The barracks for the new and un-Patronized Gladiators were, by nature, not at all private. Thus, while Vinroth held up tunics for Taslin, most of the rest of the women were watching with interest.
“I like the violet one. I think it brings out your eyes.” Marrhi leaned over her bunk and fingered the soft fabric.
“But it’s going to make her skin look yellow.” Sellen wandered over. “The blue is nice, though. Where did you get these lovelies?”
Vinroth helpfully held up the three options – violet, blue, and a soft green color – for the other Gladiators to examine, and left answering that question to Taslin.
“The not-a-Patron. The first one, still.” Taslin took the green tunic from the valet and held it up to herself. “His gifts are getting more generous and less practical.”
“Why haven’t you picked him yet?” Lansesh plopped down on the bed next to Taslin. “Because, you know, there are others of us who are interested, too, and if you’re not going to take him, I’m sure he’ll start sending presents to the rest of us.”
“If Taslin is his type, Lan, do you really think you’ll be?” Corby shook her head. “Or me, for that matter. He’s clearly looking for a Tower sort and you, my dear, are a gate.”
“Hey! Take that back!”
“Nothing wrong with being a gate. You’re really good at what you do. The green’s good, Tas. I like the shape on it, if it works with the shape on you.”
The green one did have a nice shape. Taslin pressed it against her body, studying it. “This has to have cost him a fortune.”
“As I understand it, he enjoys spending his mother’s fortune quite a bit. And she indulges him, because he’s her only living child. His brother died climbing the Ladder a few years ago.” Vinroth had practice pitching his voice very low; Lansesh could probably hear him, but the rest of the barracks definitely couldn’t, not without magic. And while using the vepó in the barracks was not exactly forbidden, it was discouraged very strongly.
“So he has the money to spend. And he’s spending it on me.” The tunic was made out of thin silk, cut to skim along Taslin’s figure and end somewhere almost at her knees. It came with an under layer in a much darker green, and soft indoor boots the color of the walls. “I think I won’t really argue, although where am I going to wear something like this?”
“Well, today, to meet him. And you’re going to sit down and let me do something with your hair, too. Did you hack it with a knife?”
“Urm. Yes?” Her hand went to her hair. “All right. I’m meeting with him today, I take it?”
“Meeting? In that?” Lanesh reached over and touched the tunic. “You know this is embroidered in monk’s-tears, right? Nothing else makes that color.”
“How do you get thread out of monk’s-tears?” The multi-hued metal was generally found near Wellsprings of vepó; Taslin had never seen any before and now she was holding something embroidered in it.
“I think you liquify it?” Lanesh shrugged. “I’ve never seen it done, but my mother had a pair of slippers that were embroidered all over in that and silver.”
Taslin gulped a little at the excess that represented. “That’s… something.”
“They were very tough shoes, at least.” Lansesh stood up. “I like the green. Go with it.”
“She can go with whatever she likes, Lan. This is her engagement.” Corby swiped the air near Lansesh, not quite reaching her.
“Well, fine. If you’re not going to use the blue, I’ll buy it from you.” Lansesh grabbed the blue tunic and stood up.
“How do you have money if you don’t have a Patron either?” Sellen jumped off her bunk to look at the blue tunic.
“Well, my parents send me a little bit now and then. They’re not really happy about the whole Gladiator thing.”
“If your mom has slippers full of monk’s-tears, I can imagine they’re not. Wow.” Sellen shook her head. “You can afford this?”
“Maybe ten, twenty omeh? They can go as high as thirty, which would be pushing it. I can go up to seventeen with what I can get my hands on now.”
Taslin glanced at Vinroth. He nodded, a tiny movement. “Fifteen omeh, then.” She’d never had her hands on a tunic this nice before, so she didn’t know if it was a fair amount. But her mother could feed the family for at least two weeks on that, maybe as many as five if she stretched it. Or it would pay for a month of advanced classes for her brother and sister. Hel and Thet had promise, if they could just get a leg up.
“Fifteen it is! Hold on.” She fiddled around in her bodice and came up with a small packet of the spell-laced bills. “Seven, eight, nine… that’s a five, fourteen, and fifteen. Here. Oh, I know just where I’m going to wear this…”
“Should you be selling gifts your Patron gave you?” Sellen’s frown was purse-lipped and old-lady-ish.
“He’s not my Patron. Yet. And he said to me that I didn’t have to use them, that I could let my cat sleep in them. That I could give them to destitute Tenth Circle children.”
“People say things like that.” Sellen’s frown hadn’t unbent yet.
“Well, if he’s lying, then I’ll know he’s lying. If he’s telling the truth, then he won’t be in any place to mind. And if he minds anyway, then he can change what he says the next time he gives me tunics.” She stripped down to her britches and wrapping, then, giving it a moment’s thought, stripped all the way down to her skin. “Was there…”
“Of course there was.” Vinroth, his eyes on her face, passed Taslin the tiny silk breeches and the top-like thing that must be in place of her normal wrappings. “Here, let me show you how this one goes on.”
“You get a lot of practice with women’s underwear, Vin?” Corby’s tone was crude and the laugh she appended was even cruder. Vinroth, of course, ignored the tone.
“I am a valet to a stable of Gladiators. I have had more than enough opportunity to put such things onto to women, injured, indisposed, or simply wishing someone to do up the back fastenings. Here, Taslin, like this.” The vest wrapped around, holding each breast separately and buttoning in the back. It was nice, she mused, although a very different feeling from wrapped bindings. Probably not the best idea for the pit…
…but tonight was an entirely different sort of combat. She slipped the fifteen omeh into the vest and let Vinroth dress her.
Laces were laced, buttons were buttoned. The tunic was deceptive in its simplicity; if it weren’t embroidered in monk’s-tears, she could wear it under armor in the ring. But, like the vest, it fastened in the back, as if Jervennon wanted her to need help getting dressed.
“There.” Vinroth smoothed the tunic down and smoothed the boots up. “You look… very handsome. Here.” He steered her towards the barracks’ single mirror. “Don’t you think so?”
Taslin might have protested handsome; she had enough vanity and the thinnest urges of femininity. But looking in the mirror… “I do. I look sharp.” Something about the cut of the tunic made her look slender and minimized her already-small chest. “I don’t look sexy…”
“I think you’re hot.”
“You like boys, Sellen.”
“So? Maybe he does too.” Sellen threw a sock at Taslin.
Taslin dodged the sock and ignored Sellen. “What if he hates it on me?”
“Well, then you’ll wear something else the next time. There you go, you’re fine.” Vinroth did something to her hair with a bit of oil, and then something to her face with a bit of his pot of cosmetics. “You don’t look like a woman going on a date, but you look like a Gladiator on an engagement. And since that is what you are… it seems to be a good look. There.” He did something else to one lock of her hair, making it frame her face and somehow softening the sharp edges there. “Now, off to the meeting room with you, and good luck with your beau.”
“He is most definitely not my beau.”
“Oh, but he’d like to be. Remember what we talked about.”
“Are you her valet or her father?” Corby pinched Vinroth’s tush for punctuation. He barely twitched. “Neither. At the moment I’m the valet to the barracks. But not, I might point out, the barracks whore.”
“Soorrrr-eeee.” Corby held up both her hands and backed away slowly.
Vinroth smoothed Taslin’s hair. “You’re going to have a lovely conversation with him, and, with any luck, he’ll be as understanding as I think he is. Remember, he’s in a difficult position, and he’s going to have trouble thinking about anything else.”
“Difficult position.” Sellen’s scoff was soft enough that they could ignore it, so they did.
“And remember that you need to explain your position to him as carefully as you can. He doesn’t want to put you in a bad spot, or he’d be doing this far differently.”
“Can’t you explain it?”
“You know I can’t. Out with you.”
She fled, trying to make it look like a strategic exit and not an escape. Her boots sounded strange on the tile-and-rock floors: they were too soft to slap like sandals or thump like normal boots, but they weren’t bare-footed, so they made a shush-shush noise as she walked. She distracted herself by trying to make the movement silent. Shush, shush… nothing. She walked that way to the visitation room.
Oh. Oh, yes. She couldn’t ignore what she was here to do any longer. She took a measured breath, and then several more. The sword thrust is level. The opponent is clear. We step in, and we move the sword just so.
He was not the sort of opponent you could stab. Or, rather, she probably could, but her life would then be measured in hours and not years. Breathe. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, and center.
She had knelt for the collar. She could kneel again for Jervennon of Cecby.
His door opened. “Taslin Gladiator. Please, enter. You look wonderful in that tunic; is it the one I picked out for you?”
“Yes, s- Yes, Jervennon.”
“You remembered!” He clapped his hands together. “Lovely. I knew you were a good choice. I knew were brilliant.”
“I don’t know about brilliant, but I have a good sense of self-preservation.” Except when her mouth opened and words came out without running through her brain first; what had that been? Some suicidal bratty class-war remnant of her childhood?
Jervennon laughed. “I’ll take it. Come on in, please. Your valet sent word?”
Taslin dropped to one knee. “Jervennon. I am being pressured to choose.”
Sorry for the delay! (Nano <.<)
If we reach $20/month in Patreon or $25 in donations in Paypal – or a combination therof – I will post a second chapter this week, on Sunday.
If we reach $40/month in Patreon or $45 in paypal donations – again, or a combination – readers will be able to choose between an outtake or meta/demifiction now or an epilogue chapter at the end.
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