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An Interim Story: Taslin and Food

Taslin’s First Day as a Gladiator

“All right,” Ganlenrel had said, “clean yourself up nice and put on your best tunic, then head to the Hall for dinner.”

Taslin had done as she was told — she had three tunics, one of which the other fighters had warned her not to get dirty or mucky, so that one counted as her best for today, she supposed. Now she was following the crowd into the grand vaulted Hall.

The smell of unfamiliar foods hit her nose before she made it through the door; the minute she made it into the hall, another Gladiator grabbed her arm. Sellen, a 9th-Circle girl who’d been in the Pit all of a week longer than Taslin.

“Come on,” she urged. “It’s hard, but if you show how new you are, they’ll just prey on you. We’ve got to get you some trim for your dinner tunic, remind Vinroth when you see him again. And here, we’ll hold down the end of this table with Marrhi and Corby. Don’t stare at the food.”

Sellen was steering as she spoke, so that the last order coincided with pushing Taslin in front of a stool. Taslin sat down, finding herself between Corby and Sellen, and tried not to stare at the food.

It smelled much more intensely this close up – meat and spices, tomato and something that might be wine or vinegar, fresh-baked bread and more vegetable odors than she could place. And it looked so much more overwhelming than it smelled.

“I know,” Sellen whispered, as she dropped a hunk of bread on Taslin’s plate. “There’s so much, right? And so much meat? That’s pork, comes from pigs. They call it pulled pork, and the sauce is tangy-spicy. Then there’s a baked bean dish, there, and then there’s this, it’s cabbage. Dig in. There’s no limits.”

Taslin swallowed. There were wide platters on the table, enough to feed her family for weeks if they could store the food. Her stomach rumbled. Corby punched her in the arm, lightly, more of a punctuation than an assault.

“Eat,” the other woman told her, and Sellen, her mouth already full, grunted in agreement. “You don’t win in the ring if you’re underfed. You don’t send money home to your family if you don’t win in the ring. And they don’t get to find out what pulled pork tastes like if you don’t send them money. So eat.”

Taslin, her hunger urging her to go along with that irrefutable logic, ate.

Chapter 21 – Taslin – Prepare


“Prepare.” Vinroth dropped three piles on Taslin’s bed. “Lanesh and Sellen are coming by in a few minutes, but you should be in the proper mindset before then.”

“Mindset?” Taslin sorted through the pile. “These are all tunics – they’re not all from Jervennon, are they? And shoes, sandals? And then – paint? Vinroth, this is a dinner engagement, not some sort of play.”

“It’s both. It’s a dinner engagement, it’s a show in which you are both the star and the audience, and it requires every bit as much preparation as a bout in the ring. Which you are doing very well at, by the way. You’ve had two offers to buy out your Patronage this week.”

“And you’re only telling me now?”

“Neither of them could come close to what Jervennon is giving you. And it’s better for you to stay with one Patron for a bit longer. Get people used to wanting you and not being able to have you.”

“Has nothing at all to do with your position as my valet, does it?” She picked up a small jar of something red and slick. “This looks like the stuff I put on under the helmet, over my cheekbones.”

“It’s got a similar base, but it’s used to color your lips. Have you really never worn make-up?”

“Eighth Circle,” she reminded him. “I’ve worn kohl, or sometimes a bit of ash or cinder. I’ve done the Pit paints, but those aren’t usually ‘make-up.’ And I know a couple small spells for clearing up or hiding blemishes.”

“Every teenager knows those.”

“I had to learn them specially. They’re not very common, where I am – most people don’t care that much.”

“Altreka, right?” Vinroth shook his head. “Well, you cared enough to learn them?”

“My mother wants us to do something better for ourselves. You can’t get anyone’s attention to climb the Ladder or jump the rings if you look like a filthy outer-ring urchin.”

Vinroth raised his eyebrows. “A smart woman, your mother. How did she end up staying in the Eighth Circle?”

“A long story. The short version is: family.” Taslin swallowed around a lump in her throat. “You want me to show you what I know for make-up?”

“No. Well, yes, but not today.” Vinroth pointed at the chair. “Sit down, back straight, and I will work my magic. I’ll show you the tricks as we go, and we can work from that.”

“Aren’t I supposed to be in charge of you?” Taslin sat down, back straight. It felt uncomfortably like preparing for the Pit, and she had no armor.

“Only in theory and in name. The truth is, I know what I’m doing here, which makes me the expert and you the student.”

“…this is why you wanted to be my valet, isn’t it? So you could bully me around?”

“You are always so quick to ascribe ulterior motives to me. I’m a Ladder-climber, Taslin Gladiator, the same as you. I serve the Pit by serving you, and I serve you by making sure you are ready for every engagement.”

“You really do have an answer for everything.”

“That, too, is my job. Now, let me work? Here we go.” He wiped her face with a clean cloth, softer than anything Taslin had ever felt. “You have done well by your skin, whatever your reasons. And no facial scars yet. It’s good.”

“I thought they were supposed to add gravity and seriousness. Show we’re working hard.” She watched him pick up a strange-looking brush and apply some sort of powder to it.

“Ganlenrel says that because Gan got nicked in the face, early in her career. What it shows is that you took a blade to the face. And it puts off some of the Inner Circle types.” He touched her nose with the brush, and then both of her cheeks.

Taslin swallowed, more at his words than at the dust in her nose. “Because they want a pretty face to look at.”

“Over the table, even if they’re looking at your ass in bed.” The crudity sounded strange in his mouth. Taslin glanced at his face. His expression was what she thought of as his Valet Face – perfectly calm, perfectly blank. He wore it when would-be Patrons visited.

“It’s what we sign up for.” She didn’t like the hesitance in her own voice. “Gladiators, I mean. Danger in the pit and, ah, adventure in a Patron’s bed. Better adventures, less danger, at least in theory.”

“The theory is nice. And-”

“You can’t put powder on her, not with her complexion.” Sellen burst into the room. “Hi, Tas.”

“It’s not chalk powder.” Vinroth’s voice never changed from its calm professional-Valet cadence, but Taslin saw the way his hand hesitated. If he’d been a gladiator in the Pit, they’d have called it choking up.

“I don’t know anything about powder,” Taslin cued. “What is it, and why would chalk be bad?”

“Chalk powder comes in three shades – white, off-white, and light beige. They would, at best, make you look ashen.” He ran a thumb over her cheek. “This is actually something I made myself. There’s no Flow-taint in it, please don’t worry.” He touched the puff to Taslin’s cheeks. “But it does very nicely with the umber in your skin tone.” He turned to look directly at Sellen. “I do know what I’m doing. But I was hoping you could help with the hair and picking out shoes.”

“I’m all about the shoes.” Sellen plopped down on Taslin’s bed. “But you wouldn’t believe how many valets have just one kind of powder, or just one kind of kohl, and they use that on everyone. Black kohl on me looks ridiculous, but it looks lovely on Lanesh, all deep and earthy.”

“Why thank you. I stole your kohl pencil again.” Lanesh sashayed in. “Tas, I brought you a couple things. They’re loaners, not big enough that your patron will notice you’re wearing things he didn’t give you, but nice enough that you’ll make him look a bit better. Which is the point, right?”

“If you say so?” Taslin looked between the three of them. “I thought I did that in the Pit.”

“That, too. Are you going to be okay with this dinner, Taslin?”

“I’m going to have to be, aren’t I?” Taslin shrugged one shoulder. “I won’t eat with my fingers or stab any other guests or anything. We have table manners in the Eighth Circle.”

“And nobody expects you to be that sort of First-Circle hoity-toity.” Lanesh ran her fingers through Taslin’s short-cropped curls. “This is totally reasonable hair for a Gladiator. I like it. But what can we do with it for dinner?”

“Comb it and call it good?” Sellen was digging through Vinroth’s makeup box. “You’ve got a lot of nice stuff here.”

“I aim to please. I was thinking of smoky eyes and natural-looking cheeks. Make her look a bit mysterious.” Vinroth’s poise had returned as quickly as it had vanished.

“She is a bit mysterious. I like it. Lips?”

“Not too dark. Keep the focus on her eyes.” Vinroth’s hands were already moving.

Meanwhile, Lanesh was doing something to the back of Taslin’s head. “If I have twenty, thirty minutes, I can do something with braids and twists. I think it will look super elegant.”

Taslin sat still, while three people did things to her face and hair, her neck and chest. Vinroth and Sellen wielded brushes and pens like artists, painting someone different onto Taslin. Behind her, the sensations of Lanesh tugging and twisting her hair were the closest thing to home Taslin had felt since she got here.

“There.” Lanesh stepped back at the same time as Sellen.

Vinroth stayed where he was, a very small smile on his face. “You look beautiful.”

“With all the paint you put on me…”

“We just made you look more like you. Come on, Tas, you’ve got to get into the carriage.” Lanesh and Sellen grabbed one elbow each, steering Taslin out of her room before she had a chance to find a mirror.

“Wait. Wait. What are you… SELLEN!” Taslin squirmed, but she couldn’t break their grasp. “I want a mirror. What did you two do to me? What did you do!?”

“Relax, new fish.” Sellen’s laugh did nothing to reassure Taslin. “We didn’t do anything bad. But you’re not used to being dressed up, and trust me – I speak from experience – if you’re not used to it, you’ll spend an hour freaking out about this girl in the mirror who looks nothing at all like you.”

“And the thing is,” Lanesh put in, “she does look like you – that is, you do look like yourself. But you look like a you refined, that spent your whole life in the Inner Circle in a spa. You don’t look so much like…”

“Like an Outer Circle urchin?” Taslin tried not to taste the bitterness in her mouth.

“Like a Gladiator who spends her whole life in the Pit or in training, same as the rest of us. Don’t think you’re the only one with dirt under their nails, Tas.”

“I don’t. I don’t, it’s just.”

“No justs. Tonight, you look like a lovely flower. And if they recognize you – and they will, the three of us took pains to make sure of that – then what they’ll recognize is that you’re a lovely flower who succeeds like nobody else in the Pit.”

“I’m not-”

“Taslin, if you’re about to tell me that you’d not that good in the pit, I’m going to break your nose and then I’m going to throw things at you until you’re forced to fight back and show me exactly how good you are in the Pit. Understand?”

“Understand. Ma’am yes ma’am. But I can walk, you know.” Taslin squirmed in their grip. “I’m not helpless, even if I look like a flower or something.”

“Indulge us. You’re the first one in our group to get a Patron, so you’re the first one in our group to go on ‘dates’ like this. She might be used to fancy stuff.” Sellen pointed her free thumb at Lanesh. “But I’m not, and it’s a lot of fun, even if only by proxy.”

“All right, all right. But I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do the same, when your turn comes – either of you.”

“You’ll manage. If nothing else, I bet that valet of yours will give lessons.” Lanesh didn’t quite make it sound like a leer.

Sellen, on the other hand, did. “I bet he’ll give lessons in all sorts of… here’s your carriage.” They abruptly set Taslin down. “Off with you, and remember the rules.”

“There’s rules?” Taslin found herself propelled ahead by their shoves. “Wait, there’s rules?”

“The same rules as anywhere.” Lanesh waved cheerfully. “Don’t get stabbed, don’t trip, and don’t hit yourself in the face.”


 

I am so sorry, guys.  I fell into a (metaphorical) hole for a couple weeks and I’m just now digging out.  

I do have to ask, considering my current workload: Are you still enjoying Jumping Rings?  Should I keep posting?  If there’s not much interest right now, I can always put it on hiatus and return to it later. 

Chapter Nineteen – Taslin – Duck

“Duck!”

Taslin and Lansesh were serving as backup for the six-year Gladiator Rantoness Kallesh-Red in a five-on-three match against another Pit’s lead team. It wasn’t a fair fight. It wasn’t even in the same league as a fair fight. But Taslin was having more fun than she’d had in any match so far.

She ducked at Lanesh’s call, and took the prompt to swing out with her mace. Her attacker’s sword swung over her head, clipping off a few curls of hair and nicking her ear. Taslin’s mace slammed into the shorter woman’s knee.

“Swarm!” The woman’s curse was short, and she swung at Taslin again even as she went down. Taslin took that one on her shield, fell backwards, and squirmed to the side just in time to catch a hammer-blow meant for Ranton.

She caught it the way Ganlenrel had taught her, on her shield and rolling with it, using the spike just so on the edge of the hammer so she disarmed the man. “Up,” she called to Ranton, and nearly missed the damn woman with the longsword coming at the back of her knees.

It didn’t matter. Ranton got the man Taslin had disarmed, and that freed up Lanesh to shield-bash the second man of the team in the face. The woman’s sword caught Taslin, not a major wound but a heavy enough nick to make her swear. That was going to bleed like a butchered deer.

Use it, Ganlenral was fond of saying. Bleeding? Use it. Limping? Using it. Screaming? Use it. So all right, she could use it. She finished her roll to her feet in front of the opposing team’s heavy hitter. Skuskrin Takrin: she knew rhi from the posters, yet another reason this wasn’t a fair fight. Rhi wore a goatee in two long, long beaded braids, and rhis hair the same way. It was said there was a bead on there for every opponent Skuskrin had beaten in the pit.

Taslin didn’t stop to count. She swung her shield in a feint – they were known for shield-bashes, people Ganlenrel taught – and caught Skuskrin’s beard-braids with the tip of her sword.

The fighter would have been on guard against a throat-cut or a proper thrust, but that caught rhi by surprise. Not as much surprise as Taslin was hoping for, but it was something. Skuskrin hollered as the braid went flying and flailed with one blade.

It was enough. Taslin got a backhanded swing in against the fighter’s face and a second one, quick and dirty, against Skuskrin’s throat. The big fighter went down, and Taslin rode rhi down to the ground.

She could see Lanesh and Ranton to her left, both of them taking down the lead from the other team. She rested the flat of her blade against Skuskrin’s throat with all her weight, moving quickly before the bigger fighter regained control of rhiself.

Skuskrin grabbed her wrist; she stepped on his wrist and ground her boot into the sand. He flailed and she pushed down harder, until rhi could feel the edge of the blade on his throat.

Skuskrin dropped both hands to the ground, flat-palmed, in surrender, just as rhis lead Gladiator fell to the ground with a thunk.

The Master of Ceremonies shouted, and shouted again. Taslin’s eyes went to the high box, where a First Circle woman sat, watching. She watched Skuskrin’s eyes roll back in rhis head, trying to see the woman. She let up on the fighter; rhi had surrendered, after all, and nobody who’d made it this far in the pit would ignore a proper surrender.

The First Circle woman held her hand out. Even from here, you could see she enjoyed it, the way her sleeve draped dramatically, the way she listened to the crowd roar.

This was the loudest crowd Taslin had heard yet, the biggest crowd she’d had at a fight. Of course, it wasn’t her crowd; they were here to see Rantoness Kallesh-Red. Taslin and Lanesh were, like the ribbons on her sleeves and the bright patterns on her armor, just part of the show.

The First Circle woman, too, was part of the show, and loving it. She waited for the crowd’s roar to reach its peak. They rarely called for death when the fight had been good – even if the fight had been mediocre – but if they paid for that box, they could make that choice.

“Come on…” She didn’t think she was supposed to hear Skuskrin’s mutter, but, given the circumstance, she also couldn’t blame rhi. “Come on.

The roar kept rising. The crowd was on its feet. It was an animal, a beast. Had it ever overrun the fighters? Had the mob ever carried out the judgment itself? They could take maybe twenty of them, thirty if they could work together as a team. There were hundreds there, maybe thousands. Even Ranton couldn’t handle that.

Suddenly, there was silence. The First Circle woman had held up both hands. A whisper grew from the far end of the amphitheater and moved like water across the crowd. Death? Or life? From here, it was just more noise.

The First Circle woman’s hands parted and dropped. Life. The crowd erupted. Taslin stood, finding her place by Raslin; she watched the opposing team – those that were conscious – find their feet. As a group, they faced the stands. And the stands faced them.

The applause was insane, starting from a roar and rising, louder, louder, until it seemed to shake the foundations. Taslin had been too close to a Flow Storm once, when a thunderstorm and Flow spurt had mixed. That sound, loud enough to pop her eardrums, had been nothing compared to this.

She’d heard cheers before. She’d won battles before. There was always a rush, always the warm feeling of success and the even-warmer feeling of all those people cheering, cheering for her.

This was a good match times a thousand. Her back straightened. She knew they were supposed to be solemn as they saluted the crowd – and especially when they saluted that First Circle woman, who might want to be a patron of one of them at some point – but a sidelong glance told her Ranton and Lanesh were grinning already. So she grinned, her fist over her chest in salute, all of her aches and bloody cuts fading under the rush and the noise.

It must have been a good match to watch, because the Master of Ceremonies had to quiet the cheering. Usually, it trailed off on its own. “Good gentles of New Indapala,” the M.C. bellowed, voice made to carry by a small application of magic. “I give you the Gladiators: Rantoness Kallesh-Red, Lanesh, and Taslin!”

One by one they bowed, and each time the crowd cheered. Even when the M.C. introduced the opposing fighters, the crowd cheered.

“We thank you for your cheers and your attendance. Please save your gifts and put them in the boxes as you exit; throwing them onto the Pit floor is not encouraged.” The M.C. was being pelted with flowers and gifts even as he encouraged people to do exactly the opposite; but that happened, in a smaller scale, even in the tiniest, least-attended matches. “Thank you, thank you.”

“Thank you, thank all of your for your attendance.” The M.C. continued to lavish praise on the crowd, and Taslin and the other fighters continued to bow and salute, to smile and wave, bow and salute again.

The gifts piled up around the M.C. and at their feet, the cheering shifted and flowed, first chanting Ranton’s name, then Skuskrin’s, and then, much to her surprise, Lanesh and Taslin’s names.

She was giddy by the time the crowd began to trickle away – giddy, and weary, beginning to sway on her feet and her wounds beginning to ache. Still, she smiled and waved, bowed and saluted, caught gifts and passed them to Ranton.

A normal match – a match that Taslin was used to – the crowd cleared right out, and the gladiators were free to go the medics, to go back to their dorms, or, as she had done a time or two, flop down on the hard dirt of the pit for a while.

When the last of this crowd faded away, Taslin wasn’t sure if she could move. But when Skuskrin, beside her, shifted his weight, she found her hand on her blade and a hand-width bared.

“Easy.” Rhi held out both hands, palms flat up, bare of weapons. In rhis left, the forlorn beard-braid was draped. “I am not one of those amateurs you have fought before.”

“You… you know who I’ve fought?”

“There are always amateurs.”

“Of course.” Taslin ducked her head. Why would Skuskrin Takrin know who she was?

“And I have watched your fights.”

Taslin kept her head down but didn’t even bother trying to hide the smile. “Ix.”

“I’m not an ix, I’m Suskrin. Especially to you, Taslin Gladiator.” Rhi held a hand. “You are a pleasure to fight against.”

She took the hand and shook it, as firmly as she could. “I am honored.”

“Then I will pile on the honors. You took this – you should keep this.” Suskrin put the beard-braid in Taslin’s hand and closed her hand around it. “Consider it your first Pit trophy – if indeed, it’s your first.”

“It’s my first.” She held the braid tight. “Thank you.” She turned her head-duck into a bow. “I hope you won’t take any offense if I say I hope I never see you in the Pit again.”

“And likewise. Good hunting, young fighter.”

Suskrin bowed to her, and Taslin bowed one more time.

“Good hunting, Gladiator Skuskrin Takrin, ix.”

Chapter Seventeen – Taslin – Remember

“Remember.” Dar Jervennon brushed his fingers over the marks his love-bites had left on Taslin’s neck. “The night after tomorrow.”

“Remember.” She smiled back at him, showing all her teeth. “Oh, my Master, you remember. The night after tomorrow.” She stepped up to him for a farewell kiss, her hands resting on his waist. There were people watching – she was a Gladiator; there were almost always people watching – but if they saw the slight stiffening in his shoulders, they still did not know that she’d left her own bruises on him, right where her fingers rested now. “I will be there.”

“I know.” He pressed his lips against the blossoming bruise from one of the love-bites. “I’ll bring you gifts.”

“You’ll bring me yourself, my Master. And possibly some trinkets.” There was a purr in Taslin’s voice that almost surprised her; there was a strength in the way she was holding her Patron that belied the pounding of her heart. “I’ll see you then.” Her knees wanted to bend. Her head wanted to drop. She took three steps back instead, and bowed, deep and polite and dramatic, the way you bowed to a crowd in the ring.

“Yes.” His voice nearly caught on the word. He nodded his head to her and stood, waiting for her to take her leave.

Taslin fled, her steps as even as if she was marching, her chin up. Twenty-seven steps to the Gladiators’ wing. Seventeen steps to her barracks. Seventeen back, and then another twenty, to the room that was hers now.

Vinroth was there. Not waiting, not from his posture, simply… there. Sitting on a one-armed couch-like thing, staring out at the courtyard. Trees grew there – that one was a fig, she thought, and possibly a lemon tree – and ornamental pots of plants Taslin had never seen.

He did not move when she entered. It was as if he was a statue, frozen in place, forever staring out at… at what? At the trees?

She sat down next to him on the couch-thing, wondering if even that would make him move.

The answer turned out to be “no, not right away.” Only a few minutes later did he turn to look at her; his gaze seemed a thousand miles away.

Far enough away… “You haven’t been pulling on the power, have you?” Taslin had meant to sound mild, but it came out harsh, panicked, scolding.  “Here in my room?” She swallowed and touched the stone of the wall around the window.

“I have not.” He touched her knee, as lightly as she’d touched the wall. “It is your room, Taslin Gladiator.  I will not endanger you.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” She touched his shoulder cautiously. “I apologize, Vinroth-tet Esh.”

His face lit up with a smile. “There’s no need for the formality. No, I wasn’t pulling the power. I don’t often, of course, and almost never inside the facility. If the lines become too well-worn here…”

She shuddered. “With everyone here, with the random power the ring-mercs sometimes pull, it would make this place a disaster zone in no time at all. I trust you, Vinroth. You were just… looking as if you weren’t here anymore.”

“Ah. Well, in a sense, I suppose I was.” He tilted his head towards the courtyard.

Taslin peered out at the courtyard. “You were… in the courtyard?” She tried to make it sound like a joke, and tried to make it sound like she understood at the same time.

He graced her with a soft expression that suggested she wasn’t fooling anyone: a small lip-curl and a raised-eyebrow. “That is entirely what I was doing, Taslin, being in the courtyard.”  He gestured out that way, the bracelets he affected when off-duty clinking against each other.  “I was in a grove of lemon trees, if you must know.”

“But not these lemon trees.” She sank down onto the window seat near him. “Other trees. Another courtyard?”

“In a manner of speaking. Does it strike you that we spend our entire lives within walls, Taslin Gladiator? Even when we are travelling, we are locked in mobile walls. And then when we’re here, in a city, more walls.” He gestured at the courtyard with a jangle. “And then walls within the walls.”

Taslin spoke slowly, because she didn’t think she understood him yet. “Everything we do… everything I do – is to put ourselves – myself – further inside the walls. Inside more walls, inside as many walls as possible. Inner circle, with a walled garden? Sounds good to me.”

“To protect us from the marauders, from the wild flow, from everything that’s out there. I know. I’ve seen a lot of it, Taslin Gladiator, and it’s worth hiding from.”

He kept using her full name.

“Or I wouldn’t be a Gladiator.”

“If you didn’t have something to hide from?”

“If I didn’t have something to hide my brother and sister from.”

“Family.” Vinroth sighed. “Yes. Your family.” He brushed his knuckles over Taslin’s forearm, where a cut from last week was still healing into her first real ring-scar. “You’ve sold yourself into a profession few survive – to send them money.”

“Of course.” She twitched her shoulders. “If you asked Sellen, I’m sure she’d say the same. Or many of the others.”

“Sellen is saving her money to start a business if she survives. Corby just wants a nest full of shiny things. Hilton wants to make it back up to the Third Circle, because rhi’s lover made it that far.”

Taslin shook her head. “And?”

“And they all want walls around them, as many walls as possible. Ask any one of them if they’d live in a tower if it was in the Outer Circle…”

“Poor people live in the Outer Circle. The poorest, the most desperate, and those who don’t care.” She stared at Vinroth. “Where are you from? Living in the Outer Circle gets you killed.”

“Oh, I know.” He twitched his shoulders in his own shrug, the sort that hunched him in on himself. It was an odd way to see him, and Taslin was glad that it passed quickly. “I came from New Cinnato. And I know… yes.” Taslin had, despite herself, gasped, both hands going to cover her mouth. “Yes. I came from the outer circle of New Cinnato. I know more than most what it means to live with only the protection of one wall, Taslin Gladiator.”

“The monsters…” She swallowed. Of course he knew.

“The monsters and the flow-ridden, yes. They destroyed the outermost four circles before they were stopped, and severely damaged the next two in. Only the Inner Circle and the Second were untouched.”

“And you made it out.” Taslin spoke slowly. There was nothing in Vinroth’s voice, nothing at all. “You were in the Outer Ring?”

“I grew up there. I was my mother’s youngest child, the youngest of seven. My older siblings, most of them had run away by that point. Even if they only made it in one or two circles, it was enough, I suppose. When you’re that poor, having a roof that doesn’t leak is a luxury.” He rubbed one hand over the other. “My oldest brother knelt for the Gladiators. Tomnor Gladiator. He sent money home, like you do. The only one that did anything of the sort.”

Taslin tried to swallow the lump in her throat. “Yeah?” It came out sounding choked. She tried again. “So you understand…?”

“I’ve always understood. Both your way and Sellen’s, or Corby’s. I’m youngest, as far as I know. There’s no home left to send money to, either way.”

Taslin patted his leg. It seemed insufficient. Everything seemed insufficient.

“How-” How did you survive?

“My mother put me in a chest. It was a box my brother Tommonney had sent us. She threw the blankets and the dishes and everything else in there, packed up nicely like that’s where it all went.”

“Monsters don’t pillage.”

“But bandits do. The monsters didn’t kill anything more than they needed to get through the walls. The bandits…” His voice dropped off.

Taslin hugged him, carefully, unsurprised to find he was stiff in her arms.

He swallowed and spoke again. “They found me, of course. I was too young to be of any use to them – they had pressed older kids into service, but I was too small for even that.” He shook his head. “They sold me, but not before I saw what they were doing to the captives. I don’t know if my mother was there. I always told myself she escaped. She had family further in. Maybe someone let her in the gates.” He swallowed. “She’s living there, as far as I’m concerned, in what’s left of New Cinnato.”

Who was Taslin to argue with that? She focused instead on something else he’d said. “They sold you?”

“It still happens, in the outerlands. Anywhere outside the walls. They sold me, yes. To a family that wanted a playmate for their child, since they couldn’t have more. The Flow had changed her too far to bear children, and he wouldn’t take another mate.” Vinroth’s shoulders moved; it could have been a shrug, though it looked like he was trying to wrap a blanket around himself. “I was there for… a while. Maybe five years, maybe seven.”

“Out in the outerlands?”

“In one of the farming communities. It wasn’t un-safe, as far as living outside of the walls goes.”

“What happened?” What had brought this caravan of thought crashing into his mind?

“The Flow took him, eventually, my foster-father. Monsters had attacked and he channeled the power through himself to fend them off. It was enough – the monsters left – but it left him just this side of being a Fountain.”

Vinroth took a breath that sounded ragged and uncertain. “And he’d been the one that had wanted me. My foster-mother was already half-inhuman; there wasn’t anything left of her to care about a small person. And my foster-sib didn’t want any problems in dividing up the farm. So they sold me.”

His hands were rubbing over his wrists, over bare skin that his sleeves almost always covered. There were no scars there that Taslin could see, but the skin had shifted and discolored in patterns like wheat growing, long swirls of verdigris-copper on his pale flesh. “They sold me.”

There was nothing Taslin could do but hug him, so she did that with all her soul.

Chapter Fifteen – Taslin – Here

“Here.” Reshnel pointed at a spot on the contract. “Sign here, and here; and you, Jervennon of Cecby, there, and there. It is done.” The Master of the Gladiators stood. “I will leave you two to get acquainted. Your next match is the day after next, Taslin. Sir, I will send a runner for your bank note.”

He left the room, leave Taslin and Jervennon sitting across a table from each other.

“That valet, really?” Jervennon barely waited for the door to be closed, but he waited that long. “I could send you one of my mother’s.”

“And when the year of my patronage ended, he’d leave me. Vinroth is part of the business here and he will work for me as well in private as he has in public.” She’d practiced that line. “Well, Dar Jervennon, I’m yours.” She fell to her knees in front of him. “What would you have of me?”

Taslin’s hands were behind her back, one hand holding the other’s wrist; her back was straight and her ass on her heels. She did break protocol enough, however, to look her new Patron in the face. And he was coloring hotly and not quite looking at her. “I have some ideas.”

A glance lower down gave a good impression of what those ideas were. “If you’re impatient, the pit keeps several rooms for just that purpose. We could requisition one, you know. Nobody would naysay you that.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Dar Jervennon, I wish to please you. You have just signed this expensive contact for my services, and I want to give you your money’s worth.”

“Don’t talk about it like that! I mean… I mean…” Jervennon’s hands flailed for a moment. Taslin watched, unsure what response would calm him, but in a moment, he seemed to calm himself. “Sar Taslin, it would please me if you would not talk about this like a transaction. I’m your Patron now; we are in a contract for mutual benefit, yes?”

She could work with that. “Yes, Dar Jervennon.”

Whatever Dar really meant, it seemed to soothe him so much more than anything else. His hands stilled in his lap.

“Then I’m asking you, do you want to go to bed with me?”

Taslin wondered, for a moment, if he knew there was only one right answer to his question. She was pretty sure that he didn’t. Well, that actually made giving the right answer easier.

“Of course, my… my Patron. I’ve been wondering when you’d ask that for a while now.”

“And these rooms they have reserved…?”

“I’ve never been in one, but I hear they’re laid out to make a man of your station happy so they should be good enough for this, wouldn’t you think?”

“You’re really quite striking when you smile, you know.”

“Thank you, Dar Jervennon. As are you.”

“Why… thank you. So, where are these rooms?”

“This way, I think.” She rose, and tilted her head in the right direction, hoping he’d take the cue. He hadn’t Patronized someone, before, but surely he’d grown up with some sort of staff?

It seemed that he knew a cue when it bit him in the ass. “Forward?” He stood up and headed in the proper direction.

“Out this door and to the left.” Taslin fell in behind him, just to his left, in the position of a bodyguard. In the annals of history, that was why rich oligarchs and their families had patronized Gladiators. To some degree, it was still true today. “And then the first door without a ribbon on it.”

“That’s very clever.” The third door was un-be-ribboned, and Jervennon opened it. “This is nice. Nicer than I expected in a place like this.”

She didn’t respond to the implied slight, because she was pretty sure he wasn’t aware of it. “It looks very nice,” she agreed instead. The bed was wide, the bedstead sturdy and made out of wood and twisted metal, the sheets fine linen, the lights covered gas lamps and not candles. It was luxurious to her eyes, although she didn’t know what it was to his. “It looks comfortable enough for…”

“Yes. Yes, it does.” Through his thin pants, it was once again clear that he was eager for this. “Taslin, come here and stand with your back to me, that I might undress you properly.”

An order, good. He needed to remember he was supposed to give those. And an order that she was becoming increasingly eager to obey. Taslin crossed the room and stood, her back to him, her arms loose at her side. “As you order, my Patron, so I do obey.”

“You make the words sound so dirty.” He purred it in her ear, making even that sound dirty. “So scandalous and sexual and lovely.”

“I always assumed they were meant to be sexual.” She took a risk, again, because his hands on her hips were making her twitch in interesting and entertaining ways, and leaned her head back until she could look up at his face. “The whole ritual, if you take it apart and listen to it, is all sex. ‘I kneel before you to service you…’”

“It doesn’t really say service, does it?”

“It says serve, but we always joked about it when we were reading the silly porns people made about it.”

“We read those, too.” His hands slid down to the hem of her tunic, and then back up to the buttons at the back. He was deft in unbuttoning her, even while his lips wandered over her ear and her cheek and her forehead. “I have a collection of them under my bed. I don’t know why I kept them. It was a little silly, I guess, but they were fun.”

“They are fun. I never kept any of them. We used them for fire fuel, a lot of the time, after we read them. When I was older, I actually bought a couple. I had to hide them from my mother, then, because that was a waste of mon…” She trailed off. “I’m sorry, m… master. You don’t want to hear that.”

“I want to hear everything about you, but now might not be the moment for everything.” He nibbled on her ear tip.

“Mmm. Yes, master.” Master felt warm and pleasant on her lips. Of course, his lips felt warm and pleasant on her ear, too. “What do you want to know about me right now?”

“I want to know what makes you moan with pleasure. I want to know what you’re like with your tongue and what you can do with your hands. I want to know what you feel like under me.”

“You’re a bit of a poet, aren’t you?” She arched a little further backwards, trying to get her lips onto his neck. Almost, almost…

“I have been, from time to time.” He leaned backwards, moving his neck just out of her reach. “And you?”

“I’m not the poetic sort. They don’t really teach it in the schools I went to.” She had one trick left up her sleeve – the sleeve that was on the floor over there. She tilt her head to the side and hooked her foot around his ankle.

“Not at all?” He seemed oblivious to her maneuver, or, rather, to its possible consequences. He used it to grind up against her, and moved from her ear-tip down to the side of her neck. “Not even the classics?”

“Well, that hardly counts, does it?” She did not want to throw her new Patron onto the floor. She wanted to move him, yes, but not throw him. She shifted her hip just so, and there was his neck tumbling into her mouth perfectly. “Classics are… mmm… classics.”

“Unh.” He caught a handful of her hair and held on. Taslin froze for a moment, but he didn’t seem intent on pulling her away from him. “You’re rather aggressive.”

She set her teeth into his neck, very gently, careful not to leave a mark. “Is that a bad thing, Master?” She moved from his neck to his earlobe in a series of small bites.

He cupped her breast, squeezed, and then squeezed again with every nibble. “No. No, at least, not yet. I like it.”

“Then I am glad to have pleased you.”

“So formal.” Somehow, a hand found its way between her thighs. “Are you always this formal with your lovers?”

“You’re my Master and my Patron, Dar Jervennon.” His ear tips curved differently than any she’d encountered before. She traced the lines with her tongue. “I believe you deserve a certain level of formality.”

“You make it sound like a punishment.” He took a step backwards, both hands still on her; she shifted with him and found her lips on his throat. “Are you punishing me, Taslin?” His voice vibrated against her lips; she kissed the vibrations and then bit them. “Unf. Careful.”

“Always careful. And no. I am not punishing you, my Master. That is not my place.”

“And is it my place to punish you?” His voice was still playful; she glanced at his face and saw he was smiling. The smile turned solemn when he saw her looking, however. “My apologies, Taslin. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you were doing anything to be punished, just…” He pinched the curve of her breast. “That it might be fun to leave a few marks on your perfect skin.”

She set her teeth into his throat again, waiting until he moaned before she released the bite. “We negotiated that.” It wasn’t so much a reminder as an agreement.

“We did. You surprised me with that.” He dragged painted nails down her stomach, leaving thin red lines.

“I surprise you quite a bit, Master.” She writhed away from his hands and danced away from his grasping reach. “Would you like me to surprise you again?”

“I do think I’d like that, yes.” His grin was very anticipatory. Good. She wanted him to be sure he’d gotten his money’s worth out of his Gladiator.

“Good.” She moved before he could even make a guess at what she was going to do, sweeping one leg out from under him and pushing him onto his back on the bed. “Because I’m full of surprises, Master.”

Chapter Thirteen – Taslin – Agree

“Agree. Or don’t. You have to be agreeing to it, Taslin, you know that. They can’t force you to take a Patronage.”

“But they can make my life very difficult if I do not. They can make everything unpleasant. They can lean on the owners of the pit. They can Patronize someone else and encourage them to hurt me, or just hire people to attack me.”

“That’s illegal.”

“Lots of things are illegal. That doesn’t always stop them from happening.”

“I don’t want you to take on my Patronage because I’m the lesser of three evils, Taslin. I want you to be happy with your choice.”

“Jervennon, you’ve been nothing but kind to me. You’ve given me beautiful things. You’ve sent me nice food. You have been very patient with me.”

“I don’t want to pressure you. I don’t want there to be any pressure at all.” He held up both hands, palms forward. “No pressure, Taslin Gladiator.”

“I know.” She held up her own hands as well. “I know that’s what you want.” It was crazy, but she knew it. “I understand. The problem is just… nobody else is going to be that good of a person, or as patient as you, or as understanding as you.”

“I still don’t want to be the only good choice. I want to be the best choice when you’ve had time to think about it.”

He sounded, Taslin thought, like her little brother when he’d been too long without a nap. Like he was trying to be good but just didn’t have it in him anymore.

She sighed. Big, rich, strong man that wanted to be a good boy. By some strange definition of good boy. Taslin coughed. She could handle this.

“Jervennon, I know that. I promise you, I know that. But I don’t have quite the luxury of choices that you do. I have to accept someone’s offer soon, or it’s going to end up hurting me. You have the power-”

“I don’t have any power.”

“You have the borrowed power of your mother, at least for the next year. I’m a Gladiator. I don’t have that at all. If I accept your Patronage, the others will back off and leave me alone.”

“For a year.”

“A year is enough. They’ll have moved on to someone else in that time. And besides…” She smiled at him, and hoped that it would go over well. “I like you. And I doubt any of the others would be willing to negotiate with me.” Here was where it got tricky.

“Negotiate?” He sat down and stared at her. Today, his pants and shirt were red.

She pulled up everything Vinroth had made her recite and tried to make it sound natural. “A Patronage is a contract, so it can have terms. It has to have terms, actually, but most people use the standard pit contract as written.”

“I didn’t know that. I mean, I knew it was a contract.” Jervennon put his face in his hands. “I may be ill-equipped to deal with this.”

“We can learn together, and that’s just fine, as long as you’re willing to learn with me.”

“You’re willing to put up with me?”

“Jervennon. Did you see the tunic you bought me?”

“Salny the Clothier said it was appropriate…!”

“I imagine it is. But it’s – do you have any idea how people live in the outer circles?”

“No?” Jervennon cringed. “Not really. Just that it’s more cramped, and there’s less money. I mean, I do the charity things every year with my parents. But that’s all in controlled situations and you don’t really know what’s going on.”

Taslin nodded slowly. It was hard to get her brain around that, but she could work with it. “This is the fanciest tunic I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I love it. It’s lovely. But it’s so far beyond anything I’ve ever seen or owned, it’s amazing.”

“…oh…” Jervennon blinked. “Should I not have?”

“Well, if you want me to accept your Patronage, I’ll have to have something to wear, won’t I?”

Taslin held her breath while that sunk in. That could go well, that could go really poorly, that could miss him altogether…

Slowly, he smiled. “Yes, yes you are.” Once again, it looked like he was talking to someone other than her. Taslin would take it. “Do you want to negotiate things like gifts, then?”

Oh. Oh, no. “No.” She shook her head. “Gifts are just that, gifts. As you said. There’s a couple things that are in the standard contract – it says you provide my clothing, my armor, and my lodging, but those can be pretty much anything, down to and including a bedroll, a standard-issue tunic and a leather cuirass.”

“Though that wouldn’t make me look that good.”

“True.” She plucked at the silk of her tunic. “This, this makes you look plenty good.”

“It makes you look very good, too.”

“Thank you.” She ducked her head and tried to hide a grin. He liked it. That was good. She didn’t want him to be disappointed. “Ahem. Negotiations are more often things like, like… the amount of time you want to see me away from the pit, the damage you will or won’t do to me, the medical care you’ll pay for if I’m injured.”

Taslin held her breath while that sunk in. That could go well, that could go really poorly, that could miss him altogether…

Slowly, he smiled. “Yes, yes you are.” Once again, it looked like he was talking to someone other than her. Taslin would take it. “Do you want to negotiate things like gifts, then?”

“Oh… oh.” He closed his mouth and looked thoughtful. It was an interesting look on him; Taslin thought, uncharitably, that it might be rare. “All right. That’s very practical. What about, hrrm, things like safe words?”

“Safe words?” Lansesh had used that word a couple times; Taslin had an idea what it meant, but she wanted to be sure. In this sort of thing, you had to be sure.

“If you’re getting into bondage or pain play, it’s something you use to end a scene if it’s getting in a bad place.” The words tripped off his tongue easily.

“Are you planning on doing…” Taslin swallowed. She could be a grown-up about this. She had to be a big girl about it; she had a feeling she was going to have to be a big girl about everything when it came to him. “Doing bondage and pain play with me?”

She’d seen pictures, of course, the pocket pornographic pamphlets that got passed around until they were worn ragged, and some of those had featured bondage, and blood-play, and other things of the sort. And there had been the romance novels at the Library, in which tied-up Gladiators (and sometimes tied-up Oligarchs and their hapless children) featured prominently in those publications.

But that was different than getting to the point where she was thinking about herself, herself tied up, herself gagged, helpless…

“Safe words sound lovely, if they’re not a deal-breaker for you.” She wanted to fan herself. The room was getting rather warm.

“No! No, not at all. I find limitations to be a pleasant challenge.”

He would until he found himself at the Tenth Ring Gate, at least. “Okay. So that’s all stuff you’re willing to negotiate?”

“Where I’m going to hurt you? If I’m going to hurt you? Yeah. It’s kind of like a scene, isn’t it? Just… bigger.”

“Something like that?” She thought. “And… are you willing to let me stop waiting and accept your Patronage now, before everything else gets complicated?”

“If you really think you’re ready, and you really want me as your Patron.”

“I am. And I do.” Firm voice, she could do firm voice. The one she used with her little brother and sister. “I like you, Jervennon of Cecby.”

“I like you, too, Taslin Gladiator.” His cheeks darkened and he looked her straight in the eyes. His voice got a little husky. “I think I could like you a lot.”

This was a bit uncomfortable. Taslin coughed. “Well, let’s sit down with a contract, then, and formalize the whole thing? Then, if you want,” she added a smile to gentle the way she’d yanked them back into a business transaction, “we could go out to dinner. Your treat, of course.”

“Of course.” His smile was a bit forced-seeming, but she couldn’t really blame him for that. “I know just the place. But paperwork first?”

“Please. If you don’t mind… I really would like something I could call you without losing my hair.”

“What’s wrong with Jervennon?”

“Sometimes I want to be formal. And, ah.” She felt her own cheeks heating up now. “If you’re taking my contract… it seems like I ought to.”

“Aaah. Well, we can write that into the contract, too. I suppose ‘master’ wouldn’t be appropriate, would it; you’re not really wearing my collar.”

“I wouldn’t mind when we’re alone.” She was surprised to find it was true. “But in public, that’s different.”

“Indeed. I’m not worth a ‘Lord’ yet. Hrrm. How about ‘Dar?’ It’s a term they use on Side Toenya. It means something like sir but it’s not so overused.”

“Dar Jervennon?”

“Dar Jervennon. And I’ll call you Sar Taslin.”

She bowed, because it seemed appropriate. “Thank you, Dar Jervennon.”

 


Sorry for the delay! Um. I  have no excuse? How can I make it up to you?

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Chapter 9 – Taslin – Hold

“Hold!”

Her opponent fell down on his knees. “I yield. Shit, what have you been doing?”

“Practicing?” Taslin sheathed her sword and offered the man a hand up. “You’re doing well, Sethen. But you’ve got to watch that guard.”

“You’ve been here two days longer than I have.” He took her hand and stumbled to his feet. “And you’ve already got a patron.”

“He’s not my patron, not yet.” She smoothed her hands over her tunic uncomfortably. “He’s just giving me gifts.”

“You’re not that naive, are you?” He tugged on the hem of his own top – standard-issue, where Taslin’s now fit her perfectly.

“Of course not. He’s giving me gifts to buy his way into being my Patron, but he’s very insistent on the gifts being no-obligation. Besides, they’re nice gifts. You ought to consider it.”

“If you’re his type, I doubt that I am.” Sethen and Taslin, between them, exemplified two of the three sorts of Gladiator, as common wisdom had it: he was tall, broad, and built like a Ring wall; she was lean, tall, and built like a Tower.

“I haven’t figured that out yet. He didn’t even try for services for payment rendered.” She unbuckled her sword-belt and hung it on the gear rack. “I have an hour before my stage class; do you want to take a walk together?”

Sethen, in the middle of taking of his own practice-gear and armour, froze. “Taslin…”

She hissed. “A walk, Sethen, a walk. That is all.” He would have to let go of his devotion to his True Love in the Ninth Circle eventually. But Taslin would not be the one he did so for.

“Why?” He had unfrozen, at least; he was going to have to work on his surprise reactions, or he was going to get beaten to a pulp in the pit really quickly.

“Because we’re of a time coming in, we’re getting along decently, and in a place like this, we could both use every ally we can get.”

“Are you always thinking about strategy?”

And this was why she was a stronger fighter in the pit than he was, despite his unassailable front.

“Usually. Sometimes I sleep. So, walk?”

“We’re allowed to?”

“We’re allowed to do quite a bit, as long as it doesn’t interfere with our matches, our instruction, our our Patrons, which neither of us have.”

“I never imagined wearing a collar would be so free.” He grabbed two towels off of the rack and tossed one to Taslin. “Shower first?”

“Sounds lovely. Maybe I can get through it without a valet offering to wash my back.”

“I’m not the only one? I feel left out.” Too late, she remembered that Sethen had trouble with sarcasm. “Joking. I’ve been turning Vinroth down for two weeks.”

“Much to Vinroth’s dismay.” The valet walked into the sandbox, smirking. “Here, I brought you both a clean tunic for after the showers you won’t let me in for.”

“You’re so good to us, however mean we are to you.”

“I work so hard for you, and all I ask is to serve you a little more.”

“It’s entirely selfless, sure.” She glanced at Sethen, wondering if he was understanding the joking; from the look on his face, no, no he wasn’t. She toned it down a bit. “Thank you, however, for the clean tunics.”

Sethen’s expression cleared; he understood that. “We worked up quite a sweat.”

Oh, Sethen. Taslin sighed. “We did. Thank you, Vinroth.”

“It was my pleasure. Go, you two. If I can’t join you, at least enjoy yourselves.”

There was no point even given that one a response. Taslin headed off to the showers, leaving Sethen to find his own way.

She should not have been surprised – but for once, was – when Vinroth followed her. “I need to speak to you.”

“I know Sethen’s a naif. I’m not going to break his heart, jump his bones, or both.” She draped her clean tunic over the shower stall and quickly added her dirty one.

“That’s good, but that’s not what we need to talk about.” He leaned against the cedar of the stall wall, not looking at her. Pointedly not looking at her.

“I’m listening. Pass me a back brush?” This time of the day, the water would be cold. Bracing. She lathered herself up from the hand-tap first.

The back brush came over the stall wall. “If you’d just let me in…”

“What do we need to speak of, Vinroth?”

“Your would-be Patrons. Taslin, please…”

Something in his voice was not normal – and the plural on Patrons was interesting. “All right. Come in, Vinroth.” She opened the door for him, and was not as surprised as she might have been to find him already stripped down. “Now, what is it?”

He slipped behind her. “Brush.”

“If this is just an excuse…”

“Just give me the brush, Taslin Gladiator.”

“Yes, sir.” She responded to the tone in his voice and handed over the brush.

He started scrubbing her back before he spoke. When he does, it was quieter than he could have gotten away with in anything but this intimate situation. “I have been looking into your Jervennon of Cecby, and when I was looking around, I encountered two more who are interested in you. They are, mmm, less patient than he might be.”

“Who are they?”

“One of them is a Third Ring businessman who’s climbing. He’s older than you, of course-”

“Of course.”

“-but he’s handsome, clean, and relatively well-spoken. He’s got the class-conscious thing you often get with Ladder-climbers – he started out Sixth Ring – and he has already dropped Patronage of two other Gladiators.”

“Sounds charming.”

“There are worse. Like your third candidate.” He really was quite good at washing backs. “This one is a Second Ring sort who was born into it. He’s not much older than your Jervennon of Cecby – just enough to have clawed his way back up – but he has a reputation for being ruthless. Turning him down or accepting his offer is likely to be disastrous.”

“It sounds like I’m between two rocks and a soft place.”

“That’s the thing, yes. Your first one, your Jervennon, has sent you five more gifts, and he keeps insisting you take your time. Your second one will wait, but not for long at all. He wouldn’t be a horrible choice – but he wouldn’t last long, in all likelihood.”

“And that would wash out Creep Number three but also Nice Boy Number One. Of course Nice Boy is only going to last a year.”

“But Nice Boy is showering you in very nice gifts. Which may or may not last once he’s gotten the title of Patron for you; I don’t have any history to look into for him, since he’s so shiny new.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“Would you believe it’s because it’s my job?”

“No. Because I have not seen you do this for anyone else in the weeks I’ve been here. Also, you’re being sneaky and whispering.”

“Of course, if I was sneaking and whispered with everyone else, you wouldn’t have seen me do it, would you have?”

“Touché. But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“I’m fond of you. And I have ambition, as well.”

“Ambition?” She twisted around to look at the valet. “Do tell.”

He reached over head. “Close your eyes.” Before she could do anything except exactly that, he had pulled the cord, loosing a flood of cold water onto them both.

His hands worked quickly enough that Taslin had only reached for a washrag before Vinroth had already sponged her off, getting the soap off her body and scrubbing carefully at a few raw places where she’d gotten sand embedded in cuts.

“There.” His lips were very close to her ear. She hadn’t realized he was that close. “I have ambition, Taslin Gladiator, and when you get your own room and your own valet, I don’t wish to be serving as a jack-to-any-hands for the rest of my life.”

“Aaaah.” She turned, until her nose was nearly touching his. “So you want me to find a good Patron…”

“One that will let you chose your own Valet and not assign one designed to be a glorified chaperon, yes. I want you to find a Patron that will make you happy, because I like you-” He was washing her shoulders, his face almost against her neck.

“-and because you want me to like you enough to bring you with me. You’re quite a Ladder-climber.”

“Not normally something you find in valets serving Gladiators, or Valets as a whole, I know. But it’s how this particular valet feels.”

“And not just because you want to give me more showers?” She leaned back enough that she could smile at him, because she didn’t really think he was trying to worm his way into her bed. Gladiators did not usually end up free to choose their own partners all that often, for one. And the sort of person that became a valet was generally not all that interested in the carnal.

“Well…” He smiled back at her, showing his teeth. She’d never noticed how white or how sharp they were before this. “That’s a nice side effect, if it should come about.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, too. So, how do I deal with my suitors, plural, without ending up with patrons, zero?”

“Make no mistake, if it’s not Jervennon of Cecby or another of this batch, you will get a Patron. You’re good, you’re lean, and you have drive.”

“I… yes, I have drive.” She took the washrag from him and began washing his back. It only seemed proper, and she needed something to do with her hands. “Is it that obvious?”

“Mmm… oh. Oh, you don’t have to…!” He blinked at her rapidly.

“I want to. Is it that obvious?”

“Obvious? Oh, that you have drive.” His expression settled on a slow smile, although he was very squirmy still. “If you’re looking, yes. I suppose if you were blind, oblivious, or uncaring, it might not be. But I look for Gladiators with drive.” His smile had resolved itself into something normal-for-him. “They make this job worth it.”


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Chapter 7 – Taslin – Come

“Come, Taslin Gladiator.” Vinroth touched Taslin gently on the elbow. “You have fought well, and now you must deal with another sort of battle.”

She blinked at him. The guards had taken away her opponent, and a medic had bound her wounds and fed her something that was supposed to make the pain go away. It had mostly made her muzzy-headed and a little bit silly.

“No more battles today. I’m not that good, yet.”

“No, not quite, although you were quite impressive out there on the field today.”

“You watched?” It must be the medicine that made her feel warm and silly.

“I always watch. But now you must stop fishing for praise and come with me.”

“I wasn’t…” She caught the look on Vinroth’s face. “I’m coming. What’s wrong?”

“There is nothing… wrong, not exactly. But you should hurry.”

“Hurry. Right.” She grabbed a tunic off of a hook and accepted the hip-wrap the valet handed her. “Where am I hurrying?”

“With me. This way.” He passed her a thin gold cord to wrap over the hip-wrap. “You still smell a little, but in this case I think that will work for you, not against you.”

“Well, I didn’t have time to get in an argument about showering with you right now, I was busy being drugged to the gills.”

“After the fight you’ve had, you’re allowed it, I’d say. Through here.”

The route finally worked its way through her drugged mind. “Vinroth, this is…”

“Yes. Now.” He brushed his hands through her hair and smoothed her tunic, her wrap, the cord, and everything else about her. “Be polite.”

“Vinroth, I’m always polite.”

“Be more polite than always.”

“I’m… all right.” They were upstairs. There was no reason to go upstairs unless an oligarch needed them for something – or an oligarch’s servant. This couldn’t be good. But she had been primped and smoothed, she was drugged and confused, and it would have to do.

“And remember to kneel.”

“Yes, of course.” She waited until Vinroth opened the door, taking the moment to take a few breaths. That ought to have steadied her; instead, it made her more nervous.

She took three, four, five measured steps into the audience chamber, dropped to one knee, and dropped her face to look at the floor. The single glance gave her a rough impression of the man standing there: he had black hair, copper skin, and nipples that were almost black through his white top.

“I live to serve.”

“You serve the Pit. I would like you to consider serving me.” She could hear his sandals slapping on the tile floor, moving closer to her. “I have been watching you.”

“Sir.” She kept her head down. The world was swimming, a bit. She hoped it was just the medicine.

“You fight very smoothly, despite being new.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I am very impressed. You’re still young, of course, still new and growing. But you could be famous with ease.”

“Sir.”

“You can call me by my name, you know.”

“Sir?” Oh, dear. Was he one of the famous ones? She risked peeking up at him.

In addition to the black hair, which was curly, the copper skin, which glistened, and the black nipples – which were actually black, she thought – he had astonishingly green eyes, lips the same black as the nipples – paint or nature? – and a body which was nearly as toned as a Gladiator’s, although in a much more sleek style. He was wearing the thinnest white shirt she had ever seen, and pants, also white, that were barely any heavier, as well as four earrings in his left ear and three in his right. His ears swept upwards into high points, the tips of which were also black.

“I’m sorry, sir.” She bowed her head. “I do not know your name.”

He laughed. This could be bad. “Ah. I see.” This could be very bad. “Of course you don’t. I am so used to the people who serve in the Inner Circle; I forget people outside of the Towers don’t know the families of the Oligarchs.”

The families of the Oligarchs. She snuck another look at him. He had to be at least as old as she was.

He chuckled again. “Oh, yes. In a year or two, no matter how hard she tries to fight it, my mother is going to have to send me down to the Tenth Circle, and I’ll have to live like the rest of the world. But until then, I might as well enjoy myself, no?”

“Sir.” She nodded her head lower. It seemed the safest option.

“You’re a cautious one, aren’t you?”

“I’ve been in the pit for less than a month, sir.”

“And you’ve been warned about patrons, haven’t you, or you’ve heard stories, either about the worst of the patrons or the children of Oligarchs.” His sandals slapped on the floor as he crossed the room. She held still, despite fighter’s training telling her to stand up, to get in a defensible position, to find a weapon.

He tapped her left shoulder, then her right, and then rested both hands on her head. “I understand. I’ve heard all the stories, too. You’re right to be cautious.”

“Sir.” Again.

“However.” His voice took on a little bit of laughter again. “If you call me sir again, I’m going to order all your hair shaved off.”

“Si… I’m sorry?”

“It would get your attention, it would remind you what not to do, and it would be visible to everyone without actually impairing your fighting ability.”

“You’ve thought this out, s…” Taslin coughed. “What should I call you, then? I have to be able to call you something.”

“My name is Jervennon of Cecby.” His hands moved back to her shoulders. “It’s lovely hair, please remember the name.”

“As you wish, Jervennon.” Taslin nodded her head. “What can I do for you?”

“For now? Accept my gifts. I don’t want you to accept my patronage yet, but you can take gifts from anyone you wish until you do accept a patron, I think.”

“You think?” She found her voice squeaking.

“I’ve never been a Patron before.”

“I’ve never been a Gladiator before.” Taslin glanced up at her possibly-would-be-Patron and risked a smile. “If you want to give me gifts, si – Jervennon – and the rules say I can, I will not turn them down.” There, that sounded sufficiently formal without sounding as if she was accepting a Patronage. She hoped.

“Who would know?”

“Vinroth will know. The valet who led me up here.”

“Within any reason, and if I know valets – I’ve known a few, let me tell you – this Vinroth will be waiting just outside the door.” His hands were gone from her shoulders, and his boots thudded on the floor. The door swung open. “Ah. Are you Valet Vinroth?”

“That is I, sir.” She could hear the swish of fabric as Vinroth, presumably, bowed.

“Tell me, as I have never been a Patron before and Gladiator Taslin never a Gladiator before, what protocol is in place for giving gifts outside of a patronage?”

“You wish to give gifts to someone… without a Patronage?” It sounded as if his eyebrows raised. Vinroth had very expressive eyebrows.

“I wish to court her into considering a Patronage.”

“Your lordship is very clever. Well, if that is what you wish, there is no reason you cannot give gifts to anyone you please, and there is no reason that an unassigned, unattached Gladiator cannot take gifts from whoever she pleases.”

“Very good. Then there are some gifts I would like you to take to her room for her, if you would.”

“You don’t wish to hand them to her?”

“No.” The change in tone was sudden. “No. The gifts do not need to pass from my hands into Gladiator Taslin’s. That can wait until the Patronage is accepted, if it is.”

“As you wish, sir. The packages?”

“Here.”

There was the sound of shifting material – something clanked – and then the softest of oof-sounds. “I will take this as required, sir.” Vinroth’s voice bore the slightest sound of strain.

“Very good. See that everything is proper. And you.” The boots again. Taslin’s shoulders twitched with the need to move, to watch. She did not. She held still, as if her life depended on it. “You.” His hands landed hard on her shoulders. “Look at me, Taslin Gladiator.”

She looked up at him. There wasn’t a lot of choice, when it was put that way. “Jerevnnon.” She tried to make it sound like sir.

“Understand. These are gifts. These are not payment for services. They are a token of my appreciation for your skill, and a sign of what could come, should you accept my Patronage. They’re gifts.” He squeezed her shoulders. “With no obligation, save that you look at them, and understand that I gave them to you because of the way you move in the pit.”

This was getting stranger and stranger. She nodded, carefully. “I understand.”

“That means, should they not suit you, you don’t have to use them. You don’t have to use them. They’re gifts. If you want to give them to destitute Tenth Circle children, I won’t argue. If you let you cat sleep in them, I won’t argue. If you wear them proudly, I will not argue.”

“S… Jervennon…”

“No, I’m serious. I need you to understand that, or these aren’t gifts, they’re very fancy shackles.”

She understood, finally, that he wasn’t really talking to her. She nodded, because that was what it seemed like he needed. “I understand. I appreciate that you like my performances enough to give me gifts. If they suit, I will wear them proudly.” She risked meeting his eyes again. “I really do appreciate that you liked it that much. I didn’t think today went all that well.”

“Today was a travesty. But that was not your doing.” His hands lifted off of her shoulders. “Go. And I hope you enjoy the gifts.”

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Chapter 5- Taslin – Thrust

Thrust. That was step one. Step two was definitely don’t get thrust into. Taslin danced out of the way of her larger opponent’s blade and, because she could, made a twist out of it so that she could then go for another thrust, this one a move that looked far more complicated than it was.

The audience – such as it was – cheered. Her opponent – such as he was – barely managed to dodge in time. Her teammates – such as they were – shouted encouragement and his – such as they really, really weren’t – hissed and yelled.

Taslin loved it. She slapped him in the face with the flat of her blade – not grandstanding, she told herself, she could tell Gan she’d done it because she wanted to get him angry.

If she’d been trying for that, it worked. He bellowed in rage and came running at her, head down and sword out.

It was too easy. It had to be a trick. If it was a trick, if he was actually planning this out, his off hand would come up like thus.

She dove out of the way – to his sword-hand side, not to his off-hand side – rolled up behind him while he was still trying to stop his forward momentum, and slipped her blade through the thin gap in his armor.

The crowd took in a collective breath.

It wasn’t a killing blow, but, then again, it wasn’t supposed to be. Instead, it was a humiliating blow, a distraction from what her off-hand was doing and, most importantly, leverage to get herself tall enough to get that off-hand and its weapon to his throat.

The crowd screamed its pleasure.

All of this had to be more than a bit painful for her opponent, but Taslin was going to have bruises over two-thirds of her body, so he could cope.

“Yield.”

It wasn’t for him, it was for the audience, so her voice was pitched loud, aiming for the back of the amphitheater.

“Fountainspawn.” He lifted his left hand, palm-up. No, no, he was not going to start pulling power here, not in the middle of the sandbox, what did he think he was doing?

YIELD!“ She made it a bellow because she didn’t want to make it a panicked shout. He didn’t care about his throat. He didn’t care about his throat. Didn’t care about…

She dropped her hold on her sword and wrapped both her arms around his left. From that angle, she could put the blade to his wrist the same as she’d had it to his throat.

The crowd rose to their feet.

“Yield.” This time, she kept it at almost a whisper. “Drop the weapon and yield or I drop your hand in the sand and you’re a one-handed bond-slave.”

Her opponent’s blade fell to the ground, and he fell to his knees. “I yield, damn you, fountain-spawn.”

She sheathed her off-hand blade and scooped up her sword, never taking her eyes off him. She’d learned that lesson the hard way in her second match.

He stayed on his knees. The audience cheered. Taslin, making certain she was well out of her opponent’s reach, bowed, turned, and bowed again.

This match – like all of her matches so far – was a warm-up before the main event, a crowd-appetite-whetter. Taslin didn’t mind. She needed the practice, for one thing, and for another, sometimes those who would be patrons showed up early.

The man on the ground twitched. Taslin ducked out of the way and struck out with a foot to his face as he dove towards her.

“Fucking fountain-spawn!” He fell back onto his face. “I’ll fucking kill you.”

She danced back again and shifted her blade into guard position. “No. No, you won’t.” Would the guards interfere?

“You miserable waste-lander, I need this win!” He dove at her again, and she danced backwards again. She was going to have to kill him if he kept this up. She didn’t want to kill him.

“You’re free with the insults for someone who can’t win a basic match of sword-fighting.” She stepped around behind him. “You’re pretty free with the insults altogether, actually. What do you think that says about you?”

“What do you mean, you useless waste of flesh?” He’d gotten to his feet again, oh, good. That was the last thing she wanted. Well, the second to last thing.

“Well, seriously. You’re relying on insults. You’re throwing around curse words.” She took a moment to unsheathe her off-hand blade and watched her opponent. “You’ve stepped outside the realm of honor, of course. You yielded.”

“Are you…. are you playing to the crowd?” He blinked at her. “Are you making a game out of my life? Some sort of show?

It almost threw her off her game. “We’re gladiators.“ She took three steps backwards and pitched her voice to the crowds. “We’re gladiators. We fight for them!”

The audience cheered and jeered back at her. Her opponent, however, had clearly had enough. “Not me!” He rushed her, head down, a blade he hadn’t been showing before in his right hand. “Not me, you miserable fountain-spawn, not me!”

She’d been trying to get him angry, but there was angry and then there was raging. He was pulling power again, too, no, no, they would not be impressed with her if they had to seal off the ring, they hadn’t had to do that in at least twenty years.

Ten? Lots of years, at least, and that was in no way the point. The point was coming at her, followed by a bellow. She dodged out of the way, rolled – a different roll this time, in case he was actually paying attention – and came up under his legs with her offhand pricking where his balls ought to be if he had any.

Which remained to be seen.

Her sword, from here, nicked his wrist and rested just so on that delicate place where everything could go really, really badly. “Stay yielded this time, or die.”

She made sure everyone in the audience could hear her. She, of course, could hear them, too, as they chanted.

“Die, die, die, die, die.”

He’d frozen again. “Fountain-spaaawn…”

“Yield. Or die. It’s that simple.” She pricked a little deeper with both weapons.

“You cannot be this good!”

Frankly, she didn’t think she was, but she was also pretty sure that agreeing with him wouldn’t help the situation. “Yield. Do. You. Yield?”

“Blast and damn it, I yield.” He once again dropped his weapon.

“Don’t move.” She rose to her feet, slowly, keeping the points of her weapons in place. “Shall he be pricked or shall he be slit?”

“You’re not…”

“You forfeited everything when you ignored your yield. You knew that.”

“I had to win! They told me to win!”

“Honorably.” She gave a little twist to both blades. “Pricked or split, good people?”

The crowd – made noise. It was unclear, at first, what the running trend was going to be; there was just shouting and then a little more shouting. And then one man stood from the oligarch’s boxes.

The crowd fell silent. They were all looking at him. Taslin was looking at him. Her opponent was looking at him.

“Pricked or Split, good oligarch?”

Which one was it? From here, it would be almost impossible to tell, even if she knew all of them by sight. Male, she was pretty sure – he wasn’t wearing so much clothing as to obscure that, for one. But beyond that? He had black hair, copper skin, and nipples that were almost black through his white top.

“Pricked. And scarred. Let his treachery be remembered. Let it be burned into his Name.”

Taslin hissed. Even her opponent groaned, and she’d thought he was beyond that.

But then she lifted her voice up properly. “As I am commanded.” Her knives dug in until he groaned in pain, and then again, until she could watch the blood well up red and sweet from both target. “Remember this.”

“I’ll remember you. I’ll remember you, Fountain-spawn.”

Taslin pulled back her blades and wiped them on his clothing. “Good. I’ll certainly remember you.”

Chapter 3 – Taslin – Duck

359“Duck! Damnit, Taslin, I said duck! The next time you miss, I’m going to leave you so sore you can’t lift a sword nor spear for a week!”

Gan was shouting. Taslin found her lips curling back in a grin, so, instead, she ducked her head. “Again, ma’am Ganlenrel?”

“Again! I’ll give you again, you worthless Outer-Circle mutant of a waste of armour, again, now, and what did I tell you about keeping that left arm up, Gladiator, keep your arm up and keep that shield up! Now duck, and what did I tell you about playing to the crowd?”

Taslin dropped down under Gan’s blade, rolled in a move she’d been practicing on her own, and came up just behind the trainer’s off-hand. “Don’t do it unless I can do it right, and forget playing to the crowd until I can survive three fights in a row with no new scars. Right now I’m fodder for the mill.”

She tapped her sword against the giant’s arm. “And don’t get cocky. Ma’am.” Who would have thought the big career Gladiator had reached for the feminine? Taslin hadn’t believed it, not really, until she’d seen the big woman at dinner, in skirts with a ribbon in her hair. “I’ve been listening, ma’am.”

“Of course you have.” Gan did something with her sword that almost embedded the hilt in Taslin’s kidney, but Tas had been expecting something of the sort – she’d been showing off, after all – and had already danced out of the way. “Because you’re a book learning sort, and you think you’re smart.”

“No ma’am.” She bowed politely. “Try the dodge again, ma’am?”

“So you don’t think you’re smart? Are you a stupid sod, then, the concrete from the outer circle still drying off your boots? You the sort that thinks a Fountain is for gulping out of? You the sort that dies fast?” Gan punctuated the last with a sword-swing, one that Taslin barely managed to dodge. “You the sort that listens to my words instead of watching me blade, Taslin-the-smart-one?”

“No, ma’am. No, Ganlenrel, ma’am.” Taslin jabbed in a short feint and was unsurprised when it was blocked. “No, of course not, ma’am. I listen to your words and watch your blade.”

“And why is that, smart thing?” Gan’s blade smacked down hard on Taslin’s ass and, recognizing it as a punishment and not a fight move, Taslin stood and took it.

“Because, ma’am.” When the sword did not hit again, she took a step back out of reach. “I want to survive the ring.”

“Everyone wants to survive, Gladiator. Nobody comes here wanting to die.”

Neither of them called that on the obvious lie that it was. Instead, Taslin bowed again. “I want to thrive.”

“Hunh.” Gan bowed in return. “Then you just might live. Go sluice off, Gladiator. You’ve got your stage class in twenty minutes.”

“Stage?” She racked her practice sword and hung her leather armor on its stand. “What sort… oh.”

“The part where you play to the crowd, yes. This is a show, gladiator. Don’t ever forget it.”

“But you said not to bother playing to the crowd yet.” Taslin stepped off the sand, bowed, and stripped off her practice tunic.

“No. And I meant it. Seriously, Tas. You’re going to be good if you survive; don’t get dead being a ham before you can be a star.” Gan followed her out of the sandbox, stripping out of her own armor and tunic as she went.

“Then why…?” Taslin took a step backwards out of the practice-mistress’ reach. “I don’t ask to be contrary!”

“You talk pretty fancy for an eighth-circle girl, Taslin born in Altreka.” It wasn’t an answer.

“I left that behind.” Neither was that.

“Hrrmph. You need to start good habits now, that can turn into playing to the crowd when you’re ready. If you learn bad habits, you’ll have to break them, and that can fuck with your fighting.” Gan tossed her a towel.

“Thank you.” She wiped off the worst of the sweat and grime, leaving the sand at the edge of the sandbox where it belonged. In the spirit of fair trade, she offered up a piece of herself. “I was a scholarship kid. Sixth-circle school, three times a week from the time I was ten.”

“And here you are.”

“And here I am, yes, ma’am. I should shower before stage classes?”

“Hrmph. Yes. Go, you.”

Taslin, of course, went. She couldn’t tell, not really, if the training mistress liked her or hated her, but she had a feeling that was part of the nature of training. She wasn’t supposed to be friends with the woman, she was supposed to learn.

“Duck.” She muttered it to herself. “Duck, then swerve. That shoulder roll is too showy, and it’s not level enough yet. Ow.” And her shoulders were sore already. She needed to work on her dives.

“Talking to yourself already? I’d heard that was a trait of the Servi, not of Gladiators.”

“I hadn’t heard it of any of the cheaters.” Taslin slowed and glanced sideway.

The Gladiator-valet Vinroth smiled shyly back at her. “I would not call them – you – cheaters, but I hadn’t truly heard it either. What has you talking to yourself?”

“Shoulder rolls. And ducking.”

“Standard first week fare, sounds like. What are you doing with it?”

“Trying to survive long enough to thrive, not showing off, and watching my left hand.” The words had the rubbed raw places in her voice by this point, and she could tell from the look on Vinrosh’s face that it showed.

“And, again, that sounds like first week fare. Which means next is stage class, yes?”

“Next is a shower, and then stage class.”

“Excellent.”

“Vinroth…” She’d had this argument before. Seven times, as a matter of fact, for the seven days she’d been here – and seven more showers than she’d ever had in a week before.

“Hush, you. I enjoy doing my job.”

“I enjoy washing myself without a helper.”

“Then we’re at an impasse, once again.” Vinroth was smiling broadly as he bowed to her. “I will, once again, stand outside your shower. And you will, once again, grumble about it.”

“That does seem to be the routine.” The skinny guy was so cheerful about it; Taslin smirked back at him. “Ten years of this, do you think?”

“Oh, no, I’ll be lucky if it lasts for ten weeks. You’ll have your own valet in a month or two, hands-down.”

“I’m a plebe, a newb. I’m still so raw I’m getting slapped with wooden swords until I can’t sit.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be lucky if I can stand up in two months.”

Vinroth shook his head. “I know talent when I see if, and so does Gan.”

“You said everything was routine.”

“The training is routine. Whether or not you are routine remains to be seen.”

Taslin peeked sideways at him again. “You’re just saying that to get in the shower with me.”

“Indeed, no. If I were saying something to get into the shower with you, it would be more along the lines of ‘I know your shoulders and back must ache. In the shower, I could help relieve some of that tension… and any other tension you might have.”

“Ha.” Despite herself, Taslin knew she was grinning stupidly. She turned away. “Well, gotta say that’s more tempting than ‘I could wash your back.’”

“Then I must say that you have never had your back properly washed. But now we are at the showers, and I must go back to waiting outside for you to change your mind.”

“You know I’m not going to, right? Change my mind? Give in?”

“I know that you seem rather unlikely to. However, Gladiator Taslin, this is my job.”

“What lands you a position playing valet to Gladiators, anyway?” She’d made her jokes, of course; everyone did. Standing around all those naked and nearly-naked people, with sweaty, well-toned bodies.

“Mmm, and that is a story for another day. A day, perhaps, in which I am in your shower, washing your back.”

“You strike a hard bargain.”

“I do endeavor to. I’ve discovered that hard bargains, when won, are better valued than easy ones. And I like being valued.” The smile Vinroth shot her was sunshine-brilliant, with very pointed canines.

“It seems like an odd place for value.”

“On the contrary. Gladiators – any of those who bend knee to climb, really – have so very little that is their own. Everything else is given to you either by the pit or your patrons, no?”

“Everything but my drive.”

“And me.” His fingers touched her arm briefly. “I am given to you by myself. I choose to serve.”

“Ah.” Taslin felt uncomfortably warm. She mirrored the touch, very lightly, just feeling the hair on his arm. “I understand.”

“Then you should go shower, Gladiator. Because your stage class is going to be rather interesting and likely rather difficult.” Now Vinroth’s smile was more light, less toothy, and possibly sardonic. “Although you’ll have an advantage over some of them. You speak nicely to begin with.”

“Talking’s not usually required much in the pit…” It was a nice, solid subject, but she still felt the sand slipping out from under her feet.

“You haven’t seen that many pit matches, have you?”

“They don’t often let the Eighth Circle in to watch. Mostly the travelling shows.” It didn’t usually chafe like this. She was born of Altreka, in the Eighth. It was simply a face. Usually.

“You will see. I think you will enjoy it. You already know how to put on a show. I’ve seen you, your chin up, smiling.”

“That’s just good fighting.”

“And it’s good pit fighting, too. Now go on, Gladiator. Get clean, and then I will get to help teach you all about the proper way to play to the crowd.”

“You…?”

“Yes, me.” He bowed again, this time with a series of flourishes that made it look like the end of a dance. “I am a man of many talents.”

She turned away before he could see the sudden speculation. Many talents, indeed.