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.”
“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.”
“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.