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Titus drove the sword deep into the man's flesh, twisting it slightly to render the fatal blow. He pulled out the blade and held it over his head, allowing the blood to drip into the sand. Thunderous applause echoed through the amphitheater, the plebeians and patricians of Rome hailing him as a hero. Titus breathed hard from the exertion of the fight and the thrill of this dangerous victory, his chest pushing against the heavy leather cuirass. A slight sneer curled the edges of his lips as he basked in the glory of having defeated the best gladiator in Rome and the feared leader of Caligula's German Guard.
Turning to face each section of the massive amphitheater, he raised his sword higher, eliciting more cheers. Through his metal helmet, he watched the flowers float down from the high seats to the blood-soaked sand of the arena. The city would fall at this gladiator's feet. The women would flock to him and gold would pour in too. Tomorrow, all the glory would be another man's but for the moment it belonged to Titus.
Livia rose to her feet with the crowd, swept up in their excitement and for a brief moment, shaking off the palla of fear constantly surrounding her. Slaves hurried out from the side of the arena to carry off the dead man but Livia barely noticed. Her attention was fixed on the triumphant gladiator. The sun glinted off the pectoral covering his wide chest, emphasizing his sweaty, muscular arms. Tight calves strained against the leather straps of his sandals, leading up to where his taut thighs disappeared under the dusty tunic. Something in the sheer strength of him called to her in a primitive way she could not ignore, and on a level deeper than pure lust. His victory spoke of hope and courage, and she longed to share in it, to let it surround her like a finely woven tunic and drive away the uncertainty plaguing the back of her mind.
Trumpets blared and the fighter sheathed his sword and left the arena. Livia sat down, barely aware of the excited chatter of the other matrons swirling around her. The image of the gladiator stayed with her, accompanied by another emotion humming just beneath the surface, one she barely dared to entertain. Touching her lips, she wondered what it would be like to lose herself in his power and strength, feel the force of life flowing through her and know again the joy of living as she had before Caligula, before the traitor trials.
No, it is a ridiculous daydream, she thought, pulling back her black veil and adjusting the gold stephane holding it in place over her hair. Unlike other matrons who eagerly sought the services of gladiators, she'd never indulged in such a forbidden dalliance. It was too dangerous to risk her reputation on so base a pleasure, especially with many already wondering why a widow of her status had not yet remarried.
"Caligula." The whisper of shock raced through the matrons and all thoughts of pleasure vanished. Across the arena, led by a parade of female slaves strewing flowers at his feet, Emperor Caligula entered his box, waving to the now-reserved crowd.
"What's he doing here?" a woman behind Livia hissed. "I thought he was at the Palatine Games."
"We all did or none of us would have dared come today," another matron answered, a noticeable quaver in her voice. "We should leave."
"No, you'll only draw his attention," her friend warned.
Anger cursed through Livia as she recalled the horror her friend Thuria had endured when the emperor's lecherous gaze fell on her. Her husband had done nothing to protect her, and she'd taken her life shortly afterward, unable to bear the shame.