Authors: Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan
“You've found your own style and it works. You took a big risk and it paid off so I can't complain, at least for now. But watch out. There might come a time when you have to strike true and end a life. When that time comes, don't hesitate.”
From my third match on, I loudly dedicated each victory to the memory of my murdered mother and brother, which fired up the Viridians in the audience and once even caused a riot. When my father objected a second time, this time to my riling up the mob, I argued that it was ludicrous that Romans could go to war and murder each other, send dozens of imperial worlds into starvation and poverty, but we were not allowed to be rude about it, or at least a woman wasn't. But father-daughter arguments seldom verge on the rational, and he seemed angry enough that he might really remove me from the arena, so I complied. It was a small sacrifice. After that, I simply raised my discus when I won a match, remaining silent. I instructed Bulla to sell my golden victory laurels and donate the money to wounded soldiers. This earned me a following, especially among the more influential women in my house, who argued that I boosted troop morale, and made it difficult for Father to remove me from the arena.
Marcus was at the other end of the hall, a sea of competitors between us. I waved my arm high in the air, and by some small miracle, he saw me. The crowd parted as he headed my way. A legion veteran and an ex-gladiator, Marcus owned a stake in the gym and was one of the most respected trainers in Rome.
“You're late,” he said grimly.
“Father jammed my armilla. I came as soon as I could.”
“Not soon enough. Darius has your place.”
Darius was a sagittarius-style gladiator, a bow and arrow expert.
“I'm twice the long-range fighter Darius is. He can barely see a target at fifty yards, let alone hit it.”
Marcus shrugged. “It is what it is. The tournament teams are complete bar four remaining vacancies.”
“I count two. One on the Calpurnian team, one on the Flavian team.”
“There are two Sertorian slots as well,” he said. “One of those will be taken by Servius Tullius Lurco. He set a new record in the bestiarii matches by single-handedly killing ten Sauromatae.”
His arena name was Lurco Giganticus and he was well known. Nine feet tall and all muscle, he wore a helmet with a death's-head faceplate. I'd seen him killing poison-spitting Equidae in the Ludus Silvaticus, one hoofed beast dead for every swing of his hammer. Lurco belonged to House Tullian, Sertorian allies. So the morning report I read was accurate, the Sertorians
drawing players from houses allied to them.
“That leaves one vacancy on the Talonite Axis,” Marcus said. “You want to fight for the bad guys?”
“Don't even joke about it.” Marcus had a dry sense of humor, and I wasn't in the mood for it. “Tell me how to fix this.”
“I've already complained to the committee.”
“What did they say?”
“That the rules are the rules. If your team leader scratches you, there's nothing they can do. They're making a big fuss over the fact that you haven't killed anyone in the arena.”
“And you don't disagree. You know I'm up to this, Marcus. I can kill.”
“You can't know a thing like that in advance. A moment's hesitation can cost you your life or that of your teammate. I told you not to show mercy in the ring and now look where it's got you.”
“This is my father's doing, nothing more.”
“Yes, but you've given him leverage by sparing your opponents. I could talk to Cossus Calpurnius Blaesus, but even if he agrees to let you join the Black Ravens, the committee would still vote against it. Your father has Spurius Viridius Silo in his pocket, and he's in charge of selection.”
Silo Viridius had made an art out of creating difficulty where there was none. He was part of the old guard who saw the sport as theirs and theirs alone and constantly lectured the younger players.
Gladiators must be cautious, careful. You've never fought to the death, you don't know the meaning of this game.
The fact that I was young and a woman didn't work in my favor. “Silo hates me,” I said.
“That he does.”
How could Marcus give up this easily, after all the work he'd done to help me qualify? “If the committee won't listen, then I'm getting on the Calpurnian team,” I said. “I'm better than three-quarters of their fighters as it stands. The Sertorians are fielding players from allied houses to fill their missing slots, so why not the Calpurnians? What's good for the goose is good for the gander.”
“The rounds have already been drawn up,” Marcus said.
“There must be something I can do,” I said, forcing down the panic rising in my chest. “You sent a man to the compound, sent me all those messages. You wouldn't have risked Father's ire if there wasn't a chance.”
Marcus shrugged again. “Perhaps Fate will weigh in on your side, perhaps not. Be calm, walk with me awhile, and let's see what unfolds.”
Patience was the last thing I was interested in exercising, but Marcus had his way of doing things, and I'd learned from hard experience not to press him too soon. He led me down the underground tunnel that connected the gym to the most ancient and revered gladiatorial arena in the galaxy.
“Who's fighting now? Anyone interesting?” I asked.
“The emperor's cousin from Mars is in a bestiarii match. Only for show, of course, since the Numerians aren't fielding a team this year. He wants to go up against the barbarian Sauromatae, the same as his hero Lurco Giganticus.”
The beast-hunting matches lacked the prestige of the gladiatorial arenaâI never liked them.
“The emperor's cousin? Bucco Numerius?” I said.
“That's him. Authentic gear down to the last clasp.”
“They'll eat him alive,” I said.
“Ha, you're not wrong, except he's only going up against one lizard man and fully shielded at that. I'm sure the emperor will be squirming in his seat. His cousin's an embarrassment. Not worth his salt.”
For Marcus, that was the worst insult he could give, reserved for undisciplined amateurs, the hopefuls who were not willing to make the sacrifices required to be the best.
We emerged into the bright lights of the arena. The stands were packed to bursting, the roar of the crowd deafening, like storm waves crashing against a seawall, matched only by the blaring musical accompaniment that lent a sound track to the arena dramaâtrumpets, horns powered by the strong lungs of row after row of Taurii trumpeters. There was even an organic pipe organ in a specially devised tank played by three water-breathing Aqua Mariniansâgreen-and-blue-striped barbarians from Mare Byzantium. The old arena lacked the awe-inspiring immensity of the emperor's planet-circling Rota Fortuna or a Sertorian city-hunter arena, but as I walked beside Marcus, I could feel a vibe, a palpable drama that saturated the airâan energy born of millennia of history mixed with blood and sand.
Marcus pointed to the royal balcony above us, draped in purple, with images of golden lions.
“The emperor,” I whispered. Sitting behind a protective energy field up on his private balcony was Caesar Numerius Valentinius himself. Attendants rushed to and fro within the box, anticipating his every need. When Marcus spoke about the emperor being embarrassed by his cousin, I thought he meant that the emperor would be watching the match from some distant location, not be present in person, right here in Rome. This changed things. The emperor in the arena represented the last vestige of democracy in the empire. What the audience demanded, the emperor was likely to grant. Was this what Marcus wanted me to see? How could the emperor have any interest in helping me? I certainly wouldn't dare petition him. No one asked the emperor any favor lightly in case his judgment ran contrary to expectation. A man who crushed fleets of warships as easily as another might swat a bothersome fly wasn't someone to irritate needlessly.
Searching the various matches taking place in the center stage, I located the emperor's cousin by the glint of his gold armor, trident, and net swinging back and forth before his opponent.
“I feel bad that you have to watch this fool,” Marcus said.
My trainer had something in mind but was clearly undecided on whether he was going to help me. I had to work out what was going on in his mind and tip the scales in my favor. What was he holding back?
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
a couple of months after the deaths of my loved ones, sitting on my own in the empty benches at dawn training, front row every morning, studying the fighters and taking notes, until after two weeks, Marcus' curiosity was piqued and he came over to speak to me.
“Can I help you, my lady?”
“Perhaps. I'm looking for someone that can show me how to use this,” I said, opening my weapon case to reveal Orbis.
Marcus whistled in appreciation. “A homing discus. That's a lot of weapon for a little lady.”
“It was good enough for Julius Ovidius. He won three Ludi Romani using one,” I said.
“That was over four hundred years ago.” Marcus reached forward to touch my weapon, but Orbis, sensing a stranger, began to rotate in his restraining gel. “It only likes your touch, hey?” He tried again and Orbis spun faster in anticipation. “This one doesn't like being constrained. He wants to cut me.”
“I noticed that you don't have a discus player training here,” I said.
“None have the patience to learn.”
“Then you know how to use it?”
“I learned the fundamentals on Quatrus Negra. They duel to settle public disputes. Two people stand on opposing hills, each one wielding a discus. The first person to receive a mortal wound loses the dispute. It's a difficult weapon to master, but once you have a sense of it, it's the hardest to defend against.”
“Then teach me. Let me join your team.”
He smiled. “I don't have women fighting here. Do you see any women in my gym?”
“What have you got against women fighters?”
“You brought up Julius Ovidius, the last great discus fighter. He could throw his homing discus on a half-mile returning orbit. Those skinny arms of yours would be lucky to make a spirited throw of thirty yards.”
“Most arena fighting is in close. Who cares how far the weapon can be thrown? Speed, flexibility, and agility make up for brute strength, and I've developed a new method of medium-range fighting focusing on spin and rebound.”
“Really, I've got nothing against women in the arena. I've known some who could hold their own, one in particular who was astonishing, but everyone will compare you to Julius Ovidius, and you won't measure up. A discus fighter needs a strong arm, and powerful legs.”
“I'm at the top of my class in military studies and close-quarter combat,” I said. “I'll win many victories for your team.”
Marcus closed the lid of the weapon case in a way that let me know the conversation was over. “Thank you for bringing this in. It's beautifully crafted and it's been a long time since I've seen one, but you should understand that it's not fit for a lady. It takes years of training to discipline both yourself and the discus, and trust me, no father wants to see his daughter cavorting in the arena. It's asking for trouble. You should find another way to upset him, one that doesn't put your life on the line. Or if it's self-defense you're after, then learn to fire a concealable ion pistol, or if you want take some combat courses, some of my students teach them after hours to make a little extra. There's even a class for high-born women.”
He was already walking away, but I wasn't going to take no for an answer.
“Your spear fighter, Lenticulus. He drops his right elbow before he thrusts. It slows down his attack as well as telegraphing so his opponent can counter.”
“You've got a good eye, I've been telling him about that,” Marcus said. “But it doesn't mean you're cut out for the arena.”
“You will train me. I command it.”
He laughed out loud at that.
“When you become a gladiator, the moment you step into the arena, you are considered a slave. It is a public ritual. You must swear an oath to give up not only your titles but also your citizenship until you cease training under your lanista and leave fighting in the sacred arena for good. Do you understand? No matter who you were before you stepped in, in the arena there are only slaves. You make legal and potentially lethal submission to the games, the team, the trainer, the editor. It's the last even playing ground in the empire.”
“There are plenty of nobles who fight in the arena and those rules are overlooked.”
“None of them are women. Even the idea of ritual slavery would create a scandal. Go back to your fine chambers and pretty robes.”
I flipped open my sling case, snatched up Orbis, and ran ahead to block his path. His face darkened. “You've got spirit, but it's the spirit of a spoiled princess who's used to getting her way. You had best move aside.”
“The Sertorians killed my mother and my brother. A Viridian woman can't join the military, and I need to make them pay. Personally.”
“I know you now,” he said. “There was a news story all about you a few months back. You're Lucius Viridius' daughter. Your family was on Olympus Decimus when the bombs fell, and you've been hanging around the Senate bothering them in the hope they'll let you join the legion. Let me save you the troubleâpetitioning the Senate is a lost cause. The Sertorians have more than half the Senate in their pockets.”
“You think I haven't worked that out already? Why do you think I'm here? The men who killed my mother and brother fight in the Ludi Romani. I have to work my way to the top of the league if I'm to kill them.”
“You want to fight in the Ludi Romani? You can't be serious.”