I needed a monster. More than food, more than family, I needed a monster this week or I was dead. Worse than just dead, in fact. I’d die screaming, for the enjoyment of my betters. Somewhere in Rome, this very day, the monster that would save me waited in chains.
To keep my mind from eating itself in worry, I toiled with Lailan in the Ludus Matutinus’s dusty yard. “Up,” I commanded him. The adolescent snow leopard rose onto his hind legs, boxing the air for balance. I moved inside his reach, and he set his forelimbs on my shoulders. He had a graceful touch, almost intimate.
Tall walls enclosed the Ludus compound, providing privacy for us. Its wooden gates stood closed and barred, sealed against scroungers, vagrants, and spies. The exercise yard stood at the center of a ring of buildings–expansive stables, barracks, storerooms, and a kitchen. Like most of Rome’s compounds, the Ludus Matutinus could serve as a fortress in another setting.
“Walk,” I instructed my charge. Roman crowds loved these sorts of tricks. If he mastered it, a show like this would keep Lailan alive for years.
Pristine white fur, still puffy around his adolescent paws, brushed the sides of my neck. Intense cat eyes met my gaze, unblinking in concentration. I stepped back slowly, guiding the leopard in the first steps of what would someday be our dance.
I moved faster as he grew used to the awkward movements. Sweat stung my eyes. The cat’s muggy breath in my face compounded the heat of the day. The Ludus Matutinus baked under the noon sun, ripening with caged animal smell. The tiered benches of the yard’s small practice arena provided no shade. Even the massive Colosseum, just across the crowded street outside, wouldn’t give us shade for several more hours.
To my right, the door to the slave quarters creaked open. Zia, the Ludus kitchen slave, emerged into the yard, her face set in anxious worry. Her cheeks had sunk from famine, her eyes haggard. The grey hints in her dark hair had broken out into streaks. Our rations had been cut again last week.
“Joah,” she said, approaching me. “We need more food. No one will have enough tonight, and there won’t be anything at all tomorrow.”
I patted Lailan’s flank to signal him, and he dropped back onto all fours. I pulled a limp fish skeleton from a pouch to reward him. A poor treat, but there was nothing else to give. Zia eyed it enviously.
“Skim what you can from the feasts,” I told her. The first day of public feasts began tomorrow, kicking off a celebration that would last a full week. Wine, gladiator games, and circus races during the day. Great tables filling the streets after sundown, loaded with the largesse of Rome’s wealthy patricians. The food was meant for Rome’s citizens first–slaves ate from the scraps.
“It won’t be–” she started.
“I know,” I cut her her off. “But I can’t do anything until Titus arrives and I see how much money we have left to work with.”
As if summoned by his naming, three solid raps fell against the Ludus gates. My heart jumped into my throat and I cursed in Hebrew. Wagons weren’t allowed to traverse the streets during daylight hours. When Titus hadn’t arrived at daybreak, I assumed I wouldn’t have to face him until sundown.
“Quick, take Lailan,” I ordered Zia, as the guards unbarred the doors. If Titus saw me with the snow leopard it would mark Lailan as a target for his play. Zia took the leash dutifully and retreated to the stables at a rapid clip.
Great hinges groaned as the gates parted. Titus stood just beyond them, thickly muscled arms crossed over his chest. A line of wagons trailed behind him, choking the busy streets. Even as a commander of a returning legion he shouldn’t have this much latitude. But Titus was Titus. He had a way of imposing his will on the world.
Was that a smirk on his face? I couldn’t quite tell from this distance, but it set my pulse hammering. Maybe he’d seen me with Lailan, seen me passing the young animal off to Zia. I didn’t dare glance back to see how far they’d gotten, it would give away my fear. It would damn them both. I could only pray I’d moved quickly enough.
I clenched my hands together and stepped forward to welcome my savior. He had my monster, and he had dozens of beasts. He’d brought me the victims the Romans demanded.
I should be used to the sight of terrified animals by now. I’ve been doing this long enough. Still I grimaced when Titus flipped back the burlap covering the first wagon, once we’d brought them within the Ludus’s walls. A tattered lynx crouched in the wagon’s cage, pushing itself as far back as possible, hackles raised and rumbling fear. The lynx bared its teeth in a hiss. A jagged splinter festered where a dagger fang should be. Its own shit matted its right flank. Even in the pinched cages that shouldn’t happen, cats avoid their own feces. To be matted in shit meant it had been sick recently. Or abused.
If Titus’s legionaries were anything like Titus, it was the latter. I could see them gathering around the cage at night, taunting the animal, clubbing it for sport. They’d laugh as they ground it into its filth. In any just world they would all die screaming, under the claws of the animals they hurt.
My hand tightened on my stylus as I struggled for calm. It would excite Titus to see me distressed. I swallowed impotent fury and carefully pressed a hash mark under “Lynx” into my wax tablet. The lynx trembled in my peripheral vision. I would have it away from these monsters soon. In the expansive stables long rows of cages awaited new occupants. Some of them would be here for months as I nursed them back to health.
Before sending them to their deaths. The Ludus Matutinus trained and housed the Bestiarii gladiators, as well as the animals they slaughtered.
I strangled the errant thought, buried its corpse deep in my mind next to the fantasies of broken Roman bodies, and focused on my work.
“I want extra for this one,” said Titus as we moved to the next wagon. Titus stood well over six feet tall, with rich black hair and a powerful jaw. Always a glint of malice in his smile. He loved his strength, he was the kind that grinned as he beat slaves. He’d tormented me even back when he’d been a centurion. Simply for the fun of it. He never laughed, but his eyes shone with delight, and he grinned so terribly wide. I didn’t want to imagine what he’d be like now that he’d made commander. Of a First Cohort, no less.
A gagging stench billowed out as he flung back another burlap sheet. Again a lynx, again encrusted with filth and enraged. It nearly filled the cage, far larger than the previous one, snarling knives at us. Its black-spotted snowy coat would look magnificent when clean. The lynx reminded me of Titus himself–large and arrogant and angry. I added another hash mark to the Lynx column, followed with a plus.
“Agreed, another five percent,” I said. I would tell my master, Sextus, that it had been ten percent. I could use the difference to pay for the food the other slaves stole, at least for a little while longer.
Titus’s eyes narrowed. “You’ll give me no less than ten,” he growled.
My heart jumped into my throat. “Yes, of course, ten percent.” Did he know? He couldn’t know. He’d been gone from Rome with the German legion. Why the hell couldn’t he just stay away?
It didn’t escape my notice that he still wore his sword. Within the city limits that was a crime for all but the emperor’s private army, the Praetorian Guard. A regular soldier shouldn’t have a sword, regardless of rank. Even for Titus, this was a significant breach. Either Titus had the favor of someone in power, or his cohort was here to help break the food riots. I wasn’t sure which was worse.
We continued across the yard, guards and wagon drivers milling about as I hurriedly confirmed delivery. More lynxes, and a few bears. Between each reveal I glanced down the line of wagons, trying to guess which one held the showpiece. The monster. I desperately needed a gnofkeh bear for the games this week. One of those covered wagons surely caged a gigantic, six-legged bear. Preferably a male, with a horn jutting from its head. They were two or three times the size of a normal bear, pure white, and viciously ill-tempered. The nine-hundredth anniversary of Rome’s founding required the killing of something truly extraordinary. My master, Sextus, ran the Colosseum and had promised the emperor that the final day of games would be kicked off with a monster battle. In practice, that meant I had promised the emperor a monster battle. As if monsters were so easy to come by. As if I wanted to risk my life making promises to a monster.
Getting to choose what to risk one’s life for is a luxury only afforded to free men. My life was to be used for entertainment, one way or another, by decree. So the moment I learned the German First Cohort would be recalled to Rome for the games, I promised Titus a handsome sum for a gnofkeh bear. He was my last chance.
Another cart reveal, and again no monster. Just some wolves, in fact. I stopped short at the wolves. They were ridiculously common, I didn’t need “special” wolves brought down from Germania. Especially not in this condition–a haggard she-wolf stood growling over two emaciated pups that couldn’t even make their feet. I hesitated nonetheless. Titus wouldn’t take well to being denied.
I swallowed and spoke, my voice straining. “I can’t give much for the wolves. I can give you half price for the mother, and a coin each for the pups.”
“You trying to cheat me, you little shit?” His voice took a dangerous edge. “Full price or nothing. I know where I can get some decent coin for this rot.”
I had a good idea of what awaited them if they stayed with Titus. Entertainments that not even the Colosseum would sink to, in festering chambers hidden far from any decent heart. I could spare them that. After years of faithful service, Sextus trusted me implicitly with his money. Audits had grown rare, and were cursory when they did happen. I could get away with overpaying for three wolves.
“No, no, you’re right,” I said, throat tight to keep the waver from my voice. “I’ll pay full price for the mother, and two-thirds for each pup.”
Titus sneered his assent and continued onward.
Again I looked down the row of wagons, growing fear tightening my chest. None of them looked big enough to house a gnofkeh. Maybe that one, if it was really squeezed in tight… A flip of burlap revealed that no, that one only held a large bear. And shouldn’t a monster of that size be making an unholy racket? Bellows that traveled for half the city? My palms grew clammy as we passed the last wagon large enough for a gnofkeh, again holding a mere bear. Why hadn’t Titus said anything about it yet? What was he waiting for?
Another couple of wolves, but I wasn’t paying them attention now. My eyes fixed on the last cart, draped with burlap. It was too small. There was no way. But maybe, maybe Titus had figured something out. Maybe the cart was bigger than it looked. Or gnofkehs curled up very tightly, and slept very soundly. My breath caught in hope as Titus flipped the covering aside.
My heart plummeted to my sandals.
“Titus…” My throat tightened, strangling my words. “This isn’t what I expected…”
I stared down at a wretched human form chained in a dusty cart. A stunted thing, barely four feet tall, with knobby joints and not a single hair upon him. Tattooed lines scrawled across wrinkled skin, cutting him into odd segments.
“You promised me a horned, six-legged bear,” I protested. I could see Titus’s face grow dark, and plunging fear gave me a half-second’s warning before Titus’s open hand struck high across my face. The pain wasn’t as bad as the humiliation, the knowledge that he could do what he wanted with me. I sucked in hot, shallow breaths.
“You forget your place, Joah.” He spit out my foreign name. “There weren’t any giant bears. This barbarian wizard will do.”
He would not do. I needed that giant bear. The legion had returned with plenty of regular, boring animals, but the gnofkeh was to be the centerpiece.
“I can’t pay for this,” I said, avoiding Titus’s eyes. Looking lower. He was clean-shaven, as befitted his station. My own salt-and-pepper beard felt all the more damning in contrast.
He stepped forward purposefully, one hand resting on his sword’s pommel, the other pressing flat against my chest. He pushed me back steadily, following as I retreated, step by step, until I was up against a wall. His breath assaulted me, inches away.
“He’s good enough for you.” His voice rumbled with warning. “You’ll take him, and you’ll pay full price.”
“Guards!” My voice broke, the bastards were standing right there. They marched over but didn’t lift a hand to restrain him. It didn’t matter that Sextus paid them to protect me. In the weighing of Roman Commander versus Jewish Slave, there was no contest.
Titus grinned and ran his hand languidly down my chest, his eyes boring into mine.
“You know what I like about you, Joah?” he asked, as his fingers traveled below my belly button and hooked around my belt. He pulled at it and my breath caught. His eyes glinted with amusement. “I don’t have to pretend when I’m around you. I can let all the masks drop and just be myself. It’s so freeing.”
I felt his other hand at my waist. I turned my face aside, praying my bladder would hold. Then he slipped his fingers into my coin pouch and fished out all the money I held.
“I’ll be back for the rest.”
A moment later he was gone and I was sliding to the floor, trembling. A brief silence before the guards moved away, acting as if nothing had happened. Assholes.
I closed my eyes and drew in a shaky breath. I had to focus on the bigger problem. I was back to nothing. I had until noon on the seventh day to find a monster for the emperor. Impossible.
I jumped as cackling laughter exploded nearby. My eyes snapped open on the so-called wizard in the cart, wheezing with glee. The brown nubs of rotted teeth stretched across a face bright with mirth. I glared at him. His mocking eyes met mine, madness flashing behind them. He’d seen everything, and he loved it.
“Go ahead and laugh,” I muttered. “You’ll be dead soon enough.”
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First line of next week’s chapter: Sometimes, you get second chances.
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