Ali had the best seat in the house. Far enough from the action that there was no danger of any blood, sand or other fluids splattering onto her perfectly tied light blue tunic, yet close enough that there was no danger of missing anything. No matter how much she sometimes would rather miss the action by sitting with the rest of the women, far away from this.
She twirled one of the perfectly curled strands of hair left to hang fashionably at the side of her head around her finger as the announcer read through the same preamble she had heard for the past several days. Only the numbers were different.
Her father, the Emperor Kennius Caesar, had ordered fifty days of games to celebrate his fiftieth birthday, combined with a celebration of the troops' victories over the final remnants of Gallic resistance. As far as Ali could tell, every Caesar since Augustus, one hundred years ago, had held such a games- no matter how much they claimed it was so, the end of Gaul's resistance was never truly over. Even capturing a single child, alone in the wild, was celebrated as a symbol of finally crushing the enemy once and for all.
She supposed that, when he became Emperor, Kyle would hold a similar games. Hopefully she wouldn't have to watch them.
"They're coming in."
Kyle, wrapped in one of his ceremonial togas, tapped Ali on the shoulder, directing her attention towards the gladiators' entrance, a far too elegant thing for the men who waited behind it. Criminals, sentenced to the arena for some transgression. Slaves, who had no choice but to fight or be tossed in for execution. Captured men from other lands, unable to understand a lick of Latin.
And, of course, the champions.
The commentator yelled in excitement, announcing the names and schools of today's first pair of combatants. He was placed close to her, in the box directly next to the royal family, so that they wouldn't miss a single word he said. After a week of listening to him every day, Ali was beginning to tire of his voice.
"First, we have our reigning champion, undefeated so far! Please give a warm welcome to Lucius Vettius!"
The crowd went wild. Lucius was a crowd favorite, and he seemed to be drinking in the praise, waving and flexing his muscles.
"And challenging him today, we have a special treat for you! Captured in Gaul, here to submit to the might of Rome and the power of our great Caesar, the barbarian Ashlyn!"
The roar of the crowd faded to a dull hum in Ali's ears as the second fighter whipped off her helmet- a cheap thing, probably the cheapest that her owner could provide without appearing broke, to reveal her face to the crowd.
It was, as Ali had suspected from the name, a woman. But not just any woman. She had as many muscles as Lucius, and paint coated her cheeks in a cheap imitation of the tribal marks that she might have worn back home. They were meant as a humiliation, not as an honor. They would make it all the more poignant when Lucius inevitably forced her to the ground of the arena, subject to the whims of the crowd and the Emperor.
The look of defiance in her eyes as she stared back at the crowd, refusing to wave to or acknowledge them in any way, drew Ali's attention. Her blonde hair was tangled, probably by design. Any owner in Rome would have done the same, taking full advantage of the theater he could present with a female gladiator from a captured territory.
She was the most beautiful woman that Ali had ever seen. And she had seen many, many beautiful women in her twenty years of life.
"Combatants, turn and face the Emperor!"
Ashlyn and Lucius obeyed, turning their eyes directly onto the box where Ali sat. A burning pair of eyes met Ali's own, and she couldn't look away. The fury that was contained there was frightening, and Ali gripped onto the hem of her tunic, heart pounding faster and faster every second.
"We who are about to die salute you."
The traditional acknowledgement to the Emperor came only from Lucius's lips. Ashlyn's stay closed, and she raised her chin in defiance as Ali's father glared down at her.
She wasn't the first gladiator to refuse to acknowledge the power of the Emperor. Most of those who didn't were Gauls, or Celts, or really members of any conquered territory. They would still let her fight- no one could resist the drama of a female barbarian taking on the empire's favorite champion. But normally, the defiant one would meet the Emperor's eyes, give him a glare, promising that they would never submit.
Not this time. Ashlyn's eyes never left Ali's until she was called into the center of the arena to begin her fight.
Ali had seen few female gladiators in her time- they were saved for special occasions, but she supposed that this qualified- but Ashlyn didn't stand like a disgraced female slave, forced into the arena by an irate Master who had failed to gain the favors he wanted from her. She stood like the other proud men, the captured ones, who had refused to meet her father's eyes. Prouder than Lucius, who wouldn't hesitate to bend to his knees the second her father commanded it.
She stood like a warrior.
The announcer gave the signal to begin, and sparks flew as Lucius and Ashlyn's swords met for the first time. They were both talented, that much was clear, and it was hard to see who had the upper hand.
Lucius had the better weapon, that was certain. He was a champion, after all, and Ashlyn was simply a conquered woman, come to be humiliated. Her sword looked little better than the ceremonial one that hung on the wall of the Imperial Family's country villa. A small dent appeared in it when Lucius clashed his blade against it.
Ashlyn ducked, Lucius's weapon barely missing her. Sand swirled around their feet as they moved. It had to be fresh sand- the sand in that spot had been soaked the previous afternoon with the blood of an unfortunate heretic who had been tossed to the animals.
Lucius barreled towards Ashlyn, arm raised for another strike, when the female gladiator hooked a leg behind his calf and sent him sprawling to the ground. He tumbled, but regained his feet quickly and was coming for her again, brushing the sand off his arms.
Ali was sitting on the edge of her seat, fists clenched in her tunic. She couldn't bear to close her eyes, for fear that, if she did, she would open them to find the beautiful gladiator on the ground, Lucius's sword poised above her heart.
She knew that Ashlyn was supposed to be the enemy, a symbol of Rome's final victory over her people, but she couldn't stand the thought of her blood coating the arena.
Ashlyn's sandals slipped, giving Lucius enough time to reach her before she could duck out of the way again. One of his muscular arms wrapped around Ashlyn's neck, and Ali couldn't contain the gasp that flew from her lips.
Kyle sent a concerned glance her way at the sound, but Ali didn't catch it. Her eyes were locked on the fight before her, her elegant braids shivering as she did. It was uncharacteristic for Ali to be so absorbed- she normally didn't have the stomach for the games- especially days upon days in a row.
Something was wrong.
"Ali? Ali, are you okay? Alexandria?"
No response. His sister's eyes were still fixed on the match, where the female gladiator had managed to fight her way out of Lucius's choke hold via a well placed stomp to the bridge of his foot.
The first blood was drawn by Lucius, as was expected by the crowd- his sword sliced across Ashlyn's cheek and a vicious line of red appeared there, dripping down her chin to splatter against her white cloth, then down to the sand. The gathered crowd roared in excitement- first blood had taken far too long in their opinion. Ali's knuckles were white- her tunic was crumpled in her hands, hands shaking.
It didn't take long for Ashlyn to retaliate- her blade collided with an unprotected portion of Lucius's arm and the champion roared in pain. Worried gasps came from Lucius's biggest fans, but the rest of the crowd leaned forward, fascinated by this barbarian woman who had the gall to not only take on, but injure, a true Roman man.
Ashlyn pressed her advantage, slicing at Lucius's other arm. His sword caused a pile of sand to rise up from the arena as it fell to the ground. Before anyone could even blink, Ashlyn had shoved Lucius to the ground, a knee on his chest and her blade hovering above his chest.
The crowd roared, some in disappointment and some in excitement, and Ali allowed her shoulders to relax at the knowledge that this beautiful woman wouldn't die for her entertainment today.