When his turn finally came, the ring-master slashed his wrists open with the practised ease of a professional butcher and a great giant of a slave, his taut muscles gleaming with oil, led him out. As he stepped into the dust of the arena a great cry went up from the crowd, like a flock of angry white birds rising suddenly up into the sky. It was a cry of hunger, a cry that rose from the very depths of the ravening maw of the stadium, a cry that carried within it the tang of blood tasted and not forgotten. Now that the initial numbness of the knifestroke had faded, the pain was returning to his slashed wrists and the blood dripped from his fingers in a constant stream, leaving a thin ribbon of red across the white sand of the ring. It was a hot day and the piano was a brilliant, glaring white, standing there in the centre of the arena, so far away from him that he thought he'd never reach it.
But he did reach it, of course. As he sat down in front of it, there was a momentary hush from the crowd, an instant of silence that matched exactly the calm in his heart as he contemplated, for the last time, that familiar arrangement of black and white keys. That one ephemeral second before the first chord is struck when the whole world seems perfectly in balance - like the sudden hushing of the wind before a storm.
It didn't last, of course. As the first notes of Tristesse trembled their way out of his piano (for what else could he play, with his hands bleeding, but Chopin), the crowd began to shout again, so that before long Chopin's sad, lovely music had been almost completely drowned out, remaining audible only to him and becoming, in the tenacity with which he clung to it, a private prayer, an intimate and deeply personal grief. As the pain in his wrists harmonised with the glorious ache of the music, every note became a small victory, a triumph of the soul, the pure expression of a sorrow untouched by the grasping fingers of the mob. The blue of the sky above seemed to close in on him, he felt the air thinning away from around him, the world thawing away. Never mind the crowd. He was going to die in this ring anyway. He shut his eyes and played.
As he brought the etude to a close, letting the last notes tremble and then fall like leaves, he felt the roaring of the crowd go louder. At first he thought it was simply the effect of the music ending, an illusion of walls closing in created by the snapping of that vital link, but then he opened his eyes and realised what the crowd was cheering about. The tigers had been brought out! He could see them, far away on opposite ends of the arena, straining against their chains. A quick snap of a lever and they would be released and come bounding towards him - he could already imagine the crunch of their great teeth biting into his neck.
For a minute he considered giving in to them, letting them have their way. After all, he was going to die anyway - this last grandstand with the piano was just a form of sentimental foolishness. Might as well get it over with. Besides, the loss of blood was starting to take its toll on him. His wrists felt numb and heavy, his fingers were virtually bloodless, so that if he continued to play it was through sheer will alone. Will and the habit of decades, that kept his fingers true to their accustomed courses. His arms felt heavy as lead, a slow spiral of dizziness was climbing up to his brain.
Then, even as the crowd stood up to call for his death, a new courage filled his heart, a new determination tighted the line of his jaw. No, he would not go down easily. He would fight. He thought of Beethoven, loveless, old, his hearing gone, continuing to wrestle with the ferocious demons of his music until he had them pinned and helpless on the ground. No, he would not give up.
The momentum of this thought flared through his body, the way a dying bonfire, discovering a log left unburnt in its ashen heart, flames into sudden, momentary glory. His fingers moved of their own accord, smashing down onto the keyboard. Beethoven. Piano Sonata No 14. Third movement. The endless vertigo of defiance. As the notes exploded from his piano like gunshots, the crowd was shocked into silence, and even the tigers took a step or two back, uncertain of how to face this new and unfamiliar beast that had been let loose in the stadium. The pianist didn't care. The music beat inside him like a frantic heart, the notes poured out of him like blood. The entire keyboard reeked with his gore now, the delicate ivory of the keys had been stained a clotted red, and a thin rivulet of blood had crept down the leg of the piano like crimson ivy, and was starting to snake its way across the floor of the arena. And still he played. Now that the crowd had been subdued into perfect silence, the fury of his playing filled the stadium, the notes echoing and resounding among walls of ancient stone, like a vengeance that knows no compromise. As the pianist played, a terrible premonition gripped the listeners. As though a veil had been pulled back and they could see the withering away of empires, the inevitable erosion, not only of their own bodies, but of all the things they held sacred - their palaces and temples, their monuments and stadia - all crumbling away into dust as the unstoppable force of that music dashed against them. Gripped by panic, feeling his throne crumble away from under him, the Emperor gave the signal for the tigers to be released, for the pianist to be silenced. But the tigers would not attack the pianist. They circled him warily, their whiskers bristling with the anger that radiated out from the piano in sharp, radiant lines.
It was only when the pianist stopped and fell limply of his stool that they regained their courage, approached the body lying in the dust with angry growls. But by then it was too late. The pianist was dead. And the seeds of passion that would ultimately bring down the empire had been sown deep in the stone of the listening walls.