Authors: Lydia Pax
He tossed the coin in his hand across the room. It landed in the chest in the corner, dinging sharply against the other collected precious metals there. There was enough there to buy almost anything.
And slowly, a plan began to formulate in his head.
ime passed quicker than Conall would have liked, and with not enough surety in the meantime. Two and a half weeks, in fact—eighteen entire days where he felt no relief for the seemingly bottomless reserve of stress grasping at his heart.
Training began anew. The day after any period of games—so long as the fighters were victorious—was reserved for celebration. And the celebration was vast—for gladiators stuck in a ludus, anyway.
Conall's grand day of celebration directly after the primus, in which the gladiators sang him songs and toasted their every last drink to him, felt strangely empty without having Leda at his side. Many toasts were offered up to Conall's name, and he offered back many more. But it was hollow without her. He took solace in the notion that soon she would be able to return to him and they could capitalize on the moment of his victory, that the work she had keeping her busy would pass quickly.
It did not.
Conall’s mind was in a hundred different places as training began again. He knew that all he should be thinking of—the
thing that he could think of—was at least three different things.
Such a contradiction in terms was not lost on him.
The first, obviously, was who was trying to kill his princess? How could he stop them? How could he kill them first so that they would never try again, and in a bloody enough way to send a message that would stop anyone else from ever lifting a finger against her?
He had wanted to discuss the matter with Leda, but the victories in the games required many eyes on many scrolls for fulfillment of contracts, and for that, Leda was needed. He thought only for a day or two, but then a week passed, and then another...and then another.
At nights, he still saw her, of course. But she was always wiped out from the day, her hands blackened with ink and her eyes barely able to stay open.
Payment for supplying gladiators to the Colosseum was great indeed. There were other slaves Publius could hire now that he collected such large fees. Conall got the feeling that he was punishing Conall by overworking Leda. There was no way to prove it, but if there was a manner in which Publius could be petty, Conall thought it likely the man would do so by over-assigning duties.
The one comfort he took was that at least the assassin, whoever it was, would not likely try to invade a ludus to gather his prize. That was tantamount to suicide.
In the ludus, at least in the cell block, Conall began to receive a wealth of respect from men that had never before even bothered to say his full name. They would call him “little one” or “the wild German.” Now they could not stop saying his name—could not stop attributing Conall’s success to the one time he knocked this man down in training, or outpaced that man during laps, and so on.
It was a strange thing, being valued. He did not altogether trust it.
And so the second thing on his mind was the upcoming games. Would he fight the Titan? Would his dream of completion come true? Was this a dream even worthy of having?
That last question bothered him to his core. All he had wanted, upon becoming a gladiator, was to be in the primus.
And yet, as soon as that was done, a new goal had cropped up in its place.
Would that sort of replacement ever stop for a man like Conall? He did not know.
He did not know any men like himself.
And the third thing on his mind during this endless flux of not knowing and guessing—quite clearly the only thing he could think of, just like the other two—was when he would hold Leda again. When he would hold her, kiss her, tell her he loved her dearly and would never be able to live a long life without her at his side.
On the nineteenth day, Conall woke up and immediately felt the apprehension hit him, grappling with the hard-earned calm from an uneasy night of sleep. Leda had stayed with him only for an hour before returning to the house up the hill. They had barely said two words to one another.
He worried that the chance to tell her of his affection simply wouldn't come. Having a conversation like that when she was clearly exhausted was unfair. And yet all he wanted to do was take her underneath him and treat her to a long night of rough, furious, lustful attentions.
The games in Rome were in just a few days' time. The man who would fight in the primus—be it Conall or someone else at the House Varinius ludus, or a man from another ludus entirely—still had not been decided.
His body had healed completely from the fight against Felix and Set. As such, he felt limber and loose as he stepped out onto the sands just before dawn. Training for Conall started with laps, as it always did.
Some few other gladiators had woken with him to run as he did. This had become something of the new normal. They waited for him to begin before they followed, taking his same path, knocking their fists at the wall in the same spots as he.
Soon the other gladiators filed out, and the doctores readied for drills. But before the fighters could step to work, Murus had them gather in front of the steps. Soon after, Publius descended from his house to look at his gathered fighters.
This is it
, thought Conall.
Finally. Finally I'll know.
“In a manner of days, our ludus will be honored again with the
in honor of the victory of Emperor Severus's campaigns in the East. These are to be the greatest games this ludus has ever had fortune to attend, and our first visit to Rome in over ten years. Only the best of us will be fighting, and even those best will have to perform far beyond their mortal standings. The Colosseum is a place for immortals. For Gods. Any fighter who is honored with its sands must stand far above the rest.”
He waited, examining each of the gathered gladiators in turn. Their total number was less than forty, but all were ready for the fray.
“All your fights have been decided. The sheet will circulate later today. But there is one fight in particular that we know of that you all should know of. The Governor of Puteoli has asked me to pick a fighter from our fight for the primus.”
A great roar of appreciation went up from the gladiators. Blood and honor—this was the only celebration they knew.
“Yes,” Publius held up a hand, silencing them. “And the honor is to be even greater. One of you will fight the Titan himself.”
Now, instead of a cheer, there was a hushed cloud of amazement. Conall knew all this was in the works already, keeping his mouth shut so as not to somehow curry Fortune's wrath. But even so, he felt a small creep of wonder at hearing the words.
“Isn’t he retired, Dominus?” someone asked.
“Not for this fight. Governor Trio is pulling out every stop. Sparing no expense. It will be a battle for the ages, and so I have chosen a champion for the ages. There may be some of you who disagree with my choice. But I must take the long view when it comes to restoring this house to its proper place.”
More than a few gladiators turned to look in Conall’s direction.
“Diocles will represent us in the Colosseum against the Titan,” said Publius. “He will be our champion—and he will restore this house to greatness!”
The gladiators cheered again—led by Diocles and his supporters. The cheer was noticeably less loud than the original pronouncement of going to the Colosseum. Conall noticed this with some empty, dry amusement. His chest felt like a hole, or maybe a ditch, something dug out for years only to find more of itself inside.
All that time he had spent waiting to hear—waiting to know for certain. And now it was only worse.
Publius said more, but Conall did not hear it. When they broke, he walked back to the sands for training. Septus trotted alongside him.
“I know you are disappointed by this, Conall. But this is the way it must be. We must take the long view, as the Dominus said.”
“It’s all right,” said Conall. “It’s fine.”
“I know it...” Septus’s mouth twitched. “I fear it must have hurt you. Bothered you.”
“No. Nothing like it. I hope Diocles wins. I hope he beats the Titan into the underworld. I’ll help him get there.”
Septus clapped him on the back, halting him.
“I did not give you the credit you deserved. You won in the sands against two magnificent fighters. You proved yourself a better man than they. Than any of us.” He gestured to the gladiators pairing up at posts. “I was wrong, and I can admit that. I apologize for doubting you.”
“Thank you, Septus. I...I thank you. I appreciate that.”
Another clap on the shoulder, and Septus returned to his sands, ordering his secutores to form up. Conall, heart empty, did his best to train out every feeling he had.
hat night, Leda snuck down to Conall’s cell. She had gathered some money in her time at the ludus, and without many vices, she had been able to save much of it. Leda didn’t drink often, and did not spend her extra income on unneeded things like extra rations or clothes.
So, there was plenty to slip a guard so that she could make her way down to the cell blocks.
She very much doubted she would have been able to bribe a guard at the main gates to the outside world. The tolerance for failure for an escaped slave was low, resulting usually in maiming or death. But a misplaced slave, one who simply woke up in a place that they shouldn’t have and reported to duty later than usual—that was almost expected.
Expected in House Varinius, at any rate. Publius, being as stingy as he was, loathed to waste an investment like a slave with heavy, regular harsh punishments. Many slave-owning nobles killed several a week, just to keep the rest in line.
When she lived in Armenia, Leda had heard many such stories, and had even known many such nobles herself. Her own family did not own slaves, but the measly contracts for labor they were given—and the lack of work in other parts of the country for unskilled laborers—meant that they were not much better off than actual slaves would have been.
When she was younger, she simply thought it was the way things were. It was Taniel who opened her eyes, who helped her understand that the world was a response to the people within it. If enough people wanted change—if they could be convinced to want change—then anything was possible.
There was much on her mind. Assassins foremost on the list. Her parents had sent men to silence her.
She felt stupid for feeling surprised. In her country, protest was a distinctly ugly and protracted form of suicide, but suicide all the same.
She wondered if her father had truly made so many blunders on purpose in front of the Roman ambassador in the way that it had been reported to her—if the emissary had been so unforgiving as to demand her body in servitude to Rome. Perhaps it had just been a way, all along, to get rid of her?
Was that same assassin—the one from the market, who nearly ended her—was he still out there?
The day after the games, she had petitioned the eunuch Iunius for a knife. Such items were not beyond the means of the man. He regularly arranged for bets by the gladiators, and also ensured that a steady supply of wine and goods arrived to the fighters under Publius's nose. Leda doubted Publius actually was unaware of Iunius's deeds; rather, he had simply recognized him as a necessary evil.
And as far as necessary evils went, Iunius was rather jovial.
“A knife?” he had laughed. “You must be joking. Arming a slave is punishable by death.”
“I won't be caught.”
“That's what everyone says,” he smiled, “and then they are abruptly caught and asked to spill names. No, thank you.”
“Please, Iunius?” She took his arm. “There are men after me. Assassins.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Assassins?”
“I'll do whatever you like. Your receipts for a year. Write you letters to emissaries. Surely, there must be something.”
That “something” was to write to a man in Rome about the location of a brother of his, separated a long time ago. She wrote ten in one night and told him to send them one week apart until he received word. If that did not work, she said, she would write him ten more.
The next day, she woke up with a knife underneath her sandals. Iunius was a slippery one.
Now, she had the knife strapped to her outer thigh. She could grab it with a little pulling of her stola. An immodest maneuver, perhaps, but there was nothing particularly modest about being killed by an assassin.
She had little expectation of using it within the walls of the ludus. In here, she felt safe—at least thinking that no assassin, no matter how skilled, would be able to sneak through an entire array of guards and then into a cell block full of gladiators without raising at least
kind of an alarm.
Thoughts of telling Publius of the situation had crossed her mind, but she didn’t trust him. Perhaps it would be the “proper” thing to do to hand her over to whatever assassins were after her. Perhaps he would see a way to raise the fortunes of his family by giving her up. In any case, she felt that the less people who knew, the better.
But Conall knew. And with Conall, she felt safer than she did with anyone else, anywhere else.
He sat on his cot in the cell, head hanging low. It wounded her to see him hurting so deeply. Of course she knew the reason why—there would be no primus for him in the Colosseum.
They had taken everything from him just at the moment when he’d thought he’d finally won. She pushed back the hood from her head, letting him see it was her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Is that any way to greet your lover?” She entered the cell and sat down next to him. “I heard they picked Diocles for the primus.”
“Yes. I’ll have a match. Finally fighting in the Colosseum.”
From his tone, she could tell that he was trying to be hopeful.