Saturday, February 6, 2016

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Warriors of Rome

Ancient Rome, a hotbed of decadence and political intrigue, profoundly influenced our modern world and has maintained an enduring hold on our imaginations. Though the Empire has fallen, its stories remain.

In this collection, we've gathered together two novels and two novellas that explore the breadth of the Roman Empire. From slave gladiators to senators, Roman sexuality to Roman politics, these stories reveal the lives and trials of those fighting for the Empire in one way or another—on the sands or in the villas, or even on the senate floor.

The Left Hand of Calvus #1
Former gladiator Saevius is certain fortune’s smiling on him when a Pompeiian politician buys him to be his bodyguard. But then his new master, Laurea Calvus, orders Saevius to discover the gladiator with whom his wife is having an affair. In order to do that, Saevius must return to the arena, training alongside the very men on whom he’s spying. Worse, he’s now under the command of Drusus, a notoriously cruel—and yet strangely intriguing—lanista.

But Saevius’s ruse is the least of his worries. There’s more to the affair than a wife humiliating her prominent husband, and now Saevius is part of a dangerous game between dangerous men. He isn’t the only gladiator out to expose the Lady Verina’s transgressions, and her husband wants more than just the guilty man’s name.

When Saevius learns the truth about the affair, he’s left with no choice but to betray one of his masters: one he’s come to fear, one he’s come to respect, and both of whom could have him killed without repercussion. For the first time in his life, the most dangerous place for this gladiator isn’t the arena.

First off I want to say, even though I have featured LA Witt's work on my blog before and even have a couple on my Kindle, this is the first time I've read her but it won't be the last.  Her grasp of Ancient Rome is pretty spot on, the characters, the setting, the story all held my attention from the beginning.  Those looking for erotica will be disappointed, in fact many would not label this as erotic romance, me on the other hand found it incredibly erotic, not because there is pages upon pages of sex, there isn't.  No, I find the whole sub-genre of Ancient Rome amazingly erotic because the era was so open minded, even when it was behind closed curtains and LA Witt captures that from beginning to end.


He is Worthy #2
Rome, 68 A.D. Novius Senna is one of the most feared men in Rome. He’s part of the emperor’s inner circle at a time when being Nero’s friend is almost as dangerous as being his enemy. Senna knows that better men than he have been sacrificed to Nero’s madness—he’s the one who tells them to fall on their swords. He hates what he’s become to keep his family safe. He hates Nero more.

Aenor is a newly-enslaved Bructeri trader, brutalized and humiliated for Nero’s entertainment. He’s homesick and frightened, but not entirely cowed. He’s also exactly what Senna has been looking for: a slave strong enough to help him assassinate Nero.

It’s suicide, but it’s worth it. Senna yearns to rid Rome of a tyrant, and nothing short of death will bring him peace for his crimes. Aenor hungers for revenge, and dying is his only escape from Rome’s tyranny. They have nothing left to lose, except the one thing they never expected to find—each other.

Well written tale of Ancient Rome at the end of Nero's time that captures the fear most living within the city walls felt nearly perfectly while only centering on a few characters.  The only downside is it is a little on the short side but the story is wonderful with characters that burrowed into my heart immediately.  You can't help but feel Aenor's pain and even Senna's inner turmoil, being from Nero's inner circle is both feared and in fear of where life is headed, is captured in every page.


The City War #3
Senator Marcus Brutus has spent his life serving Rome, but it’s difficult to be a patriot when the Republic, barely recovered from a civil war, is under threat by its own leader. Brutus’s one retreat is his country home, where he steals a few precious days now and then with Cassius, his brother-in-law and fellow soldier—and the one he loves above all others. But the sickness at the heart of Rome is spreading, and even Brutus’s nights with Cassius can’t erase the knowledge that Gaius Julius Caesar is slowly becoming a tyrant.

Cassius fears both Caesar’s intentions and Brutus’s interest in Tiresias, the villa’s newest servant. Tiresias claims to be the orphaned son of a minor noble, but his secrets run deeper, and only Brutus knows them all. Cassius, intent on protecting the Republic and his claim to Brutus, proposes a dangerous conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. After all, if Brutus—loved and respected by all—supports it, it’s not murder, just politics.

Now Brutus must return to Rome and choose: not only between Cassius and Tiresias, but between preserving the fragile status quo of Rome and killing a man who would be Emperor.

Those who know anything about Ancient Rome, know that Brutus will not find longtime happiness but this story is not about the longterm so maybe he will be able to find some peace within the pages of The City War, but you will have to discover that for yourself because as most of you know I don't do spoilers.  I've never read this author before but I'll be sure to keep the name Sam Starbuck on my watchlist.  A wonderful installment in the Warriors of Rome series.


Mark of the Gladiator #4
After an inconvenient display of mercy in the arena, the gladiator Anazâr is pulled from the sands and contracted to nobleman Lucius Marianus to train his new stable of female gladiators. His charges are demoralized and untested, and they bear the marks of abuse. Anazâr has a scant two months to prepare them for the arena, and his new master demands perfection.

Anazâr is surprised by how eager he is to achieve it—far more eager than a man motivated only by self-preservation. Perhaps it’s because Marianus is truly remarkable: handsome, dignified, honorable, and seemingly as attracted to Anazâr as Anazâr is to him.

But a rivalry between Marianus and his brother sparks a murder conspiracy, with Anazâr and his gladiatrices caught in the middle. One brother might offer salvation . . . but which? And in a world where life is worth less than the pleasures of the crowd or the whims of a master, can there be any room for love? As a gladiator, Anazâr's defenses are near impenetrable. But as a man, he learns to his cost that no armor or shield can truly protect his heart.

Ancient Rome was usually no place for mercy, especially when a gladiator displayed it without permission, and Anazâr finds that out, which is where the story begins.  Mark of the Gladiator is filled with conspiracy, deceit, violence, training, sex, and there are moments where love is discovered in the least likely place and time.  This story has everything that defined the era and done so with close accuracy and passion, I hated to see the last page come but all stories must end.  Heidi Belleau is another author I have featured here before but never read, well it won't be the last time I find her work open on my Kindle and I look forward to checking out Violetta Vane's work as well.


Warriors of Rome #1-4
The Left Hand of Calvus, a gladiator sent undercover to another ludus must decide which master to betray.

He Is Worthy, a Bructeri slave and a Roman patrician make strange—and literal—bedfellows in the plot to assassinate Nero.

The City War, Senator Marcus Brutus must decide what he's willing to do for his lover—and for Rome. A stable boy with a secret and a leader-cum-tyrant push Brutus onto a path from which he can never return.

Mark of the Gladiator, a disfavored gladiator is bought to train a group of female warrior slaves for the arena. Thrust into the middle of a murder conspiracy, Anazâr must find a way to protect his charges—and his heart—from his new master and a patrician family feud.

The Left Hand of Calvus #1
Chapter 1
So this is Pompeii. The prosperous city at the base of Vesuvius.

I’ve heard the tales about this place. Quiet. Warm. Near the sea. Until recently, with the rudis of freedom so close I could almost feel its wooden hilt in my hands, I had considered coming here to make my home once I was no longer a slave. That is until Fortune decided I should remain in bondage. I’d had perhaps three fights left, but now I, along with two other men from my familia gladiatori, are on our way to the Pompeiian politician who’s now our master.

In spite of the fact that I’d lost my chance at freedom, the rest of the men in the familia had been envious.

“A nobleman? In Pompeii?” One had slapped my arm. “You lucky bastard!”

“Agreed,” another had said. “You won’t be in the arena anymore, and if you’ve got to stay a slave, Saevius, you could do worse than to live out your days as some rich bastard’s bodyguard.”

A third had added, “Pompeii? I hear in that place, the wine they pour in noblemen’s houses tastes like the lips of Venus herself.”

The other men traveling with me had been thrilled by that notion. Me, I’m as enthusiastic about any woman’s lips, including Venus’s, as I am about spending the rest of my days a fucking slave, so I’d simply muttered, “I’ll be sure to give my regards to Bacchus.”

What servant drinks the same wine as his masters, I can hardly imagine. But never mind, because the wine here is probably no different from what flows in Rome. After all, Pompeii doesn’t seem much different from Rome, if you ask me. A great deal smaller, yes, and much less crowded. At least in this part of the city, though, it’s all the same terracotta roofs and limestone walls and, as we near the market, people dragging unruly livestock down stone streets past lumbering carts and clouds of buzzing flies. Smells like bread, sweat, fish, and dung, just like Rome, with chickens talking over the shouting bakers, fishmongers, butchers, and vintners while hammering and banging come from workshops behind shop fronts and booths. Perhaps I should have considered retiring to Herculaneum instead. Then again, if Pompeii isn’t in life what it is in stories, then Herculaneum likely isn’t the luxurious place it’s said to be either.

Not that I have a choice now. Pompeii is my home until I’m sold or I die. Or my new master sees fit to free me when I’m no longer of use to him.

Ectur, the monolith of a Parthian tasked with bringing the three of us down from Rome, leads us deeper into Pompeii’s stinking, bustling market. With every exhausted step, our chains rattle over the city’s noise. Though the streets are crowded, people move aside to let us pass. Some give us wary looks, standing between us and their wives and children. Even those struggling to move carts down these difficult roads stay out of our way. They’re especially wary of Ectur. We certainly look the part of gladiators—scarred, tanned brutes, all of us—and since Ectur’s unchained, people probably think he’s our lanista. No citizen with any sense wants near a lanista.

The market must be close to the Forum. All over the place, noblemen strut like cocks and sneer at slaves and citizens, just like every one I ever saw in Rome, as though the gods themselves should fear them. Would’ve liked to have met one of them in the arena during my fighting days; he’d have wept to the gods for mercy, and that pristine white toga would have been stained in shit before I’d fully raised my sword.

But, gods willing, my days in the arena are behind me forever.

Just beyond the market, where the streets fan out toward clusters of high-walled villas, Ectur approaches a squat, balding man in a tunic that’s far too clean to belong to a common laborer. The man’s attention is buried in a beeswax tablet resting on his arm, and he’s muttering to himself as he scratches something into it with a stylus.

He glances up at us, and I realize he only has one eye. Dropping his attention back to the tablet, he grumbles, “Thought you’d leave me waiting all bloody day.”

“Longer journey from Rome than it is from your master’s house,” Ectur mutters.

Without looking up, the one-eyed man says, “I’ll need to look at them before you leave. The Master Laurea will be unhappy if they are not up to his standards.”

Ectur stands straighter, narrowing his eyes. “Caius Blasius doesn’t deal in faulty goods.”

“Then he’ll not mind if I inspect his goods to be sure.” The one-eyed man gestures at us with his stylus. “Whereas I have a beating waiting if I bring to my master slaves who are not to his liking. So he’ll—” He stops abruptly, his eye widening. “Where is the fourth? Master Laurea specifically selected four men, not three.”

“The fourth fell ill. Terrible fever, and the medicus can’t say if he’ll live.” Ectur pulls a scroll from his belt and hands it to the one-eyed man. “Caius Blasius gives his word your master will be compensated.”

Glancing back and forth from the scroll to Ectur, the man sighs heavily. “The master will not be happy. It was the fourth in particular who interested him.”

Ectur sniffs with amusement. “That scrawny Phoenician is hardly worth the sestertii your master paid for him. An entertaining gladiator, maybe, but he’s worthless outside the arena.”

I can’t help a quiet laugh. It’s true enough; the idiot Phoenician is only alive—assuming he still is—because he’s less afraid of his opponents than he is of the punishment for being a coward on the sands. A man bred to be a bodyguard, he is not.

“The master selected his men for a reason,” the one-eyed man snaps at Ectur. He sighs and shakes his head. “Never mind, then. If he isn’t here, he isn’t here. The other three had best be in good condition.”

Ectur doesn’t respond. He folds his arms across his chest, watching with a scowl as the man with the stylus inspects us each in turn, tutting and muttering to himself in between jabbing us with his finger and etching something into the tablet. He pokes at scars and bruises, eyeing us when we flinch, and then checks our teeth and eyes. Since I was a child, I’ve been through more of these inspections than I can count, and still I have to force myself not to put both hands around his throat and show him I’m as fit and strong as a gladiator—or bodyguard, in this case—ought to be.

Finally, he grunts and slams shut the leather cover on the wax tablet. “They’re all well.”

“Good,” says the Parthian. “Give my regards to your master.”

“And yours.” The one-eyed man gestures sharply at us. “Come with me.”

Without a word from any of us, we follow the man. His legs are shorter than ours nearly by half, but he walks quickly, his gait fast and angry, and with heavy chains on our ankles, it’s a struggle to keep up with him. Ectur doesn’t come with us.

Soon, we will meet our new master.

By name, Junius Calvus Laurea isn’t unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard Caius Blasius mention him—usually with a scowl—and he’s apparently bought gladiators from my former master before. I don’t know his face, though, and I know nothing of the man whose life I will be sworn to guard. Only that he isn’t a lanista and my existence no longer includes the inside of an arena. Freedom may not be in my future, but Fortune be praised a thousand times over anyway.

The one-eyed servant leads us down a narrow road between the enormous villas lined up in ranks just inside the wall along the northern edge of the city. In spite of our chains, my fellow former gladiators and I exchange smiles. A villa instead of a ludus gladiatori? Indeed, this will be a new life. The existence of a bodyguard isn’t safe per se, but unless our master has an unusual number of enemies, we’ll protect him with our presence more often than our fighting skills. We’ll more likely die from boredom than a blade.

On our way out of Rome, we’d passed through the shadow of the nearly completed Colosseum. As the immense structure’s cool shade rested on my neck and shoulders, I’d whispered a prayer of thanks, in spite of the chains on my wrists and ankles, for my good fortune. Rumors abound about what’s planned for the Colosseum, and some say the games there will be far greater and more brutal than all the Ludi we’d barely survived at Circus Maximus. Another year or two, people say, and it will be complete. Perhaps I’ll never earn my rudis and the freedom that accompanies it now, but any gladiator should be grateful for the chance to serve a nobleman rather than set foot in that place.

We stop in front of one of the countless villas. There, two massive, heavily-armed guards push open the tall gates, and we walk inside. Our one-eyed guide takes us through the luxurious home to the garden in the back. Here, within the high walls covered in trailing ivy and in the shade of a massive cypress tree, servants and statues surround our new master.

As soon as I see him, I recognize the Master Laurea. I’ve seen him at the ludus before, watching us train and inspecting us the way his servant did today. I didn’t know at the time he was the one called Calvus Laurea, but I never forgot that face. Carved from cold stone, sharply angled, with intense blue eyes that always emphasize the smirk or scowl on his lips.

He lounges across a couch, cradling a polished cup in his hand as a servant fans away the day’s heat with enormous feathers. A large bodyguard stands behind Calvus Laurea, as does a black-eyed servant with a wine jug clutched to her chest.

The man who led us here stops us with a sharp gesture, and all three of us go to our knees, heads bowed.

The master gets up. His sandals scuff on the stone ground. “Stand, all of you.” As one, we rise to attention.

“I am Junius Cal—” His brow furrows. He looks from one of us to the next. Narrowing his eyes, he turns to the man who brought us. “There are three, Ataiun. Where is the fourth?”

The one-eyed servant bows his head. “My apologies, Dominus. There were only three. The fourth was stricken with fever and unable to travel.” He pulls out the scroll Ectur had given him. “His master sends this promise of compensation.”

Master Laurea scowls. “Very well. I suppose it will have to do.” He waves a hand at his servant. “See that it’s accounted for.” To us, he says, “I am Junius Calvus Laurea, and I am your new master.”

Once again, he looks at us each in turn. I try not to notice how his gaze keeps lingering on me longer than it does on the others, but his pauses are too conspicuous to ignore.

At last, he speaks: “You’re the one called Saevius, yes?”

I square my shoulders. “I am, Dominus.”

Without taking his eyes off me, he says to his servant, “Show the others to their quarters.” He gestures at me. “This one stays here.”

The men who accompanied me bow their heads sharply, and a moment later, they are gone.

Master Laurea steps closer to me, still looking me squarely in the eyes. “Welcome to Pompeii, Saevius,” he says with a slight smile. “You may call me Calvus.”

His request for familiarity sends ghostly spiders creeping up the length of my spine.

Without taking his eyes off mine, he snaps his fingers. “Bring us wine. Both of us.”

The servant holding the wine jug obeys immediately, and the spiders are more pronounced now, my breath barely moving as the woman pours two cups of wine. She hands one to our master, and then the other to me.

“Leave us,” Calvus says. “All of you.”

Gods, be with me . . .

In moments, I am alone with my new master, a cup of wine in my uncertain hand. Calvus brings his cup to his lips, pausing to say, “Drink, Saevius. I insist.”

I do. I can’t say if it tastes like the cunt of Venus, but it’s as sweet and rich as Pompeiian wines are said to be, if slightly soured by the churning in the pit of my stomach.

“You won’t be my bodyguard, Saevius,” Calvus says suddenly. “Not like the two who came with you.”

I suddenly can’t taste the wine on my tongue. With much effort, I swallow it. “Whatever you ask of me, Dominus.”

“I have two tasks for you, Saevius.” Something about the way he says my name, the way he keeps saying my name, sends more spiders wandering up and down my back and beneath my flesh. “One simple, one less so.”

I bow my head slightly. “I am here to serve, Dominus.”

“Calvus,” he says. “Call me Calvus.”

I slowly raise my head. “I am here to serve . . . Calvus.”

He grins. “Much better.”

He’s playing a game here. He has to be. What game it is, and what role I play, I can’t work out.

I take another drink of tasteless wine. “What are my duties?”

“There is a ludus gladiatori on the south side of the city.” The mention of a ludus twists something in my chest. Calvus continues, “Your first task is to present a gift to the lanista of that ludus. A gift of five hundred sestertii from Cassius, the city magistrate.” My skin crawls as an odd smile curls the corners of my new master’s mouth. “Cassius deeply regrets he could not present it himself, but”—the smile intensifies—“I promised I would take care of it for him.”

In spite of Calvus’s expression, relief cools my blood. Delivering monetary gifts instead of fighting other gladiators for the entertainment of a roaring crowd? Even if it means setting foot in a ludus again, I’ll be there only as a messenger, not a fighter in training.

Gods, I thank you. Again and again, I thank you.

“Let’s discuss your second task.” He tilts his head just so, like he’s looking for answers to questions he hasn’t yet asked. “Blasius spoke highly of you, Saevius. And your reputation precedes you all the way from Rome.” He raises his cup. “A tremendous fighter, but also a loyal servant.”

He’s quiet for a moment. It’s a silence I’m certain I’m supposed to fill, but I don’t know how.

“Thank you, Dominus,” is all I can think to say, and quickly correct it with, “Calvus. Thank you, Calvus.”

He lowers his wine cup. A different smile forms on his mouth, one that’s taut and unnerving. I’m less and less comfortable as the silence between us lingers.

At last, he speaks, and there’s something in his voice this time, an edge that prickles the back of my neck. “After you’ve delivered the money to the lanista, you will remain at the ludus.” His eyes narrow as one corner of his mouth lifts. “As an auctoratus.”

My heart beats faster. “Dominus, with respect, an auctoratus? I am not a citizen. I’m not even a freedman. How can I be an auctoratus if I am still—”

Calvus puts up a hand. “You will remain my slave, of course, but until such time as I tell you otherwise, you will live at the ludus. Train as a gladiator.” He inclines his head and lowers his voice. “To everyone but us and the gods, and according to the documents that will accompany you, you are a citizen voluntarily submitting to be owned by the ludus and its lanista. Am I understood?”

No. No, what are you asking me to do? And why?

But I nod anyway. “Yes, Dominus.”

He moves now, walking toward, then around me, circling me slowly as he continues speaking. “While you train and fight, you will keep your eyes and ears open. Listen and watch the men around you.”

I sweep my tongue across my dry lips. Every familia gladiatori is already rife with dangerous rivalries. To spy on my brothers within the ludus? Especially when I am the newest blood? I should cut my own throat now and be done with it.

“As an auctoratus,” he says, still walking around me, “you will be able to leave the ludus of your own free will, so long as you return and you don’t leave the city. When I wish to speak to you, I will contact you. Understood?”

“I . . . yes,” I say. “What am I looking for, Dominus? Er, Calvus?”

“You’re a gladiator, Saevius,” he says. “Surely you know how women feel about men like you?”

I nod again. Women were no strangers to the ludus where I trained before. Many of them married, plenty of them noble; my lanista took their money, the women cavorted with gladiators, and the husbands were never the wiser.

“A man of my stature cannot afford the embarrassment of a wife’s . . .” He pauses in both speech and step, wrinkling his nose. “Of a wife’s unsavory indiscretions. Especially with creatures so far below my station.” Calvus resumes his slow, unsettling walk around me. “And when word begins to spread of a woman doing these things, a husband, particularly a husband of my political and social stature, has little choice but to put a stop to it.” He steps into my sight and halts, looking me in the eye. “Which is where you come in, Saevius.”

Oh, dear sweet gods, help me . . .

“You will listen, and you will watch.” Calvus comes closer, eyes narrowing. “Learn the name of the man who keeps drawing my lady Verina into his bed. Am I clear, gladiator?”

In all my years in the arena, my heart has never pounded this hard. What woman doesn’t have slaves as lovers? Gladiators fuck married women as often as we fight amongst ourselves.

Unless Calvus thinks his wife isn’t involved with a slave. One of the freedmen working as trainers? Perhaps the lanista himself? Or one of the munerators renting fighters for some upcoming games? No citizen, especially not a public figure such as Calvus, tolerates that kind of insult from his wife, and for some, divorce isn’t nearly punishment enough.

Regardless of Calvus’s reasoning or what he plans to do once he knows the name of his wife’s lover, is there any place more dangerous for a man than the middle of games played between a wife and the husband she’s scorned?

“Am I clear, gladiator?”

I swallow hard. “Yes, Calvus.”

“Good.” He steps away and lifts his wine again. “I will have your papers drawn up tonight. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken to the ludus owned by the lanista Drusus.”

Drusus. Gods, any lanista but him. I silently beg the ground to open up beneath me. Drusus’s reputation extends beyond any reach Master Calvus could dream of his own doing. No gladiator who’s heard the stories about Drusus would ever volunteer to fight for him.

Calvus looks me up and down, his brow furrowing as he inspects my arms, one then the other. “These scars are . . .” He meets my eyes. “You’re left-handed, aren’t you?”

“I am.”

He grins. “Excellent. I’m sure Drusus will be doubly pleased with you.” The grin widens. “Perhaps I should have chosen you in the first place over that Phoenician. After all, a left-handed fighter like you belongs in the arena where he can make his lanista rich, yes?”

I resist the urge to avoid his eyes.

“You’ll be his left-handed moneymaker, and you’ll—” Calvus gives a quiet, bone-chilling laugh. “Well, I suppose in a way you’ll be my left hand, won’t you?”

“I suppose I will, Dominus,” I whisper.

Calvus puts his hand on my shoulder. The amusement leaves his expression. “Listen closely, gladiator. This is very important. The money you’re giving Drusus, the five hundred sestertii, is from the magistrate called Cassius. The same one who will be providing your auctoratus documents. Is that clear?”

My mouth goes dry as I nod.

“You will not mention me or our arrangement,” he says. “Not to anyone within the ludus under any circumstances. Understood?”

“Yes, Dominus.” I hesitate. “Calvus.”

“Be warned, Saevius. I do not tolerate treachery or dishonesty.” He leans in, lowering his voice so I’m certain no one but me and the gods can hear him, and he presses down hard on my shoulder. “Give me a single reason to believe you’re not doing precisely as I’ve ordered, or that you’ve breathed my name within the walls of the ludus, and I will see to it the magistrate asks Drusus if he received the full seven hundred sestertii. Am I understood?”

With much effort, I swallow. With even more, I nod. “Yes, Calvus.”

And silently, I beg the gods to send me back to Rome to fight in its Colosseum.

Chapter 2
All the way through the streets of Pompeii, every scuff of my weathered sandals on the road sounds like the name of my new lanista.

Drusus. Drusus. Any lanista but Drusus.

There isn’t a gladiator in the Empire who hasn’t heard his name. The man’s ill reputation is as widespread as his history is mysterious. Most lanistae begin as fighters themselves, but no one, not even the men who’ve been in the arena for years, can remember seeing him in combat. Some say he must have fought under another name, as many of us do, but no one knows for certain. All that’s known is that he came out of nowhere—seven years ago, people say—and apprenticed under the equally notorious lanista Crispinus for two years. After Crispinus was killed, Drusus took over the ludus. His first order of business? Executing half the men in the familia—by his own hand, most agree—just to flaunt his newfound power. Even more of a madman than most lanistae.

He comes to Rome once or twice a year to buy and sell fighters, and over the years, my old lanista has bought a few of Drusus’s men.

“Scum, that man,” a young fighter had told us. “Even the other lanistae stay away from him. They’d rather wear a curse than be ’round Drusus.”

“The Furies have got nothin’ on Drusus,” another had told us after he’d been with us half a season. “Every man in the familia knew: just look at ’im wrong, and your ass is in the pit and beaten within an inch of your life.” With a shudder, he’d added, “Assuming the bastard didn’t get bored one day and kill you for sport before you even had a chance to make a mistake.”

A scar-covered Egyptian came to us from Drusus and never said a word about the man. But then, that Egyptian never said a word at all. He just stared blankly at his food, his opponent, the wall. Didn’t even bat an eye when the medicus sewed up his arm after the Ludi Florales. About the time he started making some noise and we might’ve gotten some stories out of him, a fighter from Gaul put a sword through him during the Ludi Appollinares. Sometimes I think Fortune was smiling on him that day.

Where are you on this day, Fortune? I silently plead as Ataiun leads me past Pompeii’s immense amphitheatre, the place where fights are held in this city.

Just beyond the amphitheatre, there’s a building I can only assume is Pompeii’s State-run ludus and barracks. I’ve heard the State is swallowing up all the ludi now. In Rome, there’s talk of the State-run ludi being the only ones left in a few years’ time. Maybe this means politicians will one day replace the lanistae as the men who buy, sell, and rent us out. I don’t suppose anyone would notice if they did. Shit replacing shit, after all. Then again, I don’t suppose anyone but men like me will notice when the State takes over the ludus and familia owned by Drusus, anyway.

And may that day come swiftly.

As I walk between two guards, people eyeing us warily and shielding their children, the presence of the scrolls tucked into my belt threatens to burn right through my clothes. These are the documents that will grant me entrance into the ludus. One proclaims I was reinstated as a citizen by Master Blasius after completion of a previous stint as an auctoratus. Another states I was inspected by a medicus I’ve never seen and approved by Cassius, the city magistrate whose monetary gift I carry, to volunteer—again—as an auctoratus. Fake permission all based on a false declaration of freedom.

The scrolls are sealed, and the seals are only to be broken by Drusus himself. I can only hope that the documents are what Calvus says they are, and that they’re convincing forgeries, or it’ll be my throat that’s cut. Though perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad turn of events.

The ludus that will be my home now is on the other side of the city from my master’s house, past the amphitheatre and near the brothels and taverns. It smells worse than the marketplace out here, and the sounds of fighting and fucking are loud and boisterous even now, just past sunrise.

Over the noise of the drunk and the amorous comes the familiar, rhythmic thwack of wood smacking wood and the clank of metal on metal. Men shouting, grunting, swearing. The crack of a whip, the bark of a trainer.

A busy ludus.

The ludus of the lanista Drusus.

Gods, watch over me . . .

Armed guards stand outside the front gates of the ludus. Mixed blood, both of them, dark skin marred by scars and brands. They’re probably mongrels with ancestors from all corners of the Empire, Gaul to Carthage. Retired gladiators, maybe.

“What’s your business here?” one asks me, his accent thick and unusual.

I glance at one of my escorts. He nods sharply toward the two standing in front of the gate, so I turn to the guards again.

“I’ve come to speak with the Master Drusus.” The words are hot sand on my tongue. “To enlist as an auctoratus.”

“An auctoratus?” The other guard’s eyes dart back and forth between the two men flanking me. “What’s with them, then?”

“He owes our master a debt,” one of my escorts says quickly. “Magistrate’s approved him.” A hand between my shoulders shoves me forward, nearly impaling me on the two spears suddenly pointed at my guts.

I catch my balance and show my palms. The guards hesitate, then draw back their weapons.

“All right, then,” one says. “Come with me.”

He takes me through the gate and hands me off to another weathered foreigner. One of the trainers, if the wooden sword and leather flagellum on his belt are any sign. He gruffly orders the guard back to his post and then leads me across the training yard.

The inside of the ludus isn’t unlike the one where I spent my previous fighting years. Barracks along two sides of a sand-covered training yard. Men sparring. Trainers, some sparring, some watching with flagellum at the ready in case anyone gets out of line.

Heads turn as I’m escorted across the yard. Gladiators are bought and sold all the time, moving from city to city depending on where the auction’s wind blows them, so it’s no surprise I’ve seen a few of their faces before. Some more than others.

One of the trainers watching a pair of fighters—novices, both of them, says their footwork—fought at Circus Maximus a long time ago. I’d recognize those scars and brands anywhere.

Next to that pair of fighters, a lethally quick-footed Egyptian lad spars with a Roman twice his size. The Egyptian sold at an auction earlier this year for a small fortune. We’d all wondered who was willing to pay so much for a single gladiator. Now I know.

I also recognize the bald Parthian by the water trough. He fought for another lanista in Rome until last summer, and I figured he must have died when I didn’t see him at the Ludi Augustales. But he must have been sold to Drusus, and when he sees me, he narrows his eyes and folds his massive arms over the thick scar I left on his chest two summers ago.

Any of these men, any one of them, may be the one who’s bedding the Lady Laurea. By the Furies, when I learn the name of the fighter who’s the reason I’m here, there might well be nothing left for Master Calvus to punish.

We leave the training yard and follow a corridor—much cooler than outside, thank the gods—past the barracks and out into a flat, empty courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard, in the breezeway along the lower floor of a limestone house, we stop outside a closed door. Beyond the door, there’s an argument going on. A loud one.

“You can’t be serious!” shouts an exasperated man.

“Your master wants a fight to the death?” comes the cool response, a calm voice that contrasts sharply with the gruff, gravelly one of the man with whom he argues. Drusus, I assume, and I swear I hear the smirk in his voice as he adds, “Then he’ll pay more.”

“But . . . but . . . Jupiter’s balls, you price-gouging flesh peddler. Gladiators die in the arena all the time!”

“It’s unfortunate.” I can almost see the man shrugging indifferently. “Some live, some die. But a guaranteed fight to the death with one of my gladiators is triple the price of a standard match.”

“Triple? That’s theft!”

“If I wanted to steal your money, I would just steal it instead of engaging in these tiresome negotiations.” Drusus sounds amused, but his voice is still chiseled from cold stone. “Gladiators are expensive, you know. Even the barbarians have to be trained and fed. If you want a guarantee of a dead man at the end of the fight, you’ll damn well pay for the live man I’ll have to purchase and train if mine is the one who loses.”

“And if your man wins?”

“Then the people attending the fight are entertained,” Drusus says, “and the gods are duly honored. The price stands.”

The other man is quiet for a moment, and then releases a sharp, aggravated huff. “Very well. I will let my master know, and if he’s willing to pay your absurd prices, I will return to negotiate a contract.”

“I look forward to it.”

The door flies open. A gray-haired, red-faced man storms out, clutching a tablet to his chest and grumbling to himself.

“Wait here.” My escort steps into the room. A moment later, he re-emerges and sends me in. When the door closes behind me, I’m alone.

No. Not alone. My escort is gone, but I am certainly not alone.

The room is dark except for weak sunlight that squeezes past the single, shuttered window. An oil lamp on a table offers just enough light for me to make out the faces staring silently back at me. A scribe in the corner, propping a tablet on his knee and holding a stylus. Against the back wall stand two immense men who look like they could, without much effort, break any man in the training yard in half.

And sitting in front of the two armed men, leaning on the armrest of a large, ornate chair with a wine cup cradled between his slender fingers, is Drusus.

I gulp.

So this is the mythical Drusus, then. Some legends are wildly exaggerated, but the ones about the man called Drusus are not. Slight in the shoulders and sharp in the eyes, and though he’s seated, I can tell he’s easily a head shorter than me. And just as the legends say, he’s young. He’s no longer a boy, but I can’t imagine it’s been too many summers since he first had to shave the smooth skin across his sharp jaw and cheekbones. I never thought it was possible to consider a lanista beautiful, but it’s hard not to think of Drusus that way, especially compared to all the other lanistae, the grizzled, graying men with bulging bellies and rotting teeth.

Youth and size aside, the legends certainly don’t falsify or even begin to exaggerate the man’s unnerving presence. He’s the lowest of the low, a reviled fleshmonger, but he sits straight and tall with an arrogance about him, like he’s ready to receive the Emperor himself. The Emperor, who’d be wise to bow and scrape at Drusus’s feet.

I’d bow and scrape if I could move. As it is, I can barely breathe. Perhaps it’s my fear of being discovered, but I swear the blue eyes staring back at me can see right through to any lie or truth I might try to hide. Maybe it’s the truths I’m hiding, or the stories I’ve heard about him, but Drusus intimidates me just as all the stories said he would.

The pair of massive bodyguards makes him appear even smaller than he already is, but two elephants don’t make a lion any less dangerous. I’d sooner take on both of them in the arena than face him alone.

Always he wears that leather breastplate, they say. I’ve heard he never ventures outside his own chambers without it, not even when the sun is merciless. And he never leaves the ludus without both the breastplate and his bodyguards.

Wise, I suppose. With or without his reputation, a lanista can’t be too careful. There are stories back in Rome about one who used to strut about with nothing on above his belt. No one likes to be anywhere close to a lanista, so he figured there was no need to protect himself. Didn’t even have guards with him because the gods and his reputation were all he needed.

The gods and his reputation didn’t stop the blade that pierced his ribs in the crowded market, though.

Drusus isn’t so careless, not even among his own men.

Still and silent, he watches me, his face devoid of expression. He’s strangely familiar, but not only have I never seen him before, I can’t even put my finger on his homeland. He doesn’t look quite like a Roman man—too fine, too slight—but he’s not black-eyed and brown from Egypt or pale and hairy from the north. He’s certainly not like the bronze Parthians or the massive Carthaginians training just outside.

But somehow, he’s familiar. A face I swear I’ve seen before.

And he’s still watching me.

His gaze slides from my face all the way down to my feet, then back up. Down once more. The corner of his mouth twitches just a little, so subtly I wouldn’t have noticed if I weren’t so aware of his lips and their half-smirk. Slower this time, his gaze rises, and I suddenly realize I can’t remember the last time I took a breath.

Then the lanista speaks. “I am Drusus, the master of this ludus.” What his voice lacks in deep resonance, it makes up for in sharpness. “What is your business here?”

“I’ve brought a gift from Cassius, the magistrate.” I hold out the coin purse in both hands. “Five hundred sestertii to show his gratitude for your fighters honoring his father’s death at the last Ludi.”

“Five hundred?” Drusus sniffs derisively. “I should have known the seven hundred he promised was a fantasy.”

Once again, spiders scramble along my spine.

Give me a single reason to believe you’re not doing precisely as I’ve ordered, Calvus had whispered, or that you’ve breathed my name within the walls of the ludus, and I will see to it the magistrate asks Drusus if he received the full seven hundred sestertii.

Drusus waves a hand at the scribe. “Account for this. And make sure it’s all there.” With a sneer, he adds, “Damn noblemen seem to think they’re the only men in this city who know how to count.”

“Yes, Dominus.” The scribe nods sharply, takes the coin purse from me, and returns to his seat in the corner.

Drusus watches me, eyebrows raised expectantly. “Is there something else?”

“Yes.” I silently curse the timidity of my voice. Speaking more like a man this time, I say, “Yes, Dominus. There is.”

Leather creaks as he folds his arms across the thick breastplate. “Go on.”

I take a deep breath. “I wish to join your familia gladiatori. As an auctoratus.”

Surprise sends his eyebrows up again. “Do you?” His gaze slides all the way down to my feet, back up, down once more. “Well, you certainly look like a gladiator. Tell me your name.”

“Saevius,” I reply. “My arena name is . . .” I hesitate, my gut twisting into knots. Close as I was to earning my rudis, my arena name is hardly unknown, and I’m not certain how much I want this lanista to know about my recent past. How much of that past might lead him to the reason I am here?

Drusus inclines his head. “Your arena name, gladiator?”

I take a breath and give him the arena name of a long-dead gladiator I once knew: “Nikephoros, sir.”

“And do you have any skills that will make it worth my while to feed and train you, Nikephoros?” Drusus taps his fingers on his arm. “Or am I wasting my money and my trainers’ time on a man whose guts will be soaking up the amphitheatre’s sand?”

“I have fought before,” I say. “As both a myrmillo and a thraex. And I’m left-handed.”

Drusus straightens. “Left-handed, you say?”

I nod slowly.

“And you’re skilled? Experienced in the arena?”

“I am.”

Eyes still locked on me, Drusus stands. He holds his hand out to the side. “Arabo, your weapon.”

One of the bodyguards hands Drusus a thick club. The lanista grasps the weapon but never takes his eyes off me.

My heart beats wildly. Fighting an armed man with no weapon of my own? Especially a lanista who could rightfully beat me to death if I bruise or bloody him in my own defense?

Assuming the bastard didn’t get bored one day and kill you for sport before you even had a chance to make a mistake.

Without warning, without breaking our locked gazes, Drusus tosses the club to me, straight at my chest. Instinctively, I catch it, and the lanista’s eyes flick toward my hand. My left hand.

“So you are indeed left-handed,” he says, more to himself. His bodyguard quickly takes the weapon back while Drusus eases himself back into his seat. The lanista watches me silently for a moment, and though he’s convinced now I’m a left-handed fighter, I’m certain he’ll see through all the lies I’ve fed him. He cradles one elbow in the opposite hand and strokes his chin with this thumb. “Do you have documents proving you’re a citizen and eligible to volunteer as auctoratus? And have you been to the magistrate? I won’t have my time wasted with chasing down documents if you don’t already have them.”

“Yes, Dominus.” I pull the sealed scrolls from my belt and hand them to him. “The documents from the magistrate and medicus.”

Drusus breaks the wax seals with his thumb and unrolls the first scroll. Then the second and third. Shallow creases form between his eyebrows while he looks over each scroll in turn as I gnaw the inside of my cheek.

With a quiet grunt of approval, Drusus hands the scrolls to his scribe. “You know what to do with this.”

Then he rises again and steps toward me as he extends his right hand. “Assuming you fight well enough to impress me, welcome to my ludus, Saevius.” He grins, sending a familiar shiver down my spine. “You and your left hand will be valuable assets to my familia.”

“Thank you, Dominus.” I clasp his forearm, but my heart pounds so hard I’m certain he’ll hear it.

“Come with me.” He releases my hand and gestures toward the door. “My medicus will look you over to make certain you’re fit for the arena, and then we’ll see how well you fight.”

I follow him out of the room and down the corridor.

All the while, as we walk in silence through the halls of the place that’s now my home, I’m certain I’d be safer in a lion-filled arena without a sword in sight.

He is Worthy #2
Chapter One
Cenchreae, the port of Corinth, Greece, 67 A.D.

The man had been drinking steadily all afternoon, paying no attention to the other customers in the wine shop, only growling and moving his cloak aside to show the gladius at his belt when another customer jostled him. The man was trouble.

He was also bad for business.

Crito sent the girl over.

“Another drink?” she asked him.

“Keep them coming.” He spoke Greek with a Roman accent.

Romans—gods curse them—were the scourge of world. If there was trouble and this man killed someone or, worse, got himself killed, Crito knew exactly where the blame would fall. A humble Greek wine shop owner wouldn’t get much of a fair hearing in front of the Roman magistrate in Corinth.

Crito muttered to himself and sent the girl into the back room for another jug of wine.

The Roman’s money was good. That was the only reason Crito was letting him stay. That, and the gladius. Military issue, probably. The last thing Crito needed was to make a trained legionary angry. Tonight, of all nights. The streets were already wild. Such an upheaval!

Corbulo. Dead.

Was the death of a true Roman hero in Cenchreae good for trade or bad for trade or, in the long run, did trade not care? Maybe for the next few years, people would point at the spot where the great man had disembarked—great, Crito allowed, for all that he was a Roman—and received the imperial messenger with Stoic virtue. But sooner or later, it would be lost in the comings and goings of thousands of ships, the bustle of commerce, and the eternal rhythm of the tides. First nobody would care, and then nobody would remember that the general who’d brought the Parthians to their knees and restored Armenia to Rome had fallen on his sword in humble Cenchreae.

A sudden gust of wind blew the shutters closed. The Roman scowled at the foul weather. He muttered something. Axios, Crito thought, but wasn’t close enough to be sure. He is worthy. It made no sense, and Crito chalked it up to the language barrier.

The girl brought the man another jug of wine and said something to him in a low voice. He patted the stool next to him, and she sat down.

Crito leaned on the counter and caught the eye of a potter leaning on the other side.

“I was at the docks,” the potter said.

“Did you see Corbulo?” Crito shivered. “Did you see what happened?”

The potter’s shoulders slumped. “I’ll tell you what happened, friend. Nobody’s buying, that’s what fucking happened.”

Crito nodded.

A group of men entered the wine shop, their cloaks fluttering around them in the wind, their hair on end. Crito cut short his chat with the potter, shot the girl a filthy look—she was nodding and murmuring at something the Roman had said—and greeted his newest customers with a forced smile.

“It seemed like most of Greece turned out to meet Corbulo,” one of the traders said. He was a tall, sallow man with a crooked nose. His accent was Alexandrian.

His companions nodded and murmured in agreement.

Corbulo’s name was being spoken like an invocation in Cenchreae tonight. Crito wondered if the man himself could hear the murmur of countless voices or if he had already crossed the black Lethe and sunk into forgetfulness.

Outside, the wind bustled up and down the streets and rattled the doors and shutters. There had been children with strings of flowers heading for the port in the morning, to welcome Corbulo and his entourage to Greece. And now the hero of the empire was dead by his own hand. Unthinkable.

Crito looked at the Roman sitting with the girl and wondered about the gladius. No, if the man was a legionary from Corinth sent to quell trouble—or cause it, who knew?—he would not be drinking alone in a wine shop by the docks. Crito wished he’d chosen somewhere else.

“Any man can make war, but only a great man can make peace,” the Alexandrian trader announced. “Corbulo was the best of his generation!”

A crash from the far side of the room signaled the Roman’s attempt to stand. The stool had fallen backward as the man rose to his unsteady feet. He gestured to the girl, knocking the wine jug with his forearm. It smashed onto the floor.

The Roman swayed. His gaze found Crito’s and he pulled a handful of coins out of the leather pouch on his belt. He rained them down onto the table. “That’s for the wine. That’s for the jug.”

Crito gaped. Those were silver coins the Roman was throwing around.

The Roman blinked at them. “And that’s for the stool.”

Crito moved out from behind the counter. “The stool, sir? The stool is fine.”

The girl hurried toward him. “Master, shhh! Let him. Let him.”

Let him? Let him what? Crito gasped as the Roman turned, stooped to pick up the stool, and swung it. He roared, and the stool shattered against the wall. The Roman stood panting.

“No, no, no,” Crito babbled in the sudden silence, looking anxiously toward his other customers. “No, you must go outside, please.”

“Get me another drink,” the Roman said. He sat back at the table on the girl’s stool.

“Master,” the girl said, pulling Crito away by the wrist. “Do as he says.”

Crito looked at her, looked at the Roman, looked at the smashed stool and looked at the coins.

“You can serve him,” he growled, “as long as he keeps paying.”

“His money is good, master,” the girl said. “His goodwill is better.”

Crito snorted. He hadn’t seen much in the way of goodwill from the Roman so far. “Why is he so special? Didn’t you hear?” He raised his voice without intending to. “The only important man to step foot in Cenchreae today was Corbulo, and we killed him!”

The color drained from the girl’s face.

“You didn’t kill Corbulo,” the Roman said suddenly. His mouth quirked up in a bitter smile. “I did.”

“Y-you did?” Crito didn’t dare look at his other customers. They were all frozen to the spot.

A young man, Crito thought wildly. The Roman was a young man. He should have spotted it sooner. Despite the nondescript cloak and the standard military-issue gladius, the Roman was too young to be an ex-legionary, and a soldier on leave wouldn’t drink alone. His accent wasn’t just Roman, it was patrician. Crito should have recognized it sooner. The girl—clever girl!—had picked it up. This was a man Crito did not want to offend.

“I did,” the Roman said. “With nine little words.”

The girl was the only one unafraid to move. She placed a cup of wine on the Roman’s table.

Crito couldn’t break the man’s gaze. He didn’t want to ask, but the Roman was waiting for it. “Nine words?”

The Roman slid a coin across the table toward the girl. He drank, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “He knew me. Ushered his daughter toward me. Mentioned my father’s name.”

Cold dread leeched into the pit of Crito’s gut. No, no, no. He did not want to hear this. He watched as the girl ran a thin hand along the Roman’s forearm and marveled at her audacity.

The Roman drank again. He looked around the wine shop at his captive audience. “Want to know the nine words it takes to kill a hero?”

Nobody spoke.

The Roman’s face cracked with a smile. “You no longer have the friendship of the emperor.”

One of the traders whispered something.

The Roman raised his eyebrows, his face suddenly animated, almost boyish in surprise. “And do you know what he said before he fell on his sword?”

A short, bitter laugh.

Crito stepped forward with a wine jug. His hands trembled as he poured the Roman another cup. “Axios,” he murmured.

He is worthy.

“Axios,” the Roman agreed. His smile faded. He traced his finger through a pool of spilled wine on the table, around the islands of coins, and admitted there, to a group of anonymous strangers in a nondescript wine shop, what Crito doubted he would even admit to himself if he were sober. “Well, maybe Nero’s not fucking worthy. Did anyone ever think of that?”

Chapter Two
The Aventine, Rome, June 68 A.D.

“Up! Up! Up!”

Aenor hauled himself to his feet and squinted into the sudden light. He understood the command, but not the burst of words that followed. Aenor’s Latin was good, he thought it was, but these men spoke too fast. He averted his gaze from the light of the lamp. Filthy twists of hair hung in front of his face.

One of the voices belonged to Ratface. Aenor didn’t know his real name. He was the overseer, thin but sinewy, with a narrow, pinched face and close-set eyes. He carried a whip and was quick to use it.

Aenor didn’t recognize the second voice, and risked a glance.

The man was tall, middle-aged, not handsome, but clean and maybe rich. His tunic was orange and he wore silver rings on his fingers.

“No,” the Clean Man said to Ratface. “I am not a fool.”

Fool? Infant? Aenor had to guess the word from the tone of the man’s voice. His uncle had insisted he learn Latin, and Aenor had thought he had, but there was so much he didn’t know. He knew enough to sell cloth and jewelry to fat wives in Colonia, enough to tell a legionary to fuck off back to Rome, but not enough for this.

Not enough for slavery.

The attack had come out of nowhere. Well, no, not nowhere. Someone had killed a Roman family traveling on the road. An important man, perhaps, and his woman and children. And Aenor and his cousins had laughed, because the man should have paid for better bodyguards, but it wasn’t him and his cousins who had done it. When the legionaries had stopped their carts, they weren’t expecting trouble. A bit of back-and-forth maybe, an insult, a bribe, that was all. They had realized too late to run that this was different. Aenor had been taken and Bana was dead, he’d seen that, but he didn’t know what had happened to the others.

“Filthy Bructeri scum,” the First Spear had said, his greaves covered with blood, and suddenly Aenor wasn’t a free man anymore.

Had it only been weeks? It felt like years he’d been living in this dark cage. He kept his head bowed and listened as Ratface tried to sell him. The dull ache in his stomach, he thought, was the empty place he used to keep his fear.

“I will give you a good price,” Ratface wheedled. Aenor had promised the same thing to those women who’d hummed and hawed over his bolts of woven cloth back in Colonia. “He is—” A sly, teasing word Aenor didn’t know.

The clean, rich man made a clicking noise with his tongue.

“And he will clean up nicely,” Ratface said.

Nicely? Well? Adequately? Aenor stared at his feet.

Aenor had been sold twice since being captured, beginning when the First Spear sold him to the trader for only four hundred denarii. The trader—Aenor had named him Squinteye—had bound Aenor behind his wagon and turned south.

Every sunset and every dawn, every blistering step, every passing moment had pulled Aenor farther away from home. Pulled him into the nightmare he couldn’t escape. The farther south they had traveled, the more different even the air smelled: alien combinations of salt, laurel, and bay trees. Even the dust smelled strange. How would he ever find his way home from here?

Aenor’s first sight of Rome had been a smudge of smoke haze above hills. Too vast to be a city, surely, and his confusion must have shown on his face because Squinteye had laughed and smacked him on the back of the head. Roma. That was Roma.

The road had become wide, busy, and was shadowed for some miles by a massive arched aqueduct. Aenor had seen small farms dotted with goats and sheep. He’d seen huts, ramshackle and packed closer and closer together. Then there were the tombs, some as large and spectacular as palaces, that lined the side of the road. Carved letters that Aenor couldn’t read spelled out the life achievements of the great Romans who reposed inside. All around the tombs, beggars and thieves slipped in and out of the shadows and kept their watchful eyes on the road.

The city itself—sacred Tuisto! Aenor had never seen anything so big, so busy, so loud. Squinteye had left his wagon outside the city with his biggest, most trusted men to guard it, and headed into Rome with Aenor and the rest.

Buildings as high as mountains. Some, Aenor saw, had five or more stories. So many people, so much noise, so much stink. Rome was so big. Too big.

Squinteye had sold him to a fat man who’d brought him to Ratface.

Ratface had put him in a locked cage with four other slaves, none of whom spoke even the rudimentary Latin that Aenor did, in a long, narrow warehouse full of similar cages. Ratface had put a rope around his neck with a tag on it, and threw food into the cage once a day.

As the newest occupant of the cage, Aenor had been given the space closest to the corner they all shat in. The first night, Aenor sat awake, his face buried in his hands, and thought about the goats and sheep he’d seen at the side of the road. Even animals didn’t have to shit where they ate.

By the second night, he was too numb to care.

The days and nights bled together into weeks, and now the Clean Man was here. Aenor told himself he wasn’t afraid, but his skin prickled under the man’s scrutiny, and his guts twisted. He kept his eyes on the ground and forced his trembling fingers straight. Slaves did not make fists.

“It’s a fair price,” Ratface said, “and this one will give you no trouble at all.”

Aenor closed his eyes and tried to imagine he was somewhere else.

The Clean Man clicked his tongue again and sighed. “I suppose he will do,” he said at last. “Send him with the rest.”

When they left, Aenor sank down onto his haunches. He couldn’t stop the acid trickle of fear in his guts. Not afraid, not afraid, but his body didn’t believe it. When he vomited in the corner of the cell, none of the others even looked at him.

# # #

Aenor was chained up with five others he didn’t know. They were younger than him, just as filthy. One of them had darker skin than Aenor had ever seen. Rome was so vast, it straddled the world. So much bigger, so much stronger than Aenor had ever imagined when he’d laughed with his cousins back home about what they’d do to the Romans, about how the forest had once swallowed an entire legion. They were Bructeri. They were proud.

They were small. Powerless. Hopeless.

Aenor tried not to whimper as Ratface fastened his chains to the boy in front of him and led them outside.

The sunlight blinded him. Aenor lifted an arm to shield his eyes, and the heavy chains rattled. He walked into the boy in front of him before he realized he’d stopped. They knocked together like skittles, and Ratface laughed.

They walked. Aenor winced at the noise, at the light.

The boy in front of Aenor started to cry. He was small, with skin the color of pitch. He was repeating something over and over, a word Aenor did not know. A god, maybe, or perhaps a parent or a sibling.

No. Don’t.

Aenor watched his feet as he walked, and the feet of the boy in front of him. He stole glimpses of the sunlit world.

A road that crested a hill.

A bottleneck of pedestrian traffic in a large covered marketplace.

A red-roofed building with an arched colonnade.

Plastered walls covered in graffiti and slogans.

A temple.

Aenor stared wide-eyed at a sculpted god, and it stared back at him. The painted orbs of its eyes seemed to see nothing and everything. His head was adorned with garlands of wilting flowers. Aenor didn’t know the Roman gods, but he was afraid of them. He had pleaded with them before.

“Placet,” he had said over and over in the beginning. Please. Please. Please.

The Roman gods were deaf to him, then and now.

“Placet,” he murmured as he passed, but the god in the temple portico stared straight ahead.

Aenor’s muscles ached. The boy in front of him stumbled. Aenor tried to sidestep him, and was pulled back by the length of chain around his neck. He struggled to keep his balance, struggled not to cry out.

In front of him, the boy kept repeating his secret, sacred word.

Tears stung Aenor’s eyes. He wanted to reach out for the boy’s hand, but couldn’t.

Aenor looked up again as they passed through a gate into an arched passageway. A pair of soldiers closed the gate behind them.

“Here’s a fine litter of pups!” one of the soldiers called out, and they laughed.

“Too fine for you!” Ratface returned with a sneer.

After the sunlight and the bustle, it seemed cold and quiet in the passageway. The boy in front of Aenor sobbed as they were led farther into the darkness. Aenor’s guts twisted. What if the boy knew something he didn’t? What if this was the way to the arena? Aenor didn’t want to die for the sport of Romans. He didn’t want to die at all. He just wanted to go home.

Home. The thought was as sharp as a blade, and Aenor flinched.

No. That was never going to happen. He was a slave now. Maybe the Clean Man would be a kind master. Such men existed. Even in Castra Vetera, Aenor had seen fat, pampered slaves. He had heard of slaves who were freed by their masters. He had heard of ex-slaves who were rich. Perhaps being sold to the Clean Man was a good thing. It had to be better than Ratface’s cell.

Ratface led them out into the sunlight again. This time they were surrounded by fine buildings and gardens. Ratface led them toward one of the nearer buildings. A man waited for them at the door. The Clean Man.

The Clean Man glanced at the slaves, and then shook his head at Ratface. “Tell your master I expect better stock next time.”

Ratface sneered. “Tell your master to keep his hair on!”

He began to unchain the slaves.

Aenor kept his gaze down. The Clean Man was a slave. A clean slave. A well-dressed slave. Maybe their new master treated all his slaves so well.

Aenor rolled his shoulders as the weight of the chain slid off him. Hope, uncertain and shy, flared in his chest.

He had seen collared slaves before in Colonia. He had seen tattooed slaves as well, and branded slaves, their master’s initials burned into their faces. The Clean Man bore no marks that Aenor’s quick gaze could find, and wore no collar around his neck. Maybe it didn’t have to be bad. Maybe they wouldn’t make him feel like an animal.

The Clean Man opened the doors of the building, and a cloud of steam billowed out.

Aenor’s eyes widened as the Clean Man ushered them inside. A small group of slaves met them, stripped their ragged clothes from them, and set about them with coarse sponges and buckets of hot water. Aenor closed his eyes, embarrassed at the rivulets of dirty water that ran off his skin. He knelt when the man washing him put pressure on his shoulders. The man dunked his head in a steaming bucket. Aenor yelped at the heat, but the man held him there. When he finally released him, Aenor saw through the dripping tendrils of his hair that the water was now dark gray. He was filthy. He submitted patiently to the rest of the man’s ministrations, sitting quietly while the man took to the planes of his face with a gleaming razor and pumice stone.

The man tugged Aenor’s hair over the edge of the razor, the ragged, wet locks dropping to the floor. When the man stepped away, Aenor raised a hand to his bare neck. His hair was shorter than he’d worn it since childhood. It curled around the nape of his neck. It felt strange.

“This one is done,” the man said.

The Clean Man looked him up and down, and clicked his tongue. “Hmmm. We will see. Send him to wait. Check him.”

Aenor, naked, was pushed toward another door.

He shivered.

Too many hands, too many people keeping him moving, too many different faces and places. The man who had washed him shot him a narrow look as they hurried along a passageway. “You understand me?”

“You talk slow, I understand,” Aenor said, anxious to obey.

Trade, he knew. Numbers and orders and prices, he knew. This, whatever this was, he didn’t know, and he was afraid of punishment.

“You follow,” the man said. “You do what I say.”

Aenor nodded.

“In here,” the man said, pulling Aenor into a small room.

Another man was already in there. The master? No. Aenor looked at the frayed hem of his tunic, at the scars across his knuckles. This was not a rich man.

“We check him,” the first man said.

The second man grinned slowly. He said something in an accent too thick for Aenor to understand. Except for that one word.

No. No. No.

The word was close enough. Fuck you! Aenor had screamed in Latin at the legionaries who’d captured him. Tete futue! He knew the obscenity well enough to recognize its conjugation even through the thick accent of the burly slave who was now advancing on him. And, even if he hadn’t, the big man leered and mimed the action.

He was going to be fucked.

No. Tuisto, no.

The big man grabbed him by the shoulders, turned him around, and pushed him down onto the floor. Aenor whimpered and struggled as the man behind him slid a thick finger into the crease of his ass. The second man, the one who had so carefully shaved his face, caught Aenor around the wrists and jerked him roughly forward. The man behind him kicked his legs apart and knelt between them.

Aenor choked on his own sobs. He tried to twist away, and the man behind him growled and reached down to grab his balls.

“You want move?” the man demanded in his strange accent. He tightened his grip. “You want move?”

Aenor whimpered and shook his head.

The man kept a firm grip on Aenor’s balls as his probing finger returned to the crease of his ass. Aenor sucked in a panicked breath as the man’s dry finger breached him. It stung. The man pushed his finger inside Aenor’s passage, muttered something, and pulled it out again.

He used the same word Ratface had to describe Aenor to the Clean Man back at the warehouse. This time, Aenor could hazard a guess: virgin. Ratface’s examination had never been quite so thorough, though.

The big man moved away.

The other man released his grip on Aenor’s wrists. “Up. Get up.”

Aenor, trembling, wasn’t sure his legs would hold him.

“Up!” the man barked.

Aenor struggled to his feet. He backed away from the men into the corner of the room, his gaze fixed on the floor, his hands held in front of his genitals. A shudder ran through him and he squeezed his eyes shut.

There was a place, a secret place that Aenor’s people knew, where the scattered helmets and spears of lost Roman legions moldered in the earth. Aenor had seen it. He had held a helmet in his hands, marveled at the weight of it, and spat on the bones of the man it came from. It was easy to hate Rome in the Teutoburg Forest. It was easy to feel strong.

Not here. Here he was weak. Here he was going to be bent over for Romans, fucked by them.

“And what do we have here?” came a voice from the entranceway. It was a rich man’s voice. A proper Roman accent. The master.

Aenor opened his eyes.

The man wore a long blue tunic shot through with silver threads. He wasn’t tall, but he was handsome. A patrician nose, lips inclined to thinness, and sharp eyes. His neatly cut hair was beginning to turn gray. He wore gold rings on his fingers.

“Do you have Latin?” the master asked him.

Aenor’s voice cracked in his throat. “S-some.”

The burly slave moved quickly. He slapped Aenor’s face. “Dominus.”

Aenor blinked away the sudden tears. “Some, Dominus.”

The master didn’t smile. “What are you?”

“Bructeri, Dominus.”

“German,” the master said. “How old are you?”

His voice shook. “Nineteen, Dominus.”

The master frowned. “Nineteen?” He raised his voice. “Callistus!”

Aenor shrank back.

The Clean Man appeared in the doorway. “Dominus?”

“This one is nineteen!”

The Clean Man gazed at Aenor for a moment. “He doesn’t look it, Dominus. And he’s a virgin.”

The burly slave nodded eagerly in agreement, and Aenor’s face burned.

“I’ll take him,” the master said. “But I expect better in the future.”

“Yes, Dominus,” the Clean Man said.

The master sighed, narrowing his eyes at Aenor. “And make him . . .” He waved his hand. “He’s too old for pretty. Make him look strong. He’s hardly a keeper, but I’m sure he can put on a good show.”

“Yes, Dominus.”

Aenor closed his eyes again.

There was a place . . . a clearing surrounded by trees. A place that still whispered of victory. A place where Aenor had held a Roman helmet in his grasp and laughed as hot blood had coursed through his veins. He was strong in that place.

He searched for it in his memory, invoked it by its secret name, but couldn’t find it. It was lost to him now.

It was Rome’s turn to laugh.

The City War #3
Marcus Brutus the Younger had taken the road out of Rome to his country house many times since he’d had it built. Early in the day, the entourage would leave his house in the city, silent and sullen in the hot summer morning, the horses coughing in the dusty streets until they’d left Rome’s gates behind them. It was a little less than two days’ ride, and the servants and guards he brought with him knew the journey well enough by now; they began to cheer up around mid-day, knowing they’d be stopping soon at the isolated well that marked the halfway point of the first day’s ride.
Aristus, riding at the head of the train with Brutus, laughed when the sad little well appeared. “I see now why they were restless.”

“Lazy bastards. Don’t even want to sit on a horse for half a day,” Brutus grumbled, dismounting.

“You’ll feel better once you eat,” Aristus replied, well-used to Brutus’s tempers, less frequent now than when he’d been a student under Aristus in Greece. Brutus waved him off, searching out the anonymous weatherworn god of the place, clearing dead leaves from it and making a quick offering while the guards spat in the dust and joked with each other, and the servants settled in the shade of the lone tree to fan themselves.

Aristus dunked his head in a bucket of water from the well and came up dripping, laughing, his pale white teeth gleaming in his tanned face, the darkness of it proof that he was no Rome-born patrician. Brutus took a moment to admire him: hair plastered to his head, moisture running down the thick column of his neck, his white tunic clinging to his shoulders. His dark hair was beginning to show silver in it, and in deference to Roman custom, he’d cropped it short in the patrician style, the fashion set by Caesar. Caesar himself wore it with a few long locks in front to remind them all that Gaius Julius was the new Alexander, the man who would see Rome made queen of the world. Brutus couldn’t help but admire the arrogance of it, though he knew Caesar too well to hold him in awe. At least he thought he did. Lately he wasn’t sure if he knew the man at all.

And this wasn’t Caesar, at any rate. This was Aristus, once his stern teacher, now his friend. Brutus had long since learned more than Aristus could ever have taught him, but he still respected him—and he was still a fine man to look at.

Aristus caught him looking and flicked water at his face.

“Porcia would have made this a proper party,” he said as they settled in to eat. “A litter for her, some maids, a few slaves . . .”

“We have enough,” Brutus grunted. “Besides, she likes the city.”

“Your honorable wife could do to like her husband a little more and the city a little less.”

Brutus laughed. “My honorable wife has the same lover I do.”

Aristus glanced at him, raising a dark eyebrow. Brutus raised one back.

“Rome, Aristus. The city is our love; the people of Rome are our concern.”

“So why are we leaving?”

Brutus angled his head from side to side, listening to the bones pop in his neck and shoulders. They still had far to go, and he hadn’t slept well the night before. Rome unsettled him these days. There was a smell in the air he didn’t like, though Porcia teased that it was just the way Rome smelled in the heat of summer.

“It’s cooler at the villa,” he said with a shrug.

“Hardly much of a reason, Brutus. I don’t mind a jaunt in the country, but surely it’s not leisure. It never is with you, and you’ve been moody for days. It’s not Caesar, is it?”

“No,” Brutus answered flatly.

“He’s given you plenty to thank him for.”

“I’m a patrician. Much of it was mine by right to start with.”

“I thought you and he got along. Despite the . . . unpleasantness of the last war.”

“We do, to a point. I’ve known him since I was a child. But you can’t let family interfere with politics. No, it’s just . . . I love the city, but sometimes to see it properly you have to look at it from the outside. I learned that when I came to study with you. Rome is the beginning and end of the world, but there are other worlds.”

“Is that what you think you’ll get at the villa rustica? Perspective?”

“Well,” Brutus said, thinking over conversations he’d had recently—hints fellow senators had dropped, seditious sentiments a few loose-tongued men had expressed. Caesar was a threat, but there were also threats against him. “That’s part of it.”

Aristus smiled at him, clearly aware he was treading close to danger, and changed the subject. “Now, the important question is this: is there anywhere to swim?”

Brutus laughed. “There’s a river on the estate. You’ll be able to do more of that than I will; I have some local politics to see to.”

“Dealing with the country bumpkins?”

“Shouldn’t be unpleasant; most of them are old soldiers. Foreigners who earned their citizenship and land grants from service.”

“Well, that won’t be so bad.”

“It’ll be easy, after the city. All right, on we go,” he called, and the servants began to pick themselves up from the ground, dusting down their clothes. The house guard remounted efficiently. Aristus shook himself like a dog and wiped his face with the collar of his tunic before mounting.

They had three servants and four guards when they left the well, Brutus knew that. People passed on the road sometimes, both mounted and walking, but he paid them little mind until he called a halt for the night, wheeling his horse, and counted eight in the party, not including Aristus and himself. The servants were fussing angrily at an interloper near the back of the train, and Brutus rode back through the guards to investigate.

“Get on your way,” one of the servants said, swinging an arm wide. “Go on, we don’t need beggars or horse-boys.”

“Senator, the boy won’t go,” another one implored, and the boy they were trying to shoo away ducked another well-aimed punch. His horse danced aside daintily, a nimble beast but big—too big for the slight figure riding him.

“Senator Marcus Brutus,” the boy called, holding the creature steady. “You should teach your servants some manners.”

“I’ll teach you some manners,” one of them replied, and Brutus grabbed the servant’s horse’s bridle to keep him from chasing after the boy, now pacing the large, powerful charger back and forth at a safe distance. He handled the big animal well, but Brutus saw the muscles in his arms knotting with the effort. One of the guards wheeled his horse and rode back to investigate, giving Brutus a questioning look. Troublesome boys were generally beneath their notice.

“Go tend the horses and make a camp,” Brutus ordered. “Go on, I don’t need you defending me.”

“But Senator—” one of the servants began.

“I said go, or I’ll have you flogged on your ass and make you walk tomorrow.”

He waited until they turned off the road and began to make camp, watching the guards build a fire and the servants unpack their bedrolls. When he was certain everyone was preoccupied with other matters, he addressed the boy again.

“Fine horse you have there,” he said, taking in the boy’s threadbare clothing and the old, worn leather of the saddle.

“It was my father’s,” the boy said, and then after a pause he added, “He was a cavalryman in the war.”

“Caesar’s side?” Brutus guessed from the way the boy hesitated.

“Yes, Senator.” A defiant look; even in the country they knew Brutus had fought for Pompey, though few still remembered Caesar’s edict that Brutus should not be killed in battle.

“A freedman?”

“A citizen,” the boy said firmly. “He taught me Marcus Brutus was a friend of Roman citizens.”

“Those who earn it,” Brutus agreed, eyeing him. He couldn’t be more than sixteen, snub-nosed, pretty enough in the way of young men. “What business do you have with my servants?”

“None,” the boy replied. “My business is with you.”

It was sheer insolence, but this bold child on a war horse interested him. “And what would that be?”

“I have no family, and my father’s farm was sold off to pay his funeral debts. I heard you were coming through on the way to your great villa,” the boy said.

“Are you charging a toll on the road?” Brutus asked with a grin.

“No sir, but a man like you with so many fine animals needs a horse-boy. Your servants are lazy and your guards are tired.”

“I’m not interested in hiring a strange boy to look after my horses.”

“See for yourself,” the boy said, trotting his horse in a circle around him. Brutus watched him warily. The horse was brushed to gleaming, even with the dust on the road; his eyes were bright, legs stepping high, and he seemed well-fed. If he was the boy’s, and if the boy could control him, then that was certainly proof of skill.

Brutus considered him. “Do you know what happens to children who are insolent to senators?”

“Whip me if you can catch me,” the boy replied.

“Why aren’t you in the army?”

“Why won’t you hire me as your horse-boy?”

“Why should I?”

“Because I’m the best there is.”

The boy gave him a small smile and the barest flicker of a wink, and Brutus wondered if he was promising him favors as well as good service. Either way, he was amusing at least.

He reached into the pack slung on his saddle and dug into his purse for an assarius, tossing the small coin across to the boy.

“Ride ahead tonight,” he said. “I’ll expect the stables prepared when I arrive.”

The boy nodded, tucking the coin into the belt of his tunic, and wheeled his horse around.

“What’s your name?” Brutus inquired.

“Tiresias,” the boy replied.


“Not me, only my name.” Tiresias tossed him a salute before Brutus could react to the eccentricity of a Roman boy with a foreign name. “I’ll see you tomorrow at your villa, Senator!”

Brutus watched in amusement as the boy went. Then he returned to the camp, leaving his horse for the servants to feed and curry with a stern admonition to make sure it was done well. If a farmer’s son from the countryside had noticed his servants neglecting his horses, perhaps it was so.

Aristus was waiting for him by the fire, chewing on a lump of bread. “What did the beggar want?” he asked, offering Brutus half.

“A job, of all things,” Brutus replied, accepting it. “Son of a veteran. Had a good horse. Wants to be a groom in the stables of a senator. Gave me a lot of cheek, too.”

“And you hired him,” Aristus surmised. Brutus shot him a grin. “You always were a sucker for someone who isn’t afraid of you, Marcus Brutus.”

“I find courage and plain talk well near irresistible,” Brutus replied. “Pass me that jug of wine, and let’s enjoy the evening, shall we?”

# # # 

The guards stood watch or slept back to back that night, and the servants curled up together for warmth as the heat of the day ebbed. Brutus lay by the fire, his head resting on his saddlebag. Aristus lay nearby, his head near Brutus’s, face turned up to study the stars.

“Do you remember your astronomy lessons, back in Athens?” Aristus asked, voice soft enough that the guards wouldn’t hear.

“Are you going to give me a test?” Brutus asked sleepily.

“Just curious.”

Did he remember nights spent on the cold plains outside the city, learning the movements of the stars and the shapes of the constellations? Did he remember the stories Aristus had told him, obscure old myths about heroes who were only remembered because the gods had placed them in the sky?

Did he remember Aristus taking him at the age of fifteen, the way Greek teachers took their students—out in the empty countryside, lying on blankets in the dust, Aristus’s hands on his face, his arms, his hips? He remembered kisses and bites along his shoulders, the slick slide of a cock tight between his thighs, his own pressed against Aristus’s belly. It was better than the whores in Rome or the slave girls other men told him to enjoy: his fingers curling against the firm muscle of Aristus’s chest, his pure joy at being taken by another man.

That first time, overwhelmed at being accepted into his teacher’s embrace and with all the virility of early manhood, he’d come messily and too soon. He’d spilled over at the first touch of Aristus’s hand, shame and climax mingling as he pressed his face into the older man’s throat. Aristus had just laughed softly and shifted, climbing over him to take him from behind, Brutus drowsy and easy, willing to let his teacher do as he wished. Always willing to let Aristus guide him, at least until he was recalled from his studies to Rome to become a soldier.

Aristus had never touched him since. If his old teacher wanted a claim on him now it would be too late, but Brutus felt an ache for the simplicity of what he’d had then. When he’d been a student, it was permitted.

“I remember,” he said.

Aristus exhaled softly.

“Do you miss it?”

“It wouldn’t be appropriate now,” Aristus replied.

Brutus felt his body stir a little at his tone, regardless. He shifted, but the rough rub of his clothing and the weight of the blanket didn’t help.

“You were such a lithe young man,” Aristus continued, and Brutus huffed. “All legs and slim arms, like a colt. Now you’re a soldier—too broad and solid to my mind.”

“I’m a senator.”

“Once a soldier, always a soldier. Besides, you have your decorum to think of. The great and powerful Brutus.”

Brutus gave up, turning a little more, one hand sliding down his hip under the blanket, hitching up his tunic.

“A senator doesn’t lie still to please his old teacher,” Aristus continued, and Brutus muffled a groan as he grasped his own cock, already half-hard and willing. “Besides, it’s indecent, a strong man like yourself, taking it between the thighs. People would talk. But you were so sweet, Marcus, so eager to learn.”

Brutus didn’t quite manage to muffle the moan this time, his hand jerking along his cock, fingers skittering up the soft, hot skin and thick veins. He remembered lying passively, forcing himself to be still until he broke and had to move, thrusting against Aristus’s hard stomach while his teacher had sweated and moaned over him. He remembered lessons discarded in the little alcove of a schoolroom while Aristus pulled him into his lap and touched him, white teeth flashing, low voice urging him on like . . .

Like now.

“Of all my students you were the best,” Aristus said, and Brutus choked and came over his hand, onto himself and into the dust under him. He panted through the orgasm, then wiped his hand in the dirt and rolled away, the familiar mix of shame and triumph burning his cheeks. He heard Aristus breathing heavily, and wondered if he was touching himself too. Perhaps he was engaging in some form of torment for Brutus alone.

“Why now?” Brutus asked, after his own breathing had calmed. “Why here, Aristus?”

“You’re forgetting your lessons, Marcus,” Aristus said softly. “We stand in a gateway. In Rome you belong to Porcia. God knows who you belong to at the villa, though I can take a guess. There aren’t simply worlds and other worlds. Each has a passage between, where things are less clear. This one is mine. And this was the only way I could have you, here.”

“It’s only custom. If you wanted, you could—”

“You could, perhaps,” Aristus corrected, but it was gentle. “I could not, Marcus. Let it be what it is.”

Brutus closed his eyes, unwilling to stare anymore at the stars. “Yes, Aristus.”

# # #

Brutus had expected to reach the villa rustica before anyone else, but Cassius must have set out early. He’d already been in the country at his own villa when he’d sent Brutus the note to meet him, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. At any rate, the next afternoon they trotted past the guardian phalluses on the gate of the Villa Rustica Bruti and into the outer yard to find two occupants already in place: Tiresias, who was running from the stable to see to the horses, and Cassius, standing in the entryway of the house, senatorial tunic gleaming white and crimson.

“Brutus!” Cassius called, laughing, as Brutus dismounted and tossed his reins to Tiresias with a narrow, warning look. “Good to see you.”

“Is he supposed to be here?” Aristus asked in an undertone. Brutus, who hadn’t mentioned Cassius would be in attendance, gave him a guilty look, and Aristus shook his head disapprovingly. Cassius was coming down the steps from the vestibulum, his hands spread in greeting.

“Senator,” Brutus said, embracing Cassius with an honest smile. “I see you’ve made yourself at home.”

“Only so that I could make you at home, Senator,” Cassius replied low in his ear, leaning back from the embrace and flexing his fingers on Brutus’s shoulders. He gave Brutus a look he couldn’t interpret—wary, almost devious—before turning to his companion. “Aristus—pleasant to see you again.”

“Senator,” Aristus said blandly.

“Come, you must be tired,” Cassius said. “There’s a meal laid on. I thought you might get here today.”

Brutus sent the servants off to help with the meal in the kitchen, and the guards to rest. Cassius led them through the vestibulum like he was the dominus of the villa, guiding them out into the airy open atrium. As soon as they entered, the air was cooler: moist but not humid, and much more pleasant.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Aristus said, pausing by the fountain in the atrium, turning his face to the spray. “Feels like I haven’t been cool since I came to Rome.”

The architect of the villa rustica had told Brutus the house would be well-situated, near the river and with plenty of fountains and pools throughout. Water, he’d explained, remembered being cold and wanted to be cold again, which was why it struggled and bubbled when you boiled it. Brutus didn’t concern himself overmuch with natural philosophy, but he had to admit that the sun didn’t seem quite so unfriendly in the atrium as it had on the ride.

“Gentlemen!” Cassius called, and Brutus grasped Aristus’s shoulder, pulling him along.

Inside the triclinium, the eating couches had been aired and dusted and food laid out, a simple meal after the journey: fruit, some smoked meats, and watered honey flavored with pepper and wine, an old traveler’s drink. They sat upright on the formal couches like boys, and the servants left them alone.

“We’ll have a feast tonight,” Cassius said, biting into a fig. His eyes had barely left Brutus since they’d arrived, but Brutus wasn’t wrong: there was something hooded in them, shadowed, and it made him curious. “I’ve brought my cook and she’s brought plenty of food, and I’ve been inspecting your wine casks; quality drink you have there, Brutus.”

“You’re a bit free with my wine,” Brutus said, laughing.

“Might as well drink while we can,” Cassius replied, licking a finger, watching Brutus’s reaction. Aristus gave him a sharp look, but Brutus ignored it. “How’s Porcia?”

“Happy to stay in Rome,” Brutus said.

“She generally is.”

“And my sister? You’re treating her well, I hope.”

“You know Junia,” Cassius said with a dry smile. “Shrewd and sharp-witted as ever. I’ve a letter from her to give to you.”

“I’ll see to it later this afternoon,” Brutus replied. He flicked a crumb of bread onto the floor, watching it tumble between the slats.

“Have you met Brutus’s new horse-boy?” Aristus asked, with a slight glimmer of malice on his face.

“The one who showed up yesterday? I noticed him running around, but I didn’t think much of it. Is that new charger yours?” Cassius asked.

“Belongs to the boy. He’s an orphan, says the horse was his father’s.”

Cassius and Aristus were not friends, precisely, but the look they exchanged made Brutus a little impatient.

“Has he seen to your mounts?” Brutus asked Cassius.

“Well enough,” Cassius said indifferently.

“Then the two of you can stop pitying me for falling prey to a sad story. I don’t normally, you know.”

“Is that what you fell prey to,” Cassius asked under his breath. Brutus shot him an amused look and levered himself up off the couch.

“I have a few letters to send, and I’ll rest before the evening meal. You stay out of trouble,” he told Cassius. “And you, the servants will show you the river if you’d like to swim,” he added to Aristus.

“Have a mind, I’ve seen snakes near the river,” Brutus overheard Cassius say to Aristus as he left the triclinium.

“Snakes everywhere these days, it seems,” Aristus replied, and Cassius laughed mirthlessly as they faded out of earshot.

Mark of the Gladiator #4
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.

He worked hard to keep his exhilaration and terror in check. There were too many strangers crossing his path. He caught himself calculating how best to kill them. Then he would blink his eyes and remind himself that this wasn’t the training ground or the arena. They’re fruit sellers. That’s a slave girl carrying water for her old mistress. A group of musicians. Bricklayers. Children. The world outside was so complicated, so rich and beautiful. The colors and the noises and the smells, oh gods, the smells: woodsmoke, roasting sausages, perfumed oil, spilled wine.

No one looked at him twice. Once, for sure, because few stood above him. But little else caught their eye. There were other tattooed slaves walking these crowded streets. Even a yellow-haired man, likely a Gaul, with TMQF emblazoned on his forehead. Wearing street clothes, unarmed, without the paint of blood or glisten of oil on his skin, Anazâr was no different from any of them.

Soon, the streets grew less crowded, the smells less pungent, the buildings lower, wider, richer.

From the outside, the house of Marianus was an immaculately maintained domus, walls scrubbed free of the graffiti and stains that marred some of their neighbors’. The heavy, red front door was so well-polished, Anazâr probably could have seen his reflection in it, had he the time. As it was, the door immediately swung open, like they’d been expected with some measure of impatience or anxiety. Anazâr thought he’d be sent to a slave’s door, but Iunius beckoned him impatiently through the main entrance. He flinched as he passed the threshold, as though some invisible barrier would hold him back, or maybe it was a trick and he’d be punished for being so presumptuous, but nothing happened.

He bent his head so as not to gape at his surroundings. They were standing in a vestibule, and even though they hadn’t yet been greeted or invited into the main area of the house, what he could see just here was extravagantly, ridiculously beautiful, as if he’d walked into a giant treasure chest, not a house inhabited by flesh and blood people. Pastoral mosaics assembled from pieces no larger than his smallest fingernail, the shining eyes of shepherds crafted from rare glittering minerals. A marble statue of a goddess, painted delicate pink and draped in gossamer indigo fabric. Gleaming candelabras—no doubt solid silver—flanked the entrance.

“Marianus will see you now,” announced a well-groomed slave woman, opening the door to the inner house. When Anazâr caught her eye, he was momentarily stunned by how composed she was, the plaits of her hair speaking of delicate labor. Not like a slave at all, at least not the hardy kitchen women he’d grown to know and respect at the ludus. As beautiful as the house that kept her . . . and just as ornamental.

Well, no fear of Anazâr coming to such a fate: with his grim face, so rough-hewn and perverted by the tattoo, he’d probably never see the inside of this house of beautiful things again. He was already anxious to leave.

She led them through the atrium past a line of waiting men—lesser men, Anazâr understood at once—here to feed off of Marianus’s wealth, their presence as telling of that wealth as the lavishness of the house they stood in.

Iunius, too, had his own clients, according to Roman custom. Hyenas, more like. Hangers-on. But then, here those roles were reversed and now Iunius himself played the client seeking nobler patronage, come to offer a prize gladiator as tribute.

At least Iunius didn’t have to wait. They bypassed the line altogether and followed the beautiful slave into her master’s study, an open room that commanded both the atrium and an indoor garden beyond. Anazâr caught glimpses of green vines, fresh blooms, and more statues, before his gaze was arrested by Marianus.

Eyes the same color and luster as the silver candelabras. That was the first thing Anazâr noticed, and also the last, because he forced himself to look down lest he cause offense. The floor tiles were immaculately clean; above, the sweep of Marianus’s toga included a narrow crimson-purple stripe that Iunius’s toga lacked.

Anazâr barely followed their conversation, an elaborate Latin duel of formal greetings and pleasantries, other than to notice that Iunius took great care with the titles he gave Marianus.

“So this is your man?”

His cue. Anazâr lifted his head and pushed back his shoulders, staring off into that familiar middle distance. Not looking down like a wounded animal, not looking directly at his betters like he thought himself an equal.

“Cyrenaicus,” said Iunius. “From Numidia, one of Antonius’s men in the Battle of Actium.” And now, following the usual script, he gestured to the tattoo. “Once a runaway, until he found his purpose on the sands. Every gladiator he’s met has begged submission or died under his sword. Now the glory of battle is all he lives for.”

“Is it true?” asked Marianus with mild curiosity. Was it true that he’d killed many men, survived many battles he should have lost? Was it true that he moved like a bird of prey, striking and falling back, fighting with brutal grace? Was it true that now he’d tasted blood and heard the cheers of the audience, he would never deign to return to his rootless barbarian existence? “Is it true what your master says about you? You’ve no appetite for women?”

“Speak,” Iunius ordered.

Shame at the intimacy of the question made Anazâr’s throat close off, but he couldn’t let it go unanswered. “I will not touch your slaves,” he said, keeping his voice gruff and straightforward.

Marianus smiled at that. His mouth was soft, its curve guarded, but not cruel. His lips had a color like they’d been stained by wine. He turned his attentions to Iunius, Fortune granting Anazâr a moment to compose himself. “And he’s not—”

Iunius’s tone was defensive, quick-snap: “He’s virile, I assure you. A powerful fighter and a powerful man. Would a demonstration comfort you?”

“Not necessary!” Marianus replied with an easy laugh. “Do you have a wife where you come from, slave? Is that it?”

A wife, yes. Was that ‘it’? Not really. But Anazâr took Marianus’s question for what it was: a mercy, maybe even in some wild daydream an acknowledgment of his humanity. “Yes, Dominus,” he replied.

“There, see? An honorable man. Sorely needed in certain parts of my household.”

Again, not really, but Marianus’s kindness was a welcome thing. Anazâr had left without giving his wife sons, failing as a husband in the most basic way, but his final act had been to put her in the care of his brother, should he not return. He hoped that match had proven more fruitful for her, that he had at least succeeded for her in one single measurable way. In the end, it really didn’t matter: it was just a left-behind thing, an inconsequential concern from another man’s life.

“He’s seasoned and trustworthy, despite the tattoo. Or perhaps because of it. Can I answer any other question regarding his abilities?”

“I would try him in one of the most important regards: language. Cyrenaicus, speak a greeting and a comment on the weather in every language your master claims you know.” Marianus seemed more merchant than patrician in that moment, and Anazâr respected that.

“Hello,” he said, “the sun shines brightly,” in his best Latin, then his poor Greek, then his strong but rough Egyptian. He swallowed uncomfortably before he repeated the words in the last language, though it was his first: his mother tongue.

“So it is settled, then?” Iunius tried, a tinge of timid hesitance in his tone. So strange, to hear the all-powerful master in a place of inferiority. When his two months were over, could Anazâr go back, having seen it? Not worth thinking about. Two months was a long way away. A lifetime for a gladiator who saw regular combat.

“I’ll take him. We can register the contract tomorrow.”

He slept in the house of Marianus that night, deeply and without dreams, on a pallet on the cool cellar floor next to another slave. A Greek, he seemed to be, and Anazâr would have welcomed the chance to practice the language and discover more about the household, but the man was obviously scared of him. So Anazâr left him alone. There was always a sharp line separating gladiators from other slaves. His life was, paradoxically, valued much higher than theirs—more than many freedmen, even—and gladiators were known for violence both in and out of the arena.

He wondered, as he rose in the morning, what it would be like for women to cross that line. What it would be like to show them how to cross it.

The majordomo slave—another Greek, but elderly and without fear—allowed them out of the cellar and saw him fed. A pale, oblique morning light filtered down into the atrium as he sat by the wall and ate from a generous bowl of porridge. He was nervous surrounded by so much treasure, and the walls were crowded with painted scenes from epic stories that taunted him with hidden meaning, so he had little appetite, though he forced himself to eat anyway. A useful habit he’d learned in the auxiliary legion; it had stood him well as a gladiator.

The majordomo led someone toward Anazâr. A large man, almost his own height, with a thick neck like a bull. “Lucius Marianus Ursus,” he announced. “A freedman of this house. Cyrenaicus, you will be under his escort.”

“So you’re the Numidian. I’m taking you to the so-called ludus this morning.” Ursus spoke Latin like a native Roman, but his tunic was nowhere near as fine as the one the majordomo wore.

“I’m ready,” Anazâr announced, for lack of anything else to say.

The majordomo smiled, tilting a disbelieving eyebrow at him. “I don’t think you are,” he replied, but then shrugged and continued on before Anazâr had a chance to reply. “Ursus will walk you through the streets. Once there, you will have full authority, and direct him as your assistant. You will report to the dominus every evening. If this arrangement results in any squabbling, it will go badly for both of you. Best to resolve any disagreements before they reach the dominus.”

Anazâr was taken aback, at first, that the majordomo would think he needed such a warning, but then Ursus snorted derisively and he understood.

“Don’t step too far from my side,” warned Ursus as they walked through the red doors onto the quiet street. “You get stopped, you’ll need me to vouch for you. And I’ll follow your lead at the ludus, but don’t you forget I’m a free man. I’ll be going home every night to a wife I bought with my own damn money while you’ll be sleeping like a dog on the warehouse floor.”

“Understood,” said Anazâr. As much time as he might spend trying to stay on Marianus’s good side, as much time as he might spend training the gladiatrices, he would spend the same tending to Ursus’s ego, tiptoeing around the shifting boundaries of freedman and slave. “I hope you won’t forget that I could kill you within two heartbeats, armed or not, and would do just that at the command of the dominus. Watch me as I train, and you’ll learn a thing or two yourself.”

“Fair enough. I won’t cause problems. The house of Marianus has my full loyalty. They’re riding high on Fortune’s wheel, and I along with them. The old master won favor with Augustus in the war, got into the equestrian order, and married his son to a senator’s daughter before he died. The new master is just as good as a born eques and keeps a tight hand on the business, too. They say he has eyes like a wolf, you know, for the color, and because no one fools him. He’s a strong man.”

“He struck me as such. But . . .”

“But what? Don’t talk shit about your betters.”

“But he’s over there, throwing up behind that pillar.”

Ursus jerked his head in the direction Anazâr pointed, anger giving way to disgust. “By Hercules. That’s a Lucius Marianus all right, but not the master. It’s his brother Felix.”

The same toga, but smudged with dirt and wine stains and a few other spots of more questionable origins. The same dark hair, short, but with an undeniable curl. Eyes of a wolf—of a very drunk wolf. But yes, now that Ursus had pointed it out, the man currently clutching at the pillar for support and wiping his mouth was younger, maybe even a decade or so, than the master. His face ruddy with drink but soft, with a fresher complexion uncarved by frown lines. Handsome, but without even an ounce of his brother’s dignity.

“Should we help him home?”

“We’re on important business, and the fool hasn’t seen us yet. Keep moving. He’ll stumble back there eventually.”

No point in arguing. Anazâr cast one last look over his shoulder, saw that Felix was indeed already weaving his way in the general direction of the Marianus house, and resumed his pace.

They walked down the Palatine Hill until the buildings grew higher and jostled each other chaotically. Vendors readied their carts for the day’s commerce and called to each other in a stew of languages.

“What place is this?” Anazâr asked.

“The southern Aventine Hill. Marianus owns a few warehouses here. Half of one of them was turned into the ludus.” Anazâr must have paused, or shown surprise, because Ursus waved a hand in circles, the gesture of a man looking for words of explanation. “He didn’t set out to do this. They were all left to him in a will. Personally, I don’t understand the appeal. I’ve seen women fight naked in a whorehouse, and that’s a shitload of fun, but the idea is for them to be serious at it. Perhaps even fight men and hope to win. Waste of good snatch, that’s what I think. The old trainer—contracted from a real ludus, like you—did what he could, but . . . well, you’ll see.”

“Where were they bought?”

“A batch from Gallia, all Gaul women except for three Germans. Two from a Bithynian trader: an Aethiopian and a Sarmatian. The last being the most expensive, for obvious reasons.”

A Sarmatian. Maybe this wouldn’t be a lost cause, after all. “Good. But will she take orders? I’ve heard they—”

“Eat testicles for breakfast, eh? Well, that’s your problem. Sometimes she will, sometimes she won’t. But if she was as savage as the rest, she wouldn’t have been taken alive. Anyway, that’s . . .” He looked down at his fingers, curling and straightening them seemingly at random. “Thirteen together. No, fourteen. That’s right. There’s one more, who wasn’t bought at all. A real Roman citizen who killed her husband. The evil bitch should have been thrown to the beasts for a crime like that, but the magistrate sentenced her to slavery instead.”

And now she was Anazâr’s problem.

No. It would do him no good thinking like that. She was his ticket to freedom. They all were.

They walked in silence for a while, until the acrid smells wafting from dye vats announced their arrival in the textile district.

“It’s here,” said Ursus. “This warehouse. And that’s Quintus, the night guard. Wake up, Quintus, you lazy whoreson, the new trainer’s here!”

“Go fuck yourself. I wasn’t sleeping. Was I sleeping?” Quintus, a man of massive build with a stubble of sandy hair and puffy eyes, shrugged his shoulders, then gestured at Anazâr. “Wait, he’s a slave.”

Ursus spat to one side. “You figured it out! What possibly could have given him away? Of course he’s a slave, you fool, just like the old one. Unbar the door.”

“Cyrenaicus the Numidian,” Anazâr said by way of introduction. Quintus grunted as he drew back the two massive black iron bolts that barred the warehouse door.

“I’ve seen you fight before. A thraex—I remember now. Well, good luck.” Door unbarred, Quintus made as if to hand a key to Ursus, but jerked back at the last moment to slap it into Anazâr’s hand instead.

It might be useful to remember that Ursus had poor reflexes, Anazâr decided as he closed his fist around the heavy, three-pronged key.

Time slowed—doorways often had that magic about them. Ursus snarled. The thud as Quintus kicked the door open spurred Anazâr into action, and he stalked into the warehouse with no hesitation, leaving Ursus no choice but to bob along in his wake. The threshold: a fulcrum across which their balance of power tipped.

In fact, the whole world seemed to go careening off balance.

He bent one knee almost to the bricks while leaning aside. The missile went hurtling over his shoulder to clatter against the wall behind him.

“What the fuck?” Ursus roared, forgetting himself and rushing forward while Anazâr took stock of the situation.

“Good aim,” remarked Anazâr. His mind had caught up with the movement of his body. Someone in the darkness beyond had thrown a jagged chunk of wood at him.

“That was the Sarmatian, masters, and no one else! And she’s out of things to throw, I promise!” Whoever shouted had excellent Latin; better than his own but still not quite Roman. A hint of please don’t punish us all hung in the desperation of the plea. That she’d sell out one of her own was very telling of the work Anazâr had ahead of him.

His eyes adjusted to the dimness. They were shackled along the length of a single chain—had apparently lain shackled all night on rough blankets next to reeking latrine buckets. His old cell at the ludus was palatial in comparison. Bile rose in his throat at the thought of women kept this way, but he pushed it back. His wife was a woman—these were gladiators, and he’d need to treat them as such if they were to have any chance of survival.

“There’s the Sarmatian bitch,” shouted Ursus, pointing at one who was crouching in a corner like an animal, but not in fear. Long dark hair matted in filthy tangles obscured her face, and she laughed. “Should I throw that bucket of piss on her to teach her a lesson?”

“No,” Anazâr said. “Stand back. Who among you speaks Latin?”

Shadowy forms stirred. A woman with skin much darker than his own raised her hand. “I, Amanikhabale, was the one who warned you, Dominus.”

Dominus. He quelled the urge to look behind him. I am he. “You sell out your sisters so easily?” Anazar chided.

Her bold face fell for a moment, but she recovered quickly. “My people are known for learning, Dominus, a quality which could be of great advantage to you. Provided with tablet and stylus, I would quickly write you a detailed report of the food supplies, physical condition, and fighting ability of our motley group of—”

“I don’t read, and I’ll form my own impressions. Step back. Who else?”

“I am the Roman,” said another, as large and broad-shouldered as the Aethiopian—thank the gods they all appeared to have been chosen for size—but shrinking in on herself, barely standing. She didn’t even say her name.

“I am Venatrix, the Gaul.” Her name meant huntress, but she looked more like a shepherdess, stolid and accustomed to patient waiting. Hair that if clean might be that golden color common among her people.

More women raised their hands after her and repeated their names, all mythological or warrior names no doubt assigned earlier that year. A Diana, a Penthesilea, an Atalanta. Some of them spoke in such a heavy Gallic accent that their Latin would be minimal, at best. Venatrix could translate, in that case.

“Those are the Germans,” said Ursus, gesturing to the right of Amanikhabale the Aethiopian. “I keep them chained apart. They don’t mix well, and they don’t speak Latin. Nobody knows their jabbering.” The three didn’t look different from the Gauls, except they stood closely together and looked directly toward him, not downward, eyes steely and lips tight.

Anazâr imagined that the Aethiopian would have learned much of their “jabbering” by now, if she was as clever as she claimed. But she stayed silent. Holding back in hopes of a more beneficial opportunity?

“I will speak slowly, and I will wait for this to be translated, and then I will speak it again,” Anazâr said, beginning his breath from deep in his chest so that his words exploded into the air and echoed from the high brick walls. “My name is Cyrenaicus the Numidian. I am here on the order of Marianus to train you as gladiatrices. Everything I do will serve that purpose. Everything. I am not here to punish you or rape you. I’ve fought in the arena and I will teach you to do the same. To fight, to kill, to win. What I teach you in these months will save your lives and those of your sisters. Since your lives are in the balance, I will not be lax in matters of discipline. But I will not be needlessly cruel.”

One of the Gauls raised her hand again, and Anazâr nodded curtly at her. “If my fighting bad, the master sell me?” she asked.

Ursus moved closer to whisper harshly into his ear. “The old trainer already checked that. Rule is, they go to the arena either way: gladiatrices or lion bait. Otherwise they’ll all fight like shit so they’ll get sold for whores and live.”

Anazâr had already figured as much. “Nothing has changed,” he proclaimed, and then tried to disguise the sympathy in his voice with savage finality: “You have no choice.”

Just as I have no choice.

“A question from Rhakshna Roxolania, oh master-who-is-slave,” shouted the Sarmatian in a strange, guttural Greek. “When can I kill some fucking Romans?”

“Two months,” said Anazâr. “Next question?”

# # #

The scant light from the few high windows obscured the sun’s passage, leaving the cavernous interior of the warehouse in perpetual rank-smelling twilight. I am a master in Hades, thought Anazâr more than once that day.

He could do little training. After unchaining the women, he and Ursus saw to their breakfast, and then there was the unavoidable matter of the buckets. He’d tried to organize a line passing to the sewer outside, only to have it break down into a German-Gaul shoving match where filth spilled across the floor as the Sarmatian paced and howled curses.

By the time the sun went down, he’d memorized all their names, judged their strength by having them lift stone weights, checked them for wounds and sores, and taken each alone (save Rhakshna) for a walk around the warehouse in the fresh air, for which they were all probably grateful, even if not all of them were quick to show it.

The Aethiopian was the last. She linked her arm around his elbow and walked as if they were lovers, smiling to passersby. “Can you even read the letters across your forehead?” she asked.

“I know enough,” he growled back at her. “I know what they mean.”

“That’s not the same as being able to read, but fine. What was it like, running away? Being captured again?”

“The first was easy. I’m a horseman. I stole a horse and rode far. But it was winter, and I couldn’t keep it alive, so they found me starving on the road.” He’d been so far gone with the hunger and the cold and the lashing that the pain of the tattoo had barely registered, until he woke up the next morning and scratched and scratched until he bled all over again and screamed and scratched at his bloody forehead some more. Details, details.

The weather now was a perfectly fresh Roman spring. Cool breeze, but no need for a cloak.

“I could teach you to read, you know. That could increase your value to your master. I’d ask for nothing in return, in the beginning.”

In the beginning. He could find no fault in her quest for advantage, of course, and perhaps they could establish an allegiance along the way. “We’ll speak at breakfast tomorrow. I’d like to know everything you can tell me about the reign of the old trainer—what he did that worked, and didn’t. I’ll try to bring a tablet and stylus.” He wrinkled his nose. “And most definitely soap and oil. Ursus should not have neglected that so badly.”

“He’s a pig. No better than your pig predecessor. You’d do well to be rid of him, if you hope to change things here.”

“You overstep your boundaries,” Anazâr warned.

“I’ll act more deferentially around the other women, but I propose we establish our relationship upon the most pragmatic of foundations. You’re in over your head. You need me. The only one of us who can fight is the Sarmatian, and she’ll vault the wall and start killing the audience if given half the chance. Examine your options from the outside, all of them, as wisely as possible, and I’ll keep you informed from the inside.”

They’d made a full circuit. As he led Amanikhabale back into the warehouse, he saw that the sun had fully sunk behind the row of warehouses to the left. It was time to return for his report.

“Tuck the ladies in for the night?” asked Ursus, rattling the long chain he would thread through their shackles. The ladies. Two words, but they were filled with a giant weight of sarcasm and contempt.

“Yes,” he hissed through clenched teeth. Amanikhabale may have spoken out of turn, but she was right about Ursus. Not that Anazâr could do anything about it. He addressed himself to the women. “Vale, gladiatrices.”

“Vale,” they murmured in a hesitant chorus of discordant accents.

“Vale my tits and ass,” yelled the Sarmatian. Amanikhabale, who obviously counted Greek among her languages, fought back a crooked smile.

Author Bios:
LA Witt
L.A. Witt is an abnormal M/M romance writer who has finally been released from the purgatorial corn maze of Omaha, Nebraska, and now spends her time on the southwestern coast of Spain. In between wondering how she didn't lose her mind in Omaha, she explores the country with her husband, several clairvoyant hamsters, and an ever-growing herd of rabid plot bunnies.

She also has substantially more time on her hands these days, as she has recruited a small army of mercenaries to search South America for her nemesis, romance author Lauren Gallagher, but don't tell Lauren. And definitely don't tell Lori A. Witt or Ann Gallagher. Neither of those twits can keep their mouths shut...

Lisa Henry
Lisa credits her love of reading to her grandfather, who had stacks of books in every room in his house, and to her parents, who couldn't afford a television when she was child.Lisa lives in Australia, and shares her house with too many pets. She still devours books today.She also has a television.

Sam Starbuck
Sam Starbuck is a novelist and blogger living in Chicago because he enjoys trains, snow, and political scandals. By day, he manages operations for a research department at a large not-for-profit, and by night he is a pop-culture commentator, experimental cook, advocate for philanthropy, and writer of fiction.

He holds two degrees in theatre, which haven't done much for his career but were fun while they lasted. His love of ancient cultures and art crimes makes him a very strange conversationalist at parties.

His novels include Nameless, Charitable Getting, and Trace, published independently, and The City War, published with Riptide Publishing.

Heidi Belleau
Heidi Belleau was born and raised in small town NB, Canada. She now lives in the rugged oil-patch frontier of Northern BC with her husband, an Irish ex-pat whose long work hours in the trades leave her plenty of quiet time to write. She has a degree in History from Simon Fraser University with a concentration in British and Irish studies; much of her work centred on popular culture, oral folklore, and sexuality, but she was known to perplex her professors with unironic papers on the historical roots of modern romance novel tropes. (Ask her about Highlanders!) When not writing, you might catch her trying to explain British television to her newborn daughter or standing in line at the local coffee shop, waiting on her caramel macchiato.

Violetta Vane
Violetta Vane grew up a drifter and a third culture kid who eventually put down roots in the Southeast US, although her heart lives somewhere along the Pacific coast of Mexico. She's worked in restaurants, strip clubs, academia and the corporate world and studied everything from the philosophy of science to queer theory to medieval Spanish literature.

LA Witt

Lisa Henry

Sam Starbuck

Heidi Belleau

Violetta Vane

The Left Hand of Calvus #1

He is Worthy #2

The City War #3

Mark of the Gladiator #4

Warriors of Rome #1-4

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