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Chapter 3: Merchants
Kirin – Lorar: Marianus’s Litter
Kirin’s friends were all dead. Thanus, Trivius, Petro, even Bado—so much meat to be scraped from the arena floor. They’d be stripped of their armour and whatever possessions they’d had on them, their throats slit to ensure they were dead. Already, priests dressed as the Good Ones would be letting what remained of their blood and bottling it as a curative for the ailing wealthy. Themus would take their bodies to be buried in the common plot he’d purchased to honour his fallen, a memorial to his own generosity.
Kirin’s friends were all so much meat, and the man who’d butchered them sat flesh-to-flesh beside him inside Marianus’s litter, waiting for someone to give the order for the slaves to carry them wherever they were bound.
And for what? At first Kirin had thought Marianus wanted to meet the two fighters who’d survived today’s games, maybe even to punish Oran before the crowd. But the arena slaves had hastily shuffled them through the maze of passages beneath the arena seats, out one of the private exits, and shoved them without ceremony inside a litter.
His hearing still ebbed in and out like a tide—no, a vortex—swirling and echoing from when Oran had slammed his head against the side of the arena. When they’d been hauled from the sand, he’d barely been able to stand. Now, all that was keeping him from sliding off the bench inside the litter was the force of Oran’s body pressed in against his left side, and the wooden wall to his right.
Dust-caked and bloody-lipped, Oran wasn’t much to look at himself, but at least he could hold himself upright.
He’d rather have died in the arena with Thanus and the others than disgrace himself by collapsing in front of Marianus.
Kirin could almost feel his fingers close around Oran’s ugly rat neck, could nearly hear the crack of Oran’s head against the back of the litter wall, could all but see his brains smeared across the wood.
But he couldn’t do it.
Senator Marianus Rufus, leader of Red Faction, sat across from them, squashed in beside a foreign-looking woman in armour.
Up close, Marianus’s face was broad and fatherly, strong-jawed with a close-cut beard. Kirin’s gaze swept down the senator’s muscled forearms. He was built like a former general ought to be, no matter his age, and there was still something of the general in the set of his shoulders, in his clever brown eyes, in his tan olive skin. He must spend time outside, even in retirement. His pristine white toga, rimmed with purple and gold, was nearly blinding next to the grime that covered Kirin and Oran.
Kirin averted his gaze, but inside the confines of the litter there was nowhere to look, and he was forced eye-to-eye with the strange woman tucked against Marianus.
It wasn’t her Lorai armour—women fighters were unusual, but they did exist. No, it was the rest of her. Her tan brown skin and straight black hair were common enough, but her creaseless eyelids and high-set cheekbones were like nothing he’d seen. Her sloped nose, round at its tip, was delicate as a rosebud, but everything else about her was handsome rather than pretty.
Kirin shifted, restless in the stationary litter. Ogling her firm body made him itch to move, despite his dizziness. A dangerous combination.
She sat rigid and straight, like a bowstring pulled taut, every inch of her whittled to a weapon, no hint of feminine daintiness save for the subtle softness of her face, her full lips. She was short, compact, but even seated, she was clearly dangerous.
“A fine fight,” said Marianus, “don’t you think, Ydelka? A thousand times worthy of their reward.” At his glance she smiled, eyes trained all the while on Kirin and Oran.
Marianus’s words rang painfully in Kirin’s ears, so much that even reward was difficult to focus on.
“Up!” called Ydelka, and Kirin shuddered.
Marianus’s litter jostled as it was lifted, and sick bubbled in Kirin’s throat. He wrenched his pinned hand from his side, gripped the opening of the litter, and closed his eyes.
The common chatter of the city flooded Kirin’s skull as they emerged onto a busier street, metal clanging on metal from the smithies near the arena. His vision spun. He swallowed. Against all sense, the voices hurt more than the clanging.
“Are you unwell?” Marianus asked.
The great Marianus had spoken to him, a simple slave. And here Kirin was in all his glory: gore-splattered and dirt-stained. “I’m well, Heron.” He tried to grin, but it came out a cringe as another wave of nausea hit him. “No gutless Anouti rat could best a man of Lorar.”
He avoided looking Oran’s way—why give him the satisfaction of Kirin’s acknowledgment?
Ydelka smirked. She stretched out her lean arms with the finesse of a thief. “That gutless rat just painted the arena walls with the blood of your teammates. If I were you, I’d think twice about calling myself a man of Lorar.”
“As though a man of Lorar couldn’t be defeated?” Oran quipped, lighthearted, like this was Themus’s training grounds and they were trading friendly barbs.
Like he hadn’t just slaughtered nearly ten men in quick succession.
Kirin longed to punch that smile off his slimy face. But love or loathe it, Oran was Marianus’s guest. Oran was Marianus’s to deal with.
Kirin bowed his head at the senator, showing him the deference he was owed—the deference Oran perverted by his very presence. “Heron,” he began, using the honorific due a man of Marianus’s rank. “This man is a dog. I don’t know what you plan for us, but he should be dealt with quickly. He’s no real gladiator—he’s new to my lanista, didn’t say a word to anyone until today. He spat in the faces of the fidelia when he ignored their wishes and killed Petro. He has no love for Lorar. He shits on our ways.”
Kirin looked up in confusion. “Heron?”
Marianus met his eyes. “The fidelia doesn’t always know what it wants. From where I sat, Young Petro shit himself crawling across the sand and begging for his life. Is that the death of a man of Lorar? Is that a man who fought well enough to earn the fidelia’s mercy?”
All the blood was draining from Kirin’s face—he could feel it rushing away as the shame rushed in. He wanted to argue, say it hadn’t been like that, that Petro had been quick on his feet, but . . . had he been a good fighter? Could he have ever been a good fighter? Had he not deserved mercy?
Kirin swallowed his protest. Marianus had seen what he’d seen. It wasn’t the senator’s duty to imagine the scene from Kirin’s vantage. “Apologies, Heron.”
“Never apologize.” Marianus smiled. “You can speak freely here. In my household, I expect it. But I grant Feralius here the same courtesy. You’ve earned your places, fought till your blood spattered the sand and holy sweat poured across your foreheads.”
Feralius—the name the announcer had given Oran. The sound of it on Marianus’s tongue was like poison on the lips of a lover.
Then the rest of what he’d said sank in. Marianus had spoken as though Kirin were part of his household. As though they both were.
“Your household, Heron?” Kirin dared.
“I’ll take you both.” Marianus’s arms tensed as he spoke, hands curled to fists. “An Anouti rat has as much to teach us as a Feislander bear.”
An Anouti rat and a Feislander bear. The only Feislander on Kirin’s team was Caefrith. Kirin was a man of Lorar.
“And this Anouti rat will serve you well,” said Oran.
Kirin had missed something, somehow. Something Oran already seemed to understand.
Against Kirin’s arm, Oran’s skin burned hot and slick. His voice was the grate of iron on iron.
Kirin couldn’t fight shooting a glare at the man next to him, the man who feigned honour in the face of the honoured and pissed on everything Kirin held dear.
“You’re taking . . . us . . . into your household, Heron?” Was that the reward Themus had spoken of before the fight? Kirin had asked about the prize money, but the call to arms had interrupted Themus’s answer. He’d been talking about Marianus. Was that why Oran had done what he had? All to impress the senator?
“I’ve paid that lanista already,” the senator confirmed. He spread his hands to a chorus of canal boatmen calling to each other from outside and the splash of water as the litter traversed one of the city’s famed bridges. The pungent stink of the river Delpha was almost a sound in itself. “I give you the opportunity to accept a place as my honoured bodyguards.”
Kirin’s ear throbbed to the beat of his heart. Every patch of skin itched, every muscle twitched, every hair on his body seemed suddenly aware of how sticky and messy it was with sweat and blood.
This was what Marianus summoned him for.
To give Kirin the opportunity to accept. To give Kirin the opportunity to make a choice. Kirin had never in his life imagined such a thing. Kirin was a slave. People rarely even asked if he wanted beer or wine. To be ushered inside Marianus’s litter, to be carried to the very heart of Marianus’s home with all his fine things, his noble walls, and be asked—to be not only a prized warrior, but bodyguard to the Red Faction leader, to the man who would be Pater to the whole of Lorar come the next election? Neither slave nor citizen could refuse. It was more than an honour; it was as if the great god Lorius himself had reached down his hand and tapped Kirin’s shoulder.
“Of course I accept.”
“As do I,” said Oran, ruining it.
Outside, the canal disappeared from view as the litter slipped like a fish onto the wide, paved square of Lorar’s forum. The spiraling senate house was just out of view. Kirin couldn’t believe that one day soon he would march inside the curia’s pillared entrance, not as the lowly slave of a lanista, but as Marianus’s man. Marianus’s guardian.
Kirin had been saving for his freedom so long. He’d never thought there could be something better.
Marianus clapped a hand on the woman’s leg. “Look at his face! Eager, isn’t he, Ydelka?”
Ydelka smiled at him. Suddenly she seemed much lighter, prettier, the flirtatious bow of her lips reminding him of the girls he dallied with at home in Themus’s training grounds. She cocked her head at an angle, appraising him. “He can be as eager as he likes. Doesn’t make him good at what he does.”
Marianus threw his hands up in the air and shook his head at Kirin conspiratorially, smiling the whole time. “Ah, but you didn’t see my boy in the arena.”
My boy. Like Marianus knew Kirin. Like Marianus had marked him.
“He’s hardly a boy,” said Ydelka. This time Marianus ignored her.
Kirin swallowed. A piercing tone, high-pitched like a whistle, rang inside his head. He rubbed his ear, but the tone lingered, joined now by a second, even higher hum. Marianus was talking, but it was too much to parse his words. He leaned back, letting his muscles unknot, letting the moment wash over him. On the forum pavement, a merchant swept spilled grain from a busted barrel.
On the arena floor, they’d be scraping clean the bloodied sand.
Masons and plumbers on the street struggled to drain the water from the road where the spring floods had damaged the stonework. If only they could mop up the water swimming in Kirin’s skull.
“She doesn’t look like she needs our help,” Oran said, in answer to words that had been swallowed within the vortex of Kirin’s ringing ear.
“Ydelka can only do so much,” said Marianus. “Having a pair of former gladiators as my companions will send a message to those Yellow Faction cowards. Marianus Rufus doesn’t play games, and he’s not ashamed of our nation’s strength.”
“And every girl wants a day off,” said Ydelka, watching him. She slipped a dagger from its sheath at her belt and twirled it skillfully. She’d made sure Kirin saw.
If his ear didn’t hurt so much, he’d have flirted back. A wild woman like her—he’d take a tumble with her in a heartbeat.
If Marianus allowed it.
She must be a slave herself, yet she bantered with the senator like she was his equal. And there was no visible brand on her, no collar. Kirin had a few years on her at most, and Marianus must be nearing sixty. She could be a daughter or granddaughter, whelped on a slave.
Between her armour, her skill with the dagger, and Oran’s words, she must at least be part of Marianus’s retinue.
It was difficult to focus on choosing his words, but Kirin wasn’t going to let Oran dominate the conversation and upstage him. “You’ll be fighting alongside us?”
“Like I said.” Ydelka sheathed her dagger. Her warm expression cooled. “And I really don’t care if that’s a problem for you. I’ve been at his side since I was a child. If you make trouble for me, it’s not me Marianus will sell at market.”
“Is it men or is it chickens that I’ve purchased today?” Marianus’s words snapped, harsh as a knife cutting a throat. He scoffed, wringing his hands as though to remove an invisible residue. “The squabbling stops now, before your feet touch the floor of my domus. You think I have time to waste curating your bickering?”
Oran’s head was bowed, dark brown eyes staring at the floor. Ydelka occupied herself scanning the street and the endless crush of people squeezing up and down the road. The stalls and storefronts buzzed like insects’ nests.
For the rest of the ride, he let the bob of the heads outside the litter lull him into something like sleep. Eventually, the litter stopped before a private residence. Four slaves stood on the steps leading to the ostium, waiting with their heads bowed and hands clasped. None of them moved to help Marianus, and the senator clambered from his seat unassisted.
Of course the great Marianus required no aid. He was a veteran general, the man who’d single-handedly defeated Hurtha the Hungry and silenced the western Feislands.
Kirin ducked his head to spy at the facade of the house from beneath the roof of the litter. The two-story domus looked no different than any other wealthy home. It could have been Alinaea’s house from his childhood, but for the shop missing from the plastered, exterior wall. Its entrance faced the street, protected by an overhanging tiled roof supported by several rectangular pillars. Two high, square windows looked out from the second floor like dark, rectangular eyes in a coral-white face.
The slaves on the steps were remarkably well-dressed, the two women in white stolae, the men in fine cotton tunics cut just above the knees. One of the men’s tunics was slightly fancier, with patterned trim at the neckline and hem. He clutched a clay tablet and stylus—Marianus’s chief scribe, perhaps.
They were a mixed bunch: a northern girl with peach-pink skin like Kirin’s and hair like pale dandelion; a man with skin nearly as black as the night sky and deep brown eyes; a lithe, narrow-faced woman who reminded Kirin of the Masseni he’d fought in the arena, with loose brown curls and a distracting mole on her cheek. The slave with the stylus was olive-skinned, with balding curly hair, pudgy and round in a way that suggested he might be a eunuch.
Their variety marked them as the slaves of a wealthy man.
Ydelka hopped out. “Follow me,” she directed.
Kirin braced himself for the movement. The dizziness had finally started to subside, but as his feet touched the steps another wave rocked him. He stumbled left, and Ydelka caught him, holding him upright in her sturdy embrace.
At least he wasn’t touching Oran anymore.
On cue, Oran’s feet patted against stone as he crept up beside Kirin. “Careful, Maznin. You wouldn’t want to hurt yourself after all that.”
He wouldn’t answer. He wouldn’t snap. Kirin steadied himself against Ydelka, focusing on Marianus, on doing his duty.
“Delos.” Marianus addressed the slave with the stylus and gestured at Kirin and the others.
Kirin turned the name over in his mind. Delos. It sounded Vetish.
Delos stepped forward and raised his balding head. “Heron.”
“These fine men have just returned from a grueling battle. See to it they’re washed, fed, and shown the household.” Marianus twisted back and crooked his finger. “Ydelka, to me.”
Ydelka gave Kirin’s side an almost motherly squeeze, then broke away. She zipped up the steps two at a time and disappeared inside the domus in Marianus’s wake.
At least Kirin was left with the pleasing image of her swaying hips.
Delos beckoned Kirin toward him, tsking when Kirin struggled up the first two stairs. He snapped his fingers. “You with the hair. You help him till he can keep up on his own.”
He meant Oran. Kirin bared his teeth. “I can walk by myself—”
Delos had already turned around. “No, you can’t. Follow and be quiet.”
He wanted to push Oran away, to march up those stairs proudly, independently, as a man of Lorar should, but when Oran looped his arm over his shoulder, all he could do was lean into him, wobbling, despite the extra support.
“The only reason I’m not killing you now,” Kirin grumbled, “is because Marianus forbade it.”
Oran howled twice like a dog, earning a stern look from Delos as they hurried inside after the line of slaves. “Are you a hound that only does what he’s told? I should have hit you harder, shaken your senses loose.”
Don’t hit him. Don’t. “And I should have put your ugly rat eyes out with that phallus,” Kirin muttered.
“Bold of you to assume I’d be less dangerous blind.”
“Cowardly to assume I’d care.”
Oran hefted Kirin’s weight as though tired, and Kirin grinned to himself, dragging his heels as he gazed at the fine architecture to either side of them.
They passed through the vestibule and into the atrium. The long, rectangular audience hall was lit by a small skylight in the ceiling’s centre and by several hanging oil lamps. Four massive marble columns supported the roof, red to match the fine marble inlay on the walls. Frescoes of theatrical scenes and gladiatorial spectacles provided an added layer of finery. Lamplight flickered across the painted faces of both gladiators long dead and characters who’d never lived at all outside an audience’s imagination.
The echoing hall summoned memories of his childhood with Alinaea, though neither she nor Themus had been so rich as this.
When they passed from the atrium into the peristyle, Kirin squinted at the sudden rush of bright, natural light pouring in from the open roof. A small garden surrounded a rectangular pool at the centre, and the columns lining the peristyle were painted poppy-red. The nutty perfume of the olive trees growing in rows to either side of the pool mixed with the gentle scent of roses and the musky smell of woodsmoke and canal water that pervaded the city.
A cluster of reddish-brown chaffinches dipped their heads beneath the water of the pool, hopping and flitting. Their song, which should have been peaceful, was like the screech of a broken cartwheel. He kept his left ear covered as he and Oran lumbered through the peristyle after Delos and the other slaves.
Delos shoved open a wooden door, revealing a cramped kitchen packed with busy slaves. A wood table sat at the center, the usual stone oven against the corner wall. Wooden shelving lined the sides of the room, laden with jars and cooking implements. Two slaves were busy chopping garlic and onions at the table, while a third tended the stove fire. Herbs and vegetables hung from a trellis suspended above the slaves’ heads, and the smells of rosemary and oregano overwhelmed the floral scents of the peristyle.
As soon as the door closed, the silent slaves erupted into chatter. The blond slave grabbed Kirin and practically dragged him to a large, water-filled tub in the corner. She didn’t flinch at the blood still coating him, not even when it stained her pale yellow hair.
“Are you really gladiators?” chirped Yellow Hair, near as shrill as the chaffinches, and Kirin winced. “You must have killed people before, hm?”
Kirin grunted—it was all he could manage.
“I don’t like the arena,” said the brown woman who was tending Oran. She pulled his locs back with long, thin fingers. “It’s mostly starved animals and prisoners who can’t fight back. There’s no skill in it. I’d rather watch the chariots at the circus.”
Yellow Hair all but shoved Kirin onto one of the stools beside the tub. “Oh I think these two are skilled, don’t you?” She stood behind him, so that Kirin couldn’t see her, but he could hear the desire in her voice, the wink on her face.
Oran was shoved onto a second stool right across from him, Thin Fingers deftly unbuckling the strip of leather that pretended at protecting Oran’s chest. She slid her hand down his muscled front as she drew the leather away, taking advantage of the moment to have a little fun. She flinched and stepped back.
Now that Oran was naked from the waist up, he had obvious, massive scars across his pectoral muscles, one nipple gouged away along with some of the muscle. The tissue was rough-looking, the scar mottled with pale flesh that stood out against the deep brown of his skin. A surgical scar that had healed badly arced above his ribs, just below his pectorals.
Thin Fingers grew more tentative after that, dabbing around the old wound and hastily cleaning the flat plain of Oran’s lower abdomen. She shared a glance with Yellow Hair over Kirin’s head as they peeled the sweat-stuck armour from the two men.
As Yellow Hair unlaced the flimsy leathers and furs Themus had kitted him with, he imagined Ydelka, her tender hands stroking his shoulders, running hers hands over him like Thin Fingers had Oran.
He might have relaxed into it, but for the constant chop chop from the knives, the slosh of water, the slosh of the vortex, the disturbing visual of Oran’s chest before him.
Yellow Hair tossed Kirin’s armour to the side, then set about washing the blood and dirt from his skin with kitchen rags. She scrubbed at blemishes only to discover some of them were scars, though far less horrific than Oran’s.
“Stand up,” she instructed Kirin, and both Kirin and Oran did as commanded. “What’s your name?”
“Mine’s Irina. What do we do with all this?” she asked Thin Fingers, indicating the pile of soiled garments.
Irina nodded. She slid his underclothes from him, moving as though to toss everything aside with the rest, includng his short tunic, with his mink swaddling sewn into it.
He grabbed her wrist. “Don’t.”
Irina tugged, her big brown eyes catching his. She looked like a caught animal. He didn’t loosen his hold.
Finally, she dropped the clothes at the foot of the stool. “Suit yourself. But you take it to the fuller yourself if you want it washed. Marianus won’t want you stinking up the domus.” She dipped the rag back into the tub.
Thin Fingers was having some difficulty with one of the knots holding Oran’s battle skirts in place, and when it finally came loose, falling to the floor, it revealed not a man’s parts but something else. Another mess of scars, and a slit that was almost, but not quite, like a woman or maybe a eunuch. He must have been born an androgyne, like the infants augurs sometimes killed. If Oran was an omen, he was a bad one.
Repulsed, Kirin tore his gaze away, not watching as Oran sat back down.
Irina and Thin Fingers were dead quiet.
From the table, a knife thunked hard against the surface of the wood, chopping something unseen. The sound reverberated in Kirin’s head.
Irina dipped her rag back into the water. She wrang the cloth out over one of Kirin’s thighs before soaking it again and rubbing. He’d been getting hard thinking of Ydelka, but now all he could picture was Oran, and even Irina’s tending hands weren’t enough to stir him.
“You’ll have to visit the baths tomorrow, to get properly clean,” said Irina, lifting the veil of silence, and Thin Fingers resumed her duties as though Irina’s words had given her strength. “But this will do for now. Perhaps you can go together.”
“Doubtful,” Kirin snapped. He wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the baths with Oran even before this.
Marianus couldn’t possibly know. Kirin would tell him, and then maybe Oran would be punished, if not for the murders of Kirin’s teammates, then for presenting himself—itself—falsely.
One of the kitchen slaves started toward the door with a platter laden with delicacies.
“We need some for these two,” Irina piped. “Marianus’s orders.”
Kirin’s stomach yawned at the fishy odour of garum simmering out of view. He’d feasted last night, as was customary before a fight, but that had been hours ago.
He stared at the floor across from him, at dark brown toes and callused brown feet. Oran’s toes, Oran’s feet.
“You’ll clean yourself at the baths,” came a sharp, high-pitched male voice.
He looked up and found Delos standing before them.
Kirin was still shaken, but he forced a grin, gesturing to the now-muddied water in the tub. Irina was unfolding a fresh white tunic. “I’m clean!”
Delos was not impressed. “This is the house of Senator Marianus Rufus, head of Red Faction, presumptive Pater of the senate. You will attend the senator as his protector when he commands it. You will relieve him of your presence when he commands it. You will wash when he commands it.”
Kirin raised his eyebrows. “But he didn’t command it. You did.”
“And as far as you’re concerned, I’m the voice of Marianus Rufus in his absence. As far as you’re concerned, mine is the voice of Lorius himself. You may be respected in cum-stained taverns and on blood-splattered arena floors, but in this house you are both eminently replaceable.”
“Ydelka seems to like me,” he said, taking a chance that she was a power around here. “So I doubt that.”
Delos smirked. “I’d ask around about what happens to men Ydelka likes.” He turned around sharply as though to march out.
Kirin plunged his hand beneath the dirty water and splashed it across Delos’s sandaled feet. Thin Fingers scampered away, but the eunuch didn’t budge.
“I’ll not bathe with him. I’m not anything like him.” Kirin glared. “As soon as I speak to Marianus, that monster will be gone.”
Oran didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. He watched Kirin with that same detached expression, relaxed in the way that wildcats always looked but never were.
Delos twisted on his heel. “I think you’ll find Marianus collects monsters. Marvels and oddities—one from every corner of the empire. One to suit every taste and perversion. One to write about in his great chronicle. He’s hardly going to flinch when he finds he has another eunuch under his roof.” Delos grabbed an apple from the tabletop, rolling it in his hand. “The only question, from where I stand, is what kind of monster are you?”