Proximo scheduled 3 matches in 3 days for the Spaniard. I thanked my stars I was recovered enough to go-I didn't want to miss any of his matches. Another danger sign that I didn't recognize…or ignored.
His opponent in the first was only a medium-rank fighter named Narcissus. He was competent if uninspired, but not close to the Spaniard's level. It was a strange pairing considering the way the Spaniard's fame was spreading in the area. Subtle inquiries among my acquaintances revealed that Narcissus-or The Beauty, as we ladies called him-had recently been purchased by a woman relatively new to wealth. I watched her speak of him to the others. She was clearly intoxicated with him and his mediocre skills, and in her infatuation had arranged a match for him that exceeded his talents. I knew, as did most of the others I spoke with, that she had killed him. I felt a moment of pity for them both; then banished it and went to see if I could get odds good enough to make it worthwhile wagering. I could see Octavia betting with the Beauty's owner directly. The more profitable course, certainly, but even I was not quite that callous.
The Beauty came into the ring first. He really was beautiful; young, a noble face, always a ready smile for the ladies, hair that waved down below his shoulders; his owner had outfitted him to show off his beautiful build. He seemed nervous--pacing, waving his sword, his skin was covered with a sheen of sweat. The Spaniard entered and walked directly over to him. The crowd was chanting, "Spaniard, Spaniard, Spaniard." The Spaniard spoke to the Beauty, and the younger man first shook his head, then after the Spaniard spoke again, he nodded and seemed to calm. The crowd's chanting faltered, but when the two gladiators raised their swords and struck, they cheered. Three, perhaps four slashes each, and then the Beauty was lying in the dirt, bleeding. The Spaniard struck him again and he was dead.
As in the first match, the crowd was stunned into silence. The Spaniard walked to the gate and out, without looking at anyone in the stands. And then the woman screamed.
I didn't care about the other matches. I stepped past the Beauty's owner, embarrassing everyone around her by weeping openly, and limped down into the yard, to the fighter's cage. The Spaniard sat with his back to me as I approached, his hands quiet in his lap, the bloodied sword leaning against his knee. I stood just behind him leaning against the same bars he did until I had regained enough breath to speak-it's a long way for a woman to drag a crippled leg.
"What did you say to him?" I didn't examine my motivation in asking.
Juba looked at me from the other side of the cage; he seemed very solemn. I waited-at the point when I thought perhaps I wasn't going to get an answer, the Spaniard said, "I offered to let him live." I understood--he had offered to maim him enough to make it impossible for him to continue the match, but with a possibility of recovering; the young man had refused.
The Spaniard drew in a deep breath, and let it go. "I told him I would make it quick."
I put my hand through the bars and stroked the curve of his neck with my whole fingers. He didn't pull away as I thought he might. He allowed it. Perhaps when comfort is needed, it doesn't matter where it comes from.
The next day saw something a little more interesting. The Spaniard's opponent was actually a pair of twins from Athens. They were slim, absolutely identical, and they fought in the nude except for the lion skins thrown around their shoulders.
There were cheers from certain sections of the audience, and laughter from others. The twins didn't seem at all discomposed by the reactions; I suppose they were accustomed to it.
The Spaniard had quite obviously known yesterday who his opponent was to be; he just as obviously didn't know today. He stopped outside the gate and stared. Then he looked back and I could see the German peering through the bars. The Spaniard said something to him, the people sitting just by the gate laughed. The German grabbed himself, spoke, and the Spaniard laughed. And then he had to turn and defend himself because the twins had come running up behind him. I had to wonder how many of their victories had come just at this point.
I didn't realize I had been holding my breath until the Spaniard had killed one of them, and I let it out in relief. The other twin as good as gave up after the first was dead. Their owner was screaming at Proximo in his own language, which I didn't understand. I couldn't tell if Proximo understood it.
The third of the three days of matches was a rare rainy one. This always skews the betting, because even the best fighter can slip and fall in the mud. I was worried; when I realized I was worried, that worried me even more. I realized I cared too much if he lived or died.
As it turned out, the fighter that was to go against my Spaniard was pulled from the match by his owner, who had no wish to lose a good investment just because of mud. I could see Proximo talking with the Spaniard; I imagine he was asking him if he had fought in mud before. The Spaniard nodded, and Proximo seemed satisfied. The old thief then put out a general call for a fighter; anyone who thought himself good enough to go against the Spaniard could fight him. As you might guess, there was not a rush to sign up.
The crowd was thinner, too, in the rain, but at last a rumble grew in one section, which turned to cheers as a group of, I can only call them boys, trouped down to the far gate. There were five, and they were at that cocky age, 16 or so, when they believe they can do anything. Also one, at least, was drunk. He fell down and couldn't seem to get back up. The other four jeered at him and after discussing the terms with Proximo, stripped off their robes and stood in their leggings waiting for the gates to open. They all entered the arena, where the Spaniard was waiting. When he saw who was entering, he searched the crowd.
"Proximo!" he bellowed. "What is this?"
The old man growled, "Get on with it!"
"You want me to kill these…children?" He was enraged. He strode around the arena not even watching the "children" who were unsure what they should do next.
"Go on, fight!" a woman shouted from the stands. The rest of the crowd took it up in a swell of sound.
The old man gave him an impatient gesture to begin, and turned away.
One of the young men gave a cry, and rushed him. He flipped his sword, and used the hilt as a bludgeon against the youngster's head, who went down like a rock. The next young man was more cautious. He approached the older man, circling his sword as if he actually knew what he was doing. The Spaniard strode into the reach of his sword without hesitation and knocked it out of his hand, then bludgeoned him in the head as well.
The other two were a little older, perhaps a little more experienced. They separated and began to circle the Spaniard. He moved toward the shorter of the two, and with his shield began whacking his arms, the sword arm particularly. At one point, he was able to step inside the boy's reach, and drive the hilt of the sword into the boy's belly 3 times, after which the boy fell to his knees and retched into the sand.
The last young man came up behind the Spaniard and slashed at him. The Spaniard ducked, and hit the boy in the face with the flat of his sword. The boy immediately became enraged and began pressing the Spaniard with furious sword strokes. The Spaniard countered with his shield, but it began to look as if he might actually have to use his sword. He was still holding it in reverse, not attacking, only defending.
The second boy to go down rose unsteadily to his feet, grabbed up his sword and headed toward the two. Still countering the attack by the fourth boy, the Spaniard turned to face the 2nd-his sword, held with the point behind him, swung-as the fourth boy darted to the Spaniard's blind side, behind him-and skewered himself on the blade. The Spaniard whacked the other boy with his shield, and turned back. The wounded boy looked astounded as he fell. The 2nd boy was still standing, nursing a bloody nose, and staring with wide eyes at the gladiator, who turned back to him and knocked him down this time. The shield then hit the ground along with the sword, and the Spaniard, after a glance at the boy bleeding to death in the mud, and a long look around at the stands, the rain dripping off his hair, walked out of the arena to the screams of the crowd.
We could hear him shouting for Proximo inside the cage, and then a scuffle. Proximo, of course, stayed well away.
I had already asked for him for that night; but I sent word to Proximo that I had changed my mind. I cared much too much what happened to him. I was looking forward to our night together much too much. And not so much for the bedsport. I wanted to talk with him. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to see his face, feel his breath, press his fingers to my heart. I hadn't felt this way since I was a girl, before I had come to terms with who and what I was, and who and what I was not.
What I was not, was a woman men wanted. It was utter folly on my part to want a man this much. My husband had not cared even to take my maidenhead on our wedding night. I lost that to a stone mason come to repair the wall around the garden. I suppose that is where I began to develop my taste for men who were less…sophisticated. At the very least that is when I realized how much more available they were. And how much less commitment they required.
I had to stop the fantasies; had to quell the longing. Nothing could come of it. It was folly. It was frightening.
And so I didn't see him for close to 3 months. I didn't send for him. I didn't go to any of his matches. I tried so hard, so hard, not to think of him.
I sent a servant to watch the games; I couldn't help it. I needed to know that he was alive. He reported each time that the Spaniard lived. And then, at the end of the second month, he had more to say.
"Mistress, if it pleases you, you may like to know---"
"Tell me, then."
"The crowd calls for him. He fights like a demon. He kills each opponent as quickly as possible. Today, he fought 6 men and killed them all, so quickly you would not have believed it. Then after every fight he stands in the arena and looks at the stands…."
"Mistress, I believe he is looking for you."
Can I tell you what this meant to me? I dared not believe it.
He was looking for me and I wasn't there.
No, the servant was mistaken.
He would think I no longer cared for him.
Fool, he doesn't think you care for him in the first place.
One evening I lay down in the basin of the fountain in the garden just to try to stop the feverish thoughts that chased each other around and around in my head. The servants sent for the physician before I could stop them. He of course pronounced it a female disorder and prescribed a tonic and children. Fool. Did he think if I could have children, I would not already have some?
And then a bit of rumor came to my attention that I really dared not ignore. Proximo had allowed Octavia to purchase my Spaniard's services.
"Are you out of your mind?" I was screaming at Proximo; I'm sure he thought I was the mad one.
He slammed his cup down on the table. "You said you didn't want him. You only asked for him twice. Am I supposed to let him sit when perfectly good moneymaking opportunities arise? And if you don't want him, what do you care who does?"
"But Octavia! You know her--she'll ruin him!"
"Oh, I don't know…he seems to be fighting more ferociously than before. The only complaint I have is that he kills so quickly-we need a bit more entertainment than that to keep the crowd coming back."
I tried to calm down and think. "How much will it cost me to have you keep him just for me?"
"Much more than you will want to pay."
I named a figure. He blinked. A muscle next to his eye twitched. "Ahh….that might do it. All right, he's yours alone…for a time. Then we'll talk again."
From then on, I hardly recognized myself. I actually kidnapped one of Octavia's servants. After some persuasion, I found out what I wanted to know.
Octavia is cruel. She tolerates no resistance of any kind from servants or slaves. Her servant told us the Spaniard-my Spaniard-had defied her. (I wasn't surprised to hear that.) And so she punished him.
I won't set down here the details we learned-what she did, how she did it. I wish I could forget them. I will say she knew she dared not harm him physically, he wasn't hers to damage. She worked with humiliations, and small injuries that wouldn't be seen. He was a proud man, slave or not. And when he wouldn't bend to her will she tried to break him. Whether she succeeded was a question the servant couldn't answer.
He had thrown his sword at the citizens in the pavilion at the last match. He might be enraged, he might be in pain or distress; but not broken yet, I thought.
I knew it was my fault. I had announced my interest; promised him he wouldn't have to deal with anyone else; and then forgotten him. (Actually, of course I hadn't forgotten him, I could think of no one else, but in my melodramatic state of mind, I felt that I had abandoned him. And I guess that much was true.)
Octavia had to be dealt with first. And then my Spaniard.
part 1 part 2 part3 part4 part 5 part 6
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