Proximo refused me the Spaniard. I had no way to force him; he was within his rights. He had never refused me anyone before; money usually speaks louder than anything else with Proximo, and, if I had nothing of worth besides, I did at least have plenty of money. It was puzzling. And then he refused me the black, Juba, as well.
My right hand itched to slap him. He saw it; he misses little. He sighed.
"I've got too much riding on the next match." He lifted an eyebrow at me, again. Such an irritating man. "We've been through this situation before, you and I, if you remember. A new, promising fighter that you just had to have. And I forfeited half the wagers I had placed." He poured two cups of wine and handed me one, but he didn't watch me drink. I had to smile.
"Didn't I reimburse you for the money you lost?"
"Yes. Yes, you did. But what about the money he might have made me in subsequent matches? Are you going to reimburse me for that?" He walked to the window. "A man's got to protect his investment."
"You old cheat, you probably paid less for the Spaniard than you did for that wretched hyena there."
He raised his cup to me and smiled. "That's the way it's done, my dear."
The opponent for the Spaniard's second real match was a tall Egyptian, bronze-skinned with a cleanly shaven head. His breastplate and greaves were colorfully painted and glistened in the sun. He wore sort of a half helmet that was rarely seen here. I had only seen him fight once, a year or so ago, our little city being on the edge of the circuit the Egyptians traveled. I couldn't remember much about him, but the odds were highly in his favor, as much as 7 to 1 at one point, so I assumed he was skilled.
The Spaniard looked less like a ragged farmer this time-his beard was neatly trimmed, his hair cut and oiled in the Roman style. He hadn't been a common foot soldier, then, had he? Predictably he wore no helmet. He cut a decent figure in the ring, even though he was in leather and the Egyptian was in iron. I was rather impressed by his bearing as he walked out of the gate from the fighter's cage. So impressed that I couldn't quite get that picture of him out of my mind even after the fight was over. It lingered, quickening my breathing, heating my blood.
This fight lasted a little longer than the previous one. Not much longer.
The Spaniard strode into the center of the ring. He stuck his sword into the sand and rubbed some between his palms, wiped it off on his tunic. The two men examined each other; the Spaniard adjusted his shield, took up his sword, and saluted the Egyptian with it. The Egyptian nodded his head and grinned.
They swung simultaneously. The first few strikes were testing; you could almost see them analyzing the other's style as the swords clanged against the shields. Then they slashed and parried in earnest. The crowd was noisy--I shut them out and watched.
I have a fantasy that comes to me sometimes just before sleep. In my fantasy, I am alone in the stands, the only spectator. The gladiators fight just in front of me, I can hear every grunt, every swoosh of the blades through the air, every crunch of the sand under their feet. I can see every expression on their faces; I can tell what they're thinking. I miss nothing. And when the fight is over, the victor stands in front of me, chest heaving, blade dripping blood. His struggle, his effort, his body, maybe even his soul, belongs to no one but me. I rouse then in a fever, the scent from the sweaty bodies of the imaginary fighters still in my nostrils, unable to sleep. Invariably, I am a bitch the next day, and the servants hide when they see me limping through the halls of my house.
Of course, there is the other dream, also-- the one that comes during sleep. I am one of the gladiators in this dream, but not the victor; and I feel the sword slicing through my flesh before I jerk awake. On the sour painful days that plague me from time to time, I'm not sure which dream I prefer.
The Egyptian had a large, expansive style-huge swings, full-arm swipes, big strides. As I watched, I began to see what the Spaniard was doing. To the casual observer it might appear they were well matched, but in actual fact, the Spaniard was leading his opponent again, just in a different way. Only just countering the aggressive moves. Backing away as he was pressed. Letting the other man feel an undeserved confidence. The Egyptian's strokes grew less guarded, he even smiled again.
And then, again so suddenly that it was a surprise, it was over.
A forward slice under the upraised arm, and a backhand one, to incapacitate the sword arm; a spin and jab under the other arm, angling forward behind the breastplate into the lung-the Egyptian fell to his knees, blood bubbled from his mouth. He looked up; the two men gazed at each other for a moment.
The noise of the crowd swelled as the Spaniard raised his sword for the mercy strike across the neck, and broke wildly across his bowed head and heaving shoulders as the Egyptian toppled, his blood spurting on the sand.
The Spaniard had just been waiting for the opening he knew would be there. If I had been Proximo, I would be ferociously protecting this investment also. But I wasn't Proximo, and I wanted the Spaniard, now more than before.
There was no triumph on the Spaniard's face as he glanced up at the crowd. No confusion, either; he looked drained. He was catching his breath already, it wasn't physical fatigue. Weariness of the soul, perhaps. I have seen this look before, but never on so new a fighter. It's a malady of those who have had a long career in the arena. Most don't survive long enough to contract it.
There had been a fighter once, an older man Proximo purchased from a traveling troupe, that had caught my eye. He was an incredible swordsman; it was rumored that he had over 1200 kills, but I scoffed at that-no one lasted in the arena so long. 1200 kills would mean at least 10 years, probably more like 15, without a loss. He would have been a legend; he would have been somewhere besides this pimple on the backside of Rome. Proximo, greedy bugger, worked him constantly without a rest. He always won handily.
After an exceptionally long and brutal match, I saw this same weariness on his battered and scarred face. I noted it-this is my hobby, remember-and made a point of attending his next match. He fought only half-heartedly. At one point, he stepped back, intentionally dropped his guard, let his shield slip completely off his arm, tipped his head to look up at the blue and cloudless sky-and then, of course, he was dead.
Proximo didn't seem overly put out. He's shrewd, I suppose both he and the man's previous owner saw it coming.
Juba won his match as well, although not as quickly and not without a wound; but he was competent, and the return on my wager was enough to satisfy me.
I found the old weasel outside at a table, a bowl of fruit in front of him. I asked him if he had noticed how tired the Spaniard was.
"That match didn't last over a minute." He waved at me with his ass's tail. "The answer is still no. Go away; or pick a different man for your amusement."
"He's tired of fighting, Proximo. Maybe tired of life. Didn't you see it?"
"What I see is a woman who intends to hound me until I give her what she wants." He picked up an apple from the bowl and began cutting it into pieces. "You never did tell me what happened with that other young man who didn't come back from his, ahh….appointment….with you."
"I did tell you. He attacked me."
"Yes, you said that. But why? One can't help but wonder. He seemed so docile, not a troublemaker at all. What did you ask him to do that was so….upsetting?"
He waited for me to answer. Finally, I said, "Is this the price for the Spaniard?"
Then the silence was his.
"All right." He nodded. "Part of the price anyway. I will need the regular fee as well." He chopped the rest of the apple and handed me a piece.
I took a deep breath. "I never got to ask him anything. I took off my cloak, and he was horrified. I don't suppose you've noticed I've never asked for one so young as that again."
"He said freaks shouldn't be allowed to live. That's all it was. He said he was going to help me die, as I should have done in the first place. What he didn't realize, of course, is that I wasn't born this way."
Proximo stopped chewing and looked down the street into the distance.
"It isn't as bad as that, you know," he said quietly. "The way you look."
"I suppose once you get to know me, my pleasant personality makes you forget the crooked bones and the scars."
He pulled himself around on the bench, and huffed the way he does, and said, "Tomorrow night, then." And then he rose and walked off toward his house.
I wanted to throw something at him for daring to pity me--for making me surrender my pride for the seconds it took to tell him the truth--something heavy and large. I wanted to bludgeon the knowledge of it out of his head. I rose from my seat and my manservant backed up out of reach. I smoothed the scowl away and smiled a wicked, scornful smile at him. "Better stay out of the way."
He nodded. "Yes, Lady, I will."
I was once told that, as a child, I was very sweet and compliant. I wonder if it's true. I can't remember anything that took place before I slipped beneath the horses' hooves. The person I am now was born to never-ending pain. I remember that.
It was also told me that I should have died; everyone expected me to die, they were all rather surprised when I didn't. I blame it on my nurse. She knew if I died there would be no place for her in the house; they would have sent her back out to the fields from whence they had plucked her. So she saved me. She died herself before I got a chance to punish her for it.
I spent the next day thinking about the Spaniard, trying to find things I disliked about him.
He wasn't tall. Next to the German, he was pretty short. Juba was taller than he was. He looked tall enough in the arena….but he actually must be short. Yes.
Then I couldn't think of anything else. I hadn't seen him up close yet; it appeared he had all his teeth; no noticeable diseases. He'd better not have any funguses or insects, or I really would bludgeon Proximo.
I'd never liked beards on men, but on him, it looked right. The Roman style of haircut he had fit him also. His legs were fine and strong, not skinny or stumpy.
I scowled at the girl who brought my luncheon; she set the tray down with a thump and scurried away. I didn't recognize her; she must have been a kitchen maid that had drawn the short straw.
Surely, I thought, when I see him, there will be something I dislike. Perhaps he has a speech impediment; perhaps he smells bad. There will be something.
I was right. There was something. And it wasn't that he was short.
I was sitting when the guards brought him. I waved them away and my menservants went to stand on either side of the Spaniard. He looked at each of them and then back at me. His expression was curious, nothing more. I wondered then what Proximo had told him, if Proximo had told him anything. Better to be safe than sorry. I nodded to the servants. They held his wrists in front of him and bound them. Now he was a little more than just curious. I stood and removed my cloak. Ah, yes, I knew there would be something I didn't like, and it was there in his eyes.
I stepped up and slapped him as hard as I could. Pity that. When he opened his eyes and turned his face to me again, the pity was gone.
"Did Proximo tell you why you've been brought here?"
A small shake of his head, and then a deep breath when I laughed at him. He shifted his stance and waited.
"He has given you to me for the night. For a hefty fee, of course."
He had the most expressive face I've ever seen. I could see the instant he understood. His teeth clenched, his nostrils flared, but it was more than that. It was something in his eyes that almost made me flinch. Me, flinch. I think I could have felt the heat of his reaction with my eyes closed. It came off him in waves. My skin prickled.
He took a step back, tried to shake off my men. I had hoped we wouldn't have to physically subdue him; I had promised Proximo I wouldn't damage him.
Then he stilled; my men got a better grip on him. He gazed into my eyes, looked directly at me-no one does that-and said very quietly, very emphatically, "No." And then louder, I guess in case I didn't understand the first time, "No!"
It was a struggle to restrain him and get him out of his gear. I'm sure he knew he had no choice, that there was no way he could avoid me unless he was dead; but I could see that he couldn't just obey, couldn't acquiesce. He had to fight. I didn't begrudge him that. Now that I had seen him close, I could tell surrender wasn't part of his makeup. No wonder Proximo had said he couldn't settle into this life. He might never be able to.
And he was not accustomed to sharing his body unless it was his choice to do so. I could see that also. But there have been other men like that now and then through the years; usually when I show them the pleasure I can give them while I take pleasure for myself, they relax. I expected that I would be able to release him at some point during the night and he would help me. That point never came.
When his body responded to my strokes and kisses, it seemed to enrage him even more. His face was twisted in a sneer of utter contempt, and remained so. My own pleasure took me quickly. His hatred heated me like sweet smiles and false compliments never would have. He would have hated me just as much if I were young and beautiful. I believed then, and I believe still, that whatever he felt for me, my twisted limbs and scarred face had nothing to do with it.
When I had settled myself on him in my awkward way (my crooked leg prevents me from riding astride), he fixed his scornful gaze on my face and never once looked away until the end, after I had found my pleasure again and was intent on giving him his whether he wanted it or not. And then, at that moment, he closed his eyes, turned his face away. The groan I expected was a snarl. He refused me what he could. He panted and I ran my hand over his chest, up his neck and from there to his cheek. After another moment, he turned back to me and opened his eyes. They were liquid; he blinked back the wetness and swallowed. Underneath that immeasurable contempt for me, I saw, plain on that face, was contempt for himself because he was unable to control his body and deny me completely…
And unutterable misery.
It took me a minute to absorb that. There was no cunning in his reaction, no deception; I knew that I saw the truth in his face, so clearly it was startling. Did I have the power to cause that reaction? Was intimacy with me so repellent? Could he not accept surrender? I could see the truth, but not the reason.
I must admit it affected me. I felt…something. I leaned closer to see into his eyes, to try to understand…
He spit in my face.
part 1 part 2 part3 part4 part 5
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