Mark of the Gladiator

Mark of the Gladiator by Heidi Belleau and Violetta Vane

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After an inconvenient display of mercy in the arena, the gladiator Anazâr is pulled from the sands and contracted to nobleman Lucius Marianus to train his new stable of female gladiators. His charges are demoralized and untested, and they bear the marks of abuse. Anazâr has a scant two months to prepare them for the arena, and his new master demands perfection.

Anazâr is surprised by how eager he is to achieve it—far more eager than a man motivated only by self-preservation. Perhaps it’s because Marianus is truly remarkable: handsome, dignified, honorable, and seemingly as attracted to Anazâr as Anazâr is to him.

But a rivalry between Marianus and his brother sparks a murder conspiracy, with Anazâr and his gladiatrices caught in the middle. One brother might offer salvation . . . but which? And in a world where life is worth less than the pleasures of the crowd or the whims of a master, can there be any room for love? As a gladiator, Anazâr's defenses are near impenetrable. But as a man, he learns to his cost that no armor or shield can truly protect his heart.


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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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CHAPTER ONE

The month of Aprilis. Emperor and Son of the Divine Caesar Augustus and Titus Statilius Taurus being consuls. Year 728 from the Founding of the City.

Anazâr welcomed the first lick of the lash. The pain reminded him, in its primal way, that he wanted to live. Or at least that he didn’t want to die.

It was always like this. Anazâr would walk into the arena, blinking back the sun, and he would think, Dying today, that would be fitting; that would be the pleasing fulfillment of an incomplete pattern. And then he would press the edge of his left thumb against his blade, letting the little cut bloom into pain, awakening his animal self, and death was no longer abstract, no longer a concept, and then he would have to fight, have to live. That thing they called Cyrenaicus would emerge to fight in Anazâr’s place.

And Cyrenaicus lived. He’d lived long enough for Anazâr’s left thumb to be etched with faint silvery scars.

The whip brought him to that same threshold of transformation, but left him at it in unconsummated agony, because here, against the post, there was nothing to fight but himself.

A warning breath sounded as the whip cut the air, followed by a line of fiery pain along his back. A moment later, the pain overran the line. Pain—ripping deep down into his straining body while his skin itched at the sensation of blood crawling down his back. Pain. That was all. He could summon up neither hate nor outrage, and he’d lost his fear of this thin leather lash the day he’d seen a nailed flagrum lay open a man’s ribs and send him howling and broken to the afterworld.

The time for hate and outrage had passed. Even the bitterest seeds of resentment and despair, sown the day of his capture and watered ever since with an endless string of humiliations and degradations and pain, had dissolved into something else, something there wasn’t a name for. Not in any victor’s tongue, anyway, and that was all that mattered here.

“Ten lashes for laziness, ten for cowardice, and now another ten for disobedience,” shouted the lanista’s right-hand man. Degis was known for his mastery of the whip. For the evenness of his strokes. The assembled gladiators stood silently, observing the familiar lesson.

Anazâr counted the last ten strokes under his breath, even though it made them more painful, because at least then they couldn’t become infinite.

Ten for despondence, ten for scruples, ten for passive rebellion.

When it was over, Degis untied him from the whipping post. “Come on, Cyrenaicus,” he said, his voice neither angry nor particularly sympathetic. “You know better than this. You do. So turn it around by the next match, eh? That’s if the lanista doesn’t sell you first.” That last bit was conversational, almost light, but the threat was real.

Anazâr tried to answer, but the pain didn’t leave any space to even start to form the words. He twitched his lips and fell to his knees.

“Gaius! Achilleus! Take him to his cell, get him water, and see him bandaged. The rest of you, learn this well. I don’t care if there’s no glory in it—stick to the script! Don’t piss around when it comes to these mythologicals. You will be noticed. You will be punished. Dismissed!”

They half marched or maybe mostly dragged Anazâr to his cell, then laid him out face-down on the thin bedroll. He heard Gaius sending Achilleus away, and he couldn’t help the treacherous relief that seized him, however short-lived it would be, knowing that his dishonorable behavior had at least stolen them a moment of privacy—or what passed as privacy for slaves, anyway.

Someone had left the bandages and salve already, but Gaius didn’t turn to the doctoring just yet. Instead, Anazâr felt his hand cup the back of his neck and squeeze. “I should let these fester,” Gaius scolded without venom. “Really. I know what you were doing out there. I know it wasn’t cowardice. But if you can’t go along with what—” I, he didn’t say, although it was there “—we, all of us, do, why don’t you just fall on your sword? Why live to make me watch you get whipped like that?”

Never blame for the lanista, who’d ordered the whipping, but then, there never was. No point to it. Blaming what you couldn’t control? Might as well spit in the ocean or defy a god by pissing against his temple wall.

“I’m sorry,” Anazâr said between the subsiding waves of pain as Gaius carefully wiped his wounds clean and applied the salve. “I’m sorry, but I don’t love you nearly well enough to spare you the embarrassment.”

“If I didn’t know you better, I’d curse you for a cold man. I love you well enough.”

“As well as you can. And I in return, equally.” Gaius began laying the light linen strips over his back—a welcome cool pressure to quell the burning ache. “Thank you,” he said, and didn’t know whether he meant it for the treatment or the affection. Maybe they were one and the same, here.

“You’ve done this for me before. The lashing is nothing. Your mood, though, that’s what concerns me. You’re so close, Cyren. Stay in good standing for another year and you’ll almost certainly have enough prize money to buy your freedom. You’re still a young man. Still handsome, even if . . .” Gaius trailed off at that. The slave tattoo blazing on Anazâr’s forehead lurked after the if. “It can be covered. Even scarred out, I’ve heard,” Gaius murmured, somewhat apologetically, as if he were sorry for his own unmarred face.

Anazâr tried to picture himself with a web of shiny scar tissue instead of the dark blue letters that followed the line of his left brow nearly to his hairline. TMQF: tene me quia fugio. In his language, halt me, for I am a runaway. A hideously practical preemptive measure against a repeat attempt at escape, as if such a thing were inevitable. As if he’d ever be so stupid as to try that again. But no. If eventually this life became too much to bear, he’d rather die in combat, where his cowardice could at least mean a fellow slave’s glory.

But Gaius’s kind words deserved better than Anazâr’s sullen silence. Best to lighten the mood. “Am I still handsome? I don’t make a habit of seeking out mirrors.”

Gaius’s knuckles brushed down his cheek, and though unseen, he felt the warmth of the cocky yet fond smile Gaius so often granted him. “The best looking man here, except for me.”

With the utmost care, Anazâr pushed upward onto one elbow, twisting his pain-streaked body until he and Gaius were looking into one another’s eyes. They were of a kind. Gaius was the only one who could speak his language. Not of his people, no—they had all died, down to the last man, along the harsh journey from Africa Proconsularis to Rome—but close. Very close. They had the same tawny skin, the same close-cropped dark curly hair, the same lean horseman’s build that had led the lanista to train them for light-armored fighting. Even a similar network of scars on their bodies, a combination of injuries sustained in matches and those handed down here in the ludus, the ones you couldn’t fight back against. No tattoo on Gaius, though; his face was a mirror, perfected. Strong-boned, square-jawed, eyes set deep and wide and guarded. Anazâr liked to think that his eyes weren’t quite so cold.

They’d known yesterday’s games would include a re-enactment of the slaughter of the suitors of Penelope. Anazâr had heard of the story—an old Greek one, called the Odyssey—before he was ordered to play the part of Telemachus that morning, but he’d never heard the story in full, and he’d assumed the slaughter was partly symbolic. The Romans did love their symbolism. When the gates opened, the entirely literal reality had hit him like a hammer blow: he, Gaius, and two archers would kill these twenty men. Twenty men who were unarmed, unarmored, too old or too young, and all sick, either with disease or fear.

Anazâr had held back. Hence, the lashing. Gaius hadn’t.

So when Gaius’s thumb brushed over Anazâr’s lower lip, seeking entry, Anazâr pushed his hand away. He didn’t feel superior—not with his own hands soaked in so much blood, and as much a slave’s—but maybe they weren’t so alike after all.

Gaius didn’t press matters, didn’t take offense, just nodded and said plainly, “When you’re healed, let me know when to come to you.”

Anazâr offered Gaius a noncommittal smile. Perhaps, in a few days, this mood would pass, and they’d fuck, negotiating a brief pleasure all the more tender for being hard-won.

Perhaps, in a few months, they’d face each other across the sand, lay whatever they had aside and fight to the death for a different kind of pleasure: that of the cheering crowd.

For now, he didn’t want Gaius. He didn’t want anyone. He wanted to want life again, instead of merely groping toward it out of an animal abhorrence of death . . . but maybe he didn’t want that either.

# # #

His wounds hadn’t even healed enough to allow for the removal of his bandages, and the lanista had already come for him.

“Ungrateful spawn of a desert whore. I should feed you to something.”

Anazâr kept his eyes on the ground, on the lanista’s fine black sandals stitched with yellow cord. They both knew the threat was empty. Iunius was a practical man. He wouldn’t throw such an expensive slave to the beasts. Sell him off at a profit and be rid of him, though, that was a distinct possibility.

He seemed to sense Anazâr’s prediction. “I already tried to sell you. The other lanistae aren’t buying. Last week, I could have gotten top price. You were known as a solid thraex. Today, you’re known as a half-mad bastard who can’t, or won’t, follow the simplest of choreography. Speak. State your case.”

It was a dire situation. Refusal would be seen as insolence, but any explanation Anazâr offered, whether truth or lie, wouldn’t be satisfactory, either.

He seized some Latin words and set them into the air, not even knowing yet what he meant to argue. “I’m not sure, myself, Dominus. A curse. Maybe it was a curse. I meant to follow orders. I can fight. Match me again, Dominus, and I’ll show you.”

“Idiot barbarian, you don’t know shit about curses.” Iunius shifted his weight, and the shuffling noise of his sandal soles carried his irritation, Anazâr’s dread. “Actually, you’re not stupid, but you are unpredictable, and that’s worse. I could take a loss on you. Sell you to the mines; they’d get a good year’s work out of you before you die. Luckily for you, I have something more creative in mind.”

A strange, sweet pain shook itself loose inside his chest. Something. Anything.

“Thank you, Dominus.”

“I’ve contracted you to another lanista for a period of two months. A very unusual, accidental sort of lanista. You won’t be fighting. You’ll be training others. It just so happens you’re exactly what is needed there.”

“Numidians?” Anazâr blurted out. Hope swelled in his chest at the thought of being reunited with more of his people, even for such a short time, even to such gruesome ends.

“Worse. Women! Gladiatrices. A perversion of the games. But there’s an audience demand for it, so of course the consul will have them fight. The lanista is desperate for a new trainer. The old one couldn’t keep his prick out of the stock, so I got a good price for your time there by assuring him you aren’t inclined to do the same. I hope your lack of appetite for women is testament to your tastes in general and not the attractiveness of my kitchen slaves.”

Was he supposed to respond to that? “I, ah—”

“I don’t care why you are the way you are. Train them, don’t fuck them. Simple, eh? Do the job right, and I’ll take you back in good standing. And the lanista is a younger, wealthy man, politically connected, the son of a wealthy plebeian who raised his house to equites status, and that’s as close to a senator as quim to ass, or duck to goose. Impress him and I wouldn’t be averse to selling you to him and making the position permanent.”

And freed, Anazâr dared to imagine. Many trainers were freedmen.

“If he’s unhappy with your performance, I’ll have you sold to the mines or maybe just scourged to death as a morale-booster for the other men, depending on the economy and my mood that day. Is that sufficient motivation?”

“Yes, Dominus. Thank you, Dominus.” Anazâr carefully raised his eyes while keeping his neck bent downward. Iunius was thin, gaunt, silver-haired, and a full head shorter, but his presence filled the hall so completely he might as well have been a titan of old. There was a faint smile on his face; Anazâr read it as an expression of self-satisfaction. Iunius had seized financial victory, after all.

# # #

After that, things moved quickly, the way they always did when masters made up their minds. There was no use in wasting the trainer’s time with the usual schedule of drills and exercises, not on Anazâr, not when he was leaving so soon, so he was made to sit aside and watch the proceedings, his itchy back baking in the sun. He studied the forms, the blows, the equipment, all as if they were new to him. And they were, because for the first time, he was looking at them with a trainer’s eye. How best to explain them, to model them, when to introduce them and to whom? Some men spent more time lifting weights than others. Some struck wooden posts, while others sparred together. By which logic were they paired?

He had most of the answers already. It was common practice to second-guess the trainers whenever gladiators gathered. These were matters of life and death, after all, so he and his brothers talked of little else. But then, perhaps to call them brothers was no longer appropriate. All day, they were as focused on the task of training as they’d ever been, but not so focused that they didn’t find time to spare him resentful glances. Here, as they took a moment to exchange weapons. There, as they paused for water. Did they think he was being rewarded? They must despise him for breaking their blood bond with his cowardice. For breaking that bond for anything other than death.

Even Gaius, who usually smiled like a madman and flirted like a fiend no matter their circumstances, avoided his gaze. Anazâr should have felt relieved that at least he wasn’t glowering like the others, but it was a cold comfort.

That night, like the night before, he was barred from the common dinner and sent alone to his cell with food and drink: the same bland but hearty beans as always, but all he could picture as he ate was that his brothers were probably imagining him dining on meat and good wine.

“Dominus told me to give you this new tunic,” the kitchen slave who’d brought his dinner said, laying it down beside the bowls. “But you’d better not put it on yet. You’re still bleeding a little.”

“Am I?” His back was such a mess of pain and itching and scabbing, he couldn’t tell one discomfort from another.

“Are you—” She looked ashamed, for a moment, but continued on. “Are you afraid of going? I haven’t changed hands for five years now. I don’t know if I could bear it again. What if your new master is cruel?”

“Iunius remains my master. This new man is just paying for my services. Anyway, no, I’m not afraid. Iunius isn’t exactly kind himself, and anything’s better than the mines, don’t you think?”

She didn’t reply.

He slept on his stomach again and dreamed of riding to war with his kinsmen across the western desert. But the sand beneath their horses’ hooves turned to seafoam, and one by one, they foundered and were lost. The water closed above him and stole his last breath.

In the morning, he woke gasping and realized with new dread that he hadn’t even gotten the chance to say good-bye to Gaius. Maybe never would, depending on how well Gaius fought over the coming months. So he did what he always did: prayed to the Romans’ god Mars and his own goddess Ifri that Gaius would win through safely. He couldn’t ask for more than that. Didn’t dare. Praying for freedom? Well.

# # #

Iunius and two guards escorted him to the house of Marianus.

He’d only ever walked the streets of Rome shackled and heavily guarded on his way to and from matches. This time, Iunius didn’t bother shackling him. Walking without the weight of his irons felt close to flying.

He worked hard to keep his exhilaration and terror in check. There were too many strangers crossing his path. He caught himself calculating how best to kill them. Then he would blink his eyes and remind himself that this wasn’t the training ground or the arena. They’re fruit sellers. That’s a slave girl carrying water for her old mistress. A group of musicians. Bricklayers. Children. The world outside was so complicated, so rich and beautiful. The colors and the noises and the smells, oh gods, the smells: woodsmoke, roasting sausages, perfumed oil, spilled wine.

No one looked at him twice. Once, for sure, because few stood above him. But little else caught their eye. There were other tattooed slaves walking these crowded streets. Even a yellow-haired man, likely a Gaul, with TMQF emblazoned on his forehead. Wearing street clothes, unarmed, without the paint of blood or glisten of oil on his skin, Anazâr was no different from any of them.

Soon, the streets grew less crowded, the smells less pungent, the buildings lower, wider, richer.

From the outside, the house of Marianus was an immaculately maintained domus, walls scrubbed free of the graffiti and stains that marred some of their neighbors’. The heavy, red front door was so well-polished, Anazâr probably could have seen his reflection in it, had he the time. As it was, the door immediately swung open, like they’d been expected with some measure of impatience or anxiety. Anazâr thought he’d be sent to a slave’s door, but Iunius beckoned him impatiently through the main entrance. He flinched as he passed the threshold, as though some invisible barrier would hold him back, or maybe it was a trick and he’d be punished for being so presumptuous, but nothing happened.

He bent his head so as not to gape at his surroundings. They were standing in a vestibule, and even though they hadn’t yet been greeted or invited into the main area of the house, what he could see just here was extravagantly, ridiculously beautiful, as if he’d walked into a giant treasure chest, not a house inhabited by flesh and blood people. Pastoral mosaics assembled from pieces no larger than his smallest fingernail, the shining eyes of shepherds crafted from rare glittering minerals. A marble statue of a goddess, painted delicate pink and draped in gossamer indigo fabric. Gleaming candelabras—no doubt solid silver—flanked the entrance.

“Marianus will see you now,” announced a well-groomed slave woman, opening the door to the inner house. When Anazâr caught her eye, he was momentarily stunned by how composed she was, the plaits of her hair speaking of delicate labor. Not like a slave at all, at least not the hardy kitchen women he’d grown to know and respect at the ludus. As beautiful as the house that kept her . . . and just as ornamental.

Well, no fear of Anazâr coming to such a fate: with his grim face, so rough-hewn and perverted by the tattoo, he’d probably never see the inside of this house of beautiful things again. He was already anxious to leave.

She led them through the atrium past a line of waiting men—lesser men, Anazâr understood at once—here to feed off of Marianus’s wealth, their presence as telling of that wealth as the lavishness of the house they stood in.

Iunius, too, had his own clients, according to Roman custom. Hyenas, more like. Hangers-on. But then, here those roles were reversed and now Iunius himself played the client seeking nobler patronage, come to offer a prize gladiator as tribute.

At least Iunius didn’t have to wait. They bypassed the line altogether and followed the beautiful slave into her master’s study, an open room that commanded both the atrium and an indoor garden beyond. Anazâr caught glimpses of green vines, fresh blooms, and more statues, before his gaze was arrested by Marianus.

Eyes the same color and luster as the silver candelabras. That was the first thing Anazâr noticed, and also the last, because he forced himself to look down lest he cause offense. The floor tiles were immaculately clean; above, the sweep of Marianus’s toga included a narrow crimson-purple stripe that Iunius’s toga lacked.

Anazâr barely followed their conversation, an elaborate Latin duel of formal greetings and pleasantries, other than to notice that Iunius took great care with the titles he gave Marianus.

“So this is your man?”

His cue. Anazâr lifted his head and pushed back his shoulders, staring off into that familiar middle distance. Not looking down like a wounded animal, not looking directly at his betters like he thought himself an equal.

“Cyrenaicus,” said Iunius. “From Numidia, one of Antonius’s men in the Battle of Actium.” And now, following the usual script, he gestured to the tattoo. “Once a runaway, until he found his purpose on the sands. Every gladiator he’s met has begged submission or died under his sword. Now the glory of battle is all he lives for.”

“Is it true?” asked Marianus with mild curiosity. Was it true that he’d killed many men, survived many battles he should have lost? Was it true that he moved like a bird of prey, striking and falling back, fighting with brutal grace? Was it true that now he’d tasted blood and heard the cheers of the audience, he would never deign to return to his rootless barbarian existence? “Is it true what your master says about you? You’ve no appetite for women?”

“Speak,” Iunius ordered.

Shame at the intimacy of the question made Anazâr’s throat close off, but he couldn’t let it go unanswered. “I will not touch your slaves,” he said, keeping his voice gruff and straightforward.

Marianus smiled at that. His mouth was soft, its curve guarded, but not cruel. His lips had a color like they’d been stained by wine. He turned his attentions to Iunius, Fortune granting Anazâr a moment to compose himself. “And he’s not—”

Iunius’s tone was defensive, quick-snap: “He’s virile, I assure you. A powerful fighter and a powerful man. Would a demonstration comfort you?”

“Not necessary!” Marianus replied with an easy laugh. “Do you have a wife where you come from, slave? Is that it?”

A wife, yes. Was that ‘it’? Not really. But Anazâr took Marianus’s question for what it was: a mercy, maybe even in some wild daydream an acknowledgment of his humanity. “Yes, Dominus,” he replied.

“There, see? An honorable man. Sorely needed in certain parts of my household.”

Again, not really, but Marianus’s kindness was a welcome thing. Anazâr had left without giving his wife sons, failing as a husband in the most basic way, but his final act had been to put her in the care of his brother, should he not return. He hoped that match had proven more fruitful for her, that he had at least succeeded for her in one single measurable way. In the end, it really didn’t matter: it was just a left-behind thing, an inconsequential concern from another man’s life.

“He’s seasoned and trustworthy, despite the tattoo. Or perhaps because of it. Can I answer any other question regarding his abilities?”

“I would try him in one of the most important regards: language. Cyrenaicus, speak a greeting and a comment on the weather in every language your master claims you know.” Marianus seemed more merchant than patrician in that moment, and Anazâr respected that.

“Hello,” he said, “the sun shines brightly,” in his best Latin, then his poor Greek, then his strong but rough Egyptian. He swallowed uncomfortably before he repeated the words in the last language, though it was his first: his mother tongue.

“So it is settled, then?” Iunius tried, a tinge of timid hesitance in his tone. So strange, to hear the all-powerful master in a place of inferiority. When his two months were over, could Anazâr go back, having seen it? Not worth thinking about. Two months was a long way away. A lifetime for a gladiator who saw regular combat.

“I’ll take him. We can register the contract tomorrow.”

CHAPTER TWO

He slept in the house of Marianus that night, deeply and without dreams, on a pallet on the cool cellar floor next to another slave. A Greek, he seemed to be, and Anazâr would have welcomed the chance to practice the language and discover more about the household, but the man was obviously scared of him. So Anazâr left him alone. There was always a sharp line separating gladiators from other slaves. His life was, paradoxically, valued much higher than theirs—more than many freedmen, even—and gladiators were known for violence both in and out of the arena.

He wondered, as he rose in the morning, what it would be like for women to cross that line. What it would be like to show them how to cross it.

The majordomo slave—another Greek, but elderly and without fear—allowed them out of the cellar and saw him fed. A pale, oblique morning light filtered down into the atrium as he sat by the wall and ate from a generous bowl of porridge. He was nervous surrounded by so much treasure, and the walls were crowded with painted scenes from epic stories that taunted him with hidden meaning, so he had little appetite, though he forced himself to eat anyway. A useful habit he’d learned in the auxiliary legion; it had stood him well as a gladiator.

The majordomo led someone toward Anazâr. A large man, almost his own height, with a thick neck like a bull. “Lucius Marianus Ursus,” he announced. “A freedman of this house. Cyrenaicus, you will be under his escort.”

“So you’re the Numidian. I’m taking you to the so-called ludus this morning.” Ursus spoke Latin like a native Roman, but his tunic was nowhere near as fine as the one the majordomo wore.

“I’m ready,” Anazâr announced, for lack of anything else to say.

The majordomo smiled, tilting a disbelieving eyebrow at him. “I don’t think you are,” he replied, but then shrugged and continued on before Anazâr had a chance to reply. “Ursus will walk you through the streets. Once there, you will have full authority, and direct him as your assistant. You will report to the dominus every evening. If this arrangement results in any squabbling, it will go badly for both of you. Best to resolve any disagreements before they reach the dominus.”

Anazâr was taken aback, at first, that the majordomo would think he needed such a warning, but then Ursus snorted derisively and he understood.

“Don’t step too far from my side,” warned Ursus as they walked through the red doors onto the quiet street. “You get stopped, you’ll need me to vouch for you. And I’ll follow your lead at the ludus, but don’t you forget I’m a free man. I’ll be going home every night to a wife I bought with my own damn money while you’ll be sleeping like a dog on the warehouse floor.”

“Understood,” said Anazâr. As much time as he might spend trying to stay on Marianus’s good side, as much time as he might spend training the gladiatrices, he would spend the same tending to Ursus’s ego, tiptoeing around the shifting boundaries of freedman and slave. “I hope you won’t forget that I could kill you within two heartbeats, armed or not, and would do just that at the command of the dominus. Watch me as I train, and you’ll learn a thing or two yourself.”

“Fair enough. I won’t cause problems. The house of Marianus has my full loyalty. They’re riding high on Fortune’s wheel, and I along with them. The old master won favor with Augustus in the war, got into the equestrian order, and married his son to a senator’s daughter before he died. The new master is just as good as a born eques and keeps a tight hand on the business, too. They say he has eyes like a wolf, you know, for the color, and because no one fools him. He’s a strong man.”

“He struck me as such. But . . .”

“But what? Don’t talk shit about your betters.”

“But he’s over there, throwing up behind that pillar.”

Ursus jerked his head in the direction Anazâr pointed, anger giving way to disgust. “By Hercules. That’s a Lucius Marianus all right, but not the master. It’s his brother Felix.”

The same toga, but smudged with dirt and wine stains and a few other spots of more questionable origins. The same dark hair, short, but with an undeniable curl. Eyes of a wolf—of a very drunk wolf. But yes, now that Ursus had pointed it out, the man currently clutching at the pillar for support and wiping his mouth was younger, maybe even a decade or so, than the master. His face ruddy with drink but soft, with a fresher complexion uncarved by frown lines. Handsome, but without even an ounce of his brother’s dignity.

“Should we help him home?”

“We’re on important business, and the fool hasn’t seen us yet. Keep moving. He’ll stumble back there eventually.”

No point in arguing. Anazâr cast one last look over his shoulder, saw that Felix was indeed already weaving his way in the general direction of the Marianus house, and resumed his pace.

They walked down the Palatine Hill until the buildings grew higher and jostled each other chaotically. Vendors readied their carts for the day’s commerce and called to each other in a stew of languages.

“What place is this?” Anazâr asked.

“The southern Aventine Hill. Marianus owns a few warehouses here. Half of one of them was turned into the ludus.” Anazâr must have paused, or shown surprise, because Ursus waved a hand in circles, the gesture of a man looking for words of explanation. “He didn’t set out to do this. They were all left to him in a will. Personally, I don’t understand the appeal. I’ve seen women fight naked in a whorehouse, and that’s a shitload of fun, but the idea is for them to be serious at it. Perhaps even fight men and hope to win. Waste of good snatch, that’s what I think. The old trainer—contracted from a real ludus, like you—did what he could, but . . . well, you’ll see.”

“Where were they bought?”

“A batch from Gallia, all Gaul women except for three Germans. Two from a Bithynian trader: an Aethiopian and a Sarmatian. The last being the most expensive, for obvious reasons.”

A Sarmatian. Maybe this wouldn’t be a lost cause, after all. “Good. But will she take orders? I’ve heard they—”

“Eat testicles for breakfast, eh? Well, that’s your problem. Sometimes she will, sometimes she won’t. But if she was as savage as the rest, she wouldn’t have been taken alive. Anyway, that’s . . .” He looked down at his fingers, curling and straightening them seemingly at random. “Thirteen together. No, fourteen. That’s right. There’s one more, who wasn’t bought at all. A real Roman citizen who killed her husband. The evil bitch should have been thrown to the beasts for a crime like that, but the magistrate sentenced her to slavery instead.”

And now she was Anazâr’s problem.

No. It would do him no good thinking like that. She was his ticket to freedom. They all were.

They walked in silence for a while, until the acrid smells wafting from dye vats announced their arrival in the textile district.

“It’s here,” said Ursus. “This warehouse. And that’s Quintus, the night guard. Wake up, Quintus, you lazy whoreson, the new trainer’s here!”

“Go fuck yourself. I wasn’t sleeping. Was I sleeping?” Quintus, a man of massive build with a stubble of sandy hair and puffy eyes, shrugged his shoulders, then gestured at Anazâr. “Wait, he’s a slave.”

Ursus spat to one side. “You figured it out! What possibly could have given him away? Of course he’s a slave, you fool, just like the old one. Unbar the door.”

“Cyrenaicus the Numidian,” Anazâr said by way of introduction. Quintus grunted as he drew back the two massive black iron bolts that barred the warehouse door.

“I’ve seen you fight before. A thraex—I remember now. Well, good luck.” Door unbarred, Quintus made as if to hand a key to Ursus, but jerked back at the last moment to slap it into Anazâr’s hand instead.

It might be useful to remember that Ursus had poor reflexes, Anazâr decided as he closed his fist around the heavy, three-pronged key.

Time slowed—doorways often had that magic about them. Ursus snarled. The thud as Quintus kicked the door open spurred Anazâr into action, and he stalked into the warehouse with no hesitation, leaving Ursus no choice but to bob along in his wake. The threshold: a fulcrum across which their balance of power tipped.

In fact, the whole world seemed to go careening off balance.

He bent one knee almost to the bricks while leaning aside. The missile went hurtling over his shoulder to clatter against the wall behind him.

“What the fuck?” Ursus roared, forgetting himself and rushing forward while Anazâr took stock of the situation.

“Good aim,” remarked Anazâr. His mind had caught up with the movement of his body. Someone in the darkness beyond had thrown a jagged chunk of wood at him.

“That was the Sarmatian, masters, and no one else! And she’s out of things to throw, I promise!” Whoever shouted had excellent Latin; better than his own but still not quite Roman. A hint of please don’t punish us all hung in the desperation of the plea. That she’d sell out one of her own was very telling of the work Anazâr had ahead of him.

His eyes adjusted to the dimness. They were shackled along the length of a single chain—had apparently lain shackled all night on rough blankets next to reeking latrine buckets. His old cell at the ludus was palatial in comparison. Bile rose in his throat at the thought of women kept this way, but he pushed it back. His wife was a woman—these were gladiators, and he’d need to treat them as such if they were to have any chance of survival.

“There’s the Sarmatian bitch,” shouted Ursus, pointing at one who was crouching in a corner like an animal, but not in fear. Long dark hair matted in filthy tangles obscured her face, and she laughed. “Should I throw that bucket of piss on her to teach her a lesson?”

“No,” Anazâr said. “Stand back. Who among you speaks Latin?”

Shadowy forms stirred. A woman with skin much darker than his own raised her hand. “I, Amanikhabale, was the one who warned you, Dominus.”

Dominus. He quelled the urge to look behind him. I am he. “You sell out your sisters so easily?” Anazar chided.

Her bold face fell for a moment, but she recovered quickly. “My people are known for learning, Dominus, a quality which could be of great advantage to you. Provided with tablet and stylus, I would quickly write you a detailed report of the food supplies, physical condition, and fighting ability of our motley group of—”

“I don’t read, and I’ll form my own impressions. Step back. Who else?”

“I am the Roman,” said another, as large and broad-shouldered as the Aethiopian—thank the gods they all appeared to have been chosen for size—but shrinking in on herself, barely standing. She didn’t even say her name.

“I am Venatrix, the Gaul.” Her name meant huntress, but she looked more like a shepherdess, stolid and accustomed to patient waiting. Hair that if clean might be that golden color common among her people.

More women raised their hands after her and repeated their names, all mythological or warrior names no doubt assigned earlier that year. A Diana, a Penthesilea, an Atalanta. Some of them spoke in such a heavy Gallic accent that their Latin would be minimal, at best. Venatrix could translate, in that case.

“Those are the Germans,” said Ursus, gesturing to the right of Amanikhabale the Aethiopian. “I keep them chained apart. They don’t mix well, and they don’t speak Latin. Nobody knows their jabbering.” The three didn’t look different from the Gauls, except they stood closely together and looked directly toward him, not downward, eyes steely and lips tight.

Anazâr imagined that the Aethiopian would have learned much of their “jabbering” by now, if she was as clever as she claimed. But she stayed silent. Holding back in hopes of a more beneficial opportunity?

“I will speak slowly, and I will wait for this to be translated, and then I will speak it again,” Anazâr said, beginning his breath from deep in his chest so that his words exploded into the air and echoed from the high brick walls. “My name is Cyrenaicus the Numidian. I am here on the order of Marianus to train you as gladiatrices. Everything I do will serve that purpose. Everything. I am not here to punish you or rape you. I’ve fought in the arena and I will teach you to do the same. To fight, to kill, to win. What I teach you in these months will save your lives and those of your sisters. Since your lives are in the balance, I will not be lax in matters of discipline. But I will not be needlessly cruel.”

One of the Gauls raised her hand again, and Anazâr nodded curtly at her. “If my fighting bad, the master sell me?” she asked.

Ursus moved closer to whisper harshly into his ear. “The old trainer already checked that. Rule is, they go to the arena either way: gladiatrices or lion bait. Otherwise they’ll all fight like shit so they’ll get sold for whores and live.”

Anazâr had already figured as much. “Nothing has changed,” he proclaimed, and then tried to disguise the sympathy in his voice with savage finality: “You have no choice.”

Just as I have no choice.

“A question from Rhakshna Roxolania, oh master-who-is-slave,” shouted the Sarmatian in a strange, guttural Greek. “When can I kill some fucking Romans?”

“Two months,” said Anazâr. “Next question?”

# # #

The scant light from the few high windows obscured the sun’s passage, leaving the cavernous interior of the warehouse in perpetual rank-smelling twilight. I am a master in Hades, thought Anazâr more than once that day.

He could do little training. After unchaining the women, he and Ursus saw to their breakfast, and then there was the unavoidable matter of the buckets. He’d tried to organize a line passing to the sewer outside, only to have it break down into a German-Gaul shoving match where filth spilled across the floor as the Sarmatian paced and howled curses.

By the time the sun went down, he’d memorized all their names, judged their strength by having them lift stone weights, checked them for wounds and sores, and taken each alone (save Rhakshna) for a walk around the warehouse in the fresh air, for which they were all probably grateful, even if not all of them were quick to show it.

The Aethiopian was the last. She linked her arm around his elbow and walked as if they were lovers, smiling to passersby. “Can you even read the letters across your forehead?” she asked.

“I know enough,” he growled back at her. “I know what they mean.”

“That’s not the same as being able to read, but fine. What was it like, running away? Being captured again?”

“The first was easy. I’m a horseman. I stole a horse and rode far. But it was winter, and I couldn’t keep it alive, so they found me starving on the road.” He’d been so far gone with the hunger and the cold and the lashing that the pain of the tattoo had barely registered, until he woke up the next morning and scratched and scratched until he bled all over again and screamed and scratched at his bloody forehead some more. Details, details.

The weather now was a perfectly fresh Roman spring. Cool breeze, but no need for a cloak.

“I could teach you to read, you know. That could increase your value to your master. I’d ask for nothing in return, in the beginning.”

In the beginning. He could find no fault in her quest for advantage, of course, and perhaps they could establish an allegiance along the way. “We’ll speak at breakfast tomorrow. I’d like to know everything you can tell me about the reign of the old trainer—what he did that worked, and didn’t. I’ll try to bring a tablet and stylus.” He wrinkled his nose. “And most definitely soap and oil. Ursus should not have neglected that so badly.”

“He’s a pig. No better than your pig predecessor. You’d do well to be rid of him, if you hope to change things here.”

“You overstep your boundaries,” Anazâr warned.

“I’ll act more deferentially around the other women, but I propose we establish our relationship upon the most pragmatic of foundations. You’re in over your head. You need me. The only one of us who can fight is the Sarmatian, and she’ll vault the wall and start killing the audience if given half the chance. Examine your options from the outside, all of them, as wisely as possible, and I’ll keep you informed from the inside.”

They’d made a full circuit. As he led Amanikhabale back into the warehouse, he saw that the sun had fully sunk behind the row of warehouses to the left. It was time to return for his report.

“Tuck the ladies in for the night?” asked Ursus, rattling the long chain he would thread through their shackles. The ladies. Two words, but they were filled with a giant weight of sarcasm and contempt.

“Yes,” he hissed through clenched teeth. Amanikhabale may have spoken out of turn, but she was right about Ursus. Not that Anazâr could do anything about it. He addressed himself to the women. “Vale, gladiatrices.”

“Vale,” they murmured in a hesitant chorus of discordant accents.

Vale my tits and ass,” yelled the Sarmatian. Amanikhabale, who obviously counted Greek among her languages, fought back a crooked smile.

# # #

from Hearts on Fire Reviews

This book was beautifully written . . . I can’t recommend this flawless book highly enough.

from Sinfully Sexy Book Reviews

Outstanding book . . . [F]ull of intrigue, power plays, deception, gladiator battles, love and murder . . . [I]n my top 5 books of the year . . . 

from The Jeep Diva

[E]xceptionally written . . . Mark of the Gladiator demonstrates that love truly can conquer and persevere.

from Delighted Reader

[S]o fascinating that I couldn’t put [the book] down . . . [A] wonderful read that I can recommend . . . 

from LeAnn's Book Reviews

[A] history lesson, a murder mystery and a romance all wrapped up in one great book. I enjoyed [Mark of the Gladiator] from start to finish.

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