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-”
“-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.”
“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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