by Tan Grimes
To read the disclaimer, return to I PARDA ROMAE.
A bang woke the Leopard, sent her heart into wild pounding. Eyes darted about the dim lamp-lit cabin, sifted through the sounds that filtered in. Beyond the wooden walls came shouts, movement, activity. Muscles tensed, ready to move.
Moments passed. No threat burst in the door. The commotion drifted away and heaviness seeped back into her bones, drew her down into the warmth of the pallet.
The warmth of another body. She stiffened, staring at the slack face, the wild dark hair, raking her memories for how and when she ended up in the Conqueror’s bed. Then again, most of last night was hazy. Moments of clarity clung to her rather than an actual sequence of events. The deck rushing up to meet her. The light and pandemonium of the tiny cabin. Seeing the Conqueror, eyes closed, skin pale as milk, chest bathed in crimson. Standing in a crowd so quiet it seemed to be holding its breath, knowing the mythical Warrior Princess might not survive the night. Watching long fingers twitch with each ungentle stitch. Moving forward to kneel beside her, frozen hands covering hers, hiding the weakness. Her words, She stays with me, before sagging against the wall. A sea of hard faces upon the Destroyer of Nations, be they supporters, admirers, critics, or enemies.
That fact alone gave her fortitude enough to stay awake, cast suspicious looks at anyone—even officers—who approached while the healer worked. Luckily no one tried to lay a hand on either of them. There was probably little she could do to protect the Conqueror, weak as she was, but no one called her bluff. Once the healer moved to treat the young servant she slumped, rested her head against the warrior’s leg, succumbed to violent shivering. Someone draped a blanket around her shoulders, put a bowl of broth in her hand, left her to nurse it. Sleep pulled on her. She feared she might not stay awake, but anytime someone stepped near she came to life, shifted between them and the unconscious woman, baring teeth and barring access.
Captain Marcus ordered the gawkers out. The healer finished bandaging Niklos’s chest, moved him to rest under the table. Bloody sheets made way for fresh ones; delicately they stripped the ruined shift and put the Conqueror to bed. The captain’s eyes raked the slave head to toe before reluctantly pulling the door shut behind him.
She exhaled, gingerly settled her stiff body on the edge of the berth at her owner’s feet, leaned back against the wall to shake uncontrollably. The blanket was useless, seemed to hold the heat out more than in. Cold had taken root in her bones; she wondered if she would ever feel warm again.
That was the last she remembered until now. She and her wool blanket draped over the Conqueror like a shield, arm and shoulder and hip and leg stretched across the sleeping form, her cheek resting on one broad shoulder. Only the finest silk sheet separated skin from skin. She lay very still, her mind racing. Had the healer undressed her, moved her in her sleep? She hated to think she could be so far gone not to remember such a thing. Or had she shifted on her own, seeking warmth in sleep she could not find awake? Heat fairly radiated off the woman like sunlight, and she almost felt normal again. If feeling drained, sore from head to foot, and hungry as a beast in the games constituted normal. The fact that she was getting used to such a state did not reassure her about what life would be like under the Conqueror.
She should move. The Conqueror would not tolerate an uninvited slave in her bed, lying so close, touching her so familiarly. Nor would her officers likely be pleased. Then again, if the healer put her there, she should stay.
With the woman who ordered her crucified on the mast.
She pressed herself up, immediately sank down again, arms trembling, head full of wool. She’d be a fool not to stay, sleep, allow her body to rest. Let the Conqueror punish her later for doing what she had to do. Her body needed water, food, and rest, in whatever order she could accommodate.
Even with her head resting on the soft muscular arm, it took effort to relax. She stared resolutely at the berth wall, waiting for sleep to reclaim her, but the constant activity on the deck above and the pulse beneath her cheek kept her on edge, wouldn’t let her drift off. Her gaze wandered from the wall to the body before her, to the jump of a slow heartbeat under translucent skin. Eventually her eyes fixed on the gentle rise and fall of the lean woman’s chest. No, lean was too generous a word. Ribs rippled under the sheet, hip bones thrust like mountain peaks under the rough blanket. Her arm wrapped easily around the woman’s middle with room to spare. The hollow cheeks, the pronounced collarbones…how had she not noticed sooner? The warrior she'd met in the practice yard that night stood so tall and powerful. A goddess, invincible, reduced to mere woman, thin and wounded and very mortal. Fingers itched to touch a puckered scar over her right breast, wonder at its hidden story—
The door opened and she tumbled from the bed, bouncing gracelessly off the floor. She stood quickly, jerked the blanket tight around her, trying to look intimidating in spite of her heat-filled face.
The healer held up his hands, offered a wry smile. “Peace, girl. I merely wish to check on my patients.”
She backed out of his way, allowed sure hands to examine the stitches. The servant remained dead to the world, but the warrior turned her head at the prodding, finally opening wan eyes.
Some tension fell from her brow. She closed her eyes. “We’ve docked.”
Indeed, the motion of the floor and walls was almost unnoticeable after three days at sea.
“Captain Bellerophon sent me to wake you and prepare for the procession into Corinth.”
“Did he?” By her tone, the slave guessed giving the Conqueror orders could be a poor career choice. “Some fresh air would be welcome.” She hauled herself upright, immediately tilted. Two pairs of hands caught her. “Maybe not.”
They lay her back down, the healer lifting the eyelid to look into each eye. Reassured, he nodded, turned to the slave. “Now let’s have a look at you.”
The Leopard immediately stepped away, her guard up, heel to the wall.
“Come, girl. You were three sheets to dead last night. I need to make sure you’re alright.”
She refused, eyes flashing threat, kept him at bay with a stiff arm.
“Let him look at you,” her owner said quietly, velvet over steel. The Leopard glared at her defiantly. The warrior’s voice softened. “He has my permission, if he has yours.”
Her nostrils flared. Permission? This was her choice? Then she chose no.
The moment she made up her mind, the stubborn streak burned out, left a survivor’s practicality. The blanket fell to the floor.
She wondered at her own disarmament, at the pale eyes watching her from the bed, welcome distraction from the gnarled fingers poking tender wounds.
He clucked his tongue, turning the unwrapped wrist in his palm. The back of her hand felt puffy and tender, raw edges of skin gone white. “Conqueror, I recommend your herbalist look at this hand as soon as possible. Infection would surely do her great harm in her weakened state.”
The Leopard bristled, would show him weakened—
“I’ll see to it. Anything else?”
“The leg is healing nicely. I could examine her more thoroughly,” his voice trailing off as he glanced up into fierce eyes, “but I don’t think that would be wise.”
The warrior offered a tight-lipped grin. “You know how wild things are, Demetrius. Too skittish to know what’s good for them.”
He nodded, satisfied. “I’ll have your trunks sent up from the hold. Captain Bellerophon said he will be by shortly to escort you to the palace. By your will, Conqueror.”
The door latched behind him. Cold reality settled on the slave. A whole different world lay beyond that door, with new rules to be learned the hard way. Rome had been difficult enough. She felt more in command of herself and her fate this time, but already found herself squarely in the path of trouble more times than she could count on one hand. Danger seemed to dance around the Conqueror like some loving courtier, a deadly partner to cut in on.
“Hey.” So faint was her whisper, so uncharacteristic of the Conqueror, that she caught herself staring at a stranger. Those blue eyes stared back, flickered over her bare form. It was just a glance, but the gladiator flushed hot, gathered the blanket around her once more. One hand beckoned; uncertainly the gladiator approached.
“I know you’re angry with me. You tried to warn me. I won’t doubt your honesty again. But others will, and it won’t be the last time you’ll have to suffer to prove yourself. Can you live with that? You don’t have to, you know. I could put you somewhere safer. The kitchens, perhaps?”
The Conqueror offered a twisted little smile, and immediately the gladiator knew why. Ordinary slaves did not sleep in the Conqueror’s cabin, dine on the Conqueror’s food, fight for the Conqueror’s pleasure, receive the Conqueror’s tender care. The Leopard was no ordinary slave, had never been. She’d fought for the pleasure men of consequence, dined with heads of state, met some of the most famous men and women of the known world. The Leopard was too proud to take up an existence scrubbing floors and dishes. Not after the freedom and power of the arena. Not after the past few days with the Conqueror.
She saw it in the Conqueror’s eyes, the certainty that no one would turn down the life she offered. Had she given Niklos the same choice? Niklos, who rasped with each shallow breath, his future uncertain? How many servants had said yes before Niklos? How many officers before Marcus and Bellerophon? How many slaves before this moment? Where were they now, those who chose this intoxicating woman’s bloody path just to bask—and burn—in her sunlight?
Dead and gone. Perhaps that would be her fate as well. But the Leopard would not hide from it. Until then, she would bide her time, play the good servant, tolerate the Conqueror’s abuses, wait for the chance to escape. And if the Conqueror proved to be an exceptionally cruel owner…well, accidents could happen to anyone. They’d certainly happened before.
Throat dry, she nodded.
“Good. Your first duties then. While Niklos is recovering, I need a body slave.”
The slave faltered, heart hammering in her chest.
The woman smirked. “It’s not what you think. Just attend to my physical needs. Food, water, clothing. I’ll tell you what I need.”
Some things came naturally, like helping the weakened woman sit up, bringing her water, taking her to relieve herself. Other things proved more unsettling. Like sponging sweat from long lean arms and legs, back and breasts. In spite of the set of her jaw, she felt her ears grow hot, averted her eyes, hurried her movements. Then embarrassed at such puerile behavior, she forced herself to slow down, allowed herself to look at the thin physique, a blend of ropey warrior muscle and spare feminine curve. Her owner cleared her throat; she found herself still, her task forgotten. And she flushed again, set to scrubbing harder than necessary, unable to look her owner in the eye.
The trunks arrived. The Conqueror had her pull out a wine-colored silk dress with a high collar that clung to her form nicely. It also did a decent job of concealing the bandage at her throat. She put the slave to work brushing out the tangled ebony hair. After only a few minutes the Conqueror cocked her head, took the brush from her. “Your tunic and armor should be in the other trunk. Put them on. Quickly.”
The gladiator pulled out the dirty tunic, found her armor wrapped in sackcloth underneath. She looked up at the warrior questioningly.
The woman fixed her with a serious gaze as she brushed pitilessly at the tangles. “You are not some faceless slave. You are the Leopard, one of Rome’s prized gladiators. And my latest conquest. You better look the part. Hurry. Bellerophon is coming.”
She belted the cingulum over her soiled tunic, hefted the leather cuirass over her head, found the same hands helping to buckle it on that last took it off. She was left to lace up the boots herself as a knock announced the visitor. The Conqueror took a seat on the edge of the berth, composing herself.
“Come in,” she drawled.
With quick glances Captain Bellerophon took in his commanding officer and her armored slave. His face remained carefully neutral. “Conqueror, the men are assembled for the procession. We can leave as soon as you are ready.”
“Very good. Have a detail deliver Niklos to a cot in my chambers. And have this slave shackled to my sedan with the sturdiest chains we have.”
“By your will.” Bellerophon stepped aside, gesturing for the gladiator lead the way.
The Conqueror’s words rang in her head. You better look the part. She lifted her chin, steadied herself, stepped from the Conqueror’s presence onto the deck.
Like stepping from summer into winter. The captain snapped his fingers, summoning four soldiers. “Make sure the Conqueror’s newest pet doesn’t move a muscle.” He flashed a handsome smile that rose no further than his cheeks, left her in their watchful care.
One part of her attention on her hostile guard, she dedicated the rest to the port of Corinth. Harsh sun beat down from a cloudless sky. Crewmen and soldiers shouted and bustled, unloading the holds and assembling into columns on the docks. They numbered in the hundreds, far too many to have come off the ship. A welcoming troop from the local barracks, then. They stood in stark contrast to Roman legionnaires, their lines undisciplined, their armor unified in black leather and steel and little else. Only a dozen or so wore the ornate metal breastplates and helmets she’d grown accustomed to on deck. Those in matching uniforms likely formed a royal guard of sorts, like Bellerophon and his men, their steel cuirasses decorated with a clawed serpentine monster, bright blue matching tassels waving in the breeze where they stood around a covered sedan.
The Conqueror’s displeasure at one of her men plotting against her became clearer, if every soldier on the ship belonged to an elite troop hand-picked to guard her life.
Abruptly hands clamped down on her arms, grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked her head back. For a moment she stared down the dark shaft of the well, felt hot breath and hands—
—Keep still, whore—
and instinctively kicked back, drove the heel of her boot into a knee, jerked one arm free, elbowed up into the jaw with the other. A fist out of nowhere snapped her head around. Blindly she spun with it, smashed the heel of her palm across a nose. Bellerophon’s. Gods have mercy. Her extraordinary existence as the Conqueror’s slave would end in execution.
She jumped over the captain as he fell, keeping balled fists between her and the guards. She could feel others moving in behind her, turned her body to give them a shoulder rather than her back.
Bellerophon regained his footing, iron collar in hand, blue eyes glaring at her from a face that looked south and a nose that pointed west. Blood flowed down his lips, sprayed in heavy drops when he spoke. “Kill the bitch.”
Swords sang from their scabbards, four ahead, more behind. Her eyes darted around for a weapon, a shield, anything to put between her and them. Nothing. Just shrinking space to maneuver and nowhere to go but up the ropes or over the side.
A throaty laugh froze them in their tracks. The Conqueror crossed the deck, her hair pinned up, her face framed by the feathered gold crown of a great predatory bird, like some strange Egyptian goddess made flesh on earth.
A sneer played across her mouth when she caught sight of Bellerophon. “Trouble following my simplest orders, Captain? I said I want this slave shackled. Now.”
“But, Conqueror, she resisted—”
She snatched the chains from his hands, latched onto his flattened beak and pulled. He yelped, held the reset nose with shaking hands as she calmly crossed the deck.
A horrible blood-red smile made the gladiator shiver. Exhibiting a calm she didn’t feel, she dropped her arms and forced her chin up to meet the ice blue gaze, held still while the Conqueror latched the thick iron collar firmly in place. The wrist cuffs followed, trussed her hands under her chin on a very short leash. The Conqueror gave the heavy chain an experimental tug, jerked her subject down to her knees. The gladiator gritted her teeth.
“Bellerophon, the Leopard is a kitten! Must I do everything myself?” She held out a hand, wagged fingers impatiently until the captain produced the key. With a yank she forced the slave to her feet, led her down the gangplank at a stroll. Her leisurely gait masked unsteadiness, completely hid the fact that less than an hour ago she could barely stand. The gladiator didn’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed.
At the bottom of the gangway the warrior swayed, caught herself before anyone, slave included, could move to help her. She laughed it off. “Time to trade in those sea legs for my old ones.” The men nearby laughed too, if nervously. The slave let out a held breath.
Captain Marcus offered her a hand into the sedan. She settled herself, the chain draping lazily over her shoulder. At Marcus’ signal, eight men lifted the chair, and drums set the column in motion up a wide road into the walled city.
Corinth could not compare to Rome in color, size, or stature. Where Rome was covered in rich paints and bold fabrics and gold leaf, Corinth’s drab tones smacked more of a prison. Although a sizeable city, Corinth could not measure up to the miles and miles of roads that crossed the seven great hills of Rome. Even the people seemed smaller somehow, hunched and beaten down, if not broken. Rome was the heart of the Roman Empire. Corinth was the head of Greece, all strategy and no patience for anything else. Caesar captured Rome; they shared little in common, like spouses in a forced marriage. The Conqueror consumed Corinth. The Conqueror was Corinth.
Spontaneous cheers rose up from the citizenry as the procession passed. “Hail the Conqueror!” “Ares grant us victory!” “The Destroyer has returned!” The slave stared at faces as they passed, saw fear, hatred, euphoria, and hysteria in their eyes. At the Conqueror. At the soldiers. At her.
Something hard bounced off her armor. “Death to the enemies of Greece!” Another stone sailed in; she ducked it, only to be struck by another on the ear. “Death to the Romans!” Rocks and vegetables and coins flew in, stinging legs, arms, face. She resisted the urge to throw back, settled for her best snarl.
Something caught her in the back of the head, dropped her to her knees. Hands strained against the irons to reach back, felt warm wetness in her hair before the chain snapped tight, wrenched her onto her elbows, dragged her along. She clambered up, lurched ahead blindly, squinting down a dark tunnel until she could get her bearings. Scraped knees and elbows proved especially sensitive targets for the mob’s missiles. She hunched her shoulders against the barrage, her hands shielding her face what little the chains would allow.
She decided she didn’t care much for the hospitality of Corinth.
The procession reached a large town square in front of the gates of a massive fortress. The sedan-bearers mounted steps to the side of the main gates, lowering the chair onto a platform that overlooked the common area. Reluctantly the gladiator mounted the steps behind her owner, did her best to stand very still and become invisible.
The Conqueror rose. When the assembly finally quieted down, the absoluteness of it deafened.
“Our journey to Rome is a great victory for Greece and her people. Caesar welcomes peace with mighty Corinth. He wishes to establish trade routes over land and sea which will bring good fortune and prosperity to all the lands under Greece’s rule. Furthermore, Caesar has agreed to withdraw his troops from Illyria, opening trade and expansion all the way to the northern sea!”
Cheers erupted from the crowd, harsh and forced.
Xena waited until the noise calmed. “And I have claimed another prize for Greece. Caesar issued a challenge, one of Rome’s favorite gladiators, the Leopard, against your Conqueror. Now Rome’s prize is mine.”
The chain jerked and twisted; caught off guard, she fell to scraped knees and elbows, the roar of approval hardly penetrating her senses. A boot pressed her cheek to the platform. Not hard, but enough to make a point.
“Crucify her!” Others in the crowd took up the cry. Alarmed, the slave looked up at her owner, saw that terrifying grin again.
“Crucify her? Crucifying is too good for this whore of Rome. She will live out the rest of her days under my heel, her skills serving Greece as I see fit. Just as Rome herself will someday.”
More strident cheers. Only after many long seconds did the pressure let up; she struggled to her feet, glowered uneasily at the Conqueror’s back. If the crowd booed her before, they despised her now. Romans had hated the Leopard too, but in the arena, the crowd was little more than a squirming jeering mass of flesh. Faceless. Removed. Insignificant. Not like this, just out of reach of a frenzied mob howling for blood.
Relief flooded through her when the bearers lifted the sedan to leave, turned sour at the narrow path the soldiers cleared through the throng. The crowds pressed much closer this time, close enough to spit at her, swipe at her with fists and claws. She avoided some only to be snared by others, barely managed to keep her feet as fingers tugged on her armor, ripped her tunic, dug into her flesh. She kicked at one that wouldn’t let go of her shoulder guard, found her leg caught and pulled. She elbowed that one away, but others surged in his place, hands grabbing, knotting in her hair, pummeling her head. Already lightheaded, she stumbled and fell, kicked wildly as they grabbed her legs and hauled her off the ground, pulling against the collar. Frantically she thrashed, clutching at the chain, desperate to loosen the metal noose around her neck. A rushing filled her ears as more hands latched on to elbows and feet, intent on tearing her limb from limb.
The hands let go, heads cracking as one of the royal guard stepped in, beat them off with the pommel of his sword. Strong arms hauled her to her feet, the soldier hunching over her, shielding her from the hateful crowd until they entered the palace.
When they were safe inside the gate and beyond sight of the horde, trembling knees gave out and she vomited water and rancid broth onto the paving stones. Again, more of the same and viscous bile. And again and again, reflexive heaves until she thought her intestines would come up through her nose. Strong gentle hands supported her when her elbows gave, let her work solely on cleansing her system of fear.
Though she stared at the palace guard intently, the Conqueror barely heard a word he said, all attention focused on the retching slave silhouetted in the dim corridor. She’d heard the jeers of the crowd, felt the tugging on the chain, knew they went for her. As she trained her eyes on the poor man before her, she wondered how close they came, how badly they’d hurt her—
“—are waiting to see the Conqueror in the great hall.”
“What? No. Absolutely not. Tell them to come back tomorrow.”
“Yes, Conqueror, I understand. But they say the flood washed away their homes, devastated their food stores. The survivors are starving and need provisions immediately. If wagons left now, the food would arrive in two days.”
“How much food?”
He blinked. “I’m not sure, Conqueror.”
She frowned, watched a scarred soldier approach. Though not a large man, he carried in his arms the limp gladiator, her pale face buried in his shoulder. An eyebrow floated into her hairline. “Put her in my room. And fetch my herbalist. And have the kitchen send up some food.”
He nodded. She watched him until he was out of sight, reluctantly turned back to the waiting guard. “Let’s go. This better be quick.”
It was not. The flooded village got several wagons of provisions in exchange for sending healthy young men to serve in the army. Surely they expected no less for her benevolence. But a messenger from Persia intercepted her, requesting more troops to hold back the Horde, followed by a messenger from Egypt announcing its wish to renegotiate the terms of their ‘alliance.’ To both she said the same thing. Come back tomorrow, or you will not like my response.
As she left the great hall, Bellerophon fell in step behind her. “Cleopatra is no fool. She wouldn’t risk your wrath without leverage.” His voice hummed around the bloated nose.
Xena shook her head, too worn out to care. “See what you can find out.”
Bellerophon bowed, left her side.
She navigated the corridors by rote, her legs heavy. The scar-faced guard waited for her outside the heavy plain door, saluted as she approached. “Conqueror, your slave and servant are inside. The herbalist is tending to them, and food is waiting for you.”
She acknowledged, already pushing past him. A thought struck her. “Did they hurt her?”
“Those animals in the crowd. Did any lay a hand on her?”
“Plenty, I’d say. They’re stirred up about your trip, would love to give any Roman what’s coming to them. But I don’t think she’s hurt, really. Mostly shook up.”
She nodded absently, reliving another mob, a gauntlet of sneering faces. The woman who would become Conqueror learned a pivotal if unpleasant lesson that day: mercy doesn’t impress an army. It had taken a long time to put that experience behind her. One rarely survives a mob unscathed. “Well…thank you.” She cringed, slapped by words and sentiment very unlike the Conqueror, cleared her throat to cover it. “Joxer, isn’t it?”
He responded with a sober jerk of the chin. “You saved my life at Athens.”
She didn’t remember that. She did remember a far more recent skirmish, cleaving her way through a pack of Roman dogs trying to take over her ship. Running one man through, her blade binding in his spine. Several swords and spears coming at her, forcing her to jump back or be skewered. His lunge into attacks meant for her, driving them back while she rearmed herself. Neither of them spoke of it, then or now.
She gave his armor a once-over. “How long have you been a Dragon?”
The nasty scar from forehead to jawline seemed to render his face incapable of cracking a smile. “Almost a year, Conqueror.”
He didn’t act green, didn’t try to curry her to favor. He’d served at Athens, must have been regular army for some time. “Well, you impressed me today. The Leopard doesn’t let just anyone touch her.”
His face twitched at the rare compliment. “Thank you, Conqueror.”
She dismissed him, entered her chambers. A small entryway lay just beyond the main door, a lead-in to more double doors and the enormous suite beyond. The previous rulers of Corinth apparently needed a lot of room to engage in their private affairs. The Destroyer of Nations did not, filled the space inadequately. A gigantic bed dominated the center of the main chamber, decorated in exquisite pillows, blankets, and sheets from Egypt, India, Chin, and Japa. Beyond the bed a small fire danced in the hearth. On one side a desk and chair faced a narrow window. On the other side clothes occupied one antechamber; another housed a sumptuous bath. The main chamber remained generally empty save for a few personal items collected in her conquests. Sounds echoed unpleasantly around the room, only slightly muted by fine oriental rugs and rare animal pelts covering the floor.
In stark contrast to the void of the bed chamber, the entry alcove bustled with activity. On a hastily arranged cot lay her personal servant, his breathing thin and strained as an old man removed gold and silver and bronze needles from his skin. Niklos’ pinched brown eyes searched for her, too terrified to move. Pained, she hung back in the corner of the entry, out of the way while the herbalist finished.
He put his medicines away, spoke to her alone in the language of Chin. “The blade has disrupted his chi; his chest does not expand properly. He may not recover, but…his energies seem favorable. I can give him a drink to ease the pain and help him sleep. He needs strict bed rest, no duties.”
She nodded, allowed herself the indulgence of squeezing Niklos’ hand. She smoothed his bangs, forced herself to smile at the uncomprehending young man as if everything were fine.
The shriveled herbalist turned on her, said in thickly-accented Greek, “Now examine you.”
She impatiently shrugged off his hand. “I’m fine—”
“You always argue. Let old man do what you spare his life to do.” He took his bag of herbs and tinctures to the bed, sat down and waited for her to join him.
She worked at the buttons of the oriental gown. “Stop fussing, you quack. I’m fine. See? Demetrius did an excellent job patching me up.”
He chuckled humorlessly. “Demetrius take no credit for this. This remarkable healing and stubbornness.” He removed the dressing, cursed the healer’s parentage. “Barbarians. Always you cut each other open, call it medicine.”
He prepared a poultice and a tea while she removed the dress and headpiece, retrieved a soft worn robe. Neither pretty nor new, it comforted her like an old blanket or favorite pair of boots.
She stepped out of the antechamber, spotted the fair figure curled on her side below the window. “What about her?”
“Her? She would not—”
“—let you touch her,” she finished, hardly surprised. She drank his bitter potion, pressed the hot poultice to her neck as she crossed to stand before the Leopard. In the darker edges of the chamber a thin ray of sunlight weakly illuminated her face, drew out numerous cuts and scrapes, the waxy complexion, the dull sage eyes, the heavy iron collar and manacles. At her approach the slave pressed herself up to her knees, head down.
This disturbed her more than any gushing wound. She crouched down before the woman, lifted her face. “You alright?”
Woodenly the gladiator nodded. Some shadow lingered in her eyes though, some wound unseen. The Conqueror removed the manacles from her neck and wrists, unwrapped her hand and held it up in the sunlight for the herbalist’s inspection.
His pruned face squinted, sighed at the half-healed mess, the swelling, the pink tendrils creeping up her wrist. “She will have fever tomorrow. Give her yellow flower medicine, will realign her chi.” He took her arm in his skeletal hands, pressed sharp fingers deep into her forearm and shoulder. She gasped, glared at him in an almost comical look of surprise if not for the alarm growing in her eyes. Xena concealed a tiny smile, remembering that shock of discomfort wrapped in a promise of pain. The wild thing tried to pull away; the Conqueror held her arm still with firm hands. Reflexively the Leopard’s other hand formed a fist; the warrior caught it before it connected with the old man’s face, whispered, “Breathe.”
They stayed like that, a tangled knot of arms and hands, the Leopard trembling, drawing ragged breaths.
His grip relaxed. She sagged, panting, cradled the arm to her as if broken.
“Will heal faster. She need food, water. When last time you feed her?”
“I’ll take care of it.” She flexed the gladiator’s arm and shoulder, not unlike when she relocated it. Gods, their first meeting face to face, a lifetime of excitement ago. Xena smiled. The Leopard would certainly make for stimulating company.
The old man pressed a steaming cup into the slave’s hand. “Drink it,” the Conqueror commanded, before the slave could even make a gesture of refusal. “It tastes like dung, trust me, but it will keep you from losing the hand.”
She eyed the Conqueror, the herbalist dubiously. The contents of the cup went down in one gulp; the grimace took longer to fade.
The warrior grinned. “Welcome to my life.”
A knock at the door. “Come,” she called out.
A portly man bustled in, bowed deeply. “Conqueror. Is everything to your liking?”
She stood, moved to intercept him. “I haven’t tried the food yet.”
“And you sent for the herbalist—” He gasped. “Niklos! My dulcet dove, what have those Roman pigs done to you?”
“He’s recovering, Vidalis. Let him rest. How is the palace?”
He resisted the urge to go to the young man, clasped his manicured fingers. “Fine, Mistress. No troubles to report.” He spied the gown and crown on the floor near the antechamber and snatched them up, flitted around the chamber, tidying her mess. “Did your wardrobe have the desired effect, Conqueror?”
“Caesar noticed if that’s what you mean. So did most of the male inhabitants of Rome.”
“Stellar. I shall have all your dresses cleaned—oh my.”
In his sweep around the room he stumbled upon her in the patch of sunlight. Eyes stalked him the moment he entered until he came too close and she crouched, ready.
“Vidalis, this is my newest slave…” What name had she given? Gabrielle? Immediately she discarded it. Far too soft and banal for the gladiator poised to punch her headservant’s teeth in. “Parda, the Leopard of Rome.”
He thoroughly inspected her from head to toe, his narrowed gaze speaking volumes. “Goodness, Mistress. Did you buy her or defeat her?”
“Both. I’ll need another cot sent up.”
“Really? There is plenty of room in the slave’s quarters for one more uncouth—” He glanced at the Conqueror’s hard face. ”Of course, this space is far too empty. Another cot would certainly liven up the place.”
She took his elbow and led him away, dropping her voice. “She’ll need some plain tunics, something in the Roman style to make her feel at home. I trust your judgment, of course.”
The man pursed his lips, sizing her up. “I’ll have to get that armor off, get some measurements.”
She squeezed his shoulder. “Not gonna happen. You’ll just have to give it your best guess and we’ll go from there.”
He sighed. “Can I do anything else for you, Mistress?”
“She can attend to my needs while Niklos recovers. What you do already is plenty.”
He beamed and bowed dramatically, backing out of the room and closing the doors behind him.
The herbalist rolled his eyes, fed more of his crushed leaves to Niklos.
“You too, old man.”
He slipped back into the melodic tongue of Chin. “As you wish. These are for his pain. They work best on an empty stomach. He can eat them now, but he should take some again in the afternoon, and again when it is dark.” He did not take long to gather his medicines and leave.
Finally she stood alone in her chambers, safe from the outside world. The quiet wrapped around her like a blanket. She closed her eyes, released the iron grip she held on her spine.
The gladiator caught her arm before she realized she’d tilted, guided her to the bed. She lay there, eyes closed, listening to clanking pottery and silver until a hand on her shoulder encouraged her to sit up. The gladiator held out a goblet of wine, willed her to drink it.
“You first. Part of your new duties.”
The woman frowned, confused. The Conqueror offered a wan smile. “It’s probably fine. No one’s tried to poison me in months.”
Doubts flitted across the slave’s features. Steeling herself, she closed her eyes, took one slow sip. A long moment passed, as if she waited for a snake to bite her on the tongue. She forced herself to swallow, waited again for her body to signal distress. Nothing. Her shoulders relaxed. Clear eyes offered the cup again.
The warrior took it, downed it in one gulp, gestured to the plate of food between them. One by one her new slave sampled the bread, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, lamb and duck. She had the look of one going to an execution, not a proper death for a gladiator. It left a sour taste in the Conqueror’s mouth.
They ate quietly, neither feeling much enthusiasm for the meal. Xena found herself staring at the young face. Eight, maybe ten winters separated them, though the Conqueror couldn’t be sure. In a fight, in pain, in anger, in trouble, her face formed a mask as ageless and impenetrable as stone.
She knew that mask. She acquired hers when the warlord Cortese invaded her village so many years ago, molded it into form over her brother’s dead body, made it a part of her daily life after her mother disowned her. But she owed the final polish to an arrogant Roman noble named Caesar who promised her love and power. The same man who betrayed her, left her and her crew crucified on a beach as a lesson to those who might mistake him for a pawn and not a player.
The Leopard’s mask was a cold, distant thing. But sometimes, like now, it slipped. Hard years fell away from her, left a softness, a hollow ache that made the Conqueror uncomfortable. She looked away, pretended not to see. “I need a bath. Come.”
She led the slave to the side chamber, relieved to find the tub filled in anticipation of her return. She dropped the old robe as she stepped in, pinning her hair up and settling into water up to her collarbones with a sigh. She closed her eyes and soaked for a few minutes, letting the journey’s filth dissolve in the heat. Could have fallen asleep in an instant if not for the stranger watching her. She sighed and took up a sponge, hadn’t the energy to scrub but at least wiped almost every inch of skin.
Her back prickled. She turned to see hooded eyes staring at the water like a beggar at a feast. A hand gestured for her to come closer, handed her the sponge. “Wash my back.”
For the second time that day, the slave bathed her mistress. The first bath was hesitant, embarrassed. This time her movements were coarse and hurried.
She lay a hand on the sponge, held it still. “Gentle. Like this.” She moved the slave’s hand in lazy circles on her shoulder, the pressure firm but not rough. Gradually carefulness crept into the touch, calloused hands relearning how to wash rather than scour, soothe rather than hurt.
Back, arms, and legs clean, she rested her head back against the edge of the tub as the sponge gently scrubbed her chest, her stomach, her breasts. Pleasant sensations, if not particularly erotic. She felt the sponge dip lower and hesitate, opened her eyes. The slave stared hard below the surface of the water, moisture beading on her brow. Without a word she pried the sponge from frozen fingers.
“I’m done. Get those off.”
The Conqueror stepped out of the bath, toweled herself dry and drew the robe over her shoulders, watched the gladiator surreptitiously. Armor and boots came off slowly but without a fight. The Conqueror smiled, thinking of that night in the cabin as they set sail from Rome. What a difference three days made.
“The tunic, too. All of it.”
That brought a spark of will back.
She sighed. “For the bath.”
Those pale green eyes held hers as she obeyed. They spoke of trust, if guarded. And they did a fair job of keeping her eyes from wandering elsewhere. The Conqueror forced herself to step back, taking in the sight before her.
Even standing tense and ready, she looked wrecked. Beneath the caked sweat and leopard spots and dirt and blood and scars, bumps and bruises purpled nicely on her face and neck and torso, complimented the outright flaying of her hand, the puckered stitches of her arm and leg. While the injuries looked bad, she dismissed them as known concerns, noted instead the freshly skinned knees and elbows, shallow fingernail scratches, blood matted in the thick shock of white-gold hair.
She eyed the scratches and cuts, tender tokens of affection from her subjects, and felt the barest twinge of guilt. She’d intended to use the Leopard as a symbol, an effigy of Rome to rile the masses. She hadn’t meant for the mob to get so close. Not that she would ever admit events hadn’t gone exactly as planned. She’d become the Conqueror by being all-knowing, being able to predict her enemies’ every move. Reputation as much as anything kept the circling jackals at bay.
Fingers brushed touched the long scratches on the muscular bicep as if tracking sign in the woods, trying to read the actions behind them, glean some information about the perpetrator. Dark fantasies of finding the assailant and returning the injury ten-fold danced through her mind. This was her flesh to break. No one else’s.
“Get in,” she husked.
The slave looked hesitantly at the bath, at her.
“Get in. You need it.”
She stepped into the warm water, hunched and set to scrubbing quickly, no doubt used to bathing with little water, less time, and no privacy.
She shook her head. “Stop. Stand up.” Taking the sponge, she began to wipe the grime from strong legs with slow measured strokes. “I thought you Romans were supposed to be obsessed with your baths.”
The slave watched her every move. “Not Roman.”
Her words dropped like coins on impoverished ears. The Conqueror hid her smile. She’d already guessed as much; the slave spoke perfect Greek when she spoke at all. And judging by the tightness of the quiet voice, she objected to the association with her former owners.
“No? Then where are you from?”
Another hesitation. “Poteidaia.”
She faltered, covered by rinsing out the sponge. “When did you leave?”
“Before your army came.”
So she knew the fate of the village. More importantly, she knew who the Conqueror was, perhaps bore a grudge. Danger tickled her spine.
“Why’d you leave then?”
“Stupidity.” The word trickled like bile, hot and sharp, upon her skin. “Choices of a foolish girl.”
She couldn’t imagine the cautious woman ever being foolish. “How did you end up in Rome?”
“Got caught in your war.”
Her war. The war with Caesar. Long and violent, both empires still licked their wounds.
Lost in her thoughts, she almost didn’t notice the body harden under her touch. Was it the tenderness of her bruised belly that triggered the change, or the nearness to her sex? She’d guessed correctly about the rape, doubted it was a one-time event. She kept her movements gentle and predictable as the sponge worked upwards, her impassive gaze locked on green irises, away from the curves and mounds she bathed. She made a point of lowering her arms, making sure the woman knew she was through.
“Alright?” At the gladiator’s barest nod, she gestured to the water. “Sit.”
The Leopard lowered herself in by inches, pausing as hot water brought fresh sting to each cut. Finally she took a breath, dipped beneath the surface. A dark cloud bloomed where she rubbed the back of her head; as she surfaced ruby water trickled down the nape of her neck. The warrior tilted her head forward, peeled the short thick hair aside until she found the ugly gash. “It’s not bad. The bleeding’s almost stopped.” She put a cloth against it, lay the head back against the tub as she rose to retrieve a vial from the table nearby.
“I thought slaves bathed their owners.”
She glared at the woman, ready with a sharp reprimand for such cheek, found wary eyes tracking her movements. Why would an owner bathe her slave personally, unless the bathing was a means to something more…intimate?
She shook her head, dribbled scented Egyptian oil into the water. “Consider this an education on how I want it done.” Sitting on the edge of the marble tub, she took one of the Leopard’s arms in hers and firmly rubbed sponge and hands from shoulder to fingertips, half-cleaning, half-massaging the knotted limb.
Gradually the gladiator relaxed, part exhaustion, part coaxing from steady hands on muscles and joints stiff with apprehension and abuse. Her eyes wandered away, stared off into the dark corners of the antechamber, looking like they might droop toward sleep.
She fought it, spoke instead. “I was in Scupi when the Romans came. The townspeople arrested me, turned me over to the Roman commander as one of your spies.”
“Stories. About the gods. About you. Lies. Doesn’t matter. They thought the Romans might take mercy on them for their show of loyalty. They were wrong. But the commander kept me, called me…amusing.”
“For your stories?” Roman officers usually weren't interested in young women just to hear them talk. Then again, none of this sounded like the history of an accomplished gladiator who spoke to her mistress only sparingly, and to no one else for gods knew how long before that.
The narrative hung like that, words caught in the slave’s throat, lost somewhere in a memory never shared. The warrior took her other arm in hand, kneading sore muscles, careful of the long stitched gashes left by the lion so many lifetimes ago.
When she spoke again, the Leopard’s voice sounded even more distant. “He let me speak my mind, so long as I counseled him truthfully. I thought he was a good man, tried to help him see it, too. Then…his commander propositioned me. I refused, so he went to my officer, told him I used my stories to spread sedition among the slaves and urge them to revolt.”
The slave’s lips drew into a thin line. “His slaves swore I did. I had two choices. I could say I hadn’t, basically accuse a general of Rome of lying and be branded a liar myself. Or I could say I had, and sentence myself to death.”
“So you said nothing.” The Conqueror pulled one of her feet out of the water, worked it gently to smooth away some tension, keep her talking.
“They tried to force a confession out of me. Every word I spoke in my defense the general twisted into a plot to undermine Rome, until I said nothing at all. It didn't matter. When we reached Rome, my officer sent me to the aution block.”
She set to work on the other foot. “At least you got away from the general.”
The gladiator sighed. “The general is the one who bought me and sent me to the arena.”
A soft knock drifted in from the main chamber, interrupting her. “Come, Vidalis! Let’s have a look at those tunics—” She glanced up. Captain Bellerophon stood in the doorway, his mouth slack. The foot pulled from her grasp, retreated under the water. She reined in her irritation. “What’s the reason for this interruption, Captain?”
“Conqueror, I have—I thought you wished to—” He cleared his throat. “Conqueror. May I speak to you in private?”
Water splashed from the tub; the slave stood, eyes down, quick to step out. “Stay,” she commanded. She was of a mind to tell the captain to come back later, but thoughts of Egyptian rebellion crept in. She tossed a towel to the slave, followed him all the way out the chamber door and into the hallway.
“General Pileus sends word from Egypt. While we were in Rome, a legion landed in Alexandria to reinforce Cleopatra's troops. He fears she may now have enough forces to overcome the Third Army.”
“Or Caesar may be stirring her up to distract us from his movements on our northern border.”
“Either way, a disruption in tribute from Egypt would prove more than a distraction.”
“Perhaps.” A dozen scenarios worked through her head. “I want to speak to the messenger first thing in the morning. And make sure he is well rested so he can return to Egypt as soon as we’re done. Dismissed.”
She moved to return to her chambers, noted the captain lingered. Her eyes narrowed. “Is there something else, Captain?”
“If I may speak freely, Conqueror, your newest slave—”
She gestured to his swollen face. “This better not be about your clumsiness.”
He cleared his throat, tried to sound less nasal. “She lied to you, misidentified the assassin, could be working in collusion—”
“Because it looks to me like you got your nose laid over by a woman half your size and are trying to cover your incompetence.”
A vein rose across his forehead. “My men and I were following your orders—”
She smirked. “Yes, right up to the moment you ordered your men to kill her.”
He set his jaw. “Forgive me, Conqueror. She disobeyed your orders, attacked us when we tried to put her in chains. I had to ensure the safety of my men.”
She got in his face. “Let me make this absolutely clear, Captain. You don’t have the authority to order the death of one of my slaves. In fact, you don’t have the authority to do anything to my slaves. Ever.”
She turned away, conversation over.
“You seem awfully attached to this week’s toy, Conqueror. I must say I find her control over you disturbing.”
She slammed him back against a wall, her forearm pressed into his throat. “Do you have a death wish?”
“Forgiveness,” he squawked. “I know the Destroyer of Nations would not go soft over a girl, so I can only believe some sort of plot is at work. Hers. Or perhaps Caesar’s.”
She shoved him harder. “Speak plainly.”
“Before we left Rome I asked around. Gracchus was not her original owner. Before that she was a spoil of war.”
“I know all this,” she growled, her forearm grinding into his windpipe.
“The Leopard belonged to Caesar,” he squeaked. “Her loyalties lie with Caesar.”
She searched his face, looking for deception. Found none. She let up on his throat, her lips twisted in a snarl. “You know nothing about her loyalties.”
Each breath whistled with effort. “He wanted you to meet her. After seeing your interest, he must have pulled strings to have her fight two days in a row, something unheard of in the arena. He arranged the private fights through Gracchus. Perhaps he planned to offer her as a gift, get her close to you so she could earn your confidence—”
“And then kill me? She could have tried many times by now.”
“Kill you. Spy on you. Undermine you.”
She dropped him. She wanted to hit him, settled for the wall instead. He pulled himself upright, gasping and rubbing his neck.
“I just ask that you be careful. Caesar knows you, knows how to get under your skin. That slave is definitely under your skin. Please, Conqueror.”
She barely heard him. Did Caesar arrange to have the Leopard fight in the arena, knowing she would fascinate the Conqueror? Were the legionnaires who attacked the ship sent by Gracchus to reclaim his prize, or by Caesar to contact his slave with orders to kill her new mistress? Did the gladiator make a mistake or deliberately accuse the wrong man of plotting to assassinate her? None of it fit together but parts had the stink of that pompous bastard all over it.
Her gut told her Bellerophon was wrong, yet she couldn’t deny his logic. The gladiator was a danger. She’d already proven she could get a deadly strike through the warrior’s defenses. And she’d surely lost family when the Conqueror’s army razed her village. And no one knew better than Xena how Caesar could twist a person’s mind when he wanted something. Only a fool would ignore such a threat.
She sighed. “What would you suggest?”
“Send her to the slaves’ quarters. Or post guards in your chambers. Or at least keep her chained for your own safety. I cannot protect you if you won’t protect yourself.”
She turned away, paused with her hand on the latch. “Send for Joxer,” she murmured before stepping back inside.
Niklos dozed, well under the sleeping draught’s magic. Nevertheless, she carefully shut the doors to the main chamber.
The slave approached hesitantly, wearing the torn Roman tunic once more. Her eyes searched the Conqueror’s, questions lurking in their shadowed depths.
“Who was this general who bought you?”
The question startled the slave. Her mouth opened a few times before she managed an answer. “A nobleman accomplished in the arts of war—”
She grabbed the woman by the neck, ignored the strong hands that clamped around her forearm. “Don’t play games with me. Did you lie to your old commander?”
“Did you ever withhold the truth from him?”
The jaw clamped shut, refused to answer.
The Conqueror growled, gave the slave a rough shake. “You listen to me, girl. You can play your silence games with anyone else you want, but I know you have a tongue. When I ask a question, you will answer me, and you will answer truthfully. What general bought you and sent you to the arena?”
The woman struggled, gave in reluctantly. “Gaius Julius—”
“—Caesar,” she hissed. Her fingers dug deeper into the corded throat. “How long did you serve him?”
“Two, maybe three summers.”
“In what capacity?”
Heat flushed the young face. “As his gladiator.”
“Is that all?”
The gladiator’s hesitation gave her away.
“I see. How else did you serve him?”
She gritted her teeth. “You already know.”
“Why?” Her quiet voice trembled.
“I’m curious. How often did you grace his bed? Were you an amusement? Or a co-conspirator? Did you like what he did to you?”
The gladiator snarled, grabbed the dark triangle of the warrior’s sex half-hidden under the robe. “Did you?”
The rage in her eyes, the heat of her grab stole the Conqueror’s breath away. She stood there, torn between killing the gladiator where she stood and finishing what the hand between her thighs started.
Color drained from the gladiator’s face as she realized what she’d done. She swallowed hard, unsure and still.
A knock on the door made them both jump, break contact. The Conqueror pulled the robe closed. “Enter.”
The scarred guard stepped in, bowed formally. “You sent for me?”
The Conqueror still felt the flush of heat in her cheeks, turned away before the guard noticed it. “Escort the Leopard to the slave’s quarters. Tell the foreman she is not to be assigned duties, merely a cot to sleep on and a clean tunic. I will send for her when I require her services.” She retrieved from the floor the collar, manacles, and chain, held them up to the gladiator. “To restrain you or not? In my palace, slaves are merely collared; only prisoners are shackled. Which are you?”
She didn’t expect the woman to answer in front of an audience. After long moments of consideration, she locked the collar into place, snapped the manacles on her wrists. “Behave yourself and perhaps I’ll change my mind.”
More than once she awoke in a dim room, dragged from the depths of strange dreams by chill air across her skin, a heat underneath that turned her tongue to swollen sandpaper. Sometimes she could tell she was ill, but those moments of lucidity wove seamlessly with memory and illusion. The room offered no windows or doors to the outside. Upon each waking she couldn’t tell whether it was day or night, could only sense the rhythms of activity when she was aware enough to care.
Time passed by unchecked, and what little she remembered bled together with her fevered imagination. The guard who often came to her bedside metamorphosed into a giant menacing gladiator, his face hidden behind a scarred Greek tragedy mask, whereupon they dueled for Rome’s favor. A boy who came in to drain the chamber pot transformed into Caesar, resplendent in fine white and gold robes. With a gesture he commanded the cots to rise, reshaping themselves into guards to hold her down while he cut out her tongue. The withered healer with the foul drink and fingers like spikes jabbed her in the neck, let her lie there stiff and panicked while he—now she, having turned into the Conqueror—bent low and whispered tender reassurances that such tortures were for the good of Greece. Disembodied hands drifted across fiery skin, released one heat trapped underneath with cool relief, ignited another kind of heat more difficult to extinguish. Bright blue eyes held hers as fingertips brushed sweat-soaked hair off of her forehead, stroked her cheek. She couldn’t even lift her arms in response, but the kind touch was shade from blazing summer sun; she pressed her face into the relief of the cool hand, forced the only word she could think of—Xena—past a thick and contrary tongue. But the woman who recoiled from her had yellow hair, not black. Then she too passed away into heated darkness.
She woke drenched in sweat, drained but alert. Her body ached, but it was not in her nature to lie still. With effort she swung her legs off the cot, steadied herself, peered around. She didn’t recognize the long room full of cots. Definitely not the slave quarters where she’d fallen asleep under the scarred soldier’s watchful eye. Other than a few dozing forms and two people keeping to themselves in the far corner, the space was deserted. That suited her fine; she needed a chamber pot. She squatted, did her business, amazed there was any liquid left in her body to squeeze out. Water would help. Water would wash the fur from her tongue, ease the pounding in her skull.
A push and she was up, lurching toward the bucket near the door of the room. The wet felt good on parched lips, settled in her stomach without threat of rejection. Propped on her elbows, she splashed some on her face, dumped some over her soaked head, down her flushed shoulders and back, drank some more.
It helped. Feeling stronger, braver, she made her way to the doorway, scanned the hall. Empty. Daylight trickled down a stairwell at one end, promised fresh air, a respite from the rank odor of sickness and humanity. She saw no bars, bore no chains. Shaky legs carried her of their own accord.
She sagged against the wall, caught.
The guard jogged past her to block the passage to the stairs. Just out of arm’s reach, she could clearly make out the ragged scar that traced down his forehead, crossed the bridge of his nose and creased his cheek before fading at his jawline. It looked no less menacing than it had in her dreams, but a mildness tempered his expression, muted her anxiety.
“You’re going back to the infirmary. I have orders not to let you out of my sight.”
She stared past him to drink in the light filtering down the stairwell, inhale the faintly salty air, feel the cool settle on her skin. She looked at him again, her eyes asking.
“No. You are not allowed to leave the infirmary unrestrained.”
She offered up her wrists, more than willing to tolerate chains for a breath of freedom.
“No, absolutely not. No way.”
She sighed, so close. But Scar made no move to manhandle her back to the infirmary. Propped against the wall on unsteady knees, she leaned her head back, let her eyes slide shut. Sounds floated down the stairs. A man shouted to a stable boy to move his horse. A woman told others tales as they worked. Metal rang against metal in an uneven staccato of sword play. Words—no longer banned from her existence—sprung unbidden, gradually strung themselves into thoughts, knitted themselves into scenes, grew into stories. She shook her head to clear it, but imaginings wormed into her tired mind’s eye, tales of heroes and noblewomen and gods entwined in a frayed tapestry woven around one enigmatic warrior princess.
Memories crept in, always unwelcome. These she pushed away, but one stubborn whisper slipped through the darkness of a muggy night. “She’ll help us.”
Long moments, as his panting settled in the stillness. And then he slid off of her, the mood broken. “Gabrielle, they’re her officers. She sent them here. They do what they do in her name.”
“She would never order the mutilation of an innocent girl—”
“Why, because of those stories you tell? Are those stories even true?”
Her heart pounded in her throat. “Perdicus, she doesn’t know what’s happening here. If Xen—if the Conqueror knew, she’d have that officer crucified by morning. The Conqueror’s severe, yes, but impartial. In her own way. A letter is—”
“—our only chance. Things will only get worse if we don’t—”
Lips swallowed her words as he pressed her down into their pallet, a long insistent kiss she slowly softened into. He pulled away, and though she couldn’t see his face, she could feel his broad grin.
A deep breath. “If this is an attempt to placate me—”
Gently, “I said I’ll sign it. Tomorrow,” punctuated by another kiss, this one sampling the perspiration pooled in the hollow of her throat. He began to move again with purpose, and she wrapped her legs around him wordlessly, her thoughts a thousand leagues away.
Cold metal clamped around her wrists, jolted her back to the dim passage outside the infirmary. Scar held open the collar. Halfheartedly she lifted her chin, held still while he latched it into place, turned to trudge back down into darkness.
He headed up instead, paused when she didn’t follow. She stared at him uncomprehendingly, but shaky legs stumbled up the steps of their own volition. He took her arm, steadied her until they reached the top.
The courtyard was large, larger than the senator’s, yet less grand for its spare architecture and absence of color or decoration. Roman-style arches formed a loggia, sheltering them from the white sunlight rebounding off the hard-packed dirt. She shrank from the luminous assault, ducked her head behind arms heavier than the chains that bound them, backpedaled until a wall blocked her retreat. Even squeezed shut, her eyes throbbed against the brightness. A breeze tickled her skin, carried smells of the sea, the city, horses, people, food. She slid down to sit on the flagstone, content to absorb the open air and rest in the shade of the portico while her eyes adjusted.
Her escort found a spot just in the corner of her vision at the length of the chain, watched her intently for any sign of trouble. She offered none, kept herself at ease so he would have no reason to cut short this indulgence. She liked him. It had been a long time since a guard had stood watch over her without contempt, lust, fear, or hatred. He gave her space and waited, so calm and still that she almost forgot he was there, could imagine herself sitting under the loggia like a freewoman, watching the world rush by.
A clatter of sandals rushing up the stairs ruined the illusion; a woman burst into the courtyard, eyes frantically searching until they lit upon the slave and her escort. “What are you doing up here? Trying to kill yourself?”
She recognized the kinked blonde curls from her dream, the woman she’d mistaken for her owner.
In the lengthening silence, Scar cleared his throat. “She looks a lot better.”
The woman arched an eyebrow. “Are you a healer now, Dragon?”
The gladiator could hear the tight control in his voice. “No, apprentice, but the fresh air seems to be improving her color. I was going to return her to the infirmary shortly.”
The apprentice considered his excuse, looked down at her patient. The Leopard remained rooted to the ground, determined not to move a muscle unless the soldier commanded it.
With a sigh, the woman crouched down in front of her and put an arm to her forehead, glaring at her when she jerked away. She held out a palm for the bandaged hand but waited patiently, not forcing any contact.
The gladiator looked down at the forgotten wound, curiously flexed it. It felt tender, itched. Itching was good. She unwrapped the cloth, clenched her fist. Half-healed skin stretched taut and white across the back of her hand.
The healer took it, pressed calloused fingertips into the back of her wrist, up her forearm over almost translucent skin. “Infection’s gone.” She took the other arm, examined the triple lines of scars, the paired rows of tiny black holes where stitches once bound flesh. The gladiator raised the hem of her tunic, prodded the matching marks on her leg, tested the muscle with a minimum of discomfort. Clearly she’d been sick more than a day.
The healer’s apprentice leaned back, gave her the once over, squinted up at the soldier. “Don’t stay long. The Conqueror will put us both in the infirmary if she doesn’t get well.” The gladiator craned her neck, watched her go curiously. When her mind wandered this time, she found herself thinking of the woman’s coarse palms and firm grip, imagining how she might have acquired them.
The apprentice’s visit shattered the mood. Soon the weight of the collar shifted; Scar stood close by, gave her a moment to get used to the idea before ordering her up. Reluctantly she left the salt air and bright glare of Mediterranean sun, followed him back down the stairs to the stale infirmary. As they reached the door she took a chance, lay a light hand on his arm, pulled back quickly when he half-spun, hand on the pommel of his sword. She held up her hands to show she meant no harm. How to convey what she wanted to say? She settled for a tight nod, not knowing how else to—
“You’re welcome.” It fell so softly from his expressionless lips, it almost seemed spoken by another. He produced a key and unlocked the restraints. “It’s a one time deal, so don’t get used to it.”
She nodded again with the faintest smile. He’d already given her more than she could have hoped for.
But the next day he appeared in the doorway of the infirmary while she ate lunch, discretely revealed the collar hidden behind his back. She went to him willingly, kept trusting eyes on his face while he chained her. He glanced over her shoulder, nodding to the healer’s apprentice, then led her back up the stairs to the courtyard.
This time they stayed more than a candlemark. Her eyes roamed every corner of the quadrangle, absorbing faces, noting roles and interactions, studying the patterns of the guards, when and where they paced. An old habit, one she acquired years ago as a new slave considering escape.
Her attention most often fell on the soldiers in the center of the square, exercising and drilling. She liked especially to watch them spar, how far apart they circled to stay out of range of those long swords, what stances they preferred, what tactics they used to block and counterattack. Though not as consistently trained as Roman gladiators, they did share some moves in common. And even after the guard returned her to the infirmary, she passed the time as she had for the last three years, mentally working on possible counters and feints and new techniques to confound their strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses. One never knew when such information might come in handy.
Thoughts of the Conqueror receded, although they were never very far away. Every day reminded her that she was a prisoner in the palace of the Conqueror of Greece, that she remained a slave of the Destroyer of Nations, that at any moment this fantasy of freedom would end and she would find herself before the mercurial woman again—and have to face the consequences of their last heated encounter.
The bath. Caesar. She’d let her self be goaded, had been a fool to grab her like that. Gods only knew what the warrior thought of her now, much less what she thought of herself. Did she grope the Conqueror to make a point, or an offer?
She sighed, willing the ache behind her eyes to go away. She would have to explain—
Conversation. Gods, how she missed it. No, not it. She felt no urge to share her thoughts with her escort, kind though he may be. No, it was the Conqueror’s company she missed. Why did words too priceless to reveal to anyone else spill out when alone in her presence? For the longest time the slave had abandoned language altogether, even in her thoughts, only trusting her eyes and feelings and gut reactions. Why not with the Conqueror?
She was too conflicted to answer that question. After the massacre of Poteidaia, after the war and Scupi and Caesar, after the last few days of abuse, a normal person would hate the woman. But she couldn’t dredge up the emotion. Instead her heart ached to know why, ached to explain herself in return. Experience taught her such desires, such thoughts were dangerous. Where the heart and mind went, so followed the mouth. Even more reason to dread an encounter with the Conqueror. She felt her restraint slipping, feared what sort of reaction her impulsive words might provoke in the dangerous woman.
Or in herself.
When Scar arrived, no one in the infirmary seemed surprised, least of all her. Impatiently she presented her throat and wrists for restraint, sped up the stairs to the dusty yard. After a week of confinement it was hard to sit still; she stretched, testing muscles and joints antsy with lack of use. Oh, to swing a sword again.
Though her escort stayed out of the way, he still kept a tight leash on her. She resorted to weaponless drills and exercises to work off pent up energy. The short length of chain between collar and manacles forced her to modify many of the movements, led to no end of frustration, but the workout felt good. And the modifications would prove useful should a fight come her way while wearing the damned thing.
Perhaps sooner than later. Two of the soldiers who’d watched her practice ambled toward her, trouble written in their smirks.
“Cute, isn’t she? Reminds me of a kitten tangled up in yarn.”
“She reminds me of my last fuck, squirming that tight ass while I pinned her.”
The first one laughed nervously at his friend’s vulgarity.
The Leopard ignored them both, continued to practice, but out of the corner or her eye she took in the second one’s demeanor, the cocky attitude, the flicker of a tongue across his teeth. Neither wore the distinctive uniform of her escort, the polished steel cuirass and blue tunic of the Conqueror’s personal guard.
The crude man’s jibes grew raunchier, though the gladiator didn’t hear most of it. Talk like that was as common as breath. She didn’t take the comments personally, knew the soldier only looked at her as he looked at almost every other woman he dealt with save his mother. At least she could defend herself. She only felt some twinge of pity for the other women who crossed the man’s path. Like Orenia, the scullery maid he spoke of as he demonstrated with a smile the manly art of violation.
“That’s enough, sir.” Her escort stepped forward, disgust written in the pinch of his scar. “Get back to your practice.”
The gladiator stayed clear of the confrontation, let her body run through routines as natural as sleeping. But they stood too close to be ignored.
“Joxer? I didn’t know they demoted you to prison guard.”
If he registered the insult, he didn’t let on. “Go back to your business, Lieutenant, if you know what’s best for you.”
“C’mon, we just wanted to have a bit of fun with her,” said the younger one, trying to make light of his friend’s harassment.
Out of the corner of her eye she caught Scar looking her over. “I’m certain that would be a mistake, Eurysthetes. On many levels.”
The young soldier stepped in, started to pull the bolder man away, but the lieutenant wasn’t having it. “No, no. I think Joxer’s gotten a bit full of himself, forgotten his roots. Give him fancy armor and he thinks he’s better than his old commander, isn’t that right?”
“Remember that skinny little kid from Athens who could barely draw a sword without getting stuck on his scabbard? Look at him now. He gets promoted to the elite guard and thinks he doesn’t owe his old mates a favor or two. We just want to see what this girl is made of, see what she thinks she knows. Is that so bad?”
To her ears it sounded like a lose-lose situation. Refuse to fight and get the stuffing knocked out of her, or fight and face the wrath of the Conqueror for killing two of her soldiers, more if their comrades decided to get involved. She gave the chain a tug, waited for her escort to look at her before indicating the door back down to the infirmary.
He stared the officer down. “You’ve been in the heat too long, Lieutenant. Go cool off.” He turned, motioned for her to get moving.
Under the shaded portico she felt a wash of relief from both sun and threat.
A crash and a wrench on the chain snapped her around. The lieutenant pinned her escort to the ground, yanked the chain from his grip. The Leopard jerked it out of his hand, kicked him across the temple hard enough to stun him. He slumped over her prone export, unmoving.
His young companion wasn’t smiling anymore, gaped at the limp officer before drawing his sword. She placed herself between him and her unconscious escort, spun the heavy chain casually, getting used to the weight and short reach of her wrists. The chain and her fierce look seemed enough to warn the young soldier back. In the fringes of her vision, more soldiers ran from the practice field.
Scar groaned, slowly shoved the lieutenant off, pushed himself up. Reinforcements closed fast. The urge to run made her shudder; being surrounded by dozens of armed soldiers in an uncontrolled brawl sounded like suicide. Her escort didn’t need defending. He wasn’t the one they wanted. But where would she run to? The infirmary? Hardly defensible. In a few leaps she could be on top of the walls, take on the sentries. And go where? She knew nothing about the palace, where to go beyond the four walls of her open prison. Besides, being unarmed was a small problem. Being chained was a big problem. No, her only chance was to protect him, hope he could diffuse the situation.
“What in Tartarus is going on here?”
Or be rescued by a feisty blonde apprentice.
Eurysthetes’ eyes went wide, took in the scene nervously. “Ephiny, she tried to escape, attacked her guard and Lieutenant Ramis.”
“Why do I find that hard to believe?”
Or a certain dark-haired warrior.
The Destroyer strode across the courtyard purposefully, looked between him and the men on the ground, finally settled on the slave. A throng of curious servants and freemen cut off any route of escape. Only one option remained. The Leopard dropped to her knees, depositing the end of the chain at her owner’s feet. The woman stared down at her, her expression cold, looked away as if looking past furniture. “Joxer, what’s this all about?”
Scar pushed to his feet, winced as he fingered a growing lump on his forehead, straightened when he realized who addressed him. “Conqueror. It’s nothing. These men saw your slave practicing and wanted to spar with her. I didn’t think that was wise without getting your permission first.”
“Is that so?” She searched the faces of the young soldier and the woozy lieutenant.
“Your slave?” The young man blanched. “Conqueror, we didn’t know—”
“Permission granted.” A malevolent grin played across her features, left a queasy feeling in the pit of the Leopard’s stomach. “Lieutenant Ramis, on your feet. Joxer, release her.”
She held her breath, heart hammering. Her escort’s familiar hands fumbled with the manacles, the collar, relieved her of the weight. Still kneeling she gazed up, trying to glean from her owner’s expression the rules of this game.
The Conqueror turned that look of wicked pleasure upon her, pitched her voice for the group to hear. “Don’t kill ‘em.”
The soldiers laughed in unison, hemmed them in under the covered portico.
A show then. She stood, turned to face the pair, sounds around her fading to a faint buzz. Eurysthetes did not smile at the joke, flicked the tip of his long sword nervously. Ramis remained calm if slightly unsteady as he drew his sword, his cockiness bolstered by a chance to save face.
Her hands itched, anxious and empty. Rule number one: never fight an armed opponent unarmed.
The lieutenant made the first move, took an experimental swing at her midsection. She jumped back, not so early as to make it look expected, not so far back as to make it look easy. It would take several more retreats to lure him in. Would the circle give, make room for her withdrawal? A quick glance back; the spectators seemed inclined to stay, pin her in the small space.
Rule number two: never let yourself be cornered.
A slash of Ramis’s sword came closer than she liked, sliced open the belly of the brown tunic with an audible rip. The crowd hummed with excitement. She put a hand to her stomach, glanced down find a thin red line painting her palm. The lieutenant bared his teeth, a wolf sampling the scent of prey. Another jump back and her shoulder blades pressed against the broad chest of a soldier stubbornly blocking her retreat. She clenched her jaw.
Rule number three. Never fight two when you can fight one.
He swung again. She ducked low, shot underneath the whistling blade and knuckle-punched the man’s unarmored armpit, drove her foot into the back of his knee and stomped his kneecap into the ground with an audible crack. As he crumpled she grabbed his sword, wrenched it out of the ribcage of the wheezing bystander he’d hit with his wild swing and spun away, crossing swords with the young soldier.
He blinked, unsure how she suddenly stood there. When he blinked again she swept his leg out and dropped him on his back, the sword skittering from his hand.
In a heartbeat the wet red blade flicked back to the lieutenant, followed his progress as he hobbled to his feet, pulling the wounded soldier’s own sword from its scabbard to face her. He should have given up then, tallied his losses at bruised ribs, a swollen knee, and a wounded ego. Had he raised a finger in defeat, she might have left him alone. Might have. But he’d said some things, done some things that struck too close to home, things a man ought not do to a woman against her will. Even a slave.
She wrestled with her rage, forced herself to plant the heavy sword tip down on the ground and rest her hands lightly on the pommel. Let him come if he wanted to. She would not make the first move.
His nostrils flared with ugly pride. His blade lunged for her heart.
Almost as surely as he had her, he missed her. She turned her shoulder away, sword brushing sword aside by the tiniest of margins. The tip of her blade slipped between his legs, carved up and away, flinging a messy arc of dark fluid across the ring of spectators.
Silence crashed down on the impromptu assembly, loud enough to penetrate even her combat haze. In the hush, his sword clattered to the flagstone. He stood frozen, his mouth wrapped around a soundless O, the pressure of his clamped knees the only thing holding him up. Coolly she padded over to face the Conqueror, dropped the stained sword and knelt again, watching her for a reaction. The warrior arched an eyebrow, reappraising her. Would she be punished? Certainly the crowd would clamor for it once they realized what she’d done.
The Conqueror said nothing. With a gesture the collar and wrist shackles snapped back into place, the key placed in her waiting hand.
Sounds began to filter back to life, murmurings. “Dead…killed him…murderer…”
The apprentice’s voice came back tight. “He lives, Conqueror, but I must get him to the infirmary immediately if there is any hope of saving…”
The gladiator knew what she meant to save, knew there was little chance of that. A dangerous grumble rippled through the crowd as they realized it too. “Butcher.” “Amazon.” “Castrator.”
“You men, help her.” Xena’s pale blue eyes scanned the rest of the crowd for trouble.
“She mutilated him!” came a faceless shout.
“What of it?” the Conqueror challenged. “He’s alive; that’s all I require.”
“He’s better off dead!” someone else cried.
She drew her sword. “And the rest of you? Would you be better off dead? Who wants to find out?” No one stepped up to the challenge. “I thought so. Now get back to your business, unless you want to be clapped in irons too!”
A sweep of the Conqueror’s sword dispersed much of the crowd. Her hand dug into the Leopard’s upper arm, dragged her to her feet and away, not down the stairs to the infirmary but to a similar doorway leading down into darkness. It reeked of old blood, rancid meat, sewage. The gladiator recoiled against the smell, but Xena didn’t slow. Joxer grabbed a torch, followed them down a long corridor of cells. “Macon!”
A silhouette appeared in the light at the end of the passage, trotted toward them. Quickly the grimy soldier unlocked the door, held it open as the Conqueror dragged her inside.
The jailer flashed a rotten-toothed grin, saluted and left.
“You too, Joxer. Wait upstairs.”
He reluctantly placed the torch in a sconce outside the cell, retreated back the way they’d come, until the only sounds in the small cell were the lick of the torch flames and the pounding of the gladiator’s heart in her ears.
“That was a stupid thing to do.”
She sounded angry and sorry at the same time, and for a moment the gladiator wasn’t sure if she spoke of the Leopard’s choices, or her own. She stretched to her full height, faced the Conqueror unapologetically.
“These men are tight-knit. I trained them that way. To be injured is expected, but to be reduced to a eunuch is a fate the law reserves for rapists—”
“He raped you?”
She snorted. “No. I would have killed him, orders or not. He rapes others and brags.”
“Bragging is not proof!”
She shrugged coldly. “It was a fight. Mistakes happen. He had options. He opted to provoke it, to accept your challenge, to keep fighting when he was already beaten. I opted to ignore his taunting, to beg for your intervention, to give you and him plenty of chances to stop it. He kept coming. What other choice did I have?”
“You know damn well you had a choice! ‘Mistakes?’ You don’t make mistakes. Not like that. You planned it, led him right into it—”
“And would do it again.”
The Conqueror’s mouth tightened to a thin line. “You force me—”
Her temper boiled over. “No. You force me. This is who I am. You tell me to fight, I fight. You tell me to kill, I kill. This is all I know. If I rid the world of a few men like him, then I take some small comfort from it. If you want to punish me for being exactly what you paid for, then go ahead.” Bands of anger clamped down on her chest. When the woman didn’t answer, she forced an exhale, blinked away the spots in her eyes.
The Conqueror continued, her voice low and even. “You force me to put you here for your own safety. The men will want revenge, and the infirmary is too accessible. Only Macon and I will have the key to your cell. Your escort Joxer will be by every day to check on you, bring you food and drink until the men calm down.”
She unlocked the restraints from her neck and wrists, noted the rip across the front of the tunic, the oozing cut, took a quick look before dismissing it. “It’s only a scratch. Just keep it clean.” She took in the dirty straw on the floor, the foul hole in the corner. “I’ll send someone tomorrow to make sure.” She gathered up the restraints and stepped out, shut the cell door behind her. There she paused. “You fought well today.”
Perhaps the Conqueror’s unexpected praise lent the gladiator some measure of confidence. Or perhaps the threat of their discussion ending pushed her to bring it up. “Xena? The other day, I—”
Brittle eyes bored into her. “I told you not to call me that.”
She lost her nerve, licked her lips, changed her mind. “I never thanked you for rescuing me from the senator.”
“Rescuing you? I didn’t rescue you. I bought you, plain and simple.”
“Why? You don’t even have an arena.”
The Conqueror’s face remained blank. “Then I guess I’ll need to build one.”
Chilled by the response, she forced her tone to be neutral. “Would it please the Conqueror to spar again?”
The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched as if to smile, quickly faded to the narrowed squint of suspicion. “Is that what you wish?”
She kicked herself for not keeping quiet. Slaves don’t ask to fight their owners. “My wishes are irrelevant. I belong to Greece. I serve Greece as she sees fit.”
Clearly not the right answer by the set of the Conqueror’s jaw. “And if that means death in the arena?”
Some tension left her shoulders. “I expect nothing else.”
The Conqueror's eyebrow floated into her hairline. “Well, Leopard. You’ll have your wish.” She collected the torch and retreated down the hall, leaving the dungeon in darkness.
The girl enjoyed dreams. They took her places she’d only heard about in stories, to the lands of the Gauls, the Pharaohs, the Persians, more distant lands she couldn’t imagine. In them she found freedom, or at least some pale shadow of it. Dreams made her heart hurt with longing, but they also brought joy, and hope. Her waking life was nothing without hope. Dreams nourished her soul.
The girl let the woman she’d become deal with the nightmares. Like the one she woke with, cloaking her in pain and nausea. Her whole body shook with the violence of it, her eyes sightless but for the vision, her ears filled with screams. Her screams.
Her jaw clamped down only to find it already shut. No sound passed from her lips, just an echo of the nightmare.
Slowly the memory of it faded. She drew long quivering breaths, reassured herself that the broken body of her hallucination was somewhat whole and inviolate. She tried to will her trembling limbs into some semblance of stillness. They refused to obey, keyed in to some primal reaction she couldn’t override. She curled in, pulled the wool blanket tighter around her.
Another scream. A woman’s, high and hollow. It sent a tremor down her spine. She knew that noise as intimately as she knew her own body, a yowl of pain, rage, and horror.
The feral thing within twitched, pulse and breath quick, hackles high, claws dug in, every nerve on edge. As the cry died out she sagged back, shivering.
The next howl brought her hands to her ears, before she ground her teeth, forced them back down to her side. Screams like that deserved to be heard. That kind of pain needed to be shared.
She forced herself up, crept across the floor to press her cheek against the bars. The direction she’d come down sat dark and silent with night. The other direction, the deepest end of the long narrow hallway, glowed faintly with the flicker of torchlight. She couldn’t see to the end, could just make out the dull reflection of several cell doors across the way, their doors hanging open and hungry.
Another shout, hoarse and broken, an involuntary response to agony grown familiar. The absence of other sounds made her skin crawl. No cracks of the whip, no crunch of flesh and bone, no voices of questioning or taunting, no grunts of exertion or pleasure. She forced down a shudder, extended her hearing to its very limits.
The faint ring of metal dropped on sand. The rasp of a whisper, low and soft. The creak of leather pulled tight. All drowned out by that horrific scream.
The girl inside covered her ears.
Echoing bootsteps sent her skittering away from the door. She made herself small in the darkest corner of her cell, held her breath as the hooded figure strode by until footsteps faded up the stairs. She sucked in deep ragged breaths, pushed back sweat-soaked bangs with hands that shook, refused to be still.
She almost missed the arrival of another cloaked visitor, thinner than the first, more cautious. Soft sandals whispered on the flagstone, moved swiftly and silently by. Neither visitor carried illumination; as before, the figure passed without feeling her stare. It headed toward the source of the sounds, and once out of sight and hearing, the Leopard couldn’t resist the urge to creep to the edge of the cell once more.
Two figures dragged a third down the hall, put their burden in a cell across the corridor, far enough down that she could barely see it from her angle. Not that it would have mattered; a solid metal door blocked any view of the inside. The jailor left, returned with a candle, then locked the visitor in with the prisoner.
Quietly there came humming, strange formless notes woven into a forlorn melody. It might have sounded comforting if not for the singer’s cracking voice.
Drained, the gladiator leaned her head back against the wall and listened, rode the simple song out of the palace to the wilder, happier places of a girl’s dreams.
The rattle of a key woke her. Disoriented, it took her a moment to remember the cell, how she came to sleep with her head resting against the coarse iron bars of the door. Kneecaps filled her vision, dirty legs and grubby boots half-lit by daylight trickling down the stairwell. She rolled away to her feet, crouched and ready to fight before Scar stepped in front of the jailer.
The door locked behind him, left them alone.
“Brought you food.” He presented a bowl and spoon from behind his back. The pasty gruel looked cold, but she took it, tentatively sampled it before wolfing it down. He grinned, an almost ridiculous expression the way the scar twisted it. “You better slow down. You’ll only encourage the cook by eating as if you like it.”
She did slow down, gradually noticed him watching her intently, enough to make her uncomfortable. Overcast green eyes stared him down until he looked away.
“Sorry.” He ground the straw under his boot, his lips pursed in thought. “The Conqueror says you attacked the lieutenant when he jumped me, kept the other one off me.”
She stared into the empty bowl, refused to meet his eyes.
“I don’t know why you did it, but I know you didn’t have to. Thanks.”
She chewed on her lip, finally nodded.
He almost smiled at the acknowledgement. Finally he made up his mind, voiced the question he longed to ask. “Why don’t you say anything?”
The gladiator dropped her gaze, vaguely shrugged. She liked him. She really did. But he was not her.
Scar finally shrugged. “Hey, it doesn’t matter. I appreciate a person of few words. I don’t usually say much either. I’m not very good at explaining myself, but it’s easy to talk to you. There’s no pressure to sound smart, and I don’t have to worry about you butting in all the time, y’know?” He offered a self-conscious smirk, an out-of-place expression on his usually hard face. In spite of herself, the corners of her mouth curled around a tiny but genuine smile.
He cleared his throat, dropped his gaze to study the ground as he considered his next words. “You probably don’t remember, but I was there that night in the senator’s yard. All I’m trying to say is, I make a pretty good listener, too.”
She stood absolutely still, unsure what to do. Before the moment became too awkward, he nodded, collected the bowl and spoon from her and headed back to the door. “I brought some bread and water for later. Try to make it last. I won’t see you again until tomorrow, but the healer or his apprentice should be by later this afternoon. I’ll go now…unless you’d like me to stay?”
His question surprised her. There was no need for him to stay; she wasn’t going anywhere. And after years of sharing almost every moment of every day with slaves, servants, masters, and guards, constantly on her guard against being touched, abused, violated, or killed, she treasured any rare moment of solitude. But after last night…she nodded, backed away to lean against the far wall out of habit. Stand too close to a guard and they could get ideas.
He remained near the door. Minutes passed in silence. Not like the courtyard. Awkward empty minutes. In the small space, she had nothing to look at, nothing to study but him. His scar. Wonder how he got it.
Other handlers might have taken the eye contact as a challenge, beaten her for it. He looked away, uncomfortable. Just for a moment, before he took a deep breath.
“It happened in Athens. I shouldn’t have been there. My old man…” He shook his head, met her eyes with a serious look of his own. “I just wanted…to be part of something.” He snorted. “She was definitely something. I didn’t even know how to use a sword. My first battle, someone gave me this. I should've died. But she…” He flushed, shrugged. “It was the first time I ever saw her. I’m sure it was just another kill for her. But she spared me one glance, one look. ‘Do better.’”
Gabrielle could see it, a young man sprawled in the dirt, his once-soft face laid open to the bone, blinking the blood out of his eye to stare up at his rescuer. Worship glistened in his look, then and now. The Dragon would rather die than let her down again.
He cleared his throat. “Enough of that. I sound like some doe-eyed… Hey, did I tell you I have kids?”
He launched into one story after another, and it must have been after midday when he finally pushed up for a stretch, ending with a grin. “You let me talk too much. Macon!”
She stood clear while the prison guard let him out, locked the cell door behind him.
He held up the empty bowl. “I’ll be back tomorrow with a lot more food. Stay out of trouble, alright?”
His request was heartfelt. She couldn’t help but smirk and nod her head as he headed up the stairs and out of sight.
She passed the afternoon in the small space practicing, stirring up a sweat until the cell darkened, the weak afternoon light blocked by a visitor. Ephiny waited for the keeper to let her in, said nothing until he disappeared again. Finally she sighed. “You’ve done nothing since you arrived but cause me extra work. Lieutenant Ramis kept us up half the night.” She set down her healer’s pouch, hooked one finger at the gladiator. “Let me see this wound.”
The Leopard made a face, waved her off. The apprentice closed in anyway. “Listen, I have direct orders from the Conqueror to make sure you are well. She will be most displeased if you keep me from doing my duties. Let’s just hurry up and get this over with.”
The slave set her jaw, stripped the torn tunic. Cleaning the scratch took little time. She spent a little longer tending older injuries.
“Where did you learn that move? The one you used on Lieutenant Ramis?”
The day she learned that move came back to her with crystal clarity, as did the amazing gladiator who taught her. Her mentor. Her friend, just weeks before— She shrugged, avoided that gaze.
Ephiny’s lips drew tight. “When you were sick she came to visit you. The Conqueror. You called for her by name. No one calls her by her name. Who is she to you? Who are you to her?”
She clamped down on her surprise. That she spoke in her delirium worried her; what other secrets had she betrayed to this woman? Worse, she spoke the one word she was absolutely forbidden to say. Was that why the Conqueror didn’t send for her?
At her long silence, the apprentice let out a held breath, packed her salves away. “Try to keep straw and dirt out of that cut. Guard!”
As he approached, the Leopard gestured to the pouch of medicines the healer carried, pointed down the corridor toward the other prisoner’s cell. Ephiny cocked her head, her eyebrows knitted. Again the slave pointed at the healer’s bag, then down the hall. The woman shook her head, not understanding. “What? The jailer needs medicine?”
She didn’t get another chance. Macon appeared, unlocked the cell door to let the apprentice out.
Frustrated, she fought down the urge to punch something besides air. Her practice intensified after that, made her sweat with the force of shadow punches and kicks. The workout quickly degenerated into a parade of angry kicks at the bars of the door, making them resonate with a ring that filled the corners of the darkening cell.
A heavy club smacked the door, jolted her out of her rage. Macon stepped into view, “Cut that out, pretty, or tomorrow your guests will have to stand in the hall.”
She glowered at him until he left, slid down the wall, worn out and helpless.
She must have dozed off. A hiss woke her. She lifted her head grudgingly, tired of visitors.
A servant stood against the opposite wall of the corridor, pressed as far back from the cell door as she could get. She looked young, barely in her teens. Dark half-rings purpled under both eyes.
“I—I thought you could use this.” She tossed at the bars a bit of linen. The Leopard retrieved it, held up a tan tunic, cast the girl a baffled look. “I heard about what you did today. I just wanted to thank you.” At her blank look, the girl struggled for words. “I’m Orenia. Lieutenant Ramis—”
She crossed to the bars, reached out, waiting. The girl pressed even harder against the stone wall, clearly afraid, but with persistent coaxing stepped forward, let the gladiator brush the bruises on her face. The Leopard held up the tunic, clutched it to her chest and offered Orenia a somber nod. The girl’s dark eyes twitched in pleasure.
A sound from depths of the dungeon reminded them they were not alone. The skittish girl backed away, sped up the stairs and out of sight.
She looked back down at the tunic, working the coarse fabric between her fingers. Reverently the torn one came off. Precious water wet one corner of it, and with it she bathed as best she could, an impromptu ritual to make herself worthy of the offering.
The sound from the hall again. Quickly she finished and pulled the tunic over her head, moved to the dark hallway to listen. She heard it again, a weak moan from behind the solid door.
She flicked a fingernail against the bars of her cell. The noise was faint, perhaps too faint. A long time passed before she heard the broken groan again. She rapped her knuckles against the bars, knocking as loud as she dared without attracting the jailer’s notice.
A faint clink of metal on stone this time. She responded with a rap. Two rings of tapped metal. She rapped twice on the bars, mimicked every clink. She had nothing to offer but her response, reassurance that the prisoner was not alone. Still, such knowledge could be a lifeline when cut off from the world.
Eventually the noises stopped. She strained her ears, listening, waiting for them to resume, and for the second night of many to come she fell asleep against the bars of her cell.
IV CIVES VICTRICIS...The Conqueror's Subjects
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