Chapter 1: Omnium Rerum Principia Parva Sunt
Poe lowered his hammer, pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow. The merciless Roman sun continued to bake them day after day, leaving the normally tan skin on his bare chest a dark golden brown. In fact, he was now frequently mistaken for one of North Africans the soldiers had come back with last week. Not that it mattered. They were all slaves here.
Speaking of, one of the slave drivers - a centurion named Marcus, Poe’s least favorite - had caught on to his little break.
“Slave!” came the shout, Poe flinching at the warning crack of Marcus’s whip. “Who said you could stop?”
Poe knew better than to answer, instead bringing his aching arms back up to chisel away at the wall of stone in front of him.
Seven months. Seven long months since the Empire had shown up in his village, determined to enslave his people and strip their temples and churches of anything valuable. Not that they had anything of true value. They were farmers and herders, a peaceful, agrarian people. No use for the Empire.
He may have gotten away with an easier assignment - something on a farm or even work as a scribe since he could read and write - had they had not caught him trying to help the women and children escape from the church. For his treachery, they had condemned him to a lifetime in the mines, a sentence that sounded a lot longer than it actually was. He’d only last a year or two at most.
And he would do it all over again. Their village was predominantly Christian, and the penalties were steep for any known believers. If he so much as saved one person from this fate, it would all be worth it.
But his body had other ideas. Once a hearty and healthy farm boy (and later, man), Poe had lost a quarter or more of his weight since arriving, his body becoming lean and sinewy from the backbreaking labor and lack of food.
Life was brutal here, work from sunup to sundown cutting stones to use on some new eyesore the Emperor had cooked up. Rumor had it they were building a new amphitheatre, the biggest the Roman Empire had ever seen. A place that more like him would die for the entertainment of the masses.
But there was little chance of escape for him. The slaves in the quarries generally died there, and quickly. Few made it more than a year, and even less made it two. They were the lucky ones, those who died early, spared from the slow descent into pain and misery. There were days that Poe longed for it to end, a swift death to leave him in peace, but his faith looked down upon that end. So he went on, day in and day out, watching as the flesh disappeared from his body, leaving this hardened shell behind.
He didn't even know if his father had made it out alive.
Kes had been there when the soldiers came, same as Poe. They had been out in the fields, Poe tilling and Kes supervising, when the horns sounded the warning. The blasts could only mean one thing: the Romans were coming.
A little more feeble in his old age, Poe had insisted that Kes run with the women and children. There was nothing but death for a man his age if he was taken to the capital. But Poe had stayed to fight, same as every able-bodied man in their little village, an attempt to give the rest enough time to escape.
They never stood a chance.
Lined up with their scythes and sickles and pitchforks, the Roman soldiers tore through them easily, the superior weapons and training making quick work of the farmers. Poe fought to the last, taking down more than one soldier until they finally caught him helping a young mother and her child get away. They wasted no time knocking him out and chaining him up, the two month walk to Tivoli nearly killing him.
The slaves trailed single file, heavy chains locking them to the wagon and each other. His wrists still bore the marks of the manacles, the metal working its way into his skin. One stop per day for food and water, another to rest the horses. The only way out was death, an option more than one of his fellow captured took by fate or by choice. Poe had nearly been lost to a fever that first month, the wounds on his wrists turning red with infection, but somehow he had pulled through. One of the other slaves had called his recovery miraculous. Poe had another word for it.
So here he was still, not dead yet, but not quite alive either. Doomed to live out his days at the mercy of the Empire.
There was some kind of commotion below, the soldiers starting to gather them off the scaffolding. So the whispers of visitors he had heard that morning in the barracks must be true.
Soon enough, Poe was pulled down from his perch to be lined up with the rest of the slaves deemed well enough to be presented to their visitors. It was a welcome respite from the monotony, even though he had a bad feeling about where this was headed. Though honestly, how much worse could it get?
Two men walked the line, deep in conversation. Both were of a similar age, though one was dressed in a simple white toga that denoted his status in the Empire and the other wore the splendid purple toga reserved only for Emperor Luke Skywalker.
The Augustus differed from what Poe imagined, a little older, a little less unadulterated evil. Poe’s mind had worked him into a monster, tall and hulking, hands dripping blood while he looked out at his subjects with a permanent sneer splashed across his face. But if he was being honest, Luke Skywalker looked like any other old man. In fact, he reminded Poe of his father - a little on the short side, paunchy but not fat, his back still straight despite the years. It almost made him more dangerous, the unassuming look and affable smile hiding a man capable of enslaving thousands, who looked on dispassionately as they died for sport.
Hot on their heels was a third man, the tallest of the three, his long dark hair and purple trimmed toga marking him as Ben Skywalker, the Emperor’s nephew and most likely successor. Ben seemed to hover over the two men, the very picture of what Poe expected the Emperor to be.
Lean and hungry, his face was twisted into a scowl. The dark, greasy hair combined with his natural pallor gave him an otherworldly look, like he had recently risen from the dead. Dark, almost black eyes completed the look.
From what he heard, the young Caesar was particularly ruthless and bloodthirsty, frequenting the circuses and mass executions disguised as sport around Rome. Most of the Empire feared the day that Emperor Skywalker died, worried that Ben would bring about another bloody reign like that of his grandfather, the late Anakin Skywalker.
Trailing a few more steps behind Ben were two women, one old and one young, both in clothes of varying degrees of the Emperor’s purple. The former would be Ben’s mother, Leia Skywalker, twin sister of the Emperor and Augusta of Rome. And the latter would have to be his sister Rey, the youngest of the Skywalker clan.
Stories of Rey Skywalker circulated regularly, her enjoyment of the freedoms afforded to a woman of her station damn near legendary. She wore pallas only of the finest silk imported from China, embroidered by a hundred slaves. Attending the most fashionable parties in the capital, she ate and drank until she was sick, dancing well into the night. He even heard that she had three slaves to dress and wash her daily, with one assigned to brush out her long hair a thousand strokes every night. Vapid and self-absorbed, she was everything wrong with the ruling class.
As much as he hated to admit it, she was just as beautiful as the stories told, wide brown eyes and soft pink lips above and below a small, straight nose (so unlike Poe’s thrice broken monstrosity), her long brown hair shining in the midday sun. It was in some complicated updo that the fashionable ladies favored these days, golden threads woven into the braids.
She cut an impressive figure, tall and lean, with a waist so tiny he could probably wrap his hands around it. Leave it to the rich to make starving oneself the latest fashion.
He could hear the conversation between the women as they neared.
“Mother, why have you brought me to this place. I have no desire to see half-naked slaves, especially ones that look so rough. Are they even feeding them here? And the smell! Dear gods, do they ever bathe?”
Anger and shame flushed hot in Poe’s breast.
But Leia was quick to put her in her place. “You are not a child anymore, Rey, but a woman of twenty years. It is well past time you take an interest in what is happening around you. And no, I am not talking of the parties and the dresses you are so fond of. I want you to remember that it is on the backs of these men,” Leia paused, gesturing to the slaves on either side of them, “that all of your comforts are secured.”
At least the brat had the decency to look chastened at her mother’s words.
He had heard whispers of Leia’s benevolence (she outright refused to use any slaves to attend her, instead employing freewomen and paying them handsomely) but did not dare believe them. Though it seemed that at least part of the rumors had proven true.
The women were now upon him. While the rest of the slaves looked down as they passed, Poe held his head high, an act of defiance sure to get him killed sooner rather than later. Though only Rey noticed, her eyes sparking with interest as she locked onto him, the only man to meet her gaze.
Somehow, she was even more beautiful up close, her tanned skin giving way to a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Despite himself, Poe felt desire curl in his gut, the feeling passing as quickly as the two women in front of him. Dread joined the desire when he noticed the Caesar watching him, a dangerous smirk on his face as he noted his sister’s interest.
Leia continued to ask questions of the slaves’ treatment as they walked, Rey’s face darkening with every answer.
As they all passed, it became clear that the man in white - the Emperor referred to him as Wedge - was a lanista, assessing the slaves for one of the gladiator schools in the city.
Among most men, it was a great honor to become a gladiator, though Poe did not share in that school of thought. The idea of being paraded out in the Forum to fight for the enjoyment of the rich curdled what little food he had left in stomach.
Poe had no taste for the violence of the ring. As a farmer, the most violent thing he did was shear the sheep (which wasn't violent at all). He couldn’t even bring himself to slaughter a chicken without giving himself a pep talk. There was no way he could take down a man, hold him at the tip of his sword, and wait for the crowd to pass judgement.
Or could he?
His only other option was to live out the rest of his days in this pit, slowly starving while they worked him to death. Seven months and he looked (and felt) like a fig left to dry in the sun. His muscles ached and burned from lack of water. With only one meal per day, his stomach gurgled angrily, empty and churning, while his normally curly hair went lank and fell out in chunks. The skin on his face and hands and chest was cracked and peeling, either from the dehydration or exposure. In another month or two, he’d have trouble lifting his arms and legs. A month after that, he’d be unable to get out of bed. A month after that - well, there wouldn’t be any months after that.
Maybe he could do it, if his only other option was a slow and painful death. He was a good man. There was no way they could train that out of him, right?
The men paused in front of a group of newer slaves. Their bodies were still strong, not yet ravished by the conditions in the quarry. Rey and Leia stood a little behind, Rey’s earlier disdain replaced with a look bordering on horror as she watched the men comb over the slaves.
Poe looked on as the one called Wedge appraised one of the North Africans, going over him as you would a horse. First, he felt across the slave’s shoulders, moving down arms and back, finally forcing him to open his mouth so he could get a look at the teeth.
A quick nod to the attendants, and the man was taken to the cart.
Wedge completed the same checks with three others, all the while answering the Emperor’s questions about what he was looking for in the men.
“Now, see this one,” said Wedge, pointing at what appeared to be a perfect candidate, the man opening his mouth at the lanista’s prodding. “Appears good on the outside, but look here.” Emperor Skywalker leaned over. “Rotten. By the looks of it he will not make the week, let alone the trip to Rome.”
Poe looked up as Ben gave a callous laugh, the man they spoke of pale as he learned of his impending doom. These men spoke about them as if they weren’t there, or worse, as if they were animals, unable to understand the conversation.
Wedge moved down the line, Poe keeping an eye on Rey as she trailed behind them. The disgust and horror on her face grew more pronounced as they went, hitting a tipping point when a slave was slow to come forward for examination and got the whip for his insubordination.
“Is that truly necessary?” she snapped at the centurion, her mother looking on proudly next to her. To everyone’s surprise, she crossed the dirt to help the man in question up. “Can you not see he is trying?”
“Apologies, my lady, but we cannot tolerate any misconduct.”
Rey huffed at the man. “Misconduct? He is half-starved and weak from dehydration. I would hardly call that misconduct.”
But Poe didn’t have time to contemplate that, for once the man was back on his feet and dismissed, they continued down the line toward Poe.
“Wedge, what about this one,” said Augustus Skywalker as he stopped in front of him. Poe’s skin crawled as the leader’s gaze dragged over the expanse of his exposed skin, interrupted only by the standard loin cloth. It was hot work in the quarries, so there was no need to waste money on extra clothing for the slaves. “He looks strong enough.”
Ben scoffed, Poe struggling to keep his face neutral.
Poe’s heart threatened to beat out of his chest as he awaited judgment. This was it, his only chance to get out of here. If they passed him over, he was dead.
Wedge walked over to Poe, joining the Emperor in his scrutiny. “Maybe, but he is too thin by half. I doubt he would last one minute in a fight.” Without even giving him the full inspection, they moved on, Poe’s fate decided in less than a minute.
His heart sank, a pit forming in his stomach. That was it, his last chance. Now he would certainly die in this hell hole.
Panicked, his mind raced. If only there was a way to prove himself, to show them he was worth the trip.
Then it hit him.
Without thinking any further, he turned to the man next to him - also passed over by the lanista - and threw a punch the way Kes had tried to teach him years ago.
It didn’t take long for the man to strike back, the ensuing fight cheered on by their fellow slaves. Poe got in another good hit before the man wrestled him to the ground, the two of them rolling around on the dirt in their fight for dominance. Using the momentum, Poe gained the upper hand again, only to be laid flat on his back by his opponent. Despite Poe’s inexpert moves, they were evenly matched, each man getting in hits and being hit in return. While the other man may have been more skilled, Poe wanted it more.
After a minute or two, rough hands pulled them apart, Poe struggling against the soldiers. It took three well-fed and trained men to subdue him, a fact that did not go unnoticed by their guests.
“I think you might be right, Augustus. This one has some fight left in him.” Wedge motioned to his attendants. “Put him in the cart with the others. I think we may make a gladiator of him yet. The other one, too.”
Relief flooded through Poe, even as he struggled to breathe through his swollen nose. It was probably broken (again), and there was definitely some blood in his mouth, but it had been worth it. He was getting out.
Turned out, it wasn’t even that hard. When faced with life or death, he didn’t hesitate. Absently, he wondered if that was a good thing.
When he looked up, Rey was once again watching him, the interest now plain on her face. Her eyes followed him as the soldiers escorted him out and loaded him onto the wagon.
His heart gave a lurch. Surely, he would never be this close to her again. Not that he wanted to be. It was just… there was more to Rey than met the eye, he could tell. So he looked back, trying to memorize the curve of her brow and bow of her lips, anything that would help him remember her later.
Soon enough, they were off. The trip to Rome would take at least two days, but Poe was a patient man. And what was two more days in the course of a lifetime?
A lifetime. That’s what he had. Given he didn’t die in the ring.
But he was a gladiator now, doomed to live or die by the will of the people. At least this would be a noble death by Roman standards, one he had chosen instead of slowly breaking down under the sun.
Closing his eyes against the late afternoon sun, Rey’s pretty face floated behind his eyelids. She had not spoken to him, not directly, but he could not get her face out of his mind. Not that he wanted to. There were worse ways to pass the time than thinking of pretty girls with wide hazel eyes that sparkled in the sun.
As they made a first stop some hours later, Poe realized he did not even know the name of the man he had fought. Tall and broad and dark-haired, he was newer to the quarry, that much Poe knew, but beyond that, nothing. He couldn't even be sure he had done the man a favor. Perhaps he had no interest in leaving the quarry, in fighting to the death for the amusement of the many. So when one of the trainers handed him a cup of water - the first he'd have all day - Poe passed it to the man he had either condemned or saved.
“Poe Dameron,” he said, holding out the small cup.
With a nod, the man accepted, drinking three gulps before passing it back to Poe to finish. “Cladius Muran, nice to meet you.”
Chapter 2: Mens Sana In Corpore Sano
Poe arrives in Rome to begin his training. Later, an unexpected visitor brings interesting news.
Chapter title translation: A healthy mind in a healthy body
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Massages. They were offering them massages.
Poe stood in stunned silence at the entrance to the school’s bathhouse. He hadn't been clean in nearly a year and here was an entire building devoted to bathing. And massages.
The two days on the road to Rome had gone better than expected. After the months of brutality in the quarry, it almost felt like a trick. Like he would wake up in the morning to find himself back on the hard slab of stone that passed for a bed in the barracks, one day closer to his imminent death.
But no matter how many times he pinched himself or how long he waited for the other shoe to drop, it was still the same. Breaks every two hours, free flowing water, bread three times a day, and no chains. It was the most kindness he’d been shown in nearly a year.
The bar was set that low now.
It took the first full day for the six former slaves loosen up, still on alert around their new masters. But by the second day of water and food and regular breaks, the men relaxed into this new normal, sharing conversation to pass the time.
First, there was Cladius Muran, born into slavery in a well-to-do Roman household. His story was a little vague, but it sounded like a disagreement with his master had earned him a one-way trip to quarries. He’d only been there five days when the Lanista had showed up and Poe had saved his life.
Temmin “call me Snap” Wexley had a similar story to Poe’s. They had raided his village a little over a month ago, the predominantly Christian citizens sent to mines and quarries all over the Empire. A stout man, he had caught Wedge Antilles’s eye, his full mouth of teeth earning him a trip to Rome.
Next up was Iolo Arana. With 15 months in the quarry, he had been the current record holder of the longest survivor. Despite his length of stay, he had retained more weight than anyone besides Snap. Apparently, the trick was to steal dead men’s rations before the guards realized they were dead. It wasn’t like they could use them, anyway.
The last two men were the most quiet of the bunch, Cato and Marius. Neither would admit what landed them in Tivoli, leaving Poe to imagine the worst. Plenty of crimes got you a one-way trip into slavery, though only the worst ended up in the quarries. He tried to tell himself it was something like Christianity or his own treasonous actions that landed them here, though why they would refuse to admit to either of those offenses was anybody’s guess.
And so they arrived in Rome, the newest recruits of Ludus Magnus. Passing the skeletal construction of the soon-to-be amphitheatre, the cart pulled up to the front of the school and they were paraded through the sparring courts, still half naked, the gladiators in training pausing to watch. The guards took them to a low platform, Poe’s knees shaking as they were forced to recite an oath of loyalty.
“Uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari.” I will endure, to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.
Five years. He only had to survive five years and then freedom was his. A little sooner if he won enough fights to buy out his contract. In the span of two days, he’d gone from imminent death to having an actual future for the first time in almost a year.
And now they were offering him a massage.
The thought of hands on the scabbed and bruised skin of his back (courtesy of a cheeky remark to the wrong guard last week) made Poe flinch, so instead he made his way through the steamy room toward one of the private tubs near the back.
Into the stone basin he went, the water going black almost instantly. Seven months of dirt and sweat and blood swirled around the tub, and he wasn’t even clean yet. An attendant appeared out of nowhere to show him to a second tub. As he scrubbed his uninjured skin pink, he marveled at the slip and slide of the water over his body, the air raising goose-flesh wherever it touched.
By the time the water in the second tub cooled, they deemed him sufficiently clean to enter one of the public baths, a moan escaping his lips as sore muscles sank in the waters of the caldarium.
While smaller than the thermae in the city (or so he overheard), the pool was large enough to fit 10 men comfortably, 12 if you didn’t mind being close. Poe couldn’t care less about how many he shared it with as the months of tension and knots bled from his overwrought muscles. Only the barely healed skin on his back protested the heat, though the slight pinch was more than easy enough to endure.
Poe only realized his eyes had fallen closed when he heard someone settle next to him.
“A little different than Tivoli, no?”
His eyes opened to find Muran slipping into the water a few feet from him.
Poe returned the man’s smile. “Just a little.” Craning his neck, he looked toward the frigidarium where a minor scuffle had broken out between Cato and one of the seasoned gladiators. “What do you make of that?” he asked, tipping his head toward the fracas.
Muran’s eyes darkened. “He told Iolo that he killed a man who wronged him, but word is it was actually a woman. A pretty young thing that may have said no. Only his family name spared his life.”
Poe’s stomach curdled at the information. Was this the type of man he would be measured against? It was bad enough being condemned to the quarry with these scoundrels.
“But why would they let him go? Shouldn't he still be at the quarry?”
Muran’s shrug was slow. “The Lanista doesn’t care about your past. We will all be murderers before long, will we not we?”
Poe swallowed down the bile that rose at that thought.
He had never considered himself a violent man. Sure, he had fought to protect the others in his village, but he wasn’t bloodthirsty by nature. Though now, that was part of the deal, the fighting and killing. So far, he had been able to push those thoughts from his brain, focusing instead on the bread and baths. But how long could that last? His mind drifted to something Snap had said on the trip over. According to him, not every match ended in death. Gladiators were costly to train and house, a fee that had to be repaid by the editor of the match in the case of a death. Though if you fought long enough, you were bound to end someone sooner or later, even if they just succumbed to their injuries after the battle.
His pruned hand rose from the water to scrub at his face. The travel had left him even more achy and exhausted. If he stayed here much longer, he’d surely drown by accident.
Making his excuses, he found a stack of new tunics near the door, tossing one over his head after drying. It had been far too long since he’d worn anything but a loincloth, the wool foreign on his skin. The fabric was by no means rich but it felt better than the finest Chinese silk to Poe’s abused skin.
He followed a young man to the barracks reserved for the new recruits, novicii as they called them here, finding an empty bed for the taking. All his worries floated away as he sank into the mattress. Tomorrow, he would start his training. He was a gladiator now.
The sound of a high-pitched bell woke him before dawn. His fellow novicii grumbled as they shuffled out of bed to the rustling of sheets.
They followed a man barely younger than Poe’s father to a wide room full of tables. Steaming pots occupied the outermost table, a stack of bowls piled on one end. Breakfast consisted of warm oatmeal paste and dried fruit, Poe’s stomach nearly rebelling at the feeling. He’d have to watch his intake if he wanted to keep the food down during training. It had been far too long since his belly had been this full.
And then he was out on the hard-packed courts, wooden gladius in hand.
Wedge stood in front of the group, illuminated by the six-foot torches lining the floor. “Pair off! Let us see what you've got.”
Poe turned, grateful to find Muran staring back at him.
Poe didn’t hesitate, lunging forward in the hope that surprise would give him the upper hand against the much bigger man a second time. As it had been explained when they arrived, if you could not complete the training, it was back to the mines for you. And if there was one thing Poe knew for sure, it was that he’d die before going back to Tivoli.
Less than a minute later, he found himself flat on his back, a brand new bruise forming on his chest courtesy of Muran’s gladius. The man in question reached out a hand, Poe taking it to pull himself to his feet.
Wedge was next to them, having watched Poe’s easy defeat.
“Like this,” he said to Poe, demonstrating with his own practice sword. “A man your size cannot beat him by strength alone. You must be smarter than your opponent. Again.”
He watched as Poe and Muran faced off again, Poe making it a full two minutes before he was on the ground again.
“Better,” said the Lanista before moving on to the next pair.
They passed the next hour in much the same manner, Poe ending up in the dirt more often than not. His disused muscles quivered at the exertion, months of starvation leaving him weak and feeble.
Muran, on the other hand, was made for the arena, his tall stature and broad chest painting the very picture of what a gladiator should be. With only five days in the quarry, he was still the picture of health, the lack of food and rest not having a chance to chip away at him yet. It baffled Poe that he had been passed over the first time.
Finally, as they finished the last round, Poe knocked Muran off balance, a swift movement of the wooden blade landing the other man on the ground.
A wide hand slapped Poe on the back. “You learn,” said Wedge before taking his place up front. “Smarter, not harder.”
After a break for water, they paired off again, this time in front of suspended bags of sand. Knuckles wrapped in thin linen, they took turns beating the bags, taking aim as if they were men and not objects.
Lunch consisted of barley and bacon, the food sitting on Poe’s stomach like a rock. He had eaten more here in a single sitting than he did in a week's time at the quarry. Swallowing thickly, he willed the food to stay down. It would do him no good to lose his lunch in front of the Lanista.
But it was no use. When they arrived back out on the training court, the main assistant, a man with night-dark skin named Finn, broke them into small groups for private instruction. The drills were brutal - sprints across the arena, lunges that burned the weak muscles of his thighs, hundreds of push-ups. Within 10 minutes, Poe was running to the edge of the ring, barely skirting another group before expelling barley and bile all over the hard-packed dirt.
It was over as quickly as it began, Poe straightening up and spitting before he swiped a hand across his mouth. He raised his watering eyes, noticing at least two other men doing the same at various points around the court (and one right in the middle of the action).
A hand slapped his back. “Happens to the best of us.” Snap was wiping his mouth as well, a bit of lunch staining his off-white tunic.
Back into the ring they went, the rest of the day passing in a blur of fighting and eating and bathing.
So it went, day in and day out, the men all falling into the routine of the Ludus Magnus. Days soon bled into weeks, the regular meals and training putting back what the quarry had stripped from Poe’s body. And then some.
Even back in his farming days, Poe never had the means to feed or care for himself so well. And he certainly never worked his muscles so they swelled and bunched under the skin. While he couldn’t do anything about his lacking height, he worked hard to become stronger and faster and, yes, smarter than the rest of the novicii, understanding that he would have more to prove.
That day started like any other. Up before dawn for breakfast and sparring. Work with the punching bags before lunch. But when it came time to train on technique in smaller groups, Wedge showed up to put them into two straight lines across the dirt floor.
They stood at attention, discipline formed over the long weeks of work, waiting for something, anything to happen.
It didn’t take long. The familiar figure of the Augustus rounded a corner into the training ring. Once again, he was followed by his nephew and sister, a third figure hovering just a few steps behind.
It was Rey, the emperor’s young niece, her clothes more simple than the last time he’d seen her, yet still dressed far too lavishly for the hard dirt of the training court.
In the weeks since Tivoli, he’d thought of the young Augusta more than he cared to admit. Being in the city, he heard rumors of her often enough, how she had lost interest in the parties, the scandal when she’d freed all her slaves. He wondered if maybe she had taken what she’d seen in Tivoli to heart. That maybe, she had changed for the better.
“Wedge!” shouted Augustus Skywalker, a wide smile on his aged face. “My grand amphitheatre nears completion. Tell me how your task comes along.”
“My dear Luke,” answered Wedge, Poe trying not to show surprise at the informal greeting. Men had died for less in the days of the first Emperor Skywalker. Though it appeared his son was much more laid back. “Before you, find our newest novicii. They are quite green, but I assure you all will be more than ready when your amphitheatre is complete. And as always, our fully trained men are the best in the land.”
With a smile and a slap on the back, Luke gestured toward the group. “Well then, let us see!”
Wedge clapped twice. “Face each other, men! And do your worst.”
Poe turned, coming eye to eye with Snap on his other side. For once, he was more than grateful to not face Muran. Despite all the training, Muran was still the better fighter by half. If he had any hope of leaving an impression on their guests, a bout with Snap would be his best bet.
Snap seemed to grasp this. “Don’t go easy on me, Dameron. Show ‘em what you’ve got.”
Poe didn’t hesitate, opening with a bold move and a slash of his wooden gladius. Snap blocked him, though barely, ceding a step but getting in his own hit to Poe’s wooden blade. On and on they went, meeting each other blow for blow, long after the rest of the mock fights had ended in one-sided victory. Snap wasn’t pulling his punches, though neither was he. It looked much better this way, the two locked in battle. No easy victory ever brought glory.
With a quick dodge and swipe to his knees, he felled Snap, the older man hitting the dirt hard. Poe raised the gladius to the base of Snap’s throat, looking toward the Lanista as they had been taught.
There, he caught the young Rey watching him, her eyes flashing green and gold in the sun.
But it was Augustus Skywalker himself who gave the sign, a thumbs-up to spare Snap’s life (this was practice, of course his life would be spared) before breaking into applause.
“Excellent! Just excellent. You are quite right, Wedge. These men will do.”
With that, Wedge and Skywalker disappeared into the building, deep in conversation, leaving Ben scowling at their retreating forms.
The young Caesar turned to Wedge’s assistant, Finn. “Again!” shouted Ben, all but stomping his foot. Behind him, Leia frowned.
Poe had a bad feeling about the future Augustus. He had been young, too young to remember the reign of Augustus Anakin Skywalker, but he knew all the stories. Unparalleled cruelty, sadistic whims, brutal rulings, all were the keystones of his decades long reign. How his children had come out unscathed was beyond Poe. Both the Augusta Leia and Augustus Luke seemed decent enough.
Though the young Ben Skywalker did not seem as fortunate. He reeked of Anakin’s cruelty, the moods and outbursts pointing toward an unstable young man hungry for power and control.
Finn raised his voice, loud enough for the novicii to hear. “I’m sorry, Caesar, but the men must break now for water.”
Ben’s face turned an ugly shade of puce. “I said, again! How dare you defy me, slave!”
Calmly, so calmly, Finn answered, “I believe you are misinformed, Caesar. I am a freedman in the employ of Lanista Antilles. And besides the rule of the Emperor himself, I only follow the Lanista’s orders.” At that he turned back to the men. “A 10-minute break for water and rest! Go!”
Poe didn’t need to be told twice. Helping Snap off the ground, together they headed to the little cistern at the edge of the ring, drawing deep from their cups.
“Fair fight, brother.” Snap slapped him on the back. “And I daresay you've caught the attention of the young Augusta.”
Poe waved him off. “I have no idea what you mean. She was simply watching the fights.”
“I would not be so sure about that, Poe.” He turned to someone over Poe’s left shoulder before walking away. “My lady.”
Poe turned to find himself face to face with Rey Skywalker.
Somehow, she was even more lovely than he remembered, her fair skin a shade or two darker than the last time he saw her, the smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose more prominent. Those flashing eyes were neither golden nor green, but something in between, ever changing depending on how the light hit them. Even her palla, a much more basic version than the purple and gold-trimmed monstrosity she wore in the quarries, looked rich, simple blue that it was.
So stunning she was standing in front of him, he almost forgot to answer.
“My lady,” he said, dipping his head out of respect.
Ignoring his deference, she went on. “I remember you from Tivoli. They passed over you and you fought a man to gain favor with Wedge. I admire your boldness. What is your name, gladiator?”
Fighting the heat on his cheeks, he tipped his head again. “I am Poe Dameron, my lady.”
An outstretched hand entered his field of vision.
Taking the hand and shaking it, he spoke without thinking. “I know.”
Horrified at his gaffe, he watched as her lips arranged into a smile, a laugh escaping her chest. “Well, I suppose you would. I hear the tales of my exploits are legendary.” He couldn’t help but recognize the spark in her eyes at the admission. He could appreciate someone who owned their reputation so fully. “I admire your spirit, Poe. How are you liking the Ludus Magnus?”
“Well enough. It’s much improved from the quarries, I must say.”
“That must be true. You are looking much more hearty than when I last saw you.”
“It is amazing what regular meals and rest can do for a man.” He paused, their comfortable conversation emboldening his next question. “And what is a lady of your status doing at a humble gladiator school, Augusta?”
“Call me Rey, please.” Leaning back on her heels, that soft smile returned to her face. “My mother thinks it time I end my frivolous ways and contribute to society in some small way. Having seen the state of things…” She trailed off, neither of them needing an explanation of what she saw. “I have to agree. So I will train with the physicians here to learn their craft and assist with the medical care of the gladiators.”
“You will be here? With us?”
“For the foreseeable future,” she responded, taking a step backward. “I shall see you around, Poe Dameron.”
Struck dumb, he lifted a hand in farewell before she turned and walked back toward her mother.
Snap’s voice came out of nowhere. “Yeah, I don’t think she noticed you at all.”
Now that this is out in the world, I'll be posting new chapters on Mondays and Thursdays for the next six or so weeks. I hope you stick around for the ride!
Chapter 3: Timendi Causa Est Nescire
Poe finds a way to spend more time with Rey as they get to know each other. Muran makes his objections known.
Chapter title translation: The cause of fear is ignorance.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was pure coincidence that three days later he found himself seated in front of the physician, Rey hovering behind the woman’s left shoulder.
Dr. Kalonia stood examining the three inch cut on his thigh with shrewd eyes, an unreadable expression on her face. “And how did you come by it?”
Poe kept his face as neutral as possible. “I failed to block a jab from Iolo.”
“Wooden, Doctor. We have not progressed to steel, yet.”
“Very well. Novus, what is your diagnosis?”
Rey stepped forward, all of her attention focused on the bright red slash on his inner thigh. Poe willed his face not to heat under the scrutiny.
“Shallow. No need for sutures.”
“Excellent assessment. Clean and bandage the wound and send him on his way.” Without a flourish, Kalonia turned and walked away, stopping at a man three beds down.
Rey didn’t hesitate, digging around the small kit she carried with her and coming up with a coterie of small vials and clean linen bandages.
“That didn’t take long,” she said, barely hiding a smirk as she set out her tools.
Poe pretended to be affronted. “It’s dangerous being a gladiator.”
Rey’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. “Yes, especially when you forget to block your friend’s hit.” Her soft laugh at the look on his face set his heart beating. “Don’t look so surprised, I hear things from the men.”
Poe tried not to think about anything at all when her fingers started to probe at the flesh on his thigh, soft touches tickling the hair on his legs. It wouldn’t do to stand at attention now, not when she was so close.
He swallowed thickly.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you me-” his words ended abruptly in a hiss as she applied a cloth soaked in something foul to the wound.
“Sorry! That one stings.” She busied herself with disinfecting the wound, taking care to make it less painful than earlier. “Is that better?” Her eyes met his, now a soft brown in the lower light of medical wing.
Nodding, he let her apply a tincture - no burning this time - and wrap his thigh in the clean linen bandages. Poe dared not to breathe as she smoothed the edges, her fingers lingering on his heated skin.
“There,” she said, her voice softer than a minute ago. They stood staring at each other as the seconds passed, that spark back in her eyes. They were green again, just barely catching the light from the wide windows.
“That looks painful,” she said, flipping one of his wrists over. A single finger traced the pink and puckered skin left behind by the manacles.
Poe shivered at the touch. “It was.”
With a shake of her head, she seemed to remember herself, snatching away her hand as if burned. “Keep that leg clean and dry for the next day, and you’ll make a full recovery.” The flustered smile she gave him as she quickly packed her bag sent heat coursing through his chest.
“Thank you, doctor.”
She laughed, unable or unwilling to hide the pink blooming on her cheeks. “I’m not a doctor, not yet at least.”
“Is that the plan, then? You’ll become a doctor and your brother will be Emperor?”
Rey’s expression darkened at the question, Poe’s heart dropping. Had he overstepped? He should have known better. His mouth was always getting him into trouble.
“I doubt I’ll make it that far,” she said, casting her eyes down. “Ben - my brother - doesn’t like my being here. Apparently, it is not proper for the sister of the future Emperor to do such low work.” She let the tone of her voice convey exactly how she felt about that statement.
“Well, thank you, I mean it.” It wasn’t a grave wound, but he couldn’t help himself. Not when she looked at him like that - all sad smiles and shining eyes.
“It was nothing.” She waited a beat. “Remember, clean and dry. I better not hear you were in the thermae.”
Placing a hand on his breast, he swore, “On my honor.”
A smile played across her lips. “Stay well, Poe Dameron.”
And then she was gone, winding her way through the beds to her next patient.
He tried to follow her advice, he really did, but somehow he found himself in the medical wing six times over the next two weeks. With the exception of the one day she wasn’t there (when Kalonia had him in and out in minutes), they tended to linger on his wounds, Rey taking extra time to treat him as they got to know each other.
She was more than he ever could have imagined. Kind, smart, intuitive, he was starting to wonder if the stories about her were just that, stories - more fiction than fact.
“So Mom is screaming at Uncle Luke and Uncle Luke is screaming back at Mom, and next thing we know, Ben and I are ducking as she hurls an entire bowl of fruit at Uncle Luke’s head. The bowl alone had to weigh over 10lbs. Pure silver. Ben missed becoming Emperor that day by mere inches.”
Poe’s mouth hung open as she finished the story. He was so used to her gentle touch now that barely even heated while she stitched up his bicep, able to concentrate fully on the story.
“And he did nothing to her? Isn’t that an offense punishable by death?”
Rey rolled her eyes, always dismissive of the way he viewed her family. “He laughed and mocked her for her poor aim. They’re siblings. Siblings fight, even when one is the Augustus of the Roman Empire.” She tied off another stitch. “We’re not all that different from the rest of the populace, I assure you. It’s not all bread and circuses.”
Poe raised a single eyebrow, earning himself a swat on his good arm.
“Don’t give me that look. What was so different about life on the farm?”
“For one, we never called it ‘the farm.’ It was always just home to us.” He paused, swallowing down the sudden emotion rising in his throat. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself to think of home. When he spoke again, his voice was softer. “It was beautiful. Hard work, but fulfilling. Not backbreaking. By the end it was just Dad and I, we didn’t have any hands or servants. But it was enough.”
“Just you and your dad?” She had a gentle way of prodding him for more information, always curious about his life before Rome.
“Yeah, Mom died when I was eight. Fever. And Dad never remarried, so it was just us. Until recently.”
“I’m so sorry, Poe. I didn’t mean to pry.” There was a pause as she looked up from her work. “My father died earlier this year.”
Of course, he had heard about that. Who hadn’t? General Han Solo had been well-loved among all classes in the Empire, a true man of the people. Hell, even Poe was sorry to see him go. Solo seemed like the only one of the bunch who knew how the world really worked.
“I’m sorry, Rey. I know how hard that is.”
Screwing up his courage, he placed one of his hands atop hers. He held his breath, waiting for her to pull back, to recoil from his touch. But the moment never came. Though he knew his palms were rough from years of work, she didn’t so much as flinch as the callouses scraped across her soft skin, turning so their hands clasped. For barely a second, they held on, neither daring to breathe, before Rey released him with a squeeze.
“It must have been lonely with just the two of you.” She dropped her gaze to his wound, blinking to clear the fresh tears swimming in her eyes. At this rate, he would be sewn up tighter than the seam of his tunic.
But he could appreciate the need for distraction.
“Well, there was the rest of the village. We were like a family. When someone needed help, everyone was there, no questions asked. I didn’t realize how good we had it until it was taken away.”
Poe watched as Rey’s brow knitted in confusion, hand pausing before the next stitch.
“But you guys sound so peaceful. Why would the soldiers attack your village?”
He looked at her carefully, trying to judge if she was mocking him.
It wasn’t that she was dumb, in fact she was one of the smartest people he had met in the capitol. She was just a little… obtuse, when it came to the state of the rest of the Empire.
Deciding that it was in fact an innocent question, he answered, “We were Christian.”
Rey took a step back, the needle left dangling by his incomplete stitches.
“You’re Christian?” she whispered, as if the religion was akin to cannibalism or murder.
Poe tried not to be hurt by the horror she had displayed at his confession, watching as she fought for control over her features.
Honestly, he had assumed she figured that much out already. As progressive and kind as her Uncle appeared, he still stuck to the old Gods and the values of his father before him. Christians died by the thousands across the Empire. Poe had been grateful the centurions didn’t kill them on sight.
His disappointment manifested as anger, his voice coming out just above a whisper. “What, better I’m a rapist or murderer? How do you think I ended up in the quarries of all places!”
“You said they caught you helping others escape!” she whisper-yelled back at him. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep their voices down, a few of the people around them turning their heads. “Do you know how dangerous it is to be a Christian?”
He barked out a mirthless laugh. “Yes, I think I’m well aware of how dangerous it is.”
“Do you know what they’ll do to you if they find out?”
The way she was looking at him made him think that she had attended more than one event where Christians had been the main entertainment. Her lip quivered.
With a jolt, he realized that the look of fear on her face wasn’t of him, it was for him.
And just like that, he was trying to comfort her. “Hey, it’s ok. They already know. Hell, half of the men here are Christian. As long as you take the oath, the Lanista doesn’t care about your past.”
That seemed to calm her, though she continued to look around with shifty eyes. “Are there really that many Christians here?”
It was a little surreal to be calmly discussing Christianity with the granddaughter of the man who started persecuting them in the first place, but here they were.
“Well, it’s one of the few ways to get out of places like Tivoli, so yeah, most people take the option when it’s given.”
Satisfied with his answer, she went back to work, the prick of her needle reminding him why he was here in the first place.
A silent ten seconds passed before she spoke again. “I’m sorry, Poe. I should have realized.” She wouldn’t quite make eye contact with him.
“Hey, it’s ok. How would you know?”
“Don’t,” she snapped, shame etched on her features when she finally looked at him. “Don’t make excuses for me. My mother is right, I’ve buried my head in the sand for too long.”
“But not anymore.”
It was as close to an absolution as she would get, and Rey accepted it gratefully before tying off the final knot.
Bandage in hand, she surveyed her handiwork before wrapping his arm in linen.
“There. Good as new.”
He flexed the bicep, testing the pinch of the stitches against his skin. The pain rarely bothered him anymore, months of intensive training building up a tolerance. It didn’t hurt that these flesh wounds were becoming old hat for him. Practice makes perfect.
His time as a novicius was coming to a close. Soon enough, he’d have his final test, a fight he needed to win at all costs. It was the only way to ensure they wouldn’t send him back to the mines - or worse.
And the injuries - as minor as they tended to be - certainly weren’t helping his training. He needed to focus, keep his eyes on the prize and not the face of the woman in front of him. Rey was many things, but a distraction first and foremost, and one that he just plain couldn’t afford.
Until she looked back at him over his shoulder, that private little smile she saved just for him on her lips.
That’s all it took.
He would do anything for that smile, even if it meant missing an easy block to see her again.
Snap, sitting down to get a cut on his forehead looked at by another physician on the bed next to Poe, chuckled. “You do realize you’ll be more good to her healthy and whole for the upcoming fights than hacked to pieces by a wooden sword?”
Poe swatted at his friend knowing all the while that he was right.
If he couldn’t beat his opponent on Friday, there would be nothing left for him. He’d never get a real fight, never graduate with the novicii, never earn the freedoms of a full-fledged gladiator. Until he passed the test, and took the oath, his movements around the school were still limited, observed by the lanistae. But once he won (if he won , his traitorous brain added), he’d have the freedom of a tiro - his own room, wages and winnings for his fights, even the ability to leave the school grounds whenever he liked.
On his way back to the practice ground, he tried not to think about how he’d like to spend that freedom - or who with.
But Rey remained on his mind through the rest of the training hours, even Muran recognizing his distraction.
“Something on your mind, Dameron,” he asked, helping Poe to his feet after a well-aimed hit to the knees. “You seem slow, even for you.”
With a laugh, Poe gave him a playful shove, the larger man not so much as shifting. “Speak for yourself, old man.”
“I’m not the one covered in bandages.” Muran gestured toward the linen on Poe’s bicep, a single eyebrow lifting.
Poe’s hand drifted to the bandage, the stitches bumpy under his fingers. “It’s nothing.”
“Uh huh,” said Muran, squaring up for the next round. He held the gladius in the left hand, right fist clenching and unclenching at his side. “And I am sure it has nothing to do with the pretty little physician who keeps hanging around.”
Poe’s jaw twitched as he matched Muran step for step. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Muran’s smirk left Poe’s blood boiling. “And I am sure you have no idea how you went from one of the most promising novicii to one of the most injured. Funny how you only ever get flesh wounds. Just enough to send you to the clinic, never more, never less.”
Poe let out a roar of frustration as he charged his friend, sword coming up in a vicious arc. Muran blocked his opening swing with a swipe of his wooden blade. His next move met with nothing but air as Poe spun to dodge the blow.
Muran was good, but for once, Poe was better. After weeks of holding back, of allowing himself to take hits he should block, it felt good to give it everything he had.
“Now who’s slow?” asked Poe, quickly sidestepping another sweeping arc from Muran’s sword.
The move had left him wide open, Poe taking advantage of his unprotected side to land a blow below the ribs. Muran let out a grunt, but straightened easily, the months of training leaving them all a little immune to the pain.
“There he is,” Muran said through gritted teeth. Maybe he wasn’t as immune to it as Poe thought.
He wasn’t going to wait to find out.
He struck quickly, three hits in quick succession followed by a perfectly placed kick that left Muran staring up at him from the dirt, wheezing.
Poe balanced the tip of his wooden blade in the hollow of Muran’s throat. “You were saying?”
He waited until Muran lifted his finger in defeat before reaching out a hand to help him up.
Muran accepted the assistance, hauling himself up with no little effort. “I was saying, that if you fight like that on Friday, you’ll have no problem securing your spot here.” He knocked Poe on the head. “But you need to focus on the task at hand, not the pretty doctor. One day she will grow bored with slumming it here and retreat back to her real life. You know, the one with servants and silk and parties so lavish they bring us in for entertainment.” Seeing the look on Poe’s face, he softened his expression. “Just make sure you have something for yourself when she does.”
Poe shook his head. “You don’t know her like I do.”
The bell to signify the end of the day rang out across the yard, the men shuffling toward the bath house to wash up before dinner.
“You’re right. I don’t know Rey, but I do know women of her ilk. Be careful with that one.” With those parting words, Muran turned to go inside, the pity on his face lingering in Poe’s mind long after the conversation ended.
Your lovely comments continue to keep me moving forward with this story. Thank you so much for reading!
Chapter 4: Deos Fortioribus Adesse
The final test does not go as planned.
Chapter title translation: The Gods are on the side of the stronger.
Muran’s words continued to roost in Poe’s brain, taking up space better used for things like strategy and basic speech.
They were finally here, the night before the final test, Poe and his brothers spending their last hours as novicii swapping bits of gossip and speculating outcomes.
Three days had passed since his conversation with Muran, and Poe had avoided the medical wing - and therefore, Rey - in the time since. Muran was right. He needed to be at full strength for the test ahead, not weakened by a thousand little injuries.
Though, that did nothing to lessen the ache in his chest.
“Poe? Poe? You in there?” Snap was waving a hand in front of his face, Poe’s spoon paused halfway between the bowl and his mouth.
He finished the journey, swallowing the thick stew. “Of course, I am.”
Ignoring the odd lapse, Snap went on, Muran watching carefully from his seat beside him. “As I was saying, rumor has it that the Caesar himself will be judging the bouts.” That certainly got Poe’s attention.
“Ben Skywalker is the judge?” Poe leaned forward on the table, his dinner left forgotten at his elbow. “Who told you that?”
Snap leaned back in his seat, a smug smile creeping across his face. “Overhead Wedge talking to one of the assistants. It’s a big honor. Normally, they just get a Senator to do it.”
Honor wouldn’t be the word Poe used for it.
He couldn’t help but wonder about the timing of this great “honor.” He knew from his conversations with Rey that the Caesar was anything but pleased with her working at the Ludus Magnus. And now he was the surprise judge for the novicii tests? Yes, there was definitely more to this story.
Before he could ask Snap anymore questions, Rey appeared out of thin air, as if summoned by Poe’s thoughts.
“There you are,” she said, hovering at the edge of the table.
She was no stranger to their group, having treated them all in the clinic at one time or another (though none as frequently as Poe). Occasionally, she and Finn would even join them for dinner or conversation in the evenings, whiling away the hours until bed. The school afforded the physicians and assistants private lodging in the main building, and Rey took advantage of the perk more and more these days.
Poe caught Muran’s expression out of the corner of his eye, determined not to look at the man. “Here I am.”
A brief look of confusion skated across her face, one she quickly schooled into a more neutral expression. “We should remove those stitches before tomorrow. I fear they may pull and do more damage if left in.”
It was a solid excuse, but as Poe finally looked over at Muran, he could see he wasn’t buying it.
A flash of anger tore through Poe at the look on his friend’s face. Muran may be right about the injuries - there was no good reason for Poe to allow himself to be weakened, especially this close to the final test - but he had no right to judge Poe for who he spent his time with.
With a nod, Poe rose from the bench, leaving his half-eaten food on the table as he followed Rey to the medical wing.
The corridors were quiet for this time of night, a symptom of the upcoming event. Although it was only the novicii being tested, the entire complex appeared to be abed early to prepare for the day.
They met no one on their way to the empty infirmary, Rey forced to light torches when they found the room in complete darkness.
After spending the last few days avoiding her, Poe found it difficult to fill the silence with their usual banter, something Rey quickly picked up on.
“You’re quiet tonight,” she said, unfurling the days-old linen around his bicep. She clucked in approval when she saw how clean he’d kept the wound. “Nervous about tomorrow?”
It was the perfect excuse, one he could take without shame. He was nervous about tomorrow, though not for the reasons she thought. But Poe had never been about taking the easy out.
“Did you know your brother is judging the bouts tomorrow?”
Rey paused, her tiny scissors hovering just above the first knot.
“Yes.” She continued with her task, appearing to choose her next words carefully. “He has taken a great interest in the Ludus Magnus as of late.”
A snip, followed by the familiar tug on raw skin.
“And you see nothing suspicious in that timing? Were you even planning to tell me?”
Another snip. “What would you like me to say? Of course, the timing is suspicious. It’s my brother, after all. He does nothing out of the goodness of his heart. And how would I go about telling you? You’ve been avoiding me for the last three days!” With that, she tugged out the last stitch with a little more force than necessary, drawing a yelp from Poe.
“Shit, shit, I’m sorry.” Her hands shook as she examined his arm, checking for any further damage. “I am such a mess.”
Reaching out, he took her hands in his own. “Rey, what’s wrong?”
She looked up from their joined hands, hazel eyes swimming in unshed tears. “You have to win tomorrow.”
“Well, I certainly wasn’t planning on losing-”
“No, you don’t understand. As long as you win your bout, his hands are tied. You’ll be a gladiator, and he won’t be able to touch you. You’ll be free.”
“To a point. I’ll still be oath bound to the school.”
“Free from Ben’s grasp. Just... win tomorrow. For me.” She took a step back, Poe dropping her hands. For a moment, it looked like she would scurry away, but at the last second she turned, leaning in to place a soft kiss on his cheek. “For luck.”
Before he had realized what had happened, she disappeared, leaving him holding the cheek she had kissed as the torches burned low.
The day of the trials dawned hot and dry, the sun unrelenting as it baked down on the school’s small amphitheatre. It seemed summer wasn’t quite done with them, yet.
But Poe had bigger things to worry about than the weather as he donned the ceremonial loin cloth provided for the occasion. It reminded him of his time as a slave, the months spent working to death in the quarry, regardless of how ornate this version was. They wouldn’t be granted the armor of the gladiator until after they had passed the tests. No, today they would fight like men - bare chested and unprotected.
Breakfast was a near-silent affair, the novicii too nervous to do much more than look at the food. Poe sat a little away, picking at the rapidly cooling oatmeal.
Finn slid next to him on the bench.
“Ready for your big fight?” He was grinning from ear to ear, digging in to his own breakfast.
Poe had gotten to know Finn pretty well over the past few months, thanks to Rey. Turns out, Finn had been taken from his home as a child and brought to Rome to work in the palace as a slave. With no parents to speak of, Leia had taken him under her wing, freeing him and raising him alongside Rey. When he came of age, Luke helped him get his position with the Lanista, an old family friend.
The stories Finn told about Ben Skywalker were enough to turn his stomach. Casual cruelty. The whispers of mistreated slaves. A mean streak a mile long. Mysterious bruises on female staff. They had grown up together, practically brothers, and still Ben called him ‘slave’ to his face. It added a whole new layer to their little stand off in the practice yard.
Poe shrugged. “Ready as I'll ever be.”
“That’s the spirit.” Finn slapped him on the back. “You heard about Ben?”
His mind flashed to Rey’s impassioned plea, the soft heat of her lips on his cheek.
“Yes. Rey mentioned it.” Finally giving up any hope of eating, he pushed the bowl away.
Finn’s eyebrow quirked, but he didn’t comment. “Good. Now all you have to do is win.” He rose from his seat, slapping Poe on the back. “Good luck, friend. Though I doubt you’ll need it.”
Famous last words.
He paced in the small tunnel, waiting for the Lanista to call his name.
Cheers filtered under the stone archway, the crowd screaming at something happening on the field. It was the first time any of them would fight with an audience, all 3,000 seats filled for the main event.
Before long, his name rang out across the amphitheatre, Poe striding forward out into the sun, the sound growing with each step.
It was nothing like the arena where the novicii practiced. A wide oval, the dirt packed hard from use, marked the field of play. This was the good stuff - fine and tamped, nothing like the gravel that dug into their skin on the practice grounds.
His eyes drifted to the balcony, locking for a second with Ben Skywalker.
The young Caesar was dressed splendidly for the occasion, his long purple toga dripping in so much heavy gold, Poe wondered how he managed to stand upright. He couldn’t hide his surprise upon seeing Rey seated next to her brother rather than with the other physicians, looking no less beautiful with the garish golden palla wrapped around her shoulders.
They locked eyes, Rey giving him a stiff nod that didn’t escape her brother’s notice. Next to her, Ben’s eyes narrowed.
All around the oval, the audience stood, cheering as the Lanista named the second competitor.
“Temmin Wexley!” shouted Wedge, the crowd going wild.
Shit. So, he’d be fighting Snap. It was bad enough that he was a friend, but Snap was damn near twice his size, even with the muscle Poe had put on these past few months.
There was no way this was a coincidence, not with the smug look of satisfaction on Ben Skywalker’s face. No, this was intentional, a way to ensure that Poe failed in the most public way possible. But there was something Ben didn’t know. While Snap was by far the biggest man in the school, it was Muran who posed the greatest threat to Poe’s victory.
Tall, broad, and compact, Muran was built for the life of a gladiator. While he couldn’t best Poe for speed, he could topple him in every other category with ease, despite being smaller than Snap.
No, he'd take Snap over Muran any day of the week.
There wasn’t much time to think about that before one of the lanistae was there, holding up a stick between them. Poe spared one final glance to the balcony, drinking in Rey’s face one last time before the lanista dropped the stick to signal the start of the fight.
Poe wasted no time with subtleties, lunging at Snap as a primal shout escaped his lips. Snap brought his gladius up just in time, blocking the blow with relative ease. Poe’s next move landed true, catching Snap on the side of his sword arm with a grunt of pain.
Snap ceded first one step and then another and another until Poe had walked him halfway across the ring. He could see it in his friend’s eyes, the knowledge that he was losing, the panic that brought. But it was nothing personal. There were only two options in the ring: beat or be beaten.
While this fight wasn’t technically to the death (few of them were), it may as well have been. The winner would go on to the glory of the ring and the loser would be cast out, penniless and alone, left to starve on the streets or taken back to where they had been found.
Victory was so close, he could taste it. So close, in fact, he chanced a glance at Rey
Snap seemed to realize that, sensing his momentary distraction and digging deep to land a blow on Poe’s bicep.
White-hot pain shot up his arm. Snap hit him in the exact spot Rey had removed the stitches last night, the wound still bruised and aching. Tears sprang to his eyes, blurring his vision to the point he didn’t see the next hit coming.
Or the next.
Before he knew what was happening, Poe found himself on his knees, looking up, the point of Snap’s sword nestled onto the hollow of his throat. As if from above, Poe watched as Ben Skywalker declared Snap the winner, the look of horror on Rey’s face imprinted onto his very soul.
There was a rushing in his ears as the blood left his head. The world tipped. Numb, he accepted Snap’s hand, dragging himself from the dirt.
The crowd went wild.
Snap gave him a conflicted look, wholly unlike a man who had just won fair and square. “Shit, Poe.”
Poe couldn’t even blame him. If given the opportunity, he would have done the same, without hesitation. That’s who he was now.
He found himself sitting on one of the patient’s tables in the medical wing, none of the physicians willing to look at his injuries. After all, he was no longer a student. They had no obligation to treat his wounds.
“Move! Where is he?”
Through the depths of his despair he recognized the voice.
“I said move, Muran! No, I haven’t done enough, thank you very much.” Rey’s face entered his field of vision. “Poe? Poe, are you ok?”
Her hands cupped his face, worried eyes bobbing in his sight line.
Practiced fingers prodded at him, deftly finding all the places he hurt.
And he hurt pretty much everywhere. The adrenaline was ebbing, leaving behind a world of pain in its place. His nose was surely broken again, and possibly a rib or two if the sharp pain every time he inhaled was any indication. There was a nasty cut on his chest, and more bruises than he dared count.
“Shit, you’re bleeding. I knew those stitches needed another day or two.” Rey had already gotten to work, tying an apron to cover her clothes before picking up the thread.
Unfeeling, he let her work, trying to figure out his next move.
But there was no next move. He lost. If he was lucky, they’d turn him out on the streets. And if he wasn’t…
Well, then he’d be back in the quarries by week’s end.
He had one job, and he couldn’t even do that. All he had to do was beat Snap, someone he had bested almost daily at practice. All he had to do was win.
Wait. All he had to do was win.
He stood up, ignoring the squawking protests from Rey as she tried to tie off his stitches.
It was crazy, but not unheard of. The trials weren’t over. He could demand another opponent.
He was nearly to the arena when he realized that someone was shouting at him.
“Stop! Poe! What do you think you’re doing?” Rey was following behind him, smears of blood (presumably his) marring the cream linen of her apron. She grabbed his arm. “You’re injured, you can’t go back out there. You'll get yourself killed.”
They were standing under the main arch, in full view of the entire miniature amphitheatre.
“I’m sorry, Rey. I have to do this.” With that he slipped out of her grasp, re-entering the arena to thunderous applause.
He spared a look back at her, but Rey was distracted, her eyes locked on the balcony overhead. Poe followed her gaze to her brother, Ben’s face curled in an ugly snarl.
But he couldn’t worry about Ben Skywalker right now.
“I demand another opponent!” he shouted to nobody in particular.
The crowd went wild. It had been years since a trial had proved so entertaining. And if there was one thing Romans loved above all else, it was being entertained.
With the crowd on his side, they could not deny him the request.
So he found himself face to face with Marius, the only man who hadn’t been tested. Streaked in his own blood and dirt, his teeth bared to his opponent - later, they would tell Poe that he looked like one of the Manes themselves, come from beyond to seek vengeance on this world. He certainly felt half dead, his head pounding in the sun, the world tilting as he fought to stay conscious.
Marius wasted no time, opening with a vicious swing Poe barely blocked in time. The hit reverberated up his arm, pain slashing across his bicep.
He was tired, too tired, and they both knew it.
Marius brought his sword up again and again, chipping away at Poe’s defenses. All he had to do was wait Poe out, let his fatigue do the work for him, and he’d come out victorious.
Poe was stronger than he looked, but exhaustion made him sloppy, Marius taking an opening and smashing his head against Poe’s forehead.
The ground tilted precariously, Poe’s eyes losing focus as he tried to decide which way was up. This was it for him, the end. You didn’t come back from two losses.
His vision cleared long enough to make out Rey, one of the master physicians holding her back as she struggled against his grip, fighting to get to Poe on the field. Face contorted with rage and terror, she called out his name, her anguish plain to anyone who heard.
She knew he was going to die.
The world ground to a halt, Poe taking in the stadium around him. Every man, woman, and child was on their feet, the screams drowning out his own heartbeat. Even the Caesar was standing, hands gripping the railing as he looked down from the small balcony.
Marius’s sword was drawn above his head, poised to deliver the final blow.
He would not allow Marius to beat him. He would not go down twice in one day. He would not make Rey watch him die.
Poe exploded into action, stitches straining as blocked the hit. He dug deep, letting muscle memory take over where pain and fatigue creeped in to his limbs. First one hit, then another landed, and soon Marius was bleeding, a cut above his eye opening.
With a grunt of pain, Poe knocked the sword from his hand, the wooden weapon spinning end over end before sticking in the packed dirt. He raised his sword to Marius’s throat.
The crowd went wild.
Poe raised his eyes to the balcony, chest heaving, waiting for Ben to declare the match over.
Though he didn’t appear happy about it, Ben gave the nod, Wedge rushing out to raise Poe’s arm in victory.
Relief flooded through his aching limbs.
He had done it. He was a gladiator now.
Chapter 5: In Vino Veritas
Six weeks after his test, Poe prepares for his first real fight.
Chapter title translation: Truth in Wine
Happy 4th of July (to those of us who are American, myself included)! Dropping this off before heading out to a friend's pool for the day. I hope you enjoy and let me know what you think!
A brief warning and a spoiler in parentheses: We get a slice of Muran's backstory here and why he was sent to the mines. (His master walked in on Muran kissing his wife (consensually) and jumped to a very wrong conclusion that the wife did not correct).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
And so Poe sat on the eve of his first fight as a true gladiator, his promise to Rey rattling around his brain.
It had been six weeks since he’d fought his way from the brink of death and into this life. Six long weeks spent sidelined as he recovered from his injuries, watching as the world continued to spin around him.
Though he couldn’t help but go back to that day (and the promise) over and over again.
As if in a dream, Poe dragged himself toward where Rey stood waiting with Muran and Snap and Finn just under the archway, leaving a trail of blood on the dirt. The stitches had popped at some point, just one pain on a long list that Poe was only just beginning to catalogue. Add to that the throbbing nose and lance of pain that shot through his side every time he took a breath, and he was certainly a sight to see.
Rey’s hand shot out, dragging him deeper through the tunnel that led to the medical wing, Muran and Snap in tow. The hallway went on forever, Poe’s legs only keeping him upright out of habit. When they finally emerged in the infirmary, only a few stragglers remained in the large room, most every one out to watch the final match. His match.
He was so distracted by that thought, that he didn’t notice Rey’s barely simmering anger until she turned it on him.
“What were you thinking?” she shouted, every head turning toward her.
Snap seemed to recognize that a situation was brewing. “Uh, guys, can we have the room?”
The three remaining gladiators shuffled out, followed by the on-duty physician. But not before she gave Rey a long look, one she didn’t notice as she continued to stare down Poe.
“I needed to go back out, it was the only-”
“You were injured! You needed medical attention, not another fight.” She paused, her next words coming out impossibly soft. “You could have died out there.”
“But he didn’t,” added Snap, as unhelpful as ever.
All softness left her voice as she snapped back at him. “Nobody asked you, Temmin Wexley.”
“Uh oh, she used your full name. Somebody’s in trouble,” teased Muran, earning a glare from Rey.
“That goes double for you, Claudius.”
During this entire exchange, Poe had been quiet, focusing all his attention on remaining upright. But as the adrenaline receded, he gave a wobble, the movement not going unnoticed by Rey.
“Out, both of you. I have a patient to attend to.” She turned her attention back to Poe. “Sit.”
She busied herself with checking his injuries, fingers poking and prodding at all the sore spots on his body.
When she got to his arm, she let out a heavy sigh, picking up a wet cloth to wipe away the worst of the blood. “My stitches. This is going to scar, now. There’s no doubt.”
Poe shrugged. “The first of many, I suppose.”
Rey had her back to him, digging in the small bag she kept her needle and thread and all the other bits and bobs it would require to patch him up. At first, he thought she was laughing at him, her shoulders shaking in an effort to hold back. She was mad at him. It wouldn’t do to laugh.
But when she turned to face him, needle and thread in hand, he realized his mistake.
Those wide hazel eyes, normally sparkling with mischief and mirth, shone with unshed tears, a single blink sending them down her cheek to pool at her chin.
“Rey?” He reached out, hesitating a second before his fingers closed around her hand. It wasn’t the first time he’d reached for her, but somehow this felt different, like a conscious choice on his part.
“How can you joke about this? You almost died out there.” Her voice cracked on the final word. “I almost…” The words trailed off, leaving the rest of the sentence unsaid.
“Hey, it’s okay.” Hating to see her like this - and because of him, no less - he pulled her into his arms, Rey melting into his embrace. “I’m still here.”
Her next words were spoke into his shoulder. “But why? You have nothing to prove to these people.”
Poe pulled back. She needed to understand why he did it. He didn’t want her thinking he was some vainglory gladiator, out to prove his worth. “Rey, if I didn’t win today, I wouldn’t just be allowed to go home. That’s not how this works. They’d send me back to the quarries. Or worse.”
Rey’s eyes widened at that. “They wouldn’t.”
“I served at the pleasure of the Empire. They could do whatever they wanted with me.” Reaching up, he swiped a thumb across her cheek, gathering the remaining tears. “But now, I have some protection. I belong to the Lanista.”
She seemed to mull that over, head nodding slightly. Her face was close, so close that he’d barely have to move at all for his lips to her brush hers. And it was tempting - oh, how tempted he was to bridge that gap - but she was the niece of the Augustus. There was nothing that he could offer her but pain and loss and a life so much less than her own.
So they remained frozen, neither daring to make the first move. Poe let himself get lost in her eyes, counting the flecks of green and gold that threatened to drown out the brown in her eyes.
Rey broke the silence. “Make me a promise.”
“Anything.” And it was the truth. He’d give her anything in the world if it meant he’d never have to see her cry again.
“Promise me that you’ll live. That at the end of every fight, you’ll come back to me.”
Everything except that. “You know I can’t promise that.”
“Anything else. Please don’t make me a liar.”
She placed one hand on either side of his face. “Promise me.”
He could recognize a losing battle when he saw one. There was no sense in fighting her.
“I promise,” he whispered, knowing in his heart it was one he couldn’t keep.
And now, he had to figure out how to keep that promise. At least he could do it in his own quarters.
As with all full gladiators, Poe was assigned his own apartment in the main building of the complex, his to do with what he liked. For the first time in years, he wasn’t sleeping in a single room piled high with snoring, farting men. Poe barely slept the first few nights. Too quiet.
But he had come to appreciate the silence, and the privacy, while he recovered. It killed him to watch his friends gain victories while he sat on his ass, unable to do much more than morning exercises in his condition, but Rey had been vehement. No fighting until his ribs healed. So he sat and watched Muran and Snap and Iolo rise to glory while he spent his never-ending free time with Finn or the physician-in-training.
Lately, Rey had been a near constant presence at the school, finding any excuse to run into him. They were friends, just friends, as Poe reminded himself daily. Every time they spoke, Poe forced himself to forget those moments after the test, when she was so close he could practically taste her lips on his own. When he made his promise, and the moment stretched and he swore she was leaning just ever so slightly closer and there was barely a breath that separated them, only to have Dr. Kalonia barge in and Rey jump backward as if she’d been shocked.
Things had been decidedly less heated between them since, so much so that Poe could almost convince himself it had all been in his head. But then he’d remember the flush on her cheeks as she looked down at him through her eyelashes, eyes sparkling with their shared secret as Kalonia watched her work.
They hadn’t shared a moment quite like that since, though Poe couldn’t help but think it was for the best. What could a poor former slave offer a woman like Rey? Nothing, that’s what. Despite the promise he’d made her, there was no guarantee he would live to see the end of his contract with Wedge.
And that wasn’t even taking into account that she was the niece of the goddamned Emperor.
No, it was definitely better this way.
Looking at the shadows around his quarters, he realized with a jolt that it was past time to be getting to the party.
It was tradition for a lavish party to be held the night before a major match, sponsored by the men who stood to profit the most from them - the local bookkeepers. Though Poe had yet to attend - it felt wrong to go when he wasn’t eligible to fight - as the main event for tomorrow, the entire night was in his honor.
Thanks to his unorthodox path into the ring, there was a bit of legend that already surrounded Poe Dameron, regardless of the fact that he had yet to see a real match. One of his sponsors had delivered a gleaming white and gold-lined tunic for the occasion, as was only fitting for the man who demanded another.
That’s what they were calling him now, The Man Who Demanded Another, like it was some greater plan, like he wasn’t actually The Man Out of All Other Reasonable Options. But it had made him a profitable opponent, even before he stepped into the arena.
His new room was sprinkled with the generosity of his sponsors - a statuette from a man who had won handsomely when Poe beat Marius, small trinkets from a number of prominent wives from around the city, even a new sword courtesy of a wealthy widow that showed interest in his “career.”
In fact, out of everyone fighting for Wedge, only Muran had collected more sponsors than Poe, and Poe hadn’t even fought a match yet, something he was determined to never let his friend live down.
Muran was a fan favorite, undefeated through the two matches he’d fought so far. Taller than Poe but compact, Muran had been built for this life. He was stronger than men a head taller than him, gaining the reputation of Giant Killer, despite not having actually killed anyone yet.
It was something that continued to surprised Poe, the lack of death in the ring. Sure, it happened, though mainly though injury not outright slaughter. A loss didn’t automatically mean death. Through Muran, he’d learned it was quite costly to kill a gladiator, what with the money owed to the lanista of the deceased. But that didn’t calm Poe’s nerves as a sharp rap on his door preceded Muran barrelling into the room.
“Ready? The cena libera awaits.”
Muran was dressed in a similar tunic, though with less gold, his belt a sumptuous leather decorated with bronze accents.
Poe raised his eyebrows at him. “You certainly dressed for the occasion.”
Muran threw an arm around his shoulders, leading him from the room. “Got to look good for my adoring fans. Wait until you see it, widows and divorcees as far as the eye can see, all vying to bed the next champion.” He released Poe with a suggestive waggle of his brows. “Depending on the caliber of the lady you choose, your bets will rise accordingly.”
“I don’t know, it seems time would be better spent resting or training before the match tomorrow,” Poe responded with a shrug.
Muran gave him a knowing look. “Your lack of enthusiasm wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain assistant physician that’s been hanging around, would it?”
There was no point in lying, Muran knew him too well. But that didn’t stop him from doing it anyway. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“Okay, okay, you don’t have to tell me. Just remember what I said about women like Rey Skywalker.”
“How could I forget?”
Muran had made his feelings about Rey clear from the very beginning. It made no sense to Poe. As far as he could tell, she had been nothing but nice to Muran, patching him up frequently and making small talk easily. And Muran was never rude, in fact, he seemed to like Rey as a person. He was just dead set against Poe getting involved with her.
They spent the rest of the walk discussing more neutral topics, all weirdness regarding Rey forgotten.
In short order, they were standing in front of the doors to the hall, sounds of the party beckoning them inside. It was exactly as Muran had described, delicacies piled high on every table, the wine free flowing and bottomless. And the women. Oh, the women were everywhere, old, young, and everything in between rushing over to get a moment of his time.
Fellow gladiators sat on low couches spread throughout the space, one or three women draped across their laps. The candles burned low, providing shadowy niches it would be all too easy to disappear into. A soft moan reached his ears from one of the hideaways.
Poe’s face heated.
It wasn’t that he was opposed to such diversions, on the contrary, he’d enjoyed the love of a woman on more than one occasion before the Empire had come. But this… between the wine and the food and the women, the party was quickly approaching a bacchanalia.
Swept up by the wave of admirers, it took him nearly a quarter of an hour to notice one particular guest hanging back just outside the main ring of partygoers, sticking to the fringes and dimly lit alcoves.
Tall for a woman, her slim body was wrapped in a pallas of deep red, the edges lined in golden embroidery. A pair of golden combs held her hair aloft, a complicated pattern of chestnut braids shining whenever her hair caught the light. Black smudges lined her eyes, gold and green shining even half a room away. From here, he couldn’t see the freckles, but it didn’t matter, he knew they were there.
By the time he was able to extricate himself from the crowd, a half hour had passed and he was two cups in to the heady, sweet wine they kept pouring. With the excuse that he needed the toilet, he was finally set free, edging around the party until he made it to the column his mystery woman leaned against.
“Fancy seeing you here,” he said by way of greeting, leaning just next to her.
Though she didn’t look at him, choosing instead to continue scanning the party, he didn’t miss the twitch of her painted red lips. “I was surprised you could find me at all, what with all the admirers vying for your attention.”
Later, he’d blame the wine, the way it loosened his tongue, but in the moment the words felt too right to ignore. “And yet, all I can see is you.”
Slowly, she turned to look at him, eyes sparkling in the candlelight.
“Poe.” His name felt like a caress coming from her lips as she leaned forward, the distance between them disappearing.
He didn’t have time to think, to put the brakes on what he knew in the (very small) rational part of his brain was a bad idea, because Rey’s lips were on his own. Before he could even compute what was happening, she pulled away, the tacky paint tugging at his lips.
All common sense went out the window as he took in the flush of her skin, a hand coming up to drag her face back to his.
This time they gave the kiss room to breathe. Her lips molded to his, something low and slow unfurling in his gut. His back hit the column with a thud, Rey’s mouth hot and insistent on his. Her hands worked their way up his arms, pausing as one hit the rough skin of his new tattoo. Poe took in a sharp breath.
“Sorry, sorry,” she whispered, her hands dropping to his waist.
Poe wasn’t sure how he felt about the tattoo. Every gladiator received one after taking the oath, marking their contract with the Lanista. It was a sign of honor, of his place in the great tradition, or so he was told. Poe couldn’t help but see it as just another form of bondage.
But it was there to stay, at least until he worked off his contract. Then there would be an addition marking him retired. Though he couldn’t seem to muster any of his earlier resentment as Rey brushed curious fingertips over the sore skin on his bicep.
“Did it hurt?”
She was still so close he could feel her breath on his lips.
He answered truthfully. “Yes.”
Rey accepted that answer, leaning forward once more.
“There you are, Poe.” Muran’s voice had them both jumping back. “I’ve been looking everywhere. Big day tomorrow, we should probably head home.”
Poe turned to him, eyes narrowed. He knew for a fact that Muran had stayed out half the night before each of his matches, stumbling back half drunk to sleep it off. For his part, Muran looked the picture of innocence. A little too innocent.
Apparently, Rey didn’t notice anything amiss, taking a careful step backward. “Of course, you need your rest.” The blush had spread from her cheeks to her neck where it disappeared under her pallas. “I’ll wish you luck tomorrow.”
Two more steps back and then she turned to scuttle away, losing herself in the crowd.
Poe turned on Muran. “What. The. Fuck.”
“Come on, you’ll thank me later.” Muran grabbed his arm, dragging him toward the doors and into the night air. “And for Gods’ sake, wipe the paint off your lips.”
Shrugging out of his hold, Poe wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “What is your problem? Couldn’t you see I was a little busy there?”
“I’m doing you a favor, believe me.”
Poe stopped, crossing his arms over his chest. “No. Rey had been nothing but nice to you. Tell me what you have against her.”
Muran turned, scrubbing one hand over his face. For the first time since Poe had met him, he looked tired, unsure of himself.
“I told you I was born a slave.”
“Well, I worked in one of the more well-to-do houses up north. It was a prestigious upbringing, even for a slave. I was training to be a cook.” He paused, taking a deep breath before continuing on. “Everything was fine until the master got a new wife.
“She was young and beautiful and bored, so very bored. So she started spending time in the kitchen with me.
“We were in love. Or I thought we were. So when the master came home one day to find us kissing and lost his damn mind, I expected her to do more than stand by and let him send me to the quarries for ‘forcing myself on her.’”
“Shit,” Poe swore.
Muran gave a mirthless laugh. “Shit, indeed. She came to visit before they took me to Tivoli. When I asked her why, do you know what she said? She couldn’t disappoint her family like that. I was being sent to die in the mines and she didn’t want to disappoint daddy.”
Muran’s disdain for Rey made a lot more sense knowing the whole story. But something still ate at him. “But would it have been any different if she confessed? You both would have been sent to the mines.”
“A patrician? Please. She would have lost her standing, that’s all.”
She would have lost a lot more than just that, and Poe knew it. Probably her full rights as a citizen. There wasn’t much besides prostitution for an adulteress if she was caught. But there wasn’t a right answer here. If anything, it was another example of how the Empire forced its way into every facet of life.
“Listen, I’m not telling you this so you feel sorry for me,” said Muran, a hand gripping Poe’s shoulder. “Be careful with her. If it comes down to you or her, she’ll choose herself every time.”
Muran’s words swirled around his head long after they had parted ways at the school.
Full disclosure: Gladiators only fought twice, maybe three times per year. But, since that would make for a very boring (or incredibly long) story, my gladiators fight quite a bit more than that in the chapters ahead.
Chapter 6: Si Vis Amare, Ama
Poe and Rey hatch a plan to be together. Later, Poe is dealt a devastating blow.
Chapter title translation: If you wish to be loved, love.
The day of his first fight dawned cool and bright, the southern winds making themselves known in the trees outside his window.
He prepared himself as he would on any other day - making his bed, brushing out his curls, cleaning the sleep off his face. But when it came time to dress, he reached not for the standard tunic and loincloth, but for the new clothes waiting in the top drawer of his dresser.
It was a process, getting dressed, each layer building on the next until he finally looked the part.
First went on the subligaculum, a linen number much nicer than his everyday wear. Padding came next, followed by the leather gifted to him by the Lanista, wraps for arm and wrist, and a new sword belt for the occasion. Finally, he looked to the metal pieces stacked by the door, the standard shoulder guards provided by the school, a pair of greaves, and the shiny gold cingulum, a gift from one of his admirers.
This was it, the final step into his new life. If he lost here, they’d write him off as a flash, one who shone bright and fizzled spectacularly. But if he won, well, then he was on his way.
As he strode onto the field, he hoped against hope that he looked more confident than he felt. Today, his opponent was a top contender from Ludus Gallicus, a seasoned fighter Poe thought he had little chance of beating.
While they waited for the lanista to signal the start of the match, his promise to Rey echoed through his mind.
Promise me that you’ll live.
The lanista dropped the stick.
He assumed it would make him weaker, more afraid to lose, but it was her words that came to mind when he was cornered, mere inches away from the business end of his opponent's gladius. Just like that he dug a little deeper, finding the strength to turn the tables.
And he won.
Time and time again.
The months passed in a haze of victories. There were losses, too (he wasn’t Muran, after all), but Poe had been lucky. It seemed no one was willing to pay the fee for his death.
Though most of his matches did end in injury. On the up side, he didn’t even need to try to come up with excuses to see Rey anymore.
On the down side, avoiding her was impossible, especially when she insisted on handling all of his injuries herself. His noble plans to keep her at a distance flew right out the window the moment he got off the field after his first match and she threw herself into his arms (out of sight of the crowd, thank God).
These days, the casual violence of the ring no longer even registered with Poe. This was his life now. Plus, it wasn’t like he was actually killing people. Some days it was hard to imagine the man he’d been before - weak, docile, scared of his own shadow. He’d been so afraid that this would change him, he didn’t stop to wonder if maybe, just maybe, that wasn’t a bad thing. It didn’t hurt that he was good at it.
He’d learned a lot over the past few months, most of all was how to take a hit. There was an art to it. A way that ensured you wouldn’t get hurt (too badly) while providing an opening to strike your opponent. And Poe was very good at taking hits. Maybe a little too good, judging by the cuts and bruises that littered his body.
But it was all part of the game, and the crowds loved him for it.
There was no doubt that his matches were favored among the Roman people. He had a knack for getting himself into trouble - cornered by an opponent, brought to his knees in near defeat - only to turn the tables at the last second in a stunning victory.
While he insisted it was intentional (I must give the crowds what they want!), no one, least of all Rey, believed him.
Though it helped him collect sponsors the way wealthy men collected coin. His room was filled with the spoils, small statues, embroidered tunics, weapons of every shape and size, even a small bag of winnings that grew a little more each time he fought. It wouldn’t buy his freedom, not yet, but it could buy small delicacies at the market or little trinkets for a certain assistant physician.
As if summoned by his thoughts, there was a sharp knock at the door.
Getting up from the bed with some difficulty (this afternoon’s training had been brutal), he crossed the room to find Rey waiting on the other side of the door, bag in hand.
“Muran said you were hurt,” she said by way of greeting, not waiting for an invitation to push her way into the room. “Why didn’t you come down?”
Poe shook his head. Leave it to Muran to not know when to keep his mouth shut. “I’m fine. It’s no big deal.”
That was a lie. But in his defense, he hated that worried crease that formed between her eyes every time he showed up in the medical wing. He’d do anything to keep it off her face. Though all he did this time was delay it, as it was back in full force when she turned to fix him with a glare.
“Ok, no big deal, then let me see it.”
With a sigh, his fingers went to the edge of his tunic, pulling it over his head and off with a wince. He pretended not to notice the soft blush on Rey’s cheeks when he sat down in only his underthings.
As always, she recovered quickly, much more interested in the bruising on his side. “What happened?”
Even he had to admit they were impressive. Muran had been paired with him that afternoon for a practice round and he’d gotten in a good hit on Poe. He wasn’t the best gladiator in Rome for nothing.
“Muran happened. He caught me with the flat side of his sword.” Poe sucked in a breath as her fingers probed the area.
“Well, nothing’s broken. That’s the good news.” She paused, giving Poe time to steel himself for the bad news. “Bad news is you’ll have to take it easy the next couple days or risk hurting yourself worse.”
A few months ago, Poe would have shrugged her off. Here at Ludus Magnus, they had the best medical care the civilized world could offer. There was no way he would be sidelined by a bruise.
That had been before he’d watched Cato die.
It had been a bruise, a really big one, but a bruise nonetheless. Cautioned by the head physician to take it easy, Cato had ignored the warning. When he took a hit the next day at training, he didn’t get back up.
Turns out, that while Poe had watched them sew up a dozen wounds, set more than one bone, and even reattach a severed finger, there just wasn’t much the physicians could do about internal bleeding.
They buried him on a crisp autumn morning, surrounded by his brothers.
Poe joined the brotherhood that day, knowing that if he died, there would be no one else to bury him. Rey didn’t understand why he was so adamant about it, but then again, why would she? She was an Augusta of Rome, daughter of Leia Skywalker, niece of the Emperor, sister of the future Emperor. There would always be someone to pay for her burial.
For the gladiators, it was different. Most had been slaves or poor volunteers, either taken from their families or with no family to take them from. Few had wives, but those who did wanted some assurance that they would be taken care of if or when they died in the ring.
So the men started their own group, a club that collected some of their wages, and when the time came, there was always enough to bury a brother. On the off chance their fallen comrade had a wife or kids (or both), they’d make sure they were not forgotten.
So Poe heeded Rey’s advice with a nod, carefully shrugging back into his tunic. “How long?”
Rey looked thoughtful for a moment, like she was debating what to tell him. But he trusted her, and truth won out with a sigh. “No more than three days.”
That he could work with.
But Rey didn’t seem convinced, the groove in her forehead deepening.
Reaching out, he beckoned her forward, spreading his knees so she could stand between them. Arms looped around her waist, he looked up at her. “What’s wrong?”
“I hate seeing you like this,” she replied, hands automatically going to his curls. Poe practically purred as blunt fingers scratched at his scalp, burying his head in her stomach. “Don’t you ever grow tired of fighting?”
Poe barked out a hoarse laugh. “I don’t get such luxuries.”
They remained entangled as minutes passed, neither daring to move first. Poe inhaled deeply, memorizing the scent of her perfume that lingered on her long tunic.
Since the eve of his first fight, they hadn’t exchanged so much as a kiss, both appreciating how dangerous it would be if they were caught. Luckily, it seemed like Rey’s brother and uncle were both still in the dark. Well, at least no Centurions had come to haul him away to the mines in the night. That had to count for something.
But as time went on, it had become harder and harder to ignore the pull. Desperately, he tried not to think of the way her lips felt against his or how soft the skin under this rough linen would feel under curious fingertips. He grew warm at the thought, regardless of the temperature of his room.
Finally, Rey broke the silence.
“Have I ever told you about my father?”
Ok, so definitely not where his thoughts were going. Not that he was upset. If the liquid heat in his gut was any indication, he could use a distraction right about now.
Poe shook his head. “Not really. Just that he died this year.”
With the exception of that one time, she never mentioned the man, but Poe knew well enough that he had died not too long before they had met. From his limited knowledge, Han Solo sounded like one of the good ones. There was some intrigue surrounding his death, but the official word from the Empire was that he died of old age.
Taking a deep breath, Rey left his arms to join him on the bed. “He was a gladiator, like you. Only, he chose it. A bit of a mercenary, my dad.” She paused, smiling at some distant memory he wasn’t privy to. “In it for the money and the glory. And he was good at it. Good enough to catch my mom’s eye where she sat next to her father up on the Emperor’s balcony.
“My grandfather was not a good man.” Poe stifled a laugh at the understatement of the century. “Anakin Skywalker never would have allowed the relationship. But he died shortly thereafter, and Uncle Luke ascended.
“The people were mad for them. The Augusta and the Gladiator. It was a love story for the ages. And with the unrest, courtesy of my grandfather, Uncle Luke didn’t hesitate to bless the union.”
He could see where she was going with this. “So you think he’ll do the same for us.” The look on her face provided all the confirmation he needed.
It was tempting to give in to the thought that maybe, just maybe, they could be together after all. But in the end, reason won out.
“Rey, I’m not free like your father was. No one would accept a woman of your standing marrying, well, me.”
“What do you remember about Han Solo?”
Poe wasn’t sure where she was headed with this, but he was game. “He was a General. And a pretty good one, right?”
“Exactly. No one even remembers where he started, just that he married my mother and led the armies to victory time and time again. The people have a short attention span. No one will even remember you were a gladiator in a year.”
“Ok, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have a contract, one I’m bound by blood oath to keep.”
“I know, but my uncle’s new amphitheatre is set to open soon.” When he didn’t immediately respond, she went on. “The opening games. They’ll want something splashy for people to remember. Uncle Luke is already talking about handing out a rudis. You can win your freedom.”
Poe couldn’t help the laugh. “You put a lot of faith in my abilities.”
“You and I both know you could do it.”
Poe was thoughtful for a minute. It was quite the plan. And she was right, it could work, but only if all the pieces fell together just so.
“How do you know your uncle will agree?”
A smile spread across Rey’s face. She knew she had him. “Uncle Luke wants nothing more than my happiness. It’s why he hasn’t insisted I be married off yet. But…”
Ah, Ben Skywalker, lurker of dark corners and master of sneers. He would be a problem.
With a sigh, Rey went on. “Unfortunately, my idiot brother has a lot more in common with our grandfather than with our uncle.” She paused, looking down to where she was wringing her hands in her lap. “He’s made it very clear that he doesn’t think I should work at Ludus Magnus.”
Poe reached over to still her nervous hands, taking them in his own.
“Does he know about us?”
It was the first time either of them had acknowledged that there was something going on between them, something more than doctor-patient or even friendship.
“I don’t think so.” A flush appeared on Rey’s cheeks. “But I… I don’t think anyone misses the way I look at you.”
“And how exactly do you look at me?” Poe couldn’t help but be a little smug at the admission, earning a swat from Rey.
“Oh, you know very well how I look at you. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the same way you look at me.”
She had him there.
Poe’s answering laugh was short-lived. “Until we know for sure…”
“I know.” She cupped his cheek with one hand. “I should be going.”
It took another minute for her to get off the bed, Poe following her toward the door.
Rey lingered on the threshold. “Good day, Poe.”
“Good day, Rey.”
The words were an acceptable farewell for doctor and patient, professional and anonymous, perfect for two people not wanting to raise any eyebrows.
Though if anyone had been present in the hallway to witness the look they exchanged, or the way their bodies tilted toward each other as if pulled by some inexorable force, well, it would have been very dangerous indeed.
Poe’s stomach growled as he made his way down the hall to Muran’s room. It was late, and Muran hadn’t come to drag him to dinner as usual. He had checked the training rooms, assuming Muran had simply lost track of time, but he wasn’t there. Nor was he out on practice field or in the gardens.
It was rare that Muran spent any time in his room when he wasn't sleeping, but stranger things had happened. Maybe he needed a nap after Poe beat him soundly in practice this morning.
He knocked, waiting for the characteristic grumble he got any time he woke his friend, but was instead greeted with silence. That was odd. Where else would he be?
Poe knocked again, absently wondering if Muran was pouting. It was rare for Poe to best him in anything. Maybe he wasn’t taking it well.
Poe pushed the door, finding it unlocked.
It took a moment for what he was seeing to register.
The room was empty. The bedding gone, every personal item removed, it was like Muran never existed. Even the pile of armor near the door was missing.
Panic flooded through him as he raced toward the hospital wing.
There was little sentimentality at the Ludus Magnus. When a fighter died, his things were gathered and either sold or given to his next of kin. There was always someone waiting for a room.
He burst into medical, searching for the only person who could give him answers.
“Rey!” he practically shouted when he found her working on Snap in the back of the ward. “Was Muran here? Did he…” The rest of the sentence refused to come out, but she seemed to understand what he was asking.
“No, he hasn’t been in at all today. What happened?”
It was Snap who answered. “They sold his contract to a school in Capua. Put him on a cart with all his shit right after practice this morning.”
“He’s gone? Just like that?”
Snap’s expression matched Poe’s feelings on the matter perfectly. “Just like that.”
Not wanting to hear anymore, he stumbled out of the wing, ignoring Rey’s calls behind him.
As if he needed further proof that this thing with Rey could never work. They were kidding themselves. If Muran, the veritable star of the city of Rome, could be sold with no notice, what hope did Poe have? They could be ripped apart at any moment. Better not to even try.
Rey found him in one of the empty training rooms, taking his frustration out on one of the bags.
“Snap said I’d find you here,” she said, approaching slowly. She stood behind him watching. “You know, you should really wrap those knuckles.”
Poe barked out a bitter laugh. “Yeah, I’ll get right on that.” With the next hit, he felt a split open on his knuckles.
He ignored her, focusing all his anger into the next hit.
The whole world narrowed down to the bag and the pain and the blood spreading hot and thick over his knuckles.
“Poe.” Her hands wrapped around his fists, stopping the next hit. “I’m sorry about Muran.”
He jerked his fists out of her hands. “This isn’t about Muran.”
Rey raised her eyebrows.
Poe sighed, turning away from her. This would be easier if he couldn’t see her face. “He was the best we had. And they sold him to another school like chattel. If they could do that to him, how easy would it be to do the same to me?”
The unspoken words hung between them. How easy would it be for them to take me away from you?
When he finally turned around, tears painted his face.
Rey’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “Let’s look at those hands.”
She led him to a chair in the corner, Poe sitting without further instruction. Digging around her ever-present bag, she wiped the blood off his knuckles with a damp cloth, careful to avoid the worst of the cuts.
“You really did a number on these,” she said, wiping on an ointment before wrapping them in fresh linens strips. “It will be hard to hold a sword for a bit.”
He watched her expertly tie off the ends.
Poe looked up.
“If it happens, we’ll figure it out.” She stopped, running a thumb over his bandaged knuckles. “I love you.”
She said it like it was just that simple. Like her loving him was the easiest thing on the planet. Like him loving her wasn’t the most dangerous.
“I love you, too.”
Chapter 7: In Absentia Lucis, Tenebrae Vincunt
Tragedy strikes the Skywalker family, forever changing Rey and Poe's relationship.
Chapter title translation: In the absence of light, darkness prevails.
Luke Skywalker, Augustus of the Roman Empire, died on a crisp spring morning, aged 53 years old.
The empire fell into turmoil. There was wailing in the streets. A week-long period of mourning was declared leading up to his funeral procession.
Poe had never seen the like. The highest ranking statesman in Rome carried Luke’s body, the bier draped in gold and flowers. The procession stretched from one end of the city to the other, a never-ending line of musicians and mimes, not to mention the mourners. Rumor had it, they didn’t even have to pay for professionals. The mourners had all volunteered.
The actors followed, masked men who played the parts of Emperor Skywalker’s ancestors.
From his vantage point on the street, Poe watched as the family passed, the very end of the line. Leia and Rey walked arm in arm, Rey doing her best to support her mother.
Leia looked older than he remembered, her long hair now more grey than brown. It had been barely a year since she lost her husband, and now this. She kept her eyes forward, stoic until the end. But that didn’t fool Poe. He could see the red in her eyes even from where he stood.
And Rey. Poe hadn’t seen her since she showed up at his door a week ago with the news. She’d spent the night crying in his arms, finally falling asleep as the sun rose outside his window.
He’d never felt more helpless in his life. His own mother had died when he was eight, so he knew from experience there was nothing he could say or do but be there for her. So he held her and let her cry and told her he loved her.
It looked like she hadn’t slept in the week since then. He could tell that she was trying to keep it together, but though she held her head high, the tears continued to slide down her cheeks as she walked. Readjusting her dark palla over her shoulders, she caught Poe’s eye, her lips compressing in recognition. Without thinking, he mouthed ‘I love you,’ Rey placing a hand on her heart in response.
The move did not go unnoticed.
As the future Augustus, Ben brought up the rear, his smug face unable to contort itself into anything approaching real grief. At least he looked the part, dressed head to toe in black, his wide, sweeping toga dragging across the ground. For the most part, his attention was on the crowd, but he looked up just as Rey raised her hand.
A glare flashed across his face, the look that much more dangerous now that Rey’s uncle was gone.
They both thought they had more time. The great amphitheatre still wasn’t finished, but Rey had been working on her uncle, convincing him to let Poe fight. An auspicious occasion such as the opening of the great Skywalker Amphitheatre called for a grand spectacle, one that involved a rudis. Luke had been receptive, mulling the idea over, but not yet ready to make the final decision, even with the opening mere months away.
But all their schemes had died with Luke. And something told Poe that the next Emperor wouldn’t be as receptive.
As the procession passed, the crowd slowly joined the end, making their way to the center of the city. There, they had erected a great pyre to send the Emperor to his final resting place.
By the time he made it to the square, it looked like half the city was in attendance, Poe jostling to get in view of the pyre.
Ben already stood on the platform, his brand raised. Apparently, Poe had missed the horses and chariots. As heir to the throne, Ben would be the first to light the fragrant grasses and wood piled under the bier, followed by Rey and Leia. Then it would be the most auspicious citizens’ turn to add to the flame until finally the rest of the spectators could have their turns.
It took forever, every citizen clamoring for their chance to light the pyre, until finally the wood took and Emperor Luke Skywalker was consumed. Someone atop the nearest building released the eagle to guide him to heaven, where he’d spend eternity with the gods.
Poe tried not to choke on the smoke, the herbs and grasses doing little to disguise the smell. This was always the worst part of a funeral, and Poe was glad that his brotherhood chose to bury despite the current fashion among the elite. It was a much cleaner process.
When Luke was sufficiently consumed and his ascension confirmed, they started to make their way to the Forum for the speeches. Ben would deliver the formal eulogy given his status as the Caesar, though Poe knew Rey would have been the better choice. According to her, Ben and Luke barely even spoke toward the end thanks to Ben’s “progressive” ideas for the Empire.
The walk took forever, slowed by the thousands of citizens vying for a place at the celebration. By the time Poe made it to his seat, Ben was already ascending the platform.
Despite the occasion, a cheer went up for the soon-to-be emperor, Ben not even trying to hide the self-satisfied smirk on his face.
Poe looked over to where Rey was sitting with her mother, their hands linked. It killed him to not be able to hold her, to comfort her as her brother waxed poetic about the glory of Rome and the tradition of the Emperors, using his uncle’s eulogy to bring the people to his side.
Rey turned, those wide hazel eyes shining in the early spring sun.
Ben droned on, Poe allowing himself to get lost in the memory of Rey in his arms, the brush of her lips against his, the way her soft skin felt on calloused hands.
Poe was ripped from his daydream when the speech finished to thunderous applause, the entire Forum rising to their feet. How quickly the people forgot who they were mourning in the face of someone shiny and new. Only Rey and Leia remained unmoved in the crowd, their grief nearly palpable, even across the aisle.
Finally, it was time for the feast. Poe’s position as the top gladiator in Rome had earned him one of the coveted seats, and he was planning on using his invitation to secure a private audience with Rey. He needed to figure out how she was holding up through this all. Plus, it had been far too long since he’d held her.
His opportunity came late in the evening, long after most of the guests were well into their cups.
He’d been watching Rey pick at her dinner from his seat in the main dining area. His table had taken full advantage of the free-flowing wine, an outburst of laughter drawing Rey’s attention from her plate.
When her eyes settled on Poe, a brief nod toward the passage behind him was all she needed to understand. They waited until Ben was occupied with a pompous Senator to make a break for it, Poe making his excuses to his dining companions.
Rey was already waiting in the hallway. Before he could speak, she grabbed his hand, dragging him further into a niche hidden in the wall.
And then she was kissing him, her lips hot and insistent while she pressed his back into the stone wall. He opened his mouth almost immediately, tongue darting out to taste her properly. Hands roamed up his chest, Rey’s fingertips digging in when he nibbled her bottom lip. Oh, how he’d missed this.
In the space of a month, her kisses had gone from tentative to voracious, Rey quickly learning all the ways to draw a moan from his lips. She used that knowledge now, moving her attention to his neck, teeth dragging across the sensitive skin on his throat.
She cut off his answering moan with her lips, his brain going soft and mushy. There was something he wanted to do, a reason (besides this) that he asked to meet her but it was just out of reach.
Oh, that’s right.
“Rey,” he said, trying to get her attention as she worked a spot behind his ear.
Her response vibrated against his neck. “Mmm.”
“Rey, hold on a second.”
She finally looked up, confusion painting her features. “You don’t want to?”
Poe tried not to laugh at the absurdity of that statement. “Oh god, how I want to. But I came here to see how you’re doing. I know how close you were with Luke, and everything with your brother…”
“Are we really talking about my uncle and brother right now? Read the room, Dameron.”
His answering laugh echoed in the small space. “I just want to make sure you’re ok.” He kissed the wrinkle in her brow. “How are you handling things?”
Her expression softened into something too fond for words. Absently, Poe wondered if anyone had bothered to ask her that yet.
“Mum and I are managing, I suppose,” she shrugged, the gesture not fooling Poe for a second. “After father died, Uncle Luke was really there for us. And now he’s gone, too, and Ben… Ben’s downright gleeful. Too worried about becoming Emperor to mourn, I guess.”
Poe thumbed away a tear that slid down her cheek.
“I just miss him. And I’m terrified of what’s going to happen to mum and I once Ben is in charge.” She stopped to consider her next words. “He can be… difficult at times.”
Poe had no trouble reading between the lines of that statement.
“Is there anything your mother can do? As the head of household?”
“Against the Emperor?” Rey shook her head, a rueful smile on her face. “I highly doubt it.”
Now it was his turn to be optimistic. “We’ll figure it out, I promise.”
Rey nodded, not looking convinced.
To punctuate his point, he put two fingers under her chin, tilting her face until their lips touched.
A throat cleared in the dark.
Rey jumped so far back, he heard her hit the opposite wall.
“Rey, we need you for the toast,” came Ben’s voice from just outside their niche. She gave Poe an apologetic look before scurrying down the hall. He debated trying to stay hidden in the wall (it was barely lit in there, after all), but it was too late. “Good to see you again, gladiator. Poe Dameron, is it not?”
Poe looked down at Ben’s extended hand. Of all the ways he had imagined meeting Rey’s family, this was certainly at the bottom of the list. Recovering from the shock, he clasped the hand in a familiar gesture of peace. Maybe Ben wasn’t as bad as everyone thought.
With a sharp tug, Ben pulled him close, his voice a growl in Poe’s ear. “If I ever see you near my sister again, I’ll slit your throat with a smile.”
Ben let go, taking a step back. “Lovely meeting you, Poe.”
With a flourish of his elegant black toga, he was gone.
Poe spent the next few days in a haze of terror and uncertainty, constantly looking over his shoulder despite the fact that he hadn’t seen Rey since the night of the feast.
It would be all too easy for an accident to befall him on his way home from a match or a party. Something that wouldn't raise any eyebrows, like a runaway beast from the Ludus Matutinus or maybe a robbery gone wrong.
But he was still the most popular fighter in Rome, and as such, would be expected to attend the coronation of the Emperor. So not even a week after being threatened by him, Poe clapped and cheered with the masses as Ben Skywalker was named Augustus of the Roman Empire.
He’d barely even dared to look at Rey during the ceremony, but for all his best efforts, her light continued to draw his eye.
She was as dressed up as he’d ever seen her, her palla a pure gold that shone in the sun. Her face was a mask of indifference, lips painted red and eyes smudged black to highlight her features. Though she looked nothing like the Rey he’d fallen in love with, he couldn’t help but admire her for playing her part. She looked every inch an Augusta.
And when it was time for her to place the Corona Radiata on his head, she did so with the proper mix of gravity and deference as befitted such a solemn event.
So Ben was crowned Augustus Caesar Ben Skywalker, Imperator of Rome.
Poe couldn’t help but feel that his fate had been sealed in some way. Briefly, he caught Rey’s eye from where she stood on the platform, her expression matching the unease in his gut.
First one week passed and then another with no word from Rey. It was so bad, Poe had fallen back on his old trick of missing a block just to have an excuse to go to the medical wing. Yet, every time he entered, it was Dr. Kalonia who greeted him with a shake of her head.
Finally, at the end of the third week, Snap rushed into the training room where Poe was taking his frustrations out on a hanging bag.
“She’s here,” he wheezed, hopelessly out of breath. Snap was known more for his brute strength than for athleticism. “But you… better hurry.”
Poe was out the door and down the hall before Snap could even finish the sentence, dodging trainers and novicii alike.
He had barely worked up a sweat (he was known for his athleticism) by the time he made it to the clinic, finding Rey at her usual station. As he walked closer, he noticed she was emptying her drawers into the little bag she carried to the fights, packing scissors and needles and linen strips.
Without thinking, he blurted, “What are you doing?” by way of greeting, all the things he’d wanted to say to her for weeks flying right out of his head.
She laughed, never pausing in her work. “You never did mince words. I always liked that about you. I’ve given my notice. I’ll no longer be training with Dr. Kalonia.” Taking a deep breath, she finally stilled her hands long enough to look at him.
It was like the light had gone out of her eyes. That spark he associated with her was conspicuous in its absence, leaving her face somehow lacking. It wasn’t that she was less pretty, in fact, it had nothing to do with how she looked, rather, it was like some essential piece that made her Rey was missing.
He’d seen enough. Grabbing her hand, he dragged her out of the infirmary and toward his room.
“Poe, wait. We shouldn’t…”
But he wasn’t listening. If he had even a suspicion that this was her decision, he would have accepted that choice with grace. No, this reeked of Ben Skywalker.
Once they were behind his locked door, he spoke. “What is going on?”
Rey took a deep breath. “Ben decided that it is unbecoming of a lady of my station to work among the criminals and slaves who entertain us. I’ll be assuming a proper role in the household going forward.”
Poe blinked. “That sounded verbatim.”
“Oh, it was.” Her face twisted into a dour smile. “He wants me to go back to who I was a year ago. Attend all the parties, wear the latest fashions, yell at the servants.”
“And what do you want?”
Rey barked out a laugh, her smile not quite reaching her eyes. “Don’t you see? It doesn’t matter what I want. My Emperor has spoken.”
He’d never heard her talk like that
She must have seen something in his face because her own expression softened, one hand reaching up to touch his cheek. “Listen, this isn’t forever. I’ll lie low for a bit, play by his rules. Ben has a notoriously short attention span. He’ll forget all about this soon enough.”
“Are you so sure about that?”
Instead of answering right away, she pressed a soft kiss to his lips. “We’ll figure it out, I promise.”
Poe wasn’t so sure. In his experience, he hadn’t known Ben to be particularly forgetful or forgiving. Then again, he hadn’t grown up with the man.
Though one thing he did know: if this was the last time he’d kiss Rey in the foreseeable future, he was going to make it count.
Winding his hands around her waist, he tugged her forward, their matching heights leaving their lips level. A lock of hair had fallen from her complicated updo, Poe brushing it back so he could really look at her.
One breath passed, then two, as he looked into her eyes, grey and green and gold sparkling in the candlelight. The night sky had nothing on the stars in Rey Skywalker’s eyes.
Finally, he placed his lips on hers, trying to commit the feeling to memory. She pressed her body against the length of his, hands roaming up his arms. He could feel every inch of her through their tunics, a specific several inches of him taking a special interest in her soft curves.
He had planned to savor this, to take his time with her, but when her fingers found his curls he lost all control.
Without thinking, he twisted so her back hit the wall, hands cupping her face while he ran his tongue across the seam of her lips. Rey was more than happy to deepen the kiss, her tongue darting out to meet his while heat bloomed across his skin.
Feeling more than a little lightheaded he pulled back, resting his forehead against hers while they both fought for breath. At some point, Rey’s tunic had hitched up, one leg half-hooked around Poe’s hips.
They both giggled as she found her footing.
It was Rey who broke the silence. “I have to finish packing my things. Ben has eyes everywhere; they’ll know where I’ve gone.”
“Five more minutes,” he mumbled, dotting kisses along her jawline.
She laughed, the sound a balm to his soul. He tried not to think of the spies watching his every move, how easy it would be for Ben to fulfill his promise. Or that their plan was in ruins. All that mattered was Rey, solid and warm and right here, her breath coming fast as he kissed down her neck.
But his fun was short-lived. Rey pushed him back so she could look him in the eye.
“This isn’t forever.” She reached up to cup his cheek, Poe placing a kiss on her palm. “I need you do one thing for me.”
He didn’t even need to think about it. “Anything.”
“I need you to win for me,” she replied, extracting herself from his arms. She took a step backward toward the door. “Every bout. Become the most famous gladiator in all the Empire.”
They both knew that wasn’t something he could promise, but what else was new? She was always asking the impossible from him. “I will.”
Rey edged closer to the hallway. “I love you.”
“I love you,” he replied, but she was already gone.
He only had a second with his thoughts before she reappeared, kissing him once before disappearing down the hall for good.
Chapter 8: Exitus Acta Probat
After being hired to entertain at a party, Poe questions everything.
Chapter title translation: The result justifies the deed.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Time ground to a halt as Poe acclimated to his new life without Rey. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he had someone around to distract him, but with Muran gone and Snap busy with that new female gladiator, he’d never been more alone in his life. Even Finn was busy these days, trying to train the newest batch of novicii prior to the opening of the amphitheatre.
So he threw himself into training. Up at dawn for a run around the city, breakfast, sparring on the practice fields, working with the novicii, lunch, practice rounds, more sparring, footwork practice, dinner, then work with the bags until he finally tired enough to sleep. Wake up, repeat.
He was in the best shape of his life and it showed. Muscles bulged under his skin, he could outrun and outlast any fighter at Ludus Magnus, and true to his word, he hadn’t lost a match since Rey disappeared from the school.
Though he was busy, arguably busier than he’d ever been, he couldn’t shake the loneliness that ached in his chest every night when he tried to sleep.
He thought of Rey often, mainly at night, when the shadows chased each other across his ceiling. Lying awake, he imagined what she was doing, the fine silks she was wearing, the way she’d break into a smile and run straight into his arms the next time she saw him.
It was all fantasy.
Rey was supposed to be enjoying the finer things in life, but night after night Poe watched, helpless, as Ben paraded her around the parties, rarely leaving her side. Poe hadn’t seen her smile in weeks. He missed it.
It didn’t help that Ben was always watching, tipping his head at Poe with that smug grin on his face every time he caught him looking. Which was far too often, and Poe knew it. This was a dangerous game he was playing.
Though it had been months, and no one had come for him. It seemed Rey had been on to something. With all his recent wins, his star had risen in the city. People recognized him in the streets. Now, they would notice if he disappeared, would mourn if he died. He’d finally stopped looking over his shoulder at every turn.
But tonight when Poe walked into the feast, Ben was nowhere to be found. Instead, he spotted Rey on one of the low couches, surrounded by admirers. She was drunk, eyes bright and wine sloshing as she told a story that had the man next to her throwing his head back in laughter.
Jealousy bubbled hot and thick in the pit of his stomach.
For a quarter of an hour, he looked on as they got closer and closer. First, her suitor leaned in as if he were intent on hearing her better. Then, it was an arm thrown over the back of the couch, just brushing the backs of her shoulders as he settled in. Finally, he watched in slow motion as the man put a hand on her knee, sliding it upward for maximum impact.
His brain short circuited, propelling him forward before he could stop himself. He would rip the bastard apart, tear him limb from limb, make him wish-
A subtle shake of Rey’s head stopped him in his tracks. As the haze of rage dissipated, he realized that her eyes were bright but clear, her smile pasted on and body held stiff. In fact, besides the earlier spill, her goblet was full. She wasn’t drunk; she was pretending.
They were playing the long game. If Poe showed up and whisked her away the second Ben let her out of his sight, any progress they’d made would be lost. He’d have to walk away.
There was very little acting involved as Poe downed the rest of his drink, slamming the cup down on the nearest table. Let them believe he left angry.
Pushing his way through the crowd and out the door, Poe found himself face to face with Emperor Ben Solo.
Poe inclined his head in a show of deference. “Good evening, Emperor.”
“Leaving so soon, Dameron?” Oh, how Poe longed to wipe the smirk off Ben’s face.
“Yes, I find myself not in a festive mood this evening.”
Peering over Poe’s shoulder to where Rey and her admirer were still flirting on the couch, Ben smiled, the look all wrong on his haughty face. “No, I suppose you aren’t.” Ben stepped to the side to let him through. “Of course, I won’t keep you. Have a pleasant evening, Poe.”
How did he make even that sound like a threat? Poe, shivered as he made his way through the dark streets. He needed to clear his head.
So he walked, his path taking him past the site of the great amphitheatre, the sound of hammers and chisels echoing despite the late hour. Slaves had been working round the clock to ensure the project finished on time. With barely a month to go, activity around the site had increased tenfold, slaves brought in from all over the empire to speed up the process.
That could have been Poe had he not picked the fight with Muran. Hell, who was he kidding. They both would have been long dead by now.
He watched as they lifted another slab of travertine to the top, absently wondering how many of those stones he had hewn himself.
The thing was monstrous, rising out the ruins of Anakin Skywalker’s ill-advised palace. There was little of the Domus Aurea left now, only the Colossus and an aqueduct still standing, both dwarfed by the hulking structure.
Torches burned bright in every arch, the glow permeating through the quiet streets. Slaves flitted to and fro, throwing shadows into the night. He tried to imagine what it would be like on the stage, stands rising hundreds of feet above his head, the roar of 80,000 fans drowning out his own thoughts as he faced down certain death with only his sword.
With a sigh, he turned from the building and made his way down to the Ludus Magnus complex. He supposed he’d know firsthand soon enough.
The offer came from a wealthy senator. It was a private fight, the centerpiece of a lavish evening among Rome’s elite, with the sum being offered more than three of his recent purses combined. All he had to do was show up and half would be his, the other half coming when he secured a victory.
He dressed in his finest armor, the stuff too pretty or too impractical for a real fight. They were looking for a show, and he was happy to supply it.
Walking in to the party was like stepping into a scene straight out of a myth. Branches and vines crawled up the pillars, creating a canopy of flowers in the entry hall. Following it down the hall, it opened into a rotunda, stairs wrapped in withering and blackened vines leading down to a sunken stage set in shadows. Above their heads, a scene from heaven played out, complete with glowing lightning bolts. Apparently, he’d be battling for hell tonight as the Gods watched on.
Before he had a chance to contemplate that further, a well-dressed man his father’s age took his hand, shaking vigorously.
“You’ve made it! I told my wife, I must have Poe Dameron or we cancel the whole thing.” He gave Poe a once-over. “Excellent costume, as well! I don’t think we’ll even need the one we set aside for you.”
At that, Poe looked around, realizing for the first time that the partygoers were dressed in elaborate attire, some faces painted to resemble that of a god. Even as a Christian, he could pick out the majors - there was Mars having a drink with Janus by one of the fruit trees in hall, and Juno and Fortuna making out under one of the many bowers - with Jupiter himself standing before him.
“Your performance will be the crowning jewel of the evening. So please, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself until then.”
He left Poe to explore the party himself.
Though he had always been taught to never drink before a fight, his nerves got the better of him as he passed a table full of wine. It was the good stuff, sweet and sticky on his tongue as he made his way through the villa.
Each room was themed to a great Roman story - the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus, Jupiter and Io, Coriolanus, Horatius, they were all here. Nymphs gathered around him before floating back through an indoor wood. He was tempted to follow until he heard a familiar voice behind him.
“Fancy seeing you here.”
Poe turned so fast his golden armor groaned. Rey stood before him, her gown the green of early spring. Gold lined her neck and arms, the metal tinkling every time she moved. Her hair crowned her head in an intricate braid, flowers woven in to the updo. Rings of kohl framed her eyes, bright green in the current light.
“Let me guess, Proserpina?”
Rey’s smile lit up her face. She gave him an exaggerated bow. “At your service.”
He longed to take her into his arms, spin her off her feet, and kiss her senseless, but contented himself with a touch of her hand. “What are you doing here? Where’s Ben?”
At the mention of her brother, her expression darkened for a second, but as always, she recovered quickly. “Around here somewhere, drunk as can be and probably chasing nymphs.”
“Aren’t you worried?” he asked, half-expecting the Emperor to materialize at his elbow.
Rey’s answering laugh left his chest warm. “Not tonight.”
Grabbing his hand, she started to pull him toward one of the private bowers reserved for the more amorous couples (or triads, he supposed) when Poe heard his name behind them. Rey dropped his hand, disappearing into the niche without another word.
“Poe!” shouted his host again, making his way slowly through the throngs of people. By Roman standards, the crowd alone was enough to call the party a success. The added boon of the Augustus and his sister was simply icing on the cake. “There you are. We’re ready for you down in the Underworld.”
That should have been his first clue that not all was well here, but Poe didn’t even notice, too caught up in the rush of touching Rey for the first time in months.
The man - Jupiter as Poe called him in his head - lead him back toward the great rotunda, following him down the stairs to the stage.
Though Poe would have preferred to use his own weapon, an assistant handed him a bident, Poe testing the weight and balance. He could work with it.
People had started to gather on the upper levels, crowding around the railings for the best view. Poe recognized more than one prominent businessman and most of the senators as they jockeyed for position.
This would be easy. A quick show for the paying customers and then he’d find Rey again, make use of one of the hidden corners while Ben was off, oblivious.
The old man was clearing his throat on the stage.
“Attention! Come closer my friends, as I, Jupiter, the God of all creation invite you to enjoy the battle for the Underworld! I give you Mercury, here to avenge the capture of Proserpina.” Poe tried not to let his jaw drop at that coincidence as the man paused, waving Poe’s opponent out of the shadows.
He was a giant of a man, at least twice as broad as Poe, and dressed in painted red armor. Poe didn’t recognize him, but that meant nothing. The host could have brought him from anywhere.
But something about the way he held his sword - too tight, high on the hilt - told Poe that this wasn’t a professional.
He looked up, locking eyes with Rey in the crowd above. She looked as nervous as he felt, hands gripping the railing and face drawn.
“And to face him, we have Pluto, God of the Underworld, played by Poe Dameron, himself!”
The crowd led out a cheer as Poe stepped forward.
“As a special treat, we have a guest editor for the fight. Please welcome Augustus Ben Skywalker!”
For a moment, Poe thought he’d pass out, his vision narrowing to a single point above his head. Ben Skywalker stood in a place of prominence, his long, purple toga declaring his standing. The crown sat perched on his greasy, black hair, gold catching the light. He looked like he always did. Then again, he didn’t need to dress up as a God; technically, he was a God on earth.
A referee appeared out of nowhere, holding the stick between them. Poe only had to wait a single heartbeat before the stick dropped and the match commenced with a shout from the audience.
His opponent rushed him as soon as the referee was clear, his shoddy footwork declaring Poe’s earlier assumption true. This guy was an amateur, or worse, a novicii.
With a wave of the bident, he blocked the first shot easily, knocking the man off balance. Poe almost felt bad for him, going as far as letting him regain his footing, before the man lashed out with his sword, Poe too distracted to bring his own clunky weapon to block in time.
He swore as the sword bit into the ornamental armor, dragging across his skin.
The guy had the audacity to look smug, like Poe hadn’t handed him that opportunity with his own carelessness. Though, he supposed it was his fault for underestimating his opponent. Well, he wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Blocking the next two hits without breaking a sweat, he charged, the kid unable to block the hit. He stumbled back two steps, Poe coming at him over and over again. No longer worried about giving the people a show, he just wanted this to be over.
Mechanically, he pushed his opponent back, the months of training kicking in regardless of the shitty weapon he was saddled with. Before he knew it, the man was on his knees, forks of the bident aimed at his chest.
Poe looked up to where Ben stood presiding over the party. There was a beat before that infuriating smirk played across his face.
Ben held out his arm for all to see, waiting one, two, three breaths before extending his thumb downward.
Without thinking, Poe did what they had trained him to do, running his opponent through with the bident.
The gathered crowd went wild with excitement, bloodthirsty as they were. It had been far too long since anyone had seen a gladiator die in the ring.
Poe looked up, finding Rey on the railing, her mouth a perfect ‘O.’
Then the host was raising his arm, declaring him the winner, and Poe was dragged up the stairs by overzealous fans, everyone wanting a piece of the greatest gladiator in Rome. He let himself be borne by the crowd, men offering him riches, women offering their bodies, a bag of gold coins - his winnings, he assumed - being discreetly pushed into his hand.
It was the first time he’d ever killed a man.
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he hadn’t done it during a real match, when the glory of the ring won over all, but for a group of bored, rich people. There was no honor in that.
The fickle partygoers lost interest in him quickly, finding more fruitful pursuits with the wine and women being passed around.
His stomach roiling, he made it out into the cool of the night before vomiting spectacularly into the rosebushes.
“It’s ok.” A hand rubbed his back as he retched again. “Let it out.”
There wasn’t much left - he’d only had half a cup of wine all night - but his body continued to heave, bringing nothing after the second time.
When he was sure it was over, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, turning to face Rey.
He opened his mouth, but to say what, he had no clue. Would he apologize to her? Ask for her forgiveness? Cry?
She seemed to realize his quandary. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
So he let Rey lead him through the quiet streets, her hand the only thing tethering him to the earth.
He’d killed a man in cold blood. Yes, that was technically his job, but this wasn’t the arena. He became a murderer so a rich Senator could have bragging rights for the next year.
It was official, he’d become his own worst nightmare, all of his fears when he started down this path realized. Was he even a good man anymore? If he ever saw his father again, what would he say?
“Almost there,” said Rey, as he nearly lost his footing over the uneven bricks. “Stay with me.”
“But, you can’t. They can’t see you!” He stopped dead, panic overtaking all logical thought.
She urged him forward with a tug on his hand. “Don’t worry, I know a back way.”
Around the back of the school and through a hidden door she brought him, the long hall dumping out in the infirmary.
“I was wondering when I’d see you.”
Poe nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice spoke out in the semi-dark. Dr. Kalonia sat at the desk in the far corner, a single candle lighting the giant tome in front of her.
“Thanks for keeping it open, Harter.”
“Of course. Be careful, some novicii are up to no good in the west wing.” She set down the book, shrewd eyes taking in his dress before examining his face.
Noticing the scrutiny, Rey tugged Poe forward again. “We’ll avoid the halls. Thanks again.”
Then they were out the door, Rey taking him through passages she seemed to know by heart.
“How do you know these passages? I’ve been here a year, and I’ve never seen this hall.”
“Shhh,” she whispered, echoing voices growing closer. “This way.”
Down another set of halls, up a hidden staircase, and they were at his door, Poe fumbling for his key. He opened the door with some assistance from Rey. His fingers were shaking too badly to do it himself.
In fact, his whole body was shaking when they finally entered the room, the shock and adrenaline finally wearing off. With a start, he realized he wasn’t only shaking, he was crying. And for how long? No wonder Kalonia was concerned.
Carefully, Rey removed the armor from his body, piling it in the corner.
“I..I killed him. I didn’t...didn’t even hesi...tate,” he managed to get out between gulping sobs. “What kind of man does that make me?”
Rey sat him on the bed, taking him in her arms. There was nothing left for him to do but bury his face in her neck and weep. So he wept.
For a quarter of an hour he laid in her arms, moving his head to her lap once he had quieted down. There, she ran her fingers through his hair, his swollen eyes falling closed at the soft touch.
He was almost asleep, this nightmare of a day finally over, when she spoke.
“This is my fault.”
He sat up to look at her crumpled face. “How is this your fault?”
“I pushed him too far.” She wasn’t crying but he could tell she was fighting it. “Flouted his rules. This whole night was to set me up. He suggested I go as Proserpina. He declared the theme. He insisted on being the editor. Tonight was a warning. Either I get in line or you pay the consequences.”
“Rey, I don’t care about me. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure-”
She put up a hand, stopping his little speech cold.
“You’ve lost enough, thanks to my family.” Her hand came up to stroke his cheek. “Let me protect you.”
“What will you tell him tonight?”
Her shoulders bunched in a shrug. “I’ll make something up. That party was crowded and he was drunk; I doubt he’d be able to find me if he tried.”
She seemed sure, but Poe took little comfort in the words. Ben was a loose cannon. And Poe wasn’t planning on taking any chances when it came to Rey.
"And what about us?" he asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Her face was deadly serious when she answered. "I don't know."
Suddenly exhausted, he laid back on the bed, limbs heavy as Rey settled in beside him.
He thought it would take him forever to find sleep, but she was so soft and warm in his arms, her head nestled against his chest. With each exhale, she sent the small hairs there waving, the steady breaths lulling him into a doze. After a minute, his eyes fell closed, helpless against the pull of sleep.
Guys, I promise that I only do happy endings, so bear with me. Thanks for reading!
Chapter 9: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum
As the opening games draw near, a champion is named.
Chapter title translation: If you want peace, prepare for the war.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Poe was unsurprised the next morning when he woke to a cold bed and empty arms. He shifted, pulling the covers closer.
Last night felt like a dream. Well, a nightmare to be exact. Had he really killed a man as a party trick? Is that who he was now?
It felt like all of his deepest fears had come true. He remembered standing on the rough earth in Tivoli, wondering if this life could really change him from the good man he used to be.
It looked like he finally had his answer.
This was the monster he was now. The monster they had made him. And he had gone willingly, tempted by the fame and the freedom and the promise of sweet kisses.
No. He wasn’t going to bring Rey into this. This wasn’t her fault. He’d made his choices, and he’d make them again if it meant he got to spend so much as one minute in her presence.
Maybe that was the problem.
Poe rolled over, his side screaming in pain.
He’d forgotten all about the wound, so used to Rey patching him up. But she’d been without her supplies last night, and they’d fallen asleep long before she had a chance to go searching for needle and thread.
Tonight, after every one was asleep, he’d go see Kalonia. Rey trusted the woman, so Poe figured he may as well. It wasn’t like he wanted the story of what happened last night getting out.
Getting out of bed was agony, every bump and bruise and cut making itself known. Shuffling toward the dresser, he caught his reflection in the mirror.
Though he’d gained back all of what he’d lost in the quarry (and then some), he was damn near unrecognizable from the man who’d walked into the Ludus Magnus nearly a year ago. He’d always been on the leaner side, but now he was broad and thick and muscled in a way that made him look like a different person. His once smooth, tan skin was a mess, the raised lines giving way to a patchwork of bruises and scars accumulated over his tenure here. The curls he’d lost at his lowest point had come back in full force, now punctuated here and there with a touch of grey. Then there was his face.
It hadn’t changed, per se. The nose was still large and crooked from one too many breaks, the eyes dark and crinkly when he smiled. But there was a new look, a certain deadness in the eyes that marked him a changed man. That marked him a murderer.
He tried not to think of the look Snap would give him if he found out. How disappointed Muran would be in him. The way Finn would take a step back when he heard the news. Then there was Kes. If he ever saw his father again, how would he look him in the eye? Would Kes even recognize him at this point? Poe had been raised better than this, and Kes would make that known. For the first time, he was glad to be a Christian. At least his God was merciful.
Now he just needed to find a way to live with himself.
The weeks passed in a haze of preparation and training. Construction was coming to an end. The Skywalker Amphitheatre was complete.
The opening games were to be the biggest and grandest Rome had ever seen. Three full days of festivities leading up to the main event - an epic gladiatorial battle on center stage.
The months since Emperor Luke Skywalker’s death had been rife with unrest. Higher taxes, another war, Augustus Ben Skywalker had not endeared himself to the people. As such, he needed the opening of his uncle's grand amphitheatre to distract the public into liking him. Poe thought it doubtful.
The entire Ludus Magnus toured the facility the day before last, Poe’s earlier imaginings unable to come close to the reality. Even empty, the amphitheatre buzzed with something Poe couldn’t quite put a finger on. Like the building itself knew its own importance.
“... follow me, we’ll go down into the tunnels.” Their guide was a secretary to the architect, a man roughly Poe’s age. “Now, if you’ll watch your step, most of the animals have already arrived for opening day. I’d suggest keeping your hands to yourself if you’d like to keep them.”
Poe’s eyes struggled to adjust to the sudden darkness, blinking rapidly to clear the spots from his eyes. A low growl from his left had him jumping back into their guide.
“Careful. He’s for the bestiarii.”
The room - or rather, tunnel - finally came into focus. The hallway stretched as far as Poe could see, the far end disappearing into the gloom. Lining both sides were cages containing every living beast that could conceivably kill a man. Boars, bulls, bears, wolves, they were all there, most snarling, not to mention the horses, zebras, and ostriches meant to pull chariots. It was the largest menagerie Poe had ever seen. Too bad most would be dead in a week.
“Now, if you’ll follow me to the end of this hall,” the guide was saying as he led them through a hidden door, grabbing a torch from the wall. “We’ll end up in the gladiator’s tunnel.”
They followed the winding path to a dead end.
“This tunnel will eventually connect to the Ludus Magnus, but for now, you’ll have to enter with everyone else.” He placed the torch in a bracket on the wall, turning to throw open what was apparently a wooden door.
Poe stepped out of the shadows and into the blinding sun. They were on the wooden stage right in the center of the arena. A place many of them would fight in the near future.
A hush fell over the group as they took in the rows and rows of empty seats rising above them. Were there even this many people in all of Rome?
“Can you imagine the sound?” whispered Snap, eyes wide.
It was almost too much to imagine a full house, the cacophony of a crowd that big. It would be deafening.
Poe shook his head. “Not at all.”
With the opening games rapidly approaching, tensions at Ludus Magnus were running high. They still hadn’t announced who would fight in the main event, and as such, every man (and woman) was hell bent on proving their worth.
“Oof.” Poe grunted as he was knocked on his ass for the third time that bout. It was only practice, but still.
“Come on, old man,” laughed Iolo, reaching out a hand to help him. “You aren’t even trying.”
Iolo was right, he wasn’t trying, not after his last conversation with Rey.
She had showed up in his room well past midnight two nights ago, covered head to toe in a dark cloak.
“Poe,” she whispered, waking him out of a dead sleep.
Her hand muffled his scream.
“Sorry,” she said, sitting on the bed next to him. She reached over to light the candle on his bedside table. “I didn’t mean to scare you, but I can’t stay long.”
Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he took a good look at her.
Her eyes were lined with kohl again, hair cascading in curls beneath her hood. A hint of gold peaked out of the cloak, an elaborate outfit underneath. Another party, then. She’d probably snuck away from Ben long enough to come here.
Her lips rearranged into a wry smile. “You know me too well.” She reached out to stroke his cheek, Poe closing his eyes at the touch. It had been weeks since he’d last seen her, and it would probably be that long until he saw her again. He’d savor every second. “You need to lose.”
Poe’s eyes popped open. “What? I thought-”
“Ben’s planning something big for the opening games, and knowing him, it’s nothing good. He's been behind closed doors, smirking with his advisers for days now. You need to stay off his radar.”
Poe laughed, the sound bitter to his ears. “Like I could ever be off his radar. There’s no way he’d ever just forget how much he hated me.”
“I know, but he can’t pick someone who lost favor with the public.”
“But Rey, how else will I win my freedom? How can we be together?”
“That's a question for another day. I just need you safe.”
Safe was a relative term in his line of work, but Poe didn’t point that out.
“I need to get back.” Rey leaned down, pressing a kiss firmly on his mouth. “I love you.”
So, he let himself get knocked down over and over, letting even the easiest opponents (cough, cough, Iolo) win.
He accepted the hand to get back on his feet, brushing the dirt from his legs. The Lanista watched them from the other side of the yard, arms crossed.
“That’s it.” Iolo tapped him once with the broad side of his sword. “Are you actually gonna give me a fight now?”
Poe raised his own sword, ignoring as Iolo once again tapped him.
“Or did you lose all that fight when the pretty doctor dumped you?” Tap.
Poe’s face must have showed something because Iolo broke into a shit-eating grin. “That’s it isn’t? Doctor girl left you and now you forgot how to fight.”
It was the fourth tap that got him, just annoying enough when paired with his words for Poe to snap.
The training took over, Poe flipping Iolo’s sword out of his hand with a single smooth movement before a well-placed kick knocked him off balance. All it took was a nudge from the flat of his sword and Iolo was in the dirt, arms raised while Poe held him at sword-point.
A slow clap echoed across the yard.
“There he is.” It was Snap making his way toward them.
Poe looked up to find the Lanista marking something in his book. Shit.
“Told you,” said Snap, helping Iolo up. “All he needed was a little push-”
He hadn’t quite finished when Poe shoved him, Snap nearly falling into Iolo.
“What the hell, Poe?” Snap’s face contorted with rage.
Rather than stopping, he pushed them both again. “I wasn’t asking for your help.”
Snap’s face turned a deep shade of purple. “No, but you need it. You’re going to throw away your career if you don’t stop with this shit!”
“Did you ever stop to think that maybe I don’t want this career? Did that ever cross your mind?”
They were both shouting, their argument drawing the attention of every fighter in the practice yard and more than one lanista.
Snap spat on the ground. “Fuck this. Lose your spot here, see if I care. Come on, Iolo. Let’s get in some real practice.”
Poe watched them go, chest heaving. Not wanting all the eyes on him, he stalked off to the training room. Nothing better than a punching bag to work out his frustrations.
He spent an hour with the bag, his knuckles bruised and bloody by the time he finished.
Tonight at the feast, Ben would announce the fighters for the opening games. All the major schools would be in attendance, every gladiator in the city vying for the opportunity to fight for the glory of Rome. Poe alone wanted nothing to do with it. But skipping the event was not an option. There could be no indication that he was anything less than honored to be there. It would be too dangerous.
So he put on his finest clothes and arranged his curls just so. Sat at a table with other gladiators from Ludus Magnus, laughing and pretending to drink wine. Ignored Snap and Iolo as best he could.
Too bad he couldn’t ignore the smug grin on Ben’s face as he presided over the feast. Poe watched the head table out of the corner of his eye, trying not to make it obvious. But Ben was too busy having the time of his life to notice - laughing, smiling, drinking - all the things normal people did. It made Poe nervous. Nothing good could come from Ben smiling.
Apparently, Leia and Rey were of the same mind. Seated on either side of Ben, they wore twin looks of apprehension, the resemblance uncanny. Whatever was putting him in this mood, they certainly didn’t like it.
With Ben occupied, Poe tried to catch Rey’s eye to no avail. In fact, she looked everywhere except Poe’s table, gliding over him unseeing. Good, she was taking her own advice.
These months without her had been the loneliest of his life.
He ate and he trained and went through the motions, but nothing seemed to dull the ache in his chest. At least Snap and Iolo had been around. Now, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
He missed Muran. The man he had chosen to fight thanks to proximity alone had become one of his best friends. It had been months since he left, and Poe didn’t even know if he was dead or alive. He probably never would.
First Muran, then Rey, and now Snap and Iolo. If it wasn’t for Finn, Poe would have no one left.
That thought sent him to the bottom of another cup of wine.
Finally, it was time for the big announcement. Emperor Skywalker rose to his feet, the room growing hushed.
“Welcome citizens on the eve of the greatest games Rome has ever seen.” Ben paused for the obligatory cheer. “We have gathered here tonight to celebrate this grand achievement, and to name the Champion for our main event.
“With us tonight, are our gladiator brothers from the four best schools our fine city has to offer. The Ludus Aemilius.” Ben gestured toward his left, a cheer erupting from the table of gladiators. “Ludus Gallicus.” Another cheer, this time from a center table. “Ludus Dacicus.” A table in the back erupted. “And finally, the Ludus Magnus.”
Poe joined in with the men at his table, their cheer the loudest of all.
Ben waited for it to quiet down before he went on. “We scoured the four schools looking for the best and the brightest among you to compete.
“Most of you will end up in the smaller fights, and there is no shame in that. You’ve worked hard to get where you are.
“But for the grand finale of our opening games, I wanted to do something different, something that would leave people talking for generations.
“And so, tonight I will not announce two fighters, but only one, the Champion of the great city of Rome. Neither he nor the audience will know the name of his opponent until he steps into the ring.”
A murmur broke out amongst the tables. With a fight this big, there would be scouting reports and bets and money exchanging hands long before the match started. It was unprecedented, withholding the name of the opponent.
“So, without further delay, I give you the Grand Champion of Rome…”
Ben looked directly at him.
It was like a premonition, the way his stomach dropped out a second before Ben’s lips formed the words.
Rey’s mouth was half open, her eyes wide in fear and horror as she watched the scene unfold around her.
The feast erupted into frenzied cheers, men and women of all walks of life coming to shake his hand. His brothers at Magnus beamed at his selection, even Snap and Iolo coming over to slap his back, all animosity forgotten.
“Congratulations, man,” said Snap, slapping him on the back for the second time that night. “I knew you had it in you.”
Iolo chimed in. “Yeah, now we can both say that we knocked the Champion of Rome on his ass.”
Poe floated through the crowd completely detached, accepting all the congratulations and gestures mindlessly. It didn’t dawn on him until he finally looked up to the head table.
He couldn’t look at Rey, not with the risk that he’d break down on the spot, but he could glance at the Emperor. The self-satisfied smile on Ben’s face told him everything he needed to know.
The Emperor had signed his death warrant. He wouldn’t make it out of the arena alive.
Honestly, it was brilliant. Ben could execute him in plain sight, no trial required. And the people would cheer.
The realization hit him like a well-placed shot to the gut. Panic rose in his chest, the walls closing in on him. His breaths came fast and furious, heart threatening to beat out of his chest. He wanted to double over, to retch up all the wine he’d drunk that night, but there were still too many people vying for his attention.
Including Leia Skywalker.
“Poe Dameron. You’ve made a name for yourself since I last saw you.”
“Uh, thank you, Augusta.” Poe inclined his head, a sign of respect.
She waved him off. “Please, call me Leia. I’ve watched your career since they plucked you from Tivoli. You are quite the star. And my daughter seems especially fond of you.”
Poe sputtered out a denial, stopping when Leia raised her hand.
“My idiot son believes he’s disposed of you. Let him, but remember that you aren’t dead until you lose. So don’t. I think we can both agree that Rey has lost enough this year.”
With that she turned and walked back to the head table, leaving Poe speechless in her wake.
He continued to ride the wave of adoring fans (it seemed like everyone wanted a piece of him) until he ended up face to face with Ben Skywalker, Rey standing silently behind him.
“Poe, I believe congratulations are in order. It’s a great honor to fight as the Champion of Rome.”
Poe resisted the urge to snort. Like this was some sort of distinction and not a carefully orchestrated death sentence.
Ben extended a hand, bringing Poe close when he accepted it.
“I warned you,” he whispered into his ear. “It may not be my blade that fells you, but it will be my hand behind it.”
He released Poe, a victorious smile on his face.
Poe inclined his head. “Thank you, Augustus. It is an honor.” Poe turned to Rey where she stood a step behind Ben, her eyes unfocused. “Augusta.”
She hadn’t spoken a word during the entire exchange, her gaze focused on some point in the distance. At the sound of his voice, she blinked him into focus, a stiff nod of her head the only recognition he received.
As they walked away, Poe released the breath he’d been holding.
For the first time since the announcement, he found himself completely alone, the other guests too wrapped up in the proceedings to take notice of him. Poe took a deep breath, the reek of spilled wine and burning wax threatening to choke him. He needed to get out of here.
Slipping out a side door, he gulped great breaths of fresh air, the breeze cooling his overheated skin.
The worst had finally happened. It felt like he’d been waiting for this all along, since the day he locked eyes with Ben in Tivoli.
He would die in three days’ time. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that Ben had scoured the Empire looking for someone capable of beating him in the ring. Then all he needed was the crowd and it would be thumbs down and lights out for Poe.
He’d go into this with eyes wide open. It was oddly reassuring, knowing when he would die. At least he’d see it coming.
Everything he went through - surviving the quarry, his time training as a novicii, battling his way through not one but two tests, and every victory since then - all to just die in the arena a year later. It seemed like such a waste of hope.
His mind drifted to Rey.
He loved her. And more than anything on this planet, he wanted more time with her. He’d been so foolish, picturing a life with her. Allowing himself to imagine a time after the arena, when he and Rey could be together. When they could be a family.
He leaned his forehead against the cool stone of the building.
It felt like it was already over, but Leia’s words rose to the top of his mind. He wasn’t dead yet. First, he had to lose.
So, the actual opening games were about 100 days long, which was waaaay more chapters than I was ready to write (lol). Three days it is!
We're just three (ish) chapters from the end folks! Thank you for reading!