Nasir had never in his life thrown a tantrum. He had become a slave at the age of four, and even then his brother had taught him to be silent and respectful at all times, a lesson he had taken to heart. He had borne every indignity from his dominus without so much as a whimper—and now he was thrown away like a common mine slave! It was enough to set his teeth on edge and his blood to boil.
“Be quiet and look useful,” Dominus ordered as they were led through the hall. “If Batiatus does not accept you, we are fucked.”
Am I not fucked already? Nasir thought resentfully, but he did not speak. They approached the master of the house—Batiatus—who was lounging on elegant cushions, surrounded by three female slaves and one male. Nasir eyed them surreptitiously; would he soon be among their number? All were pale, and most of light hair, but that meant nothing if they were used for labor rather than body, and in any case he would prefer not to take to a new master’s bed. He couldn’t help but notice, also, that they were particularly meek-looking, even for slaves.
“Batiatus,” Dominus said warmly. “It has been too long.”
“Sadly so,” Batiatus agreed. With a gesture, he instructed a slave to pour wine. “What draws you north today, then?”
“I would settle debt. My body slave, Tiberius, should do.”
Batiatus looked Nasir up and down in a familiar, calculating way.
“I had expected coin, I admit,” he said after a moment.
“Yes, well, a slave’s true worth is not always revealed at auction. Years of effort have gone into his training. He has perfect manners, good strength and health, and some ability to read and write. He’s a good fuck as well, if your interests lie in that area.”
“Regrettably, they do not.” Nasir breathed a silent sigh. “And I already have a body slave. However, payment can be extracted in many ways…”
Batiatus and Dominus went on to discuss political intrigue and the relative worth of a good word in clearing debts. The end of it was that Levitus departed, debt cleared, and Nasir had a new dominus. The whole process took mere moments, and Levitius spared him not a parting glance when he departed, after refusing rest or comfort.
His master looked him over again, lips pursed.
“Now what the fuck am I going to do with you?” he mused. “Fetch Doctore,” he said to one of the women.
A few moments passed in silence, before she returned with a tall, dark-skinned man. Even if he had not known where he was, Nasir would have marked the man as a gladiator; his strength and his scars spelled out his history. There was something else, too, a kind of grace to his movements, that advertised him as a man of wisdom, removed from lust for glory or for power. A man to respect—and to avoid, so as not to come within range of the cruel-edged whip on his belt.
“Dominus,” Doctore said respectfully. “What is required of me?”
“Observe,” Batiatus said, gesturing at Nasir. “The boy is a gift from Levitius, for payment of debt.”
“Do you wish me to make a gladiator out of a house slave?” Doctore asked with an amused smile. Batiatus laughed. (Ah, Nasir thought, he’s been here a long, long time. Laughing at a slave’s joke spoke not to the dominus’ mercy, but the slave’s confidence.)
“That’s a fucking idea, isn’t it? Ah, but if anyone could do it, it would be you—and I would be the richest lanista in the republic! No, no, I do not require miracles. I merely wondered if you had need of a ludus slave."
"We have made do without, since Pietros' death,” Doctore said. He looked at Nasir with an appraising eye. "But ranks have swelled so with recent purchases... I could make need."
"Then do so."
Batiatus waved and Doctore turned as he had come. Nasir was stuck to the ground. Ludus slave. Fucking ludus slave! After years—years of painstaking study, of learning letters beside the Dominus' five-year-old nephew, of training his face to betray not even the hint of emotion, of muttering polite nothingness day in and day out, of fucking anyone who strolled through bedroom doors, of commanding an entire villa of slaves when Dominus was absent— And now ludus slave?
Batiatus realized that Nasir remained still, and scowled. "Letivius did not list a faint mind among your qualities."
"Dominus," Nasir muttered, with a quick bob of the head. He followed Doctore from the room.
The villa around him was large, but fallen into poverty. It was being refurnished—no doubt funded by the recent success of gladiators—and yet there were gaps where statues and furniture had yet to be replaced. As they descended further, the impeccably kept-up painting began to fade. Finally, the elegant marble walls were transformed to rough stone.
"What is your name?" Doctore asked.
"Welcome, Tiberius. You will do well in the house of Batiartus, and under my gaze, as long as you perform tasks quickly and without provoking those around you—be they master or gladiator. Passions run high in the ludus, and tempers short. You will distribute sword and shield under my direction, and assist the medicus and cook as needed. You may take drink and food with us, when your tasks are completed. Otherwise, simply do whatever a gladiator asks of you. It is a simple life and, lucky for you, unlikely to end in death. Any questions?”
“You say unlikely to end in death—”
“Compared to those around you, who face the arena, yes.”
“And yet my predecessor died.”
There was a heavy pause as Doctore unlocked the gate to the lower ludus. It was time for the noonday meal; twenty or thirty large, hulking men strolled around the tables with food and drink. Nasir eyed them carefully. He recognized a few from the arena—Spartacus, Varro, Rhaskos—but most were unknown to him. They spared him hardly a glance. Finally, Doctore spoke
“Pietros took his own life. If you wish to escape his fate, do not do the same.”
Nasir smiled faintly.
Doctore showed him to his room briefly. It was a small affair, barely a closet, beside the room of the medicus and the cook. The gladiators’ cells were close by, and the stairway to the villa beyond them. The greatest boon, he thought, was the thin, barred window just above the cot. His previous lodgings had been in his dominus’ room, and the only way he could be exposed to the cool nighttime air was when in his bed.
After that, he was returned to the dining area, where he was immediately put to work. He collected bowls and cleaned them on the cook’s instructions, and then fetched wooden swords, spears, and shields for the gladiators. Nasir was used to keeping a dull mask over his own face, but this was unlike working in a villa. Harmless pinches and slaps interrupted him, but he forced himself not to notice—it was the occasional jeer or lewd gesture that threatened his composure. With very few exceptions, the nobility of Rome at least exercised subtlety when dealing with another man’s body slave.
But he wasn’t a body slave anymore, he reminded himself sternly as he handed the last of the weapons to a new recruit, so marked by the raw, fresh-looking brand on his forearm. He was a ludus slave, worth less than the practice weapons he carried. Even the minimal respect he had received at his old villa was a thing of the past.
“Gratitude,” the recruit muttered carelessly.
Nasir ducked his head in response and removed himself to the water cache until needed. It was hot, he noticed almost absently. Extremely hot, even if the Bringer of Rain had ended the drought. He hadn’t worked outside for any length of time since childhood. If he thought back very hard, he could just recall a flash of memory—heat, sunlight, bare feet crushing dry grass. It was a recollection of Syria, probably, even before slavery. The images suggest laughter, although Nasir does not know if it is true or not, and the playful shriek of his name. Nasir.
It’s the only memory he has of being free. He doesn’t treasure it—not really—because he has never dreamed of reaching freedom again. But he clings to the idea that, at one point, he was loved, and that he had laughed. Nasir rarely laughed anymore. So he held on to the memory of hot summer and his own name…
The clacking of weapons broke him from his reverie. He glanced down at his arm that looked so pale out here against the dust, although he had always thought himself very dark-skinned. He would darken further after weeks in the sun. Tiberius would have been bothered; Tiberius would have felt the dichotomy of his name and his very non-Roman blood. Tiberius had lived in a villa where Roman slaves were valued, not Syrian ones, and only his extraordinary competency had given him worth.
Nasir’s eyes swept over the slaves in front of him. They were an eclectic mix, to be sure, fetched from all regions of the empire. The most exalted gladiator was a Thracian; his superior, a Numidian. A slave could almost have an identity here—a dangerous thing to have, but in the absence of position, it was all he could take.
“Agron,” Doctore called. Two men—the recruit he had noticed and one other, who was promptly whacked by his opponent—looked up. “You have fought alongside your brother often, I assume.”
“But not as gladiators. I would see you train together—against Rhaskos. Let us see what the lands East of the Rhine can give us.”
Agron and his brother looked at each other and smirked. They clasped arms for a brief moment and approached Rhaskos, the enormous Gaul. Nasir had no eye for combat, but even he could tell that the brothers moved perfectly in tandem. Even hardly trained, they provided challenge to their opponent. But after a few minutes of furious battle, the younger brother was knocked to the ground and Agron was goaded into foolish attack.
Doctore analyzed the skirmish, offered instruction, and commanded them to try again, but a cut above Agron’s eyebrow bled so profusely that it obscured vision. Impatiently, Doctore barked an order to Nasir. Nasir fetched a scrap of cloth and wet it slightly, then dodged the whirling pairs to approach the new gladiator. Instinctively, he reached up himself to press the cloth to the wound, but Agron jerked away from his touch.
“Gratitude,” he said again, taking the cloth himself.
Nasir walked back to his position by the water cache. By the time he returned, Agron and his brother had resumed their match, but he couldn’t shake the feel of eyes on him. He glanced around the training ground and found that one of the gladiators had paused in his training with the wooden stave. He eyed Nasir with a poisonous look, and Nasir’s gaze fell to the sand nervously. Perhaps he was not to be trained as a gladiator, he thought, but the ludus was an arena all its own.
Doctore almost borrows a line from BBC's Sherlock. In the first episode, a reporter asks how people can defend themselves from a serial killer who somehow convinces people to commit suicide, and Lestrade's answer is "Well, don't commit suicide." Personally, I think Doctore and Lestrade have a lot in common, so I adapted the line for my own amusement.
Chapter 2: First Blush
Chapter by ama
In which Agron starts to pay attention to the new slave, and Tiberius proves worthy of attention.
At first, Agron took no notice of the new slave. He had one goal in life: to win glory in the arena and return to Germania, Duro at his side. Let the other fools waste their winnings on whores and their thoughts on cunt and ass—he would not.
Slowly, however, that began to change. After only six or seven days, Tiberius had grown, if not comfortable with, then at least more certain of his place within the ludus. He moved with purpose and a grace not found among gladiators, and Agron found something incredibly appealing about the play of sunlight over his smooth, warm skin. As eyes were drawn to body, they began to notice more—hidden power in limbs, eyes dark with thought, quirks of the mouth that betrayed neutral expressions. Once or twice, he suffered a bruise for his distraction, so caught up was he in the mannerisms of a man he had never so much as spoken to.
But he was not the only one who had taken notice.
His thoughts darkened whenever the Gaul, Verix, intruded upon them. Verix’s gaze lingered on Tiberius as well, on his backside and his mouth. That was nothing particularly noticeable; as much as he was loathe to admit it, many gladiators did the same, even those who did not favor boys. It was not even uncommon for some to reach out and touch, but they were quick and insignificant, like mosquito stings. Those he could tolerate, though he did not like them. Verix was different; soon, his hands began to linger as long as his gaze.
That decided him. If the fucking Gaul persisted in his advances, he would cross boundaries soon, and Agron couldn’t bear to see smooth skin marked with bruises. Even if Tiberius returned affections, the sight would be repulsive to him—and the twist of the slave’s lips when he felt Verix’s hand upon him told Agron that such was not the case. (And damn him if they weren’t attractive lips—even more so when contorted in anger.)
He would approach Tiberius, then, and soon. Agron suspected that his previous romantic experience would not transfer well; in general, his forays into romance had begun with alcohol, progressed with friendly wrestling matches, and been cemented in entanglements in alleys, back rooms and once, memorably, a hayloft. It was a far cry from the Roman ludus, where the hierarchy was more complex and given more weight than it ever held in Germania, and where a pretty slave like Tiberius could live his whole life without choosing his own lover freely.
Still, Agron was not unattractive and not lacking in charm, so he had hopes for himself. He had more to endear himself than fucking Verix, at least.
One particularly hot morning, he resolved to press forward. At the noon meal, he and Duro sat alone. Tiberius usually took his meal within the ludus somewhere—his own room, possibly—and returned to his duties later. This day, Agron was determined to entreat him to eat at their table, and to coax words from him other than “yes,” “gratitude,” or “apologies.”
By the end of the meal, however, Agron found himself cursing the gods who inhabited Roman soil. Fortuna was a cruel mistress.
Agron and Duro were among the first to take meal, after putting up with several minutes of the customary posturing of the older gladiators. Agron was in a boisterous mood, though, and so accepted the ridiculous ritual with less ire than usual. Duro, suspecting something, punched him curiously in the arm, but Agron did not speak—though he did speak to Tiberius, thanking him with a grin, and enjoyed the barest hint of a smile he got in response.
Verix, on the other hand, was one of the last to swagger in from the yard, accompanied by a few of the loudest and most obnoxious Gallic gladiators. Immediately, Tiberius’ gaze turned away from them as he held bowls for the cook. Verix did not let him alone.
“Ah, this fucking gruel day in and day out,” he said loudly. A crafty smile grew on his face, and suddenly he slung one arm around Tiberius, his filthy fucking hand caressing the slave’s shoulder and coming to rest against his ass. “I find myself craving something sweeter--”
With a sound halfway betwixt a scream and a growl, Tiberius jerked away.
“Touch me again and find yourself absent teeth!” he burst out.
Silence fell upon the ludus. Amused or questioning eyebrows rose, and then laughter rippled through the men. Verix’s crowd laughed loudest. A hot red blush spread across Tiberius’ face. The expression did nothing to mar his loveliness, but Agron frowned. Anger had suited him better than shame.
“The little dog bites,” Verix chuckled. One hand grabbed Tiberius’ chin. “But lacks claws or fangs to enforce its will. How do you intend to wound a gladiator, little pup?”
Agron was on his feet before he knew his intentions. At the same time, Tiberius turned away, a submissive expression on his face.
Agron looked over his shoulder. Spartacus was watching the proceedings with a calm expression, but there had been a quiet warning in his voice.
“Champion,” Verix acknowledged, with a sardonic little smile.
There was a heavy pause. Agron’s gaze flickered to Crixus, who usually objected at orders being given to the Gauls, but Crixus was stubbornly looking away from the scene—either because he had learned his lesson, or because he held no love for Verix, Agron did not know which. For whatever reason, Crixus did not protest, and Verix did not argue. His hand fell to his side.
“As you wish,” he nodded to Spartacus. “And what does the fucking German whelp want?” he sneered as he passed by Agron.
Agron met his gaze aggressively. He had an inch or two on Verix—but he did not have seniority, allies, or a claim to Tiberius, not in any way the other gladiator would recognize. With some difficulty, he managed to mold his features into a smile—hopefully a frightening smile, because he saw a flicker of unease in Verix’s eye.
“A drink of water,” he said softly. “If you shits would cease your theatrics.” Verix snorted and walked past him. Agron looked over his shoulder at his brother. “Fucking Gauls.”
Duro shook his head empathetically. Agron walked towards the water barrel, shouldering through Verix’s crowd, but Tiberius caught up quickly.
The slave’s fingers fumbled as he picked up the clay cup and ladle. Agron wrapped his one hand around the cup, and Tiberius stilled.
“Take it,” Agron said in a low voice. “I will pour my own.”
Without meeting his gaze, Tiberius nodded his thanks and took a gulp of the water. Agron drank slowly, and watched as Tiberius walked back to the table. Even in those few seconds, the slave managed to regain his composure. His hands had ceased to tremble, and he squared his thin shoulders.
Agron followed him and returned to his table, just in time to hear the cook converse with the slave in his quiet, gravelly voice.
“There’s no shame in receiving a gladiator’s affections. For a little man like you, I’d say it’s the wiser course.”
“I am not a whore,” Tiberius said through ground teeth.
“Prepare to be treated like one, without protection, and paid only in bruises and blood. The last ludus slave did very well for himself; Barca treated him well, bought gifts, even made promises of freedom—”
“The last ludus slave is dead,” Tiberius said cuttingly. “Forgive me if I do not follow example.”
“Cease talk of Pietros,” Spartacus said suddenly. He returned his bowl, and Agron saw a very solemn expression on the champion’s face. “His end was unfortunate, but it proved instructional enough. All men in the House of Batiartus now know the price of harassing its slaves.”
Agron resisted the urge to clear his throat guiltily, but he could not stop the question: “And how was lesson learned?”
Spartacus paused before he spoke, deliberately casual.
“You will notice there is no barrier on the cliff’s edge.”
They returned to training. As the day passed, Agron sparred with gladiator after gladiator, until finally he and Duro fought together. It was a relief to battle someone who did not actually wish him dead, and yet brotherly affection did not soften his blows. Rather, they dueled so fiercely that they parted soon after to rest.
Stretching his sore muscles, Agron walked with his brother to the edge of the yard. He looked absently around him.
“Your gaze betrays you,” Duro said with a grin.
Agron tore his eyes away from the ludus. In the shadows of its walls he had been unable to discern Tiberius’s form, but that had not stopped him from trying.
“The new ludus slave. Even when not in sight, he draws your eyes—it’s pathetic.”
“Pathetic? This said by one who fucks only dirt and failure?”
“Pathetic,” Duro confirmed, grinning even wider. “You waste energy and time in hapless mooning. In the immortal words of honored father—fuck or dismount!”
Agron cuffed his brother on the head, which earned him a savage poke in the ribs that threatened to become a full on wrestling match. However, the day was too long, and old bruises cried out in protest. They decided on a mutual truce and returned to drink. Agron paused, his arm still raised, when Tiberius emerged. He became aware of his brother’s amusement, and looked away.
“There are complications,” he said grudgingly. “The fucking Gaul moved first. You heard all that I did—Tiberius has sworn off gladiators, it appears.”
“You lose face in comparison with a Gaul? Pity, to see a dear brother so fallen. Perhaps mood would improve if Ashur could be persuaded to add boys to his monthly retinue of whores.”
“You’re a fucking idiot,” Agron retorted.
He was uncomfortably aware of the fact that his anger was too strong for such a backhanded remark, but he had never been one to restrain his temper. He disliked the implication that his attraction to Tiberius was based solely on isolation; more, he didn’t like to think of him on the same level as the broken, vacant house slaves that paraded behind Ashur. Some could still bear to smile, but there was no delight in it. Their names held no value and their touch no affection. Unable to resist, he looked back at the ludus. Tiberius had fire.
Fire he would see stoked, if given chance.
As if sensing the gaze upon him, Tiberius glanced up quickly from beneath his lashes in the surreptitious way of well-trained slaves. His eyes darted over the practice ground swiftly before settling on Agron. For half a second, it seemed as though his lips curved upwards--then it faded. He nodded politely and returned to task. Agron frowned and gulped the remainder of water.
“Come, brother. I would fight you next.”
The smirk fell off Duro’s face.
A day after his embarrassing outburst, Nasir was given new duties. He suspected that Medicus, gruff as he was, felt sympathy for him that the cook lacked. In any case, he was called into the medicus’ room that morning, away from the sneering looks of the gladiators, and provided with instructions for restocking the medical supplies. A good amount had been depleted in caring for Crixus, and so he was sent to a storage room to fetch herbs.
He was searching for fennel when a faint cough alerted him to another’s presence. He glanced over his shoulder to find Agron standing behind him.
“You look as though you could use assistance, little man,” the gladiator said with a friendly smile. Nasir followed his gaze, up to the sprig of fennel hung from the ceiling, just above his reach, and stepped aside.
“Gratitude,” he said as the bough was deposited in his arms. He turned back to collect the other necessary jars and plants, but the gladiator did not go away.
“Think of it as a debt paid; I greatly enjoyed your dressing down of that idiot Gaul.”
Nasir looked around again, surprised. His response was cautiously pleased, although he did not see anything mocking in Agron’s face.
“Your words are kindly received, then, although my intent was not to cause amusement.”
“If I found amusement in it, the source lay not in your words,” Agron said quickly, with a peculiar earnest look in his eye. “But in Verix’s reaction. Fear was plain on his face; he will not bother you again.”
Nasir smiled, genuinely. There had been a half-second, in the midst of the moment, when he had truly felt that it would be better to be dead then enslaved in the ludus. With the roar of collective laughter ringing in his ears, the unfamiliar, uncontrollable rage pulsing through his body and the specter of Verix’s foul touch yet upon his skin... It was nice to know that the very sight of him had not reduced every gladiator to tears of mirth.
“Your words bring comfort, and I hope them true. It is not an experience I wish to repeat. Pardon.”
He meant to bring the supplies back to the room alone, but the gladiator offered his assistance, and together they delivered all the needed ingredients to the infirmary in one trip.
“I confess, I hope there is less truth to my beliefs,” Agron said. “I would very much enjoy seeing Verix bloodied by your hand. His arrogance could well spare it.”
Another man would have laughed—Nasir only smiled.
“A gladiator without ego is as unheard of as one absent gladius. Besides, even if it could be vested of him, I am hardly capable of such an act.”
“Ah, but some gladiators prefer spear or net to gladius. If Verix attempted to call your bluff, he would walk away the loser,” Agron said firmly. “That, I know.”
Nasir felt a blush rise to his cheek, though he couldn’t quite understand why. Perhaps it was because Agron was the first person in the House of Batiartus to show him even a modicum of respect—or perhaps it was the solemn sincerity in his gaze. Hardly any of the gladiators were ugly, but Nasir had found very few of them attractive. Now, the simple feel of fine eyes upon his face, and a friendly smile, had him flustered.
“I was a body slave to my last dominus,” he demurred. “We are trained in arrogance of our own, not violence.”
He began to cut the fennel with the dull knife allotted to him, separating bulb from seed for the cook, and crushed the seed in one of the many mortars. Without direction, Agron moved to do the same to the willow bark.
“You are familiar with medicines?” Nasir asked curiously. The gladiator chuckled.
“I was a warrior in Germania, and our tribes were small; every man who wished to live learned something of healing. I confess, though, that I am better at creating wounds than treating them.”
“A skill that will serve you well in the arena.”
“If the gods smile on me, yes.” Agron hesitated. He stepped closer for a moment and touched Nasir’s face. “I would happily demonstrate on anyone who would bother you again. If you find yourself unable to cause sufficient injury.”
“Gratitude,” Nasir managed to mumble. He knew his cheeks were aflame again—doubtless Agron could feel the heat beneath his palm.
How was he to react further? Doubtless, Agron was offering protection—but was it a kindness to be repaid in bed, or merely a friendly gesture? Still, Nasir’s pride railed against playing the vulnerable whore, but he could do worse than the tall, promising German—for all that Agron was almost as new to the ludus as Nasir himself.
Agron’s hand fell.
“As would Spartacus, I’m sure,” he said in a neutral voice. “Or my brother Duro—or any decent man, though I fear they are few and far between in this cursed place. Gauls and Romans everywhere.”
Nasir smiled at his disgust.
“I am Syrian.”
“Even worse—so is that smug fuck Ashur. Fucking Syrians seem to be a treacherous lot.” There was a grin on his face, and Nasir felt entirely confident in teasing him back.
“Is every man accountable for his kinsmen, then? Or is your view tainted, as your only compatriot in this place is also brother?”
“Duro has earned the name brother by virtue of love and loyalty. I am confident that every man born by the Rhine has value to be called the same. There, fools and hypocrites are called out, not lauded.” He paused, and asked lightly, “Do you have family in Syria?”
Nasir’s hands stilled. He strained his memory, but he could remember nothing more but that one flash of sensation from a hot Syrian summer, and the very faint whisper of his brother’s playful shout.
“I only recall a brother.”
He felt Agron’s eyes upon him, but he would not look up. The gladiator’s voice, when he spoke, was low and as heavy in the air as hand had felt upon cheek.
“We have that in common, at least. My memories may be stronger, but… my brother is all I can hold onto of my homeland.”
There was something cold in his voice, and distant—something Nasir would not touch. He had been enslaved from a very young age, as many house slaves were. Gladiators, as a rule, were more recently acquired, and many still held onto memories of their pasts. Occasionally, he had heard them share stories, but they were stories told in hushed voices, or quickly narrated and discarded. Even old language was forbidden; Latin alone rested in the air of the ludus. For Nasir, who remembered next to nothing of his tongue, it was not a restriction, but it was with pangs of sympathy that he thought of Agron’s plight. Not content with robbing him of freedom, the Romans robbed him of even the remnants of free memories.
Those were thoughts that could only lead the gladiator to bitterness. Let him leave Germania in the past, where it belonged, and clear his mind. Nasir spoke in a light voice.
“We have more than that—brand and collar bind every man and woman in this villa.” He looked up with a smile. “And it appears we share distaste for Gauls, as well.”
Agron let out a loud bark of laughter. He touched Nasir again, clasping his bare shoulder.
“If there are truer words in this tongue, I do not know them. I leave you to task; do not forget my promise.”
“I intend to forget it as soon as possible,” Nasir countered. “In the hopes that it is not necessary.”
“Gods will it. And if they do not, may my own will be equally strong.”
Nasir smiled at him as he left and was rewarded with a smile in return. It was a comfort—a comfort he had not known since leaving the villa of his former dominus. Agron had made no request for compensation, no threats, no unwelcome touches. In fact (he blushed again to think it), his touch had been a pleasure, the most welcome since the stolen moments spent clutching Chadara’s hand in empty hallways, listening absently to her excited gossip. He had not had a friend in a long time.
Poor Chadara! he thought suddenly, with a pang of loneliness. There had been few moments when she had been unable to coax a smile from him, and sometimes even laughter. Even when their dominus had been inside her, sometimes she would roll her eyes at him and he would bite his lip to keep a straight face.
Inevitably, his place in their dominus’ bed had been filled since then, and perhaps more often. Nasir’s skill as a body slave had far outweighed his skill as a whore, and Levitus may have been tempted to seek a more permanent replacement, now that the thin mat in his room lacked an occupant.
Absently, Nasir wondered if Levitus had managed to find a suitable body slave as well, in his absence. Nasir had been the most competent for the position, he knew with certainty; he was quiet, a quick learner, and discreet, capable at both obeying orders before they were voiced and in giving them to the villa slaves who remained when Levitus was in Picentia. But there were certainly less skillful who would be willing to be so elevated. Chadara, perhaps. She had certainly never balked at trading cunt for favor, and she would do tolerably well at Dominus’ side.
Chadara would chide at him for allowing his position in the ludus to dampen spirits. So he didn’t care for strange hands upon him—find kinder hands! That would be her advice, though she would frame it in gentler words than the cook.
He wondered absently what she would think of Agron…. But then, his opinions and hers varied greatly. Chadara had given up on the hope of gaining respect long ago. She would happily settle for being Verix’s woman, if unable to secure finer fare. There were some things, still, that Nasir would not stoop to. He yet fought. Chadara’s spirit had bled out long ago.
Later that evening, Nasir sought out Crixus. The gladiator had been ordered to see to the medicus again after washing, to apply a poultice that Nasir had refilled, but he had been absent. Impatient, Medicus sent Nasir to give him the medicine and keep with him.
As the former Champion of Capua, Crixus had his own quarters (twice as large as Nasir’s), but they were empty. He was not in the yard, any of the cells, or the baths. Frustrated, Nasir found himself wandering towards the staircase leading to the villa, a place he had not been since Doctore brought him down it. As he approached, he saw a large figure looming out of the darkness, and quickened his steps—then he stopped.
Crixus was not alone. With him, on the other side of the bars, was a young woman, a slave with dark skin and good clothing. Their voices were lowered in whispers, and their fingers entangled. As he watched, Crixus lifted her hand to press kisses to each knuckle.
Nasir approached again, with a slight cough, his footsteps smacking loudly against the pavement. They jumped apart.
“Apologies—from the medicus,” he said, holding out the phial. Crixus took it.
“Gratitude,” he said in a rough voice. He moved to walk past Nasir, then looked deliberately over his shoulder. “You will—ah, give Domina my reply?”
Nasir bit back a smile. For such a remarkable gladiator, the man was a piss-poor liar.
“Of course,” the other slave answered smoothly. Crixus left, and Nasir turned to follow. “Wait!” she called, the ring of authority in her voice. “Come here.”
He hesitated a moment.
“I must return—”
“I am the body slave of your domina,” the woman said imperiously. “An order from my lips is as good as one from hers. Come here.”
Ah, he missed that power. Slowly, Nasir turned back and approached the bars. The slave’s composure was near flawless, although he saw nervousness in the ways her eyes flickered over him, attempting to size him up.
“I know not what you saw,” she said, licking her lips. “And I care not what you think you saw. What passed between the gladiator and me is the business of the domina only, and I would not wish her to be embarrassed on the account of a worthless ludus slave with more words than sense. Is my meaning clear?”
“You could be body slave to a consul’s wife and not appear as arrogant as you do now. The tilt of the chin…” Her chin lifted higher, unconsciously, at his words. “Yes. Those are tricks I learned as well, when I was so elevated… Never fear; I also learned silence.”
He made her a little bow, and found her dark eyes suspiciously boring into his. A less wise woman would have feared him, but he could tell that she recognized his sly words for what they represented: amusement, respect, perhaps even a hint of jealousy.
“What is your name?”
“I am called Tiberius.”
“Tiberius. I am Naevia.”
“You are not a woman I would cross, Naevia, nor Crixus such a man. I will hold tongue.”
“Gratitude—and good night.”
Nasir nodded his farewell and returned to his room. The slight breeze from the window was cool against his face, like a lover’s touch brushing away the strain of a long day. But it had not been so long, nor so straining, as others. For the first time, he went to his bed anticipating sweet dreams.
Chapter 4: A Gladiator's Mind
Chapter by ama
Agron fights with Verix and flirts with Tiberius.
The rating has changed from T to M. There's nothing M-ish in this chapter, although there may be sexytimes and violencetimes ahead. You've been warned.
Agron was exceptionally pleased with himself.
It no longer mattered that he had not eaten with Tiberius, because they had talked anyway—and privately! He could count on one hand the number of times he had been alone at the ludus, or at least alone with someone whose presence was not repugnant. Now, one of those moments had been with Tiberius, who smiled at him like a frostbitten man who glimpsed the sun. His fingers still ached with the memory of his skin….
With a fierce grin, Agron deflected Varro’s blow, dancing backwards to regain his position.
“I thought I had you there,” Varro laughed. “Your thoughts were in distant lands.”
“My thoughts, not my limbs,” Agron said, with a rueful smile to acknowledge his mistake.
He pressed attack. It was a premature strike; he overstretched, and Varro swooped below his arm to strike him hard in the ribs. Agron winced.
“Dead,” Varro announced. He grasped Agron’s forearm in a brotherly way. “But it was a well-fought match.”
“Gratitude—I would accept congratulations better, after victory. Again?” With a grin, he raised his sword, but a laugh over his shoulder stilled him. He turned to find Spartacus waiting. The champion clapped him on the back.
“It is true that Varro could use a sound defeat—but I would be the one to deliver such.”
Bowing his head, Agron stepped aside and allowed the friends to spar. He saw no other partners available, and so approached the wooden pallus. The warrior in his railed against dulling his blade (even a practice blade), but he did not admit that the sting in his muscles was satisfying.
He was not let alone for long. Soon, he became aware of a shadow over by his side--Verix, whacking leisurely at another practice dummy, his eyes fixed on Agron’s shoulder. Agron grit his teeth, and said nothing. Tiberius had not asked for protection. He had pride; if he was incapable of helping himself, he would accept aid. But he would not thank Agron for making trouble where none existed, or of making a scene on behalf of one who had not asked for one.
He had not counted on Verix’s foolishness.
The Gaul approached him after a few minutes of furtive looks. Agron nodded stiffly in greeting.
“You are new to the ludus. You do not know how it works here,” Verix said without prompting.
“The same fucking way it works everywhere,” Agron said cuttingly. “I’m a fast learner.”
He accented his words with solid blows; they did not impress. An ugly look contorted Verix’s already-ugly face.
“Not fast enough. You have no position, no power, and no right. I have seen the way your gaze travels--stay away from the boy.”
Agron feigned ignorance.
“Do not play the fool with me, German. Your head is as full of shit as your brother’s, but even a rat knows how to fight and fuck.”
Internally, Agron smiled to himself, a fierce, predatory smile. Verix was trying to intimidate him. And he thought the best way to do so was to draw attention to Agron’s newness (which only reminded him of freedom), and to insult his brother (which was the stupidest fucking thing anyone had ever thought of). He would not break his promise to Tiberius, not yet, but he relished the knowledge that the Gaul was stupid enough to provide other rationale for the beating he so richly deserved. He would wait a few days, long enough for their conversation to fade in Tiberiu’s mind, and then he would paint the ludus sands with the Gaul’s blood.
“Ah, I think I know the boy you speak of: the one who despises your every touch? And how exactly,” he added, at Verix’s growl, “am I supposed to avoid one who lives in such close quarters?”
“You know my fucking meaning.”
“I know you are a rabid mutt who one day aspires to be as wise as Segovax,” he sneered. “And he was the stupidest fuck ever to draw breath. If you seek to command me, do it with shield and sword. Otherwise, I cannot be bothered.”
Without further word, he turned away, intending to find someone to spar with. He had a vague notion that Verix might grab him and spin him around, or shout something insulting—what he did not expect was the hard whap of an iron-cored sword against his bare back.
He stumbled only a moment, then whirled around.
“Treacherous shit!” he cursed, his voice a shriek as the sword struck again, bloodying his nose.
Agron lunged forward and hit the other gladiator hard on the wrist. Verix grunted, but refused to loosen grip. He swung again; Agron brought up his shield and threw the whole weight of his body into the blow, so Verix stumbled, and was able to duck under the Gaul’s guard. He took a hard blow to the ribs, already sore from his match with Varro, but he managed to strike the butt of the sword against Verix’s forearm and drag down, nearly crushing his fingers and forcibly knocking the sword from his grip.
Verix swore and used his broad form to knock Agron back. No longer locked in close combat, he struck forward with fist and shield, but Agron was full of single-minded intensity. He tossed down his sword and used his own shield to deflect his opponent's bare arm. With the other hand, he tore the shield from Verix's grasp. Then he pounced.
There was a fierce scuffle, but Agron had the upper hand, literally and figuratively. He punched the Gaul's mouth and felt blood splatter across knuckles. A savage grin crept across his face and he hit him again. A blow glanced off his cheekbones but it was hardly felt....
The harsh sting of whip against back drew a grunt from his lips. He was pulled away, and slowly Doctore's voice wavered into existence, like heat-waves lifting off the sand.
Agron stood. There was blood in his mouth, though he did not remember being struck so hard, and he spat upon the ground.
“The Gaul attacked when back was turned,” he said stiffly. “I merely sought to correct error.”
“And why was back turned?” Doctore asked expectantly, as though guiding them in a lesson. Agron stared in disbelief.
“I had not engaged him!”
Doctore strode towards them—Verix had picked himself up from the sand, which still clung to him in places where sweat or blood had made skin sticky. To him, Doctore said, “Your only goal is to bring honor to the House of Batiatus. To do so, you must fight honorably.” To Agron: “When you have sword in hand, expect attack.”
Agron nodded reluctantly, though that did not stop him from snarling at Verix as he retired from the grounds. His ribs throbbed uncomfortably, and grit thrown up from the tussle stuck to his face. Irritably, he threw the practice sword on the ground and walked to the water cache to cleanse minor wounds. Tiberius was nearby, hovering by the box of weapons. Almost out of habit, Agron looked to him, his gaze seeking out the slave's eyes only to find them already upon him. He looked angry.
Startled, Agron drifted closer.
“You seek quarrel with him, when it was not asked of you,” the slave hissed. Anxiety was written in the lines of his face. Agron wished to see them smoothed; he cupped Tiberius' cheek with one hand.
“I only returned his blows,” he said softly and sincerely. “I would not have disregarded your will so easily, if not provoked.”
Tiberius eyed Agron suspiciously for a moment, before nodding.
“Do you require the medicus?”
Agron stretched, wincing as the muscles of his abdomen groaned in protest. The area was only sore, though; he had broken two ribs once, and the pain was not something that could be forgotten. He would be fine.
“No.” Before he could speak again, Doctore called for meal break. Tiberius looked over, and Agron grabbed him by the wrist. “Sit with my brother and me today, if it pleases you,” he added quickly.
Tiberius looked surprised, but he nodded and even gave a hint of a smile before he slipped away, hurrying to assist the cook. Agron grinned after him for a moment, foolishly, until an arm was suddenly slung around his shoulders. He jumped—people needed to stop approaching him from fucking back—only to find Donar. He nodded greeting, though warily. Donar was an odd mixture of apathy, familiarity, and gruffness that made it difficult to judge his intentions, but Agron found he liked the man. He was refreshingly blunt.
“You waste much effort on a boy you haven’t fucked,” Donar noted.
“Hence the effort.”
“Verix won’t give in easily, not after being overruled by Spartacus. He’s pissed on his territory.”
“He’s pissed on sand.” Agron shoved his arm off. Donar chuckled. Together they wandered towards the ludus, though Donar was no recruit and could easily have pushed to the front.
“And what have you done?”
“I have made invitation, rather than threats.”
His breath stopped as Tiberius looked at him again, peeking under his eyelashes, and smiled just slightly. How was it that a mere look could catch him so?
“Wise strategy,” Donar muttered. “I will join you.”
“You will what?”
Donar snatched two bowls for them, and promptly sat at the table where Duro and Agron usually ate. Duro, massaging a sore shoulder, joined him almost instantly.
“It’s fucking boring in this place without threat of death,” Donar shrugged. “I seek entertainment, and watched you twist in the wind will surely provide it.”
After several tortuously long moments in which he suffered the teasing of both men, Tiberius joined them at the table. He was very unlike how he had been when speaking alone with Agron; he seemed withdrawn, almost cold—but no. Duro was saying something stupid, as usual, and while the others laughed, Tiberius glanced down and smiled. It was only shyness that held his tongue, or uncertainty. It was far easier to offend unknown gladiators when three were listening to his words, rather than one, and he would prefer to sidestep the issue entirely.
Agron became aware that he was staring, but he felt unable to pull eyes from the slave’s face. It was fascinating. The longer they spent at the table, the longer he found he was able to read Tiberius’ expression as easily as he could listen to voice. The softening around his eyes spoke amusement, the slight tug of lips disgust, the tilt of neck discomfort.
Tiberius looked up, and Agron watched as embarrassment and pleasure chased across his face. He realized that his own expression must be unbearably tender, but it did not seem to deter Tiberius at all; instead, for the first time, he spoke without being prompted.
“Do you know who tends the birds?” he asked suddenly.
“The birds. I discovered them this morning; their cages are in the spare room, beside the stairs to the villa. I wondered who tends them.”
“I do not know. Do you care for birds?” He added after a hesitant pause. It seemed like an odd interest, but damned if he was going to dismiss something that Tiberius enjoyed. I could learn to like birds, he called with his eyes. I could learn to like anything.
“Not particularly. But a skilled slave always has advantage over one unskilled. My talents as body slave are unwanted here, so I thought to develop new ones.”
“What talents did you possess as body slave?” Duro asked, laughter lurking in words. Under the table, Agron kicked him. Luckily, Tiberius seemed only amused.
“A body slave is not a sex slave, so cease laughter. The House of Batiatus would fall in a day if you were given charge of a body slave’s duties, Duro—or indeed, any duties besides safe-keeping of your own head and cock.”
Donar and Agron roared with laughter. After a brief moment of gleeful shock, Duro laughed, too, and thumped Tiberius on the back.
“No wonder my brother favors you—your tongue is as foul as his!”
Agron kicked Duro again, hard enough that he yelped and glared. Donar was near breathless with laughter.
“Look at his face, as red as a boy’s,” he teased, poking Agron sharply in the ribs. Agron responded by putting him in a headlock—an overreaction, probably, but one that felt excessively satisfying.
“No wonder no one favors you—your tongue is as foolish as his.”
He jerked his chin in Duro’s direction, and released Donar from his hold. Both protested playfully, but Agron no longer cared. By the time Agron risked glance at Tiberius, the slave’s face was wiped of emotion. He presented perfect bland amusement. The perfect slave face, providing no clues. Agron’s heart sank.
“You gladiators,” Tiberius said lightly, shaking his head. “You complain ceaselessly of your training, yet do half your fighting out of it. It dizzies the mind.”
“If you seek—”
“Duro,” Agron said warningly. Duro grinned at him.
Agron ignored him and looked towards Tiberius, whose cheeks were pinked as though he, too, had guessed too late what Duro’s words would have been. Agron heavily suspected that they would have included advice on how to more enjoyably dizzy one’s mind—though he kept that notion firmly locked away.
“Pay no attention to these shits if you want to learn a gladiator’s mind, because they have none. I would offer myself for study, although I suspect their stench and company has turned you off the idea.”
Tiberius smiled at him, and Agron’s heart began to pound—strong enough that he was able to ignore the snickers of the fools beside him.
“An offer well received,” Tiberius said. He stood. “And one I will remember. Apologies—training may have finished, but my duties are not complete. Gratitude for the invitation and company.”
Tiberius collected their empty bowls and returned to the cook’s side. Agron knew his eyes were obvious, tracing his departure, but he could not help it, nor the grin that spread across his face.
“Offer well received,” Donar said lowly.
As one, he and Duro learned to give Agron congratulatory slaps on the back. Agron made no reply, save to grin wider. He had been wrong—it appeared that Roman gods showed favor, after all!
Chapter 5: Foolish Decisions
Chapter by ama
Nasir reflects on the foolishness of searching for happiness as a slave.
The next morning, Nasir approached the birdcage with caution. The birds looked on, perfectly placid, and he slowly lowered the opening halfway, guarding the space with his other hand. None tried to escape. More confidently, he reached in and lifted a single bird, wrapping his hand around his wings. It squirmed in his grasp until it reached a more secure position.
Nasir closed the cage and, tentatively, stroked the bird’s beak. It snapped at him in a kind of playful way, and he smiled. It was an off-white pigeon, speckled with copper spots—rather pretty for a bird, he thought, maybe once a pet. The problem with birds was that they had no personality. Nasir had been quite fond of the dogs in his former villa. They had been cheerful, affectionate things, quite unaware and uncaring of the fact that they were owned. Once or twice, Levitus had entertained guests from Alexandria, with cats. Those had been less cheerful, perhaps, but with that same independent spirit. Nasir would have preferred cats, dogs, even horses to pigeons and their glassy, stupid eyes.
But he had no choice in the matter. So, half-heartedly complimenting the bird on its plumage, he crushed some of the stale bread he had brought with him, and offered it crumbs to eat. He expected a rough peck against his palm, but the bird snatched the food as easily as a light-fingered child. Mildly surprised, Nasir stroked its wings.
“Have you a fondness for birds?”
Nasir jumped and spilled the breadcrumbs. The bird broke from his hold—he scrambled frantically to catch it again, but the thing was concerned only with its morning meal, now in the dust.
Embarrassed, Nasir looked up to find Doctore watching him with a kind smile.
“No,” he said after a pause. “I do not. I only wondered who cared for them. It seems as though such a duty would fall to the ludus slave.”
“Once, it did.” Doctore stepped forward and held out his hand. The bird hopped onto it, and he returned it to the cage. “The girl Naevia tends them now.”
“If they are hers, why does she keep them in the ludus, and not the villa?”
“They are not hers. Originally, they belonged to a gladiator called Auctus—or at least, so Barca claimed, although he collected as many and shared the responsibilities.”
“Barca,” Nasir repeated. “The name stirs memory; my old dominus favored him in the arena.”
“As did many. He was a strong fighter, though he had a curious affinity for delicate creatures. When he earned his freedom, the birds passed to Pietros, and Naevia took up the task after his death.”
Something in his words struck Nasir as somehow off, but it took a moment for him to place it. Slowly, he turned and opened the bird cage. He didn’t bother to select a bird this time; he simply scattered the remainder of the bread onto the floor. As he watched them feed, he asked, “Barca and Pietros were lovers?”
“And Barca bought his own freedom.”
“But not Pietros’, though he had made promise to do so. Cook told me,” he said apologetically after a pause, poking his fingers through the bars of the cage. “It seems… cruel. A blow even more harshly felt than one dealt in combat.”
“I have seen men enter this ludus, certain that they will win glory in the arena, only to die the next day before catching sight of its sands. It is a cruel world. The lucky ones yet find happiness in it, however brief.”
“As you once did,” Nasir offered quietly.
There was no misinterpreting the wistfulness in Doctore’s voice, or the depth of feeling in his gaze. Nasir had known since arriving at the ludus that its Doctore was a man of secrets. He knew not what shape it took, but the presence of one now, in his voice, was unmistakable.
“Once.” Doctore began to leave, though he paused in the doorway. “Agron fights in the arena tomorrow. With Fortuna’s aid, he should anticipate glorious victory.”
What has that to do with anything? Nasir thought angrily, but he touched fingertips to cheek and found heat that betrayed him.
The gladiators were not informed of the arena demonstration until later in the evening. Doctore gave Nasir the scroll bearing the names of those to fight; he delivered it in the baths, and was robbed and ignored within seconds. Exhausted after a long day with little sleep, he left to retire to his room.
He turned to find Agron approaching him, as expected, with a grin on his face. He looked like a child, alight with excitement, and it took effort to prevent himself from smiling in return.
“You deliver results, but do not stay to hear them?”
“I have not been to the games in many weeks, and Spartacus has toppled so many champions that I doubt I would recognize the names of any gladiators on the list.”
“Save those owned by Batiatus,” Agron reminded him.
“As I am.”
“Are you not curious to see how I fare?”
As he spoke, he swayed closer. Nasir tilted his chin to keep his face in view, and to prevent himself from staring at the expanse of muscle before him. Fresh from the baths, Agron smelled sweet and shone enticingly in the lamplight.
A pity, Nasir mused, that dim light was not as flattering to his face as sunlight; his eyes were of uncertain color and the shadows provided little contrast to his soft edges. Yet it was a blessing, too. If he stood so close, looking as attractive as possible, then Nasir would be forced to same something foolish--perhaps as foolish as his ill-advised comment from the previous afternoon--and his ego could not bear to do that again.
“You are eager to tell me, so I can exercise enough patience to listen.”
Agron’s smile flickered, and he stepped back, contrite.
“If my presence is unwanted--”
“No.” Unbidden, Nasir reached out and touched Agron’s arm. It was the first time he had initiated contact between them, since that first meeting when he had reached to staunch wound, and that time he had been rebuffed. Some part of him meant to find the fact significant, but really he could only focus on the slight movement, as tired muscles jumped beneath his fingertips. “No,” he repeated. “Apologies. Solemn thoughts weigh mind; I should not have allowed them to dampen spirits.”
“Share thoughts and see weight shared,” Agron said. He spoke low, and leaned close to offer a semblance of privacy in the open hallway. Nasir smiled.
“Gratitude, but I prefer my own counsel to any other man’s. When do you fight?”
Agron leveled a serious look, but after a moment decided to allow deflection. Animation returned to his voice.
“Early,” he grimaced. “But not first--Selonius’ men fight Pontius’ in the first two matches, for they are good for nothing else. It will be small games. Batiatus wants to test me and Duro as gladiators in a low-risk match. Rhaskos and Verix, and Spartacus and Varro fight as partners for the first time as well, as test and homage to the twins who founded Rome."
“Romulus killed Remus; surely that cannot be good luck. Let us hope Fortuna fights at your back.”
“I feel no doubt of victory, only impatience for advancement.”
“Does Crixus fight?”
The smile was wiped from Agron's face.
“No, he does not. A fallen champion is of no consequence--why do you waste words on Crixus?”
Nasir, taken aback by the venom in his voice, paused before answering.
“I only asked for the Medicus' sake,” (and, secretly, Naevia's), “to know whether his wounds needed further care. It occurred to me that an unimportant battle--no, that is not what I meant," he backtracked quickly. "A battle in which Batiatus seeks to test his men seems like the perfect place to test a fallen champion.
"That is true," Agron admitted with a shrug. "I do not know why Crixus does not fight, but nor do I care."
There was an uncomfortable pause.
"I have upset you again. Apologies.”
“No, the fault is my own,” he said stiffly. “I hold temper too dear—a trait my poor mother has tried in vain to rob me of for many years.”
He forced a smile, and Nasir responded in kind. Doctore’s advice from his very first day, to take care around gladiators who risked lives in the arena, came to mind, and he felt a sudden rush of pity. Lust for glory was an easy emotion to feel and communicate. Fear was not. Nasir’s own troubles seemed distant in comparison to the looming shadow of the arena. He touched Agron again, lightly on the arm, and leaned closer.
“If I break a confidence in order to see you happy, will you forget foolish words?”
“And who has confided in you, little man?” he teased.
“Call me that again, and you will never know.”
At that moment, Varro emerged from the baths. He looked surprised to see them (Nasir’s hand still resting on Agron’s forearm, just above the brand), but only for a second. With a knowing look, he apologized and walked past, giving them privacy again. Nasir glanced down, embarrassed. Agron ducked down to force eye contact again.
Nasir spoke in dramatically lowered voice.
“Doctore favors you. He told me that he anticipates victory for you and Duro, and quick advancement after that.”
He was exaggerating slightly, of course, but the delight on Agron's face was well worth it.
“Then I hope to prove worthy of his favor.” He hesitated. His hand lifted again to cup Nasir's cheek, warm and rough and gentle. The touch stopped his heart. “And of yours.”
“You need not worry of that,” Nasir muttered breathlessly, without a care of what he was saying. He was aware of nothing but the hot flow of Agron’s breath against his face. They were standing very close, so close that he could almost feel the trembling of Agron’s eyelashes against his own.
The moment lasted for two seconds. Perhaps less.
Varro had only been the first of the gladiators to exit the baths. Above the pounding of his own pulse, Nasir could hear loud footsteps and boisterous conversations. Soon, they would no longer be alone. He felt a wild urge to tilt his face and press his lips to Agron’s just for a hard, desperate moment—but the greater part of him objected. Agron’s hand fell to shoulder, and tightened in friendly gesture.
“I am to bed. Will you see me off in the morning?”
Thrown off balance, Nasir nodded.
“If duties do not claim me,” he evaded, although the answer was yes. “Gods’ blessings.”
Agron looked disappointed, and Nasir made sure to let his hand drift over the gladiator's arm as he departed, even as he cursed his own foolishness.
He closed the door to his room and leaned heavily against it. The cool night breeze played across his skin; he sighed, and approached the window. Only a small path of sky was visible, covered in thick grey clouds. He wasn’t tall enough to press his face to the bars, but he tilted his chin up to catch the delicate flow of wind again. It helped to soothe unquiet mind.
What was he doing? Nasir had sworn not to become like Chadara, or the foreign eunuchs who were paraded through the halls of Rome’s rich, or any of the pretty boys and girls who learned at puberty that status was best earned on their backs and their knees. But wasn’t it just as bad to make Pietros’ mistake, and find love in empty words?
Agron was a gladiator. His life was consumed by battle, prizes, and eventually, perhaps, freedom; freedom for himself and for his brother. When he had it, he would dash off to his land east of the Rhine, extra prize money in hand, never to set foot again on Roman soil. He would not remain in the ludus for yet more days and weeks, risking life to free a ludus slave who had looked to him for protection. Why would he? Doubtless he had lovers of his own at home, free lovers who were not afraid to speak their minds or look at him or touch him in plain view. With a jolt, Nasir realized that he could even be married. He could have children.
In the end, Nasir could be nothing more than a pleasant distraction from the ever-threatening games, entertainment for the entertainment. It was a depressing thought, but he had no reason to assume that it was an inaccurate one.
He collapsed on the bed and pressed the heels of his hands against his closed eyes. He wanted to forget about Agron. He wanted his eyes to fade from memory, his body to become distant, his laughter to cease echoing in the corners of his mind--or, failing that, to forget that he was a slave to be used and nothing more. Then, suddenly, he had an epiphany: Who the fuck cared?
Nasir was a slave just as surely as Agron. His collar was less permanent than a brand, perhaps, but twice as damning, as he had little chance of winning freedom. If, by some miracle, he earned enough favor to be freed by Batiatus, what means would he have of freeing Agron? None. What proof did Agron have that Nasir had no sweethearts in his former villa? None. What rule stated that Nasir must fall more in love with Agron than Agron did with him? None.
The thought brought a smile to his face. It was kind of exciting, in a way. He was no longer bound to his dominus’ side. He could take a lover, if he wanted. He could take half a dozen lovers. He could flirt with Agron, laugh with him, fuck or be fucked by him. If he was dissatisfied, he could drop him and move on. (Of course, any lover would be better than Levitus, so he couldn’t imagine failing to be pleased with Agron in bed.)
Content with this rationalization, Nasir rolled over on his side and promptly fell asleep. He slept heavy that night, and still awoke before dawn, as was custom. For once, there were gladiators training when he woke up—the six who would be at the arena that day, and those who volunteered as opponents. Agron waved at him when he emerged, and Nasir smiled back. Upon seeing him, Duro winked and bowed.
He had no opportunity to speak to Agron that morning, though. He could only watch, and wave farewell, and hope that none of his anxiety showed on his face.
Rationalizations be damned. He was fucking in love with Agron. The gladiator could have two dozen children, a wife, seven mistresses and four boys stowed away in Germania, and Nasir would still be in love with him. The gladiator could bleed his last drop on the sands that very day, without ever having taken Nasir in his arms or kissed his lips, and Nasir would be in love with him.
The doors to the ludus slammed shut behind Agron, and the smile fell from Nasir’s face.
Chapter 6: Victory
Chapter by ama
I’m playing a little fast and loose with canon here, vis-a-vis Duro, Agron, and the Arena, but hey, this is an AU.
His ears were ringing. Hastily, Agron fell back several steps, and reached up with one arm to tear the helmet from his head. Doctore would reprimand him for it later, and yes, the helmet had just prevented his brains from being splattered on the sand, but the fucking thing had obscured his vision enough for the blow to land in the first place. Bare-headed, he faced his opponent again, sword and shield raised.
His opponent, a hoplomachus from the house of Solonius, smirked at him—or at least, Agron thought he did. He could already see plans forming in his head to strike another, similar blow, but Agron was ready for him. He was perhaps three inches taller than the other man, and would not let a blow to the head distract him now.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Duro, but he wasn’t particularly worried about that at the moment. Duro was fighting a retiarius; with his agility, he could easily avoid the net and death until Agron could join him.
The hoplomachus lunged forward, his sword positioned to drive into Agron’s shoulder, but he dodged the blow easily, and with quick feet found himself at the man’s back. His instinct told him to thrust his sword through the man’s heart and be done with it, but the roar of the crowd instructed him otherwise. He struck his opponent across the back, hard enough to draw a deep, bloody line from left hip to right shoulder. He drew back again to form the same wound on the other side, but the move was aborted as the hoplomachus managed to spin around and deflect him.
For a few furious minutes, they were evenly matched, sword to sword, but then Agron managed to maneuver his shield and divest his opponent of his own, smaller one. Triumphantly, he knocked the man to ground and strike several harsh wounds to his ribcage and abdomen. None were enough to kill, but the other gladiator, weakened, soon lost grip on his sword. He lifted two fingers in surrender.
Agron placed the point of his sword at the other’s throat, and looked up to the editor. The crowd was hardly louder than they had been before, but with the hum of victory in his veins, they sounded deafening. The wound on his forehead bled steadily, and he tasted blood and sweat.
After a moment of consideration, the editor indicated that the fallen man was to live. In the same second, Agron had joined Duro.
“Fucking nets,” he called out. “Who the fuck ever heard of using fucking nets in battle?”
“No one,” Duro grinned. As usual, they were in perfect sync. “Because anyone who ever tried is dead.”
The gladiator’s face was red, whether from exertion or anger, and he backtracked hastily from their path.
“I will shit upon your corpses,” he shouted, with a thick Gallic accent.
“Fucking Gauls,” Agron muttered to himself. Then he lunged.
Their strategy was simple; Agron cut high and from one side, Duro low and from the other. It was depressingly easy. Agron deflected a thrust of the trident and hacked at the gladiator’s arm, hard enough to nearly separate the limb just below the elbow. That put him in close combat, but he yanked the dagger from the man’s belt and thus felt no fear when the net caught over his head. Duro was on the other side, and he stabbed the man’s thigh. His sword cut through flesh easily, and Agron knew it would cause death if not soon attended.
The gladiator’s howl was almost drowned by the crowd, they were so pleased. Agron cast aside his shield with a wide grin and clasped Duro’s forearm. Their opponent had collapsed to the ground, his wounded arm cradled against his chest, and they turned to the editor. The man pondered for a minute, but the public’s preference was clear. He tucked his thumb into his fist.
“Will you claim the honor, brother?” Duro offered, panting heavily.
“You struck the first death blow,” Agron pointed out, gesturing at the man’s thigh and the thick pool of blood beneath it. “I suppose it is only fair that I strike the second.”
He stepped forward and, without fanfare, drove his sword into the man’s chest. Blood splattered over his arms, and he and Duro basked together in the heady glow of the crowd’s approval.
Fuck the gods, he could get used to that.
He did not immediately find Tiberius on arrival; luckily, the slave was occupied elsewhere. It was only after cleansing himself of blood, sweat, and sand that he emerged and looked for him. A glance was enough to confirm that he was not in the training ground, so he turned back to make a more minute search of the ludus.
He didn’t know what his intentions were. He only knew that he couldn’t let their relationship linger in this half-state, not after feeling Tiberius’ hands and breath upon him.
Agron turned, unable to keep the smug grin from his face. Tiberius was leaning against one of the pillars, watching Agron. He was trying to look indifferent, but his mouth curved in a half-smile and relief colored his voice. Agron approached him.
“You underestimate me, little man; I emerge victor.”
“An honor shared with your brother,” Tiberius said loftily. “As was the task.”
“Is my blood worth less, then?”
“When blood has aided in the burden, yes,” he teased.
“You belong in the arena,” Agron laughed. “Against cruel words like that, the mightiest gladiator would fall.” He spread his arms. “And yet, I remain standing.”
Tiberius laughed, and Agron was delighted. It was a genuine laugh, rich and full, the kind that he had very rarely been able to draw from the slave’s lips. Was it relief that made him boisterous? If so, then he must care for Agron, even a little, besides idle flirtation. The thought was like wine to him. He stepped closer, and Tiberius tilted his head but did not step back.
“You remain,” he agreed. “And with expectant look in eye. Was purse won in the arena an insufficient reward? Do you yet thirst for more?”
“You were not in the arena; this battle is separate,” Agron reminded him. “You drew blood with taunts, and yet I am not driven from your presence in tears. Surely that is deserving of additional prize?”
“And what would you claim, I wonder?”
Agron took a breath.
“A kiss,” he said boldly.
Tiberius’ eyes met his. His gaze was steady, inscrutable. Slowly, he pushed himself off of the column. Agron, hardly able to believe his luck, leaned down... and Tiberius pressed lips to his cheek. He lingered for a moment, lips brushing skin again when he spoke in a low whisper.
“And is the prize sufficient, gladiator?”
His voice was soft, but not teasing. There was a true question in it, and he pulled away just enough to look Agron in the eye again. Agron found himself incapable of ignoring the instinct that demanded he reached up and cup Tiberius’s face in hands, almost roughly, holding him close and tightly. The slave did not object.
“Your touch inflames,” Agron confessed in a harsh whisper. “A thousand kisses would not satisfy.”
“Then take a thousand, so that we may make a beginning.”
One of them moved, he did not know which, and Tiberius was kissing him as eagerly as he had ever been kissed before. The first touch of lips against lips was disarming as a gladiator’s blow; Agron could have sworn his ears were ringing again, and they broke apart after only a moment, already gasping for breath.
“One,” Tiberius said. Agron looked at him quizzically for a moment. The slave looked up at him and smiled. With a grin, Agron surged forward, pushing him against the column with his body.
“I would have you lose count.”
“See it done,” he said breathlessly.
Tiberius’ mouth was hot and pliant beneath his. He was in near constant motion, pressing closer before drawing away teasingly, and Agron chased him with lips and teeth. When Tiberius paused for breath, he stole opportunity to stroke his lower lip with his tongue.
With a smile, the slave reached up and cupped his jaw, fingers splayed across his cheek. His grip tightened possessively, blunt nails scraping Agron’s cheek, and suddenly he was pushing Agron away and flipping their positions.
“I am not yet finished,” Agron growled.
“I lost count already--and I would taste skin.”
Tiberius bit his jaw lightly, then closed lips over the mark. Immediately, Agron’s objections vanished, and he tangled his hands in Tiberius’ hair. He held him close.
A flicker of movement caught his eye--Verix, returning from his own battle. The Gaul had been defeated after a hard, well-fought match--but the fact remained that Agron had won, and it was he who was pressed against the wall with Tiberius attached to him by the lips. He didn’t know if Verix saw them. With a pleased smirk, he tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
“Look at me,” Tiberius ordered suddenly, and Agron obeyed. The slave was marvelous in the lamplight, and he drew him up for another kiss.
“We cannot remain here,” he mumbled in between the press of lips. “I can’t—”
“Retire to my room, then,” Tiberius offered, taking his hands. Coyly, he pulled them further into the ludus. “Does that suit you?”
“Very well,” he grinned.
The door had no lock, of course, but Agron made sure that it wouldn’t open—owing to the fact that he pinned Tiberius against it at the first opportunity. Laughter bubbled up, disrupting the kiss, and Tiberius hooked one leg teasingly around his waist. After a moment, he found that, battle be damned, he still had the strength to lift the slave off the ground. There was no more laughter.
Tiberius’ thighs were surprisingly muscled, and the feel of being pressed between them was almost overwhelming. The angle of the kiss, too, was odd yet satisfying; he had not had much experience at looking up to be kissed.
At first, Tiberius clung to him tightly, his fingers leaving red marks on Agron’s shoulders, but then he began to ever-so-lightly run his hands over Agron’s chest and back, and compensated by tightening his legs. The contrast of the pressure and gentleness was too much. Agron broke the kiss with a low groan, and let his head fall down.
“Tiberius,” he breathed against the slave’s collarbone.
The slave’s response was so immediate that Agron almost dropped him; as it was, he managed to catch him as he fell and set him (almost) gently on the ground.
“Apologies,” he said, confused. “What have I done?”
“Nothing—nothing. But… that is my Roman name. It is not the name my brother called me, or the one I claim as my own, and…” A red blush colored his cheeks.
Agron stepped forward again, cautiously, and touched their foreheads together. One hand slipped to the back of no-longer-Tiberius’ neck, reassuring.
“I would have you speak your mind to me, always,” he said. “Keep your own counsel if you wish, but know that you have my silence and my respect. Nothing that passes through your mind is so foolish that I would laugh at you.”
“Nasir. I would have you call me Nasir.”
“Tiberius” had tripped awkwardly over his tongue; “Nasir” flowed like honeyed wine. Agron said it once, and kissed him. He said it again, and Nasir wrapped his arms around his neck, drawing so close that there was no space between their bodies at all. Agron moved against him, Nasir’s name ringing in his mind. He repeated it often, that night.
They did not fuck. They had not the means, the time, or (regretfully) the strength. For some minutes, they simply indulged in the pleasures of lips and touch, then Nasir had fallen to his knees and sucked Agron’s cock with remarkable enthusiasm. Thoroughly undone, he came with fingers curled in Nasir’s hair and eyes closed—a fact which greatly irritated Nasir, though Agron made amends with sweet kisses. He had no idea why Nasir was so determined to be looked at, but he had absolutely no objection against looking, so he made a mental note to oblige him in the future.
He was willing to return the favor while kneeling in the dirt, until it occurred to him that Nasir had likely never had someone take cock in mouth, and he was determined to make his first experience a worthwhile one. So he led Nasir to the bed, and proceeded to wreck him entirely.
Agron teased; he worshipped; he stopped and began again at whim. Slowly, then more rapidly, he began to draw sound from Nasir’s lips like a musician from strings, and when the slave’s hands shook with exertion and he pressed his face against the thin mattress and he begged, Agron considered his efforts well spent. Afterwards, he lay peacefully beside Nasir, half on top of him, but careful to keep his weight from being too uncomfortable. Nasir didn’t seem to mind. He curled against Agron’s chest and lay his head on his shoulders as he caught his breath.
“Tortuous,” Agron offered with a grin, though his jaw ached. Nasir laughed hoarsely.
“That, as well.”
“How can I be otherwise? You’ve tortured me for days, weeks—”
“A single week, if that!”
“Yes. The gods as my witnesses, you tortured me for days before we even spoke. And after, you drew forward and back like fucking tides—strange tides, incapable of measurement.”
“I was afraid,” Nasir admitted, haltingly. The words sounded bitter on his tongue, and Agron frowned.
“Of what? Not of me?”
“No. I’ve been a house slave nearly my entire life; I have fears you could never understand.”
“I will rob you of them,” Agron vowed, kissing his chin.
“Do not make promises…”
They kissed again, lazy and slow. Nasir’s pulse was returning to normal, and Agron could practically feel him falling into slumber. He would have gladly joined him, but at that moment the door banged open.
“Jupiter’s cock, you’ve been here this whole time?” the guard griped. “Return to your cell.”
“Why?” Agron asked, irritated. His arms tightened around Nasir, but the guard did not budge.
“When you are champion, you’ll have rights to ass and a private room. Until then, go back to your fucking cell.”
Agron glared at the man, but Nasir pushed at his shoulder reluctantly.
“Go,” he mumbled. “I will find you in the morning.”
Agron kissed him good-bye and stood. He cared nothing for his own nudity, but positioned himself carefully so as to block Nasir’s body from sight. The thought of other eyes ogling him, which had been distasteful before, was now repugnant to him. He’d probably murder Verix tomorrow. In any case, the guard did not take notice. He led Agron back to the cell he shared with Duro, and shoved him in. The sight of him, even clothed in his subligaria again, earned knowing looks and gestures.
He fell heavily on the ground, ready for sleep, and Duro grinned at him.
“Varro wins his bet.”
“Did you not make the same bet, shit-for-brains?”
“When Varro gambled, we had not won in the arena, and Ashur would not take the promise of non-existent winnings as collateral.”
Agron smiled. Their battle that morning seemed very, very far away. He lay down, right in the dirt, and fell asleep.
“Besides,” Duro said with a yawn, eyes closed. “I would have lost. The date for my bet passed a long, long time ago.”
Chapter 7: Remnants
While assisting Lucretia in the preparation of her party for the magistrate, Nasir is reminded of the life he left behind in coming to the ludus.
Be warned, the sexual harassment is a bit more intense in this and later chapters than it has been so far.
Nasir woke early that morning, with the taste of Agron’s lips still on his. He lay in his bed and watched the faint light of the sun creep into the cell, first only a thin crack on the opposite wall, then slowly growing to warm his toes. Perhaps it was not quite a luxury—the sun’s light was available to any living being—but it felt like one, when his body was loose and sated and his mind full of peaceful thoughts. Agron, despite his foray into the arena, was still alive—still very alive, he thought with a lascivious smirk—and fond of him. Extremely fond of him.
In his mind’s eye, Nasir traced Agron’s body, beginning with his heady gaze and trailing down. The mere thought of his lips made his entire body shiver, and hand ghosted over cock. In the past, Nasir had found that the benefits of his own intimate touch did not make up for the attention it garnered him, but he had never had such privacy in his old ludus…
Nor had he had a lover. With a smile, he rose from bed and slipped out of his room.
When he reached Agron’s cell, he found the man already awake. Agron stood as he approached, a wide grin on his face. He pulled Nasir close through the bars for a kiss. The edges of the metal bore into his skin, and Nasir smiled.
“A warm greeting, much appreciated,” he said in a low voice when they parted.
“How can I give otherwise? The very thought of you prompts smiles.” Agron leaned closer and nipped playfully at his bottom lip. “And stirs cock.”
“A task better suited to hand and lips,” Nasir grinned, drawing back from the bars. “Wait here, and I shall return shortly.”
He managed to find a guard willing to unlock Agron’s cell, under the pretense of early training. The guard was either profoundly stupid or very good at hiding his thoughts, but he had a key and was willing to use it, so Nasir paid him no mind.
They didn’t even pretend to go near the training ground. Nasir led Agron to the room with the pigeons, and promptly pulled him into a kiss. Agron seemed unsure of what to do with his hands; he touched Nasir’s cheek, his waist, held him by the wrist, gripped his ass. It was endearing, and Nasir broke away to reward him by setting lips to jaw. Agron let out a low, breathy groan.
“Your tongue is as talented as cruel.”
Nasir smiled, and used said rogue to soothe the skin worried by his teeth.
“And your hands as teasing as they are deadly, my fearsome gladiator,” he said lightheartedly.
Agron laughed at that, and took a tighter grip on Nasir’s ass, pulling him flush against his body.
“Allow me to make amends,” he murmured.
He stood on his toes to kiss Agron on the lips again, but before he could make good on the promise, the door opened.
Beyond Agron stood the body slave, Naevia. Surprise colored he face, but only mild surprise. They were even, Nasir thought grimly.
“I was sent to fetch you,” Naevia said. Her eyes fell to the pen in the corner. “And to feed the birds.”
She stepped forward and scattered seed on the floor of the cage. Agron’s hands curled around his waist protectively.
“To fetch Nasir?” he asked, suspicion clouding his voice.
“To what purpose?”
“Domina did not tell me,” she shrugged. “But we entertain the magistrate tonight, and the elite of Capua. I suspect she requires the expertise of as many competent slaves as possible.”
“I will come presently,” Nasir said. He touched a light kiss to Agron’s lips, and Naevia slipped out discreetly. “Do not die before I return to you.”
“And after?” Agron asked.
Nasir swatted him with a smile, and followed Naevia’s retreating back. Once again, he found himself in the villa. Repairs had spread, so even the rough stone was polished and clean.
The domina of the house stood in the courtyard, surrounded by a plethora of slaves, plates, and amphorae. She snapped at those around her, and in her eye he saw the half-crazed look of one eager to impress.
“Ah, Naevia. You, what are you called?” she asked Nasir.
“Tiberius,” he said, after a pause. His night with Agron had made tongue clumsy with regards to names.
“My husband tells me you were body slave to Levitius, were you not?”
“For how long?”
“And as Levitius remains unmarried, I presume you are well familiar with the business of arranging entertainment for a large number of highly respected guests. Naevia is yet new to such duties; you will instruct her and the other slaves. We host the toga ceremony of the magistrate’s son tonight.”
“A great honor, Domina. I will offer any aid I can.”
“Excellent. Nadia,” she said, snapping her fingers. One of the slaves who had attended Batiatus when Nasir had first arrived stepped forward with a small dip. “You are to market. I have it on good authority that the magistrate favors dormice, so be sure to stock up as well as the usual—and only the best.”
Nasir coughed, and the domina looked at him expectantly.
“He also favors eel, domina. And the magistrate has very specific tastes in wine; if you wish, I could—”
“What is his preference?” Lucretia demanded.
“Regretfully, I do not recall. But there is one bodyguard who always accompanies his maids to do the shopping at all times, and he is very distinctive. If you wish, I can describe him, so your girl can find the maid and discover his favorite vintage herself.”
Lucretia was delighted; already he had proved himself valuable. She instructed him to do so, and Naevia to make friends with the slave of every important man who entered the villa that night. Nasir went to Nadia and described the bodyguard—an Egyptian, a head taller than himself, who was missing his left hand but with shoulders as broad as an ox. Nasir knew him well; Levitius favored the man, and the magistrate was not averse to hiring out his guards for certain private entertainment.
After that, he and Naevia spent several hours by Lucretia’s side as she plotted, offering opinions when asked and seeing that her will was carried out. Nasir wanted to help, but he did so cautiously. He knew that he was an extremely capable body slave, and of great worth in the villa, but having found his place in the ludus he was reluctant to leave it on a permanent basis. More, he didn’t want to infringe on Naevia’s duties.
Happily, though, she seemed truly grateful to have him with her. She was a quick learner, and didn’t begrudge having him as teacher. Eventually, Lucretia retired to the balcony. She ordered them to oversee the other slaves in the preparations, and for Naevia to see to her before the magistrate arrived, to help her with her clothes. Now that the decisions were made, there was much to be done—cleaning, arranging flowers, preparing food—and they set to it with alacrity. That was when Nasir discovered that, though the slaves of the house appeared especially meek, they were exactly like all other slaves in one respect: gossip.
“You live with the gladiators every day,” Aelia said eagerly as they pitted olives. “Are they truly the beasts they appear?”
Gods bless Chadara, he thought with a smile. Thanks to her guidance, he knew himself to be perfectly fluent in the language required of him now. He shrugged archly and spoke in a light voice.
“A very few, yes. Most are simply men…. Some are gods.”
His words prompted a flurry of giggles.
“You speak of Spartacus, do you not?” demanded Flavia. “Mira will not tell us, though she has lain with him—”
“When the champion of Capua asks for discretion, one obliges him,” Mira said elegantly.
“Personal experience does not prompt my words, in terms of Spartacus,” Nasir said in an attempt to prompt reconciliation. “Though I have no doubt that they are true. But our champion does not favor men.”
“I have never known a man who would not fall over himself for a pretty boy,” Aelia announced confidently. “Especially one so long separated from the company of women. And with hair like yours, and a face to match, even the most devoted cunt-seeker must have been tempted. Surely you have felt his eyes upon you, at least?”
“Not once,” Nasir laughed.
“What other gods does the House of Batiatus have to offer?” Mira asked.
Nasir shrugged and moved on to help Flavia arrange the silk decorations. His relationship with Agron was so new that he had no desire to be teased about it, so he continued to play coy.
“Crixus, of course; with each passing day, his return to the arena draws nearer. Of course, he prefers women exclusively as well,” he said to Naevia’s sharp look.
“And what of Varro?” Flavia guessed.
“Varro could be persuaded, perhaps--when confronted with the right boy,” he said with a sly smile. “Though I am not he.”
Even Naevia giggled, scandalized, at that, though the very idea of a house slave lying with a gladiator made her withdraw from conversation. Nasir smiled to himself and flitted to another table, where he began arranging food and wine. He clucked at the girls, urging them to their tasks more quickly, but the silence did not last.
"Varro's wife and child will not be pleased to hear of it," Mira said absently.
"I did not say that he had found the right boy, and nor is he looking for him. I merely meant that, if confronted with temptation, Spartacus and Crixus would easily resist, and Varro would not."
The girls pressed for the names of more "gods," but he evaded. Rhaskos' name was brought up, and Nasir vehemently protested. There was some debate about whether or not roughness was an asset or a flaw in bed, and before Nasir knew how it happened, the conversation turned back to him.
"You must have a lover among them," Aelia insisted.
“The blush upon your cheek when you spoke of gods,” she said knowingly. “It betrays you. Won’t you tell us? Us common girls have little occasion to visit the arena, and I know I for one can place no more names. If we are unable to guess, you must tell us.”
“If you cannot guess, perhaps the gods do not wish you to know,” he countered.
“Agron,” Naevia said. They all stared at her in shock, Nasir more than any. She looked up, amused. “His lover is Agron, the new gladiator from east of the Rhine. A very fine gladiator, too, for all he has fought only once. And do not ask me how I know, for such words are not fit to pass a virtuous woman’s lips.”
Nasir received more than one teasing slap on the arm for that, and he knew he was blushing again, damn it.
“Does your treachery know no bounds?” he said to Naevia. She winked and ignored him.
“Agron,” Flavia said thoughtfully. “We have seen him, have we not? If he was a new recruit, then we saw him, when Ilithyia chose a gladiator to patronize.”
“So we did. We saw quite a lot.”
Nasir raised his eyebrows.
“Ilithyia had the gladiators strip for her pleasure,” Mira explained.
“I cannot believe that!”
“But she did!” Aelia insisted.
“A proper Roman woman—”
“Ha!” Flavia interrupted. “Proper Roman women only exist in front of their fathers. And do not think that a woman cannot appreciate a good cock even though she does not have one of her own.”
She grabbed his arm at that last in a familiar way that threw Nasir off-balance, though he grinned at her boldness. Even Chadara had never reached to touch him so freely. None had, until Agron… What was it about the House of Batiatus that prompted spontaneous physical affection? Or was it something about Nasir himself that had changed?
“And what there was to appreciate,” Aelia sighed. “There was the Gaul, Segovax—hung like a horse.”
“With a face like one,” Mira shot back.
“Which one was Agron?” Aelia asked curiously.
“He stood next to Segovax,” Naevia said.
There was a moment when Nasir was subject to the most intense probing and laughter he had ever experienced, as the girls pestered him based on vague memories of Agron’s body. He was soon saved from further elaboration by Lucretia’s return. She delivered yet more instructions, then disappeared with Naevia to dress. Before leaving, though, she ordered Nasir to return to the baths and rid the stink of the ludus from his skin.
He took no offense; in fact, he was grateful, because it allowed him the chance to slip away from the slaves and talk of Agron, and to see the man himself.
When he emerged from the baths, he felt more clean and refreshed than he had since arriving at the ludus. There was something to be said for clean hair and sent—and though he knew it was for the viewing pleasure of their rich Roman guests, he couldn’t help but smile when he saw Agron depart from the sands and make a beeline for him.
“Has there ever been a man more beautiful?” Agron wondered aloud. “I fear my very touch would soil.”
“I have but a moment to play Ganymede, then I must return,” Nasir said, greeting him with a kiss. “Naevia was right; I am asked to help arrange for the party tonight.”
“And does it prove stimulating?”
His voice was solemn, but there was an impish light in his eye, and his hand trailed lazily down Nasir’s back.
“Not as stimulating as your touch.” And to think, a mere day ago it had been unfamiliar to him. “The gossip, though, proves worthy of attention. I must ask—exactly how large was Segovax’s cock?”
It was worth it, just to see the look on his lover’s face. Agron was dumbfounded, and with a smile Nasir stretched up and kissed him on the lips.
“The girls were trying to remember the sight of you naked before Ilithyia—for some incomprehensible reason, they were unable to.”
Agron laughed loudly and, taking Nasir’s face in his hands, kissed him again.
“In truth, I would have fallen to my knees for Segovax in a second,” he murmured against his lips. “And you know of my hatred of Gauls.”
“But love of cock,” Nasir nodded sagely. Reluctantly, he drew away. “I must return.”
“You torture me,” Agron pouted. Nasir squeezed his hand reassuringly as he walked away.
“And tonight I shall soothe the wounds.”
The evening was a tremendous success. Nasir could read it in his domina’s smile, which was almost entirely relieved of tension. The magistrate was serene, his son effusive, his wife amiable. Everything was going smoothly.
Of course, that did not mean he had cause to rest. Naevia was bound to Lucretia’s side, but they had learned to communicate in glances and subtle gestures, so he was constantly dashing about at her direction, supervising other slaves or taking matters into his own hands. As per Lucretia’s instruction, he also took the time to seek out the body slaves of the most prominent men, to whisper compliments in ear and pressed small cups of wine in hand, making friends for Naevia.
One errand in particular caused her concern, although she did not ask it of him; Nasir read the expression on her face, and took a cup of wine to Crixus.
“With—Domina’s compliments,” he said carefully as he handed the gladiator a small chalice. Crixus’s eye fell on Naevia.
“Wine before battle dulls the senses,” he refused.
“No man yet healing has the luxury of refusing food or drink. Take it, and seek me if you require more.”
Reluctantly, Crixus accepted the cup and expressed gratitude. Nasir disappeared, slipping behind the row of gladiators. Spartacus nodded to him as he passed; the champion may not have liked Crixus, but he was a man of honor, and Nasir smiled in response.
A sickeningly familiar voice spoke from behind him, and a feeling of dread locked Nasir’s stomach. He turned to find his former master watching him. Swallowing his sudden anxiety, he bowed.
“Dominus,” he murmured. “Apologies—Domina requires me.”
“Lucretia is basking in the glow of victory,” Levitius laughed. “Wait for a moment.”
Nasir obeyed—he could think of no reason not to. He glanced up, quickly, at the slave by Levitius’s side, and his heart lurched. It was Prixus, a 15-year-old boy known around the villa for his pretty strawberry-blond curls, his cheerful smile, and his innocent stupidity. Nasir had been nearly that young himself when made body slave, but he had been qualified, and Prixus, for all his eagerness, was also woefully unprepared for such a task. There was no smile on his face now, and a yellowing bruise on his cheek, with a cut in the center from Levitius’s ring, told Nasir that his dominus was already regretting the decision to so elevate him.
Prixus wouldn’t look at him. Levitius wouldn’t look away.
“Your presence is much missed in the house of Levitius. It was a mistake, to give you away,” he said musingly. He stepped forward, crowding Nasir against a pillar, and reached up with one hand to stroke Nasir’s bare shoulder. “But what else can a man do in such times…? You are to be congratulated for the success of this evening, I trust. Your influence is written all over this place.”
“Pardon, but I acted only under Domina’s direction. I am set to work in the ludus.”
“The ludus? That is a horrible waste for a slave of your talents. Pity. Batiatus ignores your greatest virtues, when I miss them sorely…”
His hand trailed lower, stroking Nasir’s waist, and Nasir let out a shaky breath. He knew how Levitius preferred to treat his slaves—gentle at first, almost hesitant, as though he were still acquainting himself to the idea of using them. Then he took them hard, bruises be damned. Nasir had more often penetrated than been penetrated himself, but in the company of a hundred prominent Romans there was no question of that happening. Levitius would stop only if Batiatus, as Nasir’s dominus, exerted his right to see his property unharmed, and Batiatus would not do so.
Levitius’s hand slipped below the band of Nasir’s cloth, and he closed his eyes. The hand that touched him was soft as downy moss and thin as bones—at once familiar and strange, comfortable and horrid. Unconsciously, he drew back, and Levitius’s thin lips contorted in displeasure. Nasir braced himself; as a child, he had learned the pattern of bony knuckles and pointed ring-stone that added sting to his master’s slap. Unlike Prixus, he had had little occasion to feel such as an adult, but it was not a sensation quickly forgot.
But it did not come.
“Good Levitius! I fear you regret our transaction,” Batiatus said good-naturedly, clapping Levitius on the shoulder.
The invading hand and sour frown both disappeared, and Nasir’s knees went weak with relief. He pressed further against the pillar. If he could slip away….
“Not at all, Batiatus. I was only—ah, reminiscing.”
“Understandable. Unfortunately, Tiberius is needed to tend the gladiators. The exhibition begins shortly; in fact, my purpose in seeking you out was to invite you to view it with the magistrate and I. Shall we attend him?”
With a disappointed expression, Levitius was led away, and Nasir thanked every god he knew of. He had grown used to being an object of lust for the gladiators, but he had forgotten the sheer disgust that crawled under his skin when he was looked at, not by fellow slaves, but by the elite. More than that, he had expected—foolishly—that he would never know any touch but Agron’s again. Had he still been a body slave, he never would have had such unreasonable expectations, but already he had absorbed the laws that governed the ludus. Having a lover meant being protected.
But Agron could not protect him from his former owner, or any Roman citizen, or even, really, any gladiator. Most would back away, but in the end, what could anyone do? Agron could not be by his side every hour of the day, and the only thing that would truly stop a determined brute was death—something that Batiatus would never allow.
His breath came unevenly, but Nasir was certain that nothing showed on his face. He stood unobtrusively at the end of the line of gladiators, and resolved to say nothing to Agron. Nothing had happened. Nothing of import had happened. He would not see Agron troubled by the same thoughts that plagued Nasir.
Spartacus looked at him, concerned, but Nasir avoided his gaze. He did not make eye contact with a single person; he assisted Spartacus with weapons and armor with practiced hands and blank mind, then moved to do the same with Crixus.
But Crixus was not called to fight. Varro was.
Chapter 8: Duties
Agron reflects on his role as a protector, then and now.
“Fuck,” Agron muttered as he examined Duro’s injuries.
Bruises dusted his entire body, his face was swollen and mottled, and the pools of dark blood beneath his eyes meant that his nose was surely broken. Every time Duro clenched his jaw, he winced, and three teeth were chipped. Guilt swelled in Agron’s heart and he touched their foreheads together again, trying to regulate his pulse.
“What do you complain of now? Do I not look like a true gladiator?” Duro joked feebly. He pulled away and carefully lifted himself to sit on the thin board in their cell.
“You look like a true fool,” Agron retorted. He swallowed the threat of tears and tried to make his voice as bitter and biting as usual. “Crixus could have killed you.”
“It is of no importance.”
“Your life is of fucking importance,” Agron snarled. “You little shit, why do you think I told you to fight back in the first place? A gladiator who shows no fight in the arena dies in the arena. Do not lie back and pretend you have no spirit, but for gods’ sakes don’t let it become so! Fuck,” he repeated weakly, looking away.
“Protect me from being wounded, or let me bear the wounds myself,” Duro said quietly.
Agron stared at him for a moment, but then he was forced to look away. As troublesome as Duro’s words were, it was the slowly-drying blood on his forehead that stirred his stomach the most.
Before they spoke again, the sounds of the returning slaves echoed through the ludus. Those who had remained had not yet been locked in for the night, and some greeted their cellmates boisterously. Agron stood eagerly and grasped the bars, his eyes straining in the half-light to find Nasir’s form. He knew he shouldn’t leave Duro’s side, but the very thought of Nasir’s touch was like a balm to rough thoughts.
Nasir walked right to Agron and took his hand. Immediately, Agron knew that something was wrong—his face was pale.
Suddenly, the unnatural silence of the returning gladiators made painful sense.
“What?” Agron asked through numb lips, just as Duro said, “That can’t be true. Spartacus was to fight Crixus.”
“He was meant to, but he did not. The boy called Varro forward instead, and gave the order for death. It…” He shuddered. Agron reached through the bars to touch his face.
They looked over. Doctore stood at the doorway to the villa, supervising the return of his gladiators. There was a weariness to his face that Agron knew instantly; it was both the look of a leader who had lost a warrior, and that of an old widow looking on new lovers.
Deliberately, Agron broke his gaze. He turned towards Nasir and kissed his fingertips in farewell, and pulled away. Nasir reached for him again. Agron smiled secretly to himself as Doctore sighed.
“You will not be able to return to your room until morning,” he said warningly, as he gestured for one of the guards to lock Nasir in the cell.
Agron kissed Nasir on the mouth in greeting, and they nodded good night to Doctore. Absently, Agron’s hand brushed against Nasir’s forearm. He noticed something amiss, and looked down.
Nasir nodded. He seemed dazed, unable to move, until Agron pulled him into his arms. Nasir fell against him gratefully, his face resting in the crook of his shoulder. He shook, whether with exhaustion or fear, Agron could not tell. Trading concerned looks with Duro, he sat on the ground again, carrying Nasir with him. He had never seen the slave so upset.
“I— I didn’t expect it,” Nasir said, running a hand through his hair. He sounded miserable. “One moment, everyone was happy, smiling, no hint of true bloodlust... Varro was laughing mere seconds before he was killed. Laughing with his friend and brother. And then I was mopping up his blood with a dirty fucking rag.” He laughed bitterly. “I live in a gods-cursed ludus. I should be used to blood by now.”
“A dead man’s blood is viler than any other’s,” Agron muttered, kissing his temple. “It is not something that you adjust to; wipe it from your mind.”
“Spartacus killed Varro,” Duro said to himself. “It is beyond reason.”
Nasir nodded absently. He looked up at Duro and seemed shocked—as if he had not seen him before that moment. He broke out of Agron’s embrace.
“Mars’s cock, what happened to you?” he demanded. Instinctively, he reached out, only to let his hand hover over Duro’s cheek, wary of causing injury. Duro snorted, uncaring, though he was careful to lean back, away from Nasir’s touch.
“I fought Crixus.”
“With both hands tied behind back?”
“I fought Crixus three times.”
“Gods,” he breathed. His hands danced in the air above Duro’s skin, wanting to lend aid but having no means to do so. “Your nose is broken.”
“His whole fucking head is broken,” Agron growled. “But that was before the battle.”
Guilt colored his words, and he knew Nasir could hear it. Agron expected to see a reproach in his gaze, but he looked only thoughtful. Perhaps he was relieved—it was better to focus on Duro’s poor health than Varro’s death.
“One day, the two of you will stand as gods in the arena,” he said quietly. “I hope I will be there to see it.”
For a solemn moment, they were silent, and Agron reached for Nasir's wrist, intending to pull him close again. There was something foreboding in the slave's voice, and his pulse thudded strongly beneath Agron's concerned fingertips.
“If that was a prayer, I think it would serve better on my behalf,” Duro said grimly.
Nasir forced a laugh—Agron could already tell the difference between it and his true laugh—and kissed Duro in a brotherly way on the forehead.
“Self-doubt does not suit you.”
“Nor gestures of affection better addressed to brother!” Duro protested, drawing back. “Return to Agron's arms, little man, before he gives me yet more bruises.”
Nasir did so happily, settling himself in Agron's lap, and Agron held him tightly by the waist. He had stopped shaking, but Agron had no doubt that secrets yet lay beneath the slave's practiced face. Absently, he dropped kisses to the golden-lit shoulder below him. Nasir really did look marvelous in torchlight. He tightened his hold, and Nasir tucked his head under Agron's chin, kissing his neck.
“I didn't give you leave to fuck in front of me!” Duro said, outraged, but Nasir did not pull away.
Agron smiled to himself. He had been with too many people who had absolutely no understanding of Duro's temperament; after only a few scant conversations, Nasir was treating him as brother. He wanted desperately to ask after Nasir's own brother, to learn if he was older or younger, strict or free-spirited, funny or somber, but there was a distance in the Syrian's voice when he spoke of home, and he suspected that his questions had no answers.
“The day weighs heavily on me,” Nasir confessed, mumbling against Agron’s skin.
“Then sleep, and hope the burden lightens with a new dawn.”
Nasir curled close against him, and soon his breathing was even with sleep. The rooms around them faintly echoed with the snores of other gladiators, and soon Duro began to yawn. He laid down on the bench provided to them and his eyes fell shut.
“Agron?” he mumbled, on the edge of unconsciousness.
“What if they make us kill each other in the arena?”
“Go to sleep, Duro.”
Duro obeyed in a heartbeat. The soft sounds of peaceful breathing filled the cell, and Agron was left alone with his thoughts.
Whenever his eyes fell on his brother’s injuries, Agron felt sickened, but at the same time his guilt compelled him to look, to dwell on the foreign sensation of having completely and utterly failed him. Agron was not used to seeing his brother so injured—Duro had always preferred wrestling and games to fights. No matter what he thought, Duro had a gentle soul, ever since they were children. Boisterous, but gentle. Even when they had been small ruffians, running wild in the forests of their homeland, it had been Agron who had engaged in imaginary battles with rival tribes and vicious monsters, and Duro who searched for new worlds and magic amulets, taming the beasts Agron allowed to live.
And so Agron had vowed to protect his brother, at any cost. The first time he had done so, it had been in a mock ceremony, with Duro and the dogs as witness. He had pounded his fist against his chest in the way he had seen the warriors do, and then wrestled playfully with Duro and let him win, to demonstrate his commitment. The second time had been more solemn; he had traded wood for steel by then, and his promise was given in hushed whispers behind Duro’s back, as their beloved mother sent them off to war.
So far, Agron had managed to keep his oath. He had protected Duro from all the terrors that could plague a man of the Rhine: invaders’ swords, wild beasts, malicious hearts, bar fights, and his own naiveté.
He had not expected slavery. He had not expected to become a gladiator, with the shadow of the great arena falling on them at every moment of the day. To protect Duro in the ludus was to doom him in combat. To protect him in combat was to see them separated, even, gods’ forbid, pitted against each other. What could Agron do as a slave?
In the still night, with all companions unconscious, fear crept into Agron’s heart. He looked down at the sleeping Nasir and kissed his forehead lightly. He took comfort in the fact that Nasir was with him that night, safe in his arms, but he had not been there when the slave needed him. With Duro, it had been the opposite—he had been there, poised to act, but unable to offer him comfort.
When they were younger, they had shared a bed. On cold nights, when the ice giants and dire wolves threatened to walk from dreams into their room, he would wake up sometimes with Duro's arms wrapped around him, tightly in the way that all children clutched their talismans. The very act of being a protector had chased his own nightmares away.
Agron was older now, wiser, and more cynical. Neither Nasir's body encircled in his arms nor Duro's close presence held the same power that they would have held years ago--but they wouldn’t hurt, either.
Finally, he gave in to temptation. He stood, Nasir cradled in his arms, and walked closer to the bench where Duro lay. He stretched out on the ground beneath it so Duro's hand, draped over the edge, brushed slightly against his shoulder. In the same moment, the body pressed against his stirred.
“There is no shame in fear.”
Nasir's whisper was as plush and gentle as a new fur, a bare rasp in the air. For a moment, Agron didn't know how to respond.
“I did not mean to wake you,” he apologized.
“I sleep lightly, as does every slave who wishes to remain alive and valued. What is your excuse for evading sleep?”
“It is not fear, but concern,” he argued after a pause.
“Monsters born of the same stock.”
“Perhaps. And my concern for you will not allow me to disturb your needed rest.”
Nasir readjusted so he lay by Agron's side, well within reach and with his head pillowed on his arm. The faint light cast shadows over his dark face; with his voice pitched soft so as not to disturb the sleeping Duro, he was nothing more than a ghost, except for his touch.
“A slave is not allowed to pursue dreams when duties claim him,” he whispered. “And I have made your happiness my duty.”
“Hush.” The order was coupled with fingers against his lips. “It is the only task I have claimed for myself, and the only one which brings me happiness. Allow me to complete it.”
“I claim the same task on your behalf,” Agron said insistently, because it needed to be said, because if Nasir thought him like the Roman shits he had lain with before, even for one moment, then Agron had failed.
“Then do not speak to me of burdens--just speak. Your heart is already known to me; I would learn your mind, as well.”
“What shall I speak of?”
“Whatever you desire.”
Agron was silent. He was thinking—of his brother, of the ludus, of the lover in his arms and the homeland torn from him. Slaves were not allowed the complexity of free men, and they required little words to lay their entire souls bare. Nasir already knew Agron the slave; he would teach him the story of Agron the man.
“In Germania, my mother used to send us to sleep each night, and greet us each morning, with stories of the gods...”
Chapter 9: Strong Men
Chapter by ama
Sometimes, Nasir must protect himself. Sometimes, there is nothing Agron can do.
Sorry this chapter took a little longer than I expected; we are in full-on plot mode, here, and getting to the end... This chapter takes place during the second-to-last day in the Blood and Sand episode "Old Wounds." There is a point of view shift from Nasir to Agron in this chapter as well; it should be clear why that needed to happen, but I just wanted to give you a little warning.
The following days were at once awful and wonderful. Spartacus wandered through the ludus like a dead man walking, haunted by grief. Agron was solemn whenever he caught sight of the champion, and Nasir knew that empathetic thoughts echoed in his mind. What would Agron do, were he forced to kill his brother? Everyone in the ludus knew the answer, Nasir thought grimly: die. Duro, too, was bothered by Varro’s death, although he lay the blame entirely at Spartacus’s door. The days were long and tense, a fact not lessened by Spartacus’s sudden illness, when infection was discovered in his wounds.
On the other hand, Nasir had Agron. He spent every moment of every day in the ludus, observing Agron's training, joining him at meals, sharing his bed for parts of the night. They stole moments together in private corners or in the full light of the training sands, exchanging kisses or words, respectively.
Agron told him about his past, and haltingly Nasir began to tell him of his old villa--Chadara, of course, but also the cook who slipped him sweetmeats, the young girls who showered him with compliments in exchange for a chance to pour Dominus's wine, the old guard who traded small vials of hair oil for innocent kisses. In the telling, he found himself remembering the good parts of his former life with a fondness he had never anticipated. In the omissions, too, he remembered the bad parts with a sense of relief and escape. When memories of the past were too painful, or too dangerous, they traded myths, legends, and gods.
Nasir was telling Agron about Diana’s hunts when he was summoned to tend to Spartacus, by Medicus’s side. He had done so once or twice already, as had Mira, but until that day, the champion had been locked in feverish dreams. Now, Nasir smiled to see him awake, staring at the ceiling.
“Your health returns, champion.”
Spartacus seemed disinclined to speak, so Nasir was silent as he gently undid the gladiator’s bandages and began to apply a green-tinged paste to the wound. It was less swollen than before, but still Spartacus flinched at the first touch
“It is of no concern. But—I would ask a question.”
“Ask, and see it answered,” Nasir said, surprised.
“What do you live for?” Spartacus asked him. There was an intensity in his gaze Nasir had never seen directed at himself, and that was what made him pause.
“What does any man live for?” he asked.
Nasir's hand stilled. He thought of Agron and Duro, and he nodded.
“Love,” he echoed softly. “Yes.”
“And if love was taken from you? If it dies in your arms?”
The answer was simple to him; Spartacus, naturally, could think only as a gladiator and a free man. Nasir spoke as a slave, used and then discarded his entire life.
“Then I suppose I would live for myself,” he shrugged.
“And if you hated yourself?”
“I would learn to do otherwise.”
“What if you couldn't?”
Suddenly irritated, Nasir slammed the bowl down.
“Then I would die, wouldn't I?” he snapped. “Fever has softened your mind. You are a slave, Spartacus. When the title of champion is stripped from you--and do not forget, it will be stripped from you--you will still be nothing more or less than a slave. Being happy with yourself is not a luxury you are granted. All you can do is survive.”
Spartacus did not speak. Nasir began to gently apply the poultice to his wound again, his face blank. It was a mark of how ill he was that the gladiator winced with each touch; he could endure massive levels of pain without blinking, but with defenses down he was as expressive and vulnerable as a child.
Nasir felt Spartacus's gaze fixed on his face again. He tilted his head to indicate that he was listening.
“Apologies. I did not mean to misstep.”
Stiffly, Nasir indicated that the apology was accepted. After a moment, he finished his task and departed.
Nasir walked slowly from the medicus's room, lost in thought. He had never seen Spartacus act like that, and could not figure the reason. Was it loneliness that prompted his words, or merely weakness? Whatever it was, Nasir couldn’t help but be irritated by his line of questioning. It had spoken to a part of Nasir that was easily frustrated by many of the gladiators: the consummate slave. Sometimes, it was as if none of them truly understood their purpose in the ludus. They walked through life searching for their place in the world, blind to the place given to them. It was madness.
So consumed in wondering, he was caught completely off-guard when a strong hand seized his wrist and pushed him into the wall. His breath caught in a hiss; he was not overly surprised to see that it was Verix who held him, though he was shocked (and angered) that the Gaul had the nerve.
"Let go of me," he setting cuttingly.
"Gladly. I meant only to get your attention." Verix released his arm--he would leave not even a bruise--but he did not back from Nasir's space. "I make no threats, slave, only an offer."
"I reject it,” he said immediately.
Verix's ugly smile faltered, and steel glinted in his eyes.
"You have not even heard my words."
"Nor do I want to," Nasir said, his heart pounding. "Any words that keep me close to your body are hateful ones."
“You find the German’s cock more worthy of attention than mine?” the Gaul sneered.
“Primarily by virtue of standing taller. Let me pass.”
“If you grant me this parting gift.”
Suddenly, his arm was against Nasir’s shoulders, forcing him into the wall. His heart stuck, and a hot thrill of fear surged through him. One of the Gaul’s rough hands was shoved down the back of his cloth, and he thrashed violently, trying to dislodge it and the hand at his shoulder.
Verix snarled in warning. He pressed harder against Nasir’s chest and withdrew his hand for a quick, hard smack across his jaw—not hard enough to bruise, but sharp enough that Nasir felt anger rise within him, to fuel the heat of fear. Verix cupped his jaw, and Nasir, sulkily, was forced to look in his face.
“Play nice, slave,” Verix growled. “And your fuck of a gladiator will find you just as pretty as he left you.”
Nasir stilled. There was some worth in that. Agron had a fierce temper, and if he knew that Verix had been accosting Nasir again… well, Verix would not have the easy death of a fall over the cliff. That would not satisfy Agron’s temper. Spartacus had murdered a gladiator without retribution, but Agron was not the Champion of Capua. Verix knew Nasir didn’t want to see his lover dead; so, Verix offered rape without bruises, without marks, without death for Agron. It was almost considerate—more than Levitius would have been—and smart, for a fucking Gaul.
He tried to look away, but the grip on his chin was tight.
“Let me go,” he mumbled. “And I will do as you ask.”
“Will you?” Verix asked. His lips curled into a feral smile. “I would claim a kiss as promise.”
Nasir’s eyes were downcast. He took a breath, and before he could do more his chin was pulled up. His fingers touched the gladiator’s, and he very gently pried them off. He tilted his face…
Then there was a crack and a scream.
“What damage?” Batiartus asked, glaring at Nasir. He kept his eyes averted, but he could feel the gaze.
“He broke all the fingers on Verix’s right hand and fractured his left wrist. With braces, he should heal cleanly, but he will not be able to wield a sword with any skill for some time.”
Doctore’s voice was grim, but Nasir was not frightened, by that or by the gaze leveled at him. He had seen the man truly angry before, when he scolded the gladiators, and he knew that Doctore held no love for Verix. Batiartus likely didn’t either—but he had love for the coin promised by Verix in the arena.
Nasir didn’t care. The grace of the gods had saved him from rape at Levitius’s hand, because his former dominus was a Roman citizen, and retribution would have been death. Verix was not a Roman citizen. He had no claim to Nasir, except perhaps in his own mind, and Nasir did not need the grace of the gods to save him. His own grace had been sufficient.
He thought of Agron’s promise, when they had first met: if the gods’ will was that Nasir should suffer, then Agron’s would simply have to be stronger. He almost smiled.
“Jupiter’s fucking cock,” Batiartus growled. “He was scheduled for a match in two days! What could have possessed your fucking head, that you would attack a gladiator? Speak, you piece of shit!”
Nasir did, to prevent the man from foaming at the mouth, but his years of experience failed him, and he was unable to keep a strain of resentment from his voice. Perhaps his time with the gladiators had altered him. He felt much stronger than he had before.
“Apologies for your inconvenience, Dominus. But I warned Verix that hands would be injured, if they continued to stray where not wanted.”
He expected his master to backhand him, and he was not disappointed, but the blow was not even hard enough to draw blood.
“This house is built on the shoulders of its gladiators,” Dominus said coldly. “A gladiator’s cock alone is worth more than your entire body. If your dominus wants you protected, you will be protected. If not, then you will suffer. Harm a gladiator again, and you shall suffer on the crucifix.”
Nasir bowed his head. Over his shoulder, Dominus addressed Doctore.
“Punish him, but wait—I would have the other house slaves observe, as a deterrent.”
“Dominus,” Doctore nodded.
Nasir said nothing as he was led back down to the ludus. There was nothing to say, until he looked up and saw Agron waiting anxiously at the bottom of the stairs. Agron was not going to be happy about this.
Agron paced at the bottom of the stairs, his heart fluttering nervously. None of the gladiators knew what had happened, but they all agreed on one thing: Nasir had been escorted to the villa with two guards and Doctore, and had not returned in near half an hour. Try as he might, Agron could think of no reason why Nasir should be brought up again, without some sinister purpose.
He almost called out when Nasir came in view, before remembering that the true name, the one he knew, was a thing to be used in private, far from prying ears. He pulled close to the bars.
"What called you to the villa?" he demanded. "And what cause have you to touch him?" he snarled, addressing the guard. The guard sneered at him, and held Nasir's arm all the tighter. Agron seethed, but it was Doctore who spoke.
"He injured Verix--"
Agron's stomach plummeted, but it wasn't until he had already spoken, his voice hot with anger, that he realized that Nasir bore not even a bruise.
"And what did Verix due to deserve injury?"
"—and was brought before Dominus as all rule-breakers are brought," Doctore finished. "You forget your place, gladiator."
"Stand aside," the guard said curtly.
Agron obeyed, and the three men entered the ludus. Without consideration for the men flanking him, Agron stepped before Nasir, cupping his face in one hand. The slave's face was coolly defiant, but it softened at Agron's touch.
"I am fine," he said in a low voice.
"Did you draw blood?" Agron asked venomously. Nasir chuckled lowly.
"No, though I did break bone."
"I will remain here with him," the guard said to Doctore, sounding dutiful and bored. "Summon me when you are ready; Dominus wishes all other slaves to play witness."
Agron looked towards Doctore, his mouth suddenly dry and a cold fury in his heart.
"He is to be punished?" he asked, incredulous.
"For a ludus slave to do harm to a gladiator is unthinkable. Dominus must make an example of him. You know he must.”
“No, I do not fucking know it,” Agron snarled. “Any man hear will tell you that Verix was the one who—”
“It does not matter,” Doctore interrupted him, holding up a hand. “Dominus will not be convinced, and I must follow orders.”
Agron pressed one final kiss to Nasir’s lips before being sent away. He ground his teeth, and stopped dead when he saw what stood outside.
Two great pillars were erected in the training grounds. Leather straps were tied to the top, to secure the prisoners hands. Agron had had no quarrel with the House of Batiatus before; he would have been bought from that thrice-damned slaver sooner or later, and he was even grateful that he had been brought to a ludus, where freedom lay at the end of a sword. But at the sight of the whipping posts, hate began to rise in him—a slow, still, hard hate greater than any anger he had ever felt.
The gladiators formed a semi-circle around the yard, and Agron was pulled to join them. He noticed absently that Duro had directed him to an area particularly thick with men; their purpose became clear as soon as the guard appeared with Nasir. Agron took an involuntary step forward. Immediately, six hands were on him, holding him back.
“Dominus observes,” Spartacus murmured.
The gladiator was paler than usual and looked slightly unsteady on his feet, but he had no fever and displayed no weakness obvious. Agron followed his gaze and saw that Batiatus and his wife, as well as a good two dozen slaves, were watching from the balcony.
“I don’t give a fuck what Batiatus observes,” he said boldly. Duro spat on the ground in agreement.
“Fucking Romans,” Duro muttered darkly, his eyes on Doctore’s whip.
“Your words are ill-advised,” Crixus said. Agron, frankly, had no idea why the Gaul was even speaking to him. “Do not forget, German: you fight in honor of the House of Batiatus.”
“I fight for my own honor,” Agron growled. “And there is none in ordering a man to be whipped for defending himself from a filthy fucking rapist. Or is your mind too base to understand that, Gaul?”
Had they been in another situation, his words would have prompted a fight if not a riot, but with the gladiators all assembled before their master, he and Crixus were both subdued by their fellows before a single blow was struck. When Agron looked again, Nasir was tied to the posts. He could not see the slave’s face beyond the curve of his cheek, but his unmarked back gleamed in the fading light.
Regret seized him. The next time he ran his hands over that soft flesh, it would be mottled and crossed with wounds or scars. The thought made him sick.
Batiatus gave some small speech; Agron did not hear it. He did hear Doctore’s low-spoken advice to Nasir as he uncoiled the whip: “You must embrace the pain, as a gladiator would. It is the only way.”
“Not all strong men are gladiators,” Nasir replied.
The whip cracked once against his back, and Agron’s every muscle tensed as beloved skin was split in a long, thin line. It was not until Doctore raised his arm a second time that he realized Nasir had not made a sound. The whip struck again; Nasir’s arms strained uselessly, tugging on the leather straps, but he did not cry out. His breath came heavily, and he gasped as more strokes fell.
Agron was still being held back by several gladiators, and he would have broken from their hold in half a second, if he had sensed weakness. Slowly, though, he began to smile through the sheer agony.
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” Donar demanded.
“Listen to him,” he said. “Near silent. Ludus slave or no, he is a fucking fighter. He would draw blood, if given sword and purpose.”
Absent those, blood dripped down Nasir’s back and tears down his face. Finally, Doctore cracked the whip for the eleventh time, and a hoarse, sharp cry was torn from his throat. Batiatus nodded that the punishment was concluded, and he swept from the balcony, followed by his wife and slaves. Before the whip was recoiled, Agron was on his knees in front of Nasir.
The slave's face was unusually pale, and his chin was coated in blood from where he had bitten his lip. His ear was bleeding, too, and his legs were too weak to support his weight. Still, he smiled a little when he saw Agron. Desperately, Agron pressed a series of ethereal kisses to his skin. He wanted to say something, anything, but he could not find the words. He even doubted his own touch--he did not want to injure Nasir further--but Nasir leaned into his hands gratefully.
“Apologies,” he said.
“I meant to keep my silence.” Agron bit his own cheek to keep his anger and his sadness in check, but Nasir misinterpreted the expression. “You are disappointed.”
“Proud,” Agron corrected. “Proud of my man, who has twice the heart of most. And—and so fucking furious at the ones who would do this to you. Gods, Nasir…”
Nasir smiled weakly.
Duro and Spartacus, at Doctore’s nod, undid the straps around his wrists, and he fell heavily into Agron’s waiting arms. He was unconscious by the time Agron tightened his grip, which was good; his back was so slippery with blood that Agron was unable to discern wounded flesh from that unmarked, and he would surely have caused pain if Nasir had been awake. He carried the slave to the medicus, where after a long hour of treating and bandaging he was declared to be in a good position for recovery.
“These will scar,” Medicus warned, tracing the air above the deepest cuts. “And these, where several blows overlap. But the muscle will heal cleanly, and in a week or two the ache will fade, if the wounds don’t open.”
“Which they will,” Agron said bluntly. Medicus shrugged.
“Probably. Were he a gladiator, Doctore would give him leave to rest and heal. But a common slave? No.”
He is not common, Agron thought resentfully. He is mine. Reluctantly, he left the infirmary to return to his own cell, with one final lingering look at Nasir’s sleeping form. Duro did not speak to him when he returned; he knew Agron’s mood, and didn’t dare probe him.
When Agron was a boy, he had once come across a dying wolf. She had seemed so enormous in his young eyes that Agron thought her a direwolf. With a child’s eagerness, he had wanted to save her and train her for his own, but he had been unable to get close because of her mate: a great dark wolf who curled around her weakening body, licking her wounds and whining, and growling when he approached. In the distance, the other wolves howled, and nearby lay a stag. Its antler had broken off in the she-wolf’s throat, but its flank and stomach were torn and bloody, and its eyes were dull. The wolf’s teeth were coated in blood.
Agron had not been afraid of the male wolf, though he had kept his distance. He had admired him for his loyalty and bravery, pitied him for his helplessness. Now he was in the uncomfortable position of knowing exactly how the wolf felt.
Someone had wounded his mate. Agron wanted blood.
Chapter 10: Madness
After Nasir's whipping, Naevia's banishment, and Crixus's isolation, Agron decides he's had enough of slavery. But Nasir has been a slave his entire life, and he isn't quite as easily persuaded.
One evening, Nasir retired to his room only to have the door slam open behind him. He jumped, heart in his throat, and spun to find one of the more apathetic guards brushing past him.
“What are you doing?” he asked nervously.
Gods save him, he had escaped Levitius and Verix, but a third attacker was too much. But the guard barely noticed him. He stripped the thin mattress off the bed, looked under it, and inspected the walls and floor for any loose stones. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived, he exited, leaving Nasir bewildered—but only for a moment, until a second visitor appeared in his doorway.
Gratefully, he sank into the gladiator’s open arms, and kissed the underside of his jaw. To aim properly was to waste time. Agron chuckled and kissed him in return.
“Greetings like that are the only reason I can bear to be parted from you,” he said with a smile. “Apologies if you were frightened; the guard was willing to be bribed, but he also wished to keep his head. He insisted on searching your things for keys or knives or anything similarly frightening.”
“You bribed him? How much?”
Agron hesitated. His big hands settled on Nasir’s hips, and he bent down to lavish attention on his neck.
“Half a denari from my winnings,” he mumbled finally. “For five visits this month.”
“Half a denari!” Nasir whispered, shocked. “Gods above, what possessed you to offer such a sum? You have only had two victories! I would sooner you purchase a whore, and at least save good coin.”
“Would you?” Agron asked, pulling away so he could raise one dubious eyebrow.
“No. But half a denari for five nights… I had thought you and Duro were bent on freedom.”
Agron grinned wolfishly and assured him that such was indeed the case.
“But I am weak, and you are beautiful.”
Nasir bit back a laugh, and allowed himself to be pulled lazily to the bed. Agron sat down, back against the wall, and spread his knees so Nasir could fit in between them. Nasir was curious as to his odd mood, but for a moment, he did not ask. A scant few seconds of confusion were well worth the slow, luxurious kissed bestowed on him in those moments.
“You drive me mad!” he broke away with a laugh. “Stop your teasing and tell me—what do we celebrate? Or is this a distraction from some foolishness you don’t want me to discover?”
“It is a celebration, sure, but I beg of you, lower voice,” Agron murmured quietly. “Words carry in these damned tunnels.” He scowled. “Man was not made to live in stone and caves.”
Nasir smiled, but a slow dread began to sink into his stomach. He could not put a name to it, but the solemnity in Agron’s voice worried him. He pressed closer, his hands resting gently on his gladiator’s chest, and spoke softly as directed.
“Tell me,” he begged.
Agron kissed him lightly, and whispered the words against his lips.
“Spartacus speaks of rebellion.”
Instinctively, Nasir tried to pull away, to distance himself from those dangerous words, but Agron held him close. Nasir’s heart began to beat so fiercely that he felt sick, and the wounds on his back seemed to throb with every pulse. He had been a slave since he was barely more than an infant; the instinctive shudder at the very thought of rebellion was hard to quench.
“Tell me you do not listen,” he hissed. He only just managed to keep his voice low—he knew the consequences of being heard. “Tell me you are not so foolish! Agron—”
“Foolish enough,” Agron said with a wry smile. “I not only listen, I speak, too.”
“No. You can’t, you can’t. No slave has ever killed his master and lived to tell of it—”
“No man had ever killed Theokoles, until Spartacus. Just because it has not been done does not make it impossible.”
Nasir thumped him hard on the chest, as though a stern look would stop the flow of words from his mouth. His pulse was racing still, and he glanced nervously over his shoulder, certain that a guard would stumble upon them momentarily, and they would be dead. He leaned down and whispered again.
“And you seek to make yourself into legend? This is foolishness, Agron, complete and utter foolishness. I don’t care how many battles you win in the Arena—you can’t stand against the whole of Rome. And I refuse to be a part of this. Do not even speak of it to me again. It will bring nothing but torture and death, and that is simply—simply not worth it. Please, don’t…”
He wanted nothing more than to bury his face in Agron’s chest and sleep, curled up in his arms, and wake in the morning to find the entire conversation wiped from memory, but Agron’s eyes hardened.
“Fear has stifled your fire—you do not mean that. Look me in the eye, Nasir,” he demanded, “with blood still fresh upon your back, and tell me you wish to remain in slavery. Tell me you do not long for freedom with every breath.”
Sunlight. Dry grass breaking beneath his feet, and his lungs aching with the effort of remaining in the lead. Laughter. “Nasir!”
He broke away from Agron’s arms, suddenly too hot, too trapped, and walked over to the window. He tilted his head to catch the wind, just enough to blow a few loose hairs back in his face. The irrational, instinctive fear was fading somewhat, sobering into cold logic as he breathed.
Of course he yearned for freedom. That was obvious to any who knew him as well as Agron did. If he didn’t, he would have given into Verix without struggle or delay. He would still be Tiberius, even in his own heart. But….
“I do. You know I do.” Nasir turned. “But you cannot ask me to indulge you in foolish attempt. The price is much higher than half a denari, Agron; it is the life of every slave in this villa. To risk it would be—madness. Cruelty.”
“And what are we faced with, if not madness?” Agron demanded. Frustration colored his expression. “What is the cost of slavery, if not their lives? Do not ask me to stand aside when you are whipped again, or to see my brothers chained or banished for no crime but acting as a man should be able to act.”
Those were the wrong words. Nasir sneered.
“Gladiators are weak. Put a sword in their hands and they can piss on Jupiter, but a few cruel words and you clamor for a suicide mission! Don’t offer me a little sting of the lash as justification, Agron. You know nothing of what slavery is.”
Suddenly, he lost control of all of the words that had been building in him since he had first arrived at the House of Batiatus, the fire stoked by Spartacus’s melancholy and his own frustration on the night of Varro’s death. They were unfair, and needlessly blunt—the tantrum he had been denying himself for so long.
“Ask a house slave. Ask those of us who do not remember what it was like to breathe free air, who were slapped for crying as infants, who were raped as soon as they could walk. Mothers have had children torn from their hands and their wombs, elderly men freed only when they were too crippled to work, men and women punished with the mines for stealing a moment’s pleasure. They have suffered. Spartacus has not suffered. You have not suffered. You, who have never seen the mines or your master’s bed. Yet you are willing to risk their lives, and mine, because you cannot stomach the sight of a little blood!”
His breathing was harsh in the close cell, and his blood was racing, hot and quick in his veins. Nasir didn’t know where the words had come from, but they felt good. Like strong wine, rich and unwatered, the kind Levitius had allowed him only once in his life, the night he became body slave. He had been young—he had no way of knowing how old he was, exactly, but then he had certainly been no older than fifteen, and perhaps younger—and that was the first time he ever got truly drunk.
That was also the first night he had been used as a bed-warmer. As a child, he had had protectors who kept him out of danger and largely out of sight. But Nasir had been too capable and too pretty to go unnoticed for long.
This was a dangerous night, too. With adrenalin in the place of wine, he was very likely to agree to something as insane as rebellion. Agron’s expression, hungry and wild, did nothing to reassure him. A hot flush was already spreading through him in response when Agron stood.
“You are wasted as a slave,” he said quietly.
He moved to kiss him, and Nasir almost growled. Gods save him, he would murder the man in his bed if he thought a few pretty compliments and a quick fuck were the proper answer to Nasir’s outrage. He almost punched him, but the gladiator was too quick. He grabbed Nasir’s arm and twisted down—to an outsider’s look, they might have been holding hands. With his left hand, Agron cupped Nasir’s neck and pulled him close.
“Do you remember the day you stood against Verix?” he said urgently. “The other shits laughed, and he called you a dog.”
“The Gaul has shit for brains,” Nasir muttered, unwilling to change the subject. “What of it?”
“No, he was right,” Agron laughed. He released his wrist and took his face in both hands. This time he did steal a kiss, a searing press of lips to lips. “My wild little dog,” he said breathlessly. “You’re right—I’ve never suffered like that. And if Spartacus prevails, no one else will, either. Can’t you see?”
Nasir was still wary.
“I see only a brave, foolish man eager for misplaced glory.” Agron snorted. “Well, what would you have me see? You come here spontaneously, having bribed the guards with an obscene amount of money, speaking of hopeless rebellion.”
“I misspoke, earlier. It is not mere rebellion we seek—it is revolution. If we are united to one purpose, we can overthrow Batiatus and every slave owner in Rome. Who fights better than the gladiators? If we do this…”
There was a heavy silence in the room as Nasir studied his lover. Something in Agron’s voice was reassuring. It was not anger—Agron was often angry, and Nasir knew how that sounded—but something stronger, fierce yet nurtured, mad yet with a basis in sanity. In the faint torchlight, his eyes gleamed.
“Does Crixus fight?” Nasir asked finally. Agron snarled.
“Who gives a fuck if the Gaul—”
“The other Gauls,” Nasir said in a cool voice. Grudgingly, Agron accepted the fact that, without the Gauls, their numbers would be too low to make a difference.
“We will get Crixus,” he promised. “If you could speak to him when you take his food… it does not matter. The ludus is only the first step, and then we move on Rome. We will kill every Roman to cross our path, and free every slave, and I will teach you how to wield a sword.” He kissed Nasir gently on the cheek. Slowly, lovingly, his hands wrapped around Nasir’s waist, and lips traveled to ear. “The next time your old Dominus looks at you, you will cut out his eyes, cut off his cock, and stab him through the heart for good measure,” he whispered.
“Spartacus told me,” Agron murmured. “It would be my pleasure to fuck you with his blood on my hands, but I thought you would want him for yourself.”
I do, Nasir thought, unbidden. In fact, he had wanted it for years, though he had never given the idea leave to take root. The image of Levitius with his throat cut, blood bubbling onto his fine silks as his body was thrown in the scrap heap—it should have horrified him, but it didn’t. Emphatically, it didn’t.
Bloodlust is as strong as wine, he thought hazily as Agron pressed a wet kiss to his neck. And has none of the disadvantages.
“Fuck me now.”
Agron growled wordlessly and threw him on the bed as though he had only been waiting for the order, then followed himself. Nasir tried to climb on top, so he could catch every nuance of his lover’s expression, even if he was overwhelmed and looked away (a habit he had yet to overcome), but Agron pushed him back down, clucking like an old maid.
“On your back, my wild dog,” he grinned. “We can’t have you straining yourself—you might open those wounds.”
“If I strain myself, we might begin before dawn,” Nasir shot back.
Agron took a twisted kind of pleasure in teasing Nasir, and his rebuke did nothing. Agron continued to move as slowly as possible, worshipping every inch of him with his hands, and a good deal with lips. The weight of him, the warmth of his skin was mesmerizing, but that did very little to ease Nasir’s frustration.
After some minutes, he resorted to trickery of his own. He moved against his lover shamelessly, rubbing and thrusting and writhing beneath him, all the while experimenting with just the right sounds that made Agron’s breath catch in his throat. That gave him pleasure in turn, as Agron panted against sweaty skin, or when he bit down on Nasir’s neck to regain control.
It was torture, wonderful torture, and Nasir thanked the gods that they had all night to indulge in it. He needed this, needed to spend a long night in the dark just touching Agron, lavishing attention on him and being lavished.
“I love you,” he whispered to the darkness, and the darkness whispered back.
It almost could have been an afterthought, when Agron entered him. Their bodies had been made one long before, their hearts longer, and Nasir could think of nothing that would change that. He had not anticipated the softness of Agron’s smile pressed to his lips, the firm caress of his hands, the fluttering of his pulse.
“Gods, I love you,” he breathed.
“Nasir,” Agron mumbled against him. Never had the sound of his own name tasted so sweet.
Afterwards, they lay together with Nasir’s head pillowed on Agron’s chest, as he traced the raised scar tissue with one finger. Agron stroked his hair lovingly, like a child does to a favorite pet, and Nasir curled even closer.
“When we are free men, we will begin again,” Agron said softly. “I will come to you with nothing but my heart to offer you… no strength, no power, nothing to protect you. You will protect yourself, and pick me or throw me to the dogs.”
“As long as you offer yourself the same choice. There will be other freed body slaves, you know. Younger, stronger, and handsomer than me. I would not have you cling to me out of… nostalgia.”
Agron laughed at him, and Nasir smiled to himself, closing his eyes.
“And these other freed slaves—will they have kinder tempers, and not snap at me when I make foolish plans? Will they give in when they fight, and not bloody themselves needlessly? Will they have other stories to tell me, instead of the same old rumors and stories of gods?” He pressed a kiss to the top of Nasir’s head. “Will they play coy when we fuck, and not order me about?”
“If the gods are good, yes.”
“Then I will have none of them,” Agron swore, tightening his arms and closing his eyes.
Nasir drifted into sleep slowly, dreaming of free air and long, sweet summer nights with Agron by his side.
Chapter 11: Past and Future
Spartacus, Nasir, Duro and Agron make plans for rebellion. Later, Duro and Agron have a serious conversation about home.
“Five days,” Nasir said. He looked half-sick and half-determined, the way he always looked when Agron mentioned their plans.
The slave had been summoned to the villa that morning, after distributing their practice weapons, and he had remained above the entire day. With Naevia gone and Mira newly raised to position, Lucretia would be heavily dependent on Nasir for assistance with her duties as hostess. It had been something they were relying on; this way, Mira and Nasir could easily exchange information, even if she was barred access from the ludus in the increased security.
Recently returned, Nasir sat down on the bench. Agron pulled him into his lap and pressed a discreet kiss to his ear. Duro whistled lowly, but Agron ignored him. It soothed Nasir, to be touched—or at least, Agron’s touch soothed him. And he liked to display affection, knowing that Verix sat a few scant feet away. Soon, his bones would heal and the pain would fade. The Gaul could use a constant reminder of Agron’s claim, and if doing so relaxed Nasir, that was even better.
“Eat,” he ordered quietly, pushing his own bowl towards his lover. “You look dead on your feet.”
Nasir wiped up some of the tasteless mush with a crust of his bread, but that was all.
“I’m not hungry, only tired. Batiatus intends to have you fight,” he said to Spartacus. The champion had taken to sitting with them since Varro’s death, which made it quite easy to plan treason, once they were of a mind—though they did it rarely, quietly, and in code.
“And my opponent?”
“Lucretia wants Crixus; Batiatus is undecided. Rhaskos is a possibility, but he fears you will not complement each other. Your name was mentioned as well,” he said to Agron.
“Good,” Agron grinned. “I’ve been itching for a fight since I first set eyes on the tiny man they all called the Champion of Capua.”
Spartacus let out a soft snort of laughter, but Nasir was not amused.
“But you are too unknown to the populace. Two good victories, earned alongside another gladiator, are not equal to Spartacus’s reputation. I expect Lucretia will propose Crixus’s name tomorrow; it will be a duel to the death, then.”
“You served Crixus his morning meal, did you not?” Spartacus asked casually. “How was his... health?”
“I was quick in and quick out. We barely exchanged four words... but his voice was weak.”
Spartacus looked concerned. He nodded. Duro leaned forward.
“Where will the fight be?” he asked. “In the villa, as before?”
“The ludus grounds, with all other gladiators spread in a line by the cliffs, as a display of power. I’m trying to convince Domina that you should all be arrayed with armor, if not arms.” He twisted around and pressed a flirtatious kiss to Agron’s lips. “You do look glorious in your armor,” he cooed. It was a very odd sound—more a mockery of the cloying tones that lovestruck girls made than a sincere imitation.
That would be the ideal situation. With all the gladiators armored, they would lose fewer men, and if Agron fought and were armed... But that was foolish to hope for; the gods were never that good.
Nasir continued to supply them with information, disguised in the form of gossip. He knew who would be coming, the layout of the rooms, and the order of events. He even hinted that he knew the number and position of the guards, though he was unable to give the exact information subtly.
At the end of the meal, Nasir kissed Agron on the cheek and disappeared to his room. They had met once since Agron’s first visit, and would save the remaining two for the days leading up to the rebellion.
It was with extreme reluctance that he let Nasir’s fingers slip through his, but it was for the better. Nasir smiled shyly when he left, and Agron’s heart constricted. In five days, they could be dead. He was confident of his own skill, and that of his fellow gladiators, but... if they were unable to plan efficiently, or gather the proper numbers, they could die.
The thought sobered him. He hoped, selfishly, that Nasir would wake early the next morning, and find a way to release Agron from his cell. The gladiator had missed him that day, when he was in the villa, and their moments together would be precious and few in the coming time. He entered his cell thinking of Nasir and the risk they would be taking, and hoping against hope that would escape unscathed.
“Who was your first fuck?” Duro asked absently.
“Your first fuck,” Duro repeated in a stubborn voice, as though it wasn’t a completely random question. “It was Ragga, wasn’t it?”
Yes, it was. Ragga, his best friend, who had been his lover for a year and a half before falling hopelessly in love with Ana, the shepherdess a thousand freckles. They had named Agron as gods-father to their little boy, and Ragga had died in the same battle that Agron was captured.
“Why the fuck do you want to know?” he asked, irritated.
“I’m trying to remember. It was Ragga, then Balthos--”
“Lahs,” Agron corrected. “Lahs was before Balthos.”
Labs was the dairy farmer’s son. Agron had been young then, but Lahs was even younger. He had a headful of blonde curls and he blushed at everything. His mother had chased Agron out of the house with her husband’s mace, once.
“Right, Lahs. Whiny little shit.”
“Yes, but he had a kind laugh and a mouth made for cock, and if you tell Nasir any of this I will rip you apart, bit by painful bit.”
Agron flopped down in the dirt, resigning himself to this bizarre reminiscing. Duro had never taken a particular interest in Agron’s sexual habits before. He took the time to learn the man’s name, express approval (or, more frequently, disapproval), and proceeded to mock Agron until the relationship ended. Now, he looked almost pensive.
“Then Balthos, he of the enormous beard, cock, and ego.”
Agron threw back his head and laughed. That fairly well summarized his former lover perfectly. Balthos had been near a full decade older than him, and almost insufferably arrogant. At first that had been a relief, after young, self-conscious Lahs, but the relationship had not lasted long.
“After that, I don’t remember.”
“Matten, the singer who used to frequent Mara’s tavern. You were banned from there, remember? So you never knew him well. We were drunk half the time. He promised to sing songs of me if I died valiantly, fighting against the Romans, and I pity those who have had to hear them, if he did. Ale didn’t improve his mood or his voice.”
Duro smiled at that.
“Now I recall. Annoying little shit.”
“You neglected to apply similar terms to Balthos. Or Ragga.”
“I liked Ragga. And Balthos was too large to be called a little shit, though he was a large ass. Not a one of them was as good as Nasir.”
“I noticed,” Agron said dryly. Duro leaned against the bars, staring distantly into space. Frowning, Agron shuffled closer and bumped his brother’s shoulder. “What prompts these questions?” he asked. “It was years ago, mostly, and many miles.”
“I was only thinking... What will we do, when we are free?”
“Free others,” Agron shrugged. “I promised Nasir we would.”
“And after? When Rome is populated only by free men?”
“Then we will go home.”
The words set his heart racing. Home. He longed to be home again, to live amongst tall trees and wild beasts, rather than desert and cities. To speak his native tongue, to fight for his people, to see his mother again....
“Nasir by your side?”
The thought brought a smile to his face. He could hardly wait to introduce his mother to Nasir. They were very different—Mama bawdy and nurturing where Nasir was quick and reserved. But they would adore each other. Of course they would. Although, he thought suddenly, Nasir was probably aching to see his own mother again, if he could find her.
“If he will have me. He might...” He swallowed. “He might want to seek Syria, but I do not know. He was only a child when he was taken. He barely remembers the language, knows nothing of its cities or his family. At the very least, he will not begrudge me sight of the Rhine. We will go home for a time, at least.” He looked at Duro, suddenly concerned, and leaned closer. “And, brother, you know you will always have a place by me. Nasir loves you as his own.”
Duro waved a hand uncaringly.
“That does not worry me. I was only reflecting on how varying your lovers have been. Not a one of them has been the least bit alike, Nasir no exception. But when you are with him... you are still the Agron I know, my brother, not a stranger, as you were with the others.”
“I...” Agron didn’t know how to respond. “Duro, I never meant to...”
“If anything, it was their fault. If--” He hesitated. “If you should fall, know that I will do whatever is in my power to keep him safe, whether in Rome, Syria, or Germania.”
“Gratitude,” Agron mumbled.
“I only hope—I don’t know what will happen if he falls.”
Agron suddenly felt cold all over. He had not considered the possibility that he may outlive Nasir. Were the gods cruel enough to give him such great happiness in slavery, and steal it away in freedom? He tried to imagine a future in which he returned home to his tribe, a group of people who had known him since infancy, and have to explain that he was not the same person they had known, that he had known the love of the perfect man only to lose it.
“You had best teach him how to fight, brother,” Duro said finally. He smiled slyly. “Though it would be easier, if you knew yourself.”
“Stay close by my side,” Agron ordered. “And do not speak further of death. We will all survive this fucking ludus.”
“Go to him,” Duro said calmly. “I don’t mind.”
“No. Not tonight.”
Nasir could and would wait, but there were things that Agron should have said to his brother long ago. He should have done it before they went to war, when they were enslaved, before they entered the Arena. But it had seemed unfair to taint memories of their childhood with stories of his own fear and uncertainty, and cruel to display even a moment of weakness when he needed to be strong.
Agron shuffled even closer and wrapped an arm around Duro’s shoulders. It was reassuring; his brother felt warm and solid and indestructible. He spoke as softly as he could, to avoid detection, and in their native tongue. They spoke long into the night, the taste of the words like honey on the tongue. Eventually, when Duro yawned and his eyes closed, Agron was not limited to the faintest brush of fingers against shoulder; he fell asleep with his arm around his brother’s shoulders, a smile on his lips, and warm thoughts of home in mind.
Nasir’s voice was rough with anxiety as he emerged in the lower part of the ludus. His hands and torso were streaked with blood, but he was mostly unharmed from the battle—something he could not say for those who remained in the ludus. He paled at the sight of them. Most were clearly dead, still and stiffening beneath the grey sky, but some were still alive, though they had to hold their innards together. The sight was nauseating.
He did not look away. He could not look away. Nasir had been largely on the fringe of the main battle, in the center of the villa, but that was enough to ascertain that Agron was not there. Illogically, that was the fact that terrified him the most, not the bloody swords and dying people surrounding him. There was no way that Agron would distance himself from the fighting when there were Romans still alive. If he was not a part of the battle, brother at his side, it was because he was incapable of being there. So Nasir had run as fast as his legs could carry him, here, to where the wounded and dying lay.
His feet darted over the blood-soaked ground as he rushed among the corpses. Many of the gladiators were familiar to him, and some of the guards, and he felt like he was going to be sick, but he could not look away. Not until he found Agron and… and helped him, tied up his wound or set his broken bone or…
Nasir stopped. There, among the mangled and blood-streaked faces, was one dear to his heart.
“Duro,” he breathed.
Duro lay peacefully on the ground, with his fist placed over his heart and a gaping wound in his side. Nasir knelt beside him, his throat thick with unshed tears, and smoothed a lock of hair, sticky with blood, from his forehead. The cut on his temple, a remnant from his fight with Crixus, had finally healed from scab to faint red scar, he noticed. Duro’s dark eyes were still open, gazing up at him, and Nasir couldn’t help it. With the stench of death in his nose, he turned and vomited on the ground. His throat stung and he felt weak—but it was better than crying.
After some minutes, he was able to look at the body again, though he could still feel the stringy rhythm of his heart, and the sting of bile. He reached over and, very gently, closed Duro’s eyes, then pressed the final kiss to his lips. In his old house, the slaves had never been given funeral rites, but Duro did not die a slave.
Nasir had no coin for the god of the crossing. He glanced around him, hoping to see a guard with a purse on him, until his gaze fell on Duro’s earring. He did not know for sure where it had come from, or what it meant; his own ear had been pierced when he was first sent to the auction block. Perhaps Duro was the same.
With clumsy fingers, he unhooked the adornment and placed it over Duro’s closed lips. After a moment of hesitation, he did the same with his own.
“The price of freedom and the price of death were the same,” he whispered. “Accept his offering, Charon, and treat him kindly.”
He did not know the name of the German god of death—perhaps Lugus, god of journeys—but he sent up a swift prayer to him, as well. He grasped Duro’s closed fist in his own for a brief second, then looked away. There was dread in his stomach, but Nasir forced himself to examine all the bodies surrounding Duro. None looked familiar.
With a sigh of relief, he turned back to the body. Upon closer inspection, he realized that the blood from the wound was smudged, as though someone had tried to stem the flow of blood, and of course the fist over the heart was posed. Agron had been here. Agron had seen his brother die, and tended to the corpse.
Nasir bit back the tears and leaned forward to kiss Duro’s forehead.
“Goodbye, brother,” he whispered.
Ructantly, Nasir stood and walked away from the ludus for the last time. He mounted the steps to the villa. To do so, he had to step over the men he had killed.
It started off simple.
The barber came to make the gladiators and slaves look presentable. It was the easiest thing in the world for Nasir to swipe the shaving blade while the barber cut his hair with the scissors. He used his most authoritative voice to hassle the man into leaving before the blade’s absence was noticed.
“You sounded more like a fishwife than a body slave,” Agron teased later.
“Hush,” Nasir ordered, rubbing the cleansing oil against Agron’s skin.
That had been a daunting task. They had spent the previous night together, of course, but rest had taken precedence over sex, so there had been little time for teasing or the kind of preparation that would prevent Nasir from bleeding. The oil was too tempting, and Agron’s cocky smirk did nothing to help.
“Fasten your armor carefully,” he whispered to take his mind off it. “I cannot help; I must go to Domina after this.”
“It will help little if we are still chained and unarmed,” Agron grumbled. Nasir stood on his toes to kiss him.
“I have faith in you.”
“And I you. In the Gauls, though...”
He scowled at Rhaskos, who was eyeing them with contempt in his face.
“The Gauls will follow you,” Nasir said firmly. “They will have no choice; if you fail, they will be punished just as severely. As long as Crixus joins you or dies...”
“Or dies?” Agron interrupted. “If he dies, we are finished. They will never forgive us.”
“If he dies, you can still turn against the Romans. If he lives, it is because he has defeated Spartacus in single combat, and you cannot do anything without Spartacus.” He looked up to find Agron avoiding his gaze. “Agron? Agron, you can’t fight without Spartacus. Promise me you won’t attempt it. Promise me.”
“Spartacus will not fall.” Agron kissed him. “Go. Don’t worry: everything will go according to plan.”
And it did. Nasir managed to slip away from Lucretia’s side later in the evening and creep down to the ludus entrance. His heart was hammering in his chest as he drew the knife from the folds of his cloth, but he was not seen; the guard was watching the gladiators. Nasir did not dare to take a deep breath. He only walked up soundlessly, stretched a little, and drove the blade into the man’s neck.
He came in from the side, as Agron had told him, and sliced through the guard’s vocal chords. He couldn’t cry out, though the blood bubbled up and he made sickening gurgling sounds. He reached for his own sword, so Nasir drove the knife through his neck again and a third time. The guard’s hands shook as they reached for his throat, as if to staunch the wound, and he died.
Nasir stared at the body at his feet. He was dead. A man was dead, and Nasir had killed him.
He felt no panic, no regret, and very little shock. Upon examination, he realized that one arm was covered in blood spray, and part of his chest, too. He cleaned it off with some sand. Mercifully, his clothes were still pristine. He looted the corpse quickly; the sword he left, but he took a small dagger from his belt, and a purse, and the key to the door. He unlocked the door and walked up the steps, calmly, as though nothing had happened.
When he had left, Mira had been bound to Lucretia’s side, so he ducked into the courtyard to fill her part. His long absence would annoy Lucretia, but there were more important things at hand. To his surprise, he found Mira already there—Mira, and a dead man on the floor.
“He found me,” she said. He nodded.
“Did you get everything?”
“Then let us return.” He offered her his arm, and together they headed back to the balcony. “We shall see how our champion fares.”
Quite well, as it turned out. Spartacus had not died, but neither had Crixus; the Gaul joined their cause. Everything had gone perfectly, except for Duro... If Agron was dead, too, Nasir didn’t know that he could survive.
He knew that Agron was not in the melee of the courtyard, so he avoided the main hallways, instead darting through the twisted inner routes, amongst the silk hangings and marble busts that decorated Batiatus’s personal rooms. Here and there, a corpse or a pool of blood interrupted his progress. Finally, propped up against a wall, he found Agron.
Again, Nasir stopped in his tracks to take in the scene before him. Agron was unhurt, but covered in blood; it was splattered over his forehead, coating his hands, crusted under his fingernails and streaked over his torso. He was sitting down, across from—of all people—Crixus. An amphora sat between them, and each clutched a silver goblet in his hand.
“There you are,” Agron said, throwing back the remains of his goblet. He took hold of the amphora and refilled it.
“We are in the midst of rebellion,” Nasir said faintly. “Not twenty feet from you, men are fighting for their lives, and you are drinking? With Crixus?”
“He found the wine,” Agron shrugged. “Who else was I to drink with?”
“His brother is dead,” Crixus offered. Nasir’s brief flare of anger faded.
“I know,” he said quietly.
He sat down and rested a hand on Agron’s arm, but he didn’t know what to say. Agron’s eyes were glossy with either drink or tears, and he buried his face in Nasir’s shoulders. Nasir ran a loving hand through his hair. It was thick with clotted blood.
“After all this time… I only wished to protect him. That’s all I’ve ever done, since we were children—”
“You are not children anymore,” Nasir murmured. “Do not blame yourself; Duro died a free man’s death, and one of his own choosing. Mourn him, but do not blame him or yourself.”
“The blade was meant for me.”
Nasir’s grip tightened on his arm at the very thought. He had always known that Death haunted their footsteps, but to think that it clung to Agron so closely…. Agron pulled away to drink from his goblet again, and his hand shook.
“My little brother died to protect me. How can I accept that? How? I— I killed them all,” he confessed suddenly. There was an edge of hysteria. “Every last man who remained standing, when he had fallen—there were only a dozen. I cut them down, one by one, but it did nothing. I felt no satisfaction, only anger, saw only darkness and blood and—”
He was babbling. Nasir clapped a hand over his mouth and moved to kneel on either side of Agron’s knees. Agron fell silent, but his eyes were still wide with panic, so he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the back of his own hand. He spoke in a gentle whisper, and Crixus looked away tactfully.
“Agron of the Rhine,” Nasir said. “Slaver’s chains did not break you. The Arena did not claim your life. The swords and spears of a hundred enemies, in Rome and Germania, did not cut you down. Do not let your own grief destroy you.”
After several long minutes, Agron’s breathing slowed and he nodded. Gently, he reached up to pry Nasir’s hands away. He touched their foreheads together.
“I love you. But… I am no longer a man of the Rhine. I’m a stranger here.”
“No stranger to me.”
“I have been torn from my home and my family torn from me. How can a man move on from that?”
Nasir smiled. He ran his hands over Agron’s skin gently, and thought again of that first night spent in each other’s arms. Bloodlust is as strong as wine.
“Not with the lives of a dozen Romans.” He leaned down and kissed Agron—not sweetly, not gently, but as a man should be kissed when there is blood upon his lips and in his thoughts. “Take a thousand, and we may make a beginning.”
Agron laughed. He couldn’t smile, not yet, but he could laugh and kiss Nasir and raise his cup again.
“My wild little dog. Gods, I hope never to provoke your wrath. Will you have wine, and share our sorrows? Crixus lost a child today—by his own hand, but still, a loss.”
“Fuck off,” Crixus snarled. Nasir ignored him and kissed Agron on the cheek.
“Your sorrow is mine, my love, but no. I grieve in other ways, and there is another task I must complete. The fighting will be over soon; tell Spartacus that casks of food and drink await us in the small audience chamber, for the days ahead. It is not much, but it was all I could secret away.”
He stood. Agron filled the cup to the brim and held it up imploringly.
“One sip. To the fall of Rome.”
With a smile, Nasir accepted.
“To the fall,” he agreed. The wine was sweet and full—sweeter than he had ever tasted.
Nasir approached the room with the birds cautiously, on the lookout for danger. The life had fled from most of the bodies, but he did not want to be caught unawares. When he saw the shadow of a figure, he almost turned and walked away, until the shadow turned. Doctore met his gaze and stepped aside.
“Did you come to free them?”
“Yes,” Nasir said slowly as he entered the room. It was covered in feathers, droppings, and birds. Some had flown away, but the most domesticated merely fluttered from corner to corner. The speckled one sat on top of the cage, staring placidly at him.
“I did not want them to die here, as their owners died,” Doctore said.
“I did not die. Nor did Barca; there is life beyond the villa.”
“Barca was murdered. Naevia confessed the truth to me; it was Ashur’s doing. I tried to make him pay for it, but regrettably, he escaped.” He turned towards the cage with a sigh. “I should have known. Barca was devoted to the boy—everyone knew it. He would not have left voluntarily.”
Nasir did not know what to say. In some ways, it seemed tragic… in some, a kinder fate than most. The speckled pigeon flew over to him and pecked at his fingers, searching for breadcrumbs, and he smoothed its feathers absently. Doctore spoke again.
“How long have you been a slave, Tiberius?”
Doctore looked at him for a long moment, and inclined his head.
“Just so. Nasir. How long?”
“Since I could walk and talk, I suppose. Almost as long as I can remember.”
“Yes… I was half a man and half a boy when Batiatus found me, but I can hardly remember my life before. This was my home for many years.” He smiled half-heartedly. “Your Agron did not understand that.”
“He wouldn’t. Agron has never been a slave.” He hesitated, then took a deep breath and stepped forward. “Doctore—”
“Will you join us? There is a place for you among Spartacus’s ranks, I know it. A man like you could do incredible things.”
“Gratitude—but no. A man like me needs time to reconcile his actions with his idea of honor.” He shook his head. “This was my home. I served the House of Batiatus loyally for most of my life. I loved my masters and reached great position… and I was to be rewarded even further. But I could not stop this tragedy from occurring. It shames me to admit that this happened under my watch.”
Nasir swallowed nervously. He had expected anger or sorrow, but not… disappointment. His cheeks burned with shame, and he shifted his weight uneasily. But there was no censure in Oenomaus’s eyes, only a need for empathy. And Nasir was not a ludus slave anymore. He was free to speak.
“I once thought the same. I served my dominus loyally, honorably, and was rewarded, and thought myself invaluable.” He laughed bitterly. “That did not protect me. I was given away like a favored jewel—no, not even that. My master kept his jewels and got rid of me. What was Naevia’s crime? What was Barca’s? Varro’s? I respect you for seeking honor… but the honor forced on us by the Romans is not the only kind. A man can forge his own path, with his own laws, and still be a good man.”
Oenomaus smiled at him and walked towards the hallway. As he passed, he patted Nasir on the shoulder.
“Freedom suits you. Good fortune.”
Nasir nodded. The sun had set, and the torches burned low. In the darkness, he couldn’t see the lines around Oenomaus’s mouth, but he could still see the sadness in his black eyes. He wondered if he would ever see the man again. He hoped so.
Nasir did not hear the speech that Spartacus made to the other slaves, though all agreed that it was moving. By the time he arrived, the freed slaves were taking arms, breaking chains, and looting corpses. Spartacus allowed them to take any coin or clothes they could find—the coin would be pooled for the good of all—but they would have no use for jewels. He also approved Nasir’s choice of provisions, and divided the packages amongst the strongest house slaves and one or two gladiators. The other gladiators would serve as guards and raiders, until they found a safe location.
Only then did Nasir find Agron—or, more accurately, did Agron find him. The gladiator had clothing and weapons by that point. He gave Nasir a pair of sturdy boots that were only a little too big, a worn leather vest, trousers, and greaves for his arms, all of which Nasir accepted gratefully. He kept both of his daggers, as Nasir had already acquired one, but presented one of his two swords to Nasir.
“I don’t know how to wield it.”
“Gratitude,” Nasir said tentatively.
He had killed a man. He knew that. But tying the scabbard to his belt still seemed foolish, like a child playing soldier in the street. Agron was watching him, his eyes blank, and Nasir was worried for a moment, until Agron leaned down and kissed him. It was a slow kiss, little more than the molding of lips and the gentle feeling of breath against his face, but it made all his worries disappear. They were alive.
“The gates are open,” Agron said, his voice rough, when they parted. “Let us leave this fucking place.”
“Gladly.” Nasir took Agron’s hand and turned towards the door, but Agron didn’t move.
Nasir turned back. Agron reached up and, in one yank, pulled off his collar. Automatically, Nasir touched his own neck. He had forgotten about the collar. It had been a part of him for so long that he had treated it as though it were a part of his own flesh, as inseparable as an ear, or a hand. There would be line there, a pale stripe against his sun-darkened skin. But it would fade.
He ran his fingers gently over the brand on Agron’s arm.
“Would that I could rid you of this just as easily.”
“I would not want you to. Your life begins when you leave slavery; mine began when I entered it.”
“My life began when I met you,” Nasir corrected with a self-deprecating laugh. It was only half in jest; in truth, he hardly knew who he was before being sold to Batiatus. Agron was right, in that the end of his slavery marked the beginning of his life, though Nasir would say that he had not been a slave for several weeks at least.
But then, he had continued to wear Levitius’s collar until now.
Nasir stretched up to kiss Agron’s cheek and wrap an arm around his waist. Agron returned the gesture, and together they joined the throng of free men and women streaming from the gates of the villa. Spartacus gestured when he saw them, and Nasir quickened his pace.
“No,” Agron said, and Nasir was shocked and pleased to see a familiar grin on his face. “I enjoy your touch. I enjoy walking beside you, with no reason to rush or duck in the shadows.” Nasir realized what he was saying. With a smile, he leaned into Agron’s embrace. The gladiator held him tighter, but did not stop.
“Let him wait. Spartacus may command, but we are under no obligation to obey. We are free men.”