“You are the conspirator Menander. You conspired to lead an insurrection against the empire.”
A statement. Bare facts. And almost true. Maciste stared at the emperor’s chancellor stood on the steps below the throne. Not bothering to answer back that he wasn’t Menander. Or that he’d been opposing an invasion. He hadn’t rebelled against a ruler with the right to rule.
“The punishment for insurrection is death.”
Had Maciste been expecting anything else? The news came hard. But he’d had time to adjust to that sentence. The road to this palace had been twisted and painful. But the conclusion had never been in any doubt.
“You raised an army. You murdered, plundered and laid waste
Maciste was stood in the empire’s throne room. As good as naked. A few rags around him .. “for the sake of decency”, the guards in the dungeons had mocked. The enemy emperor Vologases occupied his throne with the arrogance of a ruler who claimed the right to conquer and subject others to his will. He glared his stern will straight at Maciste. Wrists shackled, held tight by his upper arms, Maciste had no chance of a final act of revenge on this tyrant. All he could do was preserve his dignity. Fearless he stared the cruel emperor back. Nothing about to happen was going to come as any surprise.
“For such deeds against the lord emperor … the punishment is death.*
How many times could a man die Maciste wondered glibly to himself? When he’d set out on this strategy, he’d planned to get away from his Parthian captors. But things hadn’t gone to plan. And he might as well have died a dozen deaths already.
“Your rebellion has cost the empire in gold. In lost men. In loss of resources, trade. Unable to compensate for the losses incurred … you
will pay with your life.”
Maciste ignored the chancellor’s pseudo justice .. his life had been forfeit weeks ago. He continued to stare back at the emperor. His insolence was his sign that Vologases’ plan had failed. His weeks in Hellgate were supposed to have broken him. Glaring at the emperor now was a man who still had the strength of purpose to defy.
His sentence would be death by crucifixion, probably. The real Menander’s older brother had been subjected to that death in front of his own people. Roped to the cross, every means taken to ensure it took days of excruciating agony to die. Maciste had never been in any doubt .. if it came to this day, he knew his fate.
Vologases glared thunder down from his throne. The assembled court of his enemies stood in weighty silence around. For the first time in days Maciste had something on. Only rags around his waist .. “for the dignity of the court” .. but they gave him the extra strength to stand in his manly dignity .. surrounded by enemies who only craved “Menander’s” suffering. Stand dignified and hold his head high.
He’d once promised himself that if it came to this .. in the presence of the hated emperor, Maciste would lunge at him. And .. the final act of his life .. Maciste would batter Vologases to death. Fat chance!
Held tightly by a pair of well-built guards gripping him by the upper arms .. another pair facing him with spears poised .. not to mention the heavy leg irons and manacles on his wrists .. the Parthians were leaving nothing to chance.
For the first time Vologases’ glare left Maciste. His eyes circled the assembled nobles and
“We have General Tiradates to thank for this prisoner here today.”
His eyes identified his general. Maciste’s own eyes had picked out the man. To whom he’d surrendered weeks ago. To save women hostages from suffering reprisals. To save the real Menander from doing something stupid and surrendering himself.
Maciste was once again face-to-face with his old
adversary. The Parthian had gloated over
this day. How he would relish presenting
Menander in chains, Slave of the
empire. A condemned man. A failed prince.
Tiradates had promised Maciste that he had saved the women. Then Tiradates had gone back on his word. Dragging them into slavery. Making Maciste’s gesture of surrender worthless. Tiradates had been ruthless. Cruel. On the journey back he had subjected Maciste to endless humiliations. Not treating him like a normal captured soldier being taken into slavery. Tiradates had deliberately had him abused .. severely, publicly. Had he been hoping to break his prisoner before he presented him to his lord emperor today?
Had it been Tiradates who’d had Maciste dispatched to
Hellgate? Had he wanted Hellgate to
break him? In preparation for this
day? When Tiradates would stand before
his emperor in his glory. The great
victor. Presenting the rebel prince to
If Tiradates thought he had captured the rebel prince Menander ….. he was mistaken.
If Tiradates thought he was presenting a broken man ….. he was in for a big surprise.
The old rage Maciste felt for this man welled up from deep within his gut. After suffering weeks in Hellgate, Maciste had even more reason to deal with this man. Maciste had to hide his stern face. A tempting thought threatened to lighten his lips. He smirked to himself. With these leg irons Maciste stood little hope of getting to Vologases. No chance of beating the emperor to death. But Tiradates? He was standing only a few paces away.
A grateful Vologases had turned his gaze on his general.
“General. Approach your emperor.”