Nil waited in the tunnel.
If he stood on his toes, he could see into the arena. Certainly he could hear the roar of the crowd who had come to watch. He wished to see the Victim’s Crown but could not. It was too far away.
The crown belonged to him. It could not belong to anyone else. No one had the qualifications he did, the stacked up suffering he had endured ever since he was a boy.
He deserved the crown above all, and today it would be his.
Often he had imagined the moment it was placed upon his head, the power that might surge through him so he could turn that power back on all who had oppressed him. They would be sorry. He would make them remember all they had done to him, they would beg forgiveness from their knees and still he would show no mercy. He would offer his outstretched hand as an act of love, and when they lifted their eyes and reached up, he would take the hand away and send them to the place where he could watch them die.
That’s the kind of king he would be.
One who made things right. If blood was the only way to do it, so be it. They would one day come to understand him as just. The oppressors were rewarded with death. The oppressed would be given all of their inheritance.
But first he had to win the Victim’s Crown.
He wasn’t the only one vying for a chance.
Men and women were lined up beside him, in front of him, behind him. Silent. Waiting on the horn so they could rush out into the arena and claim what all believed belonged to them.
“Where is your weapon?” the man beside him asked. He wore the mask of a clown.
“I couldn’t afford one,” Nil said. He did not mention the dagger concealed in his waistband. “I’m a poor man. I have nothing but my own hands.”
“Then you will die,” the clown-masked man said. “And the crown will be mine, as it was always meant to be.”
“The crown belongs to all of us,” Nil said.
The man looked ahead. He wouldn’t dare respond. Nil had him. He was skilled at silencing those like him. You said certain things out loud–phrases, beliefs, agreed upon ideas. Everything else, you kept inside.
All the other competitors were armed to the hilt with axes, swords, weapons of war that could kill another man. And plenty of men would die on this day. All would die except for one, and that one would walk through the bloodied arena and lift the crown onto his head.
Nil angled himself to see into the arena and caught sight of the crown being carried out on a purple pillow. His power. His chance to bring justice to the world. His chance to kill everyone he didn’t like. Not one man. But everyone like that one man. He would work in groups, eliminating them one by one. He’d name it the Justice Revolution, or the Justice Initiative, or perhaps the Day of Justice. Something soft enough that no one could be against it. No one would resist. Whoever defined the words controlled the world and so the one wearing the Victim’s Crown would define the words. Justice. Fairness. Peace. He had plenty of words to choose from.
The competitors grew restless. Any time now the horn would blow and a mad rush would ensue, the pursuit of the crown.
The crown. It belonged to him. He would do anything for it. The world needed him. He could be the hero who saved humanity from itself, the course corrector, the re-writer of history. His name would be in song books for a million years. Mothers would sing their children to sleep with tales of his reign. The king who killed the oppressors. No one else had suffered as he had suffered, and therefore no one could reign as he could reign.
They would declare allegiance. They would empty their pockets for his favor. They would bite their tongues and nod their heads. Power wasn’t making them agree, it was making them submit to anything he said.
But first, he needed the crown.
The horn blew.
The lines of men and women poured into the arena and pursued the crown at the far end.
But not Nil. He ducked into the corner of the tunnel and let everyone run past him, then sunk back into the darkness. He would watch and wait.
The crowd went wild with hatred, with love. They cursed. They cheered. They could not control themselves watching the war on the arena floor. The show was well worth the price of admission, and within minutes the arena filled with blood.
The victims slaughtered one another in pursuit of the crown. By now only a few remained, the crown jostling between them as one lost a hand, one an arm, one took an ax to the back. Until finally, only one remained. The clown-masked man.
Exhausted and covered in the blood of his fellow victims, he reached into the dust and peeled the crown from the grip of a dead woman. He held it at his side and walked to the middle of the arena, surrounded by bodies. The crowd went wild. They loved him. They hated him. They threw money at him. They threatened him with death. They shouted apologies. And the clown-masked man lifted the crown high in the air, his triumph, and brought it down towards his head.
But just before it landed, a dagger ripped through his back.
He fell to his knees, no longer able to stand.
Nil stood in front of him, his body completely clean of blood and mud. He was fresh as the morning.
“The crown will be mine, as it was always meant to be,” Nil said. He reached out and waited.
With the last of his strength, the clown-masked man handed it to him, then fell over dead.
Nil wasted no time with ceremony or anticipation. He placed the crown on his head and looked up to the crowd.
And he hated them. Not just some of them. Not only the oppressors. He hated all of them. He hated the dead. He hated himself. He hated that they let this happen. He hated them for being fools. He hated them for their love, he hated them for their hatred. He hated them that they let him put a crown on his head. He hated the world and all the people in it.
But he loved the Victim’s Crown. It belonged to him.