(Note: If you require content warnings, please click to scroll to the bottom of the page.)
Chapter 12: Freemen
Kirin – The Arena Venaris: Lorar
It was a perfect day to watch men die.
From the vantage of Marianus’s senate box, the arena sands were a field of pale gold. Sunlight ravaged the metal helmets of the soldiers stationed between the crowded rows of spectators, drying what remained of the spring flooding from blanched steps. If Kirin hadn’t known better, he’d have assumed Marianus had made a sacrifice to Fulgis to ensure the good weather.
It smelled of heat and humidity—the promise of summer, and the threat of more rain.
Beneath the painted plaster arches of the tunnels the gladiators would be waiting to fight. The scratch of sandal and boot against the sand as men shuffled restlessly on the benches, and stink of sweat and hot piss clogging the air were as vivid as if Kirin were waiting with them.
Marianus’s wife, Nuna, sat to Kirin’s left, straining her neck, and pointing each time a face poked from the shadowed bars across the arena.
Nuna nudged Kirin with her elbow and leaned in so that her bare shoulder brushed his upper arm. “That one—he must be Chadras. Is he as handsome as they say?”
A stray curl of black hair popped free of Nuna’s towering hair. She twirled the strand around her finger. Tiny pink flowers still attached to their vines and leaves formed a living cage around her locks, a rogue leaf tickling her ear.
Kirin snorted at Nuna’s comment about Chadras. If he were handsome, Kirin had never noticed. From this distance, he couldn’t even tell if the smudge of skin past the bars was a face, let alone Chadras’s specifically. “He’s a Masseni fighter,” was all Kirin said in reply.
Nuna smiled in amusement. Her pale cheeks were flush, or perhaps that was only her heavy facepaint. “Now don’t be jealous. You’re even more handsome than your portraits.”
Kirin tried not to look at her—she was very pretty and at least twenty years Marianus’s junior. Too beautiful to be easily ignored. Kirin had never been quite this close to her before, and Ydelka’s warning about her echoed in his head. “I’m surprised you’ve seen any of my portraits, Hera. They’ve mostly been painted over by now.”
After Kirin had become Marianus’s bodyguard, the faces of new fighters had started to decorate the walls of the buildings around the Arena Venaris. The fidelia had weak memories and fickle loins.
“My husband will commission new ones. Won’t you, Mari?” Nuna leaned forward so that her loose strand of hair dangled onto Marianus’s shoulder.
Marianus was hemmed in by Tarkis Murinus on one side and the new head of Yellow Faction—Longnose, to nobody’s surprise—on the other. He barely faced his beautiful wife. “The Pater in waiting must do better than that, don’t you think? Kirin isn’t a gladiator anymore. He’s a hero thrice over.”
The air was hot and dry, but Kirin felt a chill. He might be a hero for saving Yakov, but for saving Marianus? They ought to crucify him and throw the body in one of the canals. One of the sewagey ones.
“How do you like that, Kirin?” Marianus continued. “A hero.”
His words were words of praise, but Kirin didn’t miss the thorn beneath them. Marianus wasn’t pleased about what had happened in the curia, no matter the public face he wore before his fellow senators. It would have been better for him had Yakov died.
“Thank you, Heron. Your praise gives me courage.” Kirin didn’t have proof that murder had been Marianus’s intent, but he barely needed it. The man Kirin had seen wielding the sword that had snapped that rope had conveniently disappeared, and someone had certainly arranged for Basimus Drenda to be lured away.
What had happened to Drenda, Kirin had no idea. He might be under house arrest with Yakov. Since Tarkis had ordered Yakov taken away, Kirin hadn’t seen either of them. In fact, Kirin had barely been left alone himself. His days had been packed full of unusually pointless duties that cut short the little free time he would have otherwise used to investigate.
“A proper mural.” Marianus leaned toward Tarkis. “Don’t you think, Pater? Kirin, the Ripper of Feis! A warrior exemplar for our fine soldiers sailing south. A man of Lorar.”
The swell of pride that filled Kirin’s chest was followed swiftly by shame. A man of Lorar. Words he’d longed to hear pass Marianus’s lips. With a smile and a simple statement, Marianus Rufus could validate all Kirin had believed himself to be. He could make Kirin real.
After learning what Kirin had about the senator, he shouldn’t want that anymore.
Marianus must have recognized Kirin’s hesitancy. “I know you’re upset about Ydelka,” Marianus soothed, “I understand. I was fond of her myself. I grew her practically from a babe. This is no time for indecisiveness, Kirin. Lorar needs men like you, honest men, men the people can look up to. Don’t let a barbarian’s death be the end of you, no matter how handsome she was.”
Kirin’s cheek twitched. He hadn’t been thinking of Ydelka at all and it rankled. But Marianus couldn’t have been so sly as to mention her to hurt him, could he? Or maybe he could. Recognizing one terrible truth about Marianus had opened a floodgate of ungenerous suspicions. “I know my place, Heron.”
This time, Marianus leaned back, locking his gaze with Kirin’s, words a hiss. “Do you? I hope so.” He laughed as though he were only joking. “Otherwise I might be worried. You looked so comfortable swinging on my nephew’s sarcophagus in the arms of that Yellow coward.”
Kirin tensed his jaw. “I know my place, Heron,” he repeated.
Marianus waved his hand, snorting. “After today it will make no matter.”
“What?” A grim weight settled on Kirin’s shoulders. The senator had something planned. Something to do with Yakov. Kirin glanced back at the sand and the brown figure beyond the bars. The curia couldn’t have tried and sentenced Yakov already, could it?
He sat forward, but Marianus was already deep in chatter again with Tarkis and Longnose. “Why after today?”
No one answered.
Longnose reached past Marianus to hand him a cup of wine and the Pater nodded his thanks. None of them cared to answer the questions of a slave.
Nuna looped her arm in Kirin’s and drew him back against his seat.
“What style of fight is this?” Kirin asked her.
Her eyes widened briefly in shock at his boldness, but then she broke into a smile. She giggled. “I’m not sure; he refuses to tell me. But my husband says it’s going to be a special one. Aren’t you excited?”
Damn. Damn. Damn.
Two levels below the senatorial box, the trumpeters emerged from beneath the overhang and blew the first blasts to signal the start of the spectacle. A cheer arose from seats packed thousands strong—so many people, more than even Kirin’s last fight. Word of Marianus’s victory over the Patership had drawn a crowd.
Marianus stood up, lifting one hand gracefully. The steady murmurs of the audience diminished, until all that could be heard was the thump of men marching from beneath the stadium and onto the arena sand.
A lion growled.
Kirin stood up, only to be hauled back down by Nuna. “Are you mad?” She whispered. “Sit and listen. My husband speaks.”
Marianus’s broad back partially blocked Kirin’s view and cast him in shadow. “Welcome, men of Lorar! It is my pleasure to provide for you this entertainment in honour of the blessed Patership and my beloved nephew, Thanos Rufus. Thanos Rufus was a proud man of Lorar, a good man of the fidelia, and one of your own. He was slaughtered in lands far from here, using methods favoured only by rats. But we will not forget him, and he will not be left lonely in the afterlife. We Lorai are not animals, and we do not kill like animals. It is for this reason that our tribute this evening places weapons in the hands of the men we would avenge ourselves upon. Rats though they may be, our Masseni prisoners will not meet their ends defenseless, but bearing the arms of their nation, to choose bravery or cowardice as they like.”
Masseni prisoners. Kirin’s thudding heartbeat slowed. It was only a few noxii, sent out to die. Yakov was safe under house arrest and Kirin was paranoid.
“Though my aurati,” Marianus continued, “are on cowardice.”
Marianus relinquished the floor to a chorus of laughter and jeers at his barb.
A slave walked up beside Kirin, offering a cup of wine on a tray. Kirin grabbed the cup happily, drained it in one gulp, then handed the empty back.
Beside Kirin, Nuna whispered to him past the back of her hand. “He’s good, my husband, isn’t he?”
Kirin nodded. Marianus was good, very good.
Nuna bit her lip, big eyes fixed on those below. “He’s planning an even greater spectacle for when he becomes Pater. There are going to be ships and everything! He’s got hold of some Masseni sailors to work the boats, and men from all over designing a water-stage. It’s going to demonstrate the battle for the Helit, between Lorar and Kemassen. The Lorai will win of course—”
A cheer went up all around them. Thousands of feet and fists beat the floor of the arena. A group of men were being led onto the sand.
Kirin fidgeted in his seat.
“Let me through.” On the spectator’s ring below the senatorial box, a skinny brown man was pressed up against two soldiers who seemed to be barring his way.
Yakov had escaped.
The Yellower shoved the soldiers blocking his path. “This whole display is a perversion!” He spun around, addressing the audience members nearest him. “Marianus Rufus has lied to you.” He held up one scrawny arm, thrusting a document of some kind at the sky. “And here is proof. Proof he’s counting on Hadrianus’s treachery—proof he plans to take the Patership from the fidelia.”
Kirin hauled his arm free of Nuna’s and stood to get a better view.
She chirped in surprise, but Kirin ignored her.
The audience around Yakov were growing testy. A woman snatched at his robe and pulled as though to stop him blocking the arena. Yakov slapped her hand away.
A man hissed at him, and someone threw a round flatbread, which smacked against his robe.
“Too busy are you? To listen?” Yakov spat. “You don’t want to listen to the truth, you just want to watch men bleed.”
No. Yakov, no.
“How did he get out? asked Tarkis. The Pater inched on doddery feet toward the low wall of the senatorial box. He was trembling an awful lot. “What’s he saying?”
“Nothing of significance.” Marianus smiled. He snatched a cup of wine from the slave beside him and raised it in a toast. He didn’t face Kirin as he spoke. “It’s been a rough journey this election, but I believe I am going to enjoy myself today. You made a mess of that riot at the senate house, Kirin, but all things come right in time.”
“He got out,” Tarkis muttered to himself.
Marianus laughed. “Don’t bother yourself, Pater. You think that Yellow idiot escaped on his own? I let him out. If he’s so intent on serving the people, let the people decide what’s to become of him.”
Kirin jerked from his seat and hurried to the rail of the box. “Yakov!” Kirin waved to him. “Get out of here. He’s setting you up! Yakov!”
For a moment, Kirin had his attention, but the horns blasted across the arena a second time and Yakov turned, watching the sand.
“Get out of the way!” yelled one of the men whose view Yakov was still stubbornly blocking.
In the centre of the arena, a line of seven men holding curved blades stood awkwardly in a line. Their Masseni armour swamped them, ill-fitting and poorly made. Pretend crowns sat upon their heads. They were noxii, not fighters. It was obvious from their clumsy stances.
A man in Lorai armour dragged a Masseni woman along behind him, her sex evident by the mock-breasts woven into the fabric of her reed-armour. She was scrawny, either quite young or very old, though from so far one couldn’t always tell. She, too, bore one of the false crowns.
The soldier stopped in front of the line of Masseni. He gripped his prisoner’s arms together at their wrists and hauled them over her head, showing her off. A gag was tied around her mouth.
“Himala of Kemassen! The bitch-queen! Witch of the southern shore!” The soldier gave Himala a shove and moved onto the next—a fat, dusky lout with a heavy beard. “Aesmun! King Rat! King of all the Masseni!”
“Priscilla?!” Yakov called out from below. “Let go of me!”
The soldier marched down the line of noxii and introduced the next fighter. “Astarius, the crown prince!”
“Get the fuck off me! Priscilla!” Yakovius was struggling with the guards who’d blocked him earlier, but they had his arms pinned behind him. One of the guards clamped his hand across Yakov’s mouth.
“Aurelius, perverse lover of men!” yelled the man on the sands.
Yakov was screaming at anyone who came close, yelling at the very audience who clawed at him to pull him into one of the seats.
Marianus thumped the back of his chair with his fist. “Get on with it! Give us some noise to drown the sympathizer out!”
“Someone stop them!” Below, Yakovius broke free. He threw himself down the steps toward the arena, pulled and prodded by those around him.
What had got Yakov so wound up? What was happening?
“Let them go!” Yakov yelled. His voice was hoarse.
Longnose leaped from his seat, no longer meek at Marianus’s side, but loud as Yakov himself. “Traitor! Murderer! Spy! He wants to let the Masseni go! He killed Thanos! He tried to kill our Pater! Murderer!”
People were throwing objects—food, stones, whatever came to hand—at Yakov as he passed.
Below them all, on the sand of the arena, the soldier scurried inside one of the gated passageways that led beneath the arena. The creak of arena gates groaning open speared through the ruckus of the spectators.
The roar of a lion followed.
The crowd seemed to inhale as one.
Five in all, the lions stalked lazily onto the sand, lithe and deadly. The huddle of noxii knotted tighter, as if by making themselves smaller the lions might miss them.
It was pointless to fight. If the lions wouldn’t feed, fruitless to hide. The only release for the noxii would be a second smile drawn in red across their throats. If they were smart, and men rarely were, they’d avail themselves of the mercy of their swords.
The noxii crept slowly, but in the stands a jerky movement caught Kirin’s eye.
Yakov threw himself at the short lattice barrier that stood between him and the twenty-foot drop onto the arena sand. “Priscilla!”
A young man grabbed Yakov’s neckline and pulled him back.
Yakov was going to get himself killed.
Kirin vaulted over the side of senator’s box. His boots slammed against hard concrete, and he wobbled on the edge of one of the stairs, nearly slipping but catching himself.
A soldier stepped in front of him and unthinking, Kirin punched him square in the jaw. He grabbed the soldier’s sword and buried it in his guts. The body crumpled and Kirin hurried past it, ignoring the avalanche of spectators swallowing the space behind him in their rush to attend the dying soldier.
He jogged down the steps to the next level, almost to Yakov’s side. Almost. It was just like in the curia, only this time Kirin didn’t have to catch Yakov midair. It was simple. So simple. As long as Yakov didn’t leap into the arena and break every bone in his body like he for some reason was trying to do.
Spectators and guards alike spewed onto the steps, wedging Kirin in, but they weren’t after him, they were after Yakov.
Some of them had stones. Marianus must have armed them.
Kirin’s stomach dropped as a rock launched from the crowd and into the air. It thwacked the back of Yakov’s head. The Yellow senator stumbled and his grip on the barrier loosened. He slid down, his stare disturbingly vacant.
“Yakov!” The pressure of the milling bodies crushed Kirin from all sides.
“For Thanos!” Someone in the crowd yelled. “For Lorar!”
Kirin wrenched his arm free from the mob and elbowed a woman in the nose. It was so tight he couldn’t even swing his sword. Instead, he eased it to waist height and steadily cleared a path by prying out a space between Yakov’s attackers. A few spectators broke away, bleeding from hands or sides where they’d accidentally gripped Kirin’s blade.
“Get off him!” Kirin reached Yakov just as the mass overwhelmed the senator. He shoved his free hand past the thrashing, kicking bodies, patting the space where Yakov had been standing. “I said get off!”
The ring of men scattered, and Kirin swung his sword in a circular motion to keep them at a distance.
“I’ve got you—” Kirin turned, hand extended toward Yakov.
For a fleeting instant, before the mob rushed in again, Yakov’s dead, frozen eyes met his. A red-slicked crack split Yakov’s forehead straight down the middle.
Fuck. No. No, this wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. He’d saved Yakov before. The whole curia had watched him save Yakov. He had to have saved him again.
Kirin drew his hand to his head and rubbed his eyes, stumbling backwards. He must be wrong. If he cleared his vision, if he looked again, then Yakov would blink. Yakov would get up. Yakov would start yelling at Kirin to help him.
Like bees over honey, Yakov’s attackers subsumed him in a writhing mass.
Kirin searched the senator’s box for Tarkis, but the Pater was reclined in his seat. He wasn’t moving at all, as though he hadn’t even noticed what had happened to his Yellow counterpart. Both he and Marianus were entranced by the spectacle.
On the arena sands, the attendants poked at a reluctant lion with a trident, herding it toward the noxii. The other lions though—
Noble beasts, Yakov had called them.
The sounds of the arena: lions and spectators and mob—Marianus shouting incoherently with what sounded like glee. The Arena Venaris thundered with the vibrations of thousands of feet stomping against the concrete and wood floors. The fidelia bayed for the destruction of the playactors in the arena, as though they were watching the real king of Kemassen get torn apart, as though the war would be won from the arena floor.
Ringing in Kirin’s ear, like when Oran had slammed Kirin’s head against the side of the arena, strangled every other sound.
A woman with long, golden hair, dangling in the grass in her blue rubaki and the trees, the trees, the trees and the stomp of feet, turning like startled deer and screaming—
Kirin slapped the side of his head, over and over, walking in circles. The cacophony of the arena rushed back in, and when he looked, Yakov’s body was gone, the mob dispersed. Half the seats that had been packed with Marianus’s people sat cruelly empty. No witness remained to what had happened, and only stray stones lay on the ground, ringing a small stain that could have been blood. It could have been anything.
“Kill those fucking rats!” screamed Longnose from the box.
Kirin staggered to the barrier that Yakov had been so desperate to clamber over. What had he been yelling about? It had been more than just pity for the plight of some Masseni prisoners.
Then Kirin saw her: thin as a pole, with Yakov’s ugly nose.
It was the young woman who’d run out of Yakov’s house all those weeks ago. His daughter, dressed up in useless play-armour. Dressed as Himala. She waved her curved Masseni blade in front of her protectively, her back to the other prisoners.
The lions prowled in a tighter and tighter net around the noxii. Their starved, stringy bodies stepped almost in unison, tails swaying in a gentle, deadly dance.
The false Aesmun clamped his hands over Himala’s shoulders, fixing her in front of him as a human shield. She wriggled in his grasp, but he hugged her tight against him.
The booing of the audience thrummed like the voice of heaven.
Yakov’s daughter. He’d been trying to get to her, and it had killed him.
Kirin looked up at the senator’s box, where Tarkis and Marianus were still watching. If he could get Tarkis’s attention, the senator could put a stop to this.
“That’s no Massena in there―she’s a noble woman!” Kirin called. “She’s one of you! That’s a Lora woman!”
No one was listening. Tarkis was slumped in his chair, bored or sick.
If Kirin didn’t do something, no one would.
“Fucking Yakov.” Kirin hopped back up a few of the seats. “Fucking gods.” Maybe he hadn’t prayed enough, maybe that was his problem. Maybe he should have visited the priests more often, paid for sacrifices instead of whores.
The gods would have a sacrifice soon, one way or the other.
All the incentive he needed was the terrified look on that young woman’s face.
Kirin dashed down the steps and launched himself into the air. He hit the barrier, shocking out of himself. His feet scraped at the wood as he scrambled for purchase, and he knotted his fingers in the holes of the fence and pulled. His skin burned where the wood rubbed it, but he managed to heave himself to the top of the barrier. There were still twenty feet between him and the ground.
A hand clasped Kirin’s foot. It pulled. Kirin thudded back down. This was it. This was the end: trampled beneath the feet of a rioting audience or skewered on the sword of one of Marianus’s henchmen.
“Are you trying to help her?” A short, fat stranger held out his hand for Kirin to take.
Kirin let the man haul him to his feet. “Are you with Yakov?”
The man nodded. “Yes, I’m his slave—my name’s Falces. Drenda’s men have cleared the way outside the arena, but we need to get Priscilla off the sand. Jumping in like a hero is useless without a way out.” He whistled at someone behind him, and Kirin peered behind the slave.
There was a line of men behind the Yellow Faction senator, two of them carrying meat from one of the feasting rooms. Another pair of men propped a wooden ladder against the barrier.
Kirin leaned past them, watching the sands, tapping his leg with the flat of his sword. They didn’t have time.
Two more men climbed the ladder so they could lower a second onto the sand.
“I’ll go,” Kirin said, before anyone could argue otherwise.
As soon as the two Yellowers were back on solid ground, Kirin flung himself up the ladder. His vision spun as he half-climbed, half-dropped down the other side.
For the first time in months, Kirin’s feet hit the familiar dirt of the arena.
Sailors claimed that after months at sea the body swayed with every step on dry land. If that were true, for a gladiator it must be the opposite. After months away, Kirin’s feet had found home, and the fury of the Good Ones flowed through him as water flowed up the roots of trees.
Behind him, two of the Yellowers were hauling the meat they’d absconded with up the ladder.
Kirin didn’t have time to wait, but hopefully it’d buy them the time they needed to climb back up.
He turned and ran toward the huddle of noxii at the centre of the arena. As his feet smacked the earth, one of the lions turned skittish and leaped back several feet. Kirin had never fought a lion, or even seen one outside a cage. Hopefully they weren’t fast.
Cats were usually fast.
All eyes were on Kirin as he raced across the sand. He could feel the hopes of the noxii hooking in his skin with every footstep, and the confusion of the crowd rolling over him like flood water over pavement.
As he neared the noxii, he slowed.
Yakov’s daughter was straight ahead of him, still holding her weapon. Was she the only Lorai of the group? It was difficult to tell; they all looked foreign, even her. None of the rest were familiar though. Kirin had half-expected to find Kordelia and Yakov’s remaining two children alongside Priscilla.
She was shaking, her face puffy and tear-stained, the crude facepaint the arena attendants had slathered her with dripping down her cheeks. She looked like a wax sculpture melting in the sun.
The man playing King Aesmun met Kirin’s eyes. He pressed Priscilla closer against his chest, as tight as a child clutching their toy.
Kirin inched toward Priscilla, holding his stolen sword out to his side to warn off the lions while putting Aesmun at ease. “Priscilla! Do you remember me? Kirin? I’m your father’s friend. Falces sent me.”
One of the lions clipped away from the rest as though it had scented the meat. Hopefully the idiots hadn’t dropped it right beside the ladder.
“Do you remember?” Kirin prompted.
Priscilla’s eyes were unfocused, but she nodded. “Yes. Get me out of here.” She tried to pull away from Aesmun, but he gripped her even tighter.
A lion growled.
Priscilla slashed her curved blade down onto Aesmun’s arm, slicing through skin and muscle.
King Aesmun screamed and released her, blood welling in the long, thin wound.
Priscilla screeched and dropped the sword. She backed up against Kirin, staring at Aesmun.
The false king’s arm split wider as blood poured onto the sand.
Kirin didn’t waste time. He scooped his hands under Priscilla’s thin shoulders and lifted her into his arms.
The lions were pacing faster, walking more erratically. They jumped at every scream and every whimper that issued from the noxii. One of the beasts darted forward, swiping at one of the men. It leaped back, then pounced in again as its cousins circled tighter.
The noxii were a better distraction than the meat.
He knew when the lions had lunged by the screams that followed.
Priscilla clasped his neck tight, her long legs slung over his arms. She buried her face against his collarbone.
Marianus’s senatorial box was straight ahead. There was no chance he wasn’t watching Kirin. All Kirin could hope was that the Drenda household had prepared the way for him, and that Marianus wouldn’t try to stop Kirin when he had so vast an audience.
From the arena seats, the fidelia were a rumble of sound, their mood impossible to judge. Did they praise him for risking his life over a helpless woman, or did they scorn him for sparing one they saw as prey? All he cared about was reaching the ladder. When his hand finally grasped it and his boots hit the first rung, a shiver ran across his back.
Exhausted. He was exhausted.
Priscilla’s arms were lead around his neck and he carried her up and then down again in a kind of trance. Falces peeled her from Kirin’s arms and helped lower her to the ground, but Priscilla nearly fell again. Falces tried to steady her, but she brushed him off, reaching past him.
Kirin’s throat tightened. He glanced at the space where Yakov’s body had lain. “Hera,” Kirin started to say.
“We need to go,” Falces hushed, interrupting him. “We’ve got a litter waiting outside and the way is clear, but Marianus’s people won’t be distracted long.”
Kirin rested a hand on Priscilla’s upper arm and guided her after the rest of her father’s men. She walked only a few steps before fainting. Kirin bundled her into his arms and carried her the rest of the way.