“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.