Authors: Lydia Pax
Gaiane would have more trouble with court life—perhaps almost as much as Leda. She was shy, and had a terrible anxiety about crowds. When she was young, she had almost been run down in the street by a charging mob running away from a wagon caught fire. Social situations with lots of people made Gaiane nervous ever since, as, in her own words, there was no telling what someone might be up to when she wasn’t looking at them directly. She operated best in circles.
Leda had done her best to get her younger and older siblings to get along, despite their very best efforts. Taniel’s rebellious streak rubbed Dzovag entirely the wrong way, and Endza and Gaiane were always in a tiff about something.
A plate broke on the street, catching Leda’s attention. Some passers-by clapped their hands in sarcastic appreciation. The man who dropped the plate took a deep bow, smiling roughly, and then dropped to a knee to gather up the broken clay of the plate.
The small episode brought Leda’s mind back to the present. Looking around her, she noticed that Conall was gone somewhere in the crowd. She had a habit of walking fast when her mind was occupied, and it must have caught up to her now.
“You are the slave from House Varinius, yes? Leda?”
She turned to see a rather tall man in a charcoal gray tunic. He had the deepest blue eyes and hair that was solid white.
, she thought.
He doesn't seem old
“I am.” She raised an eyebrow. “Have you business with me?”
He drew next to her and held something solid and sharp to her hip. “Come with me, or I'll make sure the last few minutes of your life are spent in agony.”
Leda froze. Terror struck her. Her eyes searched the crowd madly for Conall—who she found on the other end of the street, dozens of feet away with his back to her. A flamboyantly dressed merchant was accosting him, trying to sell him some necklaces.
She gathered her breath to scream, but the knife at her side dug in more.
“Rethink that, girl.” The man’s voice was heavy. He spoke with an accent that she couldn’t quite place. “Come with me.”
He led her into an alley, and for all she knew, the end of her life.
on't you buy at least the one, sir? At least the one. A fine gladiator like you, you must have a great many women searching for your affection.”
He had let it slip that he was a gladiator after the merchant asked.
“I don't have any money, merchant. Leave me be, please.”
Conall had tried being polite for nearly two minutes, searching the crowd for Leda. She had gotten away from him in the thick of the crowd. There was nothing—or rather, there was too much. The street was crowded with man and beast, and making out one single woman—even a beautiful one like Leda—was difficult.
The streets of Puteoli were largely straightforward, like most Roman towns, with an orderly and predictable layout. But in the market center close to the docks, where the city grew before Rome standardized its expansion, there was a much more organic flow to the alleys and capillaries of the city’s lifeblood. Life became more crowded and closed in here. With so much of men shouting, messengers running, children screeching, and wagons rumbling, it was easy to start longing for the simple, understandable layout of House Varinius.
“Money is not an object, sir. Just being able to say a mighty gladiator like you took one would boost my sales.”
Conall rose an eyebrow, suspicion raised. What merchant trafficked with a man with no money?
He began to stride through the crowd, leaving the merchant behind. But the man grasped at his arm, his palms sweaty.
“Please sir, you must take
. You haven't even had a good look. Why, if you kept at it, I bet—”
At the bend in the street was an alley with a large man guarding its entrance. He wore a leather smock, and had the sort of heavy, fat-layered build of a man who could take a beating—and had.
Conall looked beyond him, hearing some sounds of a struggle—and there he saw Leda. A white-haired man was with her, brandishing a long knife.
“Er,” said the merchant. “You see, sir. I have a...eh, mmm, a
who merely wishes to carry out a business transaction with your compatriot. You understand, I'm sure—”
In the alley, Conall watched the man holding Leda throw her against the wall. She landed with a low thud. The knife gleamed in the daylight.
Red vision and rage.
There was a broken wagon axle leaning against a nearby cart. Conall picked it up and rushed at the man guarding the entrance. He knocked him aside with a heavy shoulder tackle and rushed Leda's attacker.
It all happened in a flash. The man tried to block with his knife, and Conall knocked it aside. The blow knocked the man down, and Conall stood over him, ready to spill his brains on the pavement.
But from behind, the guard ran at him. He kept low to the ground, readying to slash. Seeing him coming, Conall dodged and rolled, heels hitting the walls of the alley. It was a tight, confined space.
The guard, a big man, took up much more room than Conall and had the advantage on reach. Conall had more room to maneuver, though, and could easily sidestep him.
Conall kicked him in the knee, bringing the larger man down to the ground. His blood raged. Two hard knee strikes to the temple with the makeshift club, and the guard was down. He did not get up.
The merchant, if that's what he was at all, had rushed past Conall to the man with the knife and Leda.
The white-haired man was on his feet again, but the merchant was trying to stand in his way.
“This is madness!” he said. “You didn’t tell me anything about a murder. You said you wanted her money. You said—”
The man clapped his hand on the merchant’s back. For a moment, it looked like an embrace. Then the merchant fell, and Conall saw the blood spurting from a new hole in his back. The white-haired man advanced on Leda then. He was blood and metal; he was ill intent.
A crowd had begun to gather at the end of the alley. Shouts for legionaries went up. No doubt they would be there soon—but not soon enough for Leda.
Conall rushed the man again, smashing his shoulder with the club. He cried out and turned, thrusting at Conall. A miss. Conall slammed the club down on his wrist, sending the knife clattering to the ground.
They exchanged a quick flurry, Conall blocking every attempt. Finally he delivered a hard blow, clean across the jaw, and it knocked him all the way out. He collapsed onto the ground in a heavy slump.
“Are you all right?”
He knelt down in front of Leda. Her feet shuffled, trying to push herself further into the corner. Her eyes were wide, scared. He snapped his fingers.
“Look at me. Look. Here. Not the body. Me. Are you all right?”
“Never up close,” she said, laughing nervously. “In the arena it’s different. Far away. You can distance yourself. But he was close. I could smell him dying. All that metal in the air. How do you smell it? You smell it all the time.”
He did not know what else to do so he held her. It was with immense gratitude that he felt her hug him back. Her cheek and lips were soft against his chest, his arm, resting there. For that brief moment, all that affection he'd felt for her—all that brilliant heat—returned in a flash, and he had to struggle to keep his mind on task.
I can keep you safe
, he thought,
if only you'll let me.
“Come on,” he said. He took her up on his arm. “Let’s get out of here, all right? We can figure this out later.”
A crowd had gathered at the end of the alley. They began to part as Conall and Leda walked through.
Once there, Conall stopped. The adrenaline had started to fade, and he realized probably he should grab the white-haired man, the assassin, the whatever-he-was, for questioning.
Conall looked back. The alley guard held his head and knee, moaning. The merchant slowly bled out on the ground. And the white-haired man—he was gone entirely.
t was early evening when they returned, and Publius was not happy. He caught them on the stairs of the estate, berating them before the gate in front of the estate guards.
“What is wrong with you?” he demanded. “You killed a man in the streets! And your employer, no less.”
“I didn’t kill anyone.” Conall shook his head. “I knocked one man down and another man out. I thought I had knocked them both out.” He shrugged. “I should have checked.”
They were being very loud, the both of them. Leda wished they would be quiet and let her take a nap. It had been a day. A business deal; an attempted stabbing; having her life saved. A full day indeed.
She had spent the journey back to the ludus in Conall's arms, holding him tight to her. Probably there would be no more attempts on her life for the time being, but that did not make her nerves any less shaky. Holding him, taking comfort in the strong, sure comfort of his dense muscles and deadly skills, made her feel safe.
“I am not reprimanding you, gladiator, for failing to knock a man out,” said Publius. “You were seen in full view of the entire city engaging in combat outside of the arena. What were you thinking?”
“You approved the taking of a job as a bodyguard. Did you think I would be gathering flowers and making crowns from petals?”
“I didn’t imagine a man would wind up dead and two others dropped like sacks of flour in the street.”
“I don’t see what you’re complaining about,” said Leda. “Your man won the fight. And I am well as a result.
saved my life. That’s the story the people will say.”
“The story will be that my gladiators are not to be trusted because they start fights in the market over women. Do you think me stupid? This man, this mysterious man, made an advance on you.
,” Publius nodded at Conall, “didn’t like it because of his own jealousy, and attacked him for his trouble. When the other man had a knife, that’s when it all turned dangerous. And stupid. Thoroughly stupid.”
“That’s not what happened,” said Conall. “There are witnesses. You can ask—”
“The whole city is a witness now! And every witness with a different story.”
Conall opened his mouth and then shut it again. “I don’t know what you want, Dominus. You asked me to work for you protecting your property. In the course of that action, a man offered harm to your property. I protect your property, and you’re angry about it. You want me to fight at my status, and I fight at the status you hired me for, and—”
“Enough. I see your point.”
Publius walked away for a moment, holding a hand to his chin. He nodded and then grabbed a guard.
Conall stepped back. “What?”
“No!” Leda was incensed now. “You can’t be serious.”
The thought of Conall being hurt because he had been brave enough to save her was enough to make her sick with rage. It was neither her fault nor his that some crazed man with a knife had intentions upon her. She knew it was thoroughly dumb to blame herself for such actions. But if Conall was hurt now, a massive tide of guilt awaited her no matter what her endless logic might say.
“He is a slave. A gladiator involved in violence in the public. I cannot let this go unpunished.”
Leda stepped in front of Conall. “That isn’t fair, Dominus.”
“Fair?” he scoffed. “It’s nothing to do with fair. I must draft a report to the governor of this city. When I do, I will have to explain what repercussions my property suffered for creating unrest in his city—which is all he cares about. If there are no consequences from my hand, then you can rest assured
will demand some, and they will not be as lenient as I am. Ten lashes.” He paused, nose twitching. “No. Five. He needs to train, still.”
“You can’t do this, Dominus. He does not deserve it and you know it.”
For a moment, Publius examined her. “This is my ludus. I am not the subject of a slave.”
There was not a lot of leverage afforded to Leda. She had to use everything that she had. Boldly she walked up the steps and lowered her voice to a harsh whisper.
“If you lash him, I will not perform any more legal duties for you. Put me in a cell if you must. But do not harm that man.”
Conall stepped forward now. Perhaps he didn't hear everything Leda said, but he had understood well enough. “You don’t have to do this, Leda. I’ve been lashed before. It hurts, but it’s—”
She turned on him. “
. I will not have you punished because you saved my life.” Her gaze hardened on Publius. “What is it to be? His lashes or my knowledge?”
“I know many lawyers in the city. A great many.”
“Then go and purchase one.”
Publius frowned. Already, Leda knew he couldn’t afford such a venture. If he could have, he never would have used a slave for the duty in the first place. It was beneath him. He took a scroll from his pocket—the letter from her family. A thick barb turned over in Leda’s stomach.
“I presume the wine is taken care of?”
“Good. Then I shall keep this,” he flicked the scroll, “until it is delivered. For safekeeping. You seem prone to being found in the midst of accidents, after all.”
He nodded at the guard holding Conall. “Let him go.”
Leda had gotten her way. It was an odd sensation that took her to more than a year before, bartering over which tutor her sister should have. Her father had wanted her to learn sewing instead of the Greek language, and Leda had insisted that if she were to be an educated young woman, there was no other option
Six weeks later, Endza had sewing lessons five times a week from a Greek tutor. They spoke only in Greek. Her father always got his way.
That was the look Publius gave her now. He would get his way eventually, and no doubt Leda would feel the ends of his temper soon.
here was some time left before Conall was required to be back inside his cell block and Leda sat with him at a small bench next to the watering trough. The gladiators training sands lay before them. The trough was inside of a small shed buried into the earth next to the long stairwell up to the estate house.