. Not to find the source of the malady. Not to seek a cure. And for our part? The curses were already poised on the tips of our tongues. We cut them loose without thinking about what trouble it can cause if you curse someone, and the next day they’re coughing, and the day after that they collapse.
When Greens set fire to Blues’ houses, they stopped trying to warn people out first. I’ve seen people shoved back in when they tried to push their way out of burning buildings.
I had trusted the Emperor, but he did nothing. The Emperor loved nothing more than a good contest.
In the Stadium, horses would surge around the track. Sweat spraying off them as they picked up speed. And somewhere in the final lap they’d strain further, faster, and pass a point of no return where a driver can’t stop them anymore, can’t even totally control their course. And we’d cheer loudest in that lap, wildest as they veered into the danger zone, deafening enough to swallow up the sounds of a crash around the last corner before the race closed.
Was there a time when they gasped when someone went down instead of shouting on through to the finish line? Or when emperors kept customs of decorum for the fallen?
When my grandfather was young, he would feast with friends who were Greens. Those were different days.
When the plague came, we weren’t ready. We’d forgotten long since how to let anyone take in the reins. We’d forgotten how to be slow. The Emperor did nothing. May the dead haunt him, may the demons take him: he did nothing. The Emperor cared less for the City than for the heat of a contest. There’s a space between glory and ruin and it starts so small, then grows slowly wide enough to swallow cities whole. We didn’t see. And those who should have warned us cast us like fuel to a fire. We were too lost in the heat of the race to see.
The Stadium closed. It didn’t matter. We’d never known the City as being anything else.
Bodies piled up. Some said the end of the world was nigh. It didn’t matter. Not in the middle of a long fight. When the world is competition, even the End starts to feel like just another finish line.
And we raced toward it. Foot caught in a strap, face shredding. Shouting louder, wilder, deafening.
We screamed at each other. We screamed and we screamed until we choked on the blood in our lungs.