Archive | September 2014

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 6 – Valran – Thrust

This chapter contains material that some may find NSFW

“Thrust out your hips more.”

“Now you’re just making fun of me.”

“No, I’m telling you what to do.” Bicla put her hands on Valran’s hips and pushed them forward. “Like that. Now you look…”

“Like a ten-piece whore on a street corner.”

“No, no, at least a fifty-piece whore, this is serious Fifth Ring stuff. You’re not a seventh-circle whore. At least, not anymore.”

“You’re so nice.” Her hands on his hips were actually a bit distracting. “Bicla…”

“It helps if you’re erect. People like that sort of thing.” Those hands weren’t exactly on his hips anymore. Close, but moving further away as she spoke. “And if you’re already had one orgasm, you get this lovely flush to your cheeks…”

“And this wet spot on these nice pants that were provided for me. That’s not going to look very good.”

“Then you’re going to have to settle for looking like you really, really want someone to satisfy you.” She cupped his balls through the thin fabric of his pants. “I think I can manage that.”

“Bicla…” He had been oiled, brushed, smoothed, made up, and dressed, such as it was – the pants were so thin you could see exactly how little body hair Bicla had left him.

“Valran…” She had to stand on her toes, but it let her breathe into his ear, warm, tickling breath. “Don’t you want me to play with you?”

“Bicla, do you really want to send me out there squirming, twitching, and blushing?”

“Blushing? Mm, is the big bad Servus a virgin?”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous that sounds?”

“Do you have any idea how ridiculous you sound? It’s a little petting. You’ve had my hands all over you already.” She squeezed his balls – lightly – by way of punctuation. “I’ve had my hands all over these already.”

“Unf.” There was very little argument to be had against that, but he tried anyway. “That was different.”

“No. That was preparing you for the sale. This is preparing you for the sale. The only difference is the specific preparation. That was grooming; this is stage dressing.”

“Stage dressing!”

“You’re going on stage and I’m dressing you.” She squeezed again. “There, you’re starting to look nice. Oh, very nice.”

He could feel his cheeks heating up. “Bicla…”

“Relax, boy. Someone out there is going to like your purist almost-pre-Flood-human sort of look. It’s rather rugged.”

“I’m wearing lipstick.”

“Lip gloss. You didn’t strike me as a Manly Above All Else sort.”

“I’m not. You’re the one that called me rugged.”

“Mmm.” She pinched his nipple, quick and sudden, and then the other one while he was still drawing breath to complain about the first. “You are, a bit. Your skin is this reasonable brown color, your ears barely have any point to them at all…”

“Your skin is creamy and your hair is blonde.”

“We’re not talking about me.” The playful tone in Bicla’s voice had been replaced, instantly and with no traces left, with a sharp-edged knife of a sound. “We’re talking about your salability.”

“You know, until you started talking about it, I really wasn’t worried. I didn’t think the department would have accepted my application if they didn’t think they could get some money for me. That’s what they do, isn’t it?”

“Never can tell, especially with the outer rings, until they clean you up and put you out there. Some look pretty and can’t talk the game to save their lives. Some can’t bring themselves to really kneel. Some just clean up ugly.” While her voice was still harsh, it no longer had daggers in it aimed at Valran’s throat.

“And me?” Giving her a chance to insult him might calm her down from… whatever had made her angry.

“You clean up pretty nice. You make up nicer. And not everyone who comes here wants a pretty fay-looking boy.” She pinched his nipple again, harder this time, and smiled when he gasped. “So tell me, why did you send in your application to this particular place? Some other people sell for, you know, more manly occupations. Bodyguard. Driver.”

“You’re a driver.”

“We’re still not talking about me.” This time, she smirked at him. “We’re talking about why you chose this particular house to set you on your route skipping the Ladder rungs.”

“You’re talking about it.” He straightened his pants. “I had a lot of reasons.”

“Give me one?” She tugged his pants down a couple inches. “This looks better, anyway.”

“It has a higher success rate. People who kneel here, they come out at the other end skipping more rungs, and happier.”

“Than being a bodyguard?” She stepped up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, letting her hands drop just above his junk.

“Oh, come on, what do you think? It also has a much higher survival rate.”

“You didn’t want to go Gladiator, then?” She stroked him through the thin cloth.

“Not in a million years. Not in a trillion years.”

“You know, if you had a trillion years, being a Gladiator would probably be the least of your worries.”

“Very likely.” He gave up on resisting and leaned into her. “You’re quite good at this.”

“I have practice. But, mmm, you make it rather easy.” She stroked him with feathery, teasing touches, barely brushing and then pulling away.

“You’re not so good at the sweet talking.” Which was more of a relief than it probably should have been. He was not having a romance with Bicla. With any luck, he was about to be sold. Romance with someone else’s Servus was not really on the menu. Things that even hinted at romance shouldn’t be on the menu.

“Ha. I don’t have much practice with that at all.” She kissed the back of his neck, just above the collar. “You smell very nice.”

“I ought to. You doused me in scented stuff.” Valran tried not to sniff himself.

“With any luck, you’ll need to get used to that sort of thing. Lots of people who come here looking for a boy want someone who smells nice and is nice and slippery and ready all the time.”

“Trying not to think about that, thanks.” But now, of course, he was. Nice and slippery and ready…

“And yet you sent your application here.” Bicla raised her eyebrows at him. It was enough to let him pull himself back under control.

“As I said, it has the highest success rate.”

“And you said you had your reasons.” He could feel her teeth, now, against his skin. “You’ll tell me in ten years?”

“You have my word on it. Ten years from now, we can sit over coffee and share war stories.”

“I never promised you mine.” Her stroking grew rough again.

“I know… Unh! But you can’t blame a man for being curious, can you?”

“Not if he keeps his mouth shut. You should learn to be meeker and quieter, Valran Servus.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He tilted his head downward, which, he knew, bared more of his neck to her.

“Bicla, is he ready?” The Deputy Oligarch’s voice was like a splash of cold water.

“I doubt he’ll ever be ready, Boss.” She didn’t jump away from him, but Bicla’s hands dropped away and Valran felt her step backwards from him. “But he’s shiny, he smells nice, and he has a raging boner.”

“You’re so eloquent.”

“You know you like it, Boss.” Bicla shoved Valran forward. “Go get ’em, pretty boy.”

“Thanks so much.” He stumbled, caught himself, and kept walking. Head down. Hands folded behind his back. Steps slow and measured. He had practiced this. “Ix?”

“Keep walking forward. When you see the black x on the floor, stop, and kneel. There, answer what questions are given to you. Keep your head down, keep your answers polite.”

“Yes’ix. Thank you.”

“And keep your mind on whatever’s got you stretching your pants so nicely. It will help quite a bit in your price.”

“Yes’ix.” Commanded to think of Bicla touching him. This could get interesting. He nodded lower, almost a bow, and continued his walk forward.

The doorway felt more ominous than the gates deeper and deeper into the city had. Those were about the whole city; this was about his life. The mark was obvious, the tape a little worn at the edges.

His vision narrowed to that X. He fell to his knees, not even trying to soften the fall. He gripped one wrist with the other, to keep his hands from jerking forward, and stared resolutely at the floor.

“Good people.” The Deputy’s voice was too close to Valran’s ear; he nearly jumped. But the position he had himself in didn’t allow that, so he held his wrist a little tighter and stared at the tile floor. “This is Valran Servus. Will you take him home?”

“Can you serve, Valran Servus?” The alto purr came from his left. He nodded his head.

“Yes’ix, yes.” Of course.

“Can you suck?” That from his right, husky and deep.

Well, that was direct. “Yes, sir.”

“Can you speak in public?” He thought that was the first voice again, but it seemed to have moved a bit.

“I don’t have extensive public speaking training. But I can say ‘yes, ma’am,’ ‘yes, ix,’ and ‘yes, sir’ and generally not sound too stupid.” He hoped.

“Can you drive?”

What sort of question was that? And this one from a smooth neutral voice he hadn’t heard before. “No, Ix.”

“Pity.”

“What sexual acts will you cringe at?”

They were back to the deep male voice. Valran allowed himself to look as if he was giving that a moment of consideration, while he thought instead of all the sexual acts that he wouldn’t cringe at, all the lovely things he could imagine doing to Bicla, having Bicla do to him, doing with her.

“I will not cringe at anything my owner asks of me, of course, ix.” His voice was husky; he was picturing Bicla, naked, riding him, her nails digging into his shoulders.

“But there are things you would want to cringe at, aren’t there?”

“If I were a free man and not a Servus, then there are things I wouldn’t do willingly.” He coughed. “Generally anything involving bodily waste.”

“What about sex involving vepó?”

He thought that was the one that had asked if he could drive.

“It is not my favorite thing in the world.”

“What about…”

The questions went on. From the sounds of things, there were at least seven bidders in the room, and they all had far too many questions for Valran. He answered them all. He answered them all honestly, because “detect lies” was far too easy to draw and the last thing anyone wanted was a dishonest Servus. He answered questions until his throat was raw.

And then… “I’ll take him.”

The voice was female. The voice was female, and he had not heard it before. And everyone else in the room fell silent.

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 4 – Valran – Duck

688046“Duck.”

Valran ducked. The hose swung over his head and back again, dousing him with warm water. He could barely remember the last time he’d had a true warm shower… not that this exactly counted. This was more like a grooming station, but he’d take it.

It was Bicla wielding the hose. Valran wasn’t entirely sure what he felt about that. He wasn’t required to feel anything; Bicla had bent her knee in service and thus was, technically, the same status as Valran. That didn’t, however, keep her from giving him orders.

“Eyes closed.”

“Eyes closed, ma’am.” He squeezed them a little tighter.

“Don’t give me that shit, Servus.” The water over him was a bit colder this time.

“I don’t see why not, ma’am.” He smiled, although he couldn’t see her. “It’s the nicest flavor of shit I have to give.”

“Because I can make your life miserable while you are here.”

“Yes.” He nodded, guessing at her position. “But I’m not trying to pick a fight with you, ma’am. I’m trying to do as you tell me to, to get out of here as smoothly as possible.”

“Then why do you keep calling me ma’am?”

“Is ‘ix’ or ‘sir’ appropriate?” Her named ended in a feminine la. That was usually a safe bet…

“No!” The water stopped. He could hear her moving around behind him. “Shampooing, don’t open your eyes. “No. I’m female, bodied and chosen.”

The bodied was fairly obvious; she was as naked as he was.

“Then am I missing some inner-circle nuance again?” Valran peeled open one eye to peer at the other Servus. She was stalking towards him with a jar of liquid soap, her feet slapping on the tile as if she wished she were wearing boots.

“Missing some… you’re not jerking my chain?”

“I assure you, ma… Bicla, I really don’t want to cause trouble.” He opened both eyes, despite her orders to the contrary. “I’ve heard stories, know.”

At that, she stopped. “Stories.” It wasn’t, quite, a question. But it could be read that way, if he wanted it to be.

He did. “You have to get through a year on the Outer Circle. Unless you’re already there, of course.”

“Of course.”

“And then you have to be accepted into service.”

“Yes.” She gestured with one hand, get on with it.

“And then you’re bid on. But the head of the program has the final say on who sees you to bid, who’s allowed to bid, whose bid is taken, and how long the term of service is.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Bicla’s hand went to her collar. “I know this.”

“Yes.” Although, from the stories he’d heard, many of those who bent knee didn’t know any of it. “But there’s a lot of control in the hands of the head of the program – and their staff.”

“Ah.” Her hand dropped. “Oh. So why are you giving me shit, then?”

“I’m not, not on purpose. I swear that to you. I’m not trying to give you any trouble at all; I’m trying to be respectful.”

“No-one calls the servus ma’am.

“Perhaps most people don’t. But you are in a position of power over me; you’re on a higher rung.”

“The servus aren’t on rungs. What are you, stupid?”

He placed his hands very carefully on the edge of the tub, to keep from doing something unwise with them. “Bicla Servus, I am trying to show respect, because you could ruin me.”

“You’re not making a joke out of it?”

“No! No, I’m not doing that, I promise you, this is not me making fun of you.”

“Close your eyes.”

Valran couldn’t tell if that was disagreement or agreement. He closed his eyes anyway.

“You’re not outer circle, not born.” He could feel the soap trickle onto his wet hair.

“No.” He held as still as he could. “But not all that far in or anything. Not far enough.”

“The last two we had come through, they were real inner circle sorts. Second and Third circle, talked fancy, polished nails.”

“How did…” Valran shut his mouth. You were supposed to have to go through the same qualifications whether you were Tenth Circle or First.

“Pencil-pushers. And they were full of themselves.”

“Did you get them placed with bad owners?”

“Never occurred to me. And, I mean, I don’t know how much the Deputy would listen to me. I’m ris driver and maid, not like ris confidante. Ri doesn’t have to do any listening; that’s my job.”

“It’s surprising how much people listen to their servants.”

“And how would you know?” Her hands began massaging his scalp, strong fingers working the soap through his hair and into a lather.

“I listen. And I’ve worked for inner circle people from time to time. Before I went out to the Outer Circle.”

“Why’d you do it?”

“It won’t make any sense.”

“You saying I’m stupid?”

“No, not at all.” He leaned back into her touch. “That feels really nice.”

“Thanks. Took classes. What’re you saying, then?”

“That’s it’s weird, and I don’t entirely understand it myself. But I tell you what. If you ask me when my service is over, I’ll tell you everything I can.”

“My service’ll probably be over by then, too.”

“Probably?”

“I’m not one of you crazies who did this on purpose.” Her fingers paused in his hair, as if daring him.

“Aaah.” He let the silence drag on, one heartbeat, another, another. When he said nothing else, she went back to massaging and shampooing.

“Anyway, the food is good and the hours aren’t horrible and I’m cleaner than I ever was before.”

“That’s two of us.” He ran his hand through the water while she worked. “This is pretty posh, even if it is a vet station.”

“Gotta have the merch nice and pretty and packaged up before you sell ‘em. Otherwise you don’t bring in much money, the program doesn’t bring in as much money, and the whole system falls down.”

“Sounds like you’ve heard that line before.”

“Nothing I’m gonna talk about. I don’t talk about my work or my boss, and neither should you.”

“When I have work and a boss, I won’t. But make it a date? Ten years’ time, I’ll buy you a drink and we can swap war stories?”

“Sure. But you’re still getting shaved.”

“Shaved… oh. Oh, well, fine.” He was glad his eyes were already closed. “If you hand me a razor, I can do those parts myself, you know.”

“Fat chance, pretty boy. Just try to relax and enjoy this part while it’s fun, okay? I don’t do this for everyone.”

Pretty boy. “Nobody’s every called me that before.”

“What, pretty? Nobody calls me that, either, but you’re pretty good when the grime is all washed off.”

“I’ve been clean before.” Possibly not this clean, but clean.

“If you were working for inner circle sorts, you’d have to be. They don’t like dirt.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Or hair?”

“Or hair. They like things tidy. I mean, not all of them, but the sort that would buy a boy like you.” Her hands were on his neck now, working on knots he hadn’t known existed.

Massage or not, he wasn’t sure boy like you was any better than pretty boy. “You really do know a lot about the business, don’t you?”

“I listen. I’m really good at listening.” He could feel the way the shrug shifted her shoulders. “And I drive the boss around and everything, so I get a lot of chances to listen. Dunk.”

“Dun… oh.” He slipped under the water. Her hands were still in his hair and, for a minute, he panicked. She could hold him under here. She could drown him. She could…

…but then she’d be in a lot of trouble, and if she hadn’t volunteered for the collar…. Valran forced himself to relax. Bicla wasn’t going to drown him. She couldn’t afford it.

A tug on the back of his collar told him it was time to come back out of the water. “You didn’t freak.”

“I thought about it.”

“But you didn’t. Hunh.” She rubbed something else through his hair. “All right, up on the edge and spread ‘em.”

“Do you have to…?” He found his feet in the slick tub and worked on standing.

“Don’t even ask questions like that. It’s ridiculous.”

“I can complain, can’t I? It itches.”

“Oh, when I’m done, it won’t itch at all.”

Valran froze, one leg on the edge of the tub. “Bicla…”

“Relax, pretty boy. No use arguing, you don’t have any choice on the matter and neither do it.”

“Bicla,” he tried again anyway, “that’s awfully close to things that are very near and dear to my heart.”

“I don’t think we’re talking about your heart, are we? And besides, relax. It’s practically a warding.”

“I didn’t sign up for this.”

“Ah, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? What did you actually sign up for? Did you read the fine print?”

One of them hadn’t, that was for sure. “Of course.” And he had. That was one of the nightmare scenarios he’d heard the most about – those forced into dangerous and compromising positions for so long that at the end of their chosen-service, they were useless to anyone, including themselves. “But…”

“I know what I’m doing, Valran Servus. I’ve done it to myself. Now sit down.”

He sat, slowly, spreading his legs. It probably shouldn’t have surprised him to find that the tub was designed for this, with an almost-comfortable seat and two footrests.

“Do I have to strap you down?”

“Uh. No. No, as long as the only thing you’re cutting is hair.”

“Nothing but hair, I can promise that much. Al right, do your best to hold still, will ya?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He braced himself in the surprisingly comfortable position and closed his eyes. There were some things you just didn’t want to watch.

She started with scissors trimming down the hair between his legs and around his cock and balls. The scissors made quiet shick, shick noises and, while he felt the cold metal a time or two, she cut very carefully and never cut him.

“All right, that was the fuzzy part. Now onto the fun part.” Bicla’s hands worked over and under Valran’s balls, lathering him up. He opened his eyes, wondering what she was thinking.

She was smiling, although the expression looked more meditative and less aroused. She caught him looking, however, and picked up the razor “And not the really fun part. “

Valran closed his eyes again, but that didn’t stop the sensations. The razor followed in the path the scissors had taken, cutting off the remaining hair.

Behind the razor, Bicla’s fingers followed. Valran tried very hard not to shiver. It had been months… And the last thing he wanted was her fingers to slip or her attention to be divided.

“There. There…” She ran her palms down his legs. “And now you’re nice and smooth and it won’t itch.”

“I don’t think I’ll thank you for that.” He ran his fingers over her work, though. “You’re sure?”

“Relax. It’s the smallest draw of power possible, it was very focused, and I didn’t go under the skin enough to hurt anything. You’d think you were a Purist, the way you’re talking.”

“I’m only a Purist when it comes to my nuts.”

“Only your nuts? Not…” She wrapped her hand around the other part of that equation and tugged.

“Uunf, Bicla, that’s not very nice.”

“No, but it’s fun. There, Purist-Pretty, you’re almost all set. Now all you need is for someone to buff your fingernails and pierce those pretty ears… they barely have a point at all.” Her hand stilled. “You’re not actually a Purist, are you?”

“No.” He stole a kiss – just her cheek – and settled back into the uncomfortable tub seat. “That, at least, I am not.”

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.

Chapter 2 – Valran – Kneel

688046
“Kneel, Valran Trestor.”

He wasn’t expecting it. He should have been; after all, he’d been working on the Outer Ring for a year now, doing his time to earn this very right, to hear those very words.

And yet still, when they came, Valran was taken aback. He turned to stare at the thin, robed, woman. She was wearing high-circle silks and thin sandals; she didn’t belong out here on the Outer Circle wall.

“Kneel, Valran Trestor.”

Here? In front of the wall team, in front of criminals and the desperate, the hungry and the mad?

“I will not tell you three times. Are you Valran, born of Trestor?”

This was happening, here, now. This was real, and not a dream born of thirst and exhaustion.

Valran fell to his knees before the woman could walk away. “I am Valran, born of Trestor.”

“You have petitioned for service to the Ladder.”

“I have, yes.” She was lovely, but there was such an ice about her loveliness, an artifice to the slightly off-blue color of her skin and the tips of her pointed ears. She did nothing at all for Valran. But that had always been one of his problems.

“And you have served at the Outer Wall for one year and survived.”

“Yes, ma’am. I have done so.”

He could hear some of the wall crew sniggering. There were easier ways to climb the Ladder. There were less humiliating ways to move in from the Outer Circle, and Valran – born of Trestor, in the Seventh Ring – had moved out to get here, for the privilege of bending his knee to this icy, artificial woman.

“Your petition has been approved. You are to be accepted into service and presented at the next auction, tomorrow morning.” She coughed, a move as fake as everything else about her. Perhaps the smell of unwashed bodies offended her. “Should you accept, you will be prepared in that time for the event.”

“I am kneeling, aren’t I?”

Behind Valran, the crew had gone from sniggering to outright laughter.

“While you’re on your knees, why don’t you show her what you’re offering? I bet you could give her a nice free sample.”

“Forget about showing her, why not show us? We’re the ones that gotta work out here all day.”

“Awww, I don’t think she likes us. Look at her holding up her hem as if the dirt might be contagious. Come on, lady. We’re the ones making your precious inner circles safer.”

“Your work is appreciated, as it always is.” She used the same bored, crisp tone with the crew as she had with Valran.

“Aaww, if you’re going to appreciate us, why not come over and really give us some tasty appreciation? Sit and conversate a little, warm a spot of ground, share our lunch?”

Valran looked between the woman and the crew, then back. “I am kneeling to serve, lady.” So take the way out before they get cruder.

“You understand that the service, once you take it, is for ten years or until death? You understand that there is no backing out?”

“Once I have knelt, I kneel to the Ladder until I am freed. Yes.” Three rings out, ten in. He could kneel for that long.

“Then as proxy to the Council of New Indapala, I accept your bent knee and your petition.” She snapped the cord holding his ID chit. “Hold still.”

What else was there to do? Without the ID chit, he could go nowhere but out; not even the ninth circle would let him past their gates. “Ma’am.”

“It’s ix, actually, not ma’am. I’m told it’s harder to tell with those of us in the innermost circles.” She – rhi – wrapped something around Valran’s neck.

“Rise, Valran Servus.”

The collar around his neck felt impossibly heavy. Valran stood, paying no heed at all to the jeers of the work crew. They no longer mattered at all to him.

“It will be interesting, to see who buys you.” The woman started walking, and Valran, having been given no other directive, followed her.

“You don’t look like the sort to take the collar. At least not this collar.” She didn’t bother to turn around, but Valran had to assume the inner-circler was speaking to him. There was nobody else visible, for one.

“Nobody looks like the type after a year on the Outer Ring, ix. They look like they are dirty, and tired, and hungry.”

“And muscular. You didn’t want to go the route of the Gladiator? You would draw good ticket sales, looking the way you do.”

“I didn’t look like this a year ago.” Valran stood up a bit straighter. “I looked like any pencil-pusher.”

“And you chose to work the Wall for a year, for the right to kneel for ten. That is some sort of devotion.” The words should have suggested surprise, or awe, or disgust, but they were flat, with no infliction at all. It was as if she had a script she didn’t really care about.

“I did what I needed to. I’m doing what I need to.” His reasons were his own. Other people on the Outer Circle had family, loved ones, a crazy business plan – some reasons they needed a leg up or a shortcut on the Ladder. Not Valran.

“Will it be enough to carry you through ten years?” Now the inner-circler turned to look at him. Blue-painted lips were pursed, and blue-lined eyes stared into him. “Will it be enough to keep you on your knees when everything inside of you is screaming at you to stand?”

“It will have to be. It is all I have.” He shrugged, unmoved by her stare.

“And, if in the end, you find yourself not in the circle you wanted? Will you go back and try again?”

Would he?

A year on the Outer Circle – if he survived it, he could handle it, but the crew had a fifty percent fatality rate. Ten years of bended knee – possibly eleven, by then – that, he did not know.

“Will you come get me again, if I do?”

“I may. This is the rung of the Ladder I have settled on, after all.” A low bow accompanied the words, the sort that Valran thought was supposed to be ironic. “And there aren’t that many who do this job of mine.” The bow unfolded into a gesture, pointing towards the gate. “I’ve heard this is called ‘chutes and ladders’ in some circles, and I’ve played the ancient game. Will you step onto the chute, Valran Servus?”

There was a car waiting there at the end of the gesture. A car, long and sleek, paneled in tooled metal and driven by a short woman in a wide metal collar. Valran had only seen such things a handful of times in his life; they rarely left the inner circles.

“The chute.” He coughed, found his throat was still clogged, and coughed again. “Yes. I’ve knelt. I’ve taken the collar. Everything else is just a formality.”

“But such interesting formalities.” The inner-circler opened the door for him; peeking in, he could see that the back of the car was upholstered in silk like the robes his escort was wearing.

“I’ll get it dirty.”

“It’s warded against it. You’re not the first one we’ve picked up from the Outer Circle, of course.”

Valran coughed again. “Of course.” He slipped in, sitting gingerly on the soft fabric. “Why this? Why the car? It seems like a risk.”

“Of course it is.” His escort slipped in next to him and closed the door. The vehicle suddenly seemed much smaller with the three of them in there, trapped in with Valran’s work-stench. “But so is what you have done and what you are about to do. Forward, Bicla. Back home.”

“As you wish, ix.” The car started moving, slowly at first, with a series of jerky back-and-forths, and then more quickly.

“As I was saying, it is a risk. Anything we do is a risk. Ah, the first gate.”

Valran held his breath. This gate, he walked through every night; it led into the protected part of the city, the part that counted as New Indapala. It looked different, driving through it.

Everything looked different, through a window. The slums of the Tenth Circle looked dirtier, even, than in walking through them, the houses smaller. From here, you couldn’t see the ladders in the back courtyards, so everything looked very forbidding, even the Wall-worker common housing.

“It’s all so unfriendly.” The tone in his escort’s voice could have been an echo of Valran’s thoughts. “Just endless walls.”

He cleared his throat yet again. “The backs aren’t like that. There’s the gates between courtyards, and all the ladders, old mothers and fathers hanging out gossiping while they cook dinner. It’s just the street fronts.”

“Oh, I remember. But it’s been a lifetime.” The inner-circler graced Valran with a wry smile. “It wasn’t the Tenth Circle, then; it was the Eighth. And it was a bit deeper in, not the wall-worker houses, at least.”

“At least.” Valran’s mouth felt as if it was made of chalk and concrete. After a year on the Outer Circle, it probably was. “You…”

“Oh, come now. You know not all that many adults in the inner circles were born there. You cannot hold a whole name and never touch the outer rings.”

His escort was getting far too much amusement out of this. For that matter, so was the driver; Bicla, that was her name, right? Bicla was chuckling. At him. Valran’s ears were warm.

He settled on the only thing he was certain of. “I don’t know your name.”

“Oh, but you do. Unless you’re illiterate, of course, but you signed the papers with a name and not an X, and Seventh Circle hasn’t been the outer ring for quite some time.”

“You enjoy this, don’t you, ix?” Anger was a good thing. He could hold on to that.

“I enjoy everything about my position. But haven’t you guessed, yet?”

“I didn’t know I was required to. Ix.”

Bicla chuckled again, which didn’t help matters. And the inner circle… oh.

His fists clenched. “You.”

“There. I knew you’d get it.” The Second Circle Deputy Oligarch patted Valran’s leg. “I do enjoy my job.”

Chapter 1 – Taslin – Kneel

359“Kneel, Taslin Altreka.”

It was not the first thing the man had said to Taslin, but it was the first important thing.

He had begun many minutes before, as law and his conscience dictated, with a series of disclaimers and explanations. “You understand that, once you take a knee, you cannot take it back? You will be committing to ten years, or to death, or until a resident of the First Circle calls you to service.”

She had nodded, then. “I understand.” Other cities had fewer circles and thus less years of service. But Taslin had been born in New Indapala, and her family lived here.

“You understand that one out of five who take this route die in service?”

She had nodded again. “I understand.”

“You understand that two out of three who do survive are maimed or crippled?”

She had seen the funeral processions to the unfinished walls. She had seen the veterans. She had seen the fights. “I understand.”

“There are easier routes up the Ladder.”

He had sounded worried. Taslin had, then, finally looked him in the eye. “I have a little sister and a little brother.”

“Aah. Then we continue.” And they had. “Kneel, Taslin Altreka.”

She took a knee and bowed her head. The man, then, snipped the cord that had been around her neck since childhood. He took her ID chit and its severed cord, every moment a ceremony. Taslin resisted the urge to touch the empty place on the back of her neck.

The bare feeling had lasted only a moment. Those who knelt as she was did not wear their ID on a cord, but everyone wore an ID.

The collar was the thinnest metal she had ever felt, made of flat, smooth links. It would move with her, but, at the same time, she would never forget the pressure on her throat and neck.

“Rise, Taslin Gladiator.”

The name felt right, settling onto her. Standing as a Gladiator felt right and proper. Taslin rolled her shoulders and smiled, feeling it curl her lips.

The man, who had never given her his name, bowed. “Fight well, Gladiator.”

She thumped her fist against her chest in salute. “As you command.”

“This is the limit of my command. Your handler comes, and it will be from her that you take your orders from this point forward.” The man paused. He was older than Taslin, his face lined but his back straight. “I would advise you, Gladiator.”

Every word that flowed from him had the echo of a ritual. Taslin bowed her head and tried to match his tone. “I would hear your advice, sir.”

“You have been told to find a patron. Everyone who seeks to shortcut the Ladder is told the same thing, the same sage advice from those who have not followed the same path.”

Taslin risked a glance at his face. Yes, he looked as sardonic as he sounded. “Sir.”

“I will say this: be very mindful of the patron you choose. The benefits can be high, yes, but no few who have died have done so because they chose a patron unwisely.”

“Mindful?” She sounded like a parrot. She had not been accepted to this position by sounding eloquent or brilliant, though.

“Mindful.” The man nodded. “It is good to have a patron, of course. They provide you with better armor, better weapons. They offer advertising, which raises ticket sales, which gets both them and you more money. The more money you raise, the better your eventual place on the Ladder, should you survive.”

Taslin nodded. He was right; this was the sort of thing everyone told her. Everyone and no-one; it was the sort of thing that was just known, in that way that the mob knew things.

“The trick.” The man put one fist in an open palm, and for a moment, Taslin could see the fighter he must have been. “That’s what you never think of when you’re there. The trick is to find a patron who will remember that you are your own chief asset. One that will not overwork you outside the ring.” He said it without a leer, although Taslin was fairly certain of the “work” he meant. “One that will not negotiate matches for you with clearly superior foes – or with clearly inferior ones. Both can harm you, in the long or the short run.”

He met her eyes. “In short, Taslin Gladiator, find a patron who will remember to care for you, as you are caring for them in your service. Then, and only then, will you find yourself, at the end of your days, choosing the rung of the Ladder that you wish, and not simply the one that you can manage.”

She wanted to ask the man, so clearly scarred, so clearly marked by his own time in the ring, which route had been his, when his time in a collar had been through. But she could see the steel in his arms, even now, and the matching armor in his gaze. That would not be a question he welcomed, she thought.

So she bowed, instead. She knew how to bow, and it rarely invited steel to do so. “Thank you for your advice, sir.”

“If the patron is pretty enough, speaks nicely enough, shakes enough gold around you, you will forget it, of course. We all do. But then I will know that I have told you – and you will know where you must go, if you wish to best help your brother and your sister in Altreka.”

He could not have held her attention more if he’d had a sword to her throat. Taslin nodded, very very carefully. “Yes, sir.” Yes. To climb the Ladder better was one thing. To be able to help Hel and Thet, that was another thing entirely.

“Here comes your handler. Remember, Taslin Gladiator. Your life is no longer your own; that belongs to the Ring, to your handlers, to the Match-Masters, and to your Patrons.” The old man bowed, one scarred fist over the other. “But remember.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Remember that your ambition, your drive, and your skill – everything that led you to bend your knee – that is always yours, and nobody has any right to that.”

She bowed deeply in response. Pick a Patron wisely. Hold on to your ambition and drive. It was easy for him to say those things, easy for him to list them off as if they were checkboxes to fill on a test, or moves to make in a training routine. How she would go about doing them, that would be the difficult part.

“And now it begins.”

The door swung open, and another man stepped into the room. While the first one had once clearly been a fighter, this man was slender, slim, his fingers long and his hair oiled. “You are the new Gladiator?”

Taslin had barely risen from her last bow; it was easy to drop back into another. “Sir.”

“Call me Reshnel. At least when we’re alone.”

She glanced at the old man, thinking, alone? but he had vanished. “Yes, sir. Reshnel.”

“Come. Gan is running a training session in the sandlot, and I don’t want you to miss out on it. You’re going to need all the training you can get, if you’re to survive in the ring.” His eyes took in her body, naked except the collar. “You will need quite a bit of conditioning, too. Come.”

There was nothing to do but obey, sting as the critique did.

She had given her vows, and left behind everything of Taslin Altreka (everything except her drive, she supposed, her skills, and her ambition), in a small room overlooking the Third Circle Market Street and backing on the Gladiator’s complex. She’d walked in from Market Street as a free citizen; now she walked out the back door a Gladiator.

She held her head high as she followed Reshnel, pulled her shoulders back, and tried to be proud of the body he’d just critiqued. it was a good body. She had been training it – and conditioning it – since she was old enough to hold a practice sword. It might not yet be Ring Champion material, but that only came with time, she thought, and honest opponents.

“Heads up, new meat!” She caught the flying missile before she’d placed the voice, realized it was being thrown at her, or even realized they’d stepped into what had to be the sandlot: a miniaturized gladiatorial pit, with the sand floor and mats on the stone walls. Seven fighters stood around, all in soft leather armor and the thin tunics that were common-issue all around New Indapala. “Suit up!” That from the tallest, broadest, and, Taslin noticed, least-scarred of the fighters. “You go first.”

“Ma’… Ix.” The missile that had been thrown at her turned out to be tunic and armor, much as everyone else was wearing. Taslin threw it on as quickly as was wise and perhaps more quickly than that. The buckles felt strange under her fingers, and one of the straps would not cooperate. She hissed, and tried again. They were all staring at her.

“Here.” Ready hands took the strap from her and fixed it. “Don’t let them get to you. If you’re stressed, you doubt yourself. If you doubt yourself, you doubt your sword. If you doubt your sword, you falter in battle.”

“If I falter in battle, someone else wins the match.” Taslin had to twist to see the speaker; the buckles on the armour were placed far back on her sides, almost behind her. “This is newbie armor, isn’t it?”

“You learn fast.” The speaker was not one of the those armored; she, like Reshnel, wore no armor and carried no weapons. “There. Now go show them what you can do.”

“Yes’ix.” She bowed to the speaker and was amused to note that he blushed. “Thank you.”

“Are you ready already, new meat? Out with it already, come over so you can fail.”

“I hear and obey.” She bowed again, to the tall woman. “What shall I do?”