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The Gladiator's Honour

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The Gladiator's Honor
by Michelle Styles

A hardened survivor of more than a dozen gladiatorial combats, Valens's raw masculinity fuels many women's sexual fantasies. He is outside polite society, and Roman noblewoman Julia Antonia knows she should have nothing to do with a man who is little more than a slave.

But with a wisp of scandal clinging to her stola, Julia is drawn inexorably toward the forbidden danger he represents. For Valens, Julia is a tantalizing reminder of the life he'd been torn from. To claim her, he must fight one final time—and win!

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The market planet of Chiron Alpha 7, states The Encyclopedia Galactica with a disapproving sniff born of strong moral conviction and a 58% share in Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, is widely condemned for its role in revitalising the barbaric practice of slavery. Following the automation of many tasks originally carried out by slaves [see also: Sirius Cybernetics Corporation; Childcare], Chiron Alpha 7 has manufactured new demand for their slave trade by promoting gladiatorial contests.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, whose editors' moral qualms deal only with the cardinal sin of not turning a profit, also has an entry on Chiron Alpha 7. This attractive and lush planet, it informs the casual reader, provides all the blood and guts you -- and your new purchases -- can stomach.

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Ford was not easily bored. On many occasions, provided with only the barest of bare essentials, he had successfully amused himself for whole minutes at a time. This was sadly not one of those times, and anyway, no one had thought to give him laser weaponry, mortal peril, or even fifteen or so different species to insult at random.

"Zaphod," he said, understandably peeved at this oversight, "just pick your bloody slave girls and go." They'd been on Chiron Alpha 7 for almost three days, and he'd already grown tired of the scholarly pursuits of drinking, fighting and running up huge debts. His head was beginning to ache.

Oozing cool out of every orifice he'd been born with and several he'd had custom built, Zaphod raised all three hands in a pacifying gesture. "Chill," he instructed.

Ford gave him a frosty glare. Behind them, a sign rather optimistically suggested they could purchase a lifetime supply of dancing girls Rite! Here!

"You!" shouted a voice from the ranks of assembled gladiators. "You-- you utter bastard!"

Ford hadn't heard such self-righteous indignation since he asked for a clean glass in an unimaginatively named pub on the unimaginatively named "Earth". Reflexes honed to perfection by his six months on that pointless little planet, he grinned and ignored it.

"You two-headed, three-armed, woman-snatching bastard!" the voice continued, as oblivious to its owner's status in the galactic scheme of things as everyone else.

When you're wandering through the slave markets of life, innocently minding your own business and hoping against hope that your bloody semi-cousin will hurry up and pick a gift for his tertiary mother sometime this Altrarian solar cycle, there are certain things you don't want to hear the semi-cousin in question say to or about one of the sale items. Third on Ford's personal list was "Have we, ah, met?"

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Three Chironians walk into a bar, begins the old gladiatorial joke. May they die a thousand screaming deaths.

Gladiators are not famed for their sense of humour.

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Ford opened his eyes. The irate slave was still talking.

"Yes, of course we've bloody met. On Earth. Six months ago."

Second on Ford's list was "You'll have to remind me. I've a terrible memory for species."

"At," the voice bit out, "a party."

Zaphod's sneer required both faces.

"There was a girl. Tricia Macmillan."

A strange expression crossed Zaphod's faces. Ford, who had never before seen his semi-cousin look the least bit regretful, didn't recognise it.

And topping the list was "Ford, buy him for me. There's a good chap."

"What?" Ford said eloquently.

There is an art to the perfect three-shouldered shrug. In Zaphod's case, Dadaism. "Hey! Is that a tax scam?" he said, and wandered off, leaving Ford and his new slave boy staring at each other in sullen disregard.

The slave -- Arthur Dent, formerly of 155 Country Lane, Cottington, currently of Hrping's Gladiators R Us! (Quality guaranteed: No fainters, weepers or chartered accountants) -- was shackled to the floor of the stall wearing only an unenthusiastic loin cloth and a put-upon expression. Deep in his heart, he still wasn't quite convinced this wasn't the result of accidentally smoking the kind of cigarette more usually featured in over-excited Guardian articles and tasteful late-night BBC documentaries.

In its defence, Arthur's loin cloth was not naturally insubordinate. Given decent material to work with, or even the occasional word of encouragement, it was happy to put in all the hours Hrping's store could ask. With his unimposing stature and constant fidgeting, Arthur, it felt, was the one letting the side down here.

It would be nice to think that had Arthur been aware of the damage he was doing to his underwear's morale, he would have given it an awkward pat and told it to keep its hypothetical chin up.

"Aren't you supposed to be," Ford struggled for the right word, "muscular?"

"Are you supposed to be," Arthur echoed in a similar triumph of hope over available evidence, "freeing me?"

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Arthur had once looked after a friend's cat for two weeks. He fed it, disposed of any mice it kindly left on the doorstep, and refused as a matter of vague and fuzzy principle to call it by its given name, Spartacus.

He'd always felt they had a kinship, he and the cat, but had, on reflection, been much happier when that special bond was limited to a distrust of strangers and a fondness for milky tea.

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Voted the galaxy's best, worst and least-likely-to-be dressed for the seventh year running, Zaphod Beeblebrox was a man about whom many things could be said. Patient and gracious, Arthur soon learned, were none of these. He'd answered Beeblebrox's questions on the whereabouts of that girl, the whereabouts of that planet and the whereabouts of the rest of Arthur's clothes with a truthful, dignified "I don't bloody know" and in return was currently languishing in one of Beeblebrox's least pleasant dungeons.

The whips, chains and pit of rodents were fairly typical, but the giant grinning portrait of Beeblebrox was beginning to give Arthur the creeps.

It may have interested Arthur to learn that not bloody knowing was once famously declared to be the chief of the galaxy's nineteen deadly sins by Vice-Pope Bluntwuk the 57th of Furtle. In fact, only six of the nineteen -- vanity, lust, pig-blotting, the colour green, gratuitous violence, and selling coffee with more than four syllables in its name -- have been widely accepted as sinful outside Furtle, although those six did earn such cautionary Jangian folk songs as "Never blot a pig in anger" and "The low-fat venti 6-shot dry mocha of hell".

Sylow "Three-Fingers" Wedder was not vain, lustful, inclined to pig-blot, green or a barista, and might on these grounds be considered a restrained fellow of good character. Other equally apt descriptions included "kind to puppies", "connoisseur of fine wines" and, of course, "the bloodiest debt collector this side of the Guide". He had currently tracked Ford Prefect all the way to Chiron Alpha 7 to discuss repayments, kneecaps, and the complex interplay between keeping up on one and keeping the other.

Running from Wedder didn't seem to be one of Ford's most successful plans. Plan B, however, required a bodyguard: some sort of trained fighter with the skill, loyalty and utter gormlessness to take on Wedder. Unfortunately for Arthur, Ford had an idea of how to secure such devoted services.

"But it's perfect," said Ford with a lazy conviction Arthur suspected was much easier to pull off when not dangling from rusty chains over a pit of flint weasels. As a matter of some startling coincidence, Ford wasn't currently in this position. Ford, Arthur observed, was also clad in rather more than the galaxy's least enthusiastic loin cloth. "You're a humble gladiator --"

"I work in local radio!"

Ford treated this concern with the same dignity and respect he had afforded Arthur since they met. "-- I'm the exotic and disreputable semi-cousin of a -- Well, of an even more exotic and disreputable galactic president. We're made for each other."

There was a meaningful silence.

"You're hanging over a pit of yellow-jawed flint weasels, Arthur," Ford pointed out with a reasonable air. "Eloping with me can hardly make matters worse."

Arthur peered at him suspiciously. "In my admittedly limited experience," he said, "that sort of remark prefaces one of three things. Since you're not trying to sell me anything and I should bloody well hope you're not planning to seduce my sister --" A thoughtful look crossed Ford's face. Arthur pressed on. "-- you must be tempting fate."

Ford conceded the matter with a breezy shrug and the least seductive leer Arthur had ever seen. "And you, baby?" he said hopefully, fishing the keys to Arthur's manacles out of his pocket.

Arthur frowned. Dimly, it occurred to him that anyone prepared to spend fifteen minutes trying to seduce a man chained to a wall might have even bigger problems than being kidnapped from his home planet and sold into slavery. "Chin up?" he suggested awkwardly. "I'm sure it's not that bad."

During Ford's brief stint on Earth, he'd never been kayaking. If he had, however, and while halfway down a waterfall discovered that his paddle had been replaced by a live shark filled with vodka, he might have found his current emotional state eerily familiar.

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Emotions, states The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in one of its briefer digressions, are funny things.

[See also: Fatal industrial accidents, Xaprhrphian water torture and Hitting yourself in the face with a hammer until it gives in.]

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Ford looked at Arthur piercingly for a moment, as if trying to decide whether to believe him or go for his throat. Then he shook his head and smiled blindingly. "I've just had the most brilliant thought."

"You have?" Arthur hedged, trying to remember if dealing with madmen while chained to a wall had come up at O-level. He had a worrying feeling he'd taken double woodwork instead.

"I'm going to marry you," said Ford, smiling proudly at his own genius. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before."

In the meaningful pause that followed, one of the flint weasels snapped half-heartedly at Arthur's toes.

"I think you may have mentioned it," said Arthur.

"Oh that." Ford made a breezy and dismissive gesture with the keys. "That was just a scam to get you to fight Sylow 'Three-Fingers' Wedder for me. But think about it. My brains, your quaint and rustic charm: my editors would love it."

"Three fingers?" Arthur seized weakly on the least confusing concept.

"He cheats at cards," Ford lied. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, from which Ford had learned everything he knew about courtship, recommended not mentioning cannibalism until at least the third date. "Now I'll just set you free, you'll fight Wedder for me, and then we can ride off into the starlight together."

"This differs from your original plan how, exactly? I ask only for information, you understand."

"This time I really will ride off with you afterwards."

"Ah."

Ford leant over the pit to dangle the keys in front of Arthur's face. With Ford's other hand pressed against the wall by Arthur's side, Arthur suddenly found himself wishing he had more than a loin cloth between him and his demented new suitor's stare. "What do you say, Arthur? You, me, all the gin we can liberate?"

Arthur took in the predatory grin, the head cocked at a hopeful angle, and the terrifying suspicion that Ford wasn't lying to him.

"Erk," he said.

"Good enough," said Ford, and kissed him.

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