Magnus has survived thirty-two bouts in the arena by the time he makes it to Rome herself, under, he was assured, the eyes of the emperor on this particular day. What the emperor looks like, or whether he's actually present, Magnus cannot say, since as an andabata he fights wearing a helmet that doesn't allow him to see. Andabata generally don't last long; he was originally given the helmet as part of his punishment. It was only when he had survived his fifth bout that his sentence ad gladiatorum was commuted to damnati ad ludum and he was allowed to take the sacred oath.
The emperor stands out in his purple toga and beard, of course, but it's the youth at his side, wearing a tunic in the Greek style that bares a powerful shoulder, who catches Magnus's eye. The sunlight flashes off the gold jewelry at his neck, wrists, and bicep when--Magnus swears--he inclines his poppy-crowned head towards Magnus. His blue eyes, artfully accented by cosmetics, go just slightly wider, and his red mouth, matched by the crimson of the poppies in his unbound brown hair, tilts in what might be a smile.
Feeling his own heart pound, Magnus bows again along with the rest of the gladiators, and doesn't look back up until he's entered the hypogeum beneath the arena and the shade hides the youth from view. In the darkness of the torch-lit underground, the youth's blue eyes shine all the brighter in Magnus' mind.
"Did you see the emperor?" he asks his cell-mate, a retarius named Quintus who's well-known at Rome and has, luckily for Magnus' curiosity, fought under the eyes of the emperor before.
Quintus snorts. "His Hellenic Majesty? Yes, he looks the same as ever."
"Who is that youth next to him?" Magnus asks, not bothering to hide his interest. Anyone looking at that boy would have the exact same interest.
"His cinaedus? Blue eyes?" Quintus laughs at the look on Magnus' face. "Don't glare at me like that, Magnus, every man who sees him wants to put his sword in him--you haven't even seen his ass. His name is Carolos. He's a very high-class courtesan, and the emperor's favorite." Quintus eyes Magnus speculatively. "You've won enough prizes that you might be able to afford him, for one night."
"Is he worth his price?" Magnus asks bluntly. Quintus has won many purses, and can presumably afford to have Carolos, at least once.
But Quintus shakes his head. "I'd prefer to be manumitted, Magnus, not castrated. The walls in the city say he's a wonderful fuck, but you'd have to be crazy to hunt in the emperor's territory."
He does, Magnus concedes, have a point.
By the time his bout is next, in the late afternoon, he's nearly forgotten beautiful Carolos' blue eyes and red, red mouth. Quintus, who's fighting next, gives him the fig sign for luck when he leaves the cell, and then he's walking into the arena. The helmet seals him away from the noise of the crowd, but doesn't do much for the heat and dust--although it blocks his eyes, it doesn't cover his nose and mouth. Magnus allows himself to pause for a single second as he exits the hypogeum. Three years after he took the oath, here he stands in the Flavian Amphitheater with tens of thousands of Romans screaming his name. Perhaps another andabata would be unable to tell that the din reverberating against the helmet could be resolved into "Magnus! Magnus!" but Magnus is no ordinary andabata. His gift of metal lets him hear, and understand.
It's the gift of metal that's allowed him to survive and prosper so extraordinarily, of course, and Magnus uses his gift to walk with his opponent, a murmillo of some repute named Gaius, to give the traditional salute to the emperor and the referee. At the signal from the horns, he hefts his sword, and waits.
Magnus is experienced in this by now, and he fights well, as well as he ever has. Indeed, when Gaius raises his finger in defeat, his armor torn away and his sword lying on the far side of the arena, Magnus thinks to himself that this may have been his best fight yet.
He strips off the helmet after the referee gives the signal, and the noise in the amphitheater only grows. Magnus and Gaius trade glances from their respective places, Gaius remaining on the ground. He fought well, and the crowd knows it; moreover, he's an old favorite in the capital. The screams for missio grow louder and louder, and the crowds erupt into wild cheering when the emperor lifts his hand in the signal for mercy. Gaius scrambles to his feet, bowing to the emperor and the Vestal Virgins and raising his arms to the crowd in gratitude, then ducks into the hypogeum, leaving Magnus under the eyes of the emperor.
The emperor, and Carolos beside him. They're both looking at him, and Magnus looks back, as aware of Carolos' ringed hand on the emperor's arm as if the courtesan were touching Magnus himself.
Magnus, a voice whispers in his thoughts, and it's not his. Only Magnus' years in the arena keep him from showing any reaction. Erik. Do you want to be free?
Are you a god? Magnus wonders involuntarily, but no sooner than he's asked he thinks, Of course I want to be free. Of course.
I'm not a god, I'm just a man, just like you, Erik. The voice is educated, warm; this alleged man might be whispering in Magnus' ear. You're not alone, Erik. I swear to you, you're not alone.
How long these thoughts have taken, Magnus can't tell; his perception of time in the arena is never entirely reliable. But he blinks, and Carolos is leaning in towards the emperor, speaking in an undertone. Even at this distance, Magnus can't miss the flirtatious curve of his body.
The crowd is still shouting. The emperor straightens, gestures again, and then suddenly the shouts are all "Magnus! Rudis! Magnus! Rudis!" He's being given his freedom, Magnus realizes, and suddenly his knees feel weak.
No, Erik. It's the voice again. You've come so far. Be strong, just a little while longer.
Magnus grits his teeth, but keeps his feet, stands tall and proud as one of the assistants comes forward, bearing the wooden sword that symbolizes a gladiator's freedom. He can accept it now, and be free of the arena and the games, or he can refuse and remain a gladiator.
All of a sudden Magnus feels himself overcome by doubt. What will he do if he ceases to be a gladiator? Four years after Judaea, it's all he knows, and--
You're so much more than you know, Erik, the voice says, as if its owner can hear his sudden panic. But you'll never come to know it in the arena. Take the rudis. Come with me.
Who are you? Magnus demands. How do you know my name? Why do you care about me?
I care about you because we're the same, the voice responds after a single moment. Sweat rolls down Magnus' bare back as the assistant approaches. He only has seconds remaining in which to decide. Because together we won't be alone. I know your name because it's in your thoughts, Erik. As for who I am-- Magnus has the unique experience of hearing another man's laughter in his mind. I'm sitting right in front of you. The Romans call me Carolos.
Carolos?! Magnus repeats, but there's no reply, and he can't look up at the emperor's boy now anyway; the assistant is making the speech that is ritual upon offering the sword. Magnus doesn't think. He takes the sword and lifts it high above his head, soaking up the adulation of the crowd as it goes wild for him, one last time.
When he lowers the blade, his eyes catch Carolos' over it, and they regard each other for a single bare instant before Magnus turns to face the rest of the amphitheater. I'll come with you, Magnus says to him, in his mind. Tell me what I must do.
You won't regret it, Carolos promises. Magnus' heart is pounding in his chest, as though he were still fighting his bout and not the victor.
I know, he thinks, and he can feel, across the distance, Carolos' smile.