By Curtis C. Chen
"Can't fight if you don't eat," the guard said.
Galena stared at the puddle of gruel on her tray. "Maybe I don't want to fight."
"Don't fight, don't live."
"Catchy. Can I get that on a t-shirt?"
The guard tossed a spoon into the cell. "Eat."
Galena choked down the food. It wasn't supposed to be appetizing. It was designed to prevent starvation. Nobody was allowed to die outside the arena.
The lights went out at midnight. Galena counted to one hundred, then silently rolled out of bed and felt her way over to the corner of her cell.
Her fingernails caught on the edge of the loose brick next to the toilet. She was just starting to pry it out of the wall when she heard an unfamiliar shuffling noise. It was headed directly for Galena's cell.
She coughed loudly to cover the sound of her pushing the brick back into place, then summoned a belch to mask the noise of pulling her pants down and sitting on the toilet.
A small, bright light clicked on and shone in her face. She squinted into it and crossed her arms over her crotch. "What the hell!"
"Galena Moritz?" It wasn't the guard. It was a woman.
"Sorry, Miss Moritz is currently indisposed," Galena said. "If you'd like to leave a message—"
The flashlight beam swung up, illuminating the visitor's face. Galena's mouth hung open.
"So you recognize me," Aurelia Langwies said. "Good. Put your pants on and let's go for a walk."
"You want to trade places with me?"
They were walking around the darkened exercise yard, illuminated only by moonlight.
"Pay attention," Aurelia said. "You take my place in the ring. I go into hiding. The quod thinks you've escaped and replaces you with another plebeian."
"Great plan," Galena said. "I love it, except for the part where I get caught and executed."
"Nobody will ever see your face," Aurelia said. "I have a reputation as a recluse. I arrive in full armor, and I never unmask."
"What if I get injured?" Galena asked.
"You're too good for that."
"It's not about being good," Galena said. "I watched Kalium go down last week after slipping on a piece of fruit. My luck won't last forever."
"By contract, only my personal physician can treat me. Both he and my agent are in on the plan." Aurelia stepped closer. "I know about your child. That's why I came to you. I knew you'd understand why I'm doing this."
"Because you're insane?"
"None of us fight by choice," Aurelia snapped. "And if I don't fight, my family suffers. Do you understand that?"
Galena nodded, thinking of her son. "I'm not left-handed."
Aurelia smiled. "I'm going to take a blow to the head in my next bout, and the concussion will affect my mental state."
"And your height?"
"Oh, honey," Aurelia said, "I wear lifts."
Galena chuckled and looked up at the moon. She knew the charade would never survive a whole nine months, but any freedom was better than none.
Photo: LEGO Mirmillon by Andrew Becraft, June, 2008