“I need more food for the animals,” I told Sextus that morning. I’d come to visit him at the office in his home. The short uphill trudge from the Ludus was particularly unpleasant today. The smell of the monster’s pitch blood still lingered in the air after a full day, an unnatural scent of decay and sugar. It tightened the sky. People in the streets kept their heads ducked and their eyes downcast. Even the guards outside Sextus’s office shifted as if clammy fingers caressed them with unwelcome advances.
Perhaps they were merely all hung-over from last night’s celebrations. Perhaps the smell was only in my head, an artifact of an awful night’s sleep. I’d dreamt last night, constantly. I dreamt of lovers, past and current. I dreamt of Aurelius, cradled in my arms, delicate and delicious. Even beautiful Aurelius tasted of the monster’s sweet rot in that dream.
I hate dreaming. Bizarre worlds invade my consciousness, realms that follow no rules. I never think to question them at the time. I never stop to ask why an onion bulb would sprout a human head, moaning demands. I accept it as natural and deal with it as another part of life. How could I let something like that go unquestioned?
Worse–how many logical grotesqueries do I accept in my waking life? If I could wake up from this life, how much of it would appall me as ludicrous?
Sextus looked like he hadn’t slept well, either. His skin sagged, pulling his eyes into drooping pools. A plate of cheeses and olives lay at his elbow, barely touched.
“You want more animal feed now?” he asked. “You should need less each day, shouldn’t you?”
Because my animals were being slaughtered, yes. But as the famine dragged on the other slaves grew less and less picky with what they would take. Recently offal and rinds had begun disappearing. The amount of food actually making it to the animals continued to fall.
There was no way I could tell Sextus. I couldn’t bring myself to have the slaves whipped. Who would I start with? Erik, the youngest and most able to endure it? Zia, for taking more for her children? They, too, were only doing what they must so they could live. That wasn’t a crime deserving a blood payment. I wouldn’t extract one from them.
Sextus would have them all whipped in a heartbeat. Maybe worse. He’d do the same to me, for not having stopped them myself. Unless I told him right now. Let him take care of it. I’d warned the others to be careful, to not take too much.
“The feed allotments took the Games into consideration,” I replied, “but I hadn’t expected the German Legion to bring so many animals, or in such poor condition. I need more food for them for the next several weeks at least.”
Barely a lie, and the least awful solution I could come up with.
“You miscalculated in a way that would leave your animals without enough food?” Sextus asked. “I find that hard to believe.” He studied me with half-lidded eyes. “You’ve always been a loyal slave, Joah. Buy what extra food you need. But I want an audit before the end of next week. Checked by an outside scribe.”
Damnation. It would be dozens of hours of hunched-over work to create a false set of ledgers. Then I’d have to find a way to deal with the auditor. Bribes, most likely, and where the hell would that money come from?
Sextus would find me out. There is nothing so hated as the betrayal of a trusted slave. We are loved when we suffer with smiles carved into our faces, thanking our masters for their generosity. The moment a Roman isn’t coddled and glorified, he exacts that tribute with violence. Hot irons and spikes waited in my future.
At least he hadn’t demanded I turn over the ledgers immediately.
“Of course,” I said, “it will be done.”
Sextus’s gaze shifted past me, and his face lifted in interest. “Come,” he called. I bowed to leave, but he raised a halting hand. “Stay, Joah, this may involve you.”
A youth entered, tall and powerfully built, with piercing, restless eyes. He came accompanied by an older man, white-haired and pot-bellied, with the look of one who drinks his breakfasts. A young woman followed them. She had the features of a northern barbarian, with an aggressive beauty that even I could appreciate. She breathed heavily, teeth clenched tight, her gaze on the floor.
“Well?” Sextus asked.
The young man nodded. “Yes, they’re the same tribe, they spoke for several minutes.”
Sextus smiled. “Joah, you have your translator.” He pulled a coin purse from his desk. “Andreas, you said her name was Eydis?”
The youth nodded. The woman stood still, arms stiff at her sides. She was used to being spoken about, rather than spoken to.
“Fantastic.” Sextus counted out coins into two unequal stacks as he spoke. “Andreas, this is your finder’s fee. Stay after this, I have another use for you.
“Cornelius, this is for the use of your slave for the rest of the week. If I need her longer you’ll get more, of course.
“Eydis, go with Joah, he will be your master for the next six days.”
The young woman looked up at me, her eyes lit with a fire I hadn’t seen in a long time. Not the impotent fury of a newly taken slave. This was the deep smoldering resentment of the dispossessed, the long-term slave who’d never been fully broken. A flame of hope still lived amid the wreckage of the hatred within her. A flame that could only thrive in the hungry bodies of the young. I hoped I wouldn’t be there when it erupted into the world.
“Come on,” I said to her. “The morning shows begin soon. I want to speak with the wizard before then.”
Eydis gave me the wizard’s name when I asked, but after that referred to him only as Reverend Elder. She sat by his cot in the cramped cell, holding a withered hand in both of hers. Her eyes blazed anew whenever she looked at him. He meant something to her. Once he had been important.
“The Emperor demands another monster,” I told him, through Eydis. Even with his face taut with pain, his lips still curled in contempt.
“Why should he give you anything, when he is to die at your hands?” Eydis translated.
“You won’t die,” I said, addressing him directly. “If you summon a monster into the arena each day, at the end of the week the Emperor will grant you reprieve and Roman healers will restore you.”
The wizard chortled his disbelief, which didn’t require any translation.
“The Emperor can be merciful when he is pleased,” I said, “and more monsters would please him greatly.”
The wizard gurgled laughter when Eydis translated that, pain strangling his breathy exhalations. “The Reverend Elder is sure that the Lust Vyakhee pleased the Emperor a great deal indeed. But he cannot control what Aspect appears when he summons one.”
“Any sort of monster will do,” I assured him. “They only wish to slaughter it for their games.”
Her face darkened at that. She turned her head so her hair fell to hide her expression, but she translated with anger in her voice. The two conversed for a while, and it occurred to me that their words were different in quality from the ones the wizard spoke when he lay delirious in the healer’s cell. They were strangely spiced foreign words, yes, but they didn’t hurt my ears and scratch across my mind. This was a merely human tongue. Finally Eydis turned back to me.
“If you bring him the materials he needs, and give him time to cast, he will do this for you.”
“I don’t understand.” Nor did I trust him. “Yesterday he called forth a monster with a few gestures and a knife.”
“When the Romans first captured the Reverend Elder the summoning ritual had been nearly complete. The prices had been paid, and the obeisances made. He only needed clear sky above him to complete it. A new summoning will require full ritual payment, for each monster.”
“Fine. Tell me what he needs and he’ll have it.”
The wizard’s half-mad eyes sought out my own. His gaze bore into me. He rasped out words in a mocking tone.
“He says you don’t have the stomach to gather the components for the summoning,” the girl translated.
A wry grin broke over Eydis’s face. “The Reverend Elder is new to slavery,” she said, not bothering to translate my response. That flame licked up inside her eyes again. “He doesn’t realize how quickly the Romans warp us into mirrors of themselves.”
I did not appreciate being included in her sentiment.
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First line of next week’s chapter: You wait.
First line of this week’s author’s notes: I really hate dreaming.
Word-count of chapter 9 deleted content: 204