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Mark of the Gladiator
Warriors of Rome
By Heidi Belleau, Violetta Vane, Sarah Frantz
Riptide PublishingCopyright © 2012 Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane
All rights reserved.
The month of Aprilis. Emperor and Son of the Divine Caesar Augustus and Titus Statilius Taurus being consuls. Year 728 from the Founding of the City.
Anazâr welcomed the first lick of the lash. The pain reminded him, in its primal way, that he wanted to live. Or at least that he didn't want to die.
It was always like this. Anazâr would walk into the arena, blinking back the sun, and he would think, Dying today, that would be fitting; that would be the pleasing fulfillment of an incomplete pattern. And then he would press the edge of his left thumb against his blade, letting the little cut bloom into pain, awakening his animal self, and death was no longer abstract, no longer a concept, and then he would have to fight, have to live. That thing they called Cyrenaicus would emerge to fight in Anazâr's place.
And Cyrenaicus lived. He'd lived long enough for Anazâr's left thumb to be etched with faint silvery scars.
The whip brought him to that same threshold of transformation, but left him at it in unconsummated agony, because here, against the post, there was nothing to fight but himself.
A warning breath sounded as the whip cut the air, followed by a line of fiery pain along his back. A moment later, the pain overran the line. Pain --ripping deep down into his straining body while his skin itched at the sensation of blood crawling down his back. Pain. That was all. He could summon up neither hate nor outrage, and he'd lost his fear of this thin leather lash the day he'd seen a nailed flagrum lay open a man's ribs and send him howling and broken to the afterworld.
The time for hate and outrage had passed. Even the bitterest seeds of resentment and despair, sown the day of his capture and watered ever since with an endless string of humiliations and degradations and pain, had dissolved into something else, something there wasn't a name for. Not in any victor's tongue, anyway, and that was all that mattered here.
"Ten lashes for laziness, ten for cowardice, and now another ten for disobedience," shouted the lanista's right-hand man. Degis was known for his mastery of the whip. For the evenness of his strokes. The assembled gladiators stood silently, observing the familiar lesson.
Anazâr counted the last ten strokes under his breath, even though it made them more painful, because at least then they couldn't become infinite.
Ten for despondence, ten for scruples, ten for passive rebellion.
When it was over, Degis untied him from the whipping post. "Come on, Cyrenaicus," he said, his voice neither angry nor particularly sympathetic. "You know better than this. You do. So turn it around by the next match, eh? That's if the lanista doesn't sell you first." That last bit was conversational, almost light, but the threat was real.
Anazâr tried to answer, but the pain didn't leave any space to even start to form the words. He twitched his lips and fell to his knees.
"Gaius! Achilleus! Take him to his cell, get him water, and see him bandaged. The rest of you, learn this well. I don't care if there's no glory in it —stick to the script! Don't piss around when it comes to these mythologicals. You will be noticed. You will be punished. Dismissed!"
They half marched or maybe mostly dragged Anazâr to his cell, then laid him out face-down on the thin bedroll. He heard Gaius sending Achilleus away, and he couldn't help the treacherous relief that seized him, however short-lived it would be, knowing that his dishonorable behavior had at least stolen them a moment of privacy—or what passed as privacy for slaves, anyway.
Someone had left the bandages and salve already, but Gaius didn't turn to the doctoring just yet. Instead, Anazâr felt his hand cup the back of his neck and squeeze. "I should let these fester," Gaius scolded without venom. "Really. I know what you were doing out there. I know it wasn't cowardice. But if you can't go along with what—" I, he didn't say, although it was there "—we, all of us, do, why don't you just fall on your sword? Why live to make me watch you get whipped like that?"
Never blame for the lanista, who'd ordered the whipping, but then, there never was. No point to it. Blaming what you couldn't control? Might as well spit in the ocean or defy a god by pissing against his temple wall.
"I'm sorry," Anazâr said between the subsiding waves of pain as Gaius carefully wiped his wounds clean and applied the salve. "I'm sorry, but I don't love you nearly well enough to spare you the embarrassment."
"If I didn't know you better, I'd curse you for a cold man. I love you well enough."
"As well as you can. And I in return, equally." Gaius began laying the light linen strips over his back—a welcome cool pressure to quell the burning ache. "Thank you," he said, and didn't know whether he meant it for the treatment or the affection. Maybe they were one and the same, here.
"You've done this for me before. The lashing is nothing. Your mood, though, that's what concerns me. You're so close, Cyren. Stay in good standing for another year and you'll almost certainly have enough prize money to buy your freedom. You're still a young man. Still handsome, even if ..." Gaius trailed off at that. The slave tattoo blazing on Anazâr's forehead lurked after the if. "It can be covered. Even scarred out, I've heard," Gaius murmured, somewhat apologetically, as if he were sorry for his own unmarred face.
Anazâr tried to picture himself with a web of shiny scar tissue instead of the dark blue letters that followed the line of his left brow nearly to his hairline. TMQF: tene me quia fugio. In his language, halt me, for I am a runaway. A hideously practical preemptive measure against a repeat attempt at escape, as if such a thing were inevitable. As if he'd ever be so stupid as to try that again. But no. If eventually this life became too much to bear, he'd rather die in combat, where his cowardice could at least mean a fellow slave's glory.
But Gaius's kind words deserved better than Anazâr's sullen silence. Best to lighten the mood. "Am I still handsome? I don't make a habit of seeking out mirrors."
Gaius's knuckles brushed down his cheek, and though unseen, he felt the warmth of the cocky yet fond smile Gaius so often granted him. "The best looking man here, except for me."
With the utmost care, Anazâr pushed upward onto one elbow, twisting his pain-streaked body until he and Gaius were looking into one another's eyes. They were of a kind. Gaius was the only one who could speak his language. Not of his people, no—they had all died, down to the last man, along the harsh journey from Africa Proconsularis to Rome—but close. Very close. They had the same tawny skin, the same close-cropped dark curly hair, the same lean horseman's build that had led the lanista to train them for light-armored fighting. Even a similar network of scars on their bodies, a combination of injuries sustained in matches and those handed down here in the ludus, the ones you couldn't fight back against. No tattoo on Gaius, though; his face was a mirror, perfected. Strong-boned, square-jawed, eyes set deep and wide and guarded. Anazâr liked to think that his eyes weren't quite so cold.
They'd known yesterday's games would include a re-enactment of the slaughter of the suitors of Penelope. Anazâr had heard of the story—an old Greek one, called the Odyssey—before he was ordered to play the part of Telemachus that morning, but he'd never heard the story in full, and he'd assumed the slaughter was partly symbolic. The Romans did love their symbolism. When the gates opened, the entirely literal reality had hit him like a hammer blow: he, Gaius, and two archers would kill these twenty men. Twenty men who were unarmed, unarmored, too old or too young, and all sick, either with disease or fear.
Anazâr had held back. Hence, the lashing. Gaius hadn't.
So when Gaius's thumb brushed over Anazâr's lower lip, seeking entry, Anazâr pushed his hand away. He didn't feel superior—not with his own hands soaked in so much blood, and as much a slave's—but maybe they weren't so alike after all.
Gaius didn't press matters, didn't take offense, just nodded and said plainly, "When you're healed, let me know when to come to you."
Anazâr offered Gaius a noncommittal smile. Perhaps, in a few days, this mood would pass, and they'd fuck, negotiating a brief pleasure all the more tender for being hard-won.
Perhaps, in a few months, they'd face each other across the sand, lay whatever they had aside and fight to the death for a different kind of pleasure: that of the cheering crowd.
For now, he didn't want Gaius. He didn't want anyone. He wanted to want life again, instead of merely groping toward it out of an animal abhorrence of death ... but maybe he didn't want that either.
* * *
His wounds hadn't even healed enough to allow for the removal of his bandages, and the lanista had already come for him.
"Ungrateful spawn of a desert whore. I should feed you to something."
Anazâr kept his eyes on the ground, on the lanista's fine black sandals stitched with yellow cord. They both knew the threat was empty. Iunius was a practical man. He wouldn't throw such an expensive slave to the beasts. Sell him off at a profit and be rid of him, though, that was a distinct possibility.
He seemed to sense Anazâr's prediction. "I already tried to sell you. The other lanistae aren't buying. Last week, I could have gotten top price. You were known as a solid thraex. Today, you're known as a half-mad bastard who can't, or won't, follow the simplest of choreography. Speak. State your case."
It was a dire situation. Refusal would be seen as insolence, but any explanation Anazâr offered, whether truth or lie, wouldn't be satisfactory, either.
He seized some Latin words and set them into the air, not even knowing yet what he meant to argue. "I'm not sure, myself, Dominus. A curse. Maybe it was a curse. I meant to follow orders. I can fight. Match me again, Dominus, and I'll show you."
"Idiot barbarian, you don't know shit about curses." Iunius shifted his weight, and the shuffling noise of his sandal soles carried his irritation, Anazâr's dread. "Actually, you're not stupid, but you are unpredictable, and that's worse. I could take a loss on you. Sell you to the mines; they'd get a good year's work out of you before you die. Luckily for you, I have something more creative in mind."
A strange, sweet pain shook itself loose inside his chest. Something. Anything.
"Thank you, Dominus."
"I've contracted you to another lanista for a period of two months. A very unusual, accidental sort of lanista. You won't be fighting. You'll be training others. It just so happens you're exactly what is needed there."
"Numidians?" Anazâr blurted out. Hope swelled in his chest at the thought of being reunited with more of his people, even for such a short time, even to such gruesome ends.
"Worse. Women! Gladiatrices. A perversion of the games. But there's an audience demand for it, so of course the consul will have them fight. The lanista is desperate for a new trainer. The old one couldn't keep his prick out of the stock, so I got a good price for your time there by assuring him you aren't inclined to do the same. I hope your lack of appetite for women is testament to your tastes in general and not the attractiveness of my kitchen slaves."
Was he supposed to respond to that? "I, ah—"
"I don't care why you are the way you are. Train them, don't fuck them. Simple, eh? Do the job right, and I'll take you back in good standing. And the lanista is a younger, wealthy man, politically connected, the son of a wealthy plebeian who raised his house to equites status, and that's as close to a senator as quim to ass, or duck to goose. Impress him and I wouldn't be averse to selling you to him and making the position permanent."
And freed, Anazâr dared to imagine. Many trainers were freedmen.
"If he's unhappy with your performance, I'll have you sold to the mines or maybe just scourged to death as a morale-booster for the other men, depending on the economy and my mood that day. Is that sufficient motivation?"
"Yes, Dominus. Thank you, Dominus." Anazâr carefully raised his eyes while keeping his neck bent downward. Iunius was thin, gaunt, silver-haired, and a full head shorter, but his presence filled the hall so completely he might as well have been a titan of old. There was a faint smile on his face; Anazâr read it as an expression of self-satisfaction. Iunius had seized financial victory, after all.
* * *
After that, things moved quickly, the way they always did when masters made up their minds. There was no use in wasting the trainer's time with the usual schedule of drills and exercises, not on Anazâr, not when he was leaving so soon, so he was made to sit aside and watch the proceedings, his itchy back baking in the sun. He studied the forms, the blows, the equipment, all as if they were new to him. And they were, because for the first time, he was looking at them with a trainer's eye. How best to explain them, to model them, when to introduce them and to whom? Some men spent more time lifting weights than others. Some struck wooden posts, while others sparred together. By which logic were they paired?
He had most of the answers already. It was common practice to second-guess the trainers whenever gladiators gathered. These were matters of life and death, after all, so he and his brothers talked of little else. But then, perhaps to call them brothers was no longer appropriate. All day, they were as focused on the task of training as they'd ever been, but not so focused that they didn't find time to spare him resentful glances. Here, as they took a moment to exchange weapons. There, as they paused for water. Did they think he was being rewarded? They must despise him for breaking their blood bond with his cowardice. For breaking that bond for anything other than death.
Even Gaius, who usually smiled like a madman and flirted like a fiend no matter their circumstances, avoided his gaze. Anazâr should have felt relieved that at least he wasn't glowering like the others, but it was a cold comfort.
That night, like the night before, he was barred from the common dinner and sent alone to his cell with food and drink: the same bland but hearty beans as always, but all he could picture as he ate was that his brothers were probably imagining him dining on meat and good wine.
"Dominus told me to give you this new tunic," the kitchen slave who'd brought his dinner said, laying it down beside the bowls. "But you'd better not put it on yet. You're still bleeding a little."
"Am I?" His back was such a mess of pain and itching and scabbing, he couldn't tell one discomfort from another.
"Are you—" She looked ashamed, for a moment, but continued on. "Are you afraid of going? I haven't changed hands for five years now. I don't know if I could bear it again. What if your new master is cruel?"
"Iunius remains my master. This new man is just paying for my services. Anyway, no, I'm not afraid. Iunius isn't exactly kind himself, and anything's better than the mines, don't you think?"
She didn't reply.
He slept on his stomach again and dreamed of riding to war with his kinsmen across the western desert. But the sand beneath their horses' hooves turned to seafoam, and one by one, they foundered and were lost. The water closed above him and stole his last breath.
In the morning, he woke gasping and realized with new dread that he hadn't even gotten the chance to say good-bye to Gaius. Maybe never would, depending on how well Gaius fought over the coming months. So he did what he always did: prayed to the Romans' god Mars and his own goddess Ifri that Gaius would win through safely. He couldn't ask for more than that. Didn't dare. Praying for freedom? Well.
* * *
Iunius and two guards escorted him to the house of Marianus.
He'd only ever walked the streets of Rome shackled and heavily guarded on his way to and from matches. This time, Iunius didn't bother shackling him. Walking without the weight of his irons felt close to flying.
Excerpted from Mark of the Gladiator by Heidi Belleau, Violetta Vane, Sarah Frantz. Copyright © 2012 Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane. Excerpted by permission of Riptide Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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