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A Different Arena

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Nasir had never in his life thrown a tantrum. He had become a slave at the age of four, and even then his brother had taught him to be silent and respectful at all times, a lesson he had taken to heart. He had borne every indignity from his dominus without so much as a whimper—and now he was thrown away like a common mine slave! It was enough to set his teeth on edge and his blood to boil.

“Be quiet and look useful,” Dominus ordered as they were led through the hall. “If Batiatus does not accept you, we are fucked.”

Am I not fucked already? Nasir thought resentfully, but he did not speak. They approached the master of the house—Batiatus—who was lounging on elegant cushions, surrounded by three female slaves and one male. Nasir eyed them surreptitiously; would he soon be among their number? All were pale, and most of light hair, but that meant nothing if they were used for labor rather than body, and in any case he would prefer not to take to a new master’s bed. He couldn’t help but notice, also, that they were particularly meek-looking, even for slaves.

“Batiatus,” Dominus said warmly. “It has been too long.”

“Sadly so,” Batiatus agreed. With a gesture, he instructed a slave to pour wine. “What draws you north today, then?”

“I would settle debt. My body slave, Tiberius, should do.”

Batiatus looked Nasir up and down in a familiar, calculating way.

“I had expected coin, I admit,” he said after a moment.

“Yes, well, a slave’s true worth is not always revealed at auction. Years of effort have gone into his training. He has perfect manners, good strength and health, and some ability to read and write. He’s a good fuck as well, if your interests lie in that area.”

“Regrettably, they do not.” Nasir breathed a silent sigh. “And I already have a body slave. However, payment can be extracted in many ways…”

Batiatus and Dominus went on to discuss political intrigue and the relative worth of a good word in clearing debts. The end of it was that Levitus departed, debt cleared, and Nasir had a new dominus. The whole process took mere moments, and Levitius spared him not a parting glance when he departed, after refusing rest or comfort.

His master looked him over again, lips pursed.

“Now what the fuck am I going to do with you?” he mused. “Fetch Doctore,” he said to one of the women.

A few moments passed in silence, before she returned with a tall, dark-skinned man. Even if he had not known where he was, Nasir would have marked the man as a gladiator; his strength and his scars spelled out his history. There was something else, too, a kind of grace to his movements, that advertised him as a man of wisdom, removed from lust for glory or for power. A man to respect—and to avoid, so as not to come within range of the cruel-edged whip on his belt.

“Dominus,” Doctore said respectfully. “What is required of me?”

“Observe,” Batiatus said, gesturing at Nasir. “The boy is a gift from Levitius, for payment of debt.”

“Do you wish me to make a gladiator out of a house slave?” Doctore asked with an amused smile. Batiatus laughed. (Ah, Nasir thought, he’s been here a long, long time. Laughing at a slave’s joke spoke not to the dominus’ mercy, but the slave’s confidence.)

“That’s a fucking idea, isn’t it? Ah, but if anyone could do it, it would be you—and I would be the richest lanista in the republic! No, no, I do not require miracles. I merely wondered if you had need of a ludus slave."

"We have made do without, since Pietros' death,” Doctore said. He looked at Nasir with an appraising eye. "But ranks have swelled so with recent purchases... I could make need."

"Then do so."

Batiatus waved and Doctore turned as he had come. Nasir was stuck to the ground. Ludus slave. Fucking ludus slave! After years—years of painstaking study, of learning letters beside the Dominus' five-year-old nephew, of training his face to betray not even the hint of emotion, of muttering polite nothingness day in and day out, of fucking anyone who strolled through bedroom doors, of commanding an entire villa of slaves when Dominus was absent— And now ludus slave?

Batiatus realized that Nasir remained still, and scowled. "Letivius did not list a faint mind among your qualities."

"Dominus," Nasir muttered, with a quick bob of the head. He followed Doctore from the room.

The villa around him was large, but fallen into poverty. It was being refurnished—no doubt funded by the recent success of gladiators—and yet there were gaps where statues and furniture had yet to be replaced. As they descended further, the impeccably kept-up painting began to fade. Finally, the elegant marble walls were transformed to rough stone.

"What is your name?" Doctore asked.

"Tiberius."

"Welcome, Tiberius. You will do well in the house of Batiartus, and under my gaze, as long as you perform tasks quickly and without provoking those around you—be they master or gladiator. Passions run high in the ludus, and tempers short. You will distribute sword and shield under my direction, and assist the medicus and cook as needed. You may take drink and food with us, when your tasks are completed. Otherwise, simply do whatever a gladiator asks of you. It is a simple life and, lucky for you, unlikely to end in death. Any questions?”

“You say unlikely to end in death—”

“Compared to those around you, who face the arena, yes.”

“And yet my predecessor died.”

There was a heavy pause as Doctore unlocked the gate to the lower ludus. It was time for the noonday meal; twenty or thirty large, hulking men strolled around the tables with food and drink. Nasir eyed them carefully. He recognized a few from the arena—Spartacus, Varro, Rhaskos—but most were unknown to him. They spared him hardly a glance. Finally, Doctore spoke

“Pietros took his own life. If you wish to escape his fate, do not do the same.”

Nasir smiled faintly.

“Sound advice.”

Doctore showed him to his room briefly. It was a small affair, barely a closet, beside the room of the medicus and the cook. The gladiators’ cells were close by, and the stairway to the villa beyond them. The greatest boon, he thought, was the thin, barred window just above the cot. His previous lodgings had been in his dominus’ room, and the only way he could be exposed to the cool nighttime air was when in his bed.

After that, he was returned to the dining area, where he was immediately put to work. He collected bowls and cleaned them on the cook’s instructions, and then fetched wooden swords, spears, and shields for the gladiators. Nasir was used to keeping a dull mask over his own face, but this was unlike working in a villa. Harmless pinches and slaps interrupted him, but he forced himself not to notice—it was the occasional jeer or lewd gesture that threatened his composure. With very few exceptions, the nobility of Rome at least exercised subtlety when dealing with another man’s body slave.

But he wasn’t a body slave anymore, he reminded himself sternly as he handed the last of the weapons to a new recruit, so marked by the raw, fresh-looking brand on his forearm. He was a ludus slave, worth less than the practice weapons he carried. Even the minimal respect he had received at his old villa was a thing of the past.

“Gratitude,” the recruit muttered carelessly.

Nasir ducked his head in response and removed himself to the water cache until needed. It was hot, he noticed almost absently. Extremely hot, even if the Bringer of Rain had ended the drought. He hadn’t worked outside for any length of time since childhood. If he thought back very hard, he could just recall a flash of memory—heat, sunlight, bare feet crushing dry grass. It was a recollection of Syria, probably, even before slavery. The images suggest laughter, although Nasir does not know if it is true or not, and the playful shriek of his name. Nasir.

It’s the only memory he has of being free. He doesn’t treasure it—not really—because he has never dreamed of reaching freedom again. But he clings to the idea that, at one point, he was loved, and that he had laughed. Nasir rarely laughed anymore. So he held on to the memory of hot summer and his own name…

The clacking of weapons broke him from his reverie. He glanced down at his arm that looked so pale out here against the dust, although he had always thought himself very dark-skinned. He would darken further after weeks in the sun. Tiberius would have been bothered; Tiberius would have felt the dichotomy of his name and his very non-Roman blood. Tiberius had lived in a villa where Roman slaves were valued, not Syrian ones, and only his extraordinary competency had given him worth.

Nasir’s eyes swept over the slaves in front of him. They were an eclectic mix, to be sure, fetched from all regions of the empire. The most exalted gladiator was a Thracian; his superior, a Numidian. A slave could almost have an identity here—a dangerous thing to have, but in the absence of position, it was all he could take.

“Agron,” Doctore called. Two men—the recruit he had noticed and one other, who was promptly whacked by his opponent—looked up. “You have fought alongside your brother often, I assume.”

“Yes, Doctore.”

“But not as gladiators. I would see you train together—against Rhaskos. Let us see what the lands East of the Rhine can give us.”

Agron and his brother looked at each other and smirked. They clasped arms for a brief moment and approached Rhaskos, the enormous Gaul. Nasir had no eye for combat, but even he could tell that the brothers moved perfectly in tandem. Even hardly trained, they provided challenge to their opponent. But after a few minutes of furious battle, the younger brother was knocked to the ground and Agron was goaded into foolish attack.

Doctore analyzed the skirmish, offered instruction, and commanded them to try again, but a cut above Agron’s eyebrow bled so profusely that it obscured vision. Impatiently, Doctore barked an order to Nasir. Nasir fetched a scrap of cloth and wet it slightly, then dodged the whirling pairs to approach the new gladiator. Instinctively, he reached up himself to press the cloth to the wound, but Agron jerked away from his touch.

“Gratitude,” he said again, taking the cloth himself.

Nasir walked back to his position by the water cache. By the time he returned, Agron and his brother had resumed their match, but he couldn’t shake the feel of eyes on him. He glanced around the training ground and found that one of the gladiators had paused in his training with the wooden stave. He eyed Nasir with a poisonous look, and Nasir’s gaze fell to the sand nervously. Perhaps he was not to be trained as a gladiator, he thought, but the ludus was an arena all its own.