I sat for many hours under that hill, my eyes on the stars above. I tracked the moon as it crossed before them, shamelessly radiant.
I considered Erik’s last words to me. We don’t need money, Joah. We need you.
I considered Little Erik, helpless in an indifferent wilderness before his mother came to look after him.
I considered my useless litany. I am sorry. You must die so that I may live. I don’t ask your forgiveness; this is the way of life. But know I wish this world was different.
Sometimes I didn’t have to just wish. Sometimes I could do something.
I don’t know how long I sat there, gazing into the void. It was long enough for the chill of the ground to seep into my bones. It was long enough that by the time I stood up, and chose, and finally returned to the Ludus, the eastern sky tinged into deep blue.
The horizon still loomed too close, the air still hung too thick. I tried not to worry about the way the light diffused through it, as if through clouded crystal.
I slipped through the kitchen, stumbling across Zia as she prepared the gladiator’s morning gruel. With our wheat almost entirely gone, she’d fortified it liberally with blood salvaged from yesterday’s slaughters. Every member of the Ludus worked to keep our house functioning.
Her eyebrows lifted in surprise to see me. I raised one hand in greeting as I passed. She didn’t smile, but did favor me with a quiet nod.
Back in my writing room, I fretted over the ledgers. After this famine broke, I would have to replenish our stables. Until then we served no purpose for Sextus, but we still had to eat. I should empty out the coffers to buy as much grain as I could find. It would do us no good to sit on a mountain of money in a starving city. You can’t eat silver.
I laid out ledgers, ink, quill and penknife. Wax tablets and stylus for rough work.
On the other hand, if it became known that we had grain, the Ludus would become a target for the desperate like it never would for coins. And what would I do once it came time to replenish our fighting stock? Sextus would execute me if there was no money left. How much should I hold back for the future animals, when every denarii I didn’t spend now decreased our chances of surviving the famine?
I took up a stylus, then set it down again. I ran my hand through my hair. I didn’t even know how much I was working with. Would the new emperor pay for the additional animals he’d ordered slaughtered? And when? I paced by the desk, teeth worrying at the inside of my cheek.
I’d grown so inured to my animal’s distress during the wizard’s stay that I didn’t notice the whines of alarm. In my preoccupation I missed the howling of pain, and the thump of heavy footsteps. When that voice spoke it jolted my heart into my throat.
“Nowhere to run to from here, is there, Joah?”
I spun to face the doorway. Titus took up its full width, leaning casually against one jamb. He played with a distinctive snow leopard paw, still leaking blood. Chill delight shone in his eyes.
“Titus–” I swallowed, trying to bring moisture back to my mouth. I kept my gaze locked to his eyes, wrestling to keep from glancing at Lailan’s severed paw. If I could get to the leopard before he bled out, we could still dance together, someday. “How can I help you?” My voice cracked in my throat.
“How long did you think you could avoid me? Did you think I’d leave Rome without the rest of my payment?”
My fingers grew cold. I needed the money for the Ludus. We’d starve without it. “I can’t,” I croaked. “Sextus only gives me so much. If I give you more–” My gaze dipped to the paw, then back to Titus. Even if I reached Lailan in time, where would I hide him? Every animal was to be slaughtered today. I had to get Titus out of here. I had to get to Lailan. I had to protect our money, or else decide which slaves would be cast out of the Ludus so the rest could eat. I was so sick of allocating death among the miserable.
Titus straightened, and took a slow step into the room. “Did you just tell me ‘no’?” he asked softly. His tongue flicked out to lick his lips. The chill of his approach sunk into my spine.
“N-no,” I said. “I mean, i-it’s not my money to give. Please…”
Titus stepped forward again, almost seductive. His fingers caressed the dagger at his belt. “I’ve skinned a lot of animals in my time, Joah. You won’t be the first.”
I skittered backwards, bumping into the desk. I fumbled for my money pouch, praying he didn’t notice the trembling. “You’re right, I was, am, very mistaken.” Survival first. My icy fingers stumbled with the drawstrings. “How much do I owe you, again?” Fuck, my fingers wouldn’t respond, they’d become too numb to pick apart the small strings. I thrust out the pouch toward him. “Just, just take it…”
Titus’s lips curled up at their edges. “Like you could stop me.” He advanced one languid step at a time. “But it’s not about the money anymore, Joah.” He let my name roll around in his mouth, savoring its taste. With a contemptuous flick he launched Lailan’s paw at me. It struck my cheek and flopped to my feet. “It’s about the disrespect.”
One final step. He plucked the coin purse from my hands, twisted it deftly, and overturned it. Coins dumped out over the desk and floor. His breathing grew husky as I struggled to hold still. He drew up against me, taking his time, his eyes devouring my fear. “I’m the Praetorian prefect now. You’ll never be free from me again.” My entire body tightened. His stench made it hard to breathe. “So when I call, you come running, and you thank me for the privilege.”
“Yes.” The sound barely broke from my lips. I felt a firmness rising from his crotch.
“You know I’m going to have to punish you.” He kept me pinned against the desk with his hips. “You’re lucky I’m so merciful.”
His hand squeezed over my throat. “Don’t test me,” he whispered, his lips brushing my ear. One hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. Hands pushed me down across the desk. His thick body pressed into me from behind. One hand on the back of my head ground my face into the wood. He pulled up my tunic. I inhaled sharply, holding my breath, and grabbed the edge of the desk. Not again. Not again. I heard him spit.
I gasped at the first thrust, then bit down on the pain. More than anything in life, I didn’t want to cry out. It would draw the others. I couldn’t take the burning shame of them watching from the door as Titus used my body, grinding Lailan’s severed paw under his feet. Couldn’t take their pity on top of everything else.
A whimper slipped from my lips and I wanted to stab my lungs to silence them. It would be over soon. Writing implements wobbled and rolled as the desk rocked. I pushed them away, clamped my eyes shut over stinging tears.
I found myself squeezing the handle of my thin desk knife. It was small, but sharp enough to repair worn quill nibs with the slightest touch. I gripped it until my knuckles turned white. As another small cry forced its way from my mouth I heard in it an echo of a monster’s scream. A creature summoned only to die shrieking for the pleasure of the Romans. I felt myself twisting inside. Twisting like Ehud had in my dream, mangled and broken into something monstrous and gurgling. The stench of decay filled my nostrils, gagging me.
I convulsed, and when Titus yanked my hair, I lifted my shoulder and swung my fist back, flailing desperately behind me. Warmth spurted over my hand, so welcome on my freezing flesh. I heard a choke; Titus came free of me, his pressure pulling away. I groaned at the shock of relief. I looked back.
A face caught between outrage and confusion. Below it, a puncture in Titus’s neck drained his life down his chest in a bright red river. He stared at me, mouth flapping but no words coming out. He lifted a hand to his throat, coating it in stripes of spurting blood.
A staggering step back, and then he crashed to the floor. His eyes rolled in his head briefly, as he took in the room in a wondering circle. He reminded me of one of my animals, in the way he didn’t seem to understand what was happening.
And then he lay still in widening crimson.
The world had gone impossibly silent. The air, unnaturally thick, muffled all sound. I felt my chest heaving, but couldn’t hear my own breath. Only my heartbeat, and the pounding rush of blood through my ears, in time with my pulsing vision.
I looked to the penknife clutched in my bloody fist. Such a small thing. It glinted a wink at me, silver and ruby, as the world blurred and spun.
This had to be a dream.
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First line of next week’s chapter: Marcus held himself painfully still as the morning games progressed.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I had difficulty translating this scene from the short story to the novel.
Word-count of chapter 37 deleted content: 130